Protecting the Galapagos Islands: What Visitors Need to Know

by Shelley Seale

It is a land where time seems to stand still. Giant tortoises roam uninhabited islands, birds have evolved to be flightless due to a lack of predators, and creatures exist that are found nowhere else on the planet.

They are the Galapagos Islands, made famous for inspiring Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution with its unique animal species that have adapted to a life here so different than elsewhere on earth.

Credit: Shelley Seale

Credit: Shelley Seale

I recently had the incredible opportunity to go on a seven-day Galapagos wildlife cruise with Ecoventura, one of the most eco-friendly and sustainable tourism companies in the Ecuadorian archipelago. We set off from San Cristobal, on a path that crossed the equator six times and visited seven islands during the week. Hiking, snorkelling and kayaking were all part of the activities to view the islands and their unique ecosystems and wildlife.

One of the most unusual aspects of Galapagos wildlife is how unafraid they are, how completely unperturbed they are by people. Because they are protected and mostly have no natural predators, they really fear little and see no threat from humans in modern times. They do not flee—there is no searching and waiting to spot wildlife. Our Ecoventura guides were clear about the rules not to touch or interact with the animals, but you can literally walk right up to them—iguanas, birds in their nests with babies, sea lions who will swim right up to the boat.

Credit: Shelley Seale

Credit: Shelley Seale

But this innocence can also be their downfall, if they’re not properly protected. “The Islands retain a staggering 95 percent of their endemic species, a feat unparalleled on any other archipelago in the world, ” says Santiago Dunn, owner of Ecoventura. “Keeping Galapagos biologically pristine has been, and continues to be, a constant and hard-waged battle. Tourism to this remote volcanic archipelago is both part of the solution and also part of the problem.”

This means it’s vital for both tourism operators and visitors to the islands to be responsible, and aware of what they should and shouldn’t do in order to protect and sustain this unique ecosystem.

Ecoventura suggests:

  • Navigating at night means fewer daylight hours are lost while spent in transit and passengers have more time on the islands. Tour boats, also called liveaboards, visit the islands and wildlife in the early morning and late afternoon, when wildlife is more active and the sun less intense.
  • Liveaboards are self-contained and have less impact on the local limited resources. They’re also convenient—all the planning and logistics are done, the itinerary is set, all meals are provided, and you only have to pack and unpack once.
Credit: Shelley Seale

Credit: Shelley Seale

The International Galapagos Tour Operators Association also provides a few other tips for visitors to the Galapagos:

  • Do not take any food or drink other than water to the uninhabited islands. Do not touch or feed the animals. A distance of six feet between you and an animal is required. Also, do not allow them to touch you.
  • Ask your tour operator if they have a responsible tourism policy. Only travel with operators that can demonstrate they are doing as much as they can to support conservation efforts and ensure that local people benefit as a result of tourism.
  • Consider your environmental impact when travelling. Fully cooperate with environmental inspection and quarantine services personnel during your visit. Introduced plants, animals and certain foods not native to the islands are a serious threat to the delicate ecosystems there.
  • Do not buy souvenirs or objects made of native plants or animals from the islands, especially black coral, volcanic rocks, native woods, sea lion teeth or tortoise shells.
  • Travel with a local tour operator. Ensuring that tourism is of maximum benefit to local people is key to the sustainable development of the islands.

“The proximity to wildlife was profound, ” says Judy Pinn, an Ecoventura client. “It was sometimes impossible to keep a respectful distance from birds and animals as we followed trails that took us within inches of nesting frigate birds and boobies sitting with their eggs or chicks, or when we picked our way across black lava, dodging well camouflaged marine iguanas warming themselves.”

Credit: Shelley Seale

Credit: Shelley Seale

Pinn also gained a deeper sense of understanding evolution on her journey. “When I saw a flightless cormorant with its stunted wings, its nest of seaweed right on the rocks by the sea, its complete lack of fear of us, due to its lack of predators, then I understood why it no longer needed wings to fly.”

Committing to being a responsible tourist will help to ensure that Galapagos tourism is sustainable in the future, for wildlife to thrive and for visitors to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience.


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