Looking for any excuse to write about one of my favorite destinations on the entire planet, the Galapagos Islands, I recently caught up with my friend and Executive Director of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA), Matt Kareus.  As it has been a while since my days of writing printed travel guides (quite a while), and guiding trips to Ecuador and the Galapagos, I was very curious to hear about the latest and greatest with IGTOA and the world’s most famous, and arguably most important archipelago.

This is the first article in a 2-part interview:

Me: What is IGTOA’s mission and primary work in the Galapagos Islands, particularly around conservation?

Matt: IGTOA was founded in the late 1990s by like-minded tour operators that wanted to make sure that tourism in the Galapagos remained a positive force. Our mission is to preserve the Galapagos Islands as a unique and priceless world heritage site that will provide enjoyment, education, adventure and inspiration to present and future generations of travelers.

Hikers at South Plaza; Credit: Eric Rock

Hikers at South Plaza; Photo (c) Eric Rock

We try to achieve this in a number of ways. First, we raise funds through our member companies who give their guests the opportunity to donate to our Galapagos Traveler Conservation Fund. This year IGTOA will give four organizations working in the Galapagos Islands $80,000, for programs such as preventing invasive species from entering the islands and empowering youth conservation leaders in the Galapagos, for example

We’re also working to educate travelers and our industry about the threats facing the Galapagos Islands and what they can do to be a part of the solution as well as best practices. Generally speaking, we strive to be a voice for low impact, high quality, nature based tourism in the islands.

Me: How has this evolved and how are you achieving these goals?

Credit: Adventure Travel Trade Association

Photo (c) Adventure Travel Trade Association

Matt: In the last few years, IGTOA has become increasingly involved in training Galapagos National Park guides. They have a critical role to play in helping visitors understand the significance of the Galapagos archipelago and the importance of protecting it. By giving them the training and skills they need to discuss these important issues in a way that has real impact, we hope to inspire visitors to do their part to protect the islands long after they’ve gone home.

Last year, in conjunction with World Wildlife Fund, we launched a “train the trainers program” in which we trained 14 elite guides to become certified guide trainers themselves. The course was designed by Dr. Sam Ham who is widely considered the world’s foremost authority on interpretive communication. We want all guides in the Galapagos to have the opportunity to receive this cutting edge training and empower them to become true ambassadors for conservation. We have run several training programs this year and one of our trainers will soon be conducting a course for Galapagos National Park staff. We provide ongoing financial support and operational assistance to facilitate these courses on an ongoing basis. This is the first effort of its kind in the islands and we think it will have a real impact over time.

In 2017, we will also be launching an onboard fundraising program aboard select vessels in the islands. It won’t just involve asking people for money. We’re producing materials that will hopefully educate visitors about the issues and inspire them to get involved.   We hope to dramatically scale up our fundraising capacity as well our ability to impact the way visitors think about their role in conservation.


Photo (c) Cassiano Zaparoli

Me: What are the implications of climate change for the Galapagos in general, or specific to particular wildlife?

Matt: As a small, oceanic archipelago the Galapagos Islands are extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. El Nino events, which are characterized by weak ocean currents, warmer sea temperatures and heavy rains, are of particular concern, as they are becoming much stronger as the global temperatures rise.  One of the effects of El Nino is nutrient poor water around the islands, which results in fewer fish and less food to go around for species like the critically endangered flightless cormorant, which is endemic to the islands.

Flightless Cormorant, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. Native to the Galapagos Islands. It is the only cormorant that has lost the ability to fly and was once placed in its own genus, Nannopterum, although current taxonomy places in the genus with other cormorants, Phalacrocorax.

Flightless cormorants, Photo (c) Patrick Endres

El Nino events also cause some birds, such as blue-footed boobies, to abandon their breeding colonies. Warmer temperatures also may affect the islands’ famed species of iguanas by disrupting their ability to regulate their body temperatures. Heavy rains brought upon by El Nino can wash away giant tortoise eggs and kill native plant species as well. Finally, wetter weather can create ideal conditions for some harmful invasive insect species to proliferate.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview where we’ll learn more about IGTOA and the incredible threats, challenges and opportunities for tourism in the Galapagos Islands, arguably the world’s most unique and precious destination. To visit the islands first hand, experience its amazing wildlife, and learn even more about efforts to protect the Galapagos, be sure to check out Natural Habitat Adventures’ selection of Galapagos nature tours.