There are many things to celebrate about the Galapagos, however to my mind the principle thing to celebrate is the gift they have given to mankind’s understanding of who we are, where we came from and why we are the way we are.
The simple existence of the species that do exist in the Galapagos forces religious, metaphysical and scientific questions. Big picture stuff; things to think about every morning when you wake and night before you sleep. Are we (humans) simply products of evolution, newly arrived to the Galapagos/naturally occurring rather than an invasive species? Is there a cosmic design/unifying element (God or gods)? What about the choices we make?
Here in the Galapagos attempting to protect threatened species (they all are here) while managing cultural, economic and political realities… I, even after fourteen years of living here am often stopped dead in my tracks, wondering. That’s the Galapagos; these islands have protected and nurtured various species of plants and animals, in the same way they are harboring me and my son, helping the economy of Ecuador…
For all of the grousing I do about the way the government treats conservation of the Galapagos; we do now have some of the best medical facilities in the country, some spiffy new roads and generous energy subsidies do keep costs down. This has been a miraculous place to raise my son; aside from the natural wonders he is surrounded with, there’s virtually no crime, traffic or pollution. I was allowed to create a business which has afforded me the ability to spend a lot of time with him (I’m certain I changed more diapers than his mom) and I owe all of this to the country of Ecuador and its people.
Hope all is well with you and those that you love.
Attached is a photo we could have taken any day, but this one happens to be the end of the last day of Soup’s eighth year circling the sun on this planet.
Apologies for being away from writing these things for a while.
So much has happened since I last wrote; both with the Galapagos and with ourselves that I think I’m going to attach a couple of my favorite photos and just bullet point a few things.
The super El Niño that was going to pulverize much of the planet and certainly the Galapagos only kinda sorta showed up here. We were pretty worried. There are many species here whose naturally occurring numbers would automatically put them on any endangered list. Penguins 2,000 and flightless cormorants 1,500 are two which depend on cold water currents to survive, an El Niño of course heats up the water. In the 1989 El Niño the number of penguins was reduced to 800. There are also several species of plants here that have no known relatives in the rest of the world. They went extinct everywhere else.
How it shook out here this year was that our cold season proceeding the warm season never cooled off (I have wetsuits that I haven’t had to use for more than a year). It heated up here earlier and slightly stronger and lasted longer into late April, however with the exception of a couple of days in December (when it normally doesn’t rain), the predicted torrential rains never showed up. Those December rains did by the way destroy a bike path that was being built between Puerto Ayora and the Itabaca channel on the far side of the island.
In 1989 half the sea lion population died. Nothing like that happened this year.
I never wrote about the family of animal rescuers that were here and how you bring yourself with you, maybe next time, good story and nice people.
Along the lines of predictions about the Galapagos…. You’ll need a little back story.
We now have container ships showing up, unloading these Maersk containers. Used to be everything was unloaded by hand or with small cranes. The twenty-five mega hotels are under construction, one with a golf course. People can now book their own flights to the Galapagos on Expedia et al. The national park was supposed to raise the park entrance fee (which is currently sixty percent cheaper than it was when it was instigated owing to inflation over the years), but has not. The word on the street is that hasn’t happen because of political pressure from national investors in economic services in the Galapagos. We had more than 200,000 thousand visitors last year. You can now purchase Galapagos residency with a 25K investment in the Galapagos. The Charles Darwin Foundation has gone basically bankrupt, due to the Mayor of Puerto Ayora, read national government revoking their business license. The mayor could not have done that without permission from above.
The Charles Darwin Foundation has no power, is basically a group of concerned scientists and administrators funded by donations. They coordinate or coordinated visiting scientist with the national park, advised the government and disseminate information about the Galapagos. They had a small store at the station which accounted for most of its income and this was the business license that was revoked, ostensibly because shop owners in downtown felt they were losing too much business to this store. The store had been there longer than most of the downtown.
Every year since 2003, when the Galapagos only had thirty thousand visitors, the Charles Darwin Foundation has been publishing articles from scientists explaining the ecological disaster that has already happened here and warning that if the exponential rise in tourism in the Galapagos is not checked it will besides promote the decimation of threatened species, be a long term economic disaster for the nation of Ecuador. The country of Ecuador has not appreciated these warnings.
My point is that I am certain that if you told any one of the scientists publishing these reports in 2003 or 4 or 5 what has transpired since, they would be flabbergasted that their predictions haven’t come to their full fruition yet and extremely sad to see that it is only a matter of time before they do.
The Grants, these are the scientists that have been studying ground finches on a big rock called Daphne Major for the last thirty years have witnessed an adaption in the beak of some of these birds, actually witnessed evolution and have isolated a gene in the birds that causes this quick adaptiveness. Apparently every living thing has this gene; it is just that some have more active ones than others. This really is the Galapagos.
Siempre Amor From the Galapagos,
Apparently the new laws are going to stick, so if any of you want to invest in Galapagos real estate, the door is now open. I’d also like to encourage anyone thinking of coming here to do so sooner rather than later as things are going to be changing fast.
This is Roland on “kid’s day” a couple of weeks back. They have this thing where the kids race around the soccer field on kids day. Birth year against birth year, boys vs boys, etc. There were five groups of seven year old boys. I had no idea about this until the morning before when Roland’s mom was telling me I had to be at the stadium, that morning. Okay, good, fine.
What scared me when I got there though (the stadium was packed with ALL the kids of the town, a smattering of parents and all the teachers) was that Roland REALLY (I don’t know why) wanted to win.
I’ve watched him for years on the soccer field. He’s really not that good at futbol. He’s the kid literally skipping around on the field, jumping up and down in the middle of the game or falling on his back if the ball goes out of bounds or the other team scores a goal while all the other kids are quite a bit more serious. So I was kind of scared what would happen when he didn’t win.
He broke late at the start, but then he stepped on it and got ahead. Didn’t stop, kept pulling ahead. Never looked back. Left them all far behind. People where slapping me on the back, “You have a champion for a son!”
They took the winners of the five groups for the final race. This time Roland was the first out of the gates, ran for all he was worth, led all of the way into the home stretch, but got passed by three kids a few yards from the finish. He just ran out of gas, was up against some real gazelles. I had a job trying to hide my tears from the other mom’s and dads for both races.
“Flights to the Galapagos islands were canceled for the day last Friday and Ecuadorean soldiers fired tear gas to clear roads blocked by residents protesting cost-cutting legislation that will strip them of subsidies they call essential to absorb high living costs.
Hundreds took part in the nine-hour strike Friday on the two main islands of the archipelago popular with tourists made famous by naturalist Charles Darwin.
Ecuador’s National Assembly overturned on Tuesday a 1978 law giving public employees on the islands a wage subsidy that effectively doubled their salaries. Private workers have been getting a 75 percent subsidy on top of their wages.
The 25,000 inhabitants of the islands, which are 600 miles from Ecuador’s coast, also lose the right to fly free of charge to and from the mainland.”
That article makes it sound as if the people here are just boo-whooing over wages. Residents don’t get to fly free of charge back and forth from the mainland ($297 R/T). The article also missed a few of the more salient points, some of which were covered by a CNH Tours press release:
“Over the past 2 years, the government of Ecuador has been reviewing the Special Law for Galapagos (SLG) – a law originally passed in 1998, which gives the islands and its residents special status, and providing a legal framework that overrides the national constitution, in an effort to better control development there. It has been considered a major achievement even at the international level.
The revised law, passed earlier this week, loosens some of these controls, making large investments in high end hotels easier, as well as making easier the changing of the boundaries of the National Park. Moreover, the “remote” status of the islands, which translated into a type of salary bonus for public employees there, is being revised in such a way as to reduce the isolation bonus they have been enjoying for nearly 20 years now.
As a result of these and other changes, people in Galapagos have been demonstrating against the Quito government in recent days. Sure, a good number are simply concerned over the risk to their pay scales – but others are concerned about the erosion of environmental protection guarantees.
The government, in response, has sent in more police to the islands, protecting gas stations and the like. There have been some public demonstrations and some stand-offs with police forces – but no violence has been reported.
CNH Tours is of course very concerned that increased development in the islands (largely driven by land based tourism – as ship based tourism has been remarkably capped for 15-20 years) will contribute to the erosion of the values for which they are internationally recognized.
For those of you visiting the islands in the coming days (perhaps weeks), if you are taking “just the cruise” with no land component, you will likely not even notice any of this. For those of you planning on spending time in town (particularly in San Cristobal), you may get to witness interesting moments. While you may want to stay out of the thick of things, these are interesting moments when society seeks to get a message across to a government based in a far away capital.”
What both articles failed to mention were the reasons for the changing of the law in the first place and that government workers throughout the entire country are having their wages cut. The short answer to the reason for changing the law in the first place is that the government of Ecuador is going broke for several reasons, but owing mostly to the decline in the price of crude oil. The Galapagos is now categorically for sale. That’s what the riots in the Galapagos are about for most of us.
Yesterday early morning the volcano “Wolf” erupted on Isabela. Its last eruption was more than thirty years ago. The first I heard about this was from one of our passengers who had a flight from Isabela to Baltra that morning; they flew right by it.
The eruption does not threaten any inhabitants, nor will it disrupt any tourism services. For a while some naturalists where concerned about the pink Galapagos land iguana which can only be found on the slopes around the rim of the volcano, but the eruption (likely to last several days or weeks) has occurred on the far side of the volcano from where the main colony exists.
The last volcanic eruption here in the Galapagos occurred in 2005. The volcano Sierra Negra (also on Isabela) spewed lava for almost two weeks. Most of the lava spilled into the caldera with only about thirty percent of it running down the side, which fortunately happened to be the far side from where people live on Isabela.
The caldera of Sierra Negra is the second largest caldera of an active volcano in the world. It is basically round with a diameter of ten kilometers. Essentially flat in the middle ringed by nearly vertical hundred to two hundred foot cliffs atop which grow all kinds of trees and bushes. Unless you are looking into the caldera, it is hard to conceive you are walking around on an active volcano.
Before the eruption of Galapagos volcano, Sierra Negra in 2005, scientists had been monitoring the bottom of the caldera and had noticed the entire ten kilometer disk had risen five meters. After the eruption it returned to its original height. It has been rising ever since and is now up three meters from where it was.
The volcanos in the Galapagos are all “shield” volcanos. They tend to erupt out the sides of the caldera or the slopes of the volcano itself. In 1974 Sierra Negra did just that, resulting in an area which is currently referred to as Volcano Chico and is a popular visitor site. It looks something like you might imagine the moon to look with areas and tubes still smoldering hot.
San Cristobal, Galapagos, Ecuador. A radical environmental group “BOTCHED” (Because Others Teach Children How Environments Die) is claiming responsibility for the sabotage of three cargo ships operating in the Galapagos waters. A spokeswoman for the group would not agree to meet with me over drinks or give me her name, but did text me the following along with a provocative photo, “Iv government of Ecuador no limit number of visitors Galapagos, “Weez will limit how they supply.”
In the past six months three of the four cargo ships that supply the Galapagos from the mainland have been “puts out of actions”. That is a direct quote from my BOTCHED source. In all three cases the authorities have been “Scrazzing their follicles” as all three seemed to have happened for no good reason. “Weez reason.”
On May 9, 2014 The cargo ship “Galapaface1”, weighed its anchor from the bottom of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal and for reasons unknown motored in the direction where the prevailing winds could only blow it onto the reef at Cerola, just to the right hand side of the harbor. Some sources suggested, since the captain was sleeping at the time that the first mate had been paid off by investors disappointed in last minute changes in their negotiations and were looking to recover their investment through insurance claims. It cost the Ecuadorean government 3 million dollars to get that ship off the reef, towed outside of Galapagos waters and sunk.
On November 17, 2014 The cargo ship “San Cristobal” sank 25 miles off the coast of Ecuador en route to the Galapagos. It began listing and then sank. All crew were recovered. Some sources sited, “Over loading and non-existent maintenance” as causes.
On Jan. 28, 2015 The cargo ship “Floreana” weighed its anchor and then proceeded to make a hard left directly onto the rocks on the left hand side of the harbor. Some sources have suggested the Captain was drunk. Whoever was at the helm was not driving a vessel at seventy miles an hour down a freeway. The Ecuadorean government declared a state of emergency in the Galapagos, hoping to get someone else to pay for the removal of this ship which is still just sitting out there not fifty yards off a small beach with its bow parked firmly on the rocks and stern low in the water.
Many of you have noticed prime time TV ads and a Super Bowl ad about coming to Ecuador. Take a guess at what that advertising investment was.
I’m joking around about the BOTCHED environmental group. These three ships did sink though, well not the third yet.
It is kind of serious here though, food shortages and such, escalating prices for the fewer goods that are available. I’m not sure how bad it will get. It used to be sometimes the island would run out of cheese or cooking gas or flour or toilet paper. I have never once seen a shortage of beer or rum. I don’t expect the next few months will be any more difficult than using napkins for toilet paper or cooking over a barbeque. However those few of you who are reading this and traveling with us soon be advised, restaurants are likely not to be supplied as well. Do not be surprised if I ask you to bring an extra piece of luggage. We’ll handle all the extra costs and a man to handle it for you at the airport. Not to worry, it won’t be full of contraband, might be full of toilet paper.
The two cargo ships that “ran aground”; the Galapaface 1 (what a name) and the Floreana had both delivered all of the cargo slated for San Cristobal and were heading for Floreana, then Isabela and then Santa Cruz. They had all kinds of things on board. A truck in both cases, a car in another, supplies for everyone on those three islands, restaurants, hardware stores, everything. So you know what happened of course; once word spread everyone from all of those islands who had any cargo on those ships arrived here to try to get their stuff, whatever it was (bottled water in some cases) off that cargo ship.
Try to imagine this, getting a truck off a reefed cargo ship without a crane, claiming what is yours without anyone over seeing packing slips etc.
We’re getting better at it. The problem is we’re not quite as proficient as we might be and we’re running out of ships to practice on.
Very few people stock provisions for the future, stores the same way. They have what they have on their shelves because the boat is coming tomorrow to replenish it.
There will very likely not be a boat tomorrow for some months.
My guess is that the Ecuadorean navy is going to help out with this a little. They posted up a boat which ferried things off the reefed cargo ships to Isabela, Floreana and Santa Cruz. Maybe they’ll use there one military cargo airplane to help.
If you are at all interested, you ought to check out Cecilia Alvear’s web site, galapagosdigital.com. She has done a great job of tracking down information and presenting it in a form that will not upset the authorities. Another web site you might visit is SOSgalapagos.com, these guys are the only ones here actually attempting to fight putting a mega hotel up Cerola point. They have to be careful too about what they publish as long they wish to live in this “democratic” nation.
This is just business as usual here. My point is not to alarm anyone, but simply inform.
“Feliz Fin del Ano”! (Happy New Year or End of the Year as we call it here)
In Ecuador, the focus is more about what happened the year before and saying good bye to it rather than looking forward to the next year, though we do that too. For example, people who want to travel in the coming year will at midnight walk around the block with a suitcase in their hand. If they really want to travel they might fill the suitcase with bricks.
What almost everyone does is build a human size doll called a “muneco”, using some sticks for a frame, old clothes stuffed with straw or newspaper for body, legs and arms, a paper mache head, stuffed old gloves for hands, old shoes for feet. You might set a hat or sun glasses. You then write a list of everything you are saying good-bye to, the good and the bad. You might put this note in a pocket of the muneco if you prefer it be private or pin it to the chest if not. At midnight you put a match to the year you have just finished and watch it go up in flames. At midnight the streets are lined with these homages. (see photo of 2014 ascending to the heavens).
As is normal for this time of year I work through Xmas and the end of the year with our Galapagos Tours. We limit the number of groups we can handle to three. I need to be available to back up our guides, coordinate contingencies (lost luggage, missed flights, hotel snafus, etc.). In the last eight years there has not been one when one of our guides didn’t “go down” (get sick, have family emergencies, etc.). So, I plan on it, expect that I will have to personally escort visiting “hearts” through their once in a life time experience of the Galapagos. Most years I also get to do at least a part of this with my son, which as you can imagine is a Christmas present in itself. This year was no different.
Santa Claus also brought me two wonderful families; one of which is
Maybe five times a week, for the past ten years I have been swimming out into the bay to where the ships are anchored. It is not uncommon for a sea lion to follow me all the way out and back or to see rays and sea turtles and of course all kinds of fish. People have said, “You’re swimming an awful long way out.” It’s only a couple hundred yards. “Aren’t you afraid?” In ten years I had never seen anything to be afraid of out there until the other day. What I do is swim out to this spot where there is a rock at the bottom, about a square meter, shaped like an arrow head and it sits on a sand bed which gives it a nice relief, about forty feet down. What I like to do is swim down and touch it. It’s kind of like my destination. Forty feet is pretty deep if you are snorkeling, I have to clear my nose a few times before I get there and then rather than sprinting back up to the surface for air, I just let myself gently float up. It’s relaxing and I’m pretty sure uses less oxygen. So there I am floating gently back towards the surface when coming from below, my mask is filled with the vision of the bottom of a shark’s nose, then mouth and underside of head. His white belly scrapes mine, his side fins and my arms tangle together for a moment. Then he levels himself, right at my waist, within the grasp of my arms, we separate and he just sits there about ten feet off, looking at me, a seven-eight foot, I’m not sure what, except that it wasn’t a white tip or Galapagos shark. I’m still floating toward the surface and he’s just staring at me, making up his mind about what to do next I imagine, so I swim at him. He turns and jets away. I keep floating toward the surface eyeing the direction he went. At the surface, check to see if I’m bleeding anywhere, sometimes you don’t feel things in those situations. No blood, I swim in. But that was weird. All I can figure is he thought I was a sea lion and he was going to come at me from below and strike, but changed his mind at the last possible instant; sea lions don’t “float” to the surface from that deep. Seemed like a pretty small, aggressive shark to be attacking a sea lion as big as me. I remember the thought crossing my mind to wrap my arms around him. I absolutely could have done it when out bellies scraped and then as he was getting himself level. That is the only time I have ever seen any kind of shark out there. I would have preferred a different kind of shark and a little more distance. My fisherman buddy said, “Be more careful next time.” And he smiled his “you silly gringo” smile. These guys have some stories, killer whales checking out lobster divers in the middle of the night, all kinds of wild things beyond your imagination. Just so you all know, the shark mentioned above is a pelagic shark, doesn’t live here. They show up around this time of year as the water temperature is changing and are responsible for the only two shark attacks in the last ten years, both of which happened just before sunset to surfers who were out at remote locations. The sharks generally feed at night. My encounter I imagined happened because it was early in the morning. There is a very common saying here, “In Australia, when someone yells ‘Shark!’ everyone gets out of the water. In the Galapagos when someone yells ‘Shark!’ everyone gets in.” We have some pretty docile sharks here and no visitor has ever had a bad encounter. We routinely look for white tipped reef sharks, small hammer heads and Galapagos sharks to show to our guests, during their Galapagos tour. It doesn’t happen all the time. Contact us at www.cometogalapagos.com Happy New Year! Siempre Amor From The Galapagos