By Giannina Smith Bedford
The Galapagos is a place like no other. How you choose to explore this archipelago of volcanic islands 600 miles west of Ecuador depends on your priorities. Boat cruises, which range in size from 12 passengers to 100, go to many of the same stops on the same islands, but vary in onboard amenities, and in some cases, environmental impact.
Since new rules of travel were enacted in the Galapagos in 2012 stipulating a ship cannot visit the same island twice within a 14-day period, cruise itineraries are even more limited. The new rules are the Ecuadorian government's attempt to help prevent overcrowding on the 19 islands that make up the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site.
My choice for this adventure of a lifetime was a seven-day cruise aboard a 20-person yacht, the Flamingo I, run by tour operator Ecoventura, a company that prides itself on intimate excursions that also focus on maintaining the ecology of the islands. The 83-foot yacht may have not been equipped with a hot tub or offer white linen table service, but the well-maintained vessel has teak interiors; small, yet comfortable cabins, and a spacious sun deck. The key difference here is that they definitely put nature first.
Offering tours in the Galapagos since 1991, Ecoventura is the first recipient to maintain Smart Voyager certification since 2000—a designation through a voluntary environmental program developed by The Rainforest Alliance and Corporacion y Desarollo from Ecuador. The company works to preserve the fragile environment in which it operates through carbon offsets and installing alternative energy sources. Ecoventura also supports the Galapagos Marine Biodiversity Fund (GMBF) administered by the World Wildlife Fund, which targets marine conservation and environmental education.
"Our efforts for the past few years have been on helping the local community benefit from tourism," says Ecoventura Owner Santiago Dunn. "During this year, Ecoventura's new commitment with local education has lead us to pledge to sponsor the cost of 12 scholarships for one course/module for local students living in Galapagos age 16 to 17 to study conservation and ecology-related issues."
As part of its Smart Voyager certification, Ecoventura yachts produce their own fresh water through reverse osmosis desalinization units and only use four stroke outboard engines (touted for reduced emissions, improved fuel economy and less noise output) on Zodiacs or pangas that transport visitors to and from the island shores each day. The paint on Ecoventura's tour boats is all lead-free or TBT-free and the cooling elements in the refrigeration and air conditioning are free of R-12 gas, which, if it escaped, could add to greenhouse gases.
Only biodegradable soaps and detergents are used on board, and this stipulation extends to the passengers as well. Before taking off for the islands, tour-goers are informed not bring any shampoo, conditioner or soap, which the company provides in convenient dispensers in each stateroom shower, which are actually quite spacious for a boat of Flamingo One's size.
As a result of its comprehensive green efforts and the additional purchase of carbon credits, in 2006 Ecoventura became the first operation in the Galapagos to completely offset carbon emissions. In 2008, it expanded it's earth-centric mission by installing 40 solar panels and two wind generators to its flagship yacht, the Eric, which became the first hybrid yacht in the Galapagos, with almost 17 percent of the energy used to run the on board generators powered by alternative renewable energy. Dunn says the next goal is to completely replace Ecoventura's current fleet of three ships to "the greenest ships in the Galapagos Islands."
"When we say greenest we mean not only alternative energy, but also reducing the fuel consumption, thus carbon footprint to the lowest possible levels without affecting the quality of the visits for our guests and complying with all the regulations of the park in terms of itinerary and times to be followed," Dunn says.
Daily Precautions in the Galapagos
Ecoventura's green mantra goes beyond boat operations, however, extending to day-to-day boat life and on land visits to the island chain where passengers are expected to do their part. Upon our immediate embarkation on San Cristobal Island, our lively naturalist guides, brother-and-sister-team Karina and Ivan Lopez, thoroughly briefed the group on the eco-friendly and safety practices that are part of life on the Flamingo I—from recycling to refilling water bottles from a community dispenser. When there was trash to discard, the garbage receptacles for plastics, paper, glass and organic waste in the cabin and on the deck of Flamingo I became handy reminders as to where it belonged and inside each cabin, we were provided two towels—a green one for visits to the beach and snorkeling and a white towel for use inside the cabin only. This helps reduce the use of fresh water for laundry.
Eco-rituals on board were compounded by rules Katrina and Ivan insisted we follow during site visits. During a 1.3-mile hike on Espanola Island-one of the Galapagos' oldest islands-we trekked around the nesting ground of blue-footed boobies, colonies of Nazca boobies and the "airport landing" of the Albatross, the Galapagos' largest bird. While observing plant and animal life present nowhere else in the world, we made sure to follow the guides' directions to stay on marked paths (and were immediately reminded if we wandered off). We tackled the rocky path; hop scotching around mounds of iguanas and masses of sleeping and barking sea lions. Some of the tiniest sea lions pups, alone while their mothers hunted, approached us with curiosity. "Make sure not to touch them because if they smell different to the mother, they might be rejected and die," Karina says.
We quickly backed away and kept backing away on many of the island visits. Due to the strict protection of the wildlife, many of the critters aren't the least bit afraid of humans and will come quite close-this, of course, allowed for incredible Kodak moments.