Saturday, January 12, 2019
We had to leave the hotel in Quito at 5:30 this morning to catch a flight to our next destination. We arrived here in the dark and we are leaving in the dark. When we reached Guayaquil airport, we needed to purchase a tourist registration card. The Immigration Department here controls the number of tourists that may visit the islands on any given day.
The Galápagos Islands (official name Archipiélago de Colón) is a volcanic archipelago with 19 islands. The islands and surrounding marine reserve are located at the confluence of three ocean currents. They are isolated from other bodies of land, so that animal life has evolved in ways that are particularly adapted to their environment, different from their relatives elsewhere.
The Galápagos Islands are best known as the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. As a young man, he visited in 1835 to study the volcanic formations. While here, he was struck by how various species of bird and animal differed greatly from island to island.
The islands have been visited by many peoples, but there is no evidence of long-term occupation until the 1800’s. Ecuador annexed the Galápagos Islands in 1832, naming them the Archipelago of Ecuador. They were settled soon after by some artisans and farmers from the mainland. In the late 1800s, a few attempts were made to establish sugar cane plantations on San Cristóbal Island and Isabela Island. Over the next few decades, settlers arrived from Europe and the United States as well.
In the early 1900s, Ecuador attempted to sell the islands to raise cash. The US had expressed interest in buying them for military use, as they were strategically close to the Panama Canal, but they did not. However, the US was permitted to establish a naval base on Baltra Island during WWII. After the war, the facilities were given to the Ecuadoran government, which then established their own military base.
A large part (97.5%) of the Islands was designated a national park in 1959. The population at that time was less than 2,000 people. by 2010, the number had increased to over 25,000, many of them fishermen and farmers, who have resisted some of the restrictions imposed by the park service. There have been violent confrontations between some of the locals and the park service in the 1990s and 2000s. Illegal fishing within the reserve is a serious problem.
In 1978, UNESCO recognized the Islands as a World Heritage Site; in 1986, 27,000 square miles of ocean around the islands was a marine reserve; and in 1990, the archipelago became a whale sanctuary.
There are only about 500 native and endemic plant species here. Over the years, another 700 have been introduced, whether accidental or intentional, and they are taking over and eliminating the native species. Goats, dogs, pigs, rats, cats, mice, etc. have also been brought here, and they too are wreaking havoc on the native species on animals and plants.
We reached Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal Island, the capital city of the Galápagos Islands, in the late morning. Here we were greeted by several sea lions and iguanas, while we waited to be transferred by Zodiacs to our ship, the National Geographic Endeavour II. There are 87 passengers aboard, along with 63 staff (biologists, guides, physician and crew).
After orientation, safety briefing and lunch, we returned to town to visit a local interpretation center at the foot of Cerro Tijeretas (Frigate Bird Hill), then took a short hike to observe the natural vegetation and wildlife (including a few swimmers below the hill). There were lots of small iguanas, several bird species, and some carpenter bees along the way.
It was a vigorous walk. There are over 80 tourist ships that operate within the islands. The government regulates which island each of those ships can visit each day. They also assign specific times that the ship’s tour groups can visit each of the sites. As a result, our time is short in any one spot. Also, the sun rises around 6:00am and sets around 6:00pm, another constraint on our time. All parks must be vacated by sunset.