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Galàpagos - Paradise Lost

By Sue Richards last modified Jun 14, 2008 04:54 PM

Published: 2008-06-14 16:54:37
Topics: Environment
Countries: Galapagos

March 2008

The name smells of adventure and natural-history explorations, and the islands are truly unique, as is the fauna and flora. But in the Galàpagos over population, mass tourism and the introduction of foreign species are causing the largest crisis the islands have faced in several million years.

We set sail from Balboa knowing that we weren’t going to encounter a single moment of wind on our passage towards the Galàpagos. So we chose to motor all the way. Others that have tried to sail, have spent from 22 to 40 days on the leg. We did not have the time as we were scheduled to rendezvous with family in Easter Island, for ……. the Easter holidays. Plus, we still had more than 200 litres of diesel on board, that we had purchased as far back in time and space as Las Palmas. This diesel was going off from condensation and parasites, so the choice was easy. We spent exactly seven days getting to the Galàpagos, and were most happy as we dropped anchor in Bahia del Academia on the island of St. Cruz.

Then we had to get through the red tape required to clear in. Almost 500 dollars later, and under orders not to move anywhere unless we had a certified guide at 100-200 dollars a day with us, we were finally ready to explore the islands for a few days. By then, we had received so many weird instructions from the port captain and the “agent” that he ordered us to use for clearing in, that we had almost thrown the towel in. Apparently, Ecuador has a warning- registration- and surveillance system for yachts intending to visit the country, so advanced that yachties don’t know about it, and the navy has no clue as to how to use it. Subsequently, they use civilian agents, making a fat pile of cash doing the job that the military was supposed to do. Marvellous!

Galàpagos consists of 13 volcanic islands and 34 skerries and rocks, and has a unique fauna and flora. The animals in Galàpagos have lived in segregation from the rest of the world, and from man, for millions of years. Hence, they are tame and have developed in other directions than their relatives elsewhere. The islands are literally crawling with reptiles and little animals, differing in size from a couple of inches to a few feet.

We went snorkelling, mountain trekking on the volcano Negro - one of the highest points in the islands - and wandered about where we were allowed to. The usually barren lava terrain is impressively green in many places, and both trees and plants thrive in the sulphurous soil. The sheer dimensions of the volcano Negro, 1,300 metres above sea level , are enormous. The circumference of the crater is 10 kilometres, and it is a four-day horseback trek. The last eruption happened as recently as a couple of years ago.

During the Norwegian colonization in the 1920s and 30s, many Norwegians emigrated to the Galàpagos, seeking their fortune. Not many of them are left in the islands today, but one of them is Thorvaldo Kastdalen. He speaks fluent Norwegian and has made his grandfather’s farm, the “Vista del Mar”, into a museum. It reminded us of the Norwegian folk museum back home. Thorvaldo was kind enough to give us a tour around the museum, and we saw many Norwegian artefacts as we wandered through the buildings. Thorvaldo has visited Norway, but is the only Norwegian-Galàpagosian in St. Cruz that speaks Norwegian and feels a connection with Norway.

Unfortunately the effects of sex tourism, overpopulation and mass tourism have raised the alarm with UNESCO and other organisations, who fear that this little paradise 1000 kilometres out to sea, may completely disappear in the course of the coming decades. Unemployed Ecuadorians flood the islands, and the population is now up to almost 20,000 people. This, in islands that weren’t permanently populated at all. Many are still on the dole, and live in slums, hoping to wet their beaks in the lucrative tourist-industry. In addition, natural phenomena like El Nino, have made some marine species start migrating away from the Galàpagos. Many of those migrating to the Galàpagos from Ecuador make their living as fishermen. This creates a conflict between the fishermen and the marine predators. Recently, 53 sea lions were found hacked to death on one of the islands in the archipelago.

In a bid to control the situation, Ecuador has introduced an environmental fee for all tourists coming to the islands. The problem is that only 25% of this money goes towards environmental issues, the rest is being squandered by an incompetent bureaucracy.

Whilst Underveis was at anchor in St. Cruz, both the World ARC and Blue Water Rally fleets came passing by, and the lagoon was crammed with sailing boats in all sizes, from all around the world. We enjoyed ourselves during our visit to the islands, knowing that as a yachtsman, one is far more environmental in ones travels than people travelling by say, airplane. But ironically, as things have come to pass in the Galàpagos over the last decades, the best you can do in order to contribute to the preservation of this natural jewel, is simply not to go there.

Rune Ellingsen
SV Underveis