Going green in the Galapagos
Travelling to the Galapagos need not mean a guilt trip. There are environmental issues to consider, but your cruise around these equatorial islands to view the stunning array of wildlife will do far more good than harm. By Nick Smith
There can’t be a single traveller who doesn’t dream of going to the Galapagos. Cast adrift 1000km west of Ecuador, this remote archipelago is perhaps the ultimate wildlife-watching destination. Visited by Charles Darwin in the early 19th century, the Galapagos provided the inspiration for his theory of evolution by natural selection, often said to be mankind’s greatest intellectual achievement. With National Park status, these volcanic islands teem with birdlife, from the impossibly rare lava gull (barely 400 left) to the trademark Blue-footed boobie. The Galapagos is also a living laboratory, home to some of the more bizarre quirks of evolution, from the giant tortoise to the marine iguana. In short, this lonely Pacific eco-system is a symbol of everything that’s right with the planet, and the cradle of conservation.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Darwin barely set foot on Galapagos, and the endemic reptile populations have been unstable ever since mankind discovered the islands and introduced predatory mammal species (the most dangerous of all, of course, being Homo sapiens). The only reason conservation is a word synonymous with the islands is that there is a pressing need for it.
Annexed by Ecuador in 1832, Galapagos has a chequered history, which has come to a head in an almighty ecological tug-of-war over what is the best use of the region. The main players are the science and conservation lobby, the tourism industry, settled Ecuadorian nationals, fishermen and farmers. Each is a powerful group with its own agenda, and each applies pressure to a government itself under pressure from the international community to return the islands to their pristine condition.
Whatever balance is eventually achieved, both tourism and wildlife conservation will play a major part in the islands’ future. Although conservationists will debate the point, there is no need for today’s responsible tourist to feel any guilt about going to the islands – a visit and the revenue it generates can only be a force for good. Despite the fact that scientists want to relieve the pressure on the local environment by reducing tourism, visitors substantially fund their research and provide revenue for the government, while volunteers on projects run by bodies such as Earthwatch even provide the labour. Simply by turning up to the Galapagos and paying your National Park entrance fee, you’ve invested US$100 in the future of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Although tourism accounts for 90 per cent of the human traffic on the islands it is not the tourist who causes the most pressure on the environment. The uncomfortable truth is that it is the islands’ settlers – past and present – who have done the most damage. Even though the residents take up only 3% of the land area of the archipelago, ruins of abandoned farms, airbases, factories, salt works and even a football pitch can be clearly seen from San Cristobal to Fernandina, while environmentally friendly cruise ships chug about in the distance keeping the luxury tourist literally at bay. Residents keep dogs, cats, goats and cattle, all of which could have devastating effects on the local wildlife.
For the tourist, the island’s main attraction is of course that wildlife, which is abundant, camera friendly, and quite unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else. For many visitors, the sheer novelty of all these little ecological niches filled from unexpected angles will be the abiding memory of a trip to the Galapagos: lizards that can live in the sea; tortoises that belong to a subspecies dependent on which volcano they inhabit. At the moment the tourism impact is kept to a minimum by there being only 45 landing spots throughout the entire park, which means that much of it never gets visited. In fact, one of the real criticisms of a trip to Galapagos is how regulated the experience is and how little you’re allowed to see. The ‘hiking’ routes are seldom more than a few kilometres along well-marked and well-trodden paths. Guides are with you at all times, and as official park rangers they have the power to arrest you for any transgression of park rules. You cannot linger to take photographs, you will at no time be left alone, and – most importantly – you cannot stray from the path. It’s their job not to trust you, which is frankly annoying when the only possible motivation for visiting these islands is a sincere love of the environment and its wildlife.
Although independent travel around the islands is possible it can be an expensive lottery, and given the restrictions imposed at every turn, this is one of the few times where it can be an advantage to be part of a scheduled package tour. These take the form of boat cruises, which have the important benefit of providing tourists with floating hotels. Although the traditional view of cruising is negative – a pastime of the ‘newly wed and the nearly dead’ – it could have been designed for a sensitive eco-system such as the Galapagos. With draconian regulations regarding waste disposal within the national park, operators are kept on their toes, and many boast of their ‘open bridge’ and transparent environmental policies. Cruises are getting greener and greener. And while the purist will say that these ships leave a huge environmental footprint, their impact is negligible compared with the effect that building a luxury hotel and its required infrastructure would have.
For a start, the number of boats visiting each of the landing sites is carefully monitored to ensure that there isn’t too much traffic at hot spots such as Floreana, Espanola and Bartolome (where Master and Commander was filmed). Secondly, tourists are kept off the land for most of their visit, reducing pressure on the wildlife. They are fed and watered off the islands, the waste gets taken back to mainland Ecuador, and there are no unwanted fires, raves, or fishing or hunting expeditions. Lastly, and by no means least, visiting the Galapagos is an enormously expensive project, well beyond the means of budget travellers, which means that the operators generate high per capita revenue while tourist numbers are regulated by their own disposable income.
The whole Galapagos question is one of compromise, and the future of the islands is in the hands of organisations such as the Galapagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Foundation, which manage the park and advise on scientific issues. If they can manage the competing pressures on a sustainable basis, then the endemic wildlife will flourish. If the endemic wildlife flourishes and the right balance between tourism and conservation can be found, then the future of these crucially important islands will be secure.
Heading for Galapagos? Nick’s travel hints…
1. Take a fleece. Even though the Galapagos Islands are on the Equator they can be surprisingly cold due to the cooling effect of the Humboldt current coming up from the Antarctic. In the garua season (June to November) the islands are grey and rainy.
2. If you are taking a film camera calculate how many rolls you think you’ll need for the trip and then double up. Take spare batteries, a tripod and, if using digital equipment, spare memory cards. Wild animals don’t like flash photography.
3. Time spent actually on the islands themselves will be relatively short, perhaps as little as a couple of hours per day. The rest of the time you’ll be chugging between islands, which can be tedious. Make sure you take plenty of books with you.
4. In fact, take everything with you. Don’t rely on ship libraries or on-board shops. They won’t have the right film/sunblock/maps/guidebooks/novels/batteries. And if by some slim chance they do stock what you need, it will be hideously expensive.
5. Do not bring any live material such as seeds, soil or animals to the islands. You will be searched on arrival and offending items will be confiscated, but after that you should be especially careful not to transport plant seeds from island to island.
6. Take good walking boots. Even though you will at no point be allowed to walk far, you will need them to protect yourself from goat’s head or puncture weed (Tribulus cistoides). The spiky seed pods are agony! Remove them from your soles regularly.
7. Keep a diary. In an all too short a time, you’ll see such a variety of islands, birds, endemic plants and other natural wonders that you’ll never remember it all. But you will have plenty of time to keep a diary that will become a treasured possession.
8. If you are going to the Galapagos from the UK you will have made at least SIX flights by the time you get home. You have very little choice in the matter. But you can repay your debt to the environment by carbon-neutralising your air travel.
9. Be an eco-warrior. Not everyone will share your conservationist views on plastic bags, chewing gum, loud noises, flash photography, graffiti and souvenir hunting. You have a duty to obey National Park rules and to explain them to others if need be.
10. Remember to get your passport stamped on the way out by the Galapagos National Park officials at the airport. It’s not an official entry stamp, but it looks cool and is a reminder that you contributed $100 to the conservation of the Galapagos.
Contacts and further reading
Organic Life travelled around the Galapagos Islands on board the Celebrity Xpedition, one of the most environmentally friendly small cruise liners. For further details on cruising the Galapagos visit www.celebritycruises.com
The best general wildlife guide to the islands is the Collins Safari Guide Wildlife of the Galapagos by Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter and David Hosking
Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos, A Novel will while away the hours on the boat
Jonathan R Green’s Galapagos: Ocean, Earth, Wind & Fire is an excellent coffee table book with outstanding wildlife photography
Offset your long-haul carbon emissions at Climate Care www.climatecare.org
Become a Friend of the Galapagos by joining the Galapagos Conservation Trust www.gct.org
Find out more about the Charles Darwin Foundation on www.galapagos.org