The Galapagos Islands in the eastern Pacific Ocean are staggeringly beautiful, volcanic and remote — 600 miles away from Ecuador, the country that owns them.
At least 14 islands make up the Galapagos National Park, and a remarkable 97% of the land is off-limits to the public. The Park is home to more than 400 species of fish and an abundance of other unique wildlife, including giant tortoises, the iconic blue-footed boobies and endemic iguanas.
All of which can lead to a touristic experience so raw and immersive that the archipelago has over the years become an increasingly international popular bucket list destination.
At a little over 4 million years old, the Galapagos are young compared to the earth’s 4.5 billion years in existence – yet in its relatively short life, the islands have made an enormous impact on the way we understand our world.
In 1835, Charles Darwin’s five week visit to the islands famously spawned his theory of biological evolution. To date, Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” published in 1859, is still considered by many as one of the most influential academic books in history.
Whether you’re walking around the islands, or in the water, the close proximity to the wildlife is just astounding. In fact, it is so commonplace, that it’s quickly clear that in the Galapagos, you're not sharing this planet with the wildlife -- you're on their land, and welcomed.
Part of the animals’ charm is that most seem to be unafraid of humans.
According to Hugo Arnal, Former World Wildlife Fund Director for Ecuador, “Species or animals on oceanic islands that were never inhabited, and that didn't have predators, never developed fear. So they will approach you. They even try to play with you... You can see the Nazca Boobies are not bothered when you get relatively close. Very few places on Earth are like this.”
To conserve such a special place and preserve both flora and fauna, all tourists are required by law to hire state-sanctioned “Naturalists” to accompany them on any island visit. Part guide and part ranger, there are 775 Naturalists.
Federico Idrovo is one of them. “We are not allowed to eat here on this island. It’s totally protected,” Idrovo he told “Nightline.” “We cannot use the bathrooms [there]. Please never go outside of the trail… Don’t touch the animals. You can touch the vegetation but please don’t destroy it.”
“My job is not just to point you [to]...the iguana, [or tell you] ‘that is a salty bush, this is the blue sky,’” he explained. “My job is to control... everybody has to be inside the trail.... Nobody can smoke."
The number of visitors to the archipelago has grown exponentially from just 50 years ago. In 2018, there were almost 276,000 tourists, a steep climb from the 5,000 in 1970.
“I would say tourism is a double-edged sword,” shared Hugo Arnal. “Let's make sure that we manage tourism the best possible way, and we use tourism as a conservation tool."
"The Galapagos has conserved more than 95% of its biodiversity," he added. "And the reason for that is mostly because of the tourism we have here. Tourists become a public constituency that defends the conservation of Galapagos.”
But conservation isn’t a nine-to-five job. Idrovo and other Naturalists are responsible for reporting anything they see in the ecosystem worthy of noting.
Idrovo, for example, described he has reported people for destroying vegetation. Other times, he said he's “found families with dogs on pristine beaches.”
Dogs are restricted as they could cause cross-contamination.
Most of the islands here are completely different from one another, geologically as well as in vegetation and wildlife, with many species being endemic to their island. And with the vast distances between islands, some requiring high speed boat rides of several hours, there would be little to no natural migration or cross-contamination without tourism.
“The most important threat to biodiversity on islands is invasive species,” Arnal shared. “We don't want to bring germs, insects [or] parasites from this island to another island.”
“Biosecurity” checks at points of exit and entry at ports have been created to catch a problem before it can spread.
“The idea is if you have animal or plant parts, or if your shoes are muddy, you will have to clean them, and you will drop any animal or plant part here,” advised Hugo Arnal. The checks are managed by the Agencia de Biodiversidad y Cuarentena de Galapagos.
Reflecting on the amount of visitors to the Galapagos in 2018, Arnal states, “That is peanuts, if you compare it to the number of visitors to places like-- Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Fontainebleau in France. So actually, what is important is not so much the number of people you receive, but the type of management that you have in place."
"One person can be too many. If the impact of that single person is not managed adequately.” In Arnal’s view, in the Galapagos, “the vast majority of the tourists respect the rules. And the reason is because of the Naturalist guides. They do a fantastic job. They are a force for conservation.”
Though the main “cities” are where most tourists spend their money on food, hotels and tour operators, some enterprising residents of the beautiful, under-developed island of Floreana are taking a new approach towards owning their island’s tourism, aiming to equitably share the profits directly within their community.
Local establishments are unified and take turns serving limited amounts of incoming tourists an invigoratingly low-key and authentic experience. Their partnership with the Galapagos National Parks, WWF and several conservation organizations years in the making is now gaining popularity.
But the consequence of growing tourism is also the trash that’s generated by tourists in addition to that from the local inhabitants.
“Last year , the city generated approximately 100 thousand tons, and from this total we have recovered and recycled 50%,” advised Mario Piu, Former Environmental Management Director, of Santa Cruz Island.
According to the WWF, that’s more than double the global average and one of the most in all of Latin America.
“But the population is growing,” adds Piu, “It is important to keep in mind the development of the other 'R's, meaning Reducing, Reusing and Rejecting, that is responsible consumption.”
Juan Pablo Munoz and his family of three live on the island of Santa Cruz and try to keep a low environmental footprint.
“We're trying to live [with the least amount of] plastic that we can,” Munoz said. “For example, our toothbrushes are wooden… All the diapers that we use...are reusable diapers that you can wash.”
“You can see our fridge, you see things that are wrapped in plastic. Even though we are conscious, we try to make the difference, but there [are] no other options,” he added. “We tried to have all the toys that are made by wood, you know, by glass. But there's some items that you cannot escape.”
Munoz, a scientist at the Galapagos Science Center, a partnership with the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, knows firsthand what’s at stake.
“We need to do something for the future of humanity,” he said. “At the end of the day, the only ones that are gonna be more affected about this problem is our kids. And the kids of our kids. So I think it's worth doing as much as possible. Do something about it, and fix this problem for us and for the [betterment] of humanity.”
In his lab, Munoz showed “Nightline” what alarms him the most.
“I am showing you a microplastic sample from the stomach contents of a fish here in the Galapagos,” he explained. “[To] the naked eye, apparently there's nothing there. But if you look in deep, using the standard microscope, you will see microplastic in this sample.”
According to the National Ocean Service, aquatic life and birds can mistake microplastics for food.
Microbeads, a type of microplastic found in health and beauty products like toothpaste and cleansers, were banned in 2015 in the U.S.
But out on the ocean in the Galapagos, you don’t need a microscope to see the plastic and other litter all along the coastline.
“[Plastic] comes from everywhere… Literally it comes from the States. It can come from Europe, it can come from Japan, it comes in from everywhere,” Munoz said.
“It's mainly [water] bottles…roughly 80% of the debris that you find in the Galapagos,” he added. “This problem represents 50 years of mismanagement. Because 50 years ago, you can go to any single region in this planet and it was plastic-free. Plastics [are] forever, so even though you do the best thing to recycle it, it's gonna be a little bit of release of microplastics that is gonna end up in the air or in the ocean.”
Microbeads and plastic left to disintegrate eventually turn into plastic particulates that can be carried by the wind.
The stakes are high for the islands, which are often called “the living laboratory of evolution.”
“There's no 'Planet B,' OK?” Hugo Arnal stated. “You have places in many different countries that are unique... Places that are so beautiful and so important that they go beyond the political boundaries. And Galapagos is one of them. Politically, yes, Galapagos belongs to Ecuador. Emotionally and in terms of heritage, it belongs to the world.”