Galapagos News

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

Celebrity Xpedition operations permit revoked for 45 days

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."

Lobsters on Xpedition

Galapagos National Park Saff discovering lobser tails on the Celebrity Xpedition, 11 March 2013 (courtesy Galapagos National Park Service).

 

Google… "Trail" View Comes to Galapagos

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.  

Trail View

New Inter-island air service inaugurated

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 company, EMETEBE.

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.

 

AirZav

Low impact anchoring system inaugurated

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!

Buoys

Genovesa day trip ship burns up - no injuries

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

Genovesa burning up

Tourist found dead after wandering off the trail

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. 

 

Tourism Service Providers Licensing Process Underway

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.

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