Galapagos News

Mild earthquake(s) in Quito area

The U.S. Geological Survey said the moderate quake was only 4.8 miles (7.7 km) deep, with its epicenter located 14 miles northeast of Quito.  Striking at 2:58PM on Tuesday, 12 August, the 5.1 magnitude quake was widely felt, but caused only minor damage.  Two people died, one working in an illegal quarry, and a boy who was killed by falling bags of rice.  The airport was closed for a short time, so that the authorities could be sure the infrastructure was in good working order.  Three other smaller earthquakes struck during the course of the afternoon.  There is no reason for concern on the part of anyone traveling to Ecuador via Quito.

Picture: Dust rising from the hills surrounding Quito following the earthquake.

Earthquake in Quito

Darwin Station Director proposes ambitious infrastructure plan

Sven Lorenz, the young, dynamic director (and CNH Tours friend) of the Charles Darwin Foundation and its Research Station (CDF) announced today his "EXTREMELY ambitious" infrastructure projects for the CDF.  According to Lorenz,  if realised, the plans "will have a transformative effect on the organisation but also on science, conservation and education in Galapagos. Benefits for the bio-diversity of Galapagos, for Ecuador as a nation as well as the local community, and with effects to be felt for the next 50-100 years."

He also explained that as I side-effect, it will would to the CDF becoming financially sustainable, for the first time in its five decades of operation.

To have a look for yourself, please see his 15 page “State of the Union” mid-year letter to the CDF General Assembly: (English).   For those who want to know more, you can consult his 46 page Powerpoint presentation just about potential infrastructure projects:

He is inviting feedback - if anyone out there would like to have their "2 cents' worth", please send your comments to CNH Tours and we'll forward them.



Grounded ship sunk outside the marine reserve

This is the final chapter of the ill-fated journey of the cargo ship Galapaface - which struck bottom near Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal island in early May.  Against many odds, it was laboriously refloated, environmental damage was reported to be very minor, and it was towed to deep waters earlier this week.   The final solution, to sink it in 2,500 metres of water, took place 32 km (20 miles) outside the boundaries of the Galapagos Marine Reserve yesterday.  About as good as you can expect for the outcome of this accident.

Galapaface sunk


Grounded cargo ship is re-floated and towed away

Defying all my expectations, the Ecuadorian authorities succeeded in re-floating the grounded cargo ship "Galapaface" (what a name...??) yesterday.  This ship ran aground off of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno in early May.   Back in 2001, the Jessica, a fuel ship, ran aground at nearly the same place, dumping quite a bit of bunker oil into the sea and eventually falling to pieces due to the constant pounding of waves.  I had anticipated that this would be the fate of the Galapaface - but no, it appears that the national authorities have developed the capacity to salvage such ships.  This is very good news for all (including the ship insurance company I suppose!).   The Galapaface was salvaged with very minor environmental impacts.  Bravo Ecuador!

Galapaface being refloated and taken away, off San Cristobal Island, with the typical "Garua" season low cloud cover over the island. See Kicker Rock - Leon Dormido island in the background, just above the the Galapaface bow.  (courtesy Galapagos National Park Service)



CNH Tours is the first Darwin Foundation "benefactor"

We donated $1,000 today to the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF)  in the framework of its partnership with the International Watch Company (IWC).   The IWC has been an important private sector support of the CDF for a few years now, helping ensure the conservatoin of the marine reserve in particular.   CNH Tours sent over 300 people to the Galapagos in 2013, and is always looking for ways to support the conservation of the place our business depends on.   We are also members of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association, which provices financial and policy support to Galapagos conservation.    We encourage other tour companies to follow in our footsteps! 

You can also support the CDF through the campaing - see:





Sea Shepherd sniffer dogs on patrol in Galapagos

CNH Tours friend Hugo Echeverria, the legal advisor to the globally active marine conservation NGO "Sea Shepherd", recently informed us of the renewal of his organization's official (via signed agreement with the government of Ecuador) role in support of the Galapagos sniffer dog programme.    The "K9" (acronym for canine) dog team is trained to sniff out wildlife traffickers, and is an important deterrent in keeping people from trafficking in species and animal parts (e.g. live iguanas, shark fins, sea cucumbers, sea horses etc...).  

CNH Tours once had a one-on-one dinner with the Sea Shepherd Society founder, Paul Watson (one of the original founders of Greenpeace).   He is quite a character - and his dogged (no pun intended) determination to see (no pun intended) real conservation action in the marine world is second to none.   Sea Shepherd has been active in Galapagos for nearly 15 years and during this time, it has helped the Galapagos National Park Service achieve many conservation benchmarks.  They deserve our support.   For more information, see:

For information on Paul Watson's adventures over the years, see the film made about them:


Galapagos K9 Police Unit with sniffer dog (credit:  Cabo Marlon Valle, UPMA)

Sniffer Dog





Military inspections at Baltra airport

CNH Tours friend, and director of the Charles Darwin Research Station Swen Lorenz reported on Facebook yesterday:

"Military checks for passengers arriving in Galapagos today. All male passengers were rounded up on a barren stretch of Baltra Island, the women were allowed to stay on the bus. The military was extremely polite and the troop leader spoke fluent English. Quite the experience, but foreign visitors were still a bit puzzled by it all."

No word yet on the why and how long this may go on.  Some have commented that polite nature of the exercise made it more pleasant than passing through Miami or Los Angeles International airports!   This may have been a one off thing - but we thought we'd share the item to reduce any surprises.

Military check point Baltra 


In New York on September 18th?

I just came across this posting for an upcoming event at the American Museum of Natural History (I had the chance to visit this most wonderful museum only once, and only for 2 hours - but will be back!).

Charles Darwin’s visit to the Galapagos Islands in 1835 helped him decipher evolution by natural selection, the process responsible for the dizzying abundance of species on the planet. Today, hundreds of species go extinct each year. In honor of the Museum’s special exhibition of Lonesome George, the famed Galapagos tortoise that was the last of his species, join us for an in-depth conversation about biodiversity and conservation. Uncover the issues and current environmental initiatives in the Galapagos, and explore the possibilities and perils that lie ahead. The conversation will feature Johannah Barry and Linda Cayot of the Galapagos Conservancy, James Gibbs of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and Arturo Izurieta, director of the Galapagos National Park. The discussion will be moderated by Dr. Eleanor Sterling, chief conservation scientist of the Museum's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation.

Johannah Barry and Linda Cayot are friends of CNH Tours, while Artura Izurieta is an acquaintance.   I'm sure this will be a most fascinating talk.  

For more info, see: 



Virginia opposum intercepted

In a graphic manifestation of the very significant threat posed by the increased movement of people and goods between the mainland and Galapagos, the Galapagos Biosecurity team came across a Virginia opossum yesterday on one of the barges used to transfer goods from mainland supply ships anchored offshore, and Puerto Ayora's docks.  

There are barely any mammals in the islands because they simply could not make the journey from the mainland unassisted.   Only rats and bats ever made it - rats likely surviving on an unsually large mat of of vegetation.  The rats evolved over thousands and thousands of years to become an endemic species found only in the islands.  The absence of mammals allowed for the peculiar ecosystem make up we see today - where reptiles dominate the landscape.  Giant turtles replace herds of grass/shrub eating mammals in this ecosystem!  There are also lizards, marine and land iguanas. 

The arrival and successful implantation of opossums could have devastating effects on native wildlife - typically, it's hard to say until it's too late.  CNH Tours applauds the newly etablished capacity in Galapagos that allows for the interception of such potentially harmful new arrivals.

The threat remains very real though, and the increased population of the islands (driven by natural growth rates, but also from immigration, driven by the availability of jobs - many from the rapidly growing land based tourism) results in more and more opportunities for stowaways like the opossum to hitch a ride in the more frequent shipments of goods to the islands.  That's why it's important to support the biosecurity team and to also try to ensure you use / eat locally produced products and foods.  



Cargo ship runs aground

Quito (AFP) - An Ecuadoran freighter ran aground in the Galapagos islands yesterday, but "for the moment" does not pose a threat to the Pacific archipelago's unique environment, the Galapagos National Park said.

The vessel, which ran aground off the island of San Cristobal, is carrying 16,000 gallons (more than 60,000 liters) of fuel oil.

But an inspection "confirmed that the part of the vessel that is on the rocks is distant from the fuel tanks," the park said.

"So for the moment it does not represent an environmental risk," it added.

Authorities, however, were drawing up contingency plans in case of a spill, it said.

The ship's cargo also is being offloaded to make it lighter in hopes that a high tide will lift it off the rocks.

The Ecuadoran-owned island chain, which is located 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from the mainland, is famous for unique flora and fauna studied by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle as he developed his theory of evolution.

CNH Tours adds that his is a near exact repeat of the Jessica shipwreck of January 2001.  That ship eventually broke apart, releasing most of its fuel.   60,000 litres would fill a box 5 metres (16 feet) wide, 5 metres deep, and 2.2 metres high - the size of a modest bedroom.  It seems somes lessons have not been learned.


In San Francisco? Save the date - 12 May

Come and rub shoulders with the conservation stars of the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands.

Our anniversary event in San Francisco, May 12th 2014, will host a unique line-up of Galapagos celebrities, spanning the entire 50 year history of the Charles Darwin Research Station from 1964 to today. One special guest will be Margaret Bowman, widow of Bob Bowman, who was one of the people who got the Charles Darwin Foundation going in the 1950s. Also present will be scientists from the successful Mangrove Finch captive breeding program. There will be guests from other organizations that the CDF works with as well as the CDF’s President and board members. All guests will of course be able to hear a presentation by best-selling author, Dr. Frank Sulloway.

50% of the available tickets are sold already. You can secure a $50 discount off the regular price of $125 per person by using discount code “CDRS50” on our Eventbrite platform:

This is likely to be our ONLY anniversary event in the USA so reserve your places now!

We've sold out again

Back in 2010, CNH Tours was running only 4 "Active Galapagos" charters a year.  We dared to extend that to 12 charters a year in 2011 and to our surprise, they have been selling very well   We are pleased to announce that our 2014 charters just sold out today, except for the remaining Christmas and New Year's trip.   

Tungurahua volcano on mainlaind still active

On 6 of April, we reported that the Tungurahua volcano had started acting up again.  It's still going strong, as you can see from a very nice picture taken yesterday.   Though no threat to Galapagos, the ash plumes could result in some air tranportation inconveniences into and out of Ecuador, and between the mainland and the Galapagos islands.    A heads up. 


Tungurahua 2

Tungurahua volcano on mainland acting up

When flyng into Ecuador - Quito or Guayaquil, there is always a slight risk of flight perturbations due to volcanoes.  The country sits astride the Pacific ring of fire, and volcanic activity is quite common - the tallest volcano is even depicted on the national flag.

This past Friday, Tungurahua volcano, just outside the town of Banos and about 125 km south of Quito, threw up a very high plume of ash and smoke.   These kinds of events may cause some problems with all flights if the winds are blowing in the wrong direction.   

The Galapagos islands are not on the ring of fire, but still are volcanically very active - because they are over a hot spot on the earth's mantle, just like Hawaii.  

I gave birth to my 1st boy in Quito, while the Pichincha volcano, just west of the city, was acting up in ways similar to the Tungurahua (1999).  A few months later, we were flying out of Quito to Canada on holiday, and our flight was delayed by a day or two for the same reason - we still retain the boarding pass that says "Cancelled due to volcano"!




2013 tourism statistics released

The Galapagos National Park Service published its 2013 visitor numbers last week.  The numbers show that  204,295 visitors came to the islands last year (13% increase from 2012), of which 65 % ( 132,119) were foreigners and 35% ( 72,276) were Ecuadorian.   One in four visitors to the islands come from the United States of America (50,393), followed by the UK, Germany, Canada and Australia.

55% of foreign visitors and 27% of Ecuadorian visitors took a cruise (total of about 86,000 people).  The proportion of people taking a cruise is dropping, as cheaper land based options proliferate.

The increased land based visitation is paralleled by an increase in the proportion of 26-35 year olds – typically those who can’t afford to take a cruise.  

Though a land based visit is a cheaper option, CNH Tours continues to believe that only a ship based visit will expose you to what Galapagos is most famous for – unique wildlife, exceptional volcanic landscapes and the feeling that you are at the end of the world.  

CNH Tours is impressed by the Ecuadorian governments continued policy of keeping a lid on any cruise ship capacity increase in the islands.   By doing so, impacts on the islands are limited, and the visitor experience is not marred by excessive numbers of tourists in one same place at one same time.   Land based tourism has been harder to manage – as hotels and self-catering options pop up willy nilly with little oversight.   The government is gradually developing suitable policies in this area now, ensuring that Galapagos will not turn into a run-down wild west type of tourist destination.   

Voted #1 on "Bucket List"

The USA Today Readers' 2014 Choice Awards survey on the ten most common sites on people's "bucket lists" comes up with Galapagos as the #1 site.

Galapagos comes up as #1 on many lists.  Perhaps the most presitigious is UNESCO's World Heritage List.  When UNESCO receives a nomination for a new World Heritage site, it will give it a file number, for administrative purposes.   In 1976, the first ever site to be nominated to this list was, you guessed it, Galapagos.   The latest to be inscribed onto the World Heritage list is Xinjiang Tianshan, in western China.  It's registration number is 1,414!   #2 on the list is the colonial city of Quiito, Ecuador's capital.   So, if you are off to Ecuador, you take advantage of some of the earliest World Heritage sites ever to be recognized.  Others are:

City of Cuenca (#863)

Sangay National Park (#260)

Happy travels!




Strongest signs of an El Nino in 20 years

According to the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, signs are becoming increasingly clear that a strong El Niño may be building up for Galapagos in the coming months.   Not having 100% confidence in NOAA, CNH Tours consulted its good friend Geert Jan Van Ogdednburgh of the Dutch climate team on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  "GJ" has access to all the models and data - and he responded:

"Yes, there is a chance of a big El Niño developing over the summer. The model if the European Weather Centre (ECMWF) has a 50% chance if a once in 30 years or bigger event, 5-10% bigger than 1997. Other models are more conservative. Over the next few months it'll become clearer."

An El Niño will be manifested by very warm and humid air conditions, with very warm waters, and frequent downpours.   These conditions are generally favourable to land animals (good for the newly re-introduced Mangrove Finch chicks - the rarest birds in the world), as there is plenty of food to go around.   But this is terrible for marine ecosystem dependent animals such as sea lions, marine iguanas, sea birds, penguins and flightless cormorants.  The very warm waters chase away all food supplies and these animals face starvation - many of them will die in the months ahead if an El Niño strikes.  

For vistiors, this means very warm waters (forget the wetsuit) and humid conditions.  Be sure your ship or hotel AC is working!   You may see grim sites on visitor trails, dead or dying animals, very thin sea lions etc... but you must understand that this is the cycle of nature  - and these pressures are what drives evolutionary processes.  Of course, some believe that the penguins and cormorants are on the brink of extinction as it is, and too many intensive El Niños will be the end of them. 

El Niño conditions start manifesting themselve in May - June.  Instead of cooling down, the air and sea temperatures keep on warming up.  Typically, these conditions last for a year, with the onset of the following year's cool season (e.g. June 2015) marking the end of things. 


Plastic bags to be phased out

The Ministry of Environment of Ecuador in cooperation with the Galapagos National Park Service  (GNPS) announced over the weekend that it will implement a programme for the reduction use of plastic bags in the archipelago, with the support of different institutions and organizations such as the Governing Council , World Wildlife Fund and the Ministry of Tourism.

In 2011 , the GNPS conducted a study to determine the level of consumption type of plastic bags in the islands, giving it the necessary information  to develop an appropriate bag reduction strategy. 

The study showed that each family consumes about two plastic bags a day , which means a total 4.5 million plastic bags a year .

Neither in the province of Galapagos , or any other part of Ecuador is there a law that prohibits or regulates the use of plastic bags for shopping.   There are only isolated initiatives to promote the use of cloth bags as an alternative to reduce consumption but these have always been voluntary.

With the recent support received from various institutions in the Galapagos, the GNPS will deliver to each of the 6300 families Galapagos a cloth bag for regular purchases , avoiding the consumption of plastic bags . The campaign plan includes broadcast media and environmental education .

In economic terms, if the campaign is effective, this will mean savings of approximately $ 130,000 per year by island merchants – not to mention the reduction in waste, and of course the benefits to the terrestrial and marine environment.

3D Imgaging of Sierra Negra Volcano's "basement"

(from Science Codex)

The Galápagos Islands are home to some of the most active volcanoes in the world, with more than 50 eruptions in the last 200 years. Yet until recently, scientists knew far more about the history of finches, tortoises, and iguanas than of the volcanoes on which these unusual fauna had evolved.

Now research out of the University of Rochester is providing a better picture of the subterranean plumbing system that feeds the Galápagos volcanoes, as well as a major difference with another Pacific Island chain—the Hawaiian Islands. The findings have been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth.

"With a better understanding of what's beneath the volcanoes, we'll now be able to more accurately measure underground activity," said Cynthia Ebinger, a professor of earth and environmental sciences. "That should help us better anticipate earthquakes and eruptions, and mitigate the hazards associated with them."

Ebinger's team, which included Mario Ruiz from the Instituto Geofisico Escuela Politecnica Nacional in Quito, Ecuador, buried 15 seismometers around Sierra Negra, the largest and most active volcano in the Galápagos. The equipment was used to measure the velocity and direction of different sound waves generated by earthquakes as they traveled under Sierra Negra. Since the behavior of the waves varies according to the temperature and types of material they're passing through, the data collected allowed the researchers to construct a 3D image of the plumbing system beneath the volcano, using a technique similar to a CAT-scan.

Five kilometers down is the beginning of a large magma chamber lying partially within old oceanic crust that had been buried by more than 8 km of eruptive rock layers. And the oceanic crust has what appears to be a thick underplating of rock formed when magma that was working its way toward the surface became trapped under the crust and cooled—very much like the processes that occur under the Hawaiian Islands.

The researchers found that the Galápagos had something else in common with the Hawaiian Islands. Their data suggest the presence of a large chamber filled with crystal-mush magma—cooled magma that includes crystallized minerals.

The Galápagos Islands formed from a hotspot of magma located in an oceanic plate—called Nazca—about 600 miles of Ecuador, in a process very similar to how the Hawaiian Islands were created. Magma rising from the hotspot eventually hardened into an island. Then, as the Nazca plate inched its way westward, new islands formed in the same manner, resulting in the present-day Galápagos Archipelago.

While there are several similarities between the two island chains, Ebinger uncovered a major difference. The older volcanos in the Hawaiian Islands are dormant, because they've moved away from the hotspot that provided the source of magma. In the Galápagos, the volcanoes are connected to the same plumbing system. By studying satellite views of the volcanoes, Ebinger and colleagues noticed that, as the magma would sink in one, it would rise in a different volcano—indicating that that some of the youngest volcanoes had magma connections, even if those connections were temporary.

"Not only do we have a better understanding of the physical properties of Sierra Negra," said Ebinger, "we have increased out knowledge of island volcano systems, in general."

3D Sierra Negra

Alien snake discovered on Santa Cruz

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

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

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

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

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

False Coral