UNDER THE GALAPAGOS WATERS: Another Wildlife Paradise
Text & Photos: Justin Lotak · 10 min read
This January while in the Galapagos Islands, we were grateful to have met Mathias Espinosa: Co-founder of Scuba Iguana, the oldest operating dive company on Santa Cruz Island. He has been living and working within the diving sector in the Galapagos for over 20 years, and we had the opportunity to be able to talk with him about the various dive sites in the reserve, as well as some of the issues pertaining to marine conservation and tourism within the archipelago. Below is some information regarding what lies beneath the water's surface of the Galapagos, along with several quotes from our interview with Mr. Espinosa.
Island ecosystems around the world can have an incredible blend of marine and terrestrial biodiversity. And it is obvious to many observers above the surface to see how different land species have been isolated on their evolutionary paths from their mainland cousins, but this happens underwater as well. Remote islands offer oases for marine species, many of which remain within the waters of the archipelagos long enough to undergo their own evolutionary changes from similar marine species found elsewhere. In fact, it is estimated that 50% of marine tropical diversity is found within the waters of islands (1), and scientists are still often discovering new species off the coasts of islands around the world. And the Galapagos are lucky to have several factors that have caused its waters to be exceptionally biodiverse.
Spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari)
Though not as large as the manta rays, these majestic and beautiful rays can grow up to 10ft in width and several glided past us on many occasions on both dives off Santa Cruz Island. They are generally shy and avoid humans.
Clam, Santa Cruz Island. Identifying this species seems rather difficult, but if any clam experts want to take a stab, your comments are welcomed below. Galapagos, Ecuador.
The Galapagos Islands are located where cold waters are pushed from the Humboldt Current from the south to join warmer waters of the Panamic Current from the north. This blend of warm and cold waters near the Galapagos have caused the waters surrounding the archipelago to become highly rich in nutrients. The islands are also remote, causing marine life to congregate nearby. Those reasons, along with the fact that the waters surrounding the Galapagos are protected, help to ensure that this underwater sanctuary continues to remain highly biodiverse.
Over the last several decades, SCUBA operators have grown along with the options for diving within the Galapagos. There are now more than sixty sites within the archipelago that are open to diving or snorkeling. SCUBA diving, which in a large part is underwater wildlife observation, is now a major contributor to the economy of the Galapagos. And for good reason. Frequently seen underwater species include a variety of shark species, whales, rays, sea lions, endemic birds, the only marine iguana species in the world, and roughly 3,000 species of fish. An economic study by the National Geographic Society and the University of California Santa Barbara from 2015 showed that a single shark within the Galapagos has a net present value of US$5.4 million in tourism dollars over the course of its lifetime (2). Compare that to roughly $200 that the fishing industry might receive for killing a shark to take its fin, and it quickly becomes apparent that conservation of species such as the Scalloped Hammerhead or the Galapagos Shark is much more beneficial to the local economy than handing their fate over to the fishing industry.
Galapagos shark (Carcharhinus galapagensis), Santa Cruz Island
These sharks grow up to around 10 feet (3m) in length, and are common near tropical oceanic islands. They are described as "near threatened" by the IUCN. Galapagos, Ecuador.
Blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus)
Blacktip reef shark sillouteed with a school of fish at the Gordon Rocks dive site off the coast of Santa Cruz Island.
The protection of the waters surrounding the Galapagos is due in large part to the existence of the Galápagos Marine Reserve, which was created in 1998 and protects 51,000 square miles surrounding the archipelago.
"All of this is doing much better now since we've created the [Galapagos] Marine Reserve, and we need a lot of resources to keep it in good shape" — Mathias Espinosa
The reserve was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status, and an additional 15,000 square miles of waters were recently protected in 2016 around the islands of Wolf and Darwin. Fishing is very restricted in the reserve, with approximately a third of it designated as a no-take zone. These restrictions came after years of research and documentation regarding the wildlife found in the area. This includes a research expedition that found that the waters surrounding the islands of Wolf and Darwin have the highest biomass of reef fish (mostly sharks) ever recorded, which is especially important given the decline of sharks around the world over the last several decades.
"I admire the Ecuadorian government...for creating the legal structure to try to save this place" — Mathias Espinosa
Galápagos sea lion (Zalophus wollebaeki), Gordon Rocks, Santa Cruz Island.
This large male seemed to be resting on the sea floor, though our guides informed us that the larger sea lions behave like this when they are hunting; they find a spot and wait for large schools of fish to approach.
Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), North Seymour Island
This male fed off of seaweed and didn't seem to mind while I watched and slowly snorkeled alongside.
The governments of Ecuador and the Galapagos enforce a strict policy to limit the amount of tourism within the archipelago. Although this may seem overly restrictive at first, the restrictions are based on science and research, and they help keep a critical and sustainable balance between the environmental impacts and economic benefits of tourism.
"There are only a certain amount of permits that the national park is giving to do diving. This is based on a mathematical analysis from experts all over the world on how to have a minimal impact on the dive sites...so when you go to dive you have privacy and the fishes have peace under the water, and you don't have a 'New York' underwater." — Mathias Espinosa
Prior to the strong tourism industry within the Galapagos, there was a large fishing industry on the islands, much of it illegal. It took several years for the locals to move from fishing to tourism, and Mathias and Scuba Iguana were part of a project to train fisherman into becoming dive guides and dive masters. Similar programs have been successful on land by taking former illegal poachers of animals and training them to become rangers. This lifestyle change is a win-win for both the new dive guides as well as for the tourism industry as a whole. The former fishermen are very familiar with the fish species and where they can be found, and they are already accustomed to spending days aboard boats, as well as in and around water. After realizing that they can make a living based on the conservation of fish species rather than by their exploitation, these former fishermen become the protectors of local biodiversity, ensuring that there is a healthy fish stock for future generations of divers and snorkelers to come witness.
“Part of the success of Galapagos was to change the fishermen to go into tourism. In Isabela from 2004-2012…there was a project to teach fishermen to become dive masters.” — Mathias Espinosa
We spoke at length with Mathias about how diving can become more environmentally friendly. One issue is that outboard engines are loud and use fossil fuels. It's not uncommon to see oil sheens floating on the water's surface of any harbor in the world. Mathias has looked at electric options for motors, as well as at building a more ecologically-friendly boat that would be electric and streamlined to get from dive site to dive site. Current technological limitations, however, would result in slower travel speeds, meaning longer dive trips. He surveyed his customers about the balance between using more environmentally friendly (though slower) electric motors compared to an increased tour duration, and found that he would likely lose customers if they were required to spend their entire day on dive trips. Therefore he is waiting for technology to improve so that when the "Tesla of boats" is ready and electric motors will allow ocean travel at similar velocities as diesel motors, he can make that switch.
Another method for diving to be more ecological is for the divers themselves to come more prepared. Diving in the Galapagos can be challenging. Strong currents, sharp rocks, mixed visibility, and an abundance of biodiversity that can honestly be quite distracting (which I witnessed first hand) can all add to some of the difficulties in diving in the islands. When a large hammerhead passes overhead, it can be hard to maintain focus on your gauges. As Mathias explained, when divers are inexperienced, it can negatively impact the experience of other divers; something might go wrong causing the dive to be aborted, dives are shortened in length due to rapid use of air, costs go up because more guides are needed, and the guides may need to focus more on the safety of specific divers rather than on pointing out the biodiversity that they are witnessing. Divers that come to the Galapagos must be experienced and they should also come with as few expectations as possible. The conditions change day-by-day, and although certain sites may be more 'internet-famous' than others, it is never guaranteed where and when wildlife will appear, or whether the conditions will be conducive to diving.
"You can go to Gordon Rocks and have very bad visibility and very tough conditions, and you ask yourself, 'What happened here? I read something different on the internet'. Creating expectations: I don't like that too much." — Mathias Espinosa
All of that being said, the diving in the Galapagos can be truly spectacular. The prices are high to both get to the Galapagos as well as to procure a dive trip, but knowing that these islands are being used as a model for much of the rest of the world in underwater sustainability and conservation makes that price tag less burdensome. Add a few Galapagos sharks, spotted eagle rays, green sea turtles, schools of yellowtail surgeonfish, and a mola mola into the mix after a dive - and you will likely finding yourself back in the dive shop signing up for the next day's tour.
SCUBA diving and snorkeling are humans' way of connecting first hand with the underwater natural world. They are water's equivalent to safaris or bird-watching. And the money that we spend on diving and snorkeling helps ensure that dive sites remain open and that their biodiversity continues to flourish. If there were no sharks, rays, sea lions, turtles or fish underwater, we likely would lose a lot of interest in diving and snorkeling. Hence our economic support of the diving industry indirectly supports the conservation of these fascinating underwater species.
We'll end this with one final quote from Mathias, regarding humans and their ability (or inability) to live in harmony with nature in the Galapagos:
“In an incredible paradise like the Galapagos – one of the last jewels of unique wildlife and ecosystems on earth - does it really make sense that we humans have a right to live here? This is a question that I ask myself, because I love the Galapagos, and I know that I am an invasive species. Galapagos is one of the places where we, as a human race, we need to learn and try to live in harmony with nature. And I want to give people this chance. 25,000 people trying to find a way to live in harmony with nature - that’s why I agree with us living here. We need to learn to be much more conscious about everything that we’re doing. That’s the reason why I’ve never had a car in my life – just a bicycle. You need to ask yourself: 'what can I do to have less impact?' And I’m coming to the conclusion that if we’re not going to find a harmonic way to live in the Galapagos – for me the Galapagos is like a laboratory of humans living in nature - and if we fail in the next 40-50 years, basically we need to get our backpacks and move on the moon. Because if a small group of 25,000 people cannot find a way to live in harmony with nature, then I need to admit that our human species does not have a right to live on this planet. That’s my conclusion.” — Mathias Espinoza
(1) Justin G. 2008. Island biodiversity - issues and opportunities. Summary of an event held at the World Conservation Congress 2008.
(2) Lynham J, Costello C, Gaines SD, Sala E. 2015. Economic valuation of marine and shark-based tourisms in the Galápagos Islands. National Geographic Pristine Seas; Washington, D.C.