To go ashore anywhere in the National Park (Parque Nacional Galápagos), you must be accompanied by an officially qualified guide. The guides are restricted in the number of tourists they can lead, to a maximum of 16.
There are a series of qualifications (Level I, Level II, Level III), but according to numerous sources, the courses and tests to advance to Level II and Level III haven't been offered for a number of years. It's not clear why.
Our guide, Morris García, was exceptionally well qualified, personable, and passionate about the islands, the ecology, and the wildlife.
Each night, he gave us an overview of the next day's activities and the meaning and setting of each site. I was charmed by his illustrations:
Morris (like many of the guides) is a native of the Galápagos. He earned a bachelor's degree in international and resource development in Honduras, with the help of a scholarship. He went on to earn a master's degree in ecology and natural resource managment from one of the Ecuadorian universities (I forgot to ask which one).
Of the folks on all trip, all had at least a college education and most had advanced degrees, so Morris's talking style was just right. He was able to weave together the interrelationships between the islands' geology, the development of species over time fostered by the geologic separation and each area's unique ecology, and the changes that had occured since the buccaneer Abrose Cowley published a map of the islands in 1684. islands' discovery by European sailors in
Another area in which I think he excelled was explaining about the ecological changes wrought by invasive species--particularly goats, but not limited to vertebrate species-- and how these threats to the islands have been eradicated. It's a sensitive subject -- the goats weren't, after all, relocated, but I think he handled it well.
Morris was also very articulate about the economic, educational, and ecological challenges facing the human population of the Galápagos. There are no opportunities for higher education on the islands themselves, so those who wish to go on must travel either to the mainland or other Spanish-speaking countries, as he did himself for his batchelor's and master's degrees. That's a not-inconsiderable challenge for the children of low-income families.
Morris in involved in a foundation, Fundar Galápagos, which "works with the Galápagos community, using alternative and responsible approaches to strive for sustainable development."
Another effort Morris explained was the conversion of Galápagos fishermen from market fishermen, which had a deletorious effect on the environment, to providing artisanal fishing tours.
If you are on a guided tour anywhere, not just the Galápagos, the guide can make or break the tour. In this instance, you really have to pick the boat or the itinerary you want, and hope that the guide is congenial.
One advantage to larger boats (>16 guests) is that you then have more than one guide, so if you find one uncongenial, you have the choice of another. On the other hand, the smaller boats (<17 guests) may be more selective about their guides, knowing that the tour guide is so essential to the experience.