Much is being written about the 2015/2016 El Niño. However, many of our passengers are finding what they are reading confusing and somewhat misleading when it comes to how their trip to the Galapagos, Ecuador and Peru will be impacted by El Niño.
Personally, I remember leaving the downpour that was California during the 1997/1998 El Niño for the clear skies of the southern hemisphere during a tour of Chile and Antarctica. I think travelers to the Galapagos, Ecuador and Peru will find some of the how El Niño will specifically impact their travels surprising.
For example, I had one passenger write to me very concerned that in Peru there will be a much higher risk of severe flooding. I informed them that while that may be true along the coast, one first has to understand that January, February and March is normally the wet, rainy season in Machu Picchu during a non-El Niño, year (i.e. those are the months when it normally floods near Machu Picchu). I remember quite clearly that things got very dry in the region of the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu during the last El Niño during those months. Dolores Diez de Gangotena, founder of Quasar Expeditions, confirmed that the same was true in the Ecuadorian highland.
In Ecuador during the last El Niño, which was very strong, the middle part of mainland coast was affected by flooding. This is a place Quasar Expeditions doesn't visit, and unfortunately mostly poor villages were being flooded out, otherwise in the highlands and Guayaquil one would not have known there was flooding (places we visit). Even the road from Guayaquil to Cuenca was not affected and that road, like all roads in Ecuador, has been greatly improved.
Based on the last El Niño, here are some observations of what travelers can specifically expect during this El Niño in the Galapagos:
· The Galapagos will be greener and in that way more beautiful. Remember that along the coast, the Galapagos is normally a true marine desert environment and that is where Galapagos cruises spend 90% of the time. Normally the coast offers a very stark volcanic beauty. During an El Niño, the Galapagos coast greens up just as the desert does when precipitation arrives.
· During the last El Niño, rain was not at all heavy and it typically drizzled early in the morning until about 8:30 AM. When the day got warmer, the wind cleared the clouds out. It is warmer and more tropical during El Niño. The rain did not curtail any activities as it wasn’t heavy. We do provide ponchos for all our guests. As a side note - June through Sept in the Galapagos, while it never rains on the coast, you might experience heavy rains in the highlands just half an hour drive from the coast, where you find the giant tortoise. This is the normal pattern.
· Animals that live on land and feed in the water will be impacted most including Sea Lions, Galapagos Penguins and Marine Iguanas. The numbers of these animals will drop off mostly later in the season at the end of the winter, i.e. you will see these species but in the late winter/early spring their numbers will drop.
· On the other hand you will also see how species like marine iguanas can adapt to eat land vegetation, as normally they subsist on sea vegetation.
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· There will not be much impact in the central islands compared to the western islands, which will be more noticeably affected as this is where the coldest currents are usually found. Sea birds, such as Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants and blue footed-boobies, will be most impacted. You will still see all species but not in the same numbers.
· Snorkeling in the Galapagos is actually better as the water is warmer and you will see the same fish and other sea creatures but in fewer numbers. For example instead of 20 Green Sea Turtles in the western islands you may only see a dozen.
· April and May, which is technically after El Niño is when you would see an impact on the animal populations.
· One will likely see more marine iguana and sea lion pup carcasses than normal (one typically see these in any case). For example: pups that died because their mothers did not return in time with fish or pups bitten by other sea lions that were not their mothers when they tried to nurse. That is probably the worst of it. Remember that this is a part of the natural circle of life.
At Quasar Expeditions, we recognize that we also have to adapt. Throughout the current El Niño, our staff will assess how we can best adjust our the daily activities and visits to take better advantage what El Niño has to offer and circumvent some of those offerings which aren’t as attractive in favor of those that are.
In the end, El Niño is a natural event that has affected the tiny world of the Galapagos many times. This phenomena, like all the others in the islands, is one that our expert Galapagos guides are adept at providing our guests a firsthand experience, and greater understanding of.
Bi-Weekly El Niño Live Updates from our Naturalist guides in Galapagos:
· 1/11/15 - The water temperatures at the moment are around 24-25 celsius and should reach a maximum of 26-28 celsius in the months of March-April.
Penguins, turtles, boobies, sea lions and large fish are going a bit deeper to find their food due to the warmer water temperatures, but you see them constantly during our onshore visits. In the past month we have seen healthy populations of them all around the archipelago. Marine turtles, a species that has been directly affected by past El Niño events, are spotted in most of the snorkeling sites around the islands, which is a great sign.
Unusually, we are seeing a lot more whales in our navigations across the Islands. Normally, by this time of the year it becomes more difficult to spot these cetaceans while navigating, but oddly every week we have been seeing lots of whales for the enjoyment of our passengers.
The giant land tortoises are also easier to see now, as they are enjoying the rainy season throughout the highlands and do not have to go long distances looking for fresh water. It is now the time of the year in which most reptiles begin their reproductive cycles.
Irregularities in the Cromwell and Humboldt currents due to El Niño play an important part of the cycle of what is going on around the archipelago.
The fact is, that diminishing numbers of wildlife (if any) will be felt mostly next year, not this one. If there is a big El Niño event coming, it will be felt much later on.
· 1/20/16 - We are having a great trip. The water temperature is around 79 F, very enjoyable, this morning we snorkeled with many different types of fish and we also saw about 20 Hammerhead sharks, manta rays, and sea turtles.
We have seen baby sea líons and frigate birds showing their mating pouches.
It has not rained in the lowlands and we have not seen unusual dead animals, it feels like el nino is not yet here.
· 1/22/16 - Regarding the weather, it has only rained while we were visiting the top of Santa Cruz Island.
The temperatures have been around 79 degrees Fahrenheit all week long. On the coastlines, vegetation is still dry , which means that the El Niño is not strong in the Galapagos yet.
Blue footed Boobies have been spotted on Espanola Island, but not as many as usual lately on the panga rides. The Red Footed and Nazca Boobies are good in numbers. Sea lions are having many offspring and the death toll has been low, which is great to see. Lately, there has been a dramatic decrease of marine iguanas at sea. I found only about 25 of these iguanas last time we were out. But elsewhere they are better and still at great numbers. Snorkeling is very good! We have seen three types of shark and manta rays. Also, last week we saw some pilot whales!
· 2/16/16 - What we have seen and presented with in the past few weeks is a decrease in the intensity and frequency of rain. Trade winds have remained the same and this keeps the warm ENSO system towards the northern hemisphere.
Surface waters in areas we visited have lowered their temperatures from 27 degrees C to 25 degrees C. Towards the western islands, temperatures have dropped a little bit more and there is abundant plankton present, making marine life very active and is great for all our passengers! Snorkeling is great at this time everywhere we have gone.
We have seen a few marine iguanas primarily in Puerto Egas and Punta Espinoza that are deceased, and a few sick sea lions, but not in large quantities and nothing unusual from previous years for El Niño in the Galapagos. Sea turtles are actively nesting. In conclusion, El Niño is still soft and we will continue to see how it behaves.
· 3/7/16 - The effects of El Niño have been most present on the coast of mainland Ecuador. There have been very heavy rains, floods and structural damage in several provinces of Ecuador’s coast.
Though there are El Niño conditions present, such as an increase in ocean temperatures throughout most of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, the Galapagos effects have been minimal with a much smaller impact than initially predicted. Wildlife is thriving as usual and the snorkeling has been fantastic. NOAA (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the USA), has already detected a decreasing trend in ocean temperatures over the past several weeks and have predicted that by May-June El Niño will be “neutral” followed by further decreasing temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which will make Galapagos wildlife become even more active! Based on the latest El Niño situation & updates we suggest that, you book your Galapagos Cruise now before everyone else does!
· 3/8/16 - Despite the many rumors and people’s fear to travel to the Galapagos during El Niño years, it seems that the effect in the Galapagos is pretty mild. I was in the Galapagos for the past 3 weeks and found the islands still very dry, all the deciduous trees still leafless and in some cases just about to show small leafs.
There are many baby sea lion enjoying the water and male frigate birds inflating their pouches to attract their mates. Blue footed boobies are back to the dancing floor to attract their mates and the sea water is nice, clear and warm offering a great opportunity to enjoy the marine life especially during snorkeling times.
One of the questions we get asked the most at Quasar is this -
What's the best time of year to travel to the Galapagos?