Sofía Darquea is pointing out two male frigates sitting side by side in a palo santo tree, red chests puffed out like balloons in a bid to attract females. “The one on the left is a great frigate” she explains. “The one on the right is a magnificent frigate. Can you see – the black feathers on the head of that one have a slightly green sheen, while those on this bird are purplish.”
To ordinary mortals, the birds look identical. But then, Sofía is a naturalist guide of the Galápagos National Park, with 31 years of experience under her belt, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the flora, fauna, geology and human history of the islands. Born in the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, she studied at Madrid University before returning to her homeland in 1987, to train as a guide at the Charles Darwin Research Station and Galápagos National Park. Graduating as a level 3 guide (the highest qualification), and fluent in three languages, she is one of more than 700 freelance certified guides, and is currently contracted aboard the luxury expedition yacht, MV Theory.
“I could not have done it now” she says. “In 1989, the law was changed so that only residents of the Galapagos could become guides. From that date, you could not move from mainland Ecuador to the islands – unless you married a local. And you’d have to remain married for five years to obtain permanent residency – a specification which was closely monitored, and was later changed to 10 years.
“While such measures have been good for the islanders, the exclusion of biologists and scientists from the mainland and abroad has seen a drop in standards of guiding. The islanders just don’t have the same education opportunities” says Sofía who, as president of AGIPA (Association of Naturalist Guides of the Galápagos) is lobbying for a university on the islands, and for better internet access. “Guiding has become very competitive. The best boats engage the best guides and offer the best terms. The Park imposes a maximum of 16 guests per guide, but on a boat such as the MV Theory, groups are never larger than ten.”
Achieving her childhood dream of working with animals in the Galapagos has not been without sacrifices. “My family lives on the mainland and flights are expensive,” she explains. “A limited number of seats are discounted for us, but they are not always available.” Food and housing is also expensive – some three times more than on the mainland – and stringent regulations exist to protect this fragile environment, of which 97 per cent is protected, and only 3 per cent inhabited.
As well as a moratorium on new hotels and boats, for example, the number of cars has been limited. “You need a permit to buy a car, and no more are being issued,” says Sofia. “If I want a car, I have to buy an existing permit from someone – which costs around $40,000. Then you have to buy the car – and to get a new car, you’d have to send an old one back to the mainland.”
Sofía lives in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz – one of four islands with a community – and the commercial capital of the archipelago, crammed with hostels, hotels and tour operators. “There were only 3,000 residents here when I first came,” she says. “Today there are over 12,000. There is no sewage system on the islands, and not everyone can afford a septic tank. And there is no potable water. Infrastructure is a problem.”
Tourism has added to the problem. “For the first time, the balance has shifted to land-based tourism, as this is cheaper than cruising,” says Sofia. “As a result, tourists are crowding free recreational sites near towns, which were intended for locals. As these are managed by the Municipality rather than the National Park, a guide here is not mandatory, and tourists ignore regulations – such as maintaining a two-meter distance from the animals. It is not uncommon for someone to be bitten by a sea-lion while taking selfies. Such sites should be restricted to locals’ use.”
Not surprisingly, there are conflicts between the Municipality and the National Park, as well as between the Ministries of Tourism and Environment. Among the issues Sofía has been lobbying for with AGIPA has been to double the Galapagos entry fee (currently $100), “with revenues remaining in the Galápagos, both for the National Park, and much-needed infrastructure.”
Nevertheless, thanks to work undertaken by the National Park and the Darwin Center – such as the eradication of rats and goats, and the reintroduction of endangered endemic flora and fauna – the Galápagos Islands are in much better shape now than they were 50 years ago. “Look around you,” she exclaims, gesturing to an expanse of pristine volcanic landscape peopled by basking iguanas and barking sea-lions, and ringed by turquoise waters. “This is my office, every day!”