Expert Galápagos guide Luis Die gives an update on the key events in the Enchanted Isles in 2016, from the El Niño non-event to the nesting success of the endangered Galápagos petrel. Read all about it here!
The most remarkable event of 2016 was the non-event of El Niño.
During the second half of 2015, meteorologists throughout the world were announcing a “gargantuan” El Niño phenomena, which would devastate the Eastern Pacific. High seawater temperatures would trigger unprecedented rains and the Galápagos waters would lose their nutrients, causing a massive mortality among cool-water species, such as sea lions, penguins, sea turtles, marine iguanas, dolphins, and sea birds—severely decreasing their populations.
In January very heavy rains started, announcing what was supposed to be a very strong and very long El Niño…but then, rains faded away and water temperatures never rose that much. The marine fauna of the Galápagos, largely dependent on the cool, productive waters, suffered mortality rates somewhat above what is considered normal, but not as severe as expected. And by the end of 2016 we are in a situation opposite what had been announced: cooler temperatures than average.
Santa Fe is a small, dry island hosting some of the largest cacti in the world. It is also home to its own endemic species of land iguana and one of the Galápagos' endemic species of rice rat. But about 150 years ago, giant tortoises were exterminated from the island, as easy landing and open terrain made Santa Fe one of the first targets for whalers searching for tortoises.
In July 2015, 201 young tortoises from Española (a saddle-back species) were released to Santa Fe in order to restore the original ecosystem. In July 2016, the great majority of them are still alive and doing well. There is a plan for a new introduction of juveniles at the end of the year and perhaps some adults, in order to accelerate the regeneration of the population through natural reproduction. With these successful introductions, Santa Fe has recovered its more important herbivore, the one that helps to disperse seeds and keep the ecosystem healthy.
Santa Fe is returning to its original state, as Charles Darwin would have seen it.
The Galápagos petrel is a beautiful seabird that nests in the lush evergreen vegetation of the highlands of Santa Cruz and other large islands. It is an endemic and critically endangered species (total population estimated at 8,500 pairs) because it nests underground, and rats prey on their eggs and chicks while the parents are feeding at sea.
In October 2016, park rangers checking the nests in the highlands of Santa Cruz (one of the largest colonies) reported that 70% of the 652 nests verified had chicks. In order to reduce the mortality, park rangers maintain 1,100 rodent-control stations around the colonies. Thanks to the effort of park rangers and scientists, the Galápagos petrel is having the best reproductive success in many years.
With a total population of only 80 to 100 individuals (20 breeding pairs), the endemic mangrove finch is the most endangered species of the Galápagos and one of the rarest birds in the world. Last May, researchers from the Mangrove Finch Project at the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) successfully released 15 mangrove finch fledglings back into their natural habitat in the mangrove forest at Playa Tortuga Negra, Isabela Island. This marks the third consecutive year in which the program has successfully repatriated mangrove finches after captive-rearing the hatchlings, which are vulnerable to the invasive avian fly Philornis downsi.
In October 2016, the presidents of Ecuador, Colombia, and Costa Rica announced agreements to increase protections for marine life by expanding their respective marine reserves around the Galápagos, Malpelo, and Cocos islands. The agreements bring the marine reserves of the three nations to 83,600 square miles. Ecuador and Costa Rica also agreed to delineate the boundaries of their national waters in a step toward protecting the underwater "highways" used by sharks, sea turtles, and other migrating marine life. The Galápagos Marine Reserve, at 51,000 square miles, is the second largest marine reserve in the world.
Luis Die was born in Seville, Spain, and is a graduate of the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid with a degree in environmental biology. He is fluent in Spanish, English, and French and has guided in Galápagos for more than a decade. In addition to being a professional nature photographer, Luis has a Master’s Degree in geographical ecology and is active with conservation groups on the mainland. Luis is a born teacher and enthusiastically shares his knowledge of Galápagos with people of all ages. He lives in Quito with his wife and twin sons and is our head naturalist guide, working exclusively with Mountain Travel Sobek.