The Galápagos Islands are infamous for their scenery and wildlife. They’re a dream destination for thousands of people around the world who crave the crystal clear waters, the multitudes of colourful fish, the diving and snorkelling opportunities, the bizarre plethora of confident sealions and skittering iguanas, and the chance to sit back and relax on a cruise boat to experience it all from.
Since the days of Darwin, the islands and their unique ecosystems have fascinated so many people that they’re now regarded as Ecuador’s crown jewel: islands that rightly receive a vast majority of all South American tourism.
The Galapagos National Park organisation duly capitalises on the place, charging a $100 entrance fee to every foreigner who sets foot on the island and ensures the archipelago is protected as much as possible from the effects of 160,000 tourists each year.
But there’s a much darker side to the Galapagos than a lot of people realise. The tourism industry is ever growing and adapting to the needs of its visitors; and as it grows, it seems like the islands are being destroyed as a direct result.
How does tourism affect the Galapagos?
There’s no doubt that tourism changes whatever it touches. It’s reported all over the world: thousands of hiking boots wearing through the rocks of Machu Picchu; tourists’ suncream leaving oil trails beside coral reefs; even my own mother being guilty of ‘borrowing’ a few pebbles from the red sands of Petra.
Because where something beautiful, fascinating and relatively unique exists, so do tourists.
Nowhere is this tourist presence more dangerous than in the Galapagos, where each species depends on its own delicate balance of nature in order to survive.
Luckily, among the groups of tourists that throng the beaches, mangroves and rocky walkways of the Galapagos, most are breathlessly aware of how delicate the environment they’re exploring is. Tour guides are consistently vocal about how to behave. You should never get closer than a metre to any animal; never offer food or water; never try to hold or touch anything.
But that doesn’t seem to stop a lot of people from breaking the rules. On my cruise, a Canadian woman poured a capful of bottled water into a rock fissure, so a tiny bird waiting patiently beside her could dip his beak in and drink. Our guide was highly disapproving.
“You cannot do this,” she said, as the entire group started snapping eager photos of the bird. “The birds know people have water, and they wait for it. Your lips have touched the bottle top – this bird may get an infection now.”
It’s as simple as that: literally any interaction made with a Galapagos creature has the ability to destroy a part of their lifestyle, and could lead to catastrophic consequences.
A short history of animal lifestyles on the Galapagos
There really aren’t many places in the world where humans and wild animals can be at such close quarters with each other. The Galapagos creatures have such little fear of people because the lack of land predators have caused these species to evolve without the flight instinct so common in the rest of the animal world.
Five hundred miles from the South American coast, the animals living here had little to no contact with humans until the 1600s. But for at least four centuries, the islands were consistently exploited by humans who felt certain that a productive lifestyle could be forged there.
First came pirates to bury their treasures and hide from potential captors, then whalers who killed giant turtles to extract their fat, and seal fur hunters who almost wiped out the sealion population.
When Charles Darwin arrived in the Galapagos in 1835, he was fascinated at the ability of these animals to adapt and thrive in such a harsh environment: one which he himself couldn’t wait to leave after just a few weeks of research. His ship, like many others at that time, was loaded with a number of giant turtles, to be used as a source of fresh meat for the shipmates on the long journey home.
In later years, short lived prison colonies and workcamps were established on some smaller, outlying islands, and eventually small groups of colonisers – families, occasional scientists and researchers – would start new lives on the islands, beginning to farm the land and grow crops in the harshest of environments.
Through all that time, various animals brought to the islands via those humans – whether purposeful or accidental – have created huge threats to the Galapagos environment. Wild goats, feral cats, dogs, pigs, rats and parasites are just some of the introduced predators that affect the numerous native species; eating their food, attacking their habitats, and leaving them defenceless.
And yet the animals that live on the islands are still here – after thousands of years of adverse conditions, and a few hundred of intense human meddling. Each species only survives because they’ve adapted their lifestyles to combat the harsh sun, the lack of vegetation and a rocky landscape inhospitable to most.
But it’s getting even harder now for these animals to survive. And not just because of the tourist influence.
The impact of climate change and pollution on the Galapagos
The biggest threats to the Galapagos are more prevalent now than at any other time in history. Climate change is wreaking havoc on the islands in a number of ways.
As the water temperatures rise and rainfall increases, the sea currents change: currents that many animals in the Galapagos food chain depend on for sources of food.
Sealions and fish are swimming out farther and farther in an attempt to find fresher water; breeding patterns of iguanas and tortoises are changing; and animals are being forced to eat foods that aren’t as suitable for their diet, simply because they can’t find the right things.
The combination of climate change and a lack of human respect for the delicate ecosystem of the Galapagos is also proving disastrous.
There are growing problems with illegal fishing, overfishing, an increased generation of waste and, despite the best efforts of the national park authorities, improper waste management.
Boats are officially allowed to dispose of organic waste in the water if it’s more than ten miles offshore. But walking in the shallows of a popular turtle nesting beach on Isla Española revealed a very different story: the remains of limes, pineapple, watermelon rinds and a whole cabbage – plus a plastic spoon and red bag ties – littering the sand.
These foodstuffs were clearly dumped directly on the beach, and it poses a very important and rather worrying question: if one person is so willing to pollute the Galapagos, how many more are there?
There are now less animals but even more people – which precipitates a sense of anger when tourists don’t see something they’re expecting to. “Why aren’t there any penguins?” “Where are all the sharks?” “This is supposed to be THE place to swim with giant turtles and I haven’t seen a single one..”
It seems to make tourists more aggressively excited when they do see the animals they were hoping for. On San Cristobal, I watched in horror as a Spaniard snorkel above an elegant giant turtle and then reached down to stroke his shell. Only an hour later, the same man tripped and splashed in circles around a baby sealion in the shallows, snapping multiple photos with his GoPro, held mere centimetres from the confused animal’s face.
The visitors who come to the islands should be just that – visitors. They cannot and should not help or intervene when a heron pieces a baby iguana with its beak and flies away, or when a sealion wrestles an orange fish to death in its jaws. Because this is nature, in its most primal form – doing exactly what it wants to do, regardless of any outside opinion.
Animals dying is an integral part of nature’s process, and nowhere is this process more stark and evident. The problem with tourists helplessly viewing it here is that they romanticise the situation and feel responsible if a small bird doesn’t get enough water to drink.
Should the Galapagos still welcome so much tourism?
A lot of people think that tourism shouldn’t exist on the islands – with good reason really. Despite pulling in a huge amount of revenue for Ecuador itself, and equally educating a number of people about how to protect and conserve the natural resources we have around the world, it seems somewhat at odds to then tramp all over the islands we’re attempting to protect, and snap photos and lie in the sand next to a number of different animals.
The islands are an incredible resource of information and a chance for many to see up close what they’ve spent years reading, researching, and dreaming about.
But then there’s the backpackers like me, who didn’t know much before arriving and just wanted to swim with sharks – or the Ecuadorian families, who simply want a nice beach and some strong sun to while away a long weekend. We’re pumping money into the Galapagos tourism industry, sure – but at what cost?
What’s so unique about these islands is the chance to watch the lives of so many wild creatures play out undisturbed.
But I don’t think it should matter if you see the array of “expected” animals in the Galapagos in order to call it a worthy trip. What does it gain, really? The islands are incredible even without ticking off a check list of creatures because their unique habitat is still just as unique, and just as suitable for them to flourish within.
Regardless of being captured on film.
Thankfully, the islands are almost exclusively reserved for wildlife nowadays, with only a few towns located in San Cristobal, Isabela and Santa Cruz.
But even these towns have expanded dramatically over the last fifty years – and who knows how much bigger they’ll get as tourism continues at its current rate?
Visiting the islands gives a sudden, uncomfortable realisation that, despite the good-intentioned resolutions of the environmentally conscious, the wildlife and landscapes of the Galapagos have existed this way for thousands of years, relatively untouched and unspoiled. It’s only with the introduction of humans into the mix that things have started to degenerate.
So should the Galapagos islands would benefit from a distinct lack of human invasion? Should the sun be setting on the cruise boat enterprises and the beach-loving holiday makers? After all, the islands have existed for thousands of years, and will continue to do so long after we’ve gone.
Maybe it’s time to start that process already.
Have you been to the Galapagos? Do you think there are too many tourists on the islands? Or do you think people deserve to see how unique they are?