I had wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Scotland, I was enthralled with the multitude of BBC nature documentaries on the television and David Attenborough has been a regular on my television screen for most of my life. As an adult, I have been able to combine my love of travel with the ability to spend more quality time in a place by donating my time and my skills where I can. I spent 3 months volunteering in South Africa when I graduated, and to this day, that trip still remains one of my life’s most defining times. Prior to moving to New Zealand, I spent a month volunteering in the beautiful pacific island of Rarotonga, the biggest of the Cook Islands, and this year, despite a lot of difficulties with visas, I finally got to live my dream by heading to Santa Cruz, the most inhabited island in the Galapagos, to volunteer for a month.
Volunteering is an excellent chance to meet, integrate and work with people from different countries and cultures, and with everyone’s dates varying, the collection of fellow volunteers is an ever changing melting pot. There were 5 other volunteers for varying time lengths during my month stay there, and everyone was from somewhere different. Not only out of work, but in the working environment, it was interesting to learn new things from different people’s experiences. But in particular, I enjoy learning more about the local culture and politics than is usually possible as a tourist and am often fascinated by what makes the local town or government or community tick.
There are some talks amongst the people of Galapagos about trying to become independent from the country of Ecuador. I’m sure other islands or provinces in other countries can relate: their hard-earned money goes to a government far far away and in return they get only a relatively small percentage of investment and funding. Also decisions about their economy, their health and their education are made by people far far away, and it has led to many people in the Galapagos feeling short-changed. Whilst I was there, there was both a rally and a demonstration about some of these matters. One of the big things that I learned, is that when tourists book and pay for their Galapagos tours whilst abroad, through travel agents, that money goes into the financial pockets of mainland Ecuador. However, when tours are paid for whilst already in the islands, that money goes directly into the local economy. As the majority of tours are booked before reaching the islands, the majority of income generated from Galapagos tourism isn’t actually going to the people of Galapagos directly, instead it goes first to mainland Ecuador and then divvied up. Had I known this, and had I known how relatively easy it is to book a tour whilst in the islands, I may have booked my trip differently.
Another thing that surprised me was the level of construction taking place on the island. There is little fresh water in the archipelago, so drinking water is shipped in bottled. There is one de-salination plant in the whole archipelago, and this means that there is a shortage of fresh water. Each building is supplied water for only a few hours a day, which then needs to be stored in large tanks and rationed. The islands are very strict with recycling materials, but everything that is collected needs to be shipped back to the mainland. Despite all this and more, new buildings are going up left, right and centre. On one particular occasion, I spoke to an Ecuadorian man who pointed out that the new hotel next to where we sat was being built too close to the sea, and was not taking into consideration the higher tides and storms that can hit the region on occasion. It was a story I had heard before in Fiji when, privy to some local knowledge, we learned that a foreign investor was building a large reception hall on the opposite side of an island to what the locals recommended. The locals were fully aware of potential for storm damage on the southern side, but the foreign investor ignored them. Back in the Galapagos, it seemed that enthusiasm for the all-important sea view was over-riding local common sense. Both the local population is on the increase as well as tourism numbers, meaning more accommodation and support buildings and new streets are needed. With the exception of Floreana, all the other 3 inhabited islands’ towns have grown in size greatly in the last few decades. Two of the islands I visited also bare the scars from quarries that have been dug into what is supposed to be one of Earth’s untouched wonders.
These effects lead on to some conservation issues which I had my eyes opened to whilst I was there. Advertised as one of the few places on earth that is relatively untouched, and containing such unique wildlife, since the days of human habitation, there has been a lot of irreparable damage. Aside from the earlier explorers eating the tortoises and sending several species extinct, they introduced mammals both accidentally and deliberately which not only challenged some species survival directly but also introduced disease. Currently there is a pox virus rampaging through some of the endemic bird species. Road kill is also an all-too-common occurrence. With the increase in people, there is an increase in vehicles and roads, and this has led to iguanas and birds especially, being hit and killed on impact. One of the buses I was on, hit and killed a native bird whilst we were on our way to go on a boat trip to see some of the native birds. The irony was discomforting. But I was equally surprised by the attitudes of some of the locals. Many are so reliant on tourism for money, but as a vet volunteering at a free veterinary clinic, I was surprised by how many people didn’t want to neuter their cats and dogs who were just left to wander the streets, and in the case of the cats, were hunting the native species. They didn’t seem to consider, or appreciate, or care, that these introduced species had a huge impact on the native species, which are what the tourists come to see. Ticks were a common problem, and these ticks carried diseases which were also a common problem. But some people relied on breeding dogs to sell the pups as an added source of income. It is a conundrum. Thankfully though, with such public awareness to the wonders of this archipelago, there is no shortage of research work being undertaken there, and new discoveries continue to be made. There are also some of the islands which are off-limits to tourists and some parts of the national park are out-of-bounds unless accompanied by a park guide. With so much at stake, I for one am interested to see what will happen to one of the Earth’s gems in my lifetime. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will be resoundingly positive.