Category Archives: Galapagos Islands

200 Years Ago

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Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England on 12 February 1809. Twenty-six years later he was plying the waters of Galapagos aboard the H.M.S. Beagle gathering information on flora and fauna (15 September-October 1835).  At that time, Galapagos had no permanent human residents. For many years, the Islands were simply a stopover for seal hunters, whalers and buccaneers, who kept goats on the islands as a readily available food source for the next time they passed through. During this time, the famous Galapagos tortoises were also considered an ideal food source. They could be stacked alive on the ship for months at a time, ensuring fresh meat for as long as they survived. In fact, galapago means saddle in Spanish, and the Islands get their name from the shape of the shell of the Saddleback tortoise. Darwin visited San Cristobal, Floreana, Isabela and Santiago, but never set foot on Santa Cruz, now the most populated of the Galapagos islands.

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If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature,

but by our institutions, great is our sin. –Charles Darwin

Generally, people think of the Galapagos as a pristine place with unique plants and animals. Though much of the islands remain relatively undisturbed, there are also thriving communities with more people than one might expect. As of 2005, there were an estimated 27,000 people living on the islands. Four islands are inhabited. Santa Cruz, the most populated island, is where the majority of the tour boats begin their excursions. The capital of the Galapagos is Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal, the second most populated island. Isabela has approximately 2000 people and Santa Maria, more commonly called Floreana, has an estimated 80 people. Ninety-eight percent of the population is from mainland Ecuador and two percent is from other countries. The population growth continues to average approximately 6.4% per year with everyone living on ~116 square miles out of a total terrestrial area of ~4,960 square miles.

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Over the years, tourism in Galapagos has dramatically increased. In the early 1960s, 2,000 tourists visited Galapagos and, according to the Galapagos Conservancy, in 2008, there were more than 173,000 visitors. Since 1991, the number of tourists visiting the islands has grown 9% each year. The Galapagos tourism sector, originally offering smaller nature-based Darwin type tours, has developed into a multinational cruise ship and adventure tourism industry. These days there are also ships holding up to 500 passengers that ply the Galapagos waters.  In the last fifteen years the tourism industry has increased its income 14% each year. The estimated total value of tourism coming into Galapagos is $418.8M, with only, 15.5% of the full value of tourism reaching the local resident. The eight largest boats received half of the total gross income coming in for all of the tour boats combined. Without available credit, business development training and ongoing assistance, it is extremely challenging for local residents to own and operate a successful tour business.

In 2007, the Galapagos was placed on UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) list of world heritage sites in danger. The challenges the Galapagos face are complex and multi-faceted and will need to be approached using an interdisciplinary strategy, which simultaneously considers economic, social and conservation needs.

Once, we separately asked twelve of our Puerto Ayora (from the largest populated island of Santa Cruz) high school-aged soccer players, if they knew what the Charles Darwin Foundation did? Only one player said that he knew they did something related to science and conservation and the others had no idea. I wonder what Charles would say? The long-term future of Galapagos really lies in the hands of the future generations living on the islands.

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It always makes me happy to see that some of the blog entries receiving the most hits are Final Fiesta Day and Los Kioskos (both about the culture of Galapagos), indicating that people are also interested in Galapagos’s human side. Improving the Galapagos K-12 educational infrastructure and implementing consistent long-term environmental, science, language, technical trade and micro-enterprise skills programs will result in a more environmentally conscious community and skilled workforce. As Senegalese naturalist Baba Dioum said, “In the end we will protect only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”

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How paramount the future is to the present when one is surrounded by children.

–Charles Darwin

References:

Boersma, P.D., H. Vargas, and G. Merlen. 2005. Living Laboratory in Peril. Science, Vol. 308, Issue 5724, 925 (13 May).

Epler, B. 2007. Tourism, the Economy, Population Growth, and Conservation in Galapagos. Charles Darwin Foundation: Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Galapagos. Accessed online on 12 December 2009. http://www.galapagos.org/2008/index.php?id=97

Galápagos Connection: Darwin in Galapagos. Accessed online on 12 December 2009. http://www.galapagosconnection.net/page_darwin.html

Kerr, S., S. Cardenas, and J. Hendy. 2004. Migration and the Environment in the Galapagos: An Analysis of economic and policy incentives driving migration, potential impacts from migration control, and potential policies to reduce migration pressure. Wellington: Motu Economic and Public Policy Research.

Ospina, P. and C. Falconi, ed. 2007. Galápagos: Migraciones, economía, cultura, conflictos y acuerdos. Quito: Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Programa de Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo, Corporación Editora Nacional.

Watkins, G. and F. Cruz. 2007. Galapagos at Risk: A Socioeconomic Analyis. Galapagos Conservancy. Accessed online 10 December 2009. http://www.darwinfoundation.org/files/library/pdf/2007/Galapagos_at_Risk_7-4-07-EN.pdf

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Memories of San Cristobal

San Cristobal Sunset

 

The past three months, I have been involved in a project on continental Ecuador, but I could not bear the thought of continuing the blog without writing about my favorite Galapagos island, San Cristobal. In May, a friend from California visited and we went to a variety of places, including San Cristobal.

Sus and Sunset

People from the islands are often surprised to hear that San Cristobal is my favorite island. It is one of the least visited islands. San Cristobal’s Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the capital of Galapagos, which is a province of Ecuador. I have always taken the daily speedboat shuttle from Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz Island, to get to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. It is usually late afternoon when you pull into the harbor. After checking into the hotel, there is just enough time to walk back down to the wharf and catch the sunset.

San Cristobal boardwalk

They recently completed a lovely new boardwalk along the harbor. It is quite impressive, well-crafted out of wood with various places to sit and watch the sea lions and birds. The wharf is landscaped with native plants. Families and friends stroll up and down the boardwalk as they look out to sea and stop to watch the barking sea lions.

 

Resting

We stayed at the Hostal Mar Azul, two blocks up from the wharf. It is conveniently located, clean and fairly quiet. They don’t serve breakfast, but the next morning, my friend surprised me with a delicious miso soup, a sesame almond bar and a hot cup of green tea. As the sun was going down, we walked along the wharf and went to get a bite to eat at La Playa restaurant, renowned for its delicious ceviche.

Ceviche is a common dish found along the coast. Hygiene is of utmost importance in the preparation of ceviche, so it is important to find a reputable restaurant. In Puerto Baquerizo Moreno this restaurant is called La Playa. To make ceviche, you submerge chopped up bits of fresh raw fish in lemon juice and leave it to marinate for at least two hours. Then, you finely chop red onion, green pepper, tomato and cilantro. Once the fish is marinated, the vegetable mixture is added. Traditionally, this dish is served late morning with a cold beer and chifles (fried plantains) or popcorn.

Three

The next morning, we walked along the malecon (wharf in Spanish), continuing north of town to the nicest of the Galapagos interpretive centers. The center has a wealth of information on the islands’ history, flora and fauna. There is also a beautiful view of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. After, we walked up the trail behind the interpretive center to Frigatebird Hill. On the way back into town, we stopped by Mann Beach and watched the sea lions playing in the water, and the lava lizards scurrying up and down the dark lava boulders flanking the beach.

view from San Cristobal interpretive center

The next day, the owner of Mar Azul recommended a father and son team to guide us around the highlands. We visited Galapaguera, the Galapagos National Park’s tortoise breeding center, and El Junco, the only Galapagos freshwater lake. The weather was drizzly in the highlands, so we descended down to El Mirador (the lookout point in Spanish), where we had a sweeping view of the island with Leon Dormido (sleeping lion in Spanish) in the distance. Also known as Kicker Rock, Leon Dormido consists of two rocky outcroppings jutting out of the sea. It is worthwhile taking a speedboat ride there to go snorkeling. On a previous trip, I saw a group of fifteen spotted eagle rays and a 10-foot long Galapagos shark swimming below me.

After enjoying the view from the Mirador, we followed a narrow path to a tiny church lodged into the rocky hillside. Before we descended into the church, we passed a small alter with Mary and baby Jesus encased in glass. The inside of the church was cave-like, but had a large opening where the light streamed in. It was truly unique and what one would imagine a Galapagos church might look like.

Mary and Baby Jesus Father Son Team Mirador Church

Heading back out onto the main road, we passed coffee and banana plantations. Coffee, bananas and other crops, are grown in the highlands of San Cristobal, Isabela and Santa Cruz islands. On our way through the highland town of El Progreso, we stopped and climbed up into a treehouse, which can accommodate approximately four people in a rustic, Swiss Family Robinson like setting. We had fun swinging on the rope dangling from tree. I sat inside an enormous tire, also hanging from the tree, and they spun me around until I didn’t know which way was up. It reminded me a bit of the teacup ride at the amusement park (thankfully, not in the Galapagos).

Tree Swing

Our last evening, we walked along the malecon again and went for a bite to eat at Pizzeria Bambú, at the south end of the malecon. After, we met some friends at La Playa restaurant. One friend is working on a mosquito monitoring project and two others were gathering data on the blue-footed boobie (a bird) reproductive habits at Punta Pitt, on the northeast part of San Cristobal.

The next morning, we got up at the crack of dawn, packed our bags, and headed down to the wharf to catch the daily speedboat ride back to Santa Cruz Island. It was a beautiful morning and the harbor was as smooth as glass. While the boat was preparing to pull away from the dock, a baby sea lion jumped up on the back of the boat to say good-bye.

Good-bye San Cristobal

Midnight Surprise

Large Painted Locust

It’s midnight. The lights are out. I have spent the past sixteen hours doing the types of things you don’t remember at the end of the day. Normally I would pass out from exhaustion, but a three inch long insect has just landed in my hair. Within seconds the lights are on again and I am wide awake. It is grasshopper season and it appears one of these stealthy little beasts has made it into my bedroom.

The truth is the grasshopper may have gone unnoticed had I not reached behind the bed for my mosquito net. Mosquito season has passed, but there are still a few stragglers annoyingly buzzing around my room. The grasshopper was probably comfortably nestled into the mosquito net when I pulled his resting place out from under him.

This common Galapagos grasshopper is also known as the Large Painted Locust (Schistocerca melanocera). As described in Wildlife of the Galápagos, it grows up to three and half inches and is seen most frequently after a heavy rain fall.

It is incredible how far these grasshoppers can jump. Ten feet is a piece of cake. Once they enter a room they refuse to leave. You are usually left with four choices. The first, is to leave the room. The second, is to stay in the room and watch the grasshopper distractingly jump around, occasionally landing in your hair or on your back. The third option is to catch and release the little creature. This takes perseverance. Be prepared to leave the article that you used to catch the critter outside all night. The final alternative is to put the grasshopper out of its misery. Clearly, this option should only be used if the grasshopper has been injured. I usually opt for the third choice.

Back Again

Thanks to a very dear San Diegan friend for giving me a new computer. Now, I will be back on a steadier communication course. I would also like to thank a very good friend from Galapagos for lending me one of his computers during the interim.

Galapagos Sea Lion

Imagine swimming around underwater while being surrounded by five of these priceless faces. Several weeks ago, a group of friends and I took a tour to Floreana, where we went snorkeling at La Lobería. The sea lion rookery is a stone’s throw away from Floreana Island, the first Galapagos island to have permanent residents. It is the least populated island with approximately one hundred people. As we stepped off the dinghy onto the concrete dock of Puerto Velasco Ibarra, the island’s only village, we were greeted by a tiny baby iguana and his mother. It was a perfect welcome, especially for my friend visiting from Northern California.

Floreana’s history is filled with drama and intrigue, from the toothless Dr. Ritter and his ailing patient Dore Strauch to the Baroness Eloisa von Wagner Bosquet and her three lovers. Long before the arrival of this colorful cast of characters, Floreana was used as a port of call for whalers and pirates. At the northern part of the island is Post Office Bay, where to this day seafaring visitors deposit their letters in a wooden container and thumb through its contents to see if there are any letters addressed to others living in their part of the world.

After taking photos of the marine iguanas and hearing a bit about the history of Floreana, we took a leisurely thirty minute walk along a white sandy path to a quiet cove protected by volcanic outcroppings. At this point, we carefully climbed along a volanic rock face and inched our way around to a small channel, where we descended all of five feet into the cool rushing water. As the tide ebbed and flowed, we held our backpacks over our heads and crossed the channel to a tiny island with sunbathing sea lions lying along the beach.

We dropped our bags, put on our snorkeling gear and dove into the tranquil cove teeming with sea lions and the occasional sea turtle inconspicuously nibbling away at the algae on the rocks. I swam across the cove and started to reach the Floreana coastline when I found myself surrounded by five sea lions. They literally swam circles around me. One of them loved diving down and popping his little face right up in front of my mask. His bulging black eyes stared at me for a second or two before he began the game again. They followed me as I swam along. For the first time, I got a taste of what a zoo animal might feel like with countless people staring at it.

The main difference between turtles and tortoises is that sea turtles spend most of their lives in the water and tortoises are land animals. The primary difference between sea lions and seals are that sea lions have tiny ear flaps and seals just have small openings without the flaps. Galapagos has the Galapagos Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus wollebacki) and the Galapagos Fur Seal (Arctocephalus galapagoensis), the sea lion being the more common of the two. It is always a welcome surprise to see a quiet sea turtle bobbing around for food after interacting with the frolicking sea lions.

From the islet

Missing My Mac

Site of Missing Mac

The Monday before last, I returned from an all morning meeting to an empty dining room table. Between 11:15 and 1pm, my laptop had disappeared. Though anything is possible, it is hard to believe the computer was unplugged from the socket, lifted off the table and pulled through one of the barred windows. There was no damage to the front door, so we assume the person who stole the computer entered with a key. At noon that day, the suspected keyprovider and my housemate exchanged glances at the airline reservations office. My housemate had just begun standing in a long ticket line as the person in question exited the reservations office. We can only guess who actually entered the house and helped themselves to my computer.

In the afternoon, a friend accompanied me to the police station to file a missing article report. Relatively few people in Galapagos own Mac computers, so the police said it would probably be difficult for the thief to sell the computer on the islands. The computer would most likely be sold on the continent. Nevertheless, the policeman who filed the report said he would notify his colleagues on the other more populated islands of Isabela and San Cristobal.

Word had it that the suspected keyprovider was leaving for the continent the next day. While at the police station I ran into an employee of TAME, the airline most commonly used by Galapaguenos. I explained my situation and that I was interested in going to the airport the next day to make sure all the baggage is carefully checked. The TAME employee suggested I speak with the head of DAC (Direccion de la Aviacion Civil), the organization in charge of airport security.

At 7:30am on Tuesday morning, my friend and I crossed the channel from Santa Cruz to Baltra and boarded the bus to the airport. While we waited for the bus to leave I looked out the window and noticed the suspect boarding the next bus. As soon as we arrived at the airport I spoke with the head of airport security and his team of inspectors. I described the computer, so they knew exactly what to look for as the carry-on luggage passed through the x-ray machine. 

The Galapagos National Park, airline personnel and airport security (DAC) all work together in monitoring what enters and leaves the Galapagos. They use an x-ray machine to check all the suitcases boarding each flight. The security personnel were kind enough to allow my friend and I to watch the monitor as the luggage passed through the machine. The suspect’s suitcase was one of several suitcases that was pulled and checked in more detail. The suspected keyprovider was present while his baggage was checked. The security personnel also inspect each box sent by cargo. While they were at it, they also checked for my computer. At one point they called me over to take a look, but it was someone else’s computer that was being shipped.

After checking all the baggage and boxes leaving on the four flights that day, it was time to return to Puerto Ayora. It was not too suprising that my computer had not appeared in someone’s luggage. Any savvy thief would wait at least a few days before escaping with the stolen goods. Nevertheless, it was worth a try. I provided the people in charge with a photo and detailed description of the computer, a copy of the police report, and my name and telephone number. They assured me they would continue to be on alert. The cooperation of the security personnel, Park and airline staff was above and beyond what I expected. I was truly impressed and grateful for their help.

Several friends suggested that I pay a visit to the Puerto Ayora computer repair stores.  Most people are not familiar with how to erase and reload computer information, so chances are they may go to one of these stores for help. Over the next few days, I put together packages of the same information I had provided for the airport security people and went to each computer repair place.

At one store I got into a more in depth conversation with the manager. We discussed the different ways a thief could escape. The San Cristobal airport is closed for maintenance, so Baltra is the only exit by air. Leaving by boat appeared to be more of a possibility than I expected. Each week cargo ships arrive carrying just about everything the Puerto Ayora population consumes. They return to the continent on Thursdays. It is fairly well-known that sometimes the cargo ship crews leave with things that do not belong to them. This seemed unlikely, since the probability of damaging the computer on this type of trip is quite high. The manager agreed. He then recommended that I check with the tour boat companies. Apparently, it isn’t uncommon for tour boat personnel to engage in this type of illicit activity. The time and effort it would take to approach each tour boat company was a daunting prospect. It was then that I knew the chances of recovering my computer were slim to none.

It is time to move on. Fortunately, I backed up most of my data a week before the computer was stolen. I did lose a number of email addresses, so for my friends that are reading this, please drop me a quick note, so I have your email address again.

My Roommate

my roommate

The other morning, I woke up and saw my roommate clinging to the upper right hand corner of my white bedroom wall. There are usually at least a few geckos residing in most Galapagos homes. Their tiny toe pads allow them to scale any slightly rough surface. Geckos are harmless and eat insects. They are also quiet and steadfast. A number of times I have left a room with a gecko anchored to the wall, only to return hours later with him still positioned in the exact same place.

Geckos are lizards belonging to the Gekkonidae family and are found in warm climates. In Galapagos, there are six endemic species (species found only in Galapagos) and three introduced species. I am quite certain that my roommate is a Phyllodactylus reissi, an Ecuadorian native gecko species introduced to Galapagos. He or his ancestors probably hitched a ride on a freight ship delivering goods from the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil. Harmless, quiet and insect-eating, my roommate could not be better.

find my roommate

Weighing the Laundry Situation

Elsa’s LavaFlash

There are really two choices when it comes to getting laundry done in Galapagos, the washbasin out back or the laundrymat. Few people have their own washing machine, and I have not heard of anyone owning a dryer, though I am sure most hotels have both. During my last stay in Galapagos, I chose to hand wash and line dry my laundry. It actually made more sense, since I lived and volunteered in the national park outside of town. I will never forget the time I saw a small dead hawk next to the laundry basin. Later, a neighbor told me as she was preparing to wash her laundry she saw the dead hawk floating in the basin. The unfortunate hawk had flown in to get a drink and could not fly out, so it drowned. My neighbor had kindly fished it out and placed it on the side.

This time around, I decided to have my laundry done at a local laundrymat. The laundrymats in Galapagos are not self-serve, so you drop off your bag of clothes, have it weighed, and 24 hour later, you pickup a bag of warm, nicely folded laundry. There are many laundry places to choose from. I go to LavaFlash, where I am always greeted with a smile by Elsa, the owner. She is consistently efficient and friendly, no matter how hot it is outside. In an earlier entry I mentioned that air conditioning is virtually unheard of in Galapagos, so you can imagine the temperatures in the laundrymat when the outdoor temperatures are in the high 80’s.

Aside from the convenience of having the laundry washed, dried and folded for just one dollar per pound, there is another reason for not hand washing the laundry out back. This year has been an especially hot and humid year, so the mosquito population has increased tremendously. The standing water in the basin is an attractive breeding ground. Seeing that we already have plenty of mosquitoes living with us, we are really not interested in having more. A friend is doing research on the types of diseases carried by mosquitoes in Galapagos. His research group has four mosquito collection sites (one on Isabela Island, one on San Cristobal Island and two on Santa Cruz Island). I knew we had a lot mosquitoes in our house when one evening a group of us were sitting around the table talking and he stood up, pulled out a matchbox and started carefully collecting mosquito specimens. When collecting mosquito samples, you cannot swat them because you need to have the body intact to study it. He joked that perhaps our house could be the fifth mosquito collection site. Clearly, Elsa’s laundry service is the way to go.

Potential mosquito breeding ground