Eco-tourism in Darwin’s footsteps

Evermore popular with tourists, the Galapagos is finding innovative new ways to share its beauty with visitors while conserving its unique flora and fauna

“It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of the Galapagos as a scientific and natural treasure,” says the World Wildlife Fund.

A dot in the Pacific, the Galapagos archipelago is a UNESCO heritage site and marine reserve, comprising 15 main islands and 110 islets, which straddle the equator, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.

About 90% of this ecological jewel is protected as a national park, but in 2010 the Galapagos was controversially removed from UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger. The islands attract a quarter of a million tourists every year and the resulting challenges faced by local communities and the natural environment are making the development of sustainable tourism more important than ever.

When my girlfriend and I were offered the opportunity to spend six months working for the Charles Darwin Foundation on Floreana, the smallest inhabited Galapagos island, we jumped at the chance. We knew little about the island, apart from the fact it provided world-changing inspiration for a young Charles Darwin and that it was a land where giant tortoises roam free.

After a long journey, we arrived at the tiny island of Baltra and from there, took a bus, a ferry and a taxi to the principal island of Santa Cruz. Cutting through lush banana plantations, we entered Puerto Ayora – the bustling tourist capital. The town has about 15,000 residents, who make up a large proportion of the archipelago’s population of 25,000.

The walk to the foundation’s headquarters, a research centre a mile out of town, allows volunteers to marvel at most of the better known fauna. Huge marine iguanas the size of cats sprawl in the road, while sea lions hassle fishermen for scraps at the dock and enormous manta rays glide through the glass-clear waters.

Prepped by a passionate and dedicated team at the centre and thoroughly briefed on the dos and don’ts of island life, we retrieved our quarantined bags and departed for Floreana a few days later – a three-hour journey south-west by speedboat.

The first island to be settled, Floreana has an intriguing history, filled with tales of piracy and castaways. It was also the first port of call for Darwin on his famous 1835 voyage. Today it is the tranquil home of 150 second and third generation Ecuadorians, who make a living farming the 90 hectares of fertile highlands and catering for the tourists. But here lies part of the difficulty; with only one hotel available, tourists drift across the island to visit the tortoise sanctuary and the pirate caves, use the fresh water flush loos and leave again, while their money barely leaves their boats.

Attempts to generate greater prosperity while retaining the unspoilt nature of the island are well underway. Supported by the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park, Project Floreana is an ambitious five-year plan to secure a sustainable future for the island.

“Huge marine iguanas the size of cats sprawl in the road, while enormous manta rays glide through the glass-clear waters”

Using local and international expertise to develop effective restoration programmes, the project aims to restore natural ecosystems and landscapes by controlling invasive species like cats, rats and blackberry plants, and subsequently re-establish locally extinct species such as the Floreana Mockingbird. Meanwhile, education and training programmes are bolstering the community. Waste management is carefully monitored and a comprehensive recycling programme is in place, providing much needed employment for the young.

Plans for collecting rainwater during the month-long annual deluge are also in progress, and plans for compost toilets are taking shape. These two simple contributions aim to solve the problem of water shortages – one of the most pressing issues on the island.

Volunteers like us teach English to anyone in the village who is keen to learn. There are three classes a day, with attendance fluctuating due to the students’ agricultural responsibilities. We also work with the villagers to develop sustainable practice by discussing community-based tourism, recycling and innovative ways they might interact constructively with the tourist market. Between our duties, we do a lot of snorkelling in the huge tropical fish tank on our doorstep and watch Bluefooted Boobies swoop and dive into the sea. Dolphins swim past regularly and occasionally the plumes of whale spouts erupt in the distance.

Soon the turtles will lay their eggs and head back out to sea and we’ll have to leave too, promising to come back and see how the projects develop. As we leave, we are encouraged by word of a thriving population of Floreana Mockingbirds on the nearby islands of Champion and Gardener. We also hear news of the recent discovery of a colony of Floreana tortoises – long thought extinct – on the neighbouring Isabella island; all positive signs of a healthy future for these stunning islands.