The largest fish in the ocean, the whale shark, makes passage through the Galapagos archipelago.
The largest fish in the ocean, the whale shark, makes passage through the Galapagos archipelago.
Bloomberg News

Despite Efforts, Some Tours Do Leave Footprints

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006

In early February, Galapagos National Park officials announced with great fanfare that they had prohibited Celebrity Cruise Line's Xpedition, a 94-passenger cruise ship, from traversing the area's waters for two months. The temporary ban aimed to penalize Celebrity for letting some of its crew members illegally fish for shark last year.

But when I arrived Feb. 12 on the island of Baltra to board the M.S. Islander -- a boat operated by Lindblad Expeditions, one of Celebrity's rivals -- the Xpedition was docked just offshore and waiting to accept passengers, just as it was on Feb. 19 as I returned to shore. It was my first glimpse into the varying shades of ecotourism in Ecuador.

While some companies have devoted considerable time and expense to protecting the very ecosystems they market to their clients, other firms are not always so careful. And the Ecuadoran government, which has passed a series of laws designed to protect its flora and fauna, does little to enforce its own rules.

"If tourists are well guided, if they have someone who's responsible, the impact would be minimal," said Maria Ramos, an Ecuadoran naturalist who has worked for both Lindblad and Celebrity. "There are two ways of doing things. One way is careful, where you do not affect the environment too much, and the other way is when you say it doesn't matter."

On the face of it, the Galapagos would seem like a magnet for conservation efforts. The birthplace of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, the archipelago contains dozens of creatures that appear nowhere else, including an array of finches and marine iguanas. Tourism is highly regulated: About 100,000 visitors come each year, and they can stop only at specific islands. Just 84 tour ships are allowed to travel the area's waters each year, and none can carry more than about 100 passengers.

Some companies strive especially hard to be environmentally sensitive. Lindblad staffers, for instance, provide biodegradable shampoo in cabin showers, serve meals on china rather than plastic and sort guests' trash into recyclable categories. The company's president, Sven Lindblad, said environmentalism makes economic sense.

"It's not philanthropy," said Lindblad, who first came to the Galapagos almost 40 years ago. "You're not going to have a good business in a degraded place. Guests aren't going to want to go to a degraded place."

To be sure, a Lindblad cruise is one of the more exclusive ways to see the archipelago. While guests are expected to get up at dawn to trek to the highlands in search of tortoises, they receive fresh-squeezed juice and piping hot cookies upon their return. After snorkeling, there's hot chocolate, and the ship boasts a full-service spa. Each morning between 6 and 7 on my cruise, expedition leader Cindy Manning would gently urge passengers to wake up with the promise of a sunny 78-degree day outside.

"This isn't a holiday," she chided when some guests groaned. "This is an expedition. You're going to have to sleep in when you get home to recuperate from this."

But she quickly reassured guests that during the seven-mile trip to the top of the Sierra Negra volcano the following day, Lindblad would provide extra-large water bottles and an Ecuadoran nicknamed Tex who would travel along on a donkey with extra water. Sure enough, Tex appeared early in the hike with a five-gallon jug in tow.

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Celebrity officials do not officially endorse illegal fishing of sharks and other vulnerable marine species, and on Oct. 28, the cruise line issued a statement saying that it "deeply regrets" the shark-fishing incident. The line said it "accepts full responsibility for the infractions of its crewmembers and will accept any consequences of the investigation."

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