The growing human presence in Galapagos has put wildlife at risk. While UNESCO removed Galapagos from their list of endangered heritage sites in 2010, disease, hunting, pollution, and invasive species continue to impact the islands.
The permanent human population in Galapagos has doubled to 30,000 in the past decade. And the number of tourists is now close to 200,000 per year. For a group of volcanic islands 600 miles from the mainland, with minimal fresh water and fertile land, this is putting enormous pressure on natural resources. Not to mention the pollution, poaching, and environmental damage caused by this level of footfall and infrastructure.
Despite these changes, seeing and experiencing the wildlife of the islands is a truly remarkable thing. On the less populated islands of San Cristobal and Isabela, it’s still possible to get a sense of what Darwin felt as he sailed around these mysterious islands and discovered the incredible wildlife for the first time.
So what can you do, as a tourist, to minimise your impact when you visit the Galapagos?
Taking a cruise around the islands is one of the most popular ways to experience Galapagos. There are a large and growing number of cruise operators and it’s a competitive industry. We have heard allegations of corruption and reports that some vessels break National Park rules on size, waste treatment, and anchoring locations. So as well as comparing prices and reviews, it’s important to contact the operator and ask them directly about their policies.
WildSide recommends sending an email with the following questions to tour operators before signing up:
- Do you have a sewage treatment plant on board? Primary treatment to remove solids is the minimum standard you should expect – around 30% of cruises currently do this.
- How do you deal with black water waste (e.g. oils)? These should be taken back to the mainland and recycled.
- What are your policies on recycling and single-use plastics? Many of the cruises serve water throughout the day in plastic cups, a high percentage of which end up in the sea.
- Do you employ locals? Ideally, your cruise will be staffed by employees from Galapagos. Due to poor levels of spoken English, companies often bring in staff and their families from the mainland, further increasing the population pressure on the islands.
Where possible, avoid taking taxis. On the main island of Santa Cruz, there is a bus which meets passengers off all flights and can take you into town. The other islands, despite having taxis around the harbour area, are within walkable distances to the centre. It’s flat and safe to do so. Even if you’re going for the 5 am ferry in the dark!
On the islands, don’t be talked into taking bus tours. The main areas of interest are all easily covered on foot or bike, and bikes are available to rent everywhere. Unless you’re venturing into the highlands, stick to pedal power.
If money is no object, the National Geographic Resort on Santa Cruz has got to be the first pick for sustainability. Even their transfer boats are solar powered!
Wherever you choose to stay, be conscious that almost everything you consume has travelled by ship from the mainland. Recycling infrastructure is not advanced and many of the workers on the islands are poorly educated. The majority of your waste is likely to end up at the higher parts of the islands in landfill. So make it your responsibility. Ask questions in your hotel, or even better, before you book.
Charles Binford street is the food Mecca of Santa Cruz island. At night it’s closed to traffic and the street is filled with people dining outside. The atmosphere is fabulous and the fish couldn’t be fresher or more local. However, due to tourist demand, over-fishing of lobster on the Galapagos has reached critical levels. The knock-on effects on the marine environment are even more worrying. Try not to be swayed and instead go for vegetarian options or whichever white fish is catch of the day. It will be delicious!
Final words of advice, don’t be fooled by the word ‘eco’. You’ll see it everywhere in the Galapagos. Unless you ask the right questions and are satisfied with the answers, don’t take it for granted that you’re dealing with an environmentally responsible company. If you’re not convinced, tell them why you’re going elsewhere. The more customers that demand responsible behaviour, the quicker the industry will respond!
Have you been to the Galapagos and used a responsible tour company? Have you seen sustainable or unsustainable practices? Please let us know in the comments below!