Galapagos Revisited | June 8th, 2010

My first sight of Galapagos was back in 1964, a time when most of the world knew very little about these remarkable islands. In those days there were no flights and there was only one supply boat, the Cristobal Carrier which trudged noisily out to the islands every month or so, its arrival a big event. The only permanent electricity in Puerto Ayora was at the Charles Darwin Foundation where it was needed to run the recently installed seismograph, the village had none! I spent the next 15 years in Puerto Ayora, living a very basic and at times difficult, but always enjoyable life.

I was fortunate enough to revisit Galapagos in November last year. My son Daniel, a Galapagos native, and his wife Tina have been living there for the last 13 years and had decided to move to the mainland, so it seemed like a good idea to pay them a visit and to introduce my partner, Jayne, to the islands that had had such an impact on Charles Darwin, the World, and on me.

The big change is of course in the number of people, back in 1964 there were barely 2000 people living in Galapagos, now there are well over 30,000. The village of Puerto Ayora which used to have one store and no eatery of any description is now a noisy bustling town of nearly 20,000, sadly lacking any real planning or infrastructure, and so full of stores and eateries that it seems that is what most people must do. Here you start to get an idea of the problems that such a large influx of people have, disposal of rubbish is a constant problem, and lack of a good water and sewage system another. Then of course there are all the introduced plants in the gardens, some of which are likely to become invasive.

There is though good work being done and we visited two schools where the children are keenly aware of the importance and uniqueness of their environment, and the National Park and Darwin Foundation have strong educational programmes to help get the message across.

On the business front, I met with Gabriel Lopez, the new Chief Executive of the Charles Darwin Foundation. He has a lot of experience with other NGOs and is clearly very capable of making the CDF an effective organisation, not just on the science side, but also in being effective locally with the local people, who must be on-side if we are to succeed. I also met with Mark Gardener, the head of science at CDF and discussed with him the future role that FOGNZ could play in Galapagos

After the rather mixed feelings resulting from a week in Puerto Ayora, we then had an amazing week out in the islands on a very comfortable 16 passenger yacht. Our fellow passengers were mainly Americans, and quite a mixed bunch, but they were good company. The trip, as any of you have visited the islands will know, was quite tiring, the boats operate on quite tight schedules and there always seems to be something happening, time to get up, eat, on shore, back on board, snorkelling, another meal, a lecture, back on shore, a dingy ride, another lecture, another meal, not a lot of time to relax.

Since I left Galapagos in 1979, I have been back many times, and each time I have been impressed by the resilience of the ecosystem and the wildlife, this time maybe more so. We visited a couple of places that I had not been to for 40 years, and they were as good, if not better than then. Interestingly, with our much expanded knowledge and understanding of Galapagos, there are now more interesting places to visit than I knew about when I was living there. What always amazes me about the place is that each visiting site is so different from the last, sure you can get a bit blasé about the sea lions, but with a good guide, and our guide Richard Polatty, was very good, there is so much to learn and enjoy and to wonder at.

After two weeks in the islands I left with some very good impressions, so much of the wildlife is in good shape and thriving, and the visitor sites are surviving very well. While there were other boats at the sites we visited, they were never a problem, and the new system of itineraries that the Park is introducing over the next two years will reduce the pressure on the most popular sites. In future boats will have a two week itinerary, but split into two halves, so that you take either one half, or the other, or if you are feeling very wealthy, both.

There were however a few negatives, small matters like a local fishing boat catching bait illegally, many fishermen sadly pay little attention to the rules. I saw someone in Puerto Ayora with a very large compressed air harpoon gun, these are completely illegal in Galapagos, as they should be everywhere as they are a good way to ruin a fishery. Most of all though my concern was for the introduced pest plants that are causing serious problems, first among these is ‘Mora’ or Blackberry. It is a problem here in New Zealand, but in Galapagos, with a year round growing season and plenty of finches to spread the seeds, it is a disaster.  I saw it personally at Media Luna  in the highlands of Santa Cruz. The Park has made good progress in getting rid of the introduced Quinine or Cinchona tree which was taking over the Miconia Zone, however while the Miconia is making a comeback, the Mora is appearing faster and is going to be a real and ongoing problem. Worse still, it is on some of the uninhabited islands. On Santiago, the removal of the pigs and goats has resulted in the appearance of Mora, 4000 hectares of blackberry will take an awful lot of controlling, let alone clearing! It was only half-jokingly suggested to me that re-introducing goats might be a solution!

So yes, lots of good things to report, and an amazing and unforgettable experience, but very serious problems too that will have to be tackled and funded, if we hope to be able to keep the islands and their wildlife in a reasonably pristine condition. The battle against the alien species, especially plants and invertebrates is the real battle in Galapagos.