The Galápagos islands have an abundance of unique species, but like many of the world’s wildlife havens, the Galápagos has to fight hard to protect its inhabitants and environment. Vital to its long-term survival is maintaining the pristine environment and minimising human impact.
The volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean is an important site for several migratory species, including whales, dolphins, sharks and turtles. Most significantly, the Islands represent the second-most important nesting area, as well as feeding grounds, for the endangered East Pacific green turtle and are also home to the critically endangered Hawksbill turtle and Olive Ridley turtle.
One of the most utilized turtle nesting beaches is Quinta Playa, on Southern Isabela Island, with up to 3,000 nests per year. Although it is a protected site, there are serious threats to sea turtles, including feral cats feeding on hatchlings, the use of illegal longline and gill-nets as fishing methods resulting in by-catch mortality, and tourism activities increasing disturbance and incidences of boat strikes.
The Charles Darwin Foundation is an international non-profit organisation which works to preserve the Galápagos ecosystem and its endangered species through research and scientific knowledge. They report that over 19% of the turtles whose feeding areas are located close to ports, and 12% of turtles on nesting beaches, have injuries caused by boat strikes.
In the last decade, the number of visitors to the Islands has increased by 50% and as a result, the interaction between boats and marine fauna has intensified. In particular, the rise in small, fast boat traffic, as well as vessel collisions, has seen a surge in sea turtle injury and mortality.
In collaboration with Queen’s University Belfast, the Charles Darwin Foundation has established a project to provide environmental authorities with the scientific evidence to generate marine traffic regulations and encourage changes in tourism practices to improve the protection of marine wildlife, especially sea turtles. Research includes determining speed limits for navigation in areas populated by sea turtles as well as evaluating changes in navigation routes.
So far, the Foundation has identified routes and zones with high level of marine traffic, created an inventory of nesting and feeding grounds so to identify areas of overlap between marine traffic and critical habitat for green turtles, and tracked seven green turtles by satellite from their nesting sites to identify overlap between home ranges during their breeding season (December to May) and routes of marine traffic.
In 2018, researchers from the Charles Darwin Foundation began two studies to determine speed limits for navigation in green turtle habitat. In the first study, researchers are monitoring surface behaviour (resting, swimming and mating) of female turtles to evaluate their vulnerability to boat strikes. This study will also aim to understand sea turtle reaction to approaching boats.
The second study, with the help of local boat operators, aims to determine our ability, at different speeds, to detect marine life in the water during navigation, experimenting with mock turtle shells within a section of 1km navigation.
It is still possible to travel to the Galápagos Islands on a wildlife cruise aboard a small yacht in a sustainable and responsible manner. When planning your travel it is wise to ensure that the vessel operators take their environmental responsibilities seriously in order to conserve the fragile nature of the Islands.
Quasar Expeditions is one such operator; the second-oldest small yacht Galápagos cruise company in the Islands and a longstanding supporter of the Charles Darwin Foundation. For over 30 years, Quasar Expeditions has recognised that through responsible and sustainable tourism, the rich biodiversity of the Galápagos Islands can be preserved.
Last month, Quasar Expeditions, in partnership with the Foundation and the Galápagos National Park Directorate, announced their plans for a new eco-friendly ship. M/V Conservation will be an 18-passenger ship and is to be launched at the end of 2019.
M/V Conservation has been built in Italy and is currently in Florida for mechanical installations. The yacht has been constructed with eco-friendly materials, will feature fuel-efficient engines, have no single-use plastics on board, and will feature a recycling facility.
This small yacht will operate weeklong itineraries with a conservation focus, and is the first vessel to feature a cabin dedicated to the researchers of the Charles Darwin Foundation.
Guests on-board will have the opportunity to interact with the scientists and learn about their work to protect sea turtles and other marine wildlife. Guests can also learn about initiatives to prevent, detect and manage invasive species, including the control of an invasive fly which threatens populations of land birds, such as the mangrove finch’.
Quasar run a small fleet of exclusive cruise vessels and yachts, designed to bring small groups of like-minded individuals together on an exploration of the islands with wildlife viewing as a focus. These have fantastic wildlife guides on board who open up the islands to you to give you the most phenomenal experience, and additionally sometimes they run special interest sailings such as having a professional photographer aboard to help you get the perfect shot, or having historians or specialist diving guides for those who have an interest in diving.
What’s more, Galápagos cruises are perfect holidays for families. Quasar specialise in family-friendly cruises and sailing holidays and all their naturalist guides on board will make the experience come alive for your children!
There’s a comprehensive children’s menu and special activities designed for them such as an Explorer’s Club, where each child receives an expedition journal so that they can record their experiences in the Galápagos.
They may also enjoy star-gazing nights with the knowledgeable guides who will point out the constellations to them and teach them all about the night sky, which can been seen in such splendour here where there is next to no light pollution. There are also special movie-nights and board-game nights aimed at keeping the children entertained.
If you would like complete exclusivity on a small vessel for a family group, it is possible to completely tailor your holiday to suit you and your family or group of friends. One can charter a yacht on a private basis for up to 18 guests (in 9 cabins) exclusively with a bespoke itinerary entirely designed to suit your interests, whether it be SCUBA diving with an expert instructor to see the most fantastic marine life, hiking on the islands with a wildlife or birding expert, to an expert in evolution and Charles Darwin who can take you back in time to retrace his journey to these islands. Anything is possible!
If you would like more information on Galápagos conservation and holidays, please do feel free to contact me.
Images kindly provided courtesy of the Charles Darwin Foundation and Quasar Expeditions