CNH Tours - Cultural and Natural Heritage Tours Galapagos
Thursday December 20, 2018
The Galapagos National Park, in cooperation with Island Conservation, will be carrying out a rat eradication campaign on North Seymour island in January / early February. North Seymour island is located just a few hundred yards/meters north of Baltra island, the main airport island in Galapagos. It’s a popular “last visitor site” for expedition cruises, typically seen on an early morning before then proceeding to the airport for the flight back to the continent.
Rats (Norway rats) arrived in Galapagos not long after the first humans arrived established themselves, likely nearly 250 years ago. All over the world, when non-native rats arrive in island ecosystems, they cause a huge amount of damage. Typically, they prey on bird eggs and in Galapagos, will also eat hatchling tortoises and sea turtles.
North Seymour - the small island with the red pointer
North Seymour close up, with Baltra island and the main airport in Galapagos. Mosquera island is the tiny strip of land between the two. A favourite for sunbathing sea lions.
The Park has already carried out successful rat eradication campaigns on other small islands in the archipelago. In this case, drones will be used to drop off rat poison throughout the island. As the poison is specific only to mammals, and as there are no native mammals on the island, there is no risk to other of North Seymour’s inhabitants – the most noteworthy being the frigate birds and blue footed boobies, both of whom for which the island is a popular nesting area.
North Seymour island will be closed to visitors during the eradication campaign. If your itinerary had you slotted for a visit there, you’ll be taken to another nearby site – possibly Black Tortoise Cove, Mosquera Island, or even Cerro Dragon – all very good alternatives.
Wednesday December 19, 2018
I provide below a link to a nice, succinct photo/video article that was published in the New York Times today. It's a good read and helps to illustrate how climate change might affect Galapagos wildlife.
The article cites several scientists, many of whom are old friends of ours - Martin Wikelski (the most charming herpetologist we know), Heinke Jaeger (who makes her own tonic water from local plants) and David Anderson. It also cites UNESCO (my former employer), and warnings on how some Galapagos species might be particularly vulnerable to climate change; I was directly involved in the UNESCO work on climate change and World Heritage.
During regular years, impacts from climate change are minimal. Rather, it's how climate change might affect the severity and frequency of El Nino events (during which time Galapagos ecosystems are highly disturbed) that matters.
The last severe El Nino occurred in 1997-98, the year we arrived in the islands. It was HOT and HUMID. Ocean water felt like bath water. We saw marine iguana skeletons littering the shores. Visiting during an El Nino event gives you a very interesting perspective on how the forces of nature push species to adapt, where only those that can survive unusually harsh conditions can pass along their genes to the next generation. Galapagos wildlife has evolved over millions of years under these conditions - but there are limits beyond which even the most resilient and adaptable of species cannot survive. The Galapagos penguin might be the first to disappear should El Nino events become more frequent and more severe.
Click HERE to access the New York Times article. It's not very long, but has several very nice pictures and short videos, taken using a drone (it's very hard to get permission to use a drone in Galapagos - don't even think about it. The New York Times journalists were lucky - they must have had some strings available for pulling).
Picture from the New York Times article
Monday December 10, 2018
We are partnering with the eminent (and charming) wildlife ecologist and conservationist, Dr. Karen Ross, in offering 2 trips to the Okavango Delta in Botswana in 2020 (May and September). Karen is THE expert in the region and will lead the trips. After 25 years of research and conservation work in the region, she was approached by the government of Botswana to lead their effort in preparing the Okavango Delta's application for World Heritage status (for further details, see the end of this news item).
We met Karen during the time we were living in Nairobi. We became friends and have kept in touch. We asked her to put together the elements of what she considers would be the best way to experience the Okavango and surrounding region. We asked her to suggest the best time of year to go there. This trip is a result of her work. Though Galapagos has always been our only destination (because we know the islands intimately), we are comfortable offering this unique trip only because it has been designed and will be led by someone who knows the area extremely well - it has been Karen's "backyard" for nearly 30 years. Anyone can visit the Okavango, but very few will visit in the company of Karen Ross.
This 14 day itinerary will have you start at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, head over to the Okavango panhandle (where the rainy season waters flow through), to the Tsodilo Hills World Heritage site, into the heart of the Okavango - a vast floodplain that attracts wildlife from far away, to the Kalahari desert, with a final stay in Cape Town (South Africa).
We will be using very comfortable lodgings in all stays - including luxury tent camps while in wilderness areas. The trip will combine some rugged outdoor exploration with very relaxing down time after the day's activities. Though the price is still being finalized, it should come to about US$11,800 / person, double occupancy, starting in Victoria Falls, and ending in Cape Town.
We are now setting up a list of tentatively interested participants (16 per trip). If you'd like to receive advance notice when the trip details are finalized and when we will be ready to accept deposits, please let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org
KAREN ROSS BIO:
Karen was born and raised in Africa. She has a doctorate in wildlife ecology from Edinburgh University and has spent most of her career working in Africa, mainly in the Okavango Delta. She is author of Okavango: Jewel of the Kalahari, which was first published as a companion to a BBC three part documentary of the same title. Karen’s subsequent work in the Okavango Delta was part of some critical conservation activities in Botswana, including the protection of the Okavango Delta from mining threats and upstream water withdrawals from Namibia... She led the NGO pressure to curtail the proliferation of fences in the Okavango region and was co-founder of the ad hoc Committee on Fences which was the first time Botswana created a forum between different government Ministries and between government and civil society.
From 2007 she collaborated with the government of Botswana, Okavango communities and numerous stakeholders and some authorities in Namibia and Angola, to motivate for the listing of the Okavango Delta as a UNESCO World Heritage site. She was chief editor of the Nomination Dossier and in 2014 the Okavango Delta was inscribed by UNESCO as the 1,000th World Heritage Site. You would be hard pressed to find a better travel companion to the Okavango and Kalahari regions.
Wednesday December 5, 2018
I tried hard to find a catchy title for this new item - I don't think I succeeded.
I am shamelessly copy-pasting a short item that appeared in renews.biz this week, and include a few editorial comments at the end:
"Siemens has inaugurated a hybrid solar and energy storage system on the Galapagos island of Isabela in the Pacific Ocean.
The 952kW photovoltaic plant combined with a 660kW battery facility is remotely monitored by the Siemens-Mindsphere application centres in Munich, Germany, and Austin, Texas.
Siemens was awarded a contract for the project, which supplies power to 900 households on the largest Galapagos island, by the Ministry of Electricity and Renewable Energy of Ecuador.
The plant is operated by the local energy supplier Elecgalapagos.
German development bank KfW supported the project financially, while Lahmeyer International was project consultant.
Siemens head of distributed energy systems John Kovach said: “We are proud to contribute to the protection of the Galapagos Islands with our climate-neutral technology.
“We have delivered the first local energy system of its kind, enabling our customer to achieve important long-term environmental goals.”
The Ecuadorian government has set up a programme called Zero Fossil Fuels on the Galapagos Islands to switch the UNESCO World Heritage Site away from fossil fuel-based generation.
It aims for the Galapagos to be 100% supplied by renewable energy, including wind and solar.
Oil produced by the native plant Jatropha Curcas is also planned to be used as a biofuel."
PROMISED EDITORIAL: While one has to welcome and encourage low/zero carbon emission renewable energy anywhere it makes sense (including Galapagos), I've also suspected that companies installing these in Galapagos are doing it more for publicity reasons than for the maximum effectiveness of an investment. The fact that the German Development Bank is supporting the project means that on economic grounds, it may not stand up by itself. I suspect Siemens will be liberally referring to this "Galapagos project" in their marketing materials to attract interest in its products now that it has completed the work.
A similar installation on the mainland would have had much lower installation costs and would have had the same impact in terms of reducing fossil fuel emissions. If reducing emissions were a big concern in Galapagos, more investment would be made in improving construction standards of houses and office buildings there. These are almost all poorly conceived in terms of passive cooling design and have little if any insulation which, with the regular increase in the use of air conditioning, ends up raising the demand for electricity beyond the capacity of solar panels to supply.
The Siemens solar power plant outside of Villamil, on Isabela Island (picture by Siemens)
Tuesday October 30, 2018
I have copy-pasted, below the review provided by Jane Hartman of Maryland (who just turned 60 this year). She completed our Active Galapagos trip last Friday. I received these comments just now and thought I would share them as a "news" item. We survey all of our returning guests on a variety of indicators. For the question "What was your overall impression of your Active Galapagos trip?", 92% give us a 5 out of 5, 7% give us a 4 out of 5, and 1% give us a 3 out of 5.
Here are Jane's comments:
"Experiencing the Galapagos by way of the Samba was outstanding. Everything was done to maximize time experiencing the wildlife at its best. At nearly all sights, we were the only tour group there, arriving when the wildlife was at its most active and before other groups arrived.
The small size of the boat along with the Flexibility of the crew, meant we could change course when opportunities presented themselves: such as seeing orcas & dolphins or checking out volcanic activity. Our guide Jimmy, with his great enthusiasm and love for the islands, was fluent in his knowledge and with his explanations.
We felt pampered and well cared for by the crew of the Samba. There was always a helpful hand ready, even before we asked. Chef Angel served up fantastic meals artfully presented. Captain Jose was a gracious host, interacting with us in so many ways. He came with us on every snorkel trip, and helped me to the bottom of the ocean so I could get a good look at a shark, or an octopus, or a scorpion fish.
As the title indicated, the tour was ACTIVE. We arrived home exhausted, but completely exhilarated and thoroughly happy we went. The pre-trip planning and arrangements made by CNH Tours was exemplary and made everything run very smoothly. Heather reached out to us many times to see if we had any questions. Materials proved (itinerary, packing list, etc.) were extremely well done. With this excellent preparation we were very well prepared for our trip. We were supplied with contacts for help both before and during the trip. This all resulted in a very stress free trip."
Wednesday October 24, 2018
Over the years, we’ve hosted people with all kinds of backgrounds on our charter cruises. One of them came to mind recently and I decided to write a little note about him. This British gentleman was part of a group of 16 friends from around London (UK), one of our very first charters, back in 2001. The tour’s leader was the father of a good friend of ours, who had joined us an earlier “Friends Cruise”.
We had arranged to meet up with the group after their cruise for a cocktail at our Galapagos residence. While chit-chatting with the group, we learned that one of them, Sandy (an unusual name for a man it seemed to me), had been a submarine captain in the British navy years back. The group joked about how he had been the most comfortable of all passengers in the lower decks of the ship.
Ten years later, I happened to pick up a book on the history of the British navy (To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World). The book concluded with a chapter on the 1982 Falklands war. I was reading about the critical role the British navy had played, and how the fleet’s battle group commander, Sandy Woodward, had carried out his responsibilities as he commanded the Hermes aircraft carrier group .
“Sandy?!? Could it be the same?”. I found his email address from our archives and fired a note off to him, asking if indeed he had been the same admiral of the Falklands war fleet. Turns out it had been him. We had a delightful exchange. I asked if he had written about his experiences in the Falklands, and indeed he had. He published “One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander” in 2003. I promptly purchased it and enjoyed it thoroughly.
Battle Group commander Sandy Woodward, not long before the Falklands war
I still can’t imagine the irony in having hosted a British war fleet commander on a simple, modest little ship, captained by a local resident. I wonder if he’d inadvertently kept a watch over the activity on the bridge and would have loved hear his remarks on the ship.
Tuesday October 23, 2018
We first offered an "Active" trip back in 2003 - chartering a ship twice a year. In 2005, we moved from our original ship to the Samba, booking 4 charters that year. In 2020, we've booked 30 charters with the Samba. This growth is entirely attributable to word of mouth, along with the growing on-line recognition that the Samba is one of the best, if not THE best value for money ship in the Galapagos. We've done no advertising, bought no Google ads... nothing.
Value for money can be measured in many ways. One of the Samba's several defining characteristics, one that sets it apart from the majority of ships in Galapagos, even the highest end ships, is the extent to which its crew is engaged and pro-actively helpful.
The cook works wonders in the galley; the captain is in the water, accompanying snorkelers who appreciate a helping hand; the crew is on the constant watch for how they can make things better for guests. The all do this while sharing a bit of fun with the guests, engaging in some convivial laughter.
The ship's owner recognizes that an engaged crew contributes to a successful operation. One of the ways he gets his crew "on board" is to offer them and their families a cruise of their own, once a year. This gives them a chance to share their life, and the wonders of Galapagos, with their loved ones. In Galapagos very few residents ever get a chance to see what the hoopla is all about. The owner has even organized a trip to the Amazon for his crew and their family, in an effort to help them appreciate the reason why so many foreigners come to their country.
CNH Tours regularly surveys its returning guests on the quality of their experience. Their overall trip receives very high scores - but no other element of the survey receives quite as high a score as the quality of the Samba's crew (though many come close). Below is the result of the survey of returning guests from March to June this year. 1 out of 122 respondents rated the crew as just "very good", 1 rated them "absolutely terrible" (we have to think that was a typo/mistake on the respondent's part), while all the others rated them as "excellent / couldn't possibly be better".
We are very proud of the Samba and how it's managed. The numbers, both in terms of people approaching us to join an Active Galapagos trip, and in terms of survey results, speak for themselves.
A FEW"CUT AND PASTE" COMMENTS FROM OUR GUESTS
1. We found the crew of the Samba truly exceptional and felt very safe and taken-care-of with each one of them. They were unfailingly friendly and helpful. What we especially appreciated is that there were always several crew members coming along on the snorkeling adventures (even captain Oswaldo at times) to unobtrusively keep an eye on our safety. The entire ship was kept spick and span. I should also mention that the crew was always so quiet, no unnecessary noise ever.
2. WHAT A PHENOMENAL, ATTENTIVE, KIND, PROFESSIONAL CREW!
3. Everyone did their jobs so well, and were always there to help or make us more comfortable. The captain really excelled, especially when we were snorkeling by making sure we all got the maximum from the experience.
4. Great guys all worked well together. They were always laughing and joking with us and really seemed to enjoy their work. Worked well as a team They were all amazing loved our captain.
5. Crew went out of their way to help in any way possible. They were friendly, knowledgeable. They worked as a team, helping each other and us. They had fun with us.
Wednesday October 17, 2018
After many months of rumblings, and as predicted in this news column, Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela island burst into eruption on 26 June this year. It was one of the most violent eruptions in Galapagos in the past few decades. The Ecuadorian Geophysical Institute released its final assessment on the eruption recently – information in this article is gathered from that report.
Below: Sierra Negra volcano at the peak of its eruption - late June
The eruption was characterized by the continuous emission of lava flows along 5 eruptive fissures located on the north and north-western flanks of the volcano. The apx. 1,500 residents of Isabela live mostly on the southern flank of the volcano, with most concentrated in the town of Villamil, where the southern flank meets the sea.
The volcano was most violent on its first day, with lava spewing out from 5 distinct fissures (see figure 1 below), flowing as much as 7 km downhill (though no flows reached the sea that day). The flows continued until 23 August, mostly concentrated around fissure #4. On July 6th, a lava flow reached the sea, resulting in an increase in the island’s surface area of 1.5 km squared (apx. 370 acres). A total of 30.6 km squared of new lava fields were deposited (apx. 7,560 acres).
Figure 1: Location of fissures and extent of lava flows (Geophysical Institute of Ecuador)
Though Sierra Negra has always been and will continue to be considered an active volcano it’s likely that the volcano will enter into a longer period of very much reduced activity. There is a chance that a second eruption might occur in the coming months should another pulse of magma emerge from the earth's depths.
The northern slopes of Sierra Negra volcano are generally covered by fairly recent lava flows (e.g. mostly less than a thousand years). The image in figure 1 above clearly illustrates the vast black lava fields on that side of the caldera. There is relatively little wildlife on this part of the island and very sparse vegetation. On the geologic and even on evolutionary biology scales, volcanic eruptions and lava flows are normal in Galapagos. These islands rose out of the sea some 5 million years ago thanks to these volcanoes. It's only because there are islands here that the ancestors of the unique species we see in Galapagos today were able to colonize them. only to be pushed and squeezed into new life forms thanks to the forces of natural selection. So, while eruptions might wipe out a particular population of plants or animals, or even drive a species to extinction, the forces at play that led to their creation in the first place plod on, and over time, will lead to the creation of yet new species (should humans not interfere too much...).
Witnessing a volcanic eruption is a rare privilege – leaving images and sensations seared (figuratively!) into one’s memory for the rest on one’s life. Eruptions in Galapagos occur fairly regularly (every few years) and fortunate are those who happen to be at the right place at the right time.
Friday October 5, 2018
The Galapagos National Park Service noticed the absence of 123 baby tortoises from its tortoise breeding center in Villamil (Isabela island) last week. The "Arnaldo Tupiza" tortoise breeding center was established 20 years ago with the objective of helping expand the wild tortoise population on Isabela island.
It's not the first time that tortoise are stolen. Last year, 17 baby Galapagos tortoises were discovered in Peru. They were subsequently repatriated to Galapagos.
There are three breeding centers in Galapagos, one at Villamil, one at Puerto Ayora (at the Charles Darwin Research Station) and another in San Cristobal close to the park offices there. The Villamil breeding center is the most isolated, located approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) from town, surrounded by forest. This makes the center more vulnerable to furtive activities.
Newly hatched tortoises are about the size of an apricot and within two years can grow to the size of a tennis ball. At four years, they are the size of a grapefruit - large enough to fend for themselves (e.g. mostly protect themselves from introduced rats) and are usually returned to their native habitats.
This newborn is the size of an apricot...
In centuries past, tortoises were a highly sought food source. Once it became known that this archipelago, located near rich whale hunting waters contained a plentiful supply of giant tortoises, it became the local "meat counter" for whaling ships, and any other ship passing through. The tortoises were relatively easy to capture and transport to the ships - where they could survive for months before being butchered for dinner.
Female tortoises were favoured for their smaller size - and ease of transport. Though the practice of eating tortoise largely died out 100 years ago, to this day, in some parts of the archipelago, there are still populations with a disproportionate number of males over females.
The Galapagos National Park Service has repatriated upwards of 2,500 tortoises over the years, with their most notable success being at Española island. Here, in the 1970's, only a handful of tortoises remained after earlier depredations by humans, followed by the destruction of the habitat by introduced goats, and the predation by rats of all baby tortoises. The Park, with technical help from the Charles Darwin Research Station was able to eradicate the goats and the rats, and to develop a way to breed the tortoises in captivity. Española island is now more or less back to what is was like before humans came along.
Friday September 7, 2018
Galapagos is marking it's 40th anniversary as a World Heritage site. On the 8th of September 1978, the intergovernmental World Heritage Committee met in Washington D.C. and approved the inscription of the Galapagos Islands onto the World Heritage list. As it was the first dossier to be studied and considered, it was given the prestigious "#1". In contrast, the most recent World Heritage site to be inscribed onto the list (Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains in South Africa, July of this year) was numbered #1,575.
The World Heritage Convention was designed as an international instrument to encourage countries to take note of their cultural and natural heritage. Countries were further encouraged to invest in conserving their heritage for current and future generations, and to identify and propose, for international recognition, those cultural and natural heritage sites they might consider to be of global significance.
Sites proposed for recognition would be studied by arm's length technical bodies. These technical bodies would share their recommendations as to the validity of the proposals to the World Heritage Committee, which, in turn, would inscribe these sites onto the World Heritage list if it agreed.
It is not surprising that Galapagos was the first ever site to be inscribed. Along with perhaps 3 or 4 other places on earth, it sits at the top of the pyramid with regard to places were we can go to observe wildlife so easily and feel completely awed by the spectacle.
It was no coincidence either that the first meeting of the World Heritage Committee took place in Washington D.C. The USA had taken a leadership role in the creation of the World Heritage Convention, holding a conference on the matter in the actual White House, in 1965. In the following years, it invested a good deal of effort to bring the countries of the world together to develop this international instrument. It wasn't until 1976 that it was formally adopted.
The result has been successful beyond the expectations of the early proponents. The World Heritage Convention is arguably one of the best news stories coming out of the United Nations, and likely one of the most widely recognized United Nations conventions.
Happy World Heritage inscription day Galapagos!
Sunday August 19, 2018
Over the past 12 months, there have been several aborted attempts by the government of Ecuador to impose a mandatory medical insurance requirement for all people visiting Ecuador. There has been a push-back on the part of the national tourism sector. The result has been an on-going on-again/off-again status for the requirement, with the government announcing a date on which visitors will be required to show evidence of insurance on arrival, only to have that date postponed by several months just a few weeks before the requirement was set to kick-in. Readers of the CNH Tours news section will have followed this saga through a few stories published here.
We've been hearing that the motivation behind this requirement lies with the country's efforts to deal with an increasing number of Venezuelan migrants - most of which are leaving their home country in search of economic opportunities. Over 500,000 are reported to have arrived in Ecuador so far this year alone (that's a whopping 3% of the total Ecuadorian population). The reasoning linking the medical insurance requirement to the Venezuelan migrants proposes that the Ecuadorian government must be dealing with an important rise in demand for medical services from this group - while most arriving Venezuelans are not properly insured, or not insured at all. This leaves the Ecuadorian tax payer footing the bill.
The Guardian newspaper (out of the UK) does a good job illustrating the plight of the Venezuelans and the impact on Ecuador in its paper today. To see the article, click here.
Monday July 30, 2018
Back in October 2017, Anthony Pearson, a cardiologist from St. Louis took the plunge and booked a trip for himself and his family on an August 2018 Active Galapagos trip on the Samba. It turns out that Anthony is an avid blogger, maintaining a rich blog site called "The Skeptical Cardiologist" (my father, a general practitioner, would certainly enjoy this blog).
In preparation for his trip, he started a blog on the upcoming adventure. To date, he's posted two articles - one entitled: "We are soon Bound for the Galapagos Islands in search of Darwin, the Giant Tortoise and Dangerous Ideas".
His second post, just out this week, is entitled: "Drinking from the Giant Tortoise Pericardium".
Clearly, Anthony has a gift for headlines! To follow his blog, click here.
Tuesday July 10, 2018
My wife Heather Blenkiron has been answering questions as the TripAdvisor "Destination Expert" for Galapagos for many years (she's answered nearly 3,500 questions so far).
People often turn to the TripAdvisor Galapagos forum for advice, or for recommendations on this or that travel agency. Heather's answer is invariably "no matter what agency you choose, just be sure they are Galapagos specialists, that they know what they are talking about".
We are working out of our Victoria, British Columbia "office" these days (visiting family) and we were amused by the large bus shelter posters around town advertising a Galapagos trip, sponsored by a travel company that sells trips all over the world. They send a lot of people to Galapagos every year. But the picture on their poster is of an iguana not found in Galapagos. Clearly, this company, one we like to call "the IKEA of travel agencies", cannot be considered a Galapagos expert.
Below, the bus shelter advertisement showing a mundane, run-of-the-mill, dime-a-dozen green iguana, found from Mexico to Brazil (but NOT in Galapagos)
And now, below, the magnificent Galapagos Marine Iguana, found ONLY in Galapagos
Wednesday June 20, 2018
CNH Tours has been very busy - we're getting more and more "word of mouth" inquiries as the number of very happy former guests tell their friends and family about the wonderful service and the unforgettable experiences they've had. So much so that we've been obliged to take on our first full-time senior partner - Kelsey Bradley.
It wasn't easy to find the ideal person to join our team. We pride ourselves in providing "unmatched personalized service" - and part of that is ensuring that all the people working at CNH Tours have a profound and intimate knowledge of Galapagos. Unlike just about all other international agencies selling trips to the islands, all of CNH Tours front line staff have lived in the islands for several years and continue to maintain very close ties to the people there.
Kelsey joined us on 18 June after spending 8 years working in Galapagos, first as a volunteer at the San Cristobal hospital and then later for 5 years at the Charles Darwin Research Station (where she had the pleasure of helping the likes of Martha Stewart organize a visit). She spent her time there closely connected to both the CDRS and the local communities, having lived on both Santa Cruz and San Cristobal Islands. Through her most recent role at the CDRS she worked with various members of the tourism industry in the islands to further bridge the gap between tourism and conservation in Galapagos. This helped her develop a good knowledge of the various hotel and ship representatives we work with. This aspect of her work quickly became a passion and now working with CNH Tours she looks forward to continuing these efforts for the conservation of the magical place. Her love for the islands and for Ecuador as a whole is very clear within two seconds of meeting her and she’s keen to share this love with future travellers.
Kelsey also happens to be from Ottawa, CNH Tours' home base. She will be joining Heather taking your calls and emails to help you organize a trip of a lifetime.
Kelsey is an amateur photographer - here she is on the Islander off the coast of Floreana Island (top photo) and in one of her favourite spots - Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island (bottom photo). We'll be using some of her pictures on our website and new stories. (Photos here taken by young Ecuadorian photographer Liza Diaz Lalova).
Saturday June 16, 2018
While Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela island had been attracting our attention these past days with its multiple earthquakes (see earlier news item "Is she going to blow?", its sister volcano on neighbouring Fernandina island is the one that erupted today.
I just heard from Walter Bustos (former park director in Galapagos) that an eruption on the outer northern slopes of Fernandina island's "La Cumbre" volcano happened this morning. Fernandina island is the youngest in the Galapagos archipelago, located on its most westerly edge. It is considered one of the most pristine "large" islands in the world. Much of it is covered in lava fields, but there are many areas covered with vegetation. It is home to flightless cormorants, penguins, the largest colonies of marine iguanas and the Galapagos hawk.
Plume of the eruption, 6 June 2018 (photo Galapagos National Park Service)
The last time an eruption occurred was on 4 September 2017. With that kind of frequency, it's easier to understand how these islands are built over tens of thousands of years.
Infrared photo shows location of the eruption on the northern edge of Fernandina Islana (imagery from Galapagos National Park Service)
Ironically, we had been keeping an eye on Sierra Negra volcano these past days (Isabela Island). Let's see if it can outdo La Cumbre....
Fernandina's Punta Espinoza is a visitor site on most ship itineraries. Lucky are those who might get a chance to see this eruption in progress. There is no danger whatsoever to visitors as the eruption is quite distant from visitor sites.
Thursday June 14, 2018
On the 9th of January this year, we reported on a spat of small but frequent earthquakes in and around Sierra Negra volcano. We have an ear to the ground for this kind of thing - we'd noticed what appeared to be an unusual number of reports of such earthquakes and thought it was newsworthy, figuring that "something was up".
Last week, the Ecuadorian Geophysical Institute reported that seismic activity was reaching levels that could indicate an imminent eruption. It indicated that seismic activity in and around Sierra Negra has been gradually increasing over the past two years, reaching very high levels since mid May, averaging 42 earthquakes per day with a peak of 104 quakes occurring on 25 May. The largest quake so far quake was a significant magnitude 4.8 on 8 June, large enough to be felt by by people in the vicinity.
Daily number of volcanic events at Sierra Negra (Instituto Geofisico del Ecuador)
As noted in our January 9 article, the volcanoes in Galapagos are all "shield" type volcanoes. They don't erupt explosively (e.g. like the recent volcano in Guatemala) but rather "burst at the seams", resulting in cracks on the slopes of the volcano (either within the caldera, or on the outside slopes), with lava spewing out. The lava can spew for days or weeks or even longer, producing rivers of lava that can flow over long distances, covering wide expanses of land. This is exactly what has been happening in Hawaii these past few weeks.
Sierra Negra is located above the town of Villamil on Isabela island - a popular destination for land based visitors. The highlands above the town are settled by small time farmers growing coffee, pineapples and such, or keeping some cattle. Both Villamil and the highlands are exposed to the risk of lava flows that could head their way. Typically, should this danger materialize, there will be plenty of advance warning, unless fissures open up much closer to inhabited areas.
Satellite pictures of the area around Villamil attest to geologically recent volcanic activity, with much of the surface area around the town consisting of vast barren lava fields (mostly on the north and eastern edges of town). Parts of the Villamil airstrip are carved right out of these lava fields.
The town of Villamil is vulnerable to lava flows - black areas show geologically recent lava flow events (thanks to Google Earth)
According to the Geophysical Institute, "the recent increase of seismic activity suggests an increase of pressure inside the volcano, which could be related to an advance of a magmatic intrusion towards relatively shallow depths". Based on the precise locations of the quakes, the most likely outcome would be a moderate-sized eruption in the Volcán Chico sector, on the southeast side of the volcano. That is precisely where tourism activity is concentrated.
Location of Sierra Negra quakes (Instituto Geofisico del Ecuador)
Thursday June 14, 2018
Translated from an El Colono (Galapagos newspaper) FaceBook post yesterday.
* Technically they are tortoises (land based version of turtles, which are water reptiles; e.g. sea turtles) but we took a bit of poetic license to generate a more eye-catching title for this news item...)
THE 26 TORTOISES THAT WERE ILLEGALLY TAKEN OUT OF THE ISLANDS RETURN TONIGHT
A group of 26 Galapagos tortoises is repatriated from Peru to Ecuador (Galapagos) after being retained by the National Forestry and Wildlife Service of the neighboring country on April 17, 2017, product of the alleged international trafficking of species.
These tortoises are part of the group of 29 chelonians retained by the Peruvian authorities, two of whom died during the alleged traffic and later one more due to natural causes.
The Directorate of the Galapagos National Park of the Ministry of Environment, approached the Peruvian authorities to carry out the genetic analyzes and confirm that they are giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands, which, being protected species under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), it was necessary to comply with international procedures for its return to the Ecuadorian archipelago.
This week, three park rangers from the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park traveled to Peru, where they removed the tortoises that were in the Cecilia Margarita Zoo in Piura, to begin the transfer to Lima, then to Quito and Galápagos.
The compliance with the legal procedures was possible thanks to the coordinated work between the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park of the Ministry of the Environment, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility, Embassy of Ecuador in Peru, Agency for Regulation and Control of Fito and Zoosanitary, Regulation and Control of Biosecurity and Quarantine for Galapagos, Galapagos Conservancy, and National Secretary of Customs; with the support of the Government of Peru, through the National Superintendence of Customs and Tax Administration, National Forestry Service and Wildlife, and National Service of Agrifood Health and Quality.
According to the requirements of the authorities, the tortoises remained under a protocol of quarantine and veterinary examinations, to rule out diseases, prior to their return to the country.
Wooden boxes specially designed for the transportation of the toirtoises, with estimated ages between three and five years, are used in the three-day journey that lasts until the final arrival in the Galapagos.
Quarantine in Baltra
The park ranger Christian Sevilla, responsible for the conservation of insular ecosystems of the DPNG, explained that upon arrival in Galapagos, the tortoises will spend at least 180 days in a specially built pen at the Ecuadorian Air Force Base on Baltra Island.
The pen that will house the tortoises during the quarantine period is built on 16 square meters, has an outer cage that prevents any vertebrate: iguanas, lizards, etc., approaching the tortoises and another interior with all temperature and shade conditions that they need for their well-being, in addition it is covered with mesh, to avoid the entrance of invertebrates. This pen has a biosecurity area where the materials and equipment used by the park rangers who will take care of the chelonians will be kept.
The quarantine will allow the reptiles to eliminate seeds, while they will be analyzed to rule out possible risks of infection before reinsertion into their habitat and protect the turtle populations of the archipelago.
Photo credit: El Colono newspaper
Monday June 4, 2018
I was quoted in the New York Times' June 1st paper (along with perhaps 500 other people in that day's paper... so my ego is kept in check). The article was entitled: "Is Land Tourism Threatening the Galápagos?". It was not a cutting edge article, and frankly, I don't think I said what the journalist quoted me as saying, but at the end of the day, the article was factual. Click here to read it.
The article came about after I encouraged the International Galapagos Tour Operator's Association (IGTOA - I sit on the board) to make a statement on the unregulated nature of land based tourism in Galapagos. That statement can be consulted on IGTOA's website (click here).
I was motivated to do so as a former staffer at UNESCO's World Heritage (WH) Centre. The WH Centre is the United Nations body charged with overseeing the state of conservation of WH sites - which includes the Galapagos islands. In its last decision, back in 2016, the intergovernmental WH Committee expressed concern over rapid growth of tourism and the absence of any plan to manage it. More visitors coming and going draw more migrants from the continent and together, there is markedly more movement of people and goods between the continent and the islands, and between islands themselves. All this to-ing an fro-ing raises the risk of more introductions of invasive non-native species - these are the main threat to the long term survival of Galapagos biodiversity (Darwin Finch numbers are currently in decline thanks to an non-native fly that lays eggs in the birds' nests).
My conscience could not let me sit on the board of an association of Galapagos tourism companies that claims to be "dedicated to the complete and lasting protection of the Galapagos" on the one hand, and see that the same organization had not addressed threats linked to uncontrolled tourism growth identified by the United Nations on the other.
We started by producing an IGTOA position statement on Galapagos (noted above). We followed that with a letter to the Minister of the Environment about this issue in 2017. The Ministry asked the the Galapagos National Park to respond. During the IGTOA meeting in Galapagos last November, we met with the park staff to discuss. Though we agreed to work more closely together on conservation related matters, the Park indicated that Galapagos tourism policy was a Ministry of Tourism matter. Our letter to the Minister of Tourism duly went out in February (and as noted in the NYT article, we have yet to receive a response). We were then approached by the New York Times who wanted to publish an article on the matter.
All along, I have been working to convince my former colleagues at UNESCO's WH Centre to recognize the on-going absence of significant measures taken by the Government of Ecuador to control the growth in land based tourism. Government numbers show a growth in land based tourism averaging at 9.5% / year over the last 5 years. While the Government of Ecuador wisely saw fit to put a cap on the capacity of ship based tourism nearly 20 years ago, it has yet to impose any equivalent cap on land based tourism. As a result, land based visitors, who numbered fewer than 5,000 in the 1990's, will likely surpass the 200,000 threshold within 2-3 years.
UNESCO's WH Committee is meeting again later this month / early July to review the state of conservation of WH sites, and Galapagos is on the agenda. I was hoping to present a solid case to justify strong wording from the WH Committee to the Government of Ecuador in regards to the need for a firm limit on the total number of tourists coming to the islands.
Their draft decision on the matter was published recently. As in its last decision (2016), the proposal is to recognize that more needs to be done to manage tourism while recognizing the government's very small steps taken to date (these have had zero impact on tourism growth). The Government of Ecuador, in its report to the WH Committee, indicated that it was committed "to adopt measures that promote a zero growth model". That's not the same as "placing a firm cap on the total annual number of visitors granted a Galapagos National Park entrance permit". It leaves a lot of wiggle room, particularly in terms of when the "zero growth" is to be achieved.
To conclude, though I am disappointed in UNESCO's timid recommendations to the Government of Ecuador, at least the issue remains on the front burner. The Government of Ecuador will have to report once again to UNESCO in 2019 and if no progress is made then, we can hope that bolder requests will be made. If Ecuador does not implement measures deemed necessary for the conservation of the islands, UNESCO's WH Committee can put the site on the Danger List, or further still, remove Galapagos from the World Heritage List altogether.
In the meantime, anyone thinking of going to Galapagos using the cruise ship model can rest assured that they will not be contributed to tourism growth in the islands. Ship based tourism, thanks to effective Government policies, has been more or less flat at 70,000 people per year for the past 15 years or so. Enjoy your trip!
Tuesday May 15, 2018
The Galapagos regional government (a.k.a. the governing council) approved a motion to ban the importation of yogurt from the continent last week. Most such bans on the importation of foodstuffs to the islands are designed to reduce the risk of introducing alien species, which can upset native communities there.
But in this case, the local dairy producers that are the target of concern. By banning the importation of continental yogurt, the council hopes to give the local producers some breathing room to produce their own native yogurt for island consumption.
Notwithstanding the bottom-line benefits to local dairy farmers, there are some environmental benefits to such a policy. A significant portion of inhabited islands in Galapagos (mainly Santa Cruz, Española and to a much lesser extent Isabela and Floreana) are privately owned. Much of the rural lands are used for agricultural production. Typically, these are on the windward sides of the islands, with better soils and more reliable rain. When farmed effectively, they produce goods for local consumption, reducing the need to import fresh foods from the continent, which, despite efforts at controlling it, can be a vector for the arrival of alien species. But when poorly managed (e.g. poor farms, no investment), these lands become centers for the establishment and propagation of alien weeds that end up overtaking adjacent park lands as well. Common examples are the blackberry and cinchona (related to the plant that produces quinine - an anti-malarial agent).
But there is a risk in aggressively promoting local agriculture. A strong rural / farmer's voice leads to the creation of a robust political constituency based on a growing demand for farmland. In the dry season, it is not uncommon for dairy and cattle farmers to let their animals wander into adjacent park lands. When confronted by park authorities, they can push back politically. Local politicians make it hard for the park to maintain the integrity of the park borders in such times. Having cattle wander around in park lands, dropping seed laden manure as they wander is an excellent way to spread invasive species in the park. Moreover, as the population of Galapagos grows, there may be more pressure to release park lands to agricultural production
At the end of the day, while a vibrant and professionally operated agricultural economy may be good for the integrity of Galapagos ecosystems, unless it is managed in such a way as to respect the environmental constraints of the islands, it may end up doing more harm than good. The governing council will need to keep a close eye on how things progress.
The governing council of Galapagos, 11 May 2018 - banning yogurt importations.
Tuesday May 8, 2018
We came across a post on TripAdvisor today that perfectly encapsulates the reason for which we developed our "Active Galapagos" trip on the Samba. A couple writes their review of the Petrel, a higher end 16 passenger catamaran. This is a nice ship that we've helped people book in the past. The review was very positive, except for the following comment:
"The ship tends to move between islands at night so the days are full. Some of our passengers seemed to resent this aspect of the cruise and were more interested in sunbathing and drinking. This created a tension as the crew were trying to deliver something else. It also didn't help that they were rude and pompous to all! Yes the cruise is a luxury cruise but its a luxury adventure cruise so be prepared to do stuff!"
To see this TripAdvisor thread, click here.
By explicitly branding our charters on the Samba as "Active", people who are more interested in drinking and sunbathing steer clear of us. As a result, on our Active trips, you'll be with a group of people who are keen on getting the most out of their Galapagos experience - and the naturalist guides will sense that they are free to do as much as possible with the group.