"Is tourism destroying the Galapagos?" It's a simple question, and my guide and naturalist Roberto Plaza doesn't skip a beat in answering.
"Absolutely not," says Plaza. He has been working for the Galapagos National Park as one of the its highest level guides since 1994. After nearly two decades of leading tourists like me through these islands, his excitement still shows each time he sees the first whales of the summer or spots a short-eared owl on the hunt for a smaller seabird leaving its nest. You'd be hard pressed to find someone as knowledgeable and passionate about the Galapagos as Roberto.Red-footed booby on Genovesa Island — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt - Natural Habitat Adventures
As we walk along a path worn through the ground cover at Puerto Egas, a landing site on Santiago Island where Galapagos fur seals nap in volcanic grottoes and marine iguanas sun themselves on the beach, he explains to me that without tourism, the Galapagos Islands most surely would be destroyed. Guides like him serve as the eyes and ears of the park, monitoring the health of animal populations and developing new solutions to minimize the negative impacts of tourism. Without the money tourists bring in, there would be no national park and no protection.Roberto gives an impromptu lesson in sea lion biology — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt - Natural Habitat Adventures
When asked what the biggest threat to the islands was, Roberto's answer surprised me. People . . . but not the tourists. There's a population of some 25,000 people who've built a life on a handful of the islands. This quickly-growing population relies heavily on farming and fishing to support themselves, two practices often at odds with environmental stewardship.
The tourist industry offers these island dwellers another option. Commercial fisherman who are no longer allowed to fish with nets are now taking tourist groups out on the waters to learn about artisan fishing methods. Farmers who face strict regulations on what they can and cannot plant have partnered with the most visible symbol of the islands, the Galapagos giant tortoise, to earn extra income.Galapagos giant tortoise — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt - Natural Habitat Adventures
On the island of Santa Cruz, the most populated of the Galapagos Islands, farmers build their fences high enough to allow the tortoises to pass under as they migrate from their beach-side nesting grounds to their breeding sites in the misty highlands. As the tortoises pass through, farmers keep tabs on where they are, and many have opened up their land for tourists to come and see the giant reptiles on their biannual journey.
To visit the Galapagos National Park, visitors must be accompanied by a guide, and while every operator bringing groups to the islands must follow strict guidelines set by the national park, some operators go above and beyond to help protect the amazing biodiversity and natural beauty of the archipelago.Two male frigatebirds search the sky for mates — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt - Natural Habitat Adventures
One such operator, Natural Habitat Adventures (NHA), has been partnering with the World Wildlife Fund for the past 10 years, offering travel discounts to WWF members while donating more than $300,000 dollars to the conservation organization's environmental efforts. Every guest is given a reusable water bottle and access to clean, filtered water to cut down on plastic use, and in an effort to promote sustainable travel, NHA became the first completely carbon-neutral travel company in the world in 2007.Athala II passengers observe sea lions, iguanas and crabs on Fernandina Island — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt - Natural Habitat Adventures
Perhaps the biggest impact tourism has on the Galapagos Islands is what we, as visitors, take home with us. After days filled with swimming among dozens of sea turtles in a peaceful cove on Isabela Island, sea lions playfully nipping at my flippers, and hiking across a lava field on remote Fernandina where hundreds of marine iguanas warm up in the equatorial sun after diving for algae, it's hard not to feel a sense of responsibility for this enchanting place.Galapagos marine iguanas warm up after diving for algae on Fernandina Island — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt - Natural Habitat Adventures
I, like many of my fellow passengers I suspect, boarded the Athala II as an eager tourist but disembarked as a newborn naturalist with a much deeper awareness of the delicate balance that we're all a part of. To what extent humans will change the Galapagos for better or for worse is up for debate, but what's undeniable is the transformative power of the Galapagos on all who venture there, from Charles Darwin to today.