Closing the Circle
The last time I sailed into Puerto Ayora, also called Academy Bay, the main harbor on Isla Santa Cruz in the heart of the Galápagos isles, was about 15 years ago; at the time, you could count the number of dive boats and small cruise ships on one hand. Back then, the restrictions on cruising sailors imposed by the Ecuadoran government were rigid, so it was also rare to see a private yacht rambling about the islands.
So when Ocean Watch motored into the bay in the early hours of March 22, I was stunned to see not only dozens of craft catering to the tourism trade but also a huge fleet of cruising boats as well, many of them on a Pacific rally sponsored by a U.K. sailing magazine.
In Puerto Ayora, we met Stuart Banks, an oceanographer at the Charles Darwin Research Station who's lived and worked in the islands for nearly a decade. He confirmed the fact that things were certainly more hectic than they used to be.
"Fifty years ago, there was hardly anybody here," he said. "In 1960, there were 4,000 visitors. Now we get between 140,000 and 160,000 tourists a year. In the last 10 years, there's been an increase of 14 percent every year. It's one of the greatest increases anywhere, and that kind of pushes everything else."
With the growing numbers of ecotourists and a corresponding influx of native Ecuadorans who've moved to the islands to provide goods and services, the delicate balance of this destination is being challenged as never before. Bleached and damaged coral-some of it the result of poor anchoring practices-that photographer David Thoreson and I witnessed on a series of scuba dives, is one byproduct of the ever-growing traffic.
But of course, along with the famous birds and reptiles roaming among the islands, the world-class diving there was exquisite. Divers like us flock to the islands in droves to interact with big animals: surprisingly graceful sea turtles; playful sea lions, as giddy as puppies; and majestic rays, including mantas, as wide and arresting flying beneath the seas as the albatross that soar above them.
And that's not counting the grunts and wrasses and snappers and idols and grouper and barracuda and parrotfish and, of course, the sharks: white- and black-tipped reef sharks. Galápagos sharks. Hammerheads. It's easy to see why so many people want to experience the Galápagos. But as in so many other places, in so many ways, it begs the question: Are we loving our oceans to death?
From the Galápagos, we pushed forth to Cocos Island, where I picked up my feather, and then paid a call on Costa Rica, a magical place of rain forests, volcanoes, glorious beaches, and some of the friendliest people on the planet. The plan had been to push on from there directly to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, but the placid El Niño conditions persevered, and we were forced to call in Acapulco (poor us!) to top off the fuel tanks. The trip up to P.V. was equally non-eventful, but the onward leg to Cabo San Lucas, and up the coast of Baja California, was a jarring, miserable thrash to weather in staunch northerly winds. They don't call it the Baja Bash for nothing.
As we neared the border town of Tijuana and then put it behind us, there was a big reward at the end of the upwind grind. On May 4, a little over six months since the Miami skyline faded behind us, we were back in the U.S.A.