PUERTO AYORA, SANTA CRUZ, GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, ECUADOR — Yvonne Mórtola walks down Avendida Charles Darwin with a frown. One white Toyota pick-up truck after another passes down this two-lane asphalt road in the most populous city of the Galapagos Islands. Engine revs and muffler coughs have suffocated the sounds of nature that so signify these protected islands off the Ecuadorean coast. No longer is it easy for Santa Cruz residents like Mórtola to stand on a street corner of Avendida Charles Darwin and hear waves lapping, finches’ chirps or sea lion barks.
“This used to be a dirt road,” says Mórtola, a top-level Ecuador National Parks Service naturalist who works as a guide for tour operator Ecoventura. “I used to be able to throw a Frisbee to my dog down here, but I can’t do that anymore. It just isn’t safe on the road.”
While 97 percent of the islands are protected by the parks, it’s what’s happened to the other 3 percent that worries Mórtola and others concerned about the environment on the Galapagos. In the 1990s, migrants arrived looking to get in on one of the world’s oddest commodity booms. Call it the Great Sea Cucumber Rush. The marine animal that helps clean oceans of bacteria, algae and waste is highly coveted by the Chinese and Japanese as a delicacy and an aphrodisiac. With an abundance of sea cucumbers, the Galapagos became a focal point for the trade. Fishermen could get $1 per sea cucumber and reports said that 10,000 sea cucumbers would be shipped daily from the Galapagos. Those fishermen could sometimes catch in an hour enough sea cucumbers with an equivalent value of a week’s worth of traditional fishing.
Mórtola, who has lived on the islands for more than a quarter-century, says she remembers prostitutes on Santa Cruz earning so much money during the height of the boom that “they would light their cigarettes with $10 bills.”
The population of Santa Cruz rose nearly four-fold, reaching 10,000 before the government passed a unique policy called the Galapagos Resident Law, which states that no one can live on the islands unless they were born there, married someone who resides there or could prove they worked there prior to 1998, the year the law was enacted. Still, the population of Santa Cruz has continued to grow, reaching 16,500 as of the last census and Puerto Ayora is at 12,000 people. In recent years, the government has been expelling thousands of illegal, undocumented migrants from the island.
“You look at Santa Cruz, and it used to be a very nice community,” says Pablo Jaramillo, the captain of Eric, Ecoventura’s recently renovated yacht, and a resident of San Cristobal, the second most populous island (8,000). “But there are too many people now. You do not even know your neighbour in some cases.”
More lush than the other 12 main islands in the chain, Santa Cruz is home to the Darwin Research Station, where the giant tortoise population is being rehabilitated in a huge undertaking that involves such careful incubation of eggs that researchers can create the sex they want by manipulating the temperature. When the incubator is set to 29.5 Celsius degrees, females will be born. At 28 Celsius, a male will hatch. With the species needing to grow, more females are being created at the station.
But along with reinvigorating the tortoises, there is the need to eradicate many invasive species, which range from rats and goats to raspberries and cedar trees. Many introduced species have harmful effects on the other two types of species on the Galapagos: endemic (which arrived on the islands and had to adapt to the ecosystem to survive) and native (which arrived and did not need to adapt).
“We are an introduced species,” says Mórtola, “we are noscive, which means bad. If we do not limit the number of people who come here to live, we will not be able to maintain the Galapagos for other generations to continue the research going on here.”
The concern of man’s impact on the environment is countered by our impact on Ecuador’s bottom line. Tourism from the Galapagos generates more than $100 million annually in park fees alone. Entry to the Galapagos costs $100 for a foreign visitor; $6 for an Ecuadorean. More than 160,000 people visited the Galapagos last year, up from the 80,000 in 2001. Add in revenue generated through taxes and purchases, and the islands generate $418 million in tourism annually, according to the Galapagos Conservancy organization.
As more tour operators enter the marketplance and as more visitors arrive wanting to cross the islands off their personal bucket lists, the pressure on the parks authority to maintain the pristine habitat has intensified. Starting in 2012, all tour operators will have to change their itineraries so their boats do not visit the same island more than once in a 15-day period. Currently, a visitor can see all 10 of the islands that are open to tourists during a one-week trip.
“For someone to see everything, it will now take two weeks,” says Jaramillo, “and that will be too expensive for many.”
As Santiago Dunn, Ecoventura’s president, points out, more and more of the visitors who come to islands do not necessarily want to see it all.
“We struggle with guests who come here and they’re not the traditional type of guests to the Galapagos,” says Dunn, whose company offers luxury yacht stays. “They want to see the islands because they’re one of the world’s great wonders, but they may still want a vacation experience with some nightlife and social activities that hasn’t been the focus for tour operators in the Galapagos.”
On Avendida Charles Darwin, a stroll along the paved road of Mórtola’s town leads you past storefronts that offer up scuba gear, cheap souvenirs, $15 hotel rooms and coveted Internet access. There’s also a surprising number of high-end shops, including a branch of Olga Fisch, the Ecuadorean franchise that specializes in handmade home decorations, jewelry and artwork. Manager Alejandra Mejia says Santa Cruz has benefited from the increase in commerce.
“Since we have been here, there have been better shops opening up and more people staying on the street to look around,” she says.
Near to Olga Fisch are art galleries, pricey stores selling Billabong wear and an elegant café on the ground floor of a boutique hotel a few blocks from the water. On the side streets and areas on the outskirts of the city you will see hints of the poverty that affects this country, but the dirt road is gone and so are the days Mórtola remembers when Santa Cruz would go dark because oil did not arrive in time from the mainland to keep the electricity running. Those white pickups serve as taxis, however, and they demand plenty of fuel. So, boats come with regularity now. They’re scattered in the waters of Academy Bay: cargo freighters, sailing yachts, water taxis, coast guard patrol vehicles and tour boat after tour boat. All of them with people who are collectively leaving a footprint no wave can wash away.