The Galapagos Islands are a series of 19 islands that lie in the Pacific Ocean about 1,000 kilometers off the west coast of Ecuador. Their distance from the mainland, as well as constant volcanic and seismic activity, have contributed to creating some of the most isolated and dynamic marine and land-based ecosystems in the world. Highlights of their rich biodiversity include many unique species such as the giant Galapagos tortoises (Geochelone elephantophus), the only species of penguin that lives north of the equator (Spehniscus mendiculus), and the only species of iguana that can live in salt water environments (Amblyrhynchus cristatus).
The rich and one-of-a-kind biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands prompted the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to add the archipelago to the list of World Heritage Sites in 1978. The islands and the species on them also were instrumental in Charles Darwin’s development of the theory of evolution by natural selection.
Tourism on the Galapagos Islands is an important source of income for the country of Ecuador—accounting for about 20 percent of the Ecuadorian tourist revenue. Most of the 20,000 residents who live permanently on the islands are employed directly be the tourist industry.
Last Friday the freighter Galapaface I ran aground off of the Baquerizo Moreno port on the island of San Cristobal. The hull of the ship cracked open and the vessel’s engine room flooded.
Though the freighter currently remains afloat, there is considerable worry as to what will happen if it sinks. All 19,000 gallons of cargo fuel have since been removed, but the ship was also carrying over 1,000 tons of cargo that included potential environmental pollutants that could devastate the delicate, one-of-a-kind marine ecosystems.
On Friday authorities declared the situation with the run-aground Galapaface I to be an environmental emergency. The designation as an environmental disaster allows authorities in the threatened zone to spend whatever funds are necessary to stabilize the situation without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops.
Three days later, on May 19, efforts were officially underway to re-float the grounded vessel. This endeavor is projected to take three to four weeks and will cost the Ecuadorian government six million dollars. The complex buoy system that will be utilized is currently under construction in Ecuador’s largest coastal city: Guayaquil.
During the tense weeks that are sure to follow, park rangers and scientists will be monitoring the marine life in the immediate area of the disaster zone. With luck and extreme care, it is hoped that environmental emergency that the Galapagos Islands now face will subside without further incident.
By Sarah Takushi