Galapagos News

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

Longline fishing vessels detained in Marine Reserve

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

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

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


Location of captured boats:


Original transportation ideas...

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

Tortoise ATV

Park Service cancels scuba diving ship permits

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

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

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


GNPS Park boats

"Young Darwin" Statue commissioned for the Station

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


Danny Devito going to Galapagos

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

Here's a news item we came across today:

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

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

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

Flightless cormorant threatened by climate change


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Soccer Game

Park staff confiscate thousands of poached sea cucumbers

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

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

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

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


Sea cucuber bags

Sick and Dead Marine Iguanas Raising Concerns

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

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

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

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


Galapagos National Park staff monitoring marine iguanas at Tortuga Bay

Sick Marine Iguanas

New Park Director Named

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

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