Galapagos enter the wilderness!
Marine iguanas, giant tortoises, finches, Darwin, the origin of life … This is what attracted us to these remote islands in the Pacific. And we haven’t been disappointed!
The nice thing is that we can get very close to these unique species, they are fearless because accustomed to be respected on their territory. Although one must always keep a minimum distance of 2metres with animals (but most of the time, the animals themselves don’t respect this distance..) which is already very close and allows us to sit quietly with giant tortoises, blue footed boobies or iguanas watching them in their daily lives.
who was observing who …
We also had the privilege to swim with sea lions, whose behavior reminds me a lot of dogs: they bark, play with pieces of wood and have almost the same mouth that canines. The most playful are the young ones. They come to touch us with their rough mustaches, or make bubbles just before our mask or throw a sea cucumber before us, shaking his head quickly, to encourage us to play with them and catch it. We so enjoyed this complicity with these wild animals in their natural environment.
The low attendance of sites, beaches and trails, the breathtaking landscapes added much to our pleasure to meet these animals. We have often been alone on trails and on most sites. Certainly we were off the high touristic season, but also the government of Ecuador has chosen an elitist tourism, therefore stays are very expensive: so few tourists who pay the big price. The idea is to keep substantial revenues avoiding mass tourism, the later could be detrimental to the park. The islands of the Galapagos are a huge protected national park in the middle of the Pacific ocean, the rules are strict. One cannot go diving without a guide and trek circuits are often well organized and well supervised. But there are many free treks on land and under water too that can be enjoyed on your own and where you can see plenty of animals of all kinds. Although, the best way to visit these islands, in my opinion, is a cruise aboard a “crusero”. Certainly this is not our way to visit a country, but I think the cruising ships optimize a short stay. They stop on each island and offer tours that go to the basics and make you discover the uniqueness of each island in a very short time.
As for us we were able to avoid the “touristic tours” because we had time. Time to find the guide that would take us alone to isolated places, time to enjoy greatly the wild beaches near our anchorage or walks around the islands once the groups of tourists were gone and time to enjoy the numerous trek paths (by foot or bicycle) organized free of charge by the National Park. We made few dives (90 to $150 a day depending on the site, low season rates…) to see more closely eagle rays, manta rays, sea turtles, seahorse, small penguins, Galapagos sharks and even hammerhead sharks!
Time also allowed us to meet with the locals, on Isabella, San Cristobal as well as Santa Cruz, which would have been impossible if we stayed only few days. We witnessed that tourists stayed in general only 2 to 4 days on the islands therefore the locals didn’t feel like meeting them if not to sell their tours or a hotel room.
During our 2 months stay in the islands, we were the only sailing boat in the Galapagos. After a week in the same port, the locals started to befriend with us, invite us to their homes, share the beauty of their islands and the richness of their history with us but also the disadvantages and difficulties of living in the Galapagos. Tourism revenues (guides, 4×4 or boat trips, hotel trade) are not equitably shared and mainly benefit few families and organizations. Recently the government changed the rules and now the income of the National Park (entrance fees and taxes) go directly to the government of Ecuador and expenses of the park are managed from the continent. This action was taken to limit local corruption. It is certainly effective, but also deprives local institutions of their reactivity and adaptability to the needs. The Park Rangers have now fewer means to monitor this huge area, so the structures are suffering from this change and poaching is starting to be common.
While we, sailboats, are watched very closely: prohibition to fish, clean the hull of the boat, to visit some sites in the park without a guide … we observed near the coast fishermen within the forbidden 40 miles park area, the hooks catching without choosing sharks, turtles and other protected species, and empty the “pantry” of local species. I was also surprised to see the lobster fishermen with their compressors, which certainly respect the breeding season, but still fishing a big quantity to sell their goods locally and exportation too! This type of fishing with compressor is apparently legal and fishermen were even surprised to know that it is forbidden elsewhere. These fishermen are also emptying their sea of the famous sea cucumbers, which the Chinese are crazy off. But sea cucumbers do not have the same appeal as tortoises or sea lions. If we blame human to have overexploited tortoises (mainly for their meat and for their fat, which oil was used in the lampposts in the cities of the continent), the future seems less interesting for cucumbers. But beware … the revenge of the masked cucumber! !
Our extended stay thus allowed us to witness this complex paradox between respecting the National park and its essential rules, and finding incomes for everyone. Many fishermen and young farmers have turned into tourist guides and have significantly improved their earnings. But the desire to limit the number of visitors (taxes and park entry fees increase substantially each year to be limited to wealthy tourists) do not offer opportunities to those who wish to change jobs. The higher parts of the islands, cooler and humid benefit to agriculture and livestock, but again, young people lose interest. Which is a shame: they produce quality and fruits and vegetables without chemicals and soil is free from many of the diseases that exist on the continent. Oranges, lemons, tangerines, grapefruit, passion fruits, guayavas, pineapples and other fruits are delicious and were offered to us in large quantities. The meat is of good quality and hunters bring back the wild pig, goat sometimes. The Ecuadorian gastronomy does not leave us indifferent, and I believe I have taken a few kilos during our stay …
We met some wonderful people conscious of the fragility of their heritage, but we also witnessed a growing consumerism (fashion super androids and brand clothing) that we found awkward on these islands… Everyone wants his super plasma screen, Oakley glasses and Reef shoes. Taxes in Ecuador are up 100%, which must be added to the cost of transportation, so the price of a branded t-shirt or the latest phone, the Galapagos, 2 to 3 times the US price! So my conscience asks, “how can we combine a consumerist society with the most unique protected Natural Park in the world? “. Fortunately we met the young (few), full of enthusiasm and admiration for the surrounding nature, preferring, for example, buy a wetsuit and diving equipment than an i-phone. I think there is a real effort to make to educate young people sensibility to the precious environment in which they live.
The first generations arrived virgin and hostile country and had to build everything. These pioneers created agriculture and livestock, which now allow these islands to have a relative autonomy. The new generations are living on these gains and inheritance of land that have taken tremendous value.
And Darwin in all this? In fact, compared to the time he spent on these islands, the impact of this call on his memories was very important but if he had had more time, he would have surely deepened his observations of evolution beyond the finches to the giant tortoises for example who have adapted differently on each island. For us mere visitors, the characteristics of tortoises and their adaptability on each island is much easier to see (such as a longer neck on islands where the food was higher to access).
My best memory is swimming with sea lions.
We can, without bothering them, observe them and play together. Once, one of them came to me, curious like me. Its black eyes watched me and were picking my every move. I was playing imitation, putting myself on the back, head down, “drinking” a gulp of air at the surface from time to time, blowing bubbles in its direction. So I plunged turning and it was the sea lion who started to imitate me and sped like an arrow between my legs. What an agility! After 10 minutes of play, I was exhausted, out of breath … has it returned to its sealion friends.