How will climate change affect holidays in the Galápagos?

The flight attendant marches down the plane, a spray can in each hand, deploying twin streams of insecticide over your head. A message hangs in the air with the spray: you are landing in a place that must be protected.

The plane wing dips. Down below is a cluster of islands, nearly 1,000km from the nearest mainland and a week’s sail from Lima – if you were to forgo the plane and travel on the HMS Beagle, as Darwin did in 1835. It’s the Galápagos Islands.

That the Galápagos has survived this long relatively unspoilt is nothing short of miraculous. This small world sits in a rare confluence of currents, and at the epicentre of the world’s strongest weather system. Increasingly, climate change threatens to tamper with the islands’ delicate eco-systems.

How is climate change affecting the Galápagos?

“Climate change will affect the islands (and the world) in a more severe way – that is a fact,” says Jascivan Carvalho, founder of award-winning travel company Tropic Ecuador, the operator on the ground for our specialist Ecuador partner, Travel Differently. Jascivan’s company has offices on Santa Cruz Island, “We can only imagine how a fragile ecosystem and species could be affected, as well as the local resident population.”

The Galápagos’ unique position means that we don’t know for sure what climate change has in store – each scenario affects land and sea differently, and each change tinkers with the fine balance of its wildlife.

There is growing evidence to suggest that climate change will increase the intensity and frequency of the weather systems that most affect the Galapagos.

Changing weather systems

The ecosystem that supports the rare and unusual animal life in the Galápagos relies on a very unique set of ocean currents. Follow the penguins into the Galápagos waters and you’ll find that it’s unusually cool. Though these islands sit on the equator, their climate is sub-equatorial thanks to a cooling current that comes up from Chile.

This current is balanced by others that bring warmer nutrient-rich waters to serve its coral reefs and mangrove forests. The Galápagos also experiences a phenomenon known as upwelling. Cool deep-sea water is brought to the surface near its shores, bringing with it vital nutrients.

The islands sit at the epicentre of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) – a weather system that changes Pacific Ocean temperatures from cooler (La Niña) to warmer (El Niño) over two- to eight-year cycles, affecting the ocean currents. The Galápagos therefore already experiences natural cyclical climate shifts.

In La Niña, drier weather means less food for terrestrial animals, but the sea life flourishes as cooler conditions bring nutrients up into the waters. When a new El Niño comes, it is likely to bring warmer seas, but lots of rain, so better conditions for land animals.

El Niño slows the Equatorial Undercurrent that is responsible for bringing nutrient-rich cooler currents up to the Galápagos. This is bad news for sea life, as it depletes the food source at the base of its food chain.

The 1982-83 El Niño was a disastrous weather event for the Galápagos, which lost all but around 300 of its Galápagos penguins and almost all of its coral reef. The warm water stopped nutrients from coming to the surface, meaning that animals starved to death – sea life and many birds too.

“We can’t deny seasons are harder and harder to predict, as well as being hotter and colder than before,” says Jascivan.

If the frequency and ferocity of these events increases, there’s a chance that animal populations may not be able to recover between events and will become extinct.

Invasive species

Invasive creatures have always been a threat to the Galápagos, but climate change could create warmer and wetter conditions that would allow more parasites to thrive.

Climate-resistant invasive species like goats and rats, which currently cover 28 percent of the islands, are likely to outcompete less climate change-resilient native species, which have flourished in this specific habitat, but are not guaranteed to continue to do so if such a habitat changes.

Rats, for example, do better in wetter conditions where endemic Galápagos species may struggle. Invasive fire ants have been found attacking sea turtle hatchlings and giant tortoise eggs. A recent study funded by the Galápagos conservancy found that there were 50 non-native sea creatures in the Galápagos Marine Reserve. There had previously thought to have only been six. These unexpected visitors are partly here due to climate change shifting their habitats and food sources.

Circling predators

Competition for food is intensifying in the islands. The Galápagos sardine population collapsed without apparent cause in 1997, and sea lions have since starting catching yellowfin tuna instead. As global fishing stocks decrease – the result of the pressures of overfishing and climate change combined – fishing vessels are in danger of fishing closer and closer to the islands for the same tuna. A sea lion cannot compete against a fishing flotilla, such as the Chinese 'armada' of boats which was observed fishing close to the islands in 2020.

In 2022, the 60,000km² Hermandad Marine Reserve was created in response to encroaching boats. This created a no-fishing corridor between the Galápagos Marine Reserve and waters around mainland Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica – a total area of 500,000 km² is now protected from fishing fleets, helping migratory species like sharks and turtles.

The Hermandad Reserve shows that Ecuador’s government is committed to fighting for wildlife and the tourism it brings – at least for now.

Vanishing beaches

Climate change is causing a global rise in sea levels. As these swallow beaches, they can also swallow important nesting sites for birds, iguanas and turtles. However, the Galápagos’ volcanic nature doesn’t always mean that species are aboard a sinking ship – some of the islands might be rising. Like the oscillating currents and weather systems, the exact nature of the change is yet unknown.
“It seems a little world within itself,” said Darwin of the Galápagos Islands. If only that were still true. The pressures of the outside world increasingly intrude.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Galapagos or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Will climate change affect my Galápagos holiday?

“Keep in mind that the Galapagos is one of the better-preserved national parks in the world,” says Jascivan, “and there are a considerable number of regulations”. Tourism to the Galápagos has been ecologically conscious for years – the bug spray on your aeroplane is just the beginning of a tightly controlled trip. You come to the Galápagos expecting strict guidelines.

You must be on an official tour to visit almost all sites on the islands. Visitors cannot travel on boats of more than 100 passengers and the movement of boats is strictly controlled in the park so that only one boat can visit an islands’ landing site at a time.

Tourists must be accompanied by a local guide and groups are limited to 16 tourists per guide. Visitors pay a $100 national park entrance fee. Since 2018, visitors have not been able to bring certain single-use plastics in their luggage.

Guidelines such as these might change with changing climate, but the principles of the visit remain the same.

Seeing sustainability

You might notice an increase in climate awareness across the islands, but it depends where you go and how you like to travel. In 2021 actor Leonardo DiCaprio pledged $43 million towards saving Galápagos species through Re:wild, a global non-profit conservation organisation. Rewilding efforts, including the reintroduction of native species to their endemic islands, are underway, thanks to Re:wild and other organisations. You might see the results on your visit.

Crucially, wildlife protection and reintroduction is being undertaken in partnership with local residents. “We can and have to act locally,” says Jascivan, whose company is creating a reserve on Santa Cruz for the island’s giant tortoise population. Islands are following the lead of Floreana, the smallest inhabited island, which has been community-led since 2010. All hotels and lodges on Floreana are community-owned, and powered by community-owned solar power. The island has removed gas power from its kitchens and is preserving its freshwater by building a desalination plant. Travellers can see this first-hand on our Floreana Island wildlife tour.

For now, then, changing weather patterns may not affect your short trip directly, but as wildlife diminishes, it will change the nature of all Galápagos holidays.

“There are more and bigger international cruise companies and more pressure over bigger hotel resort type developments in the islands,” says Jascivan.

Already, the islands have seen a rise in 'attraction based' holidays which are not nature-focused, and may do more harm than good. Demand on the islands may rise thanks to a phenomenon known as ‘last-chance tourism’ – where people flock to see the Galápagos before their biodiversity is degraded beyond redemption.

How is climate change affecting Galápagos wildlife?

Climate change is a sliding scale – temperatures can creep up ad infinitum. Wildlife has harder limits: a creature is either in existence or extinct. Many Galápagos species are already endangered, making additional pressures upon them all the more destructive.

“We have noticed over the years some degree of reduction on the abundance of wildlife Galápagos was known for,” says Jascivan. “What we have noticed specially in the highlands of the islands is less bird life and pressure on the habitat of giant tortoises.” He runs Galápagos Magic Tented Camp in the highlands of Santa Cruz island. Giant tortoises roam free near the camp and he has noticed how their surrounding habitat is changing.

This is a big problem for tourism. Many tourists will only visit these islands so long as there are unique species to see. Tourism surveys have found that there are seven key species which keep people visiting. These are: giant tortoises, sea turtles, marine and land iguanas, penguins, sea lions and blue-footed boobies. If these species disappear, so does much of the islands’ livelihoods, and likely their protected statuses too.

All marine life will be affected by the stronger and more frequent El Niño events predicted in the near future, which deplete the ocean nutrients and destroy the food chain. Everything from fish up to Galápagos sea lions, hammerhead sharks and penguins is under threat of starvation during strong El Niño weather.

Land life is also affected by strong La Niña weather, which brings drier conditions and therefore less food. Flightless cormorants, for instance, have been found starving on their nests in lean years.

It’s likely that animals that cannot migrate away to find alternative food sources during adverse weather cycles will not survive.

Galápagos penguins

Galápagos penguins are already endangered. In the El Niño events of 1982 and 1996, the penguin population of the Galápagos went down to the low hundreds. Whilst they have built back up again, if these weather events become more common, there’s a risk that the populations won’t have time to recover between the lean years. The beaches where they nest also risk being washed away by rising sea levels.

Galápagos tortoises

Galápagos tortoises were once killed in their thousands for food. Now heavily protected, climate change presents a new threat to these still-endangered animals.

“Higher temperatures are impacting on migrations of giant tortoises which could decrease nesting success,” explains Jascivan, “Additionally, increase in temperatures could lead to a greater variety of insects which may lead to reduced hatching success.”

Whilst La Niña means that there is less food on the islands during El Niño years, heavy rain can wash away tortoise eggs, and tortoises can be drowned or washed away by heavy rain, diminishing the population. An increase in the intensity and frequency of this weather event means more eggs could be lost. Higher temperatures affect the sex ratio of reptile hatchlings – so warmer weather could mean fewer male tortoises, affecting the population balance for years to come.

Marine iguanas

Marine iguanas rely on a plentiful supply of algae, and when this is low, they struggle. Some 90 per cent of marine iguanas died in the strong 1997-1998 El Niño. Scientists suspect marine iguanas in the Galápagos may go as far as reabsorbing some of their skeletons to become smaller, so that they require less food.

Blue-footed boobies

Boobies stop breeding in bad El Niño years, instead focusing their efforts on finding food. They have competition from local fisheries, as they fish for the same fish that local people do. Starving adult birds and no new chicks leads to population crash – and due to climate change, it may never recover.

Sea lions

The Galápagos saw the devastating effects of strong El Niño weather on sea lions in 1982. In this year, 90 percent of the pups died because adult sea lions could not find enough food to feed their young. Unlike other species, the recovery rate for sea lions is slow, and it can take up to 10 years for populations to return. The species might run out of time if climate change means more frequent El Niño events.

Coral reefs

Among the many coral types in the Galápagos are some that are only found here. Endemic Floreana coral, for example, is already endangered, but climate change presents new threats. The La Niña and El Niño respectively cool and heat the sea, and both of these affect the reefs. A particularly strong La Niña might cause coral to go into cold shock.

El Niño acidifies the water and this, on top of climate change’s acidification of the water, can create a perfect storm for coral. It could become bleached, as much of the Galápagos’ – and indeed the world’s coral – was in 2006 during a strong El Niño year. During El Niño, the cool ocean currents are less strong, so less nutrients are pulled up to the Galápagos from the Antarctic. This affects whether coral and sea life thrives.

How can the Galápagos be protected from climate change?

The islands’ custodians are not blind to what might happen under continued climate threats. A 2011 report from Conservation International and the WWF recommended simple actions, like building shelters to shade iguanas from warmer weather and artificial nesting burrows to encourage penguins away from flood-prone sites.

Giant tortoises and pink iguanas are already being bred in captivity to swell their numbers. Conservation charities have fought and won battles against invasive species, notably during Project Isabela, which reduced the number of invasive goats on Isabela Island from 100,000 to just 266, which were kept for monitoring purposes.

More controversial steps could involve placing restrictions on local fisheries in El Niño years to lower the competition for fish.

The massive Hermandad Marine Reserve shows a renewed commitment to protection, whilst in 2021, Iniciativa Galápagos, a partnership between the Galápagos Conservancy and the Galápagos National Park Directorate – long-time collaborators in conservation – promised to reverse the decline in species numbers across the islands.

For Jascivan, getting local people involved is the key: “Up until the early 2000s, local populations did not participate in the tourism business, which was mostly controlled by cruise companies.” This meant that land-based tourism suffered; there wasn’t enough investment to get good local guides trained.

“Without participation from local communities in the business, the outcome of any nature conversation initiative is null or worse,” says Jascivan, who employs a pool of local guides and local employees. His own Galápagos Magic Tented Camp has a new Galápagos Forest Initiative, which aims to reforest a further 12 hectares with native scalesia trees to provide food and shade for tortoises. Two new drinking pools are also in the works. Tourists have the option to contribute a conservation fee when they stay.

In the midst of charities, governments and huge initiatives, tourism might feel like a drop in the ocean, but it must do its part. Just as the tiny Galápagos Island finches changed the way we thought about evolution, our actions can add up to big changes. We must continue to travel responsibly, tread lightly and go gently; when the stakes are this high, how can we not?
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: pantxorama] [Changing weather systems: Pedro Szekely] [Seeing sustainability: Muggmag] [Galápagos penguins: Derek Keats] [Sea lions: Mac Gaither]