Swimming with the sea lions
Feb 2006 , 5 women flew half way across the world to the Galapagos Islands , Ecaudor, and swam with the sea lions . I was one of them .
" Why aren't there any sharks ?" I complained to George the boat crew , but I spoke too soon .
I was happily splashing about by myself in the water when I happened to look down and there he was , a big fellow 7 foot long , resting about 10 meters directly below me - a Galapagan shark with the typical round head ! With my heart in my throat I tiptoed away and bumped into 3 eagle rays circling round and round in the shallows . The dance was mesmerizing and I circled with them for ages . I just love the eagles !
Lonesome George is a tortoise from the Pinta Island in the Galapagos; he is over a hundred years old and is without doubt the biggest attraction of the Charles Darwin Research Station. George is special because he is the last of his species, he is in fact officially the rarest creature on Earth according to the Guiness Book Of Records . For a hundred year old tortoise George should be in his sexual prime, yet he has steadfastly refused to mate with any female from a different giant tortoise species , yearning for a mate of his own kind in vain . Poor George has to be the loneliest tortoise in the world !
The marine iguanas are the only sea-going lizards in the world and are certainly among the most unusual creatures in the Galapagos . The iguanas develop their colours as they get older- the young are black, while adults can be combinations of black, green, red or grey . The iguanas on the island of Espanola are the most colourful , with blotches of red and green. The iguanas are ectotherms so to regulate their body temperature they must bask in the sun for long periods of time ; the dark pigment in the skin helps shield the animals from the effects of UV rays .
The iguanas are adept at both swimming and diving . I was fortunate to have swam with an iguana too, and observed in close quarters how it swam by moving its body from side to side and legs held tightly behind, propeling with its tail .
Galapagos was declared a World Heritage Site in 1978 . Although land animals has long been studied intensely on the Galapagos , marine creatures have received attention only in the last 20-30 years, and the Marine Reserve was added as recently as 2001.
Unfortunately today Galapagos is in deep social and ecological crises .
In the early twentieth century, Ecuadorians began exploiting the abundant ocean around Galapagos, more than 300 species of fish including such prized angling species as marlin, swordfish, wahoo, snook, and red snapper used to thrive in the turbulent waters. The Galapagans first chased bacalao (groupers) and other rockfish, then lobsters, and finally sea cucumbers and sharks . The islands' fisheries cannot support the rapidly growing population , which has swelled to 30,000 , half of them illegal economic migrants . Each fishery in turn collapsed as the target species disappeared.
Although shark fishing is illegal in Galapagos , it does not deter local fishermen as finning sharks is immensely more profitable than labour-intensive tuna fishing- Galapagos National Park authorities have confiscated more than 5,000 fins in the year 2003 alone.
Fifteen years ago there were huge schools of hammerheads in the Galapagos waters, sighting of 200 or 300 is usual in any one dive; now one's lucky to see 20 or 30 .
Tourism numbers have trebled in the past 15 years, reaching 140,000 in 2006 , the number of cruise boats have mushroomed and a hotel was put up last year, further stretching the fragile ecosystem of the islands .
Ecuadorian government passed landmark conservation laws in 1998 to preserve the Galapagos Islands and the ocean around them,but under-enforcement means over-fishing continues unabated .With only one patrol boat operating, illegal fishing, which is commonly done by having a larger vessel stay outside the marine reserve and sending several smaller boats ( pangas) in on quick trips , is virtually impossible to stop.
Long lining fishery —up to miles long—with many baited hooks onto a raft to be picked up at a later date to retrieve everything that has been hooked , resulting in the death of sea birds, sharks, turtles, and other species as "by-catch," , is estimated to kill 300,000 albatross each year . To date 19 of the 21 world species of albatross are in danger of extinction.
Economic rankling came to a head in year 2000 when local fishermen launched a protest against fishing quotas . They took over facilities at the Darwin Research Station and the Galapagos National Park Service on the island of Santa Cruz, closed the main road and blocked the airport. They took park employees hostage, vandalized park property, and killed endangered Galapagos giant tortoises. No one could get into or out of the islands for a month.
Although now outwardly calm, the massacre of 53 sea lions found with their skulls crushed on the island of Pinta in Jan 2008 was seen as revenge attack by many.
The woes of Galapagos know no bound .
In 2001 the tanker Jessica, which carried oil to feed the huge number of cruise ships operating in the Galapagos, ran aground off San Cristobal Island and spilled over a million litres of oil into the sea. It is estimated 15,000 marine iguanas died during the 11 months following the spill , even a minute amounts of oil killed fermentation bacteria in the intestines of the iguanas, which normally enables them to digest algae.
In 2007 scientists warn that three species of corals unique to the Galapagos Islands could soon disappear forever .
What hope is there for the Galapagos Islands ?
Under intense pressure from the world scientists, the Ecuadorian government purposes that visitor permits and flights to the islands be restricted , and in 2009 to double the tourist entrance fee to $200 [￡100] and increase the minimum stay on the islands to eight days so that there are fewer short tours which cause more pollution . They also plan a mandatory environmental course for all Galapagos tourism workers ( no guide training has been done for the past several years ) .
In the long run sport fishing ( catch-and-release fishing), a comparatively profitable and environmentally friendly enterprise to commercial fishing , could provide a means of livelihood for the fishermen.
All may appear well on paper and on promise, but in the corrupted and murky waters of Ecuadorian politics and associated profit- mongering conglomeries, the Galapagos may still lose it all.
Already in Isabela Island the fishermen were disillusioned after an illegal big-game sport fishing tournament organized in 2005 by the Mayor of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno . The International Game Fish Association (IGFA), a private international sport fishing organization and not an Ecuadorian stakeholder, has stepped in to develop rules for sport fishing in the Galapagos , which are so stringent that no poor fishermen can afford to compete with the big-game promoters.
The world can only watch further development with bated breath and a heavy heart . The days of swimming with the sea lions could well be numbered .