Friday, September 2, 2011

Galapagos at a Crossroads

The Galapagos Islands are famous. They are known by children and adults all over the world. The name brings to mind Darwin, Evolution, Blue-Footed Boobies, Lonesome George, and white sandy beaches with jet black volcanic rock. Those are the images that came to my mind when my family decided to take a trip there this summer. While I did get to see all those things I also learned so much more about the islands and the history and current political situation in the islands is actually quite complex and fascinating. The tile of this post was inspired by the wonderful book Galapagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists and Creationists Battle for Darwin’s Cradle of Evolution by the great writer Carol Ann Bassett. This book really opened my eyes to the precarious state of the Galapagos Islands and made me appreciate my experience there tenfold! I write a lot on this blog about being a responsible tourist and I really think that the first step to being a responsible eco-tourist in the Galapagos is to read this book! The book goes through step by step the history of the islands and the current threats to them which range from global warming and climate change killing off endangered species during El Nino, to irresponsible tourist companies dumping garbage in the water, to the corrupt Ecuadorian government allowing the fisherman to run free and ignore their quotas and decimate the oceans. The week after I got back a fisherman boat was caught with 357 dead sharks on it most likely for shark fin soup on their way to Asia. Shark finning is illegal as is going above the quota for sea cucumbers (an expensive delicacy in China), but that doesn’t stop the fishermen from fishing. Some of the fishermen are like pirates and have burned down houses, kidnapped endangered tortoises and rioted in the streets when they don’t get their way. Not all of them are like that though and simply don’t know any other trade in life and a few years back local dive masters like Mathias Espinosa and Jack Nelson from Scuba Iguana taught the fisherman to lead dives, but now the corrupt government is taking away the rights of these pioneer masters and giving all the licenses to the fishermen. It is very complicated and I won’t go too much more into it here. Instead I suggest you read the book!

Now I know some of you just want to go the islands and have a fun vacation and look at the pretty animals- and that’s great you are entitled to that. However there is no denying that the Galapagos Islands are in danger and tourists are a big part of the problem. There is also the fact that if we don’t change the direction we’re going in while you are entitled to go the islands and have fun you are stripping future generations of that right because the unique fauna that makes the islands so magical will be extinct. Do make sure you research the company you go with properly and use your head to make smart decisions- if it seems wrong it is wrong! Don’t touch the animals, don’t litter, don’t remove anything from the islands or bring anything organic to them. I always suggest going with local companies to support local economies like I did in the Amazon. However, in the Galapagos that is hard to do. I did a weeklong trip based on land by myself, which was a total disaster, and a week on a boat with my family and a friend, which was wonderful. Land based tourism in the Galapagos is a mess and is not properly set up. I will talk a lot more about it in my next post, but as much as it saddens me to say this I don’t recommend land based trips- go on a boat! It is more organized, you will see more and hopefully you will learn more. The park rangers used to be very educated, but now it doesn’t take much to qualify and many of them are sons and daughters of local fishermen who have a lot of misinformation and many have been influenced by creationist Christian groups that have come to the islands and don’t believe in evolution. Even on my boat, which was supposed to have top of the line naturalists I was given startlingly inaccurate information many times, which is again why I suggest to read Carol Ann Bassett’s book! Make sure you research any guides you book because there are some wonderful ones out there- I got to spend half a day with Mathias Espinosa on Isabela during my land based portion of the trip and that afternoon was the one redeeming moment of the entire week!

Don’t let what I’m saying above discourage you from visiting the islands! They are an amazing unique ecosystem with thousands of endemic species of flora and fauna and a nature lover’s paradise!

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