Galapagos News

Marine Iguanas breathe easy: 2015 El Nino not so bad

The different faces of El Niño

Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, KNMI

(note from CNH Tours: Geert Jan "GJ" van Oldenborgh, of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute -KNMI-, is a dear old friend of ours.   Elementary particle physicist turned climatologist, GJ is a well published climate scientist, and a contributor to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  He graciously accepted our invitation to write a short piece on the current El Niño, and how it compares to the severe one of 1997-98).

Originally, fishermen in northern Peru used the term “El Niño” to denote a seasonal warming of the seawater around Christmas. This reduced the amount of fish and their catches. Later, it was used to describe the warming in years in which it was particularly strong. In the 1950s, the Dutch scientist Berlage realised that these years were often the same years in which it was exceptionally dry on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in Indonesia. This was part of the world-wide “Southern Oscillation”, discovered half a century earlier by scientists searching for patterns in worldwide climate anomalies like droughts and floods.

El Niño and the Southern Oscillation turned out to be two aspects of one climate oscillation, which scientists now call ENSO. Well, almost: the ocean temperature most closely associated with the Southern Oscillation is a warming along the equator of the Pacific Ocean, from the date line eastward. Often this coincides with warming along the coast, but this is not always the case. Unfortunately, the name El Niño came to be used for this warming as well, it caught on more than “Southern Oscillation”. We are therefore stuck with one name for two related, but distinct warming events: along the coast and along the equator. (There is third part of ocean where a warm year is called El Niño, along the coast of Chili, but that is totally unrelated to these two and I will ignore it.)

In 1997 El Niño was very strong in both senses. Temperatures near the coast of South America and the Galapagos Island were around four degrees Celsius warmer than normal for months at a time and reached three degrees above normal along the equator towards the date line. The coastal El Niño had large negative impacts on the sea life in the region, with the fish disappearing and larger animals struggling to survive. The islands and coast also got much more rain than normal. The heating along the equator caused worldwide disruptions of the weather, such as severe drought in Indonesia with huge forest fires.

The smaller El Niño of 2010 was very different, as there was virtually no warming along the coast, only far out in the ocean. It had worldwide effects, but for the Galapagos Islands and the coasts of Ecuador and northern Peru it did not exist. In contrast, in the summer of 2014 there was a coastal El Niño that did not extend to the ocean at large.

This year, 2015, the equatorial Pacific is at the same temperature as in 1997, and similar worldwide effects are developing or forecast. However, the coastal warming of seawater is less intense than it was 18 years ago, with temperatures only two to three degrees Celsius above normal so far. We therefore expect the local effects on the Galapagos Islands and the coast of Ecuador and northern Peru to be less severe than in 1997/1998.


Figures: maps of the deviations of sea surface temperature from normal in September 1997 and 2015. Source NCEP/NOAA.

(note from CNH Tours:  The Galapagos islands can be spotted in the deepest red zone in the 1997 map below, and in a much less intense yellowish zone in the 2015 map)





Naturalist Guides Course: View from the inside

CNH Tours has contracted Paula Tagle, a naturalist guide and budding journalist, to produce monthly news items for us.  We've asked her to write about topics that might interest future visitors to the islands.   This month, she writes about the refresher naturalist guides' course she recently attended in the mainland city of Guayaquil.

Every two years the Galapagos naturalist guides attend a course to renew their licenses. It’s a happy occasion to meet old friends, and remember the days when “The Encantadas” seemed to be a pretty manageable archipelago.

However, as daily presentations by scientists are made at the guides’ course, the observations we have made over the years are corroborated.   For example, at least 11 out of 25 of the land bird species in the islands are in decline. A 2014-2015 bird census took place in 20 previously identified vermillion flycatcher territories on Santa Cruz island, and only 4 nests were found, none having any young birds.  On San Cristobal Island – no evidence of the flycatcher was noted. 

As for the always rare Mangrove Finch, found only in one small (30 hectare / 75 acre) area on the western shores of Isabela Island, there are only between 80 to 100 individuals remaining.  Meanwhile, the Floreana mockingbirds number no more than 500! The causes are: diseases, predation by introduced animals, habitat loss due to land use change in the inhabited islands, and probably the worst, low breeding success due to the introduced fly, Philornis downsi.

Philornis is outpacing the work done by the National Park Service and Charles Darwin Research Station to try to slow down its impacts.  The fly lays its eggs in bird nests, and when hatched, its larvae feed on chicks and nestlings.  Experts claim that the fly is responsible for 69% of the death of mangrove finch fledglings, and 100% of the vermillion flycatcher fledglings of Santa Cruz Island.

But it isn’t all bad news.

Wacho Tapia, former technical director of the Galapagos National Park Service (editor's note: Wacho is a former colleague and good friend of CNH Tours Heather Blenkiron & Marc Patry) lectures about the Galapagos giants. 150 years ago the Santa Fe tortoise became extinct. As part of a feasibility study to restore the Santa Fe ecosystem, Yale University scientists analyzed the DNA of sub fossilized Santa Fe tortoise bones, collected by the California Academy of Science, and learned that it belonged within the genetic group of the Pinta-Española-San Cristobal tortoises.  These results led to the decision to introduce Española Island tortoises to Santa Fe Island.   On June 27th this year, for the first time in 150 years, tortoises once again roamed Santa Fe, as 201 juveniles raised in the National Park Breeding Center were set free.

The Galapagos Science Center has been conducting applied science and has published a total of 30 papers in the last four years. A plethora of studies ranges from the diet of black rats in San Cristobal, to the foraging behavior of sea lions, while genome studies suggest we could be talking about 17 instead of the 14 species of Darwin’s finches.

We watched a video showing how people risk their lives hanging from tall, thin trees to collect the delicate mangrove finch nests.  The Park and the Charles Darwin Research Station have managed to raise 15 birds in 2014 and 8 in 2015, a total of approximately 20% of the world population of mangrove finches.

I perceived a lot of enthusiasm for Patricia Jaramillo’s, Charles Darwin Research Station plan specialist (editor's note: Wacho Tapia’s wife, and another CNH Tours former colleague) presentation about “Galapagos Verde 2050”, a multi-institutional project for ecological restoration and sustainable agriculture. Seedlings of different species have been rooted at South Plaza, Baltra, Floreana and Santa Cruz islands. This is done through techniques that result in a 90% reduction in normal water requirements, while vegetation grows at a faster rate; Opuntias planted in South Plaza develop five times quicker than in normal conditions

Most naturalists were motivated by Patricia and have volunteered for future campaigns. The course has refreshed our awareness about this delicate environment and about the many who work hard for its better future; it’s been inspirational.

We have been reminded that there is only one source, and there is only one solution, and that is us!

Guide Course









Judges go to nature conservation school

A real time, virtual course on the application of the World Heritage Convention designed for prosecutors and judges took place last week, organized by the Galapagos Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the Judicial Council of Ecuador and the UNESCO office in Quito.  

The training targeted judges, prosecutors, public defenders, clerks and police forces responsible for the application of environmental protection laws in Galapagos.  Its objective was to help them better understand the conceptual and practical application of the Convention as a binding legal instrument in support of their work.  The course gave participants the chance to hear the voice of experts in the field, with case studies on how to apply the Convention in the administration of justice.

Spearheaded in large part by the United States, the World Heritage Convention was adopted by the United Nations (UNESCO) in 1972, and Galapagos was the first ever site to have been official recognized as being “World Heritage” in 1978.   Countries that have ratified the convention (191 of them) are legally bound by international treaty to protect the World Heritage sites they submitted to UNESCO for official recognition.   This simple fact gives the legal community in each country a strong tool when trying to prosecute people who have been caught destroying the values for which a World Heritage site is recognized – such as illegal fishermen, or unscrupulous developers, and when national legislation is not necessarily up to the task.

According to Sea Shepherd, this is the first ever such course to have been organized, globally.   

CNH Tours is proud to say that we are good friends with both Dr. Hugo Echeverria, the head of the criminal law project at the Galapagos Sea Shepherd Society office, who spearheaded this initiative, as well as with Alcira Sandoval Ruiz, the culture specialist in charge of World Heritage issues, at the UNESCO office in Quito, which supported it and participated in it. 

Congratulations Hugo and Alcira for this great initiative!  We hope this work can be replicated for the legal protectors of World Heritage sites around the world!

Oct 6-21: Galapagos photo exhibit in Quito

Our old friend (and creator of the CNH Tours website art) Magno Bennett has informed us that on the 6th of October, at the presidential gallery in Quito, a photo exhibit "Galagpos from the Inside", created by Galapagos youth, with the support of Diego Bermeo, will be launched (7PM).   The exhibit will be open to the public, and free of charge, until the 21st of October.   

If you happen to be in Quito during that time, why not go over and have a look?

Foto Event

Former Darwin station director on the role of science

Swen Lorenz, former executive director of the Charles Darwin Foundation, has just penned this piece on the relationship between a scientific institution in Galapagos, conservation, and politics.   This is a good read for people heading to the islands, and wanting to know a little more about the "behind the scenes" politics in the islands.

The original story appears in GKILLCITY, a blog on Ecuadorian current events and can be accessed here:

We reproduce it below:

I worked as Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) from July 2011 to May 2015, representing a cause that I love. The CDF carries out scientific work that is designed to support the long-term conservation of the Galapagos, a place where it has operated the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) since 1964. The organisation does this work under a mandate provided by the Government of Ecuador, and acting as an advisor to governmental agencies, primarily of course the Galapagos National Park. 

CDF is an unusual organisation. Legally domiciled in Belgium, it carries out virtually all of its activities in Ecuador, and employing about 85% Ecuadorian staff. It has a network of 150 scientists from abroad that come to the islands as so-called visiting scientists. The network that has grown over the decades, and its world-famous brand name helps to find and mobilise expertise in instances where the right skill-sets for solving a problem cannot be found in Galapagos or mainland Ecuador. Its international role is reflected in its legal status, with the CDF operating in Ecuador as so-called “International Organisation”, rather than as an “NGO”. Among its founders were the Government of Ecuador, as well as UNESCO, which is the scientific and educational arm of the United Nations.

CDF plays another, possibly less obvious, role that I believe is crucial for the conservation of the Galapagos Islands. It carries information about Galapagos to the world, and creates transparency about what is happening in a group of islands that is important for all of humanity. No other organisation can mobilise quite the same level of attention and credibility when speaking to an international audience about Galapagos, as does the CDF. When the CDF speaks, the world listens.

Following recent changes in Ecuador, however, I am not sure it can continue to live up to its role. Is the CDF still the international observer that the world sees it as and would like it to be, and can it operate in a way that ensures its successful operation as scientific advisor? 

During my tenure, I was known as the world-travelling Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation, the first ever non-scientist to be responsible for the organisation. The biggest part of my work was to drum up additional financial support for conservation-related science in the Galapagos Islands, and I literally had to travel far and wide to find such supporters. I regularly spoke to groups as diverse as school children in England, billionaires in Hong Kong, government officials in Japan, and university professors in the US. To these audiences, I explained and stressed the importance of science and conservation in protecting the Enchanted Islands.

In all of my talks around the planet, I have always praised the Government of Ecuador and the Ecuadorian people. All the current challenges aside, the Galapagos Islands are an incredible success story. In 1959, when Ecuador decided to set aside 97% of the land mass of a major archipelago, it took a decision to prioritise the conservation of the islands over the relentless exploitation of natural resources. Thanks to this landmark decision, the ecosystem of the Galapagos archipelago is in better shape than most any other ecosystem on the inhabited parts of the planet. Ecuador, its past and current governments, as well as its people, has every reason to be proud. I always urged my audiences to visit, but to visit responsibly. 

I, in turn, always took pride in the fact that CDF played a significant role in this success. CDF is the oldest and biggest scientific organisation operating in the islands, and solely focussed on the Galapagos. A few years ago, it had reputational issues, with critics arguing that the organisation was carrying out science for the sake of science, instead of science for conservation. During my time at the helm, I refocused the portfolio of scientific activities of the organization; by 2014, no less than 100% of CDF’s projects directly supported Galapagos conservation priorities as identified by the Government of Ecuador. The foundation does this work with funding made up of donations from the US, Europe, and elsewhere. It has never regularly received Ecuadorian government funding.

For the sake of transparency and informed public debate, scientific research organisations are most effective when their work is available to the public, and when they have the ability share their scientifically grounded facts and opinions on matters relating to their work. The ability for scientific research organisations to find answers to problems, and to contribute positively to the public discourse on matters relating to their work is seriously undermined in a climate of outright censorship, or even in one where intimidation leads to self-censorship.  

Sadly, the CDF of today operates in such a self-censoring environment, where its voice is muted. Strict media publishing regulations and either censorship or self-censoring are virtually daily occurrences. Political interference, and a desire not to upset its host country for concerns over possible administrative repercussions, means that CDF increasingly can no longer freely publish the results of its scientific research and its opinion about what actions should be taken. This has been the case for years, but it worsened during recent times. I was there, and I saw it happen.

During my tenure, no other case illustrates this problem quite as vividly as the fate of Fernanda the Silky Shark.

In 2014, the CDF and several partner organisations, including the Galapagos National Park and OCEARCH, attached satellite tags to sharks in the Galapagos Marine Reserve in order to collect data that helps to better protect the marine reserve. Fernanda, as she was named, was a 7 foot / 215cm adult female shark that belonged to a heavily exploited shark species that is fished in the Eastern Tropical Pacific and is classified by IUCN as “vulnerable”. Sadly, as the satellite tag's data revealed, Fernanda ended up in the fish market of Puerto Ayora —the small town where the Charles Darwin Research Station resides. Fernanda was unfortunately part of the by-catch of fishermen using long-lining, one of the most detrimental methods for fishing because of the large number of unwanted species it catches. 

Is Fernanda the Galapagos' very own case of Cecil the Lion? The world should have learned about the satellite findings, and it should have been used to rally support for the islands, its species, and the organisations working to protect them. Instead, Fernanda's demise led to a lengthy discussion with authorities about whether or not to publish a press release about the story, how to phrase it to not sound “alarmist”, and how to ensure that such news doesn't damage the Galapagos' reputation or affect the number of tourist arrivals. After a delay of four months, one of the organisations residing outside of Ecuador did finally publish the story. CDF, by contrast, stayed quiet (as did the Galapagos National Park Service). Feeling intimidated, CDF effectively self-censored itself by simply never publishing the press release.  

The case of Fernanda is just one example of many such cases in Galapagos where facts have been censored, an important message has been toned down, or doesn't get delivered at all. CDF once had to argue with the authorities over describing the Mangrove Finch as “critically endangered”, which is this exceedingly rare species' official classification in the Endangered Species register of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but which was deemed to sound alarmist. In this matter, following much discussion, the CDF finally went ahead and published the dreaded truth.

Scientific information and the institutional opinion of a non-governmental organisation on matters in which it is mandated to work should never be subject to such restraints and hurdles. Not the least, in this particular case, because no matter what happens in the Galapagos Islands, the world is watching. Galapagos, after all, is no ordinary place.

In 1978, the Galapagos Islands were declared a Natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Not just any World Heritage Site, but the one with registration number 001 – meaning that it was the first ever World Heritage site to be officially recognised. Of all the World Heritage Sites, is there any more iconic than Galapagos? 

The 1972 “Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage”, ratified by 191 countries, is one of the most universally adopted international conventions ever developed. Ecuador is a signatory to the convention, and today has five World Heritage sites within its national boundaries. Having World Heritage status for the Galapagos has been a boon for Ecuador. It helps develop tourism, raise international support, and create awareness.

But World Heritage status comes with obligations. Ecuador must regularly report to UNESCO about the conservation status of Galapagos. Having been inside the system, I had an idea how information fed to UNESCO got “filtered” by the Galapagos National Park. Which, truth be told, is what happens in many countries with World Heritage site inscriptions —it is not altogether surprising that, when asked to report on their conservation efforts, countries tend to paint a rosy picture.

This, however, is one of the many areas where the balancing influence of an independent, strong and confident Charles Darwin Foundation used to come into play. In 2006, the CDF’s reports on conservation matters were shared with UNESCO. These contributed to UNESCO’s annual review of the state of conservation of the World Heritage site, and eventually led to the temporary inscription of Galapagos onto the list of World Heritage sites “in danger” The “danger” list  is a Convention mechanism designed to draw additional national and international support in dealing with acute conservation challenges —it's not a punishment, but a call to action! The CDF’s part in this process is one that, frankly, virtually anyone in the world concerned with Galapagos would want the CDF to play. This is true today, too. IUCN, in its 2014 World Heritage Outlook, highlighted “significant concern” for the well-being of the Galapagos.

During the past few months, the list of reasons for having significant concerns about the future of the islands seems to have grown longer. Following the changes to the Special Law, the Galapagos sea cucumber fisheries in Galapagos were opened again despite technic studies didn’t recommend it, ending a four year moratorium. Galapagos sea cucumbers are officially classified as “endangered” by IUCN, and should not be fished at all. CDF was the organisation everyone expected to speak up, not the least as it carried out much of the original sea cucumber research in the 1990s. But the organisation remained silent. 

One scientist was quoted in an article in Galapagos Digital: “This would deal a blow to a resource that in itself should not be exploited. Even after four years of closure, the fishery should not open even for another 15 years.” 

To no one's surprise, this scientist "wished to remain anonymous". Scientists live in a constant fear of repercussions if they assert inconvenient truths.

The presence of a dedicated, independent NGO makes a critical difference in long-term conservation. The Galapagos needs the long-term commitment of the international community, via the World Heritage Convention, to help with funding and expertise; in turn, the global community wants to be reassured that conservation challenges in this, and in any other World Heritage site, are recognised and reported, so that they can be effectively addressed. After all, why donate funds to support work in the islands if results and conclusions cannot be freely discussed, shared and published? 

CDF is now an organisation that has lost the will even to defend itself against the use of its own brand name by a few roadside vendors that are counterfeiting its products. The photo shows counterfeit products sold in Galapagos, a matter which CDF at the time was not able to pursue further because of the fear of political repercussions and the CDF board's opinion that laws cannot be enforced in Ecuador. Surely the international community wants a self-confident CDF that can stand up to for what is right? Even though there are numerous NGOs based outside of Ecuador that supposedly represent the interests of Galapagos, none of them stand for more than five decades of scientific excellence and are quite as closely related with the fate of Galapagos as the CDF. 

One can be tempted to easily discount my view, for I am now seen by some as a “disgruntled” ex-employee. On May 20th I was fired from my position of Executive Director over the phone, just before boarding a plane to meet billionaire philanthropists from China who wanted to financially support the CDF's efforts to protect the islands. I have not been back to Galapagos since, and have only cursory knowledge of the developments since then. 

Today, the CDF is led by the same person who, when employed as Director of the Galapagos National Park, didn't want “alarmist” news about Fernanda to be published.  It's possible that the new Executive Director, Dr. Arturo Izurieta, finds a way for the CDF to operate with fewer restrictions. However, based on what I experienced in the position at the time, I see a need for increased attention from the outside world.

None of which is to say that the staff and scientists of the CDRS won‘t continue to do an incredibly valuable job. They are the unsung heroes of Galapagos conservation, working under challenging conditions and achieving important results against the odds. 

Other unsung heroes are the many donors of the CDF, who are contributing private money to fill in gaps where government funding isn't available to deal with urgent issues. During my tenure, I had the Park directors turn up at my office asking for help with funding for a diverse number of urgent matters such as gravel for the Park's visitor site, field equipment for its staff, and repair costs for its patrolling boats. Evidently, funding support from the international donor community is still required in Galapagos. The gravel was needed to pretty up an area near the tortoise breeding centre for a high-ranking governmental visit.

Despite all that, does CDF play a vital role in the Galapagos? Of course it does. Conservation in Galapagos needs science to support it. 

Do its hard-working employees contribute as much as they possibly can, even if circumstances are against them? No doubt.

Does the world, including the Ecuadorian public and Ecuador's younger generation, realise how CDF's character, role, and possibilities have changed in recent years? That I very much question.

Let’s imagine for a moment that the CDF didn't exist and had yet to be founded. Would the international community back the establishment of an organisation without anything but iron-clad assurances that it can operate in an environment that fosters critical discussion and unhindered publication of scientific results? The freedom to publish evidence-based information and to express opinions based on scientific research mustn't be limited, or else the CDF as an organisation loses credibility and with it, the ability to raise the necessary funds for its survival.

The perfect opportunity for clarifying these and other points, beckons during the remainder of this year. In February 2016, CDF's current contract to operate in Ecuador expires. It was last extended in 1991, and it will be extended automatically by five years if neither party hands in notice. The latter seems unlikely though, as there is a real need for updating the existing, now quite dated, agreement.

Where the new leadership of CDF will take these negotiations remains to be seen. The only public record of Dr. Izurieta's thinking in this regard dates from late 2014. In his former role as Director of the Galapagos National Park he gave an interview statement to local radio channel, where he essentially called for the gradual transfer of the Charles Darwin Research Station to the Government of Ecuador. The entire interview remains available on the internet using this link (a back-up copy has been stored on this link); listen to the part between 1h 00min 15sec and 1h 03min 10sec.

The role that the CDF’s Board envisions for the organisation, and the future that its General Assembly (as CDF's highest authority) and the Government of Ecuador (as the host of CDF's operational arm, CDRS) see for it, currently remain a mystery for the public. It's also not known if this Board and General Assembly are prepared to take a corrective stance on the censorship-related issues that I point out so critically.

In this moment, all parties involved have a wonderful opportunity to clarify the role CDF should or shouldn’t play, and the use of donations in furthering the organization's mission. It's a clarification that the world is eagerly awaiting. 

For CDF, if it dares to speak its mind, it will be a golden opportunity to state needs, concerns and questions.

Ecuador, in turn, has an opportunity to recognize and embrace the contributions that have helped turn Galapagos into such a success story. All this in the lead-up to the Galapagos’ 40th anniversary as the world's first World Heritage Site —a milestone that is to be celebrated in September 2018. Ahead of the anniversary, the world's eyes will be on Galapagos all the more.

During my four years in Galapagos, I have seen a chaotic, tumultuous, and politicised world. Despite these critical observations and recommendations, which are primarily based on the facts I gathered up to May 2015, I still have confidence that, in the end, both Ecuador and the CDF will successfully address these issues. They have always so done during the more than fifty years of collaboration, and they will hopefully succeed yet again.

- See more at:

Dolphin soup on the Samba...

My son had the wonderful fortune of being invited to join a 2 week photography cruise on the Samba in July.   Among the wonderful photo and video material he brought home, here is his "dolphin soup".  Cruising on a stretch of the Pacific, one of the crew members shouted out "delfines!  Muchos delfines!" and in no time, the Samba was in the midst of a super-pod of dolphins, numbering in the several hundreds.   This is not too unusual in Galapagos - but sadly, you can't expect to see them on each cruise.   "Let's get in there with them!" shouted Juan Manuel Salcedo - the naturalist guide.   In no time, my son had doned a go-pro generously lent to him by one of the other guests, and this is what he captured - Dolphin Soup!

Dolphin Soup



Great media attention

I helped Diana Wegner book a trip on the Samba earlier this year, along with her friends and family.   She wrote this short article for the Vancouver sun - it appeared on Thursday this past week.  After a careful analysis of the new law  to which Diana refer, passed a few months ago, CNH Tours believes the "easing of protections" is actually not the case.  

Vancouver Sun, 4 September 2015 (click here to see original story on the newspaper's website)

Galapagos: A paradise lost in time

UNESCO World Heritage Site in danger as government eases protections

Prickly pear, the spiky backs of iguanas, lava mosaics, sleek sea snakes, patrolling frigate birds, mating boobies looking like dancing clowns, water cities of sea stars, the Southern Cross with its upside-down Big Dipper, a showy Milky Way, the red glow of a volcano. The magic of the Galapagos.

And I had seven days of it, aboard a 78-foot motor-yacht called the Samba, which sailed us through the “southern” Galapagos, visiting 10 islands.

We were seven couples and our guide Nicolas, each with our own tiny cabin below deck, with a crew of six who slept in a cabin in the bow of the boat. They fed us well, helped us in and out of wetsuits and kayaks, and snorkelled with us through schools of myriad fish species, manta rays, and sea turtles gliding like birds. They invited us to join in the play of sea lions, led us into the quiet world of sharks, and sent us off over a metropolis of starfish of every colour and design thick on the ocean floor. We floated through grottos and tunnels filled with both light and darkness.

We woke at five each morning to be ready for Nicolas’ muster bell that meant we should be dinghy-ready. We sat in the wood-panelled dining room drinking coffee and waiting for the signal, having been prepped the night before for either a wet or dry landing. At six we lowered ourselves into dinghies and set out for a walk on one of the beaches that permitted a landing, each island featuring its own unique Galapagos ecology.

Eerie walks over painterly patterns of lava-flow from a century ago, through colonies of albatrosses, blue-footed boobies, frigatebirds, pelicans, flamingos, lava lizards, iguanas, Galapagos sea lions — and the ever-present Galapagos mockingbird.

We were back on the Samba for breakfast at eight, then into a dinghy at 9:30 a.m. for a snorkelling experience. We splashed into the water with Go-Pro cameras at hand, Nicolas leading the way with his camera attached to a selfie stick. For over an hour we swam, silently mesmerized by the exotic life under the sea, returning reluctantly to the world above for lunch, quiet and spellbound.

By two in the afternoon we were in our kayaks for a shoreline tour of sea lions, boobies, marine iguanas, and maybe a glimpse of the endangered Galapagos penguin.

On board by five, we could opt to rest aboard ship or, as most of us chose, a sunset hike up a beach or over the hump of a small island.

Dinner at 6:30 p.m. was spent recounting the day’s wonders, then drifting out onto the deck under darkening skies.

Overnight the captain would steer us to another island or reef.

We weren’t alone. Other boats were also anchored here, some much larger than the Samba. Huge tour ships hung back just outside tiny harbours, spawning dinghy after dinghy of tourists off to a reef or an island.

A National Geographic tour boat twice anchored beside the Samba, its occupants laden with cameras and diving equipment.

The harbour at Puerto Ayora was swarming with visitors who, like us, loaded up on wine and beer at the general store before embarking. So it shouldn’t have surprised us to see so many of them out in the pristine, protected wilderness of the Galapagos — though, once out there, it did.

It made us acutely aware how embedded the fragile Galapagos archipelago is in a busy tourist industry.

Nicolas, who was born and raised on San Cristobal, the most populous island, structured the tour and provided detailed accounts of how each island developed its own ecology and species of life over successive volcanic eruptions. He answered our endless questions, but also shared his anxieties about the rapid pace of tourism and the new disturbing legislation passed in June that could cancel some of the protections of the Galapagos and its diverse, unique species of life.

The legislation eases regulations and leaves it up to local authorities whether or not to apply said regulations, which could lead to the construction of new highrise hotels, the creation of berths for cruise ships, granting oil tankers passage through the islands, fostering undersea oil exploration, and building new airports.

As an oil-rich country, Ecuador has thrived in recent decades. As the price of oil has plummeted, the government is casting about for alternatives to buoy the economy. Now it has set its eyes on the Galapagos.

The islands are on the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger list. Visitors have left more than footprints — there are about 900 introduced plant species in the Galapagos. Oil barons and developers are lurking in the wings, and the river of tourism is turning into a deluge. In 1980 there was 17,445 visitors to the Galapagos; in 2014 there were 214,691.

We pondered these developments just as we thrilled to our experience of the islands. Then, after seven nights on the Samba, we were spirited away, back to the ferry and the Island of Baltra, where the airport resides.

Still wanting to linger under the spell of the Galapagos, we spent a few days in the capital city of Quito. Our Quito visit gave us a chance to decompress from the heady otherworldliness of the Galapagos. Yet every now and then we would sway on our feet, still partly in thrall to the rocking Samba, and, for a moment, we would wait to hear the muster bell.

An app for identifying Galapagos birds

From the Charles Darwin Foundation Facebook page this week:

Have you downloaded the new free app for Galapagos? Did you know you can use it without an internet connection? "BirdsEye Galápagos" has been developed for Apple and Android. This app aids in the monitoring, identification and study of birds in the Galapagos Islands. "BirdsEye Galápagos" gives users interesting facts about the unique avifauna of the archipelago and its conservation efforts. "BirdsEye Galápagos" was developed by Birds in the Hand, LLC along with the CDF and the Galapagos National Park with the support of Galapagos Conservancy. 
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Mainland Cotopaxi volcano erupts - in a minor sort of way

Snow covered Cotopaxi, one of the tallest volcanoes on earth (5,897 m, or 19,347 ft) and the 2nd highest mountain in Ecuador, blew off some steam and ashes this morning, reporst the Ecuadorian Geophysical Institute.   A fine layer of ash fell over surrounding communities - the pictures at the bottom of this ost showing ash on plants and a car were taken early on Thursday AM, 14th August (thanks to Lenin Vilatuña Moya for these).

CNH Tours reported on Cotopaxi's rumblings last month.  It last erupted in the 1940's and has not had a major eruption since 1905.  There are no reasons to believe, at this time, that the eruption will be a source of inconvenience to travellers on their way to Galapagos.   Any trips around Cotopaxi might be affected of course.

UPDATE:  The volcanic ash is causing some inconveniences to airport traffic in Quito.  The airport is not closed, but flights may be delayed.   See picture below for a wonderful view of Cotopaxi today (photo credit:  Roberto Lema Cruz).

Cotopaxi Ash

 AshesAshes 2








Leaping lizards? Mainland iguana in Galapagos

Though it was likely some of the ancestors of this green iguana that ended up stranded on a floating mat of vegetation after some floods, many thousands, perhaps over a million years ago, to make it all the way to Galapagos, but chances are this particulary critter came over the easy way, either on a ship, or by plane.   

It's good that the authorities and the Galapagos people are keyed in enough now to i) recognize non-native species and to ii) do something about it.   The discovery of this lovely green iguana is an indicator of a heightened awareness of the dangers these non-native species present to the ecosystems that Galapagos is so famous for.   

The increasing number of ships / planes / people moving  back and forth between the continent and the archipelago, and between the islands of the archipelago, are removing the "ecological isolation" of the islands.  It is this ecological isolation that was responsible for the development of new species through natural selection over tens and hundreds of thousands of years.   Boats and planes can turn a remote archipelago into amost a piece of the mainland - allowing all kinds of new species to appear on the islands, upsetting the evolutionary processes in place.  

The authorities, with plenty of help from the Charles Darwin Foundation, have been working hard at dealing with this iusse. Visitors to the islands are screened for plants and animals that could harm native ecosystems. So remember, when you are boarding your flight to the islands, leave the green iguana behind. 

Green Iguana



Samba and its guide get wonderful reviews

We're proud and happy - this just posted on TripAdvisor bulletin board for the Galapagos Islands (click here to see it for yourself):

6. Re: TipTop III vs Samba

Samba, Samba, Samba with Juan Manuel Salcedo as your guide. He made our second trip to these islands spectacular and magical. This is where he grew up and he shares his passion for wildlife, conservation, and the ocean. Every island is special and the snorkeling with Juan was out of this world. You won't go wrong with any itinerary in the islands, but you will not know what your trip could have been unless you visit again and experience the difference. I already said this was our second trip here. We were happy with our initial visit and all aspects of it. But, in comparison and looking would maybe be a 5 to the Samba's 10. There is no way, I would consider any other boat or guide in the islands unless Juan is on it. It's that simple, he's the best guide we've had anywhere.
CNH Tours discovered the Samba in 2004 and has been using it ever since for its ACTIVE GALAPAGOS charters, going from 4 charters a year to 16 charters a year - which all sell out.   Word of mouth from previous guests (such as the one who made the comment above), great reviews on the internet is all it takes to fill the Samba on its ACTIVE GALAPAGOS depatures.  Juan Manuel Salcedo (whose family owns the Samba) keeps on pushing us to charter more and more weeks on the Samba - he tells us our "ACTIVE" guests are the most fun of all.  My son, Emile, got back last week from a 14 day cruise aboard the Samba with Juan Manuel - ostensibly as a deckhand!
In the same TripAdvisor thread, another former guest voted (back in 2014) for the ACTIVE GALAPAGOS trip on the Samba:
4. Re: TipTop III vs Samba
We just returned from 8 days on the Samba and had a wonderful experience. We booked through CNH Tours and they reserve the Samba 12-14 weeks per year.

About our Samba experience...The cabins are small, but very comfortable, and we were only in them to change and sleep. The crew was helpful, friendly and welcoming. We went to all of the islands you mentioned, hiking and snorkeling at least once a day, sometimes twice. The food was excellent. We even had fresh caught lobster one night. The chef buys all of the food locally and fishermen bring their fresh catch to the boat while on the tour. 

We saw the Tip Top III on a couple of occasions. It seems like the Samba, at least through CNH, is more active, out earlier and more often. The Samba is an older boat. 

You can't go wrong with the Samba.

Historic sentence imposed on shark fishermen

Translated from “El Universo”, and Ecuadorian newspaper (story from 29 July 2015)

“The captain and 12 crewmen of the vessel Fer Mary I will go to prison for illegal fishing within the Galapagos Marine Reserve, the Galapagos National Park (GNP) announced on Wednesday.

The fishing boat Fer Mary I was captured on July 19, 2011, while conducting fishing operations 20 miles inside the Galapagos Marine Reserve.  Park personnel found 286 thresher sharks, 22 blue sharks, 40 Galapagos sharks and 6 hammerhead sharks in their holds, among other protected species.

The captain was sentenced to two years in prison and each of the crew for one year.  In addition, the ship and attendant skiffs were seized and will later be auctioned.

According to the GNP, this is an historical decision, as it is the in which all violators have been sentenced.” 

CNH Tours friend, Hugo Echeverria, a Galapagos based environmental law expert – states “the decision is the culmination of 4 years of hard work, with support from many people in Galapagos”.

CNH Tours is extremely pleased at the outcome of this effort.   So much money is spent in protecting the marine reserve – outfitting and managing ships is a very costly affair – and previous decisions had been weak, and not very effective as disincentives to illegal fishing.  This decision will raise the stakes in the risky game carried out by unscrupulous captains of fishing vessels, and their crews.  Bravo!


Fer Mary


Mainland volcano spewing clouds of gas

Cotopaxi volcano, the tallest of the many volcanos running up and down the Andean mountains of Ecuador, has been emitting large clouds of gas over the past several days.  Located only 80 km (50 miles) south of Quito, it is the second highest summit in the country, reaching a height of 5,897 m (19,347 ft) and considered one of the highest volcanoes in the world.   On a clear day, it is easily visible from many downtown Quito vantage points.   Seismologists consider the activity level as “low to moderate”. 

This active volcano has erupted many times in recorded history, with an average of 1 eruption every 20 years, though the last major eruption was over 110 years ago.   CNH Tours has found no report on previous eruptions significantly affecting Quito – so it would appear that risks to eventual trip to Galapagos, transiting via Quito, are quite low.  

Cotopaxi National Park is a popular day trip from Quito – with many visitors hiking in the high altitude plains and foothills.   It is likely that any such trips in the near future may be cancelled. 

Cotopaxi Volcano


Protests in Ecuador last night

(from Euronews)

Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets across Ecuador. This is the third week of protests; people are angry about new tax legislation tabled by the government of President Rafael Correa.

Bills have been introduced to raise taxes on inheritance and capital gains. This has hit hard in Ecuador, where 95 percent of businesses are family-owned.

The reform is currently being debated in Ecuador’s National Assembly.

In Guayaquil, the city’s mayor told the crowd that Ecuador is going through a difficult time, both politically and ideologically. Describing the situation as a “class war”, Jaime Nebot accused the government of dividing the country, following the same path as the government of Venezuela.

After eight years in power, Rafael Correa says the protests are aimed at destabilising his government. With an economy based on high oil prices, the Ecuadorian government has had to introduce a series of measures to counter a 50% decline in revenue.

The president says the new laws will create greater equality.

(from CNH Tours)

The protests in Quito caused delays to those wishing to move around the city, as reported by our travel agent friend there.   The protests have been facilitated by a growing opposition to the president's desire for a constitutional changed which would allow him to sit for a third term.  

We have heard of no significant impact on visitors to Ecuador. 

For more interesting background on Ecuador, its economy, dollarization, and where things are thought to be headed, see this: 


Meeting with UK Galapagos Conservation Trust CEO

CNH Tours has been on the road recently, passing through London earlier this month.  We took advantage of our visit to invite Ian Dunn, CEO of the Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT), for lunch at a Spanish tapas restaurant on Great Portland Street.  It was a sunny day, and Ian joined us with his colleague, Leah Jones for a light meal and a great conversation.

The GCT has been around for many years, certainly well before we first arrived in Galapagos, back in 1998.   It helps raise funds for conservation work in the islands, focusing on science, education and culture.    The GCT is quite a dynamic organization, also organizing events in the UK and fund-raising cruises in the islands.  

Our lunch meeting was very interesting - and we are following-up with some mutual cooperation on improvements to information sharing with each other, and with CNH Tours guests.  

GCT runs a monthly newsletter - no better way than to keep informed about what's going on in the islands.  For more information, see: 

Petition against hotel development in park lands

Galapagos residents have been growing increasingly alarmed by plans for luxury hotels and golf courses in the islands - expressing concern over the transformation of Galapagos into another Hawaii.   CNH Tours notes that 50% of all Hawaiian bird species became extinct since the first arrival of humans about 1,500 years ago, and agrees that the same fate awaits Galapagos species unless strict measures are applied.

Click here to see the petition requesting that the site be placed on the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger list - this would raise the profile of the issue with national and international governments.



Social rumblings in the islands

Over the past 2 years, the government of Ecuador has been reviewing the Special Law for Galapagos (SLG) - a law originally passed in 1998, which gives the islands and its residents special status, and providing a legal framework that overrides the national constitution, in an effort to better control development there.   It has been considered a major achievement even at the international level.

The revised law, passed earlier this week, loosens some of these controls, making large investments in high end hotels easier, as well as making easier the changing of the boundaries of the National Park.    Moreover, the "remote" status of the islands, which translated into a type of salary bonus for public employees there, is being revised in such a way as to reduce the isolation bonus they have been enjoying for nearly 20 years now.  

As a result of these and other changes, people in Galapagos have been demonstrating against the Quito government in recent days.  Sure, a good number are simply concerned over the risk to their pay scales - but others are concerned about the erosion of environmental protection guarantees.  

The government, in response, has sent in more police to the islands, protecting gas stations and the like.   There have been some public demonstrations and some stand-offs with police forces - but no violence has been reported.  

CNH Tours is of course very concerned that increased development in the islands (largely driven by land based tourism - as ship based tourism has been remarkably capped for 15-20 years) will contribute to the erosion of the values for which they are internationally recognized.  

For those of you visiting the islands in the coming days (perhaps weeks), if you are taking "just the cruise" with no land component, you will likely not even notice any of this.   For those of you planning on spending time in town (particularly in San Cristobal), you may get to witness interesting moments.   While you may want to stay out of the thick of things, these are interesting moments when society seeks to get a message across to a government based in a far away capital. 


History is made - shark fishermen found guilty!

This may sound banal to some, but in Galapagos, it is a landmark legal decision announced by the Galapagos National Park Service yesterday.   For the first in history, despite the existence of a legal framework allowing it, the captain and the crew of the fishing vessel Fer Mary I were found criminally guilty of conducting illegal fishing of protected species inside the Galapagos Marine Reserve – a World Heritage site. 

It took 4 years of intense criminal proceedings by the Galapagos National Park, the Ministry of Environment to reach this judgment.   The 10 hour trial resulted in convictions against the defendants, creating very important judicial precedents under criminal law. 

The fishing boat Fer Mary I was captured on July 19, 2011, while conducting fishing operations 20 miles inside the Galapagos Marine Reserve.  When captured, their holds contained more than 357 sharks, more specifically: 286 thresher sharks, 22 blue sharks,  40 Galapagos sharks, 6 hammerhead sharks, 2 tiger sharks and 1 mako shark.

CNH Tours is extremely pleased at this outcome.  For too long, the judicial system would dismiss such cases, mostly out of a lack of importance attached to environmental crimes.    This really does mark a change in the way Ecuador handles such crimes, and we expect illegal fisherman will take note.    It is a good day for shark in Galapagos waters.

Sharks are illegally fished all over the world to feed the large shark Asian (mostly Chinese) shark fin market.  Shark fins are used to make “shark fin soup”.   What a tragedy that these magnificent animals are being annihilated so that we may have some soup. 


Fer Mary

My husband joins the CNH Tours team!

I’m very pleased to announce that as of today, my dear husband, Marc Patry, will be joining me at CNH Tours.   After over 12 years working with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and seeing how I’m getting too busy to cope with all the work,  he decided to make the switch.  


Marc was actually the one who started CNH Tours, having organized trips to the Yucatan, Patagonia and to the Monarch Butterfly reserves of Mexico while working for an international community forestry NGO.   When we moved to the Galapagos, he decided to strike out on his own, and as a side activity, he organized a first cruise there for friends, and another for those who had joined him on earlier trips.  His main job was with the Charles Darwin Research Station, where he helped develop and start up the largest ever conservation project in the islands - the eradication of goats from Isabela Island. He worked closely with the Galapagos National Park Service as well.   Marc was also involved in managing several other conservation projects, and helped with the management of the Research Station.


We left Galapagos for Paris (UNESCO headquarters) where Marc was given the responsibility for natural World Heritage sites in Latin America and the Caribbean - which included the Galapagos Islands.  At that point, he had to hand over CNH Tours to me.  For over 10 years, Marc closely monitored the conservation status of the islands, and engaged with senior government officials, conservation organizations, the tourism industry, local politicians and other stakeholders in so doing. He has had several meetings with various ministers of the environment, and he once even had a private meeting with the president of Ecuador to discuss World Heritage issues.


Marc’s position allowed him to travel to Galapagos on several occasions and to be taken around the islands as the United Nations representative for monitoring the islands’ state of conservation.  He was also responsible for reporting in person to the intergovernmental World Heritage Committee on what he saw.

This has given Marc a unique perspective and access to a wide variety of sources regarding the on-going efforts at addressing conservation challenges.  He has frequently been asked to speak to the media, from The Economist, to Al Jazeera, on matters relating to Galapagos. 

Update:  As of 2019, Marc sits on the following boards of directors:

  • The International Galapagos Tour Operators' Association
  • The Travel Industry Council of Ontario
  • The Charles Darwin Foundation (as a governing member of the General Assembly)

With Marc at my side, I’ll be able to breathe a bit easier, and we hope to provide even better service than we have so far. 

Spectacular eruption on Wolf Volcano

We've just received news of a volcanic eruption at Wolf Volcano, the northernmost volcano on Isabela Island (the largest island).

Wolf is also the highest peak in the Galapagos archipelago, at 1,707 meters (5,600 feet).   A rare pink land iguana lives there - surely they will be affected, as will the Wolf Volcano tortoises.  But that's part of the equation in Galapagos - these islands were born of fire and continue to grow by fire. 

Isabela Island and its neighbour to the west, Fernandina island, remain volcanically active, and such eruptions happen every 5-6 years.  They generally are quite impressive for the first few days, then taper off quickly, and ending 7-10 days later.   For those happening to be on a ship nearby, it is a spectacle you'll remember for the rest of your life. 

The picture below (by naturalist guide Diego Paredes) was just posted on Facebook - it could be just a few hours old - the time remains to be confirmed. 

Wolf Volcano Eruption