CNH Tours - Cultural and Natural Heritage Tours Galapagos
Thursday July 4, 2013
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
Friday June 21, 2013
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.
Saturday June 15, 2013
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.
Monday June 3, 2013
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.
Friday May 31, 2013
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!
Monday May 27, 2013
The Galapagos National Park Service announced on 23 May that the the Celebrity Xpedition was judged to have been in breach of the law when, on 11 March of this year, during a regular inspection, Park wardens discovered lobster tails and octopus in their refrigerators at a time when the fishing season for these species was closed - and no ships were allowed to have them, even frozen.
The penalty includes a fine and a 45 day revocation of its operations permit in the islands, applied immediately. This means that guests booked on the Xpedition will have their travel plans serious disrupted. CNH Tours advises anyone having any plans to travel on the Xpedition in the next 7 weeks to contact their travel agent immediately.
The seas around Galapagos are part of the Galapagos Marine Reserve and also a World Heritage site. They are protected against excessive fishing pressures. For this reason, there are clear fishing seasons and catch limits for different species, and clear regulations regarding what can be consumed at what times of year, including even what can be transported.
CNH Tours found this post, on TripAdvisor, today, 26 May:
"Booked our Galapagos cruise with Celebrity almost 12 months ago. We're in Quito now; the four of us, just told late tonight by the cruise line that we will not be on the cruise ship tomorrow. Sat in the lobby for a while, then we went into a small room with 80+ people for a briefing - apparently the delay is a result of a sanction on the ship by the Galapagos National Park. After the briefing, sill no answers to "EXACTLY" if or when we'll be able to go on the cruise. They do not have any answers to compensation or guarantee whether this dream trip of ours will ever happen with the time and money that we have committed. It is hard to determine how they can ever make us whole. Given other recent cruise incidents, it will be interesting to see if Celebrity can rise up, or just sink down with the rest of them."
Galapagos National Park Saff discovering lobser tails on the Celebrity Xpedition, 11 March 2013 (courtesy Galapagos National Park Service).
Friday May 24, 2013
Google… StreetTrail View Comes to Galapagos
The Galapagos National Park service announced today =that those who can't visit the Galapagos just now can still have a great opportunity to "see" what this World Heritage site is all about is, thanks to the alliance of the Galapagos National Park Service, the Charles Darwin Foundation and Google, which for the first time in Ecuador will capture all kinds of 360 degree images along trails.
Park rangers accompanied Google and Darwin Station staff to several visitor sites and seascapes on the islands of San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela, where they captured three types of images for the project - closed environments, terrestrial visitor sites and the seabed. A tour of the Sierra Negra crater Isabela (the 2nd largest volcanic caldera in the world - and often in the clouds…), the North Seymour visitor trail (habitat of bird species such as blue-footed boobies and frigate) and the tortoise breeding centre in San Cristobal.
Tuesday May 21, 2013
The Piper Navajo twin-engine 7
passenger plane was presented to the
authorities in recent days on Isabela Island as an
alternative interisland connectivity, invoking the rather spotty service record of the existing
The plane is owned by Julio Zavala, Galápagos resident naturalist guide, piloted by experienced pilots and managed by Jaime Morales Polit, who has been involved in the aviation business for over 20 years.
It should be noted that there have been several attempts to establish an interisland carrier with regular flights and the longest was EMETEBE, which was led for nearly two decades for its pioneering Jaime Morales Polit. It is unclear if Mr. Polit has left EMETEBE at this point, or if he is co-managing both companies.
Other companies that were operating interisland services in the Galapagos were Arica, whose operations were dashed after his plane crash in December 2004 (no injuries) and Saereo which ceased operations in 2013.
CNH Tours hopes that this will improve the quality and reliability of interisland air service. EMETEBE, no doubt experienced in what it takes to run this business in Galapagos, is considered a bit non-chalant in the way it deals with clients, likely because it has had very little competition.
Friday May 3, 2013
Over the past several months, the Galapagos Marine Reserve has placed about 30 fixed anchor systems (ecological mooring buoys), which can be used by tourist boats visiting sites where they are located.
Mario Villalta, head of Conservation and Marine Ecosystems at the Park Service, notes that this project originated with the "Zero Anchors" project, which tested various systems and materials for five systems subsequently installed in Bartholome Island. After one and a half of use, they proved the effectiveness of these with a significant recovery of the seabed.
Through this initiative, the Park Service is promoting lower impact tourism in the archipelago, aimed at improving the quality of this activity while reducing the impacts caused by traditional mooring system (anchor and chain). One can imagine the impact on the sea floor from dropping anchors, and chains dragging on the bottom, every day all year long, in different places. The new system will result in only a tiny fraction of sea floor impact compared to before.
The Park Service has plans to install a total of 70 fixed anchor systems at 10 sites the marine reserve over the next while. An added benefit will be "no more noise" from an anchor being dropped or raised in the middle of the night. Keep an eye out for an anchoring buoy near you!
Tuesday April 16, 2013
This 16 passenger day outing ship burned up last weekend just off Las Bachas beach, on the north end of Santa Cruz island. Despite a rapid response from nearby ships, they were not able to control the fire and the ship was completely destroyed. Nobody was hurt. The Genovesa had just been refurbished in 2012. If you had any plans to use this ship in the coming days/weeks, we suggest you revisit them.
Genovesa burning up off Las Bachas beach. Photo credit: Ivan Lopez, Wreck Bay Diving
Monday April 15, 2013
Yesterday (Sunday) at approximately 14h00, two rangers of the Galapagos National Park Service, part of the search team looking for a tourist considered lost since the previous day, found the body of Thomas Berman who had arrived in Galapagos the previous Tuesday. The body was located about 118 meters from the path leading to the "Las Grietas" visitor site, near the main town of Puerto Ayora.
A group of 13 rangers, with the support of local fire department, had intensified the search in the morning, expanding the search area. On top that, a National Park boat searched shorelines nearby.
78 year old Mr. Berman, a British-Israeli national was reported missing by the tour operator who had sold him a trip to Isabela Island, which was scheduled to depart at 14h00 on Satureday - but Mr. Berman did not show up. Staff of the hotel where he was staying confirmed that on Saturday, Mr. Berman had left the hotel indicating he was going to Las Grietas, and intended on returning for the trip to Isabela. The hotel surveillance cameras confirm that at 10:28 he left the hotel with a small backpack and a camera. It was based on this information, that the Park proceeded to organize the search party.
Unfortunately, accidents do happen. Mr. Berman was smart in having informed the hotel of his plans - otherwise, the park would not have known where to search. The trail to Las Grietas is fairly well marked, but it's not inconceivable that someone could take a wrong turn and lose their bearings. Heading off on unknown trails on your own is not recommended for exactly this reason. One supposes that Mr. Berman was in good shape and confident in his ability to do the 1.5 mile / 2 km, trail - which does go over moderately rough terrain from time to time, and which is used quite regularly by locals, particularly on a weekend. Still, one would have expected a person to have survived a little more than 24 hours in this area. We suppose that Mr. Berman must have suffered some sort of malaise.
Off the trail hiking in Galapagos is notoriously difficult. Vegetation is dense, the ground can be very uneven on ancient lava flows, and a lot of plants have thorns. Being on the equator, the sun doesn't quite help finding north and south. A very good friend of CNH Tours and an experienced naturalist guide recently recounted his harrowing tale just in February, having lost bearings when accompanying a scientist in the field. It took them all day to find their way out. Tourist and locals are reported lost fairly frequently. Sometimes they make it back, sometimes their remains are found much later.
Friday March 29, 2013
The Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment reported yesterday from
Galapagos that it launched the tender for the granting of Tourist
Activity Operators' licenses in the park.
A total of 31 licenses will be granted as follows:
Scuba diving - day trips: 5 in Santa Cruz, 8 in San Cristobal, and 2 for Villamil on Isabela.
Bay tours: 4 in Santa Cruz, 6 in San Cristobal and 6 in Villamil.
CNH Tours is always very pleased to see the government authorities establishing order in the tourism sector of Galapagos. While cruise ship tourism has been highly regulated for many years, land based tourism has been a bit of a free for all. Until the mid to late 1990's, the vast majority of visitors to Galapagos did a cruise ship visit, leaving only a very small land based sector. But as demand grew and as the government kept a lid on the expansion on the number of cruise ships allowed to operate in the islands (over environmental conservation and visitor experience quality concerns), and as cruise ship prices rose, there has been a very rapid expansion of land based visitors to the islands. This happened before the authorities could implement any measures to control the proliferation and quality of services.
Yesterday's announcement is part of the effort to ensure that visitors to Galapagos will be well taken care of, that safety measures are in place and that all service providers operate from the same, level playing field. This complements the Ministry of Tourism's OK Galapagos campaign, which provides the "OK Galapagos" label to all tourism service providers that operate according to regulations. CNH Tours always encourages visitors to patronize legal and licensed service providers in Galapagos (e.g. hotels, bay tours, inter-island transport operators) to ensure that the tourism industry in the islands grows in a sustainable, safe way.
Thursday March 28, 2013
CNH Tours is relaying information that it has just received - from Monday 25th March, the new passenger terminal on Baltra Island in the Galápagos was fully operational for both arriving and departing passengers. It had been operational for only arriving passengers for several weeks prior to that.
Though touted as an improvement to travel to and from the islands, having recently used the airport 2 weeks ago, CNH Tours is sorely disappointed in the overall look and layout. While the previous airport was indeed reaching its limit in terms of passenger capacity (it was built a good 20 years ago, when there were just 4-5 flights a week arriving to Baltra, and now there are up to 6 a day...), it was at least built with mostly local materials, and fit right into the landscape as best an airport terminal could.
The new behemoth is at least 4 times the height of the old one, and built with large white panels, and filled with pipes and wiring - looking more like an manufacturing plant out of a Monty Python cartoon, than an airport terminal (at least when we saw it in early March - perhaps some aesthetic touches still remained to be completed). It is even equippred with sprinklers in case there are fires - dangling from the rafters above - but frankly, beyond the Panama hats many visitors are donning, one is hard pressed to find any flammable material in sight. And another thing - despite having an area of about 3 football fields, the toilets are tiny!
Oh well, such is progress we suppose. To add insult to injury, visitors will have to pay a $26 tax to use the airport. This will be automatically added to the price of your plane ticket (if bought after April 4th - otherwise you will be charged at the check-in counter).
Old Baltra Airport below - built with local and natural materials - lava rocks, wood... a realy homey feeling!
Tuesday March 26, 2013
CNH Tours has been informed that local authorities in Puerto Villamil, Isabela Island, started charging a new tax / landing fee of 20 US dollars effective today.
This new fee will serve to ensure the maintenance of the town's main landing docks, where tourists disembark from cruise ships, day tours and inter-island trips. The docks also serve as moorage for smaller fishing boats and other working vessels.
It is not clear how visitors will be expected to pay - whether this will be incorporated into cruise prices, or other transport service prices, or if you'll have to pay $20 in cash upon arrival. Only time will tell.
The rates are $20 for foreigners, $10 for Ecuadorians and $2 for Galapagos residents if on a day tour or a cruise, and $5 for foreigners, $2 for Ecuadorians and $1 for Galapagos residents if just using the docks for inter-island transport, or work related purposes.
Though we understand the need to have users pay for the upkeep of facilities, CNH Tours is starting to wonder over how far this will go. The Park fee is $100, the tourist card fee is $10, there is a new aiport tax of $24 in Quito... We suggest that the Galapagos authorities arrange for the unification of Galapagos related taxes and fees so that visitors do not feel they are being asked, every time they move, to pay yet another tax. This will have (and may already have had) and dampening effect on visitation to the islands.
Tuesday February 19, 2013
Economist and US educated Rafael Correa was re-elected as president of Ecuador over the weekend in the first round of presidential voting - indicating widespread support from Ecuadoreans. He first came to power in 2007, then basically strong armed a constitutional review, which allowed him to present his candidacy for the 2009 elections (he won) and now again in 2013.
CNH Tours has been following Ecuadorian politics (in no great depth admittedly, but following nonetheless - and we're sure some of our friends in the islands will disagree with us!) since 1998, when we first moved to Galapagos. During our first four years there, we got to see at least 5 presidents (at one point, there were 3 joint presidents!), many ministers of the environment, massive inflation, a run on the banks and the abandonment of the national currency for the US$. The 3-4 years after we left in 2002, the Galapagos National Park Service had a revolving door directorship, with 13 directors or interim directors in 3 years.
Since Correa came along in 2007, things have calmed down tremendously, both in the country and in Galapagos. One of the first moves we took note of under the Correa administration was the ending of fuel subsidy cheating for cruise ships. Fuel in Galapagos was subsidized, but this was for fishing boats. Under the lax regimes prior to Correa, many ships somehow managed to get access to fishing boat fuel subsidies - essentially resulting in the poor taxpayers of Ecuador subsidizing profits of the ship owners, and lower cruise prices for international visitors. No more - and that's a good thing.
The new constitution of Ecuador also removed the "Provincial" status for Galapagos. This small territory, with a population of under 30,000, had the same constitutional status as other mainland provinces, with populations of up to 3 million people. This had led to completely warped politics in the islands, with plenty of destructive in-fighting amongst small minded politicians, who exploited various interest groups to make a name for themselves. Things have been quiet in the islands over the past several years - that's good for local residents and good for visitors. Galapagos is now managed by a governing council, comprised of national administration and local representatives. This seems to be working.
CNH Tours had the pleasure to have known the minister of environment under Correa, Marcel Aguiñaga, who was a tough cookie and did her job well. She was a colleague of ours ' when we worked at the Charles Darwin Research Station, she was the legal advisor with the Galapagos National Park Service. She resigned from her ministerial post last November to present herself as a candidate for the National Assembly in this election - and we note that she was duly elected.
Correa has invested a good deal of the country's oil revenues in infrastructure and services (sometimes via massive advance selling of oil to China). Roads have been built, teachers hired. In Galapagos, a modern hospital will be built for the first time. All this isn't to say that Correa is perfect - his relationship with the press is worrying - he has bullied owners of newspapers and television stations into submission, or forced them to sell their businesses. It is ironic that while his administration has brought in measures to ensure that government is more transparent on the one hand, he is making life more difficult for the press to verify that.
But given the choice between Correa and the previous administrations we've known to have run Ecuador, we will stand with Correa. He has been better for Ecuadorians in general, and better for Galapagos.
Saturday February 16, 2013
Comet PanSTARRS will be making a (modest) showing mid-March, just after sunset, low on the western horizon. It's worth making a special effort to spotting it. It may be hard to see with the naked eye, as there will be the glow of dusk to mask it. That's why looking for it on the Equator, at sea, gives you the best viewing potential. Binoculars will help tremendously though!
Wednesday February 6, 2013
German national Dirk Bender, 32, finally got his just desserts. He was sentenced to 4 years in prison (the maximum penalty) on Monday this week, after having been found guilty of attempting to smuggle out very rare and endemic Land Iguanas from Galapagos last July. He has been held in pre-trial custody in Galapagos since then, but will now be moved to Guayaquil to satisfy the judgment. His time already spent in custody will be deducted from the sentence, meaning he's looking at a July 2016 release from prison.
Mr. Bender had been caught doing the same thing in Fiji in 2011, trying to smuggle local reptiles out of that country. One wonders how many times he has been successful in doing so at other places. Clearly, the Fiji experience did not discourage him from continuing this abhorrent practice. CNH Tours hopes that Ecuador's environmental justice will be more successful, and congratulates the lawyers and judges involved in applying a law that too often is disregarded or considered unimportant.
The illegal trade of protected species around the world contributes to the decline in population numbers for many rare plants and animals. Most of these die while being smuggled, but the practice continues. These species are best observed where they live, not in people's homes as conversation pieces.
For more information on illegal wildlife trade, consult TRAFFIC (The Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network - www.traffic.org).
Below: Dirk Bender goes to trial on Monday, February 4th, 2013
Below,, the CNH Tours "Picture of the Year', the moment Dirk Bender gets caught by the authorities, in July 2012:
Saturday February 2, 2013
According to the latest information available from Quiport, the company charged with operating the new Quito airport, operations are finally set to start on 20 February. They were supposed to start last year, but for various reasons, the opening has been delayed. CNH Tours feels confident that this time, the start date will be honoured.
The new airport is quite a bit further away from downtown Quito - you will need to plan for a transfer time of between 1 and 1.5 hours, depending on traffic, according to Quiport. Though an express road is planned between the airport, which is down in a valley, to Quito, which is up higher, it is not yet completed.
Quiport also notes that all flights to and from Quito in the evening of the 19th of February will be cancelled and indicate that airlines have already planned around that closure. If by chance you a scheduled to be flying into Quito in the late afternoon or evening of the 19th, please double check with your agent.
Saturday February 2, 2013
On Sunday 17th February Ecuadorians will head to the polls for presidential and legislative elections. A "dry law" goes into effect from midday on Friday 15th February until midday on Monday 18th. This measure prohibits businesses in Ecuador from selling alcohol during this period.
This ban does not apply to people on board ships, but does apply to everyone else.
Thursday January 24, 2013
A new hospital is being built in Galapagos, in the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal Island. This is the capital town (not quite city!) of Galapagos, though smaller by far than the main tourist town of Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz island.
The US$8.1M investment will lead to a new and modern facility, part of the government's plan to improve health services in the islands. Last year, it spent US$5million on equipment and personnel.
Of particular importance to tourists on ships in remote locations, there is now a Navy operated Bell-430 helicopter that is available for emergency evacuations, in operation since last August. It has already carried out 48 missions (38 interisland emergency evacuations, 5 rescues at sea and the transport of 5 medical teams to attend to emergencies in situ).