I recently returned from a 10-day expedition in the Galápagos Islands—and, yes, all the rumors are true. This is a place like no other found on Earth. Each unique island of the archipelago, off the west coast of Ecuador, is bursting with its own array of colorful endemic species, each equipped with specific adaptations for their varying environments. Surrounding waters of San Cristobal are lush with frolicking sea lions, the volcanic rocks of Fernandina are covered in marine iguanas, and thousands of giant tortoises roam wild on Santa Cruz.
I was given the opportunity to travel on board the National Geographic Endeavour II with Lindblad Expeditions when I won Planet Forward’s Storyfest prize in 2020. And as the date of the voyage grew closer (delayed somewhat due to COVID), I began to research potential topics that I could report on while in the archipelago. One area of interest that struck me was understanding how conservation efforts in the Galápagos empowered local populations.
In school, many of us learn how the geographic isolation of these islands lead to its incredible array of endemic species. We learn about Darwin’s great voyage, about his theory of evolution that shaped modern day science. But what many of us don’t learn about is that four of these islands are not only home to finches and frigates, but also populated by humans—about 30,000 individuals in fact.
Navigating the fine line between environmental protection and human development is by no means easy. Life as a Galápaganian is especially restrictive coming from a Western point of view; buying a new car—or even driving a personal car in the Galápagos—for example, is virtually impossible. Since 97% of the islands are protected and restricted, except for those visiting through a tourism agency, many locals don’t get to experience the isolated wilderness that foreigners see upon visiting. In fact, if locals wish to the remaining 97% of the islands — the protected and uninhabited islands — they must also go through a tourism agency. In the Galapagos, one cannot visit national park territory without being part of a licensed tourism operation with a licensed naturalist. Experiences like these, like on a cruise, cost a minimum of thousands of dollars, preventing so many locals from ever having this opportunity.
Bolstering local communities and empowering the next generation are imperatives for long-term sustainable conservation. If people who live in the Galápagos are not provided adequate opportunities to visit, explore, and learn about the importance of the islands, there is far less of an incentive to love, and thus conserve them.
I was pleased to learn that as part of their mission to use the power of travel for positive change, Lindblad Expeditions has raised more than $19 million for conservation, scientific research, and local communities. Lindblad is also a 100% carbon neutral company. In the Galápagos specifically, from 2019 to 2020 Lindblad funded grants for four different conservation organizations, focusing specifically on education, research, technology, and storytelling.
Additionally, since 1999 Lindblad has participated in a Galápagos National Park program called Explora Galápagos, in which tourism companies partner with the program to bring local teachers, farmers, students, and other community members out to explore their home islands’ wild and remote sites. The program’s goal is simple: to educate about the unique archipelago and all it beholds, and to inspire stewardship of the islands.
I was curious to learn about exactly how participating in a Lindblad Expedition reflects onto local populations, and exactly what areas of conservation are a priority.
On board the 96-guest equipped National Geographic Endeavour II, I met Adrián Vasquez, who works as a video chronicler, documenting our expedition. Adrián grew up on the island of San Cristobal, and previously worked as a ministerial communications and video production advisor for the Government Council of Galápagos, which focuses on improving social problems in the archipelago.
“Lindblad in the past had only international video chroniclers, but now they only have local video chroniclers. That is very important,” Adrián said. “It shows that the local people are very important for the islands.”
In December 2020, Lindblad in conjunction with Island Conservation, an international nonprofit conservation organization, launched the Galapagos Island Relief Fund, a program providing financial relief for Galápaganians impacted by the pandemic. Sven Lindblad, the founder and CEO of Lindblad Expeditions, explained when the program was announced, "Stimulating the local economy through community micro-loans has the power to activate a thriving system—helping entrepreneurs and small business owners develop new ideas to complement sustainable tourism and meeting the needs of the local community long after the pandemic is over."
I am emboldened by the mission of Lindblad Expeditions, after seeing firsthand the commitment of their team to work toward ecofriendly tourism solutions, rather simply aiming for profit, like many other enterprises. And I’m hopeful that the next generation of naturalists, photographers, and educators have been inspired by their experience among the wilds of Galápagos as much as I was.