This article first appeared in SubSea magazine in 2007.
Galapagos – Chaos in a Darwinian World
High on every diver’s wish list, the Galapagos Islands in the eastern Pacific have some of the very best diving on the planet. But in 2007, the politics and pelagics of this Ecuadorian possession exposed its fragility as never before. John Collins reports on some extraordinary diving and bizarre bureaucracy in the Galapagos National Park.
Words and Photographs by John Collins, Kinsale.
My dive buddy on a liveaboard trip a few years ago was a German dentist who advised me to go the the Galapagos Islands – ‘the diving is really great but go soon, it is changing’, he told me. Like most advice from dentists, I listened at the time but soon forgot about it. His words came back to me, however, when I read early last year that 2007 would be the last year in which 10-day dive trips to the Galapagos would be allowed by the National Park authorities. It was time to try and get on a trip there.
This proved to be far more difficult than I had anticipated – even ten months ahead all trips were booked out. So, I put my name down on a few cancellation lists and hoped for the best. I was about to give up hope by the time September came around when a single male bunk became available on an October run to the northern islands of Wolf and Darwin, whick was exactly what I had hoped for. I jumped at it, not quite believing my luck because the summer had seen a lot of bureaucratic shenanigans with dozens of dive trips cancelled at the stroke of a government pen.
Diving trips stopped
On July 10, 2007, completely out of the blue, the director the Galapagos National Park ordered that all dive boats immediately stop operations. This was done with complete disregard for those that were in Ecuador, indeed on the islands themselves waiting to start their trips. Why this was done is still unclear, though there are a few theories. Of course, this caused chaos for the dive and tour operators as well as their representatives around the world. Initial pleas for reason fell on deaf ears, the hardline approach being that the boats did not have the correct permits or ‘cupos’ for their itinerarys or their diving activity. After much stress and grief for the dive boat owners, their crews and all of the extended interests in the dive industry, a moratorium on the dive ban was announced on August 23rd. This basically allowed the boats to resume operations until the end of the year, when new arrangements would be announced.
After all this, I could hardly believe my own good fortune of landing a bunk on the ‘Deep Blue’ as she steamed 150 miles north of the airport island of Baltra on my first day. The boat had been chartered two years previously by a group of very experienced divers from New Jersey, who had a nervous few months of uncertainty not knowing whether the trip would ever happen. So, it was with a huge sigh of relief that we slipped into the water in the aptly named Shark bay of Wolf Island for our first dive. Within seconds we were watching scalloped hammerhead sharks cruising just off the rocky wall and we quickly adjusted dive kit, camera housings and eyes to take in this truly extraordinary piece of ocean.
The water here is always moving, currents hitting three knots at times – so descents are quick and efficient and dive briefings must be adhered to. The general routine was to descend, find a comfy ledge to hang on to and watch the show. This is chiefly shark action – certaintly the best I have seen – and happens much shallower than on Cocos Island, to which the Galapagos are often compared. On most dives, you rarely have to go deeper than 25 metres and hammerheads can be seen in as little as 5 metres. It’s not just the thrill of seeing the large pelagic animals that makes Wolf, and particularly the arch Darwin island special – it’s the sheer mass of sea life that gathers here that make it unique.
On any single dive you are practically guaranteed seeing hammerhead and galapagos sharks but it is also highly likely that you will see clouds of creole fish, big eye trevally and green sea turtles crusing the blue. That’s before you look around the rocky reef itself and find moray eels, king angelfish, barberfish and schools of Peruvian grunts. If this is not enough to take in, there will be what I call bonus sightings on almost all dives. From April to November the emphasis is on whalesharks which cruise close to the reefs very regularly. The dive routine in this season is to hang out on the reef for half an hour then swim out into the blue and hope for the best. Our odds were amazingly good with whaleshark sightings on eleven out of fifteen dives in the northern islands. Many of these were rare, fully grown pregnant females in the 12-15 metres range – an awe-inspiring sight. Other ‘bonus’ sightings included swim-by’s of dolphins, spotted eagle rays, schooling barracuda and the formula-one fish of the ocean – the mighty yellowfin tuna. And it is this mass of life that also attracts the many fishing interests that would only love to legally fish here.
Overfishing, tourism and population pressures
The fame of the Galapagos has grown steadily since Darwin first visited in 1835. The unique wildlife, different from island to island has continued to fascinate naturalists and tourists alike and the islands are a huge conservation challenge. Given the actions of the park authorities in stopping diving last July, it is fascinating to try to put together the reasons that might be behind it and speculate on the future of the islands.
As long ago as 2004, the nonprofit International Galpagos Tour Operators association (IGTOA) warned in a report, that despite strong tourist numbers, ‘at the peak of their popularity, the Galapagos are in trouble’. Pressures are coming on all fronts – controlling and eradicating invasive plant and animal species takes huge resources, introduced goats being the biggest threat. Government and political wrangling has led to poor management with eight park directors coming and going in one two year period alone. The explosion in population is probably the catalyst that is fuelling the biggest threat to the marine ecosystem however, thousands of fishermen from mainland Ecuador having moved to the islands in the early 1990’s to exploit the sea cucumber fishery. Having decimated the sea cucumber and lobster fisheries in a few short years, the fishermen now want to fish the marine reserve for lucrative and highly profitable shark fins. It has been predicted that if this frontier mentality of ‘grab what you can before it is all gone’, which has done so much damage to the fisheries in the islands, was to be unleashed on the shark populations, there will be no sharks in 10 years time.
These conservation reports from international bodies gradually gathered momentum in recent years and in early 2007 the President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa decided that strong measures would have to be taken to protect the archipelago. An emergency decree was signed into law, with the intention of ‘pushing for a series of actions to overcome the huge institutional, environmental and social crisis in the islands’. Shortly afterwards he ordered his government ministers to come up with proposals. This coincided with a United Nations delegation visiting the islands to determine whether the World Heritage site should be declared ‘in danger’. The following few weeks saw greater pace happening at a political level leading to the dive ban in July. There are a few theories as to why diving activities were targeted so directly and I leave it to you to decide which is most likely.
In June 2007, UNESCO designated Galapagos an endangered world heritage site and soon afterwards the director of the national park decided to strictly enforce all rules and regulations. Unfortunately, many of these rules, as well as the permits under which the operators work, date back to the 1970’s and have been changed numerous times making interpretation difficult. The current park director decided that in the absence of specific mention on permits, diving was an ‘illegal activity’. Each boat’s permit also has a basic itinerary listed, though each cruise itinerary must be specifically approved before departure. All of the dive boats, with the exception of two, did not have Wolf and Darwin listed on their basic permit and so were deemed to be at those islands illegally, an aircraft having photographed them there. How the resources to do this aerial photography came about is not clear to me as the islands have a much greater problem with illegal fishing.
This was dramatically highlighted by the Sea Sheperd Conservation Society ship, ‘Farley Mowat’ which had been in the Galapagos throughout June. On July 1st, the crew retrieved 30 miles of longlines with 270 hooks, 10 miles south of Isabela Island and 30 miles inside the park boundaries. Over the previous month they helped confiscate 19,000 illegally caught shark fins with the cooperation of the Ecuadorian Environmental Police. This clearly upset fishermen who had also been lobbying for an interpretation of a 1998 law calling for the specific issue of diving permits, to which they claim they have sole rights. Of course, the fishermen do not have the dive boats nor the technical expertise to run a dive operation but they could lease on their permits to the existing diving operations – ‘money for nothing’ to quote the Dire Straits song. The fishermen had also been lobbying for some time to legalise the sale shark fins, caught ‘accidentally’ in Ecuadorian waters, President Correa capitulating in late July. This left a situation where shark fishing remains illegal but the sale of shark fins to Asian buyers is not. In the absence of a means to determine whether a shark was caught accidentally or intentionally, this move is seen as a green light to fish sharks, to the dismay of conservationists worldwide.
While many of these events do not themselves tell us the full story, they do illustrate the complexities of life in South America where politics and bureaucracy make conclusions difficult. However, it is clear to me that early in the 21st century, the magnificant sharks and sea life of the Galapagos islands need more protection now than at any time in their 4 million year history.