iguanaDear Readers,

This week finds me aboard the National Geographic Islander in the Galapagos. In the last three days I've swum with sea turtles, penguins, sea lions, puffer fish and my children. We’ve been sneezed on by marine iguanas clearing salt water from their nasal passages, seen bleached white whale bones, other-worldly geologic formations, and dolphins by the hundreds. We’ve crossed the equator (twice) and walked through lava tunnels. And all of that with three generations of family aboard the same boat: mother, two sisters and a brother, and my two kids (one who will turn 10 tomorrow). In other words: I won’t be answering your pressing environmental questions this week. I offer you, instead, the insight of two Ecuadorian naturalists who guide an increasing number of visitors through the wondrous, inspiring lands that are the Galapagos. Gaby Bohorquez began working in the Galapagos 17 years ago. Luis “Lucho” Verdesoto is a marine biologist who has worked as a naturalist guide for 15 years. So, let's get started with the questions.

What are the most pressing environmental issues for Galapagos?

Gaby: Humans. The biggest problem is a matter of controlling the number of people — both visitors and residents. Everything is interrelated, so even the issue of invading species of plants and animals is really about settlers. People come and go, back and forth to the main land. They bring things that don’t belong in the islands — sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose. ... For someone like me who lives here, we want a better standard of living but that would attract more people. The government has set some limits, and people now need a sort of green card to live here, but I don’t know how far the changes go. So, it’s people. It’s always a matter of people. Tourists create demands for more places to visit, open the park more and that has a greater impact. More residents means more resources needed.

Lucho: pelicansTourism is the most important thing impacting the Galapagos. It is overwhelming how many people have shown interest in coming here, and it can get out of hand without good management. The outcome will depend on what the government decides. Is money that tourism brings the most important thing? So far, so good because the islands are in a position that is still sustainable. We haven’t reached the levels of the Great Barrier Reef or Hawaii. Just as natural selection works among the animals and other life on the islands, it also works with the people who come to the islands because they self-select. People who choose to come are concerned about the environment, they care and do research about where they are going. They are experienced travelers. They know what to expect. There will always be impact, we just have to figure out how to minimize it.

And aside from the human impact?

Gaby: Species that have been introduced. One that really concerns me is the blackberries. It’s going everywhere. I see how fast it spreads. The finches love the berries, and they disperse the seeds. It creates an imbalance. The ground nesting birds, like the the Galapagos rail, lose their nesting areas. And sea birds like the Galapagos petrel nest in humid zones — in the highlands — and they’re now infested with blackberries.

Lucho: sealForeign life forms coming in luggage and on ships. They can become a plague. The islands have a history of no real predators. It is a fragile system. The balance that is here can be easily disrupted. The Norwegian rats — they’re called the black rats, and they came on ships — are taking over. They have no predators. There is nothing here to check their proliferation.

What does the future hold for the Galapagos?

Gaby: Things are changing fast. I don’t know what will happen. We have five flights into the islands every day. How the scientists will control the invasions, the impacts, I don’t know. I hope they [the islands] will last a long time, but it’s an ever-changing world, right?

Lucho: I’m optimistic, and I’m a humanist: I believe in the power of people to see and fix something. Right now, the Galapagos are in danger. There is lots that could go wrong and devastate the islands, but humans have shown courage to implement laws even when they are not well-received — by locals or mainlanders. Unfortunately, politics is probably the worst thing that could happen to the islands.

Do you see the effects of global warming?

Gaby: penguinI don’t know. The islands are very isolated. We have to wait for official statistics.

Lucho: We’re not seeing the number of sharks we used to. The same with whales. If I’ve seen that change in just the time I’ve been here, imagine what is coming. Ocean currents are changing. The normal weather patterns are disrupted — fog that we never have had before. Even lightning strikes, which never happens here. In the last three years, after never having lightning, there is lightning every year now. Pressure never builds up enough for lightning, and so Galapagos never had to deal with fire — only rarely, and from humans throwing a cigarette or something. Now, what if there is a wild fire? These islands, these animals, this fragile ecosystem has no way to deal with wild fires. It would be truly devastating.

(Photos: Vanessa Vadim)

What are the most pressing issues for Galapagos?
The biggest problem facing the Galapagos Islands is controlling the number of people — both visitors and residents.