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Saving the Galapagos

Galapagos Islands

Fragile and Fabulous

Galapagos sea lion
Galapagos sea lions are inquisitive and unafraid of humans. Photo courtesy of Alison Gardner.

Few world travelers do not have Ecuador's Galapagos Islands near the top of their vacation life list. It is an iconic destination rightfully designated as one of the earliest United Nations UNESCO natural world heritage sites. While I suspect it will always be among the most fragile ecosystems in the world, the good news is that UNESCO's heritage watchdog committee agreed to remove the Galapagos Islands in August 2010 from an uncomfortable three-year placement on the committee's "sites in danger" list. Following this international wake-up call, Ecuadorian authorities have clearly made measurable gains in protecting the Galapagos (see Tim Leffel's article about the challenges and innovative solutions of protecting these ecological jewels).

Flying 600 miles from Guayaquil on Ecuador's mainland to Santa Cruz Island, our group of 20 guests boarded the M/Y Eric, home for the next seven days. It is one of three motor yachts operated by Ecuadorian cruise operator, Ecoventura, www.ecoventura.com. Following cabin assignment, crew introductions and a briefing by two naturalists, Ivan and Cecibel, Captain Peter fired up the engines of our compact vessel to set off on a grand adventure of 424 nautical miles with 89 hours of sailing time and four equator crossings. The unusual roving itinerary allows guests to encounter almost all the unique wildlife species in their natural Galapagos habitat, whether on land or below the sea, with plenty of hiking and snorkeling opportunities along the route.

Ecoventura cruise ship in Galapagos
Ecoventura's M/Y Eric near Leon Dormido (Kicker Rock), a 500-foot-high-volcanic cone. Photo courtesy of Ecoventura.

Rules are strict about where, when and how many people go ashore and there are plenty of smaller islands from which tourists are banned altogether. After a marathon overnight cruise of 130 miles, we anchored in the volcanic caldera of Genovesa Island where only small vessels like the Eric are permitted to take guests ashore by Zodiac. Even as we stepped into this fragile paradise, dozens of Galapagos Sea Lions sprawled across the beach dozing, jet black Magnificent Frigatebird males puffed out their scarlet throat sacks while showing off their seven-foot wing span, and Red-Footed Booby Birds perched on scrubby tangled branches. Lava Gulls, the rarest gull on earth, strutted on the sand modeling distinctive white eye lids against dusky gray lava-colored bodies. Less than 1,000 Lava Gulls exist, bringing home the true meaning of "endangered." There are islands that play host to a single rare species, so if you expect to see that species, be sure to inquire in advance if your cruise has a government permit to go there.

Sea birds, marine iguanas, Sally Lightfoot crabs and sea lions in Galapagos
Sea birds, marine iguanas, Sally Lightfoot crabs and sea lions make seemingly peaceful neighbors. Photo courtesy of Alison Gardner.

Over breakfast each day, Ivan and Cecibel described our morning and afternoon excursions — always subject to weather and waves, of course, with the backup of a Plan B. Excursions were identified as wet or dry landings, meaning that you could expect to get your feet wet or not as you clambered in and out of Zodiac inflatable craft. After a few of us mentioned seeing seals, Ivan felt compelled to point out that there are no seals in the Galapagos, only sea lions. Sea lions can climb steep rocks and even cliffs high above the water with their flexible front flippers, unlike seals which cannot use their front flippers like arms.

Young Galapagos Sea lion pups
Young Galapagos Sea lion pups do a lot of solo napping while their mothers go off to feed. Photo courtesy of Alison Gardner.

It is virtually impossible to keep out of the way of what is often color-camouflaged wildlife, whether picking your way around lolling sea lions draped across a gangway as you try to board your vessel or carefully treading a designated trail strewn with dozens of Galapagos Marine Iguanas. While walking, it is essential to keep your eyes not far ahead of your toes to ensure you don't trip over a sleeping sea lion pup or a clutch of marine iguanas or a ground-nesting Blue-footed booby bird with wings spread to shade a new generation from the sun. None seem inclined to move an inch without a good deal of coaxing; in fact, many different species share remarkably close quarters with great tolerance.

Galapagos red-footed booby
Red-footed boobies are best seen on Genovesa Island, home to the world's largest colony. Photo courtesy of Alison Gardner.

With each excursion, I felt as though I were entering nature's living room. We were treated to observations of courting, mating and rearing young, including manta rays and sea turtles floating in passionate embrace, vigorously courting sea lions with a much larger male chorusing in full operatic voice, and one female babysitting ten sea lion pups while their mothers went off to feed ... or to escape that operatic male! The endemic Galapagos Hawk practices cooperative polyandry with four males mating with a single female, then teaming up to defend the territory and look after the young. Could such rare behavior explain why this sole original island predator has survived for 300,000 years?

During the 2008 eco-cruise season, Ecoventura's six naturalist guides asked each guest at the end of their trip to identify their top five wildlife encounters. Over 3,000 guests participated in the polling. The wildlife "winners" were a giant tortoise and four exotic birds (the Red-footed Booby, the Galapagos Penguin, the Flightless Cormorant, and the Waved Albatross). With 27 species of reptiles, 29 types of land birds, 19 different sea birds and dozens of land and marine mammals, the competition must have been tough. After my own visit to the Galapagos Islands, would I have selected the same "Favorite Five"? No, but that is what makes travel such a personal experience.

Unlike Charles Darwin, I grew fond of the amazingly-adapted Galapagos Marine Iguanas that graze on underwater algae and seaweed. Darwin described them as "large disgusting clumsy Lizards, a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid, and sluggish in its movements." He obviously wasn't around during breeding season when the males sport their startling red and green courting colors.

Galapagos marine iguana and crabs
Marine iguanas camouflaged on typical black volcanic rock and tip-toeing Sally Lightfoot crabs make colorful contrasts along many island shorelines. Photo courtesy of Alison Gardner.

With five days of exploring remote uninhabited islands behind us, we spent a day on the second largest island, Santa Cruz, home of the Charles Darwin Research Station, most of the Islands' human population, and those famous giant tortoises. After days of volcanic landscapes with only scrub for vegetation, here was a lush tropical environment. Traveling to a private farm in the highlands, we donned gumboots to follow muddy trails through cloud forests and fields dotted with ponds. None of us was prepared for our first glimpse of Galapagos Giant Tortoises, ever-so-slowly progressing across thick grassy fields at the pace of, well, a tortoise, pausing to cool off in a pond for an hour or two en route between the highlands and the lowlands. The height of an average person's hip and built like a Sherman tank, these are the world's largest tortoises, salvaged from extinction despite the best efforts of man to wipe them out in centuries past. There are 11 subspecies that, with determined captive breeding at the Darwin Station, are now making a successful comeback in the wild on four islands.

Galapagos Giant Turtle
The Galapagos Giant Tortoise most symbolizes the Islands, even having given them its name. Photo courtesy of Ecoventura.

Most nights of the seven day cruise we sailed from one island to the next, sometimes 100 miles or more apart, sometimes with large enough swells on the open sea to crave the security of a seat belt across the bed so as not to roll about. Against the possibility of sea sickness, my daily dose of ginger pills left me ready for each home-cooked meal. On those nights where we anchored in calm waters, none of us slept as well!

With the Galapagos Islands now back on a more positive ecological management track, Ecoventura's President, Santiago Dunn, mirrors the relief of many who value the islands and its wild inhabitants. "We applaud the many efforts to protect and preserve Galapagos National Park which have led to the recent removal of the islands from UNESCO's World Heritage Site endangered list. But this small victory is as fragile as the islands themselves. We all must renew our commitment to maintaining sustainable tourism operations, keeping the Galapagos the pristine destination it was in 1978 when it was first declared a World Heritage Site."

For More Information

Climate: Despite being on the equator, the Galapagos Islands have a surprisingly moderate, subtropical climate. There are two seasons with December to May having higher temperatures, warm and sunny with occasional showers. June to November are somewhat cooler months with moderate breezes and a little more rain.

Getting There and Extra Fees: Many international airlines fly to Ecuador's capital, Quito, or direct to Guayaquil on Ecuador's Pacific coast. Flying the 600-mile Aerogal Airlines flight between Guayaquil and the Galapagos Islands takes one hour and 40 minutes. This domestic airfare of roughly $115 is not usually included in the cruise rate, nor is the $100 Galapagos National Park entrance fee ($50 for children 11 and younger) or the $10 Transit card fee. In 2000, Ecuador adopted the US dollar as its official currency.

Ecoventura is a family-owned company based in Guayaquil, Ecuador, with offices in Quito and Miami. In operation since 1990, this Galapagos Islands nature cruise company hosts 4,000+ passengers annually aboard a fleet of three expedition vessels that are identical, superior first-class 20-passenger motor yachts with 10 double cabins. The company also operates a 16-passenger live-aboard dive boat offering 7-night weekly itineraries visiting the northern islands of Wolf and Darwin. All vessels have been retrofitted to meet or exceed the highest possible environmental standards. For example, in 2008 the M/Y Eric became the first hybrid-energy vessel in the Galapagos. On this relatively small "green" vessel, forty solar panels and two wind turbines now provide enough power to replace 18% of the energy previously produced by two diesel generators. For current Ecoventura rates, schedules and itineraries, visit www.ecoventura.com. There are also designated family departures with discounts for children age 7 to 17 years.

Awards galore: Among many awards over its years of operation, Ecoventura was the 2009 winner of Conde Nast Traveler magazine's 15th Annual World Savers Award in the category of Cruise Lines. The award listed four distinct areas where Ecoventura is a pacesetter in responsible tourism: granting scholarships to Ecuadorian students interested in environmental and marine conservation; funding a micro-enterprise for fishermen's wives converting a boat into a restaurant and boutique; operating the first hybrid power yacht in the Galapagos with solar panels and wind turbines that reduced carbon emissions; and paying the salaries of physical therapists and sign-language teachers at a school in Galapagos. Also in 2009, Ecoventura won Travel + Leisure's Global Vision Award for Green Cruising.

Alison Gardner, Senior Travel Editor of Transitions Abroad, is also publisher of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com, a richly illustrated resource for senior travelers featuring ecological, educational, cultural, and volunteer vacations worldwide. Readership is 1.6 million. Contact her at Alison@travelwithachallenge.com.

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