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CNN Today

Galapagos Fuel Spill May Devastate Rare Species

Aired January 22, 2001 - 2:34 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We have been reporting this massive fuel spill that's threatening the Galapagos Islands. We thought an underwater view of this natural wonder would help us appreciate its sensitivity to man's unwelcome touch. Consie Von Gontard is a diver here in Atlanta who has spent a lot of time down there on the islands, especially at San Cristobal, where this is all taking place.

What is there and what is at risk?

CONSIE VON GONTARD, DIVER: San Cristobal is the main island where most of the tourists fly into. And just within the harbor itself, you will find birds and sea lions and marine iguanas. And they're up on the boats. And everything in the Galapagos is huge -- everything: the massive schools of fish, sharks. And there are species there that are at no place else on Earth, in particular the -- Darwin developed his theory of evolution.

And one of the things was the marine iguana, which will definitely be threatened by this spill.

WATERS: There are threatened species in the Galapagos. When you got up this morning -- since you have been here many times -- what is the first thing that came to your mind?

VON GONTARD: Was -- the first thing was: Oh, no, not now, not after El Nino.

WATERS: El Nino caused its own bit of havoc down there.

VON GONTARD: It caused a great deal of havoc. The Galapagos were hit very hard by El Nino. The currents around the Galapagos are -- the water there is very cold. And it's very nutrient-rich. And when the warm waters moved in, the fish moved so far down that the birds couldn't fish, the sea lions couldn't catch them. And it was absolutely devastated by it. And they're just now starting to recover, and then this. It's difficult to say.

WATERS: And we are hearing that this spill is moving south now toward Espanola -- is that it? What is there? And what is at risk?

VON GONTARD: Huge -- huge schools of sea lions -- at least there were before El Nino, and they're now trying to come back -- massive schools of fish, the bait fish which you were just seeing. There's bird populations there that they were -- their nesting was disrupted by El Nino. And they're just starting to try to come back now. There was no place to nest because of the rains from El Nino. And they're -- and, you know, now this. They fish in the waters.

They fish off -- you know, they catch the fish. And the marine iguanas eat the algae that's just on the shore. And all this washes up onto the beaches.

WATERS: I asked the Coast Guard a little while ago about the algae. They didn't know anything about it. They're just working on the oil spill. But some of this oil -- there are two types of oil, as I understand it. There's a heavier oil that can sink to the bottom and cover that algae. Was kind of a problem does that create?

VON GONTARD: The marine iguanas that eat are most likely going to die. I mean, that's what they live on. They eat the algae off of the rocks that are all -- you know, they develop very long claws, where they can hang onto the rock in this big, heavy surge and current. And they just graze off the algae. And that is all that they eat.

WATERS: What are you -- I'm trying get an answer to this question. I'm sure you might not be able to answer it either. What is a ship, a ship full of oil doing in this area?

VON GONTARD: When I looked at the aerial views that you showed earlier, the harbor is a very difficult harbor to get in and out of. It's -- there is a few rocks -- which I'm assuming that's what it ran aground on...

WATERS: I guess.

VON GONTARD: ... that -- you know, you had to be a very experienced captain to get in and out of the harbor. And it's known for having a very dangerous entrance. And this is just at the very entrance of the harbor. And with all the fuel and the oil that is spilling -- and the currents there are extremely strong. And it's just going to carry this...

WATERS: Those currents go in all directions, don't they?

VON GONTARD: There are actually seven currents that converge on the Galapagos Islands, which is what makes them such a sensitive area and why there are so many things there from -- on one dive, you can dive with tropical fish to penguins to schools of thousands of hammerheads. There's whales there. There's whale sharks. There's -- there are species that there are no place else on Earth. And it's devastating.

WATERS: Well, the environment minister of Ecuador says it is a grave -- extremely grave environmental incident. Let's hope for the best on this. And Consie Von Gontard, thanks for helping us...

VON GONTARD: Thank you very much.

WATERS: ... understand the problem.

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