This Great Blue Heron, one of the first organisms to greet us upon arrival in the Galapagos, sure doesn't seem to mind the tourists. All photos credit Collin Dunn.
The Galapagos Islands are like no place on earth. The Galapagos Islands have too many tourists. The Galapagos Islands have some of the most interesting, unique plants, animals, landscape, and scenery in the world. The Galapagos Islands aren't prepared to maintain the level of conservation necessary to preserve the natural wonder of this place in the face of increasing human impact.
A case can be made for all of the above, and in some ways, it's easy to see (once you're here) that all are true, in varying degrees. It's a very complicated issue, in a place with increasing influences coming from all different angles. For better or worse, there aren't any easy answers, either, but there are a couple of quick case studies that can help showcase what the islands are up against when it comes to the burgeoning desire (of many) for more tourism.
Yep, that's a helicopter on the back of the yacht. Y'now, in case you don't want to swim or snorkel.
A Snapshot of Current Tourism Practices
In an afternoon, the teachers and I snorkeled with sea lions, tortoises, and too many fish to count at La Loberia ("the place of the sea lions"), snapped photos of Brown Pelicans, Blue-Footed Boobies, Magnificent Frigatebirds (which I was amused to learn is actually their given name, though they are indeed quite magnificent), and Great Blue Herons, and walked to a beach that hundreds of Marine Iguanas call home, and that was all after lunch. It was busy, magnificent, and really pretty easy to do one after another. Who wouldn't want to do that?
Currently, 98 percent of the islands are part of Galapagos National Park, which is designed to keep the Galapagos protected. Guides are required for most every excursion, and a permitting system limits where guides and groups can go -- we were allowed in the water off La Loberia, but not on the beach, where a biologist was camping and literally living among the many sea lions sunning themselves in the sand and on the rocks. Jaime Dominguez, our guide and naturalist certified by the Park to shepherd us around the island, told us it's a lengthy, difficult process to obtain a permit to do such work -- not only do you really have to want it, but you have to prove you can do so without wrecking anything.
The National Park has a bunch of rules -- mostly "No's" -- about how to act there: No smoking, no eating or drinking, no wandering off the posted trails, no touching the animals (many will just let you, more on that later), no feeding the animals, no flash photography on the animals, and so forth. Given all of these parameters, everything should be fine, no?
The short answer: Sure, theoretically.The less short answer: Sure, until a less scrupulous guide allows less scrupulous behavior, is unprepared to handle a group, makes a mistake, or just can't be in enough places at once. With one guide for a group of 10, 20, or 30 people, it's very difficult to police everything. Jaime gave us all very detailed instructions about what to do, but he couldn't come in the water with us while snorkeling -- he joked that he was "doing the Baywatch thing" from the boat -- and so couldn't see when someone's knee bumped a coral in shallower water, or when a flipper flicked an immobile organism on the bay's floor. The point: Rules and regulations can only go so far, and at some point, it's up to the visitors.
Increasingly, those visitors are becoming harder to rely on, even to do the simplest things like research a bit of natural history or even look at it on a map. Our guides have a few horror stories from what they call "checkbox tourists" -- those who have heard it's really cool to come to the Galapagos, and are here to check it off the list -- who had the trip booked through a travel agent or other third party, showed up without learning what they were getting in to, and would even ask the guides to stop giving them so much interpretive information, because they just didn't care what that bird was, or how many eggs another animal typically lays. In many ways, this is not a good foundation for sustainable development.
These Marine Iguanas aren't the only ones that need water to survive around here.
Recognizing the Limits of Current Infrastructure
Back on land, we've been advised not to drink the tap water here in Puerto Ayora (and the same goes for most everywhere in Ecuador). Each room in our hotel has a little crock of safe water for drinking, but how do we get water when we're away from the hotel and our reusable bottles have run dry? It's a roll of the dice with someone else's tap water (not advisable) or, more than likely, it's a stop at that store on the corner for some bottled water, shipped in from the mainland and laden with carbon footprint.
The point in this example isn't so much that bottled water is so evil, but more a question of scale: If just two percent of the land use is available to support the visitation of 98 percent of the Islands, and the water infrastructure isn't safe enough in those two percent, how can the Islands reasonably support more tourism? Certain things will scale up without much trouble, but they can't just keep trucking in more and more bottled water for everyone to drink and expect there to be no negative consequences.
Later in the trip, we'll visit the Charles Darwin Research Station, to learn more about the ongoing conservation efforts on the islands, as well as the island's renowned Recycling Center, so I'll have more information about how those things are working with (and against, perhaps) more tourism. It could turn out that there's not that much to worry about, that the Islands really shouldn't be on the World Heritage Site's list of endangered places, but I'm skeptical. Stay tuned.
The Benefit to Education
Not lost in this process is the benefit that all 24 teachers are deriving from our experience. They don't all teach science or conservation -- there are several arts and language teachers -- but it's amazing to see them enjoying the multitude of experiences, each in their own way, and translating those into ideas that they'll take back and use in their classrooms later this year (and every year), and in their lives as well. It really is a trip of a lifetime, and the ongoing benefit they can derive from that is no small thing at all. They're some of the best at what they do, and they're taking the honor of being chosen for this trip seriously.
Perhaps somewhere in there lies at least part of the answer about tourism, too. Just as many small issues here are a matter of scale, so too is the impact those who visit here, after they leave. The less we, as a human society, try to operate in a vacuum here, and the more we're able to not just say, "Holy cow, the Galapagos is amazing, you must see it," and replace that with, "Let me show you what I learned, and let me show you how it helped change my life forever," then we may be ready to start changing the conversation about how to interact with this place.
24 of the top teachers in the U.S. have been chosen to go to the Galapagos Islands, with the Toyota International Teacher Program. The program is designed to engage a variety of conservation and education issues that the teachers can then give back to their students and communities. I'm traveling along with them to report on the trip's experiences and lessons.
More on the Galapagos
5 Things Everyone Should Know About the Galapagos: An Introduction
Should The Galapagos Be Taken Off The Endangered Sites List?
Weird and Wonderful Galapagos Wildlife Worth Saving (Slideshow)