Can animals and people live happily in the Galápagos?

November 6, 2017

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Blinded by light, gasping for air and disorientated by sound — entering this world is an overwhelming sensory experience for a newborn animal. But when it comes to selecting a place to start life, there are few more idyllic choices than the Galápagos, a collection of 13 major islands set adrift from South America in the Pacific Ocean.

In December, sea lions give birth all over San Cristobal, one of four inhabited islands in the Galapagos — and recently, I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

As I watched this miracle of nature, scavenging frigate birds shared a flight path with Avianca airplanes from the mainland overhead, and a few metres away, children splashed in the sea.

Travellers photograph a pair of blue footed boobies in the Galápagos.

Travellers photograph a pair of blue footed boobies in the Galapagos.

Not only was this a chance to witness nature in action, it’s also a reassuring case study of animals and people living harmoniously side-by-side on the Galápagos.

“Ten years ago, we didn’t see so many sea lions,” admits local artist and guest house owner Jacqui Vazquez, as we sat in the shade watching a mother sea lion and her new pup share their first few tender moments. “But lately, they’ve been coming into town. They feel much happier here now.”

Jacqui, whose father was lured to San Cristobal by the lucrative fishing industry, is one of 25,000 legal residents fortunate enough to live permanently on the archipelago.

An iguana suns itself.

An iguana suns itself.

Since the 1960s, when stricter fishing quotas were introduced and tourism boomed, many people have found employment in the hospitality industry — and Jacqui is one of them.

Decorated with shells, mermaids and sea shanty murals, the homely, waterfront Casa Blanca in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (the capital of the Galápagos) is all Jacqui’s own handiwork. She lives on the top floor with her three surfing-obsessed daughters, next to an open-air kitchen-cum-yoga terrace; downstairs she sells sketches of marine iguanas, giant tortoises and sea lions (of course) alongside works curated from other local artists. This is bohemian living at its best.

But the picture hasn’t always been quite so perfect. When the Galápagos National Park was defined in 1959, 97% of the land was allocated for conservation, leaving the islands’ most recent invasive species — Homo sapiens — just a 3% slice of the pie.

Between 1999 and 2005, the human population grew by 60% — a rate much faster than on the Ecuadorian mainland — and in 2007, there was talk of putting Galápagos on the list of World Heritage in Danger sites, prompting the Ecuadorian government to toughen migration laws.

Sea lions cohabitate with humans on the Galápagos Islands.

Sea lions cohabitate with humans on the Galapagos Islands.

“Because I love the Galápagos so much, I refuse to live here,” one expedition cruise ship naturalist who spends time between voyages in Guayaquil, the mainland departure point for the islands, told me.

Yet, for so many people this is home; now, Genovesa’s red-footed booby birds and Fernandina’s flightless cormorants co-habitate with humans, and the challenge is to create a sustainable future without marring a pristine environment in the process. No easy feat.

For the most part, folks and fauna seem to be getting along fine — with some grumbles. On Santa Cruz, the archipelago’s most populous island, pelicans regularly rock up to the open-air fish market in port town Puerta Ayora —though they rarely ever wait in line. And outside the chic, angular whitewashed Golden Bay Hotel on San Cristobal, I spotted a colony of sea lions that had commandeered several Balinese day beds — much to the owner’s dismay.

Amusing and endearing, these episodes also communicate a poignant message: with time (and respect), different species can comfortably coexist.

Getting there

Keen to take a trip to the Galápagos Islands? G Adventures can get you there. Check out our small group tours to the Galapagos Islands here.

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