Legions of tourists who visit the GalApagos each year have helped and hurt the islands’ delicate ecosystem. But despite laws to protect the Galapagos, increased land and sea tourism, population growth (which brings pollution and habitat destruction), and invasive species continue to threaten the wildlife here. Fishing and poaching also threaten the survival of native marine life.
Everybody knows the Galapagos, thanks to Charles Darwin. Ever since that upstart English scientist visited in 1835 as a ship’s doctor—or at least ever since he described its incredible wildlife in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species—this isolated Pacific archipelago has been famous for its natural wonders. If it hadn’t been for their extreme location, 966km (600 miles) off the west coast of Ecuador, mass tourism would have spoiled the islands years ago. ,
Well, don’t speak too soon. Tourism has become Ecuador’s fourth-largest industry and the Galapagos its most popular tourist draw by far, with the number of tourists mounting by 12% a year. Immigrant workers have smuggled in goats and pigs that compete with native species for food; invader rats come ashore with cruise ships. The sleepy main town, Puerto Ayora, is rife with trendy hotels and restaurants. Visitors are often a new breed of tourist, zipping around in pick-up trucks madly snapping photos of everything they see. Ecuador’s president has declared the islands at risk and may put a cap on the number of visitors (expect prices to rise if that happens). The pristine Galapagos wildlife experience may already be a thing of the past.
What’s most remarkable about Galapa-‘ gos’s wildlife is how little they fear humans— and why would they, since they’ve neverhad to worry about predators. Young sea lions will show off their best moves as you snorkel among them; mockingbirds will peck at your shoelaces; the blue-footed boobie will perform its famous two-stepped mating dance right under your nose.
An astounding number of unique species thrive on these 19 small volcanic islands (plus about 40 islets); boat travel is essential to view them all. At the Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, the most populated island, visitors can get an up-close view of the gentle giant tortoises that have captured public imagination ever since Darwin first wrote about them. Santiago’s rocky tide pools are home to rare fur sea lions and many beautiful heron species; Espafiola has albatrosses and blue-footed boobies; in Fernandina there are vivid marine iguanas and flightless cormorants; Isabela is home to Galapagos’s penguins (the world’s only tropical penguins); Genovesa has frigate birds and red-footed boobies; and San Cristobal is where California sea lions, red crabs, and lava gulls reside.
Taking a cruise to the Galapagos is a popular option—departing from Guayaquil, you’ll sleep and dine on the cruise boat and take small dinghies to the islands by day for naturalist-led hikes, climbs, kayak trips, or snorkel outings to the best wildlife viewing spots. But choose your tour operator with care, if you want an eco-conscious wildlife visit. And don’t put it off, or it just may be too late.