Earlier this month Miami-based Ecoventura provided us with an opportunity to sail on their 20-passanger motor yacht, the M/Y Letty, through the eastern Galapagos islands to see for ourselves the environmental state of this archipelago chain.
A decade ago while visiting Ecuador we bypassed the opportunity to visit the Galapagos focusing instead on Ecuador’s Andes, Amazon Basin and architectural heritage. We’d heard that mass tourism and overfishing had ruined the archipelago’s marine and land environments and weren’t worth visiting. (see Ecuador: More Than Just The Galapagos Islands)
Located 960 km west of Ecuador in the eastern Pacific Ocean, the Galapagos were created by plate tectonics and resultant volcanic activity. The older Galapagos Islands go back five million years while the younger ones are still being formed. Isolated from the Americas, only reptiles, such as iguanas and tortoises, could survive the weeks-long journey from South America on vegetation rafts. Along with the birds, light seeds where blown to the Galapagos with the first plants being lichens and cactus.
The Galapagos, made famous by Charles Darwin’s book The Origin of Species, were first recorded by Europeans during 1535 when a Spanish ship accidently drifted into them. Eventually the archipelago becomes a haven for pirates and whalers who introduced goats and pigs to the islands as a food source. In addition to these, dogs, cats, rats, ants, flies, mosquitoes and non-native plants were also introduced by humans with animals becoming feral and the non-endemic plants becoming invasive. These feral animals and invasive plants have disrupted the natural habitat on land for endemic species such as tortoises and finches, while overfishing has had a negative impact on the archipelagos marine environment. Other issues impacting the Galapagos are human population growth, low-end tourism, fresh water supplies, agriculture and unemployment.
While the Galapagos faces numerous challenges, not is all lost. The Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS) oversees 97% of the archipelagos land, while the Marine Reserve has a consultative committee consisting of fishermen, environmentalists, Ecuadorian navy, tourism industry and government which has made some progress. That said marine issues are the most contentious and much needs to be done to protect the aquatic environment.
In an attempt to reverse almost five centuries of destructive activities by feral animals, such as goats, which successfully compete for vegetation needed by endemic animals to survive, the GNPS has engaged in a decades-long program to eradicate these feral intruders. With a concept imported from New Zealand, which initially ran into opposition from animal rights groups, snipers placed in helicopters shoot feral animals. When feral goats began to be thinned out it became harder to spot them which meant utilizing Judas goats.
There are actually two types of Judas goats, the regular Judas goat, with a radio collar placed around its neck, heads into a thicket hiding a few fellow goats and exposes them to hunters, while the Super Judas goat is a spade female that has been injected with hormones which lures dozens of sexually-crazed male goats out from the cover of thickets and to their demise at the hands of hunters. Hundreds of thousands of goats have been killed in this manner. They are left were they are shot providing nutrients to the surrounding area. On some of the islands feral goats have been successfully eradicated and endemic animals, such as tortoises, have been reintroduced to Floreana island.
Even with all of the environmental challenges faced by the Galapagos these are still the enchanted islands, the abundance of wildlife is astounding. Rounding every corner of a trail we’d see something new from the mating dance of Blue-footed Booby birds, a short-eared owl catching a bit of sun in the morning, land iguanas climbing shrubs, to young sea lions frolicking in shoreline rookeries. The joke became that our naturalists were radioing ahead to the animals and getting them to congregate and put on a performance at each bend in the trail. They also showed no fear of humans, which unlike wildlife that we’ve seen in other national parks around the world where the animals scurry off, these creatures go about their business allowing us to observe them in their natural habitat.
The snorkeling and scuba diving was fantastic, the array of fish from small Moorish Idols, large Hammerhead sharks, playful seals, copulating Eagle Rays, diving penguins and the list goes on. We didn’t miss a single chance to snorkel even if it meant swimming along as a seven foot long Galapagos shark glides by harmlessly checking us out. The snorkeling at Devil’s Crown is the best we’ve done anywhere in the world, the combination of drifting with the current around outcrops of an ancient volcano and its abundance and variety of fish was mind-boggling.
Visiting the Galapagos was a visual feast from landscapes that ranged from stark and arid to lush and plentiful with a mélange of birds, reptiles, sea mammals and fish which all added to create a sensory overload. The Galapagos is well worth the visit. Only time will tell if human ingenuity will save the islands or short-sighted, self-interest will destroy them, all part of the evolutionary process.
Written by Joseph and Diane Frey
Floreana island were feral goats have been eradicated and Giant Tortoises reintroduced – by Joseph Frey – All Rights Reserved
A Sea Lion started playing with us around 8 metres (40 feet) below the surface at Daphne Minor – by Joseph Frey – All Rights Reserved
Young Sea Lion pups in their shoreline rockery on the island of Espanola – by Diane Frey Photo Credit: Diane Frey – All Rights Reserved
A Barn Owl on Islas Plazas – by Diane Frey – All Rights Reserved