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June 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 31, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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A Galápagos Meltdown

bitter disappointment far from home

from the June, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Imagine planning the dive trip of a lifetime to the Galápagos that included both a scuba safari to the remarkable Darwin and Wolf Islands, together with a land safari around the main islands to see the unique wildlife. The lucky traveler can expect a spectacular experience, if tempered by a considerable cost.

That was exactly the expectation of Jeanette Hartshorn (Kansas City, MO) when she booked a trip for herself and her partner, Kurt, with booking agent DiveTheGalápagos based in Signal Mountain, TN, a company with ground representatives in Santa Cruz, Galápagos. She had meticulously planned their trip, the main event a dive safari aboard Galapagos Sky, a vessel with an enviable and well-earned reputation, co-founded by the Ecuadorian owner, Santiago Dunn, and dive operation veteran Peter Hughes.

Imagine traveling to such a remote destinations and learning your trip had been cancelled.

Suppose you would have booked this trip. Imagine how you would feel if you made the complex journey to San Cristobal via Guayaquil on the Ecuador mainland, only to find that there was no boat available and no record of your booking for that date.

That's what happened to Jeanette and Kurt. Angry? Most of us would have been apoplectic with rage!

It was a Sunday when they arrived. In the Catholic country, everything is closed. Jeanette told us that when they arrived and the local agent representative told her at the airport in Ecuador that the departure had been cancelled, "I called all the contact phone numbers for Galapagos Sky including the emergency contacts and no one answered their phones. What a huge waste of time and money!"

We contacted Leslie Thomasson of DiveTheGalápagos, who booked the entire trip, including the Sky, who told us "This was devastating for Jeanette and Kurt and shocking for us. Imagine traveling to such a remote destination and learning your departure was cancelled and no one had informed you? They were justifiably outraged. There were two other divers in their same situation, booked by one of the largest, oldest, and most reputable dive agencies, Caradonna Dive Adventures."

When we talked to Peter Hughes about this, we learned that the person responsible for managing the passenger bookings had experienced a serious breakdown after receiving bad news, and simply failed to inform anyone that Galapagos Sky would be out for maintenance that week and that bookings had to be cancelled. Amy Lesh, at Galapagos Sky, was quite emotional when she told us that the person responsible had been dismissed, though he had more than nine years' exemplary efficiency at the job.

Thomasson, who only books Galapágos' trips, told us "I was shocked this occurred with an operation I had 100 percent confidence in, and an employee who had almost a decade of complete reliability and professionalism -- one I always trusted completely and loved working with."

With no other liveaboard available on a day's notice, Thomasson found them a one-week Ecoventura naturalist cruise, which they declined. They wanted to dive. "I explained diving in the central islands is not the same as diving Darwin and Wolf, but they wanted to proceed . . . [and we] put together a land-based dive program for the week. They wanted to stay in an expensive hotel. Galapagos Sky agreed to be billed directly for the hotel and the diving and later approved reimbursement for other expenses incurred during the week [a total of $6637], as well as for the cancelled trip." The couple took their previously booked cruise extension, and then flew home on their scheduled flights.

"We would not have taken vacation time and traveled all the way to South America for a five-day land trip on Galápagos."

Alas, this was not good enough for Jeanette, who told Undercurrent, "Our primary reason for going to the Galápagos was for the dive cruise. Had we been informed of the cancellation before the scheduled departure cruise date, we would have been able to cancel or reschedule the entire trip. We would not have taken vacation time and traveled all the way to South America for a five-day land trip on Galápagos." Besides the reimbursement she received, she believes she is due reimbursement for all remaining trip expenses, which would include her pre-planned Galápagos extension and airfare.

When we contacted Peter Hughes, he told us, "We took full responsibility for the mix-up and our entire Ecuadorian team jumped into immediate action, making the best lemonade possible out of some pretty sour lemons. This resulted in considerable expense, which we covered, [including] Ms. Hartshorn's out-of-pocket expenses plus all on-island expenses including hotels and diving." Hughes also offered a full refund or a future trip to Wolf and Darwin Islands, and she accepted the refund.

Hughes says "she apparently felt we [also] owed her the cost of her pre-planned Galápagos extension of one week following her Galapagos Sky trip, which I am told, went off without a hitch," but believes what he has paid out is "reasonable compensation." He adds, however, "the fact that, having accepted reasonable compensation, she continues to attempt to further discredit us in any way, does not seem like fair play to me."

Ultimately, she is out of the cost of her airfares ($2977) as well as the extension ($4300), plus trip insurance (which does not cover this turn of events), the cost of getting to and from home to an international airport and an overnight stay nearby (even pet-sitting services). Hughes refunded the cost of the aborted Sky trip as well as picking up all expenses in the Galápagos for the week.

Does she deserve more? After all, they would have cancelled all activities and saved three weeks of time had they been informed in advance of the Sky cancellation. Instead of which she was forced to make a decision of how to make the best of it at short notice and far from home. We think the Sky has been reasonable, but falls short of its ethical obligation.

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