This has been a busy year in the Galapagos Islands, with prestigious tourism awards, new discoveries – and challenges.
Throughout 2017, the Galapagos Islands racked up several important tourism awards. It landed in the Best Islands category of Travel + Leisure magazine’s World’s Best Awards thanks to the islands’ incredible snorkeling and close animal encounters. Travelers desiring to explore the Galapagos’ undersea world should take note that National Geographic placed Cousin’s Rock on its list of the World’s Greatest Scuba Diving Spots.
In December, the World Travel Awards, also known as the “Tourism Oscars,” declared the Galapagos as the World’s Best Beach Destination. And what is the best of these beaches, according to TripAdvisor’s Traveler’s Choice Awards for 2017? That would be Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz Island, which was chosen among the Top 25 Beaches in the world.
Evolution in Real Time: A New Species of Darwin’s Finch
The Galapagos Islands are famous for its role in the development of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. This year provided not only further proof supporting this theory – but also the revelation that evolution can occur within a few generations.
For decades, scientists Rosemary and Peter Grant have studied Darwin’s finches on Daphne Mayor Island. In 1981, they noticed the arrival of a male large cactus finch from Española Island, 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the south. This strange-singing bird captured the fancy of a local female medium ground finch, and they produced fertile offspring. Three Darwin finch generations later, DNA testing shows they are genetically different than any other Darwin finch population.
Bringing the Floreana Giant Tortoise Back to Life
Genetic testing is giving Galapagos scientists many other new insights on the islands’ unique species, including the survival of species once thought to be extinct. Such is the case of the Floreana giant tortoise, thought to be forever gone since the 1830s. DNA testing showed that some tortoises on Isabela Island’s Wolf Volcano were hybrids of the Floreana and the local giant tortoise species. In 2017, a new breeding program began at the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center on Santa Cruz Island, to revive the Floreana tortoise and the first eggs have now hatched.
A Homecoming for an Extinct Galapagos Species
The same giant tortoise DNA testing program has failed to find any hybrids of the Pinta Island species. The last known member of this species, iconic Lonesome George, died in 2012, marking the official extinction of this giant tortoise species.
After careful preservation, Lonesome George returned to the Galapagos Islands in February 2017. His special, climate-controlled gallery is part of the new Giant Tortoise route at the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center.
Sharks in the Galapagos, part 1
Thanks to the work of several shark conservation programs, we have uncovered more fascinating information about these masters of the sea in the Galapagos Islands. Shark monitoring led to the discovery of a scalloped hammerhead shark breeding site and nursery in the Galapagos.
Galapagos Whale Shark Project (GWSP), a project supported by the Galapagos National Park and several international agencies like the Charles Darwin Foundation, found that a high number of pregnant whale sharks pass through the archipelago, especially in the sector of the special shark reserve declared in 2016. This year, scientists successfully conducted ultrasounds on these females.
Sharks in the Galapagos, part 2
Not all of the news about sharks in the Galapagos was so inspiring. In August 2017, the Chinese ship Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 was intercepted in the Galapagos Marine Reserve with 6,600 near-extinct and endangered sharks aboard. The 20-man crew was tried and sentenced to up to four years in prison each member and ordered to pay a US$5.9 million fine.
2017 has been a banner year in understanding and conserving the Galapagos Islands’ many incomparable species. It has also been a year of many accolades and challenges for one of the world’s most pristine nature reserves.
Photo credit: Thomas Bonnin