Sailing to the biodiversity paradise that is the Galapagos archipelago is fraught with environmental dangers. Fortunately Silversea is responding with a new green vessel that it hopes will allay those concerns and boost responsible tourism to the islands. Abi Millar talks to Fernando Delgado, vice president at Silversea, about the capabilities of the Silver Origin.
In 1835, a young naturalist named Charles Darwin set sail for the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago of volcanic islands 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. His ship, the HMS Beagle, was homeward-bound after three years traversing South America.
“I am very anxious to see the Galapagos Islands – I think both the Geology and Zoology will not fail in being very interesting,” he wrote in a letter to his sister Catherine.
He wasn’t far wrong. The geology was singularly dramatic – rocky, arid, and pitted with craters – while the climate was cool for an equatorial region. It was the wildlife, however, that really caught Darwin’s attention. He noted that each island was a ‘world within itself’, each playing host to different species. For instance, there were about 15 species of finch-like birds, which had different beaks adapted to different food sources.
“One might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends,” he wrote.
Darwin’s observations were to lay the groundwork for his theory of natural selection. Nearly two centuries later, the islands are indelibly associated with his name, with today’s visitors similarly excited to play naturalist. Here, they can see iguanas, sea lions and 500lb tortoises to name a few.
For many of these visitors, the obvious means to see the islands is via cruise. This is not a new trend – the first cruise ship arrived here in 1934, and week-long cruises were being advertised by 1968. However, the tourism boom is a relatively recent phenomenon. The islands now welcome over 200,000 visitors a year, with ship-based tourism accounting for 72,000 of them.
One of the main operators here is Silversea, which launched the luxury expedition vessel Silver Galapagos in 2013 (it had previously belonged to Renaissance Cruises and then Conodros Cruises). Next year, that ship will be replaced by the even more luxurious Silver Origin, Silversea’s first destination-specific ship and purportedly one of the greenest cruise ships ever created.
“Guests will enjoy a truly immersive experience in the Galapagos, forging a deep connection with the destination through both ship-based and onshore experiences,” explains Fernando Delgado, vice president at Silversea. “From the ship’s interior design to the content consumed on board, the cuisine served in the restaurants and the suites’ immersive qualities, many aspects of the cruising experience have been tailored to this unique archipelago.”
The new vessel, due to launch in summer 2020, is intended to allay concerns about what tourism is doing to the islands. Part of what makes the Galapagos islands so special is their lack of human despoilment. The first settlers didn’t arrive here till the 1800s, meaning its many endogenous species evolved in isolation.
Disrupting the ecosystem
Unfortunately, over the years the islands’ status as a biodiversity paradise has come under threat. Tourism numbers are climbing, the resident population is growing 8% year on year, and non-native species have disrupted the delicate ecosystem.
Take goats – a surprisingly destructive adversary. First introduced by explorers and pirates, the Galapagos feral goat population grew rapidly, and stripped the islands of vegetation along the way. This meant less food for the native giant tortoises, whose population had plummeted to 15,000 by the 1990s.
Following ‘Project Isabela’ (which culled the goats), the situation has started to turn around. The main islands are now free of goats, pigs and donkeys, and vegetation levels are being restored. There have also been conservation efforts in place for years – 97% of the land mass is protected as a national park, and human settlements are restricted to specifically zoned areas.
However, this does not make the ecosystem any less vulnerable. Between 2007 and 2010, the Galapagos Islands were on the list of World Heritage sites in danger, with concerns around pollution, fuel spills and poaching. And with ‘wear and tear’ increasing, a number of organisations are pursuing conservation projects.
As Delgado explains, the cruise industry is expected to follow tight regulations to minimise its impact on the environment.
“Silversea unlocks immersive travel experiences for guests with utmost respect for the destination, adhering to the strict rules set out by the Galapagos National Park at all times,” he says. “It is well proven that ships enable tourists to visit protected environments with almost zero impact, with zero discharge of untreated waters and any other waste. Silversea is experienced in working in fragile environments and the cruise line’s procedures include the adoption of stringent protocol.”
He adds that Silversea works hard to enrich the local environment. For example, it participates in certain conversation projects, financially contributes to relevant causes, and places a strong emphasis on education.
“We do this through the knowledge of local Expedition Experts and through various educational programmes for the Galapagos’ residents,” he says. “All excursions from the ship are carried out under the supervision of local expedition experts, who are authorised by the National Park authorities, ensuring that strict rules are adhered to.”
Guest-focused education is important. While there is no suggestion that Silversea guests have ever caused problems to the islands, there have been numerous reports over the years of bad tourist behaviour. (Think taking selfies with giant tortoises, collecting animal bone ‘souvenirs’ or simply littering.) Although conservation efforts are second nature for the islands’ 40,000 residents, the same might not be said for certain visitors.
While on board Silver Origin, guests will receive daily lectures and briefings, helping them further their understanding of their destination. With the highest crew-to-guest ratio (1:1.16) and the highest ratio of qualified guides per guest (1:10) in the Galapagos, personalised service will be paramount – and so too will environmental stewardship.
Learn at basecamp
Before excursions, guests can socialise at the ‘Basecamp’ lounge and learn more about what they’re about to see. They can also visit the ship library, which will include the most extensive destination-focused collection Silversea has ever offered on one ship.
“Basecamp will be among Silver Origin’s most innovative spaces,” explains Delgado. “Connecting with the ship’s Zodiac embarkation area to represent the synergy between destination and ship, it will host educational activities, through which guests will be able to interact with the onboard Expedition Team to learn more about the rare wildlife, amazing landscapes and the captivating history of the Galapagos Islands, before and after experiencing these attractions first-hand.”
The immersive nature of the voyage will extend to the cuisine, which will include local ingredients prepared by Ecuadorian chefs. Meanwhile, the interior spaces will take their cues from the Galapagos landscape, with regionally sourced materials and bright motifs set against muted tones.
It is perhaps the ship’s technological underpinnings, however, that play the biggest role in minimising damage. A small vessel, hosting just 100 passengers, Silver Origin will feature systems and solutions especially designed for the Galapagos.
“With the environment in mind, the ship will feature a dynamic positioning system, which will be used when the ship is positioned over delicate seabed ecosystem to prevent the anchor from causing damage to the seafloor,” says Delgado. “The ship has an advanced wastewater treatment plan, which will allow the vessel to discharge while in designated areas – fully compliant with the most stringent regulations. The ship will also meet the highest standards of energy efficiency in the segment.”
This is one of the areas in which Silver Origin has the edge over its predecessor. While Silver Galapagos has not exactly fared badly – it scooped the top spot in four categories at the 2019 Cruise Critic’s Cruisers’ Choice Awards – Silver Origin bills itself as both more eco-friendly and more aesthetically pleasing than anything that’s come before.
“Compared with the Silver Galapagos, Silver Origin will have more advanced equipment and will be more energy-efficient,” explains Delgado. “It will be the most elegant ship to ever sail the Galapagos Archipelago. Among various other enhancements and a first for Silversea, selected suite categories will incorporate an ocean-view bathtub, as well as an ocean-view shower that is accessible from the balcony for guests’ convenience and comfort.”
There are also a number of features in place which, while not Galapagos-specific, are eco-conscious in a more general sense. For instance, every suite will include a freshwater purification system that will convert seawater into drinking water, and each guest will be gifted a metallic reusable bottle (helping reduce the use of plastic on board).
“Silver Origin’s bathroom amenities will include bottles of 100% recycled plastic and 100% biodegradable products,” adds Delgado. “Once the bottles have been used, they will be sent back to the vendor who will recycle them. Reef-safe sunblock will also be available on the ship.”
Of course, for any tourism operator in the Galapagos, there is a certain paradox inherent to their mission – tourists want to see the islands precisely because they’re so unsullied by other tourists. Silver Origin will aim to reconcile this dilemma, showing guests what Darwin saw without leaving any damage in its wake.
This article appears in the 2019 vol 2 edition of World Cruise Industry Review