CNH Tours - Cultural and Natural Heritage Tours Galapagos
Monday June 10, 2019
The Ecuadorian Minister of Defense, Oswaldo Jarrín, announced today at a press conference that the San Cristobal airport in Galapagos would be enlarged and improved to accommodate U.S. aircraft engaged in anti-narcotic operations in the region. The works would be financed by the U.S. and would allow for Orion P3 and AWAC aircraft to fly in and out of Galapagos for refuelling and re-supplying.
"I have mentioned that Galapagos can be considered as an aircraft carrier for Ecuador, it is our natural aircraft carrier, because, it assures us permanence, replenishment, interception facilities and it’s located 1,000 kilometers from our coasts" explained the Minister.
“The United States is going to take charge of improving the conditions (of the airport), especially in terms of refueling infrastructure, and we will see in the future what else we can establish, so that the arrival is improved – something we are still discussing – but it will be payed for by the United States, and not by Ecuador” he continued.
The coastal waters along between Peru and moving up to Mexico are heavily used by drug traffickers – often disguised as fishing vessels. They move drugs north to Colombia, Central America or Mexico from production areas in the south. Authorities regularly apprehend traffickers and their cargo.
"Eight tons (captured) in ten missions in two or three months is the benefit we have obtained from the agreement with the United States" the Minister said.
The minister mentioned that in view of the added pressure being placed on ship-based traffickers, there has been a recent increase in trafficking on board small planes.
He further assured his fellow Ecuadorians that this was not going to be a U.S. military base, but only a improvement in the airport facilities which would allow for cooperative missions between Ecuador and the U.S.A. to take place, with clear protocols ensuring that all missions would be accompanied by Ecuadorian military personnel.
San Cristobal airport is one of two airports in Galapagos that connect the islands to the mainland. It is located just a 15 minute walk from the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Both the airport and the town are second in importance compared to the Baltra airport, where most visitors to Galapagos arrive, and Puerto Ayora, which has about three times as many residents.
During World War II, the U.S.A. established a large military base on Baltra Island with the intention of patrolling the eastern tropical Pacific ocean against possible attacks by the Japanese - with an eye on protecting the Panama Canal. Many vestiges of that military base can still be seen today on Baltra Island.
Monday June 10, 2019
CNH Tours is very happy to welcome Mercedes Murgueytio on board as our full-time Quito based “extension specialist”. Mercedes will be our go-to woman for all matters related to pre- or post-cruise extensions in mainland Ecuador and beyond. If you're planning such an extension (highly recommended - mainland Ecuador is a real gem), you'll get a chance to work with Mercedes. In peak times, Mercedes will also help our guests find the ideal Galapagos cruise.
Mercedes overlooking the Quilotoa Volcano, about 80km/50miles south of Quito
We first got to know Mercedes about 15 years ago when she was working with one of the original Galapagos tour companies at their Quito office. Mercedes was one of their sales representatives back then. While there, Mercedes was first asked to help with Galapagos cruise sales – something she did for many years. Later, she was given the responsibility to develop the land based extension portfolio for that company. She travelled extensively in Ecuador, developing an intimate first-hand knowledge of many of the country’s diverse regions, hotels, attractions and more.
She stepped back from her Quito job in 2014. Being from the Valley (below Quito), she decided that the heavy traffic and the long daily commute to and from the city was getting too stressful. Mercedes took a part time “work-from-home” job with a small agency. When we learned that she was available to give us a hand, we seized the opportunity, having her help us as well on a part-time basis.
Since 2014, Mercedes has become an increasingly important part of our team. Our positive relationship and the mutual bonds of trust that we’ve developed over the years gave both of us the necessary confidence to take the final step – having her join us as a full-time colleague (after having passed the Travel Industry Council of Ontario exam for travel counsellors). Besides helping our guests assemble the elements of an ideal continental land extension program most suited to their interests, Mercedes will also represent CNH Tours at any pertinent Quito events while also lending a helping hand when a guest might need assistance.
Mercedes’ own words:
I was born and raised in Quito, Ecuador. I have been lucky to live all my life in the Valley, located a 45 minute drive from the Quito. I grew up surrounded by nature and away from the noise of a big city, and at a lower elevation, where the climate is very pleasant.
Since I was girl, my uncle would speak to me in English; this was of great help to get familiar with the language. I studied English all through my schooling, including at the university level. I also have fond memories of the few summers I spent attending English Summer classes at St. Joseph University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
When I graduated from high school, I was keen on helping foreigners see the beauty of my country. This led me to enroll in a Tourism Administration program at university. After finishing my studies, I quickly found a job with one of the largest tour companies in Ecuador – giving my first opportunity to work with visitors coming to Ecuador.
Saturday June 1, 2019
Yesterday, the 16 passenger Majestic Explorer ran aground in shallow waters off the northern coast of Santiago Island. Reports indicate that it happened at 3:30AM. The ship didn’t immediately sink. Reports explain that passengers and crew were removed with the help of the Ecuadorian navy. But it took on water and eventually keeled over. It’s not clear at this time if the ship is salvageable - but given the remote location of the accident, and by the picture below, it doesn't look good. Wave action does wonders for tearing a ship apart if it's not secured soon after a grounding.
The Majestic Explorer is a fairly new ship, built in 2013. It had very large picture windows on all top deck cabins. Formerly called Majestic, it had been operating naturalist cruises only. CNH Tours has booked very few guests on this ship over the years - only 4, the last of which had cruised in May 2017. Our guests had reported being sick on the ship, and we decided to give the ship a pass for a while, to give it time to improve its service before recommending it again. Earlier this year, it began alternating between naturalist cruises one week, and scuba diving cruises another week. It changed its name to Majestic Explorer to mark the new operation model.
At any given time, there are up to 65 expedition ships sailing the Galapagos waters. When operating at full capacity, they can be carrying a combined apx. 1,400 people or so. Ships operating on average 48 weeks per year (they take time off for annual maintenance). This kind of accident does happen on occasion. We have seen perhaps a 6-8 or so such incidents in 20 years. Very rarely are there any injuries and even more rarely are there any deaths. But accidents do happen and it's important for anyone considering a cruise to the Galapagos (or anywhere else for that matter - see the river cruise accident in Hungary last week) to understand the risks, no matter how small they may be.
Given the quality of digital maps and the use of modern instruments these days, one is hard pressed to understand how this could have happened, beyond some type of human error or negligence. Alarms can be set to go off when a ship’s trajectory will have it encounter shallow waters or land. We'll have to wait and see what the investigation into the accident will reveal.
Thursday May 23, 2019
In our 13 September 2017 news item, we asked an Ecuadorian environmental lawyer, Hugo Echeverria, to detail the case for us. He reported on the seizure of a Chinese fishing vessel full of shark carcasses, sailing through Galapagos marine reserve waters. Though it was not proven that the sharks had been fished in the reserve, authorities arrested the ship's crew and impounded the ship solely on the basis that it was transporting endangered species in Ecuador - an illegal act there.
The Chinese fishing company contested the decision and appealed lower court rulings. The case finally made it to the Ecuadorian Supreme Court - and its ruling was made earlier this week.
It ruled that lower court decisions were to be upheld. The ship remains confiscated and the captain and crew received prison sentences from 1 to 4 years.
When this case went to court, many believed that a combination of Chinese pressure and a malleable judiciary would have resulted in the ship and crew being released in exchange for a small penalty. But in recent years, the court system has been strengthened, and perhaps its resolve was also boosted by the unprecedented public manifestations of outrage and anger at what was widely perceived as an outrageous affront to Ecuador.
The take away: Ecuadorian law in regards to the protection of endangered species has teeth and will be upheld at the highest level. Don't get caught transporting protected species.
The Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999
Over 6,000 shark carcasses, mostly endangered species, were discovered in the ship's hold
Monday May 6, 2019
Every now and again we post a review we receive from recently returned guests. We just received this one from Murray McComb, a former manager at Parks Canada. He was on our Active Galapagos trip, visiting the South Eastern islands of the archipelago in late April / early May. He travelled with is wife and another couple.
"The Samba experience was educational, engaging, challenging, incredibly fun, and very rewarding. I could say it was even life changing, to have the opportunity to travel and "live" for over a week in one of the most incredible environments on earth and learn first hand about the natural and human history, management issues and creative solutions, and especially to experience both terrestrial and marine wildlife in such a close up and personal way. A week immersed in the Galapagos environment and mostly away from internet, email, world news, and other normal daily diversions was therapeutic, and beneficial. The trip was worth every dollar and more."
On a personal note, Murray added the following:
"Heather and Marc, we four were thrilled with the trip, and the bonus "World Heritage" dinner and ride from the airport to Quito. Thank you so much. We were totally impressed with the whole Galapagos package. It exceeded our expectations. As a small example, a couple of times just when we were wondering what we might do for lunch (on travel days), the guide would pass out box lunches that we had totally forgotten about. We felt so well cared for, and appreciated. We will all be strongly recommending CNH Tours to friends who might wish to take on the Galapagos experience."
Murray, 2nd from left.
Saturday April 27, 2019
We were honoured to have hosted the McAlister family from Ottawa for a Galapagos cruise last December (parents, two sons and a significant other). After the usual initial exchange of emails, they approached us about the possibility of having their son and his girlfriend/fiancée get married in the islands. That was a challenge we got excited about.
The family was scheduled to sail on the Samba - the ship we charter frequently and with whose owners (a Galapagos family) we've developed a very close relationship over the past 15+ years. We contacted the Samba and the immediate answer was "No problems! We'd love to do something on board!".
Apparently, the couple in question was not disappointed. On their return home, the happy parents effused over the magical aspect of the experience. They showed us pictures and shared with us how the ship's crew had literally gone "overboard" to make it a special event. We asked them to write up a short description for our news page. Here it is:
The Wedding Story
“You want to get married where?”, asked the incredulous parents. They were delighted about the event, although a little unsure that a small island in the Galapagos was the right location. But it was not just right. It was perfect.
At 5 p.m. on a sunny December afternoon, we gathered on the magnificent crescent beach on Bartolome Island with the dramatic Pinnacle Rock in the background. There could not have been a more ideal setting for the wedding of our son, Nicholas, and his beautiful bride, Lindsay.
Captain Jose of the Samba performed the ceremony with great poise and dignity, accompanied by the entire crew-- all resplendent in their crisp white uniforms. Juan, our amazing naturalist, drove the wedding Zodiac, delivering the wedding party safely to the beach. As it was a wet landing, footwear was greatly simplified-- bare feet in the soft sand. The wedding was witnessed by sea lions and the other seven enthusiastic passengers on the Samba. After the ceremony, Juan piloted the happy couple on a cruise around the bay as the sun was setting.
The crew played its part - dressed in whites and at attention.
Sunset on Bartolome beach with the iconic pinnacle rock..No need to spend anything on fancy shoes
No wedding ceremony would be complete without champagne toasts. The front deck of the Samba provided a unique backdrop, as the disappearing sun coloured the sky a bright crimson. Accompanied by the gentle sound of the waves, the wedding waltz was lit with soft rays from the moon and stars in the southern sky.
"Galapagos limo ride" (this being a national park, the bouquet is actually made of plastic flowers...)
There followed an exquisite wedding feast complete with a cake designed and baked by the brilliant chef, Angel, in the Samba’s galley. A fitting end to a perfect wedding day.
A Samba special wedding cake baked on board
Andrew and Bente McAlister
Sunday April 21, 2019
Last week's edition of The Economist had a good article on the current financial challenges confronting Lenin Moreno, the wheelchair bound president of the country. His charismatic predecessor, Rafael Correa, brought in big changes to "politics as usual" during his 10 year tenure - improving working conditions for teachers and others, and spending generously on much needed infrastructure (you'll witness the results directly on arrival at the new Quito airport and on the new highway to the city).
Perhaps the spending wasn't always as efficient as it could have been, and the precipitous drop in the price of oil, an important source of revenue for this US dollar based economy didn't help either. In any case, Ecuador is facing challenging fiscal and budgetary hurdles these days.
The Economist article provides a good overview of the situation, along with likely difficult measures that will need to be imposed as part of a $4.2 billion loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
For those interested in the broader political context of their visit to Galapagos - or if you're looking to start a conversation with some of the locals you'll meet, this is a good way to understand the backgroung against which many Ecuadorians might be expressing concerns about financial clouds on the horizon.
The full article can be consuted here.
Friday April 5, 2019
A big thank you to our wonderful Galapagos alumni who were quick to sign up for our Victoria Falls / Okavango / Kalahari / South Africa trip taking place in May 2020. The trip sold out within 3 weeks of having posted it and we have others on a waiting list.
We're looking forward to this trip - the first we've done outside of Galapagos. Thanks to the services of Karen Ross (a.k.a. the "champion of the Okavango"), we're confident that the participants will get a unique insight on the wonders, the history and the challenges of these iconic places.
We may organize a follow-up trip not too long afterwards. Let us know if you'd like to have an advanced notification.
Wednesday April 3, 2019
Paul Smith of Montana was the lucky bidder. At an auction in support of the Montana Natural History Center (MNHC) last year, his was the winning bid for an 8 day "Active Galapagos" cruise aboard the 14 passenger Samba.
CNH Tours had been approached by Hank Fischer, a member of the MNHC board of directors earlier in 2018. He and his wife had just returned from our trip and had had a memorable time. He felt that our trip would be a great item to auction off for the Center. We agreed - we're always keen on supporting good causes.
Paul completed his cruise last month. "Absolutely Wonderful" is how he characterized his experience.
In recognition of our donation, the MNHC just sent us a nice thank you note that we are happy to reproduce here:
Friday March 22, 2019
We’re very proud to highlight the work of Magno Bennett on our website. The original artwork used as banners on the site’s various pages were produced by Magno 15 years ago. We met Magno while we lived in Galapagos. A handsome, gregarious and warm man, Magno could be seen cycling around Puerto Ayora with a broad smile, waving hello to all his friends, and trailing thick dreadlocks as he passed by. When he had to go, his parting motto was always “¡Éxito!” (success!).
Magno has been a fixture in the Galapagos community since the 1990’s, when he came over from the mainland. He was taken under the wing of the late Christine Gallardo, an American woman married to the owner of the local hardware store. Christine was a pillar of the cultural scene in Galapagos – back before tourism took off. She ran the best lending library out of her own home. Christine encouraged Magno to explore his talents and helped him raise the profile of his work.
Over the years, Magno became more involved in the local arts scene, helping Galapagos youth find their inner artist and raising the profile of art as a respectable and valid form of expression in what was otherwise quite a frontier town. He was commissioned to produce murals and eventually took on a job working with the newly established cultural centre.
All these distractions took him away from his art. We kept on asking him if he was producing anything over the years and he sheepishly responded that he didn’t have the time. We did manage to buy two pieces from him 10 years ago, now hanging in our home. But that was it.
So, in a bid to get him back to work, we asked him if he would be interested in producing new art to adorn the rooms we regularly use at Hotel Fernandina, the family owned and operated establishment we’ve been using for our Active Galapagos trips for many years. He was keen, and we commissioned seven new pieces of art last July. The art was finished and hung on the walls of the seven rooms we use just last week.
Magno’s art is tinged with a bit of with magic realism – depicting Galapagos wildlife scenes, but with a rich palette of colours and producing scenes thick with texture and depth. People are attracted to his art – and since we’ve hung it on the hotel walls, he’s already sold two pieces! Our agreement is that a piece cannot be removed from the wall until he can replace it with another.
If you’re keen on seeing his art, you’ll have to take yourself to the Hotel Fernandina in Puerto Ayora, and ask the people at the front desk to show you the rooms in which it is hung. See below for samples of what he has recently produced.
Friday March 15, 2019
We're very happy to announce that 10 of the 16 spaces available on our May 2020 trip to Southern Africa (Victoria Falls / Okavango / Kalahari / Cape Town) sold out within 24 hours of having posted the trip this Wedesday. Led by 30 year Okavango wildlife conservation veteran, Dr. Karen Ross, the trip is designed to give you the greatest possible depth and bredth of understanding and experience over a 14 day period.
We're appreciative of the interest shown by our Galapagos alumni.
For more info, cick here.
Wednesday March 6, 2019
Meet Michael Bliemsrieder: Candidate for mayor of Santa Cruz, Galapagos
The big day is on March 24th when Galapagueños go to the polls to elect their mayors. There are three municipal governments in the archipelago – and Santa Cruz, where 75% of Galapagueños live, is the largest by far.
Michael Bliemsrieder is in the race. My former office mate, the tall, handsome and charming German-Ecuadorian has been a presence in Galapagos since the 1990’s. He’s had an interesting time in Galapagos.
For a period, he worked for the Galapagos National Park in various positions, ultimately becoming the Deputy Park Director. His dedication to the job almost landed him in jail. Following an investigation on the illegal fishing and commercialization of sea cucumbers (in the star-fish family - and highly prized on Chinese menus), Michael discovered a large amount of these spiny creatures drying on the roof of the provincial member of parliament’s house, Fanny Uribe. Ms. Uribe, a fiery and dogged politician, vociferously berated him and threatened him with a legal challenge. She hoped to have him withdraw his accusation and to distract attention away from the sea cucumbers drying on her rooftop (some thought the lady did protest too much...).
Sea cucumber (a live specimen)
Sea cucumbers - as they would appear, say.... like drying out on someone's roof
Michael had to leave his post at the National Park and ended up sharing my office at the Charles Darwin Research Station, where he was managing various conservation projects. Always energetic, positive and welcoming, Michael was a dedicated member of the team and fun to share an office with. He assumed his new responsibilities with enthusiasm and dedication, developing new ways of measuring project progress and reporting back to donors. Beyond the strict boundaries of his job, he also provided valuable administrative support to running the Darwin Station. He was quite well liked by the ladies – I found myself frequently having to take messages from women knocking on our door, looking for Michael.
A few years later, Ms. Uribe, still in office and still simmering from the sea cucumber affair, once again went after him. Fearing for his freedom (in Ecuador, it’s relatively easy to place someone in preventive detention while an investigation takes place – one that could last for months or even years…), Michael left the country. Being fluent in Spanish, English and German, he had no problems getting about overseas.
Ms. Uribe in action at the national assembly
He spent the next 10 years working in the US, in Cuba (as Head of the World Wildlife Fund's country office there), and then with the WWF in its Ottawa office in Canada, handling the Greater Antilles conservation projects file. Though he retains a soft spot for Ottawa and still misses the snow, I think it’s the winters that compelled him to eventually return to Ecuador, where he began working as a consultant, heading up his successful conservation / project management business.
He started engaging in politics at the national level, recently aligning himself with the Pachakutik party, which presents itself as an alternative to the old mainstream, “business as usual” parties in Ecuador. A bit left of centre, and keen on inclusiveness, Pachakutik has now been around for over 20 years, but has yet to hold power at national or provincial jurisdictions.
His platform for the upcoming Santa Cruz elections focuses on a strong technocratic approach to municipal government, relying on the results of non-partisan technical studies, on clear-eyed understanding of financial realities and with an eye on the fiscal challenges facing the country.
Some of the issues being raised in his campaign is the perennial lack of a potable water supply in Puerto Ayora, the main town. The out-going mayor has spent large sums on dealing with this issue, yet has had no tangible results and the locals are very keen on getting this issue resolved. Michael has also expressed a desire to have the national government focus more on the quality of medical care at the local hospital, and less on the fancy designs of the new building that’s being proposed. An infant recently died in the Puerto Ayora hospital due to, the parents claim, poor treatment. Townspeople are organizing a march this Friday to raise the profile of this issue.
There are 10 candidates in the Santa Cruz mayoral race. And who do you think is among the top contenders? None other than Michael’s old nemesis, Fanny Uribe. After being voted out at the national government level, she returned as a Galapagos provincial assembly politician in 2004. When the provincial status of Galapagos was revoked in 2008, Ms. Uribe was once again out of a job. She ran in the 2009 Santa Cruz mayoral race – unsuccessfully. She tried her luck in the 2013 national elections, this time with better results, winning the Galapagos seat, and headed back to Quito, the nation’s capital. She once again was out of a job after the 2017 national legislative assembly elections. But like a boomerang, Ms. Uribe keeps on coming back to the electoral platform.
It definitely is a race between the old school, give-them-free-t-shirts and yell-out-in-fiery-indignation politicking embodied by Ms. Uribe, and the emerging sober-minded, facts-based approach promoted by Michael. We look forward to election day, hoping that “our man in Galapagos”, Michael Bliemsrieder, wins the race.
 I had the pleasure of having had a private meeting with Ms. Uribe while she was a provincial leader, and while I was on a United Nations investigative mission to Galapagos, monitoring this World Heritage site’s state of conservation.
 I attribute my job at UNESCO in part to Michael’s great reporting formats. UNESCO was funding the project he was reporting on – and when Michael left the Darwin Station, I took over. I continued with his reporting format which, in hindsight after having worked at UNESCO and received reports from other project managers, was the best by far. I’m sure the UNESCO folks responsible for hiring me had associated me with the great reports!
 Ecuador, a US dollar country, relies heavily on oil exports to fill the state coffers. It has sold a good deal of future oil production to China in exchange for advances which were invested in large infrastructure projects and in the improvement of working conditions for teachers, among other things).
Michael scanning the horizon, preparing for the future...
Monday March 4, 2019
Since 2006, the CNH Tours website has been graced with the artwork of Magno Bennett, a Galapagos artist who has spent years encouraging young people in Galapagos to explore their artistic inclinations.
Today, Magno hung several new works commissioned by CNH Tours in our Galapagos hotel rooms. Thanks to an agreement with Hotel Fernandina, we are now happy to give our guests who stay there the opportunity to see (and even purchase), Magno's colourful and evocative pieces. These pieces are for sale - ask to see what's hanging on the walls of other rooms.
Magno Bennett was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and moved to Galapagos in 1994. He was profoundly impressed by the harsh conditions under which so many life forms managed to establish themselves and go on to thrive in the Galapagos. He has been compelled to manifest the contrast between beautiful life, and harsh environment in his work. Magno paints, sculpts and does graphic design work. His art has been the subject of exhibits throughout Ecuador and is in growing demand as Galapagos visitors, having completed their tour of the islands, recognize the fine balance between life and its shaping environment in his work. In Galapagos, he has been commissioned to carry out several murals and interpretive displays.
Magno is actively involved in the Galapagos culture and the arts scene. His leadership is recognized by many, and his talents sought by more. He has led many learning workshops on art for Galapagos youth over the years, including sessions on batik, printing, painting, ceramics and even tie-dye. As the nascent Galapagos community seeks to develop its own "island identity", community members such as Magno play an important role.
Saturday March 2, 2019
A group of 155 young (not quite giant yet) tortoises were released on Santa Fe island last week as part of the ecological restoration process of the island.
Santa Fe island
Santa Fe is a relatively small and flat island, located near the heart of the Galapagos archipelago (4km x 6km, or 2.5 miles x 4 miles). It boasts only one visitor site, at the bottom of a calm inlet. Calm waters and sandy beaches there are favoured by sea lions, and there's a pleasant hike through a forest of giant opuntia cactus trees that takes the visitor through land iguana habitat.
Giant opuntia cactus forest of Santa Fe island
Juvenile tortoises being released (credit: Galapagos National Park Service)
Santa Fe had a distinct species of giant tortoise for hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps longer, but these became extinct soon after humans first started visiting the Galapagos. The last reported sighting was over 150 years ago. Ages ago, before humans spread around the world, giant tortoises could be found in many places. But as humans spread around the world, they quickly (and literally) were transformed into turtle soup, being easy to catch and a rich food source. They held out for tens of thousands of years longer in remote islands - until humans arrived there. Today, they survive in only 2 places – the Galapagos and Aldabra atoll, a very remote island north of Madagascar.
Given the absence of the original species, the Galapagos National Park decided to re-populate Santa Fe using the Española giant tortoises species, considered to be the most closely related of the 12 surviving giant tortoise species in Galapagos.
The repopulation work on Santa Fe began in 2015 with the first liberation of 201 juvenile giant tortoises. Those tortoises are currently between 10 and 12 years old and are expected to start reproducing in the next 5 to 7 years. More juvenile tortoises will be repatriated until 2026. Soon, the tortoise population there should be self-sustaining. Thankfully, there are no introduced rats on Santa Fe. These aggressive rodents typically prey on baby tortoises, unable to defend themselves until they are 3 or 4 years of age.
The work was carried out by the Galapagos National Park Service with the support of the Galapagos Conservancy, led by Wacho Tapia, and old colleague and friend of CNH Tours.
Tuesday February 19, 2019
An exciting news story was broken today by the Minister of the Environment for Ecuador: A female Fernandina island tortoise (Chelonoidis Phantasticus), long feared extinct since the last one was captured in 1906, was found this week. The tortoise was removed from the island and taken to a nearby tortoise breeding centre.
According to IUCN:
The...only Fernandina tortoise ever collected, was found alive in 1906 by Rollo Beck of the California Academy of Sciences. No other Fernandina tortoises have been documented since, but in 1964 helicopter-assisted surveys of remote areas on Fernandina documented several large tortoise scats and a few Opuntia cactus pads with tortoise bite marks at a location 6 km from the shore at an altitude of 360m, and in 2009 an airplane survey of the inaccessible higher-altitude forest habitat surrounding the central volcano cone yielded a possible unconfirmed sighting of a tortoise, while in 2013, during vegetation monitoring, a scat and some footprints were found. These sightings and signs, though needing verification through more extensive surveys, indicate the possibility that the species may remain extant in exceedingly small numbers.
Clearly, IUCN's webpage will need to be updated now.
Fernandina island is the youngest of Galapagos islands, having risen out of the sea due to volcanic activity about 1 million years ago. Most of the island is comprised of near sterile lava fields, but there are some relatively large expanses that are covered with vegetation. Tortoises would have had to colonize this island by having been swept away from another island and drifted to its shores.
Most of the island is covered in sterile lava fields - a member of the expedition.
It's not inconceivable to imagine that sudden tectonic activity would have rapidly pushed an shoreline rich in giant tortoise habitat underwater, resulting in dozens or more giant tortoises floating off. One such massive and rapid shift in the sea bottom in the 1950's resulted in several hectares of new land emerging from the sea overnight - you can walk on this new land at Urbina Bay, a visitor site.
The new find - wondering what all the fuss is about.
Scientists and conservationists have long suspected that the Fernandina island tortoise still survived. The evidence described above was tantalizing and spurred more than one tortoise-finding expedition over the years. The members of this recent expedition get to claim a very much sought-after prize. I can just hear them now at the bar "I was on the expedition that discovered the long lost Fernandina giant tortoise!".
At the centre, Washington (Wacho) Tapia, and 2nd from the right, Wilson Cabrera - some of my former colleagues
There are 12 species of giant tortoise living in Galapagos. Taxonomists have argued amongst themselves over whether or not these were all distinct species, or simply sub-species. The "splitters" won the latest round of that argument (e.g. those who are keen on seeing more distinct species, rather than just many sub-species lumped together under a broad species - a.k.a the "lumpers"). One of the things I learned while working with scientists in Galapagos was that the line between two different species, versus a species and a sub-species was not a scientific one - but rather one of debate. This debate is a graphic illustration of the mutability of life - two different species are not separated by a hard line, but rather, represent the ends of a continuum of intermediary specimens which, at one point, end up blurring the species divisions altogether. Galapagos tortoises are a good example.
The next step will be to determine if the female was not alone, and to see if there is a viable population on this volcanically active island. More good news to follow, we hope!
(photos taken from expedition member FaceBook posts - thank you).
Monday February 18, 2019
Every once in a while we like to post some of the comments we get from our returning guests as a news item. We're always so pleased to received these comments - they make us feel as though we're missing out on all the fun! Here's one from Rebecca Knowles (from Viriginia, USA) who just got back from their trip last week. Typically we use on the the "quotable comments" section, but Rebecca's review deserves to be published at length:
A booby pooped on me, mostly on my hat, thankfully. The crew immediately said that means good luck! Ha! And a special note: Our 28 year old daughter accompanied us at the last minute. She stayed in our room. We were quite comfortable, ok a bit tight but perfectly fine. (Guest Bruce let us store our bags in his extra bunk--very helpful!) Giancarlo offered to give Laura his room, and the captain asked repeatedly if we were ok. That was very thoughtful--that they were so concerned about our comfort.
Tuesday February 12, 2019
(Today, February 12th, is “International Charles Darwin Day”, marking Mr. Darwin’s birthday in 1809. We’re marking this great day to tell the story of the Pinzon Giant Tortoise’s return from the brink, just a few years ago.)
Pinzon is among the smallest of the main islands that make up the Galapagos archipelago. Located just about in the geographical centre of the collection of 12 or so larger islands, Pinzon is 1789 hectares (about 4470 acres) in size – think of a round island that’s about 5 km in diameter (about 3 miles).
Pinzon island - in the centre of the archipelago
But it’s tall for such a small size. With hills reaching 458 metres (1,503 feet), it’s a very rugged place, populated by the infamous “uña de gato” (cat’s claw) tree (xanthoxylum fagara). It’s eponymous thorns seem to reach out to you at all times, just like those of a cat feeling a bit too playful.
I had the “pleasure” of taking a hike on it back in 1998 – we had a team of three machete wielding park staff with us to forge a trail no longer than a few hundred meters – which took a good 30 minutes to create. I was in the company of Dr. Linda Cayot – the woman who played a key role in establishing and operating the highly successful giant tortoise breeding program at the Charles Darwin Research Station / Galapagos National Park Service, starting in the 1980’s. We were there to check on the status of the tortoise population.
Uña de Gato (a.k.a Cat's claw) tree. No explanation required.
Though the cat’s claw makes the going very difficult for humans venturing onto Pinzon, it did nothing to stop Black rats from thriving there. Introduced to Pinzon in the 1800’s (by accident most likely as ships anchored and people moved back and forth to the island), the rats quickly learned to feast on tortoise hatchlings. In no time the rat population skyrocketed, marking the end of the ability of the giant tortoises of Pinzon to successfully raise new generations. Though they kept on laying eggs, by the 1900’s, scientists estimated that zero hatchlings survived the rat predation into adulthood.
The not yet "giant", giant tortoise makes for a great rat snack
It wasn’t until 1965 (just when the Galapagos National Park was being created, along with the Charles Darwin Research Station), that efforts were made to do something about it. By then, Pinzon island was populated only by middle aged and geriatric tortoises. There were few tortoises younger than nearly 70 years. Scientists gathered eggs before they hatched and took them to the newly created tortoise breeding / egg hatching centre on Santa Cruz Island, at the Darwin Station and Park headquarters.
In 1970, 20 juvenile tortoises, now big enough to be able to resist attacks from rats, were returned to Pinzon island. In that year, scientists estimated the total population of island-born tortoises on Pinzon at only 150 – 200. By 1990, that number had dropped to 80-100 - the Pinzon giant tortoise had been racing towards extinction. Thankfully, the off-island breeding and repatriation program was well established by then, with a total of 268 off-island juveniles having been taken back to the island.
Still, the on-going presence of rats meant that should the ability of the park and Darwin Station to keep on “seeding” the island with juveniles ever wane, the tortoises would eventually be doomed. Getting rid of the rats was the ultimate end goal – but the task was daunting. The first attempt took place in 1988. A team of about 45 people spent over two weeks planting rat poison and traps throughout the island in an effort to kill every single rat there. The attempt ultimately failed for lack of resources to maintain a continuous effort, and for the inability to effectively cover every part of the island.
It was only in 2012 that a large scale systematic eradication effort was once again attempted. With the help of GPS technology, the team (Park, Darwin Station, Island Conservation and others) was able to disperse rat poison uniformly throughout the island, leaving no area safe to rats. By December of that year, all indications pointed to the complete absence of rats. It was in December 2014 that the first baby tortoises, born naturally on Pinzon, were spotted – a first in over 100 years. To be safe, the team returned regularly to check for the presence of rats. On each visit, they found no trace of any rat, allowing them to declare the island “RAT FREE” in early 2015. The great conservation news story was shared around the world.
As we noted in a news items a few weeks ago (click here for details), the same effort is being made today on North Seymour island. Home to many bird colonies, North Seymour also has plenty of rats that wreak havoc on eggs and nestlings. This time, drone technology is being used to disperse the rat poison uniformly throughout this small, flat island (this one is flat and only 190 hectares – 470 acres). After Pinzon, this should be a walk in the park for the people carrying out the work. It’s expected to be completed just about now – fingers crossed!
Thursday February 7, 2019
Plastic bottles were banned from the municipality of Santa Cruz (which covers the entire island of the same name and includes the main Galapagos town of Puerto Ayora) last week. The municipality passed a regulation banning all plastic bottles containing carbonated drinks, effective February 26th.
It's good to remember that all manufactured goods in Galapagos are brought in from the continent, from toilet paper to roofing tiles, and all waste generated in Galapagos stays in Galapagos. A visit to the local landfill is an eye opener.
Though this will affect a small part of the whole, it's a good first step - but it remains a first step, in reducing the amount of waste being stockpiled in these fragile islands, and in reducing the amount of plastic ending up in oceans.
Now, let's hope the regulation will be applied. There have been instances of wishful regulating before.
Text of the regulation (in Spanish)
Tuesday February 5, 2019
The New York Times published an article on land based tourism today. It gives a perfunctory overview of the issues around the absence of any caps on growth (20% increase in land based tourism between 2017 and 2018) but does not even mention the link between people and the introduction of harmful non-native species (e.g. "alien" species, like rats, weeds, diseases, insects).
Alien species are the most serious threat to Galapagos wildlife. The hard-to-shake link between the movement of people and goods between Galapagos and the continent, and the arrival and dispersal of alien species is at the root of just about all concerns over the long term health of unique Galapagos animals and plants.
I found the article more of a story telling exercise as opposed to hard journalism. It provides a few haphazard snapshots of what land-based tourism looks like, bringing in a few people to give it the human interest side of things.
If you're keen on a more technical discussion, see the previous news item on the CNH Tours website here. It was published 2 days ago and has more recent numbers than those you'll find in the NYT article.
To see the NYT article, click here.
Friday February 1, 2019
The Galapagos Park and the Galapagos Tourism Observatory released the tourism numbers for 2018 yesterday. The numbers show the entrenchment of very high, most likely unsustainable land based tourism growth in the islands. In 2018, a total of 275,817 people travelled to the Galapagos islands as tourists, up 14% from 2017.
It’s important to note that there are two tourism models in Galapagos:
i) Land-based, whereby visitors stay in hotels/hostals/B&Bs/camping sites and
ii) Ship-based, whereby visitors live on an expedition cruise ship during their stay.
Some interesting results:
• Ship-based tourism has been flat / slightly declining since 2007 (apx. 72,000 / year)
• Between 2009 (after the recession) to 2018, land-based tourism has been growing by an annual rate of 16.7%. Between 2017 and 2018, land-based tourism has grown by a whopping 20%
• For the first time in 2010, the number of land-based visitors surpassed the number of ship-based visitors.
• By 2018, there were almost three times as many land-based visitors as there were ship-based visitors.
• With this kind of growth, there would be over 1,000,000 land based-visitors to Galapagos in little more than 20 years.
Until 2015, the statistics were gathered for both ship- and land-based numbers. For an unknown reason, the Park stopped making the differentiation in 2016. But by extrapolating from data between 2007 and 2015, we’ve made the conservative assumption that annual ship-based visitation from 2016 to 2018 has remained flat at 72,000 (see chart below).
Land-based tourism was virtually non-existent until the mid 1990’s. It took off with the support of information sharing over the internet. The few land based tourism pioneers who first blindly ventured to the islands started sharing their information for the whole world to see, posting on various on-line traveller discussion forums. “Doing Galapagos on the Cheap” and “Galapagos Islands – Detailed Guide for Land Based Travellers” have been two of the most active discussion groups on the TripAdvisor Galapagos Islands forum. It became very easy to get all the answers to your questions when considering a land-based visit – and the numbers took off.
But has it been too much of a good thing? If not, then can it become too much of a good thing? At which point? When we’ve reached that point, will the authorities be able to control further growth? All these are good questions to which few good answers have been provided by the powers in charge of Galapagos conservation and tourism.
The World Heritage Commitment
A bit of context: At the request of the government of Ecuador, Galapagos was added to the UNESCO World Heritage (WH) list in 1978 (the first ever WH site) in recognition of its unique wildlife and how it helped illustrate biological evolution in action. Under the terms of the WH Convention, Ecuador committed itself before the community of nations to conserving that wildlife in perpetuity for the benefit of humanity (that’s the purpose of the WH Convention). The concern is that unlimited tourism growth will eventually conflict in a serious way with wildlife conservation.
Beyond habitat destruction, the main threat is the introduction of alien species, which prey on native species, compete with them or bring in new diseases or parasites. The more you have people living in the islands and having people and cargo moving back and forth between them and the continent, the greater the risk of bringing in destructive alien species. What would Galapagos be without the giant tortoise, the marine iguana, or Darwin’s famous finches?
UNESCO’s WH Committee (a group of 21 countries who act as de facto “bouncers” for the WH club) has been monitoring Galapagos, as it does all WH sites (I led that monitoring effort from 2003 – 2012). Already in 2007, it expressed concern over the rapid growth of tourism and the absence of any clear tourism management plan. It reiterated its concern in 2016 when it saw that numbers kept on growing relentlessly. It asked the Government of Ecuador to report back on what it was doing to deal with the issue. The Committee reviewed the situation again in 2018. Last June, in the absence of any tangible progress on the matter, it continued to express its concerns over the apparent absence of a tourism management plan. It has asked the Government of Ecuador to report back by the end of 2019 on the matter.
Residents feel they are losing out
Ironically, a review of local Galapagos Facebook group discussions shows that residents believe land- based tourism is down – that very little money is staying in the community. The most vocal participants in the FaceBook groups promote the illusion that ship-based tourism scoops up all the tourism dollars, leaving none for the community (when in fact, it can be shown that nearly 10% of the working age population of Galapagos is closely linked to the ship-based tourism sector as employees, owners, service providers etc.).
Part of the reason that some locals are still feeling out of the loop is that a large proportion of land- based visitors are low to very low budget travellers, looking for the $5 meal, the $20 bed, the last minute day trip at reduced prices and seeking out the activities that have no cost (e.g. beach, swimming holes, hiking). While a ship based visit might cost $500 to $1000 per person / day, a land based visit can be had for $50/day if one is singularly focused on thrift. The average ship-based visitor likely leaves more money in the local community in the form of well paid jobs (and tips – don’t forget to tip well for good service…) and profits to owners than perhaps 10 land-based visitors.
Meanwhile, in anticipation of great profits to be made from land-based tourism, one may be forgiven in concluding that that every resident in Galapagos has opened up a t-shirt shop, a travel agency, a rooming house or a snack bar – the vast majority of the “mom & pop” variety. The Ministry of Tourism reported an increase in the number of hotel/rooming house type establishments from 73 in 2007, to 291 in 2015.
Besides the formal establishments, a brief visit to Booking.com or Airbnb.com gives one the impression that everybody is renting out rooms in their homes for tourists. A good number of our friends in the islands are certainly dipping their paddle into that stream – how can you blame them? But there is obviously an oversupply, driving prices down. It’s no surprise that the reported occupancy is in the 30% range – meaning most people likely don’t get a big return on their investment (no matter how small). It’s also no surprise that these people are pushing for yet more land-based tourists in order to fill their establishments.
Mom & Pop tourist trinket shop in Galapagos - very low margins - impossible to get ahead
Political pressure for more visitors
The local political pressure to keep tourism numbers growing is strong. Any initiative that might be seen as putting a damper on land-based tourism is resisted. The park entrance fee has been $100 since the late 1980's. At that time, $100 was about 10% of the price of the average 1 week cruise. Today, $100 is about 1.5% - 2% of that price (significantly less than what one is expected to leave in tips!). Since 2015, responsibility for setting the park fee was transferred to the Galapagos governing council. Though there is every technical justification to at least double, if not triple it, the political consequences of doing so are considered very unfavourable – and hence it remains at $100.
Ship-based tourism = steady state
While land-based tourism takes place in a bit of a “wild west” regulatory environment (particularly in regards to controlling numbers) ship based tourism is highly regulated (the Government of Ecuador receives many well deserved compliments over its work on managing ship based tourism). The total number of ship-based beds has been capped for over 20 years. No new ship is allowed to operate in Galapagos unless a ship of similar size is retired. This model has contributed to a healthy ship-based tourism industry in many regards:
• Environmental impacts are understood and managed. Improved regulations have actually reduced the impact over the years.
• Visitor experience quality is maintained - no crowding at visitor sites, wildlife is not driven away.
• Overall quality and maintenance of ships is significantly improved.
• Skills and professionalism of ship crew have improved over the years.
• Steady, well paid jobs are provided for many Galapagos residents.
• Ship servicing sector in Galapagos is robust (maintenance, food supply logistics, bookkeeping…).
Today, you’re a lot less likely to share you bed with cockroaches, to have staff making passes at female passengers, to suffer through engine breakdowns or to have gastro-intestinal problems than was the case 20-30 years ago.
A limit on the number of park entrance permits?
Though land-based tourism can offer a good and more budget friendly alternative approach to seeing the Galapagos, it remains very poorly managed. Too many locals are chasing too few dollars from too many low end visitors. False expectations are created, and the cycle continues as nothing is done to put a cap on numbers. More people get in on the action, further over-supplying it.
Restricting the number of land-based visitors (as has been successfully done for ship-based visitors) along with establishing policies promoting local ownership would help tighten the market and support the local economy. Prices would go up, resulting in more money to invest in staff, training, infrastructure and more.
The authorities are currently trying to restrict land-based tourism by insisting that anyone arriving in the islands must show proof of accommodations. They want to discourage the happy-go-lucky “I’ll-sleep-on-a-couch / find-me-a-cheap-last-minute-deal” type of visitor. This approach, technically in place for the past few months, is not yet being enforced. Even if enforced, smart folks on internet travel forums are already advising on how to get around such restrictions (you book a place on booking.com, you print your reservation, you cancel the booking - presto! You have evidence to show that you've pre-booked a hotel).
It’s time for the Park to seriously consider putting a cap on the total number of park entrance permits sold each year. 275,000 permits were sold in 2018. If the cap could be set at a point that doesn’t cause an instant local rebellion, while at the same time clearly identifying an end point to growth, good things could happen.
The Park could ensure a more even distribution of visitors throughout the year (no more high season panic, low season famine). It would need to work with hotel / ship owners / tour operators to establish a fair system of entrance permit quotas. A secondary market to ensure fluidity / flexibility could be encouraged. It would be complicated, but with some concerted effort, and consultation with the interested / affected parties, a sophisticated system could be established. The objective would be to at once set a limit on the total number of visitors while allowing for a healthy entrepreneurial environment to flourish. Under these conditions, we could expect a gradual improvement in overall quality of infrastructure and service. As the market tightened, prices would increase, and capital for investment in staff, training an facilities became more readily available.
What do we really really want?
The final goal would be the establishment of a healthy, quality land based tourism industry from which all determined participants (employees and owners) could have expectations of a reasonable living, while at the same time keeping an eye on the long term conservation of this iconic World Heritage site.