I’ve just returned from a trip to the Galapagos Islands that prompts my rare use of cliché superlatives like “amazing” and “once in a lifetime.” It was both of those things and plenty more. Naturally, looking at the Galapagos from a triple bottom line point of view made the whole experience even more complex and interesting. Over the next week or two, we’ll get into some of the details and stories. For starters, I thought a little background and introduction would make sense.
As our readers probably know, the Galapagos Islands are the sparsely populated volcanic archipelago 600 miles west of the Ecuadorian mainland made famous by Charles Darwin’s visit in the early 1800s. Rife with endemic species of wildlife, 97 percent of the islands are a tightly restricted national park. On the rest of the land are about 30,000 islanders making their living mostly through tourism and fishing.
At present, a limited number of tourists per year are granted the privilege of touring the islands on boats operated by one of several dozen tour companies that have been granted a license to do so. These tour operators follow a strict set of approved itineraries and make scheduled stops at designated landings where naturalists guide visitors on short hikes. It’s a system that, by and large, has proven quite effective at minimizing environmental impact, but questions remain about maintaining a viable economy for islanders as well as exactly how much tourism should be allowed to grow (if at all).
We sailed on board the Letty, one of EcoVentura’s three 20-passenger touring vessels. Life aboard the boat is highly structured with three or four prescribed landings and activities during the day, excellent food, and the near constant presence of a knowledgable naturalist to talk to. One of ours, Ivan, is also a talented musician. Moving from island to island is done mostly at night. It’s not my usual laissez faire style of travel but makes perfect sense given the priorities of the national park and the sheer amount of things worth seeing that one couldn’t possibly do on their own.
Each landing and hike sets out to investigate a different natural feature or group of animals — almost none of which express even the remotest fear of humans.
By far the most common are sea lions, cousins of the California variety, who laze about on the beaches and rocks, periodically venturing into the ocean to hunt for fish. Marine iguanas are to be found in large numbers, mostly sitting in prehistoric silence until low tide when they venture into the sea to eat algae — a strange anomaly among lizards.
And then there are the birds. Blue footed boobies, red footed boobies, nazca boobies, frigate birds, gulls, flamingoes and finches abound, each one occupying a different ecological niche. Despite never being much of a bird watcher, the tales of how they survive and thrive captivated me and most everyone else.
The namesake of the island — the tortoises — are the only animal that is difficult to find, owing to their near disappearance at the hand of invasive species and historical hunting. However, by collecting eggs before they can be eaten and raising the baby tortoises in a hatchery, populations have been successfully stabilized on many islands, notably the island most populated by humans, Santa Cruz, where over 3,500 roam.
As this series progresses, we’ll learn more about not only the natural environment, but also about the people who live on the islands and the way that the various stakeholders are seeking a balance to continue restoration of their ecosystem.
Finally, for those of you who can’t get enough of cute animals, here’s a little video I made of baby sea lions playing in the surf. In true Galapagos fashion, the harshness of nature enters the picture in the form of a hapless marine iguana who becomes a plaything for the sea lions. Fortunately for the iguana, the sea lions eventually tire of taunting him. Enjoy:
Ed Note: Accommodations, travel and guidance in the Galapagos were courtesy of EcoVentura, which runs 7-night cruising expeditions around the islands.