Posts tagged ‘yvonne mortola’

October 19, 2011

On Galapagos Islands, humans bring wealth and danger

santa cruz galapagos islands

Boat activity is bustling on the shores of Santa Cruz, the most populous of the Galapagos Islands. (Julia Pelish photo)

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.

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October 14, 2011

Galapagos Island travel tip: Don’t expect a vacation


Blue-footed boobies and their adorable chicks are among the wildlife that can only be seen on the Galapagos Islands. (Julia Pelish photo)

SAN CRISTOBAL, GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, ECUADOR — They come. Nikon-necked boobies, Timberland-sandaled grey-bearded enviro cats, North Face-clothed soft-core adventure seekers. They come by the planeload, arriving in greater numbers than ever. And more and more of them come without knowing exactly what they’re in for.

A trip to the Galapagos Islands turned out to be as fascinating and rewarding and fun an adventure as I have ever had. But it was no vacation.

You’re here to learn and the teachers are naturalists fiercely devoted to the islands and the ideal that the word “Galapagos” has come to signify during the past century and a half. You will not be comfortable: the boat will rock, sometimes with enough force to cause your stomach to somersault; the 44-pound luggage limit will mean choosing between packing more pants or more socks and underwear (go with the latter); hikes will sometimes force you over terrain rocky enough to wreck ankles. You will be requested to do feats that will make you frown, if not cringe and swear under your breath: Navy showers (lather up, soak in lukewarm water, shut off the tap, repeat) are supposed to be taken onboard to limit the amount of water used; toilet paper isn’t to be flushed, it’s to be placed in a waste-paper basket for disposal by the housekeeper; wake-up calls can come as early as 5:45 a.m.; depending on the loudness of the motor and the temperament of the waves, sleep may not come at all.

Yet, when the trip is done, you just might walk away thinking you’ve had an experience that tops all others before it. But you have to be curious and you have to know you won’t be lounging on a beach with mojito in hand and a tiki bar within reach. Food isn’t allowed on shore excursions and neither are alcoholic beverages, although there is an ample supply onboard your boat. While the islands are filled with animals that won’t so much as flutter as you approach, the Galapagos isn’t a petting zoo and touching is off-limits.

So, where’s all the fun? Part of it is in the discovery of the place and in the camaraderie you build with the group you discover it with. Part of it is in the enchantment you acquire for the wildlife, whose personalities make you remember childhood and the anthropomorphic qualities we attributed to them. Much of it is simply in the indulgence of being here. The isolation is stark. On many instances, I caught myself listening to the wind, often a bluster that seemed to exist to remind us we were still on earth. The sunsets are special, with the big yellow ball escaping below the wide-open horizon with no land westward until you hit the Hawaiian islands — 7,600 kilometres away. And there’s the real reason why someone should make this trip: The opportunity to be educated.


You’ll learn about our planet and the animals and plants and birds and reptiles that occupy it. You’ll brush up on your Darwin and hook into the environmental importance of the 13 main islands. You’ll learn about the threat humans pose to the ecosystem and the harm we have already inflicted. To some degree or another, coverage of those topics is to be expected. The surprise, though, is the passion with which the naturalists distill the information.

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