CI-Samoa’s Schannel van Dijken recently sailed across the Pacific with the Pacific Voyagers Project to raise awareness about ocean health and reconnect with his Polynesian heritage. In today’s post, he recounts a recent visit to the Galápagos Islands. Read previous blog posts from his journey.
I’m sitting here in the stifling heat of the small galley on our va’a (canoe), trying to get some respite from the relentless tropical midday sun and wondering where to begin to explain some of the wonderful things we experienced during the past 10 days in the Galápagos Islands. These are hard thoughts to articulate, especially when the heat here seems to envelop you. Despite this I know one thing for sure — time flew by too quickly. Our tight schedule only allowed us to visit two of the 13 islands: Santa Cruz, where most people live, and Isabela, the largest island which is shaped like a seahorse.
Our first day sighting the Galapagos captivated us — literally. The first island we encountered did not want to let us go. Winds and currents around Marchena Island toyed with us, edging us close to its rocky, lava–covered shores. At times we were actually going backwards in the currents. After two days of this, our solar-powered batteries that run our electric motors were running dangerously low.
Before things got too bad, and prevented us from arriving late to Santa Cruz Island, we were forced to get a tow from our support vessel the Evohe. After a 10-hour tow and a quick stop at the equator line for a hilarious ceremonial baptism, we arrived with the others at the main port of Puerto Ayora.
Santa Cruz Island was lush, volcanic — and in my mind, classic Galápagos. The harbour was framed by a highland volcano with a large collection of boats scattered in the bay, serviced by an efficient system of cheap water taxis. This helped us immensely, since there is no dock or marina.
On the second day there, Fernando Ortiz from CI-Ecuador managed to track me down. It was great to see him again. He was accompanied by Ana Gloria, a CI colleague visiting from Costa Rica. It was so nice to have CI family in another part of the world. Fernando wasted no time in making me feel at home, and the next thing I knew we had a mini tour planned for the next day. What better way to see the island than with a former Galápagos nature guide?
The Galápagos are the strangest set of islands I have ever encountered. Not fully tropical (despite being on the equator) or temperate — instead, a mishmash of both, thanks to the cold water currents that surround the islands and moderate their temperature.
I’m not sure where else on Earth you get a mixture of 700-year-old cactuses; sea lions competing with fishermen for space and food at the fish market; scaly black marine iguanas swimming, sunbathing or just walking along the road; massive hissing wild tortoises that seem to have come from prehistoric times; extensive lava tubes and deep sinkholes; pelicans; boobies (both blue footed and masked); flightless cormorants; and of course, finches … lots of inquisitive finches.
And that was just on Santa Cruz. Isabela treated us to darting penguins, pink flamingos that used the protected RAMSAR wetland sites, and one very large volcanic crater and lava field.
During my visit, I was also lucky enough to experience the underwater world that the Galápagos is famous for. I swam with sea lions, marine iguanas, rays, inquisitive hammerhead sharks, Galápagos sharks, dolphins, a pod of pilot whales, turtles being cleaned of algae by cleaner fish, large schools of bonito tuna and barracudas — not to mention the abundant mix of fish species you typically find in warm and temperate Pacific waters.
This abundance of life was fantastic — and not surprising, considering the protection afforded the unique archipelago. Ecuador realizes the gem it has, and as such the islands are under tight Ecuadorian tourist regulations. You cannot simply sail in and go anywhere you want to dive or snorkel. First you must register, and then go through local tour operators to do most activities in the Galápagos.
At first glance this may seem very restrictive and over the top. However, this system of control is necessary, as it regulates the total number of tourists visiting sites every day, limiting their impact on sensitive areas as well as providing tourists with expert wildlife guides that inform and educate.
The aim here is for responsible, sustainable tourism. And it has to be — this is a pristine protected area that has tourist numbers increasing around 6 percent per year, and regulation of tourism and development are critical to help preserve the biodiversity of these unique islands.
Unfortunately, the end of our trip came all too soon — only five days on Santa Cruz and three on Isabela. Still, it was more than enough to give us a taste of what the Galápagos is all about.
But for now, I have a month-long ocean journey ahead of me to contemplate before reaching land again. We are now homeward bound — sailing back into our home ocean, our part of the Pacific. Our next stop is Tahiti, where my voyage will end. I will be very sad to leave the project and my va’a family, and I know I will remember this journey for the rest of my life. However, I am looking forward to going back to Samoa, revitalized in the conservation work that we all do.