Darwin’s Enchanted Isles are one of our planets most precious and unique ecosystems, home to an extraordinary profusion of exotic flora and fauna. The Islands retain a staggering 95% of their endemic species, a feat unparalleled on any other archipelago in the world. In 1959, a hundred years after the publication of The Origin of Species, Ecuador declared 97% of the Islands landmass a national park and in 2001, the marine reserve was established. Keeping Galapagos biologically pristine has been and continues to be, a constant and hard-waged battle. As a result in 2007, three decades after being designated the first World Heritage Site, UNESCO declared Galapagos as a World Heritage Site at risk, citing introduction of alien species, illegal fishing, unsustainable tourism, illegal migration and population growth.
While not a new threat, the introduction of foreign species of plants and animals to these isolated islands remains the greatest danger to biodiversity in the Galapagos. Bans against long-line fishing, shark finning and harvesting of sea cucumbers have created a powerful commercial fishing mafia that turn violent whenever restrictions are imposed. The growing number of settlers migrating from the mainland of Ecuador to the islands, largely in response to a recent boom in tourism, has also put pressure on a fragile environment that imperils the entire ecosystem. Tourism to this remote volcanic archipelago is both part of the solution and also part of the problem. In 2008, over 140,000 visitors from all over the world came to marvel at the otherworldly, inquisitive and comical reptiles and sea birds. The threat of infectious diseases brought by planes and supply ships could cause widespread mortality, even extinction of native species, susceptible to viral, bacterial and parasitic agents. Pressure to build resort style hotels, and bring larger cruise ships to Galapagos threatens to change the nature of visitors from small-scale eco-tourism to uninvested tourists stopping by for a few days on a mega-cruise.
Through an initiative of President and Owner Santiago Dunn, Ecoventura has invested upwards of $500,000 to refurbish its fleet of four expedition yachts in order to meet its own stringent ecology-minded standards. It has pledged to donate through its own infusions, $80,000 per year over the next three years, for the Galapagos Marine Biodiversity Fund which targets environmental education and marine conservation by strengthening the local communities’ ability to manage natural resources.
On one level this is self-serving; if the fragile ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands are irreversibly damaged by tourism and visits are drastically reduced or altogether banned, Ecoventura is out of business. On the highest level, this small company is doing its part to raise the consciousness of travelers and demonstrates how collective footprints can either be a disaster or have a positive effect.
Smart Voyager ecological certification since 2000
In 2000, Ecoventura became one of the first recipients of SmartVoyager, a voluntary environmental program developed by Corporacion y Desarollo from Ecuador and The Rainforest Alliance from New York. In order to comply with SmartVoyager, tour boats have to meet a strict set of conservation and social standards that were designed by scientists, conservation experts and tour operators based on principals to conserve natural ecosystems, reduction of negative impacts on the environment, risk of introduction and extraction of species and conservation of Native/ Endemic species, just and fair treatment of workers, community relations and local welfare, control of the supply and storage of supplies, integrated waste management and emissions control, security, quality control, planning and monitoring.
In order to comply, all our yachts produce their own fresh water through reverse osmosis desalinization units, and use only four stroke outboard engines on the Zodiacs. Four stroke engines are 70% quieter, emit virtually no fumes and consume 50% less fuel than two-stroke engines. Tour boats must use only lead-free or TBT-free paint. No varnish is applied to the exterior walkways. Only yellow exterior lights can be used so they do not attract insects. The cooling elements used in refrigeration and air conditioning systems are free of R-12 gas that could potentially escape and add to the green-house effect.
Wastewater is contained in holding tanks while a yacht is in port or close to shore. After a stringent treatment process of black and gray wastewater done through purified ozone, the water is discharged when the yachts are 12 miles from the coast in accordance with MARPOL.
Only biodegradable soaps and detergents are used for cleaning on board the yachts. The standards also require an improved quality of life including sanitary living conditions, medical insurance and advanced training for all crew members.
There is a waste management system and garbage-recycling program onboard all Ecoventura yachts with garbage receptacles placed on all decks with separate containers for plastics, paper, glass and organic waste. Passengers are encouraged to reduce, recycle and conserve energy during their cruise. Signs are posted in each cabin to remind our guests to recycle. Passengers refill water bottles from a container of purified drinking water. Crew training plays a vital role in reducing and recycling waste. Organic waste is compacted and discharged and inorganic sold waste is classified into paper, glass and plastic and turned into the local municipal waste service and recycling center. Our policy is to change towels daily. However, in order to conserve energy, we only change towels that are placed on the floor.
In 2005, Santiago Dunn, President of Ecoventura, was presented with the prestigious Individual Sustainable Standard-Setter for making a significant contribution to environmental conservation and sustainability. Santiago Dunn says his goal was to inspire others as well as to be part of the solution for the issues facing tourism in Galapagos. It was a big commitment to participate initially in the SmartVoyager program because it added considerable costs to the operation as well as an initial investment. However, our involvement only motivated us to continue striving to reduce the impact of our operation on the environment.
First Carbon Neutral operation in Galapagos
In 2006, Ecoventura became the first Carbon Neutral operation in Galapagos (and Ecuador). Carbon emissions from the company’s four yachts (and offices including business travel) are reduced, then offset by a portfolio of projects through US-based company Native Energy Travel Offsets. Through NETO, Ecoventura is investing in the future of our planet, through the purchase of carbon credits, and bringing corporate travel industry dollars directly to the development of new wind turbines on native lands and other renewable energy sources to help lower global carbon emissions.
In 2007, Ecoventura offset 4435 Short TONS of CO2 to lower carbon emissions and help global warming. By 2008, the company had reduced its carbon emissions through high performance oil filters and other methods by 10% and currently offsets 4035 short Tons of C02.
What is really significant here is that Ecoventura is not waiting for passengers to “opt-in” to an offset program, rather we are paying the full amount for offsets upfront to ensure the company is carbon neutral. Passengers are also encouraged to offset other portions of their trip and Ecoventura often partners with other sustainable travel providers such as airlines and hotels.
Galapagos Marine Biodiversity Fund
In 2006, Ecoventura, together with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), established the Galapagos Marine Biodiversity Fund (GMBF) with the objective to strengthen the local communities’ ability to manage natural resources through environmental education and marine conservation. Because the Galapagos National Park lacks in adequate funding, trained personnel and equipment, it is challenged to prevent illegal fishing by industrial scale boats. In response, the GMBF together with WildAid supports the maintenance of park patrol boats while also helping to make current small-scale fishing practices more efficient.
Hammerhead and other shark species around the world are being harvested primarily for their fins and the Galapagos Marine Reserve remains one of the last regions where these creatures can be seen gathered by the hundreds. It is vital to establish a local and permanent surveillance and patrolling platform that will deter illegal fishing vessels from entering these waters.
In May 2007, the fund provided scholarships to local students to attend a two year technical career program at the Galapagos Academic Institute for the Arts & Sciences (GAIAS), part of the University of San Francisco de Quito’s Galapagos campus located on the Island of San Cristobal. In August 2009, the first graduating class of 14 students completed their studies in environmental management, tourism administration and business administration and are ready to pursue their careers. The objective is to form community leaders to help manage conservation and be prepared to take a stand against illegal fishing that threatens the Islands ecosystem.
Funds from GMBF have also been allocated to benefit families of local fishermen by development of a micro-enterprise for the fisherman’s wives to manage. This will provide an alternate means of income and also set an example to create other tourism related businesses and reduce the need to fish. This particular Conservation International project involved converting a fishing boat into a restaurant and boutique. A 30-year lease was secured from the municipality and is located along the boardwalk along Wreck Bay on San Cristobal Island providing a service for tourists as well as benefiting community development. For the new business to thrive, technical assistance will be provided to improve the quality of artisan products sold and the women will be trained to manage and market their business.
Helping the local community
As one of the most well-established tour companies based in San Cristobal, Ecoventura has helped to support various initiatives that benefit the local population living in the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreano, San Cristobal. With a population of 5600, San Cristobal has the second largest population in the Islands after Santa Cruz. It is the fifth largest island and the only Island with fresh water and an airport in town.
Through the foundation “Gotitas de Esperanza” (drops of hope), Ecoventura has pledged to sponsor the salaries for teachers and Physical Therapists who work at a local school called Alejandro Alvear on San Cristobal Island. During the day, the school provides therapy for children with Down’s Syndrome and other physical disabilities. In the evenings, the school serves the adult population of the Island through programs such as teaching sign language for the hearing impaired.
Ecoventura introduces healthy menus featuring local and organic ingredients
Our yachts tend to attract a more active and health conscious clientele who are also concerned about environmental issues. To better cater to our clients needs, in 2009, our culinary-school trained chefs introduced a reduced calorie, healthy dining menu built around natural and organic foods purchased locally from island farmers and that avoids fried foods and high calorie sauces while reducing the fat and sodium content. The new menu has increased its infusion of organic content by over 50 percent; nearly 25 percent of produce comes from the Galapagos, mainly fruits and vegetables from San Cristobal and meats and dairy from Santa Cruz Island; The rest of the food products are now shipped from the mainland of Ecuador.
Ecoventura’s pacesetting approach to healthier fare underscores our holistic approach to Galapagos cruising: continued environmental stewardship, promotion of healthier living and support for local communities inside the ship.”
All Ecoventura guides are Ecuadorian nationals; 65% are Galapagos residents and 25% are native Galapaguenos. Out of 61 crew total members, including guides and Captains, 37% reside permanently in the Galapagos Islands and of those 15% are native Galapaguenos. The rest live in different cities in mainland Ecuador. In fact, Ecoventura has one of the highest percentages among the industry of employing local guides and crew. Ecoventura maintains a supply office, warehouse and manager on the Island of San Cristobal and hire only locals to handle our Galapagos-based operation.
Ecoventura recognized as a leader in sustainable tourism
On November 12, 2008, Ecoventura was presented with the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism – Best in a Marine Environment award during World Travel Market in London Excel with distinguished judges that noted Ecoventura’s contribution toward improving conditions for local people in Galapagos and for being among the first operators to be independently audited.
In 2009, Ecoventura was featured in two American travel publications; first in September at the 3rd annual Conde Nast World Saver 2009 award as the top scoring cruise line. (the panel of judges noted the company was exceptional in education, preservation, poverty and health) and again in November as a recipient of Travel + Leisure’s 5th annual Global Vision Award for Green Cruising. In accepted his award, Santiago Dunn stated, “we as a company are both humbled and energized by this prestigious award.” “It is wonderful to be recognized for our past efforts, but our groundbreaking work on setting the bar for responsible tourism in Galapagos has just begun.