Galapagos News

Alien snake discovered on Santa Cruz

CNH Tours has learned that last weekend, some Galapagos residents came across a non-poisonous “false coral” snake on the road in the highlands of Santa Cruz island.   This was the first ever sighting of such a snake, which is not native to the Galapagos.   Spotting introduced species as soon as possible is critical in the struggle to keep them out of Galapagos.  If this was an escaped pet snake, then this threat will have been nipped in the bud – but if it’s one of many that are now proliferating in the island, it could spell trouble for native species.  

The Galapagos National Park Service (your entrance fees help fund their activities) immediately set about implementing emergency monitoring activities, to determine if there are other False coral snakes out there.   “This includes forming a circle of a mile around the area in which it is found to determine the possible presence of more specimens in the field and prevent movement into protected areas , if any” said Danny Rueda , Director of the Galapagos National Park Ecosystem Conservation department.

Repitle specialists at the Charles Darwin Foundation  confirmed it was a false coral, which is not poisonous.  The snake was killed and analyzed.  It was a male, with an empty stomach.  

Despite the presence of an extensive phytosanitary control system, which focuses on keeping people from bringing in non-native species to the islands, it’s impossible to create a 100% secure barrier.  If people wish to disregard the need to keep alien species out of Galapagos, there will always be someone who will slip something through.   "The quarantine systems can only be efficient if the citizens of the islands assume their responsibility, and refrain from bringing new species here”  said Marilyn Cruz, Executive Director of the biosecurity agency for Galapagos (and old friend of CNH Tours). 

Introduced snakes can have a catastrophic impact on island species.  The most notorious examples is that of the brown tree snake, which was accidentally introduced to Guam in 1952, likely in a cargo ship.  Within 10 years, most of the island’s birds had disappeared, including several extinctions, as this snake climbs into trees and eats eggs and chicks.   

False Coral

Longline fishing vessels detained in Marine Reserve

The Galapagos National Park Service reported yesterday that it had retained two small boats from the Ecuaorian coastal fishing port of Manta during an control operation.  They were retrained for trespassing in the Galapagos Marine Reserve and for the use of banned fishing techniques such as longline fishing (a 2-3 km fishing line with hundreds of hooks, that capture anything from fish, sealions and albatrosses).  Fishing in the Galapagos Marine Reserve is allowed only to Galapagos based fishermen, and only using artisanal techniques. 

The operation, in coordination with the maritime authority was held on February 8 at five nautical miles inside the Galapagos Marine Reserve, where rangers detained the Scarlett I with three crew and theJudith Crissel III with two crew.  During the inspection the crew reported that they were conducting fishing operations in coordination with a large mother ship, the  Don Elio II located just outside the Marine Reserve boundary.  This is a common practice – whereby the big ships linger just on the edge of legality, but send the small ships into the reserve. 

Among the evidence, the rangers found aboard three swordfish. The boat and crew were taken to Santa Cruz, where they were turned over to the appropriate authority.

 

Location of captured boats:

GPMR

Original transportation ideas...

It is a sad fact that the number of vehicles in Galapagos, particularly on Santa Cruz island, seems to be much greater than necessary for a place where 90% of your trips are little more than a few hundred meters long!   However, some people do come up with original ideas that, while adding to the number of vehicles, at least celebrate the location.   Here's a recent pic, posted on the Galapagos Conservancy website and taken in Puerto Ayora - next to the fishermen's wharf.

Tortoise ATV

Park Service cancels scuba diving ship permits

The Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS) has suspended the operations of Darwin and Wolf Buddy scuba diving boats in the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) for not having complied with the provisions of their operating license.

The GNPS reported today that the operators had not submitted semiannual reports on their performance regarding the Galapagos National Park Environmental Management Plan, nor had they presented environmental compliance audits, and nor had they paid their respective annual Environmental Management Plan performance bond.

CNH Tours recommends that anyone having arranged any trips with these two ships in the coming weeks and months should enquire with their agent to ensure alternative plans are made, or refunds provided. 

 

GNPS Park boats

"Young Darwin" Statue commissioned for the Station

A statue of  "Darwin as a Young Man", showing him as he was when he visited Galapagos on the HMS Beagle, was officially commissioned today, as reported today by Swen Lorenz, the Charles Darwin Research Station director (pictured below, with a sample of the work of the Ecuadorian artist the Station is hiring for the job. Unveiling: March 2014.). Darwin will be presented in a relaxed position sitting on a bench, so that the Station's 100,000+ visitors can easily pose for photos with him. He will be placed outside of the science buildings in the research station, as a part of its upcoming new interpretation trail.

 Statues

Danny Devito going to Galapagos

CNH Tours is not much of a "PEOPLE MAGAZINE" kind of organization, but we have come across a few "stars" in the islands.   My husband once bumped into John Malkovich, who was visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station, and took him to be an old time farmer from Santa Cruz highlands!   We also said hello to Alan Alda, and spotted Susan Sarandon...

Here's a news item we came across today:

Hollywood veterans Danny Devito and Rhea Perlman will celebrate their marriage reunion with an end-of-year holiday in the Galapagos Islands.

The Matilda co-stars shocked friends and fans in October, 2012 when they announced they had separated after 30 years of marriage, but they managed to work out their issues and reconciled in March (13) - and now DeVito is whisking his wife away for her dream vacation.

She tells Closer magazine, "It's one of those trips that I have always wanted to do."

Flightless cormorant threatened by climate change

(from www.phys.org)

The effects of climate change in the Galápagos Islands are posing a severe threat to one of the world's rarest seabirds, a decade-long historical study led by a University of Queensland researcher has revealed.

The unique flightless cormorant, Phalacrocorax harrisi, is found only on the coasts of two Islands in the Galápagos archipelago and relies on cold, nutrient-rich water provided by the Equatorial Undercurrent.

These heavy, flightless, diving birds evolved from a light, flying ancestor due to the absence of predators and abundance of in-shore sea food in the isolated Galápagos region.

UQ's Emeritus Professor Robert Tindle, the lead author on the study, said the species was a striking example of evolution in the Galápagos which so intrigued 19th-century naturalist, Charles Darwin.

Emeritus Professor Tindle said the species' sensitivity to changes in water temperature was now threatening its survival.

"The population of these birds is currently low at about 1000 adult pairs, and this number has dropped as low as 400 pairs after a period of warmer ocean temperatures around the islands," he said.

"90% of breading occurs when ocean temperatures are between 18-23 degrees Celsius.

"An increase of just two degrees Celsius can significantly reduce breeding due to decreased availability of food."

During the cold upwelling of the Equatorial Undercurrent there is an abundance of fish available to the flightless cormorants through shallow-water foraging within a few hundred meters of the colony.

During El Niño - Southern Oscillation events, which persist in the area for 11-18 months, the Equatorial Undercurrent weakens, leading to warmer, nutrient-poor water at the surface and a reduction in the abundance of prey.

"The frequency and severity of El Niño - Southern Oscillation events in Galápagos have increased and it has been shown that this is most likely a result of climate change," Emeritus Professor Tindle said.

"During these periods when ocean surface temperatures range between 23-28 degrees Celsius, Flightless Cormorants lay fewer clutches of eggs and have fewer juveniles survive.

"These birds have evolved to breed when water temperatures are cold and food is abundant.

"Either long-term or frequent short-term rises of just a few degrees in local sea surface temperature could pose a catastrophic threat to this species."

The research was carried out in Galápagos by scientists from The University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UK) between 1970-1980, with annual checks conducted by scientists at the Charles Darwin Research Station, Galápagos, from 1980 to 2012.

Local kids enjoy a good soccer game – yes, there are towns in the Galapagos

When people ask me about my time in Galapagos, most are surprised to find out that there is a substantial population of Ecuadorians actually living there.   The islands were first discovered (at least by Western eyes - there is some poorly substantiated evidence that indigenous groups from the mainland may have been there at one point) in 1635, but weren't permanently settled until the early 1800's.    Until the 2nd World War, the population remained very small, perhaps a few hundred people living on the three main islands.   The war brought in military investment, which attracted more people - as Baltra island was used as an American advance base for the protection of the Panama Canal against potential Japanese attack.   After the war, the population was somewhere in the 1,000 to 2,000 range until the 1960's, even early 1970's - when it became feasible for the first time for people to consider visiting the islands as tourists.   Tourism growth was exponential over the following decades, going from about nothing to about 200,000 annual arrivals in recent years.   The expanding tourism economy, along with a short but intensive 1990's boom in fisheries drew in many economic migrants from the continent.

The island's population now stands at about 30,000 permanent and long-term temporary residents.  These are scattered among 5 islands - in order of importance - Santa Cruz, with the main town of Puerto Ayora, San Cristobal, with its town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Villamil on Isabel island, and Floreana island (population of about 100).  Baltra island has a small contingent of military personnel who manage the airport there.    That leaves well over 100 uninhabited islands in the archipelago. 

 

Below:  boys enjoy a good game at Santa Rosa, in the Santa Cruz island highlands.  Thanks to Wilson Cabrera, a top goat hunter and former colleague, for the picture. 

Soccer Game

Park staff confiscate thousands of poached sea cucumbers

The Galapagos National Park reported that over the weekend, today during a control operation conducted by the Galapagos National Park (GNP) at different coastal sites of San Cristobal island, a shipment of 18 jute bags containing dry salted sea cucumbers was discovered. 

The Park immediately proceeded in the confiscation of the sea cucumbers and moved them to the Parks offices  on that island.  Park staff counted 32 477 sea cucumbers, most of the species Isostichopus horrens .  Later sea cucumbers were placed in 43 pouches in which they remain in custody of the respective GNP , during the administrative and criminal process that will begin to investigate was is considered an environmental crime in Ecuador.

Carlos Rivera, president of the Fisheries and Seafood Cooperative, San Cristobal, stated that the illegal harvesting of sea cucumbers is regrettable because it undermines the natural resource's ability to regenerate itself and to continue providing a livelihood to local fishermen.

The sea cucumber is a protected species in the Galapagos Marine Reserve and worldwide, some species are on the IUCN RedList of endangered species, and protected by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered threatened Flora and Fauna (CITES). They are extremely important to ecosystems as they oxygenate the ocean floor.  Sea cucumbers are related to star fish, and sought after mostly by the Asia market.  

 

Sea cucuber bags

Sick and Dead Marine Iguanas Raising Concerns

The Galapagos National Park Service reported yesterday that it had detected a number of dead and sick marine iguanas along some beaches (both off limits to the public and those open to the public) of Santa Cruz Island.  It said it was studying the causes of death of 14 marine iguanas in the popular beach area of Turtle Bay, site which has been intensively monitored over the years.  Apart from dead marine iguanas, the Park found a sick one, behaving as if it needed to vomit. 

The Park proceeded to close access to the colony of iguanas in Turtle Bay, and also reviewed the health conditions of individuals in this sector, where a population of about 775 individuals live.

Veterinarians and biologists performed the autopsy of dead individuals, those with most of their bodies in good condition.  Results showed bellies full of green and red algae with increased prevalence of the red algae, as well as inflammation and bleeding in the small intestine.

Washington Tapia , head of research applied to the GNP  and an old friend since CNH Tours used to work in Galapagos,  said that the precise cause of death was not yet known, though it appeared to be related to a digestive problem .  The park indicated that there was no evidence of water contamination in the areas affected.   Studies continue with the support of scientists from partner institutions, specialists in marine iguanas and reptile diseases, to implement remedial actions if necessary.

 

Galapagos National Park staff monitoring marine iguanas at Tortuga Bay

Sick Marine Iguanas

New Park Director Named

The minister of the Environment of Ecuador announced yesterday that Edwin Naula, Galapagos National Park director for the past 3 years, and old friend of CNH Tours, is stepping down.   Edwin had been working for the Galapagos National Park Service for many years, and had acted as interim director for a short period in 2007, before being formally given the job in 2010.   He will be replaced by another Galapagos veteran, Arturo Izurieta.  

Arturo himself served as park director in the 1990's when he was in his 20s.  At the time, he brought in a decentralised structure allowing local people to deal with environmental problems. He restricted the number of boats visiting islands.   He has sinced worked for the World Wildlife Fund in Latin America, and was most recently managing protected areas in Australia.    Though CNH Tours does not know Arturo personally, his name is a very familiar one - and he comes well recommended by all of our close Galapagos contacts.   Welcome Arturo! 

 

“The Galapagos Affair” Hollywood Drama Premieres

The dramatic story of the first settlers on Floreana Island will be shown at the Telluride Film Festival this week, for the first time.   The story involves murder, deception, mysterious disappearances, an imposter baroness, a vegetarian toothless dentist and more!  All based on real characters (CNH Tours is friends with some of their descendants - the Wittmers, who run Tip Top ships).   

Below, the Wittmer family circa 1932.    Margaret, on the right, lived on Floreana island until her death in about 2001.

Wittmer family

 

Here's an excerpt from the producer's website:

Darwin meets Hitchcock in the feature-length documentary THE GALAPAGOS AFFAIR, a gripping tale of idealistic dreams gone awry set in the brutal yet alluring landscape of the Galapagos Islands in the 1930s.

Featuring voice-over performances by Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger, this film skillfully interweaves an unsolved 1930s murder mystery with stories of present day Galapagos pioneers.

When Berlin physician Friedrich Ritter left Germany in 1929 with his lover Dore Strauch to make a life on the deserted Galapagos Island of Floreana, he envisioned a paradise of solitude in which he would be able to write great philosophical tracts while carving out a rudimentary existence based on Nietzsche's doctrine of the Superman. What Ritter and Strauch didn't count on was being discovered by the international press, who rapidly trumpeted their exploits as "The Adam and Eve of the Galapagos."

 

Below - the "Baronness" and some of her lovers....

Baronness and lovers

For more information, see: 

http://www.gellergoldfine.com/eden.html (producer's website)

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/telluride-zeitgeist-films-picks-up-616720

First record of three shark species

Until very recently, there were 30 confirmed shark species in Galapagos waters - thanks to the efforts of some dedicated diving enthusiasts,  a keen local fisherman and a Galapagos student out on diving sortie.   Pictures and video were obtained for each report and analyzed by a variety of experts, and consensus was reached on the species involved.  The results were published in a scientific paper.   The new official members of "Galapagos shark species" club are:

  • Smalltooth sand tiger (4 metres, or about 13 feet long!) (Odontaspis ferox) - pictured below.
  • White-margin fin smooth-hound (2 metres - 6.5 feet) (Mustelus albipinnis)
  • Leafscale gulper shark  (0.95 metres, or about 3 feet) (Centrophorus squamosus)

smalltooth sand tiger

Along with Cocos Island (another World Heritage site), approximately 700 km to the northeast (450 miles) Galapagos is considered a "shark mecca" of the world by dive outfitters.   "Galapagos probably sees more variety of shark species than anywhere else!" claims Shark Diving Experts.   Now we'll need to add another three species.  CNH Tours, being natural born skeptics, will note that Galapagos probably benefits from a lot more scientific attention than other places, which might tip the balance in its favour in terms of spotting and officially confirming shark species, but that's fine by us.

Some of the main shark highlights in Galapagos include:

  • Schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks (mostly in the north islands)
  • Whale shark
  • Ubiquitous white tipped reef shark
  • The endemic horn shark
  • Bull shark
  • Great hammerhead shark
  • Mako shark

Great white sharks are generally absent from Galapagos waters, tough an old colleague of ours, and Galapagos native, Felipe Cruz, once reported to us as having seen one in the Bolivar Channel, between Fernandina and Isabela islands.   It's nice to know they are rare!

Orcas spotted near Leon Dormido

Nicole Chabaneix uploaded this nice picture on August 8 (Twitter) - a very composition.   Orcas, often associated with the US northwest coast and Canada's British Columbia waters, are also around in Galapagos.   CNH Tours had the pleasure of floating amongst a group of 3-4 orcas a few years ago - so close that we had the pleasure of smelling "orca breath".   Orcas and Leon Dormido

Lonesome George - rising from the dead?

It seems Lonesome George will live on in Galapagos.  After his death of this iconic "last of its kind" giant tortoise in June last year, he was shipped to the American Museum of Natural History, where he was "stuffed"  by expert taxidermist, and mounted  for display.    He will make a temporary appearance at the museum this winter, before heading back to his homeland next year.

George was the last of the Pinta Island tortoise species.  He was discovered in 1971 by a team of National Park goat hunters (goats had been introduced to the island and were destroying its forests).   They brought back to Puerto Ayora, the park headquarters, and the site of the Charles Darwin Research Station.   For years people searched for any remaining Pinta island tortoises -  in 2001, when we wilved in the islands, CNH Tours met up with one team that had proposed to use infra-red, helicopter imaging, on the assumption that after dark, while the land cooled, tortoise bodies, even though cold blooded, would remain hotter for a while and show up.   That didn't work.   Nor did so many other search missions.    So George remained alone, and lonesome.   The extinction of his species took place before he died - as there was no hope for his reproduction.  

We used to live at the Charles Darwin Research Station, just down the short trail to George's pen.   It was sad to learn of his death - we had assumed he would still be there long after our own passing, given that tortoises can live up to 200 years, and he was thought be closer to 100.   But that's life.  

 

Lonesome George in better times

Lonesome George

President Correa readies for tough decisions?

Correa in GPS

Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa is in Galapagos these days.  He's introducing the new president of the Governing Council of Galapagos, outsider Maria Isabel Salvador, who was until this week the Ecuadorian ambassador to the Organization of American States.    Declared a province about 20 years ago, it soon became apparent that with its relatively tiny population, provincial status gave too much importance within national governing bodies to such a small part of the territory.    Provincial status was modified under Correa's new constitution, about 5 years ago, and Galapagos, though still a province in name, is not a province in the way it's governed.   The central government is much more involved now.  CNH Tours believes this is a good thing - we lived there while it was a province, and the provincial politics were a veritable snake pit, and the source of more discord than anything else.

Previous presidents of the governing council have been locals - this is a break in tradition.  "The message was very clear, the government is preparing to make some unpopular decisions," says Reyna Oleas, an ecologist in Puerto Ayora, the islands' biggest town.

On June 1st, Correa declared that the islands faced "multiple problems" from "disorder, a lot of abuse, a lot of anarchy, lack of policies".  Fuel subsidies are being cut, and the total number of cars on the archipelago is to be capped.  

We are trying to determine if the presidential visit will result in any other significant declaration / decision in terms of the conservation of Galapagos (Correa has a pretty good track record so far in supporting fairly rigorous conservation measures and investments) and tourism.  

7 tourists arrested for illegal export of sea cucumbers

Yesterday, the Galapagos National Park Service, with the support of the Environmental Police found a total of 1,313 dried sea cucumbers (20 kilos) within luggage several foreign tourists.  The tourists were immediately arrested.
Rangers performing regular load control and ecological airport luggage inspections at the main airport on Baltra island detected the presence of strange packages within the luggage of seven passengers, mostly Asians.

The species of sea cucumber in question is a protected species worldwide.   It's included in Appendix III of CITES treaty (Convention on International Trade in Wildlife Silvestre). Appendix three implies restrictions in the international trade of this species - they can only be exported with specific permits.  The CITES Convention was signed by more than 160 states and ratified Ecuador in February 1975.

The Galapagos sea cucumber fishery is currently closed.   It opens seasonally, for a few months, depending on the results of population studies and is strictly controlled.   In the 1990's, sea cucumbers were the focus of at times violent confrontations between fishermen, the police and the National Park Service.  CNH Tours Heather Blenkiron was working at the Darwin Station in those days and remembers them well.   The fishery, having been exhausted on the coast in the 1980's drew many illegal fisherman to the Galapagos in the 1990s, eventually leading to the fishing conflicts there.   Over the years, a mutually supported fisheries management protocol was developed, ensuring the sustainability of the catch - even though sea cucumber numbers today are only a fraction of what they were 20 years ago.

Sea cucumbers seized

Celebrity Xpedition – On again… and now off again

First handed down a 45 day revocation of its operating permit in Galapagos on the 23rd of May, the ship, in mid-cruise at the time, was forced to stay at the Baltra island port in Galapagos when it arrived there on the 27th.   However, the company managed to be granted an appeal in the evening of the 26th, and sailed again on the 28th, the new group of passengers having had their departure delayed by a day.   However, the Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS) reported on the 31st  of May that the appeal had been quashed, and that the revocation of the ship's permit was again in place, and enforced.   It seems that the passengers currently on board will once again be the last on the Xpedition for several weeks.

This situation arose after the ship was found to be carrying out-of-season lobsters in its freezers during routine inspections carried out by the GNPS, in contravention of park regulations.   The GNPS successfully argued for the full application of the law and the ship was required to pay a fine, and lost its operations permit, effectively immediately, for 45 days.

CNH Tours applauds the effective application of the law in Galapagos.   We lived and worked in the islands, during the time of the "fishing wars", where violence broke out from time to time over the government's efforts at establishing sustainable fisheries regulations.  A good deal of effort and money went into that process, obtaining information on the ecology of the fisheries, on developing relationships with the fishing community, and together, coming to agreements on regulations.   Advances made should not be lost.   The law must be applied, and more importantly, must be seen to be applied amongst local people, and fishing groups.   Even the largest, most globally connected ships must be subjected to the laws and regulations.  

CNH Tours does suggest that in the future, such infractions be sanctioned in such a way that does not affect travelers though.   Imposing large fines, in proportion to the cost of a 45 day revocation of the operations permit is an option worth considering.  

Falkland Islands gull spotted in Galapagos

The first ever recorded observation of a Dolphin gull (Leucophaeus scoresbii)  was reported by the Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS) this week.  Naturalist guide, Franklin Guaranda announced his sighting, backed up by pictures.   The bird was spotted at Black Turtle Cove, on the north side of Santa Cruz island.  Only accessible by cruise ship, this site is usually visited to see sharks, rays, sea turtles in its shallow waters, and to observe mangrove ecosystems.    

Ornithologists at the Charles Darwin Research station studied the pictures taken by Mr. Guaranda and confirmed the species, also noting that it was the first ever recording of that species in the islands.    The bird normally lives off the coast of Argentina, particularly in the south, and in the Falkland islands, and in Southern Chile. 

This incident illustrates how the wildlife is well monitored in Galapagos.  There are naturalist guides and many avid birders traveling in the archipelago at all times, allowing for credible reporting of rare or unusual species.    The Dolphin gull would certainly have been an unexpected surprise for any birders accompanying Mr. Guaranda that day!

 

Dolphin Gull

Dolphin Gull

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