Galapagos: Enchanted Islands

AT THE top of Bartolomé Island, my legs aching from the long climb up its steep wooden stairway, I look out over the Galapagos Islands. The black volcanic landscape at my feet looks otherworldly, relieved by a flash of greenery between the two beaches that curve away far below. The horizon is filled with islands and a single cloud, dark with the elusive promise of rain, that hangs over a tranquil ocean living up to its “Pacific” name.

At the end of the beach, Pinnacle Rock leans drunkenly to one side, its sharp point thrusting to the bright blue sky. A few figures walk, rest or snorkel along the sand and my boat waits quietly offshore – abandoned by all but its captain and a few crew. A lizard rests in the sun, blue-footed boobies squawk and whistle and even the insects seem to be taking it easy in the heat. It is a vision of Paradise, albeit a rocky, somewhat barren one.

No one who visits what early seafarers called “The Enchanted Islands” can escape thinking of Eden, with its stories of how man and nature living in harmony. The hazy images planted in my mind in dozy Sunday Schools sprang into sharp focus the first time I stepped ashore to find that the flocks of birds and sunbathing marine iguanas just stay where they are, completely undisturbed by the presence of man.

The most famous visitor to make the connection with Creation was naturalist Charles Darwin who, after his visit in 1835, wrote: “We seem to be brought somewhere near to that great fact – that mystery of mysteries – the first appearance of new beings on this earth.” It was the genesis of his On the Origin of Species.

“Darwin would be amazed at what we have learned about Evolution in the meantime,” says Swen Lorenz of the Charles Darwin Foundation. “He thought that evolution only took place over very long periods of time. We now know that species can change incredibly fast, and in Galapagos in particular, you can literally witness evolution in front of your eyes.”

But every Paradise needs its serpent and, just as that cloud darkens the horizon on Bartolomé, so the Galapagos cannot escape the shadow cast by humanity. The island had no indigenous population but, for centuries, it was a sort of giant supermarket for any passing ship in need of food and water. The giant tortoises, who could live for a year on-board ship without food and drink – and tasted delicious – were reduced from a population of more than 250,000 to around 3,000.

The most famous of those tortoises was “Lonesome George”, who was photographed by countless visitors – myself included – to the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) on Santa Cruz, the second largest Galapagos island. He lived there for almost 40 years after being relocated from Pinta Island in 1972, the last of his subspecies, but died in 2012, at the age of 100. That is relatively young for an animal that can live to 200 years old.

“It is amazing to think that there may be tortoises still living who were here when Charles Darwin visited,” says David Horwell, an expert on Galapagos wildlife who takes visitors there several times a year. “It was the differences Darwin saw between the distinct species of birds, lizards and tortoises on each island that led directly to his Theory of Natural Selection. Lonesome George was the last Pinta Tortoise that we know of and his death is a lost battle in the long war to save the Galapagos as one of the world’s greatest wonders.”

George’s replacement in the affections of tours to the CDRS includes “Super Diego”, who came from San Diego Zoo in 1977 and now has some 1,700 children. He has singlehandedly brought the Española tortoise back from the brink, after it was down to two males and 12 females in the 1960s. They were relocated to the research station to ensure their survival but Super Diego’s offspring have now been released back onto Española Island and are repopulating it.

Their return was made possible by the removal of the last goat in 1978, one of the great success stories of Galapagos. Efforts on Española are now directed to preserving the world’s only breeding site for the waved albatross, as well as restoring the cactus forests that existed before the goats were landed by sailors wanting to create a larder for return visits.

At Punta Suarez on Española, I have to make my way carefully through the sea lions who litter the landing site while I resist the urge to take yet another picture of the bright red and green marine iguanas who also bask on the rocks. We walk to a lava blowhole on the southern side of the island, where ocean waves break against the cliff to send a spray of water tens of meters high in the air. On the way I pass through nesting blue-footed and Nazca boobies, and see red-billed tropicbirds, Española mockingbirds, swallow-tailed gulls and soaring Galapagos hawks as well as many other species.

The waved albatrosses are a comic sight as they waddle clumsily on land before launching themselves off the cliff, miraculously transforming into creatures of beauty and power once airborne. “Up to 30,000 nest here from April through December,” says my guide. “Each pair incubates a single chick that flies off in December and remains at sea for about five years before returning as an adult to find a mate – one they stay with for life.”

For most visitors, such stories and such species on land are the attractions, but David finds the underwater world just as fascinating. “One of my most memorable moments was when a pod of pilot whales approached my boat,” he says. “The captain suggested I jumped in with them and, as I was hesitating at the rail, gave me a friendly nudge so I was soon in the deep blue alone with them. I’m glad he did as I got a glimpse of a mother whale with her baby – something I’ll never forget. Just like on land, the sea creatures seem not to be bothered by humans and this includes sharks, turtles and the many sea lions.”

Near Pinnacle Rock, I plunge into the sea to snorkel with a group of friendly sea lions. The clear blue water – surprisingly cold – holds clouds of fish, rays and octopi that seem as unafraid as their fellow creatures on land. A group of Galapagos penguins add to the surreal experience by swimming past – penguins on the equator – while a turtle feeds delicately on the algae waving from an underwater rock, paddling gently to hold itself in in place. White-tipped sharks pass deep below – seeming to be relaxing on a day off.

“The Galapagos Marine Reserve is as important as the terrestrial if not more so,” says marine biologist Alex Hearn, who has spent seven years at the CDRS Marine Reserve. “A lot of the iconic land-based animals – the flightless cormorant, the Galapagos penguin and the marine iguana, just to name three – live from sea animals. Without a healthy ocean, forget it. Although it is quite a large marine reserve, the second largest in the world when it was created, it is actually a small area of ocean but with a huge biodiversity.

“It is a meeting point of three oceanic currents: the warm Panama Current from the north, the cool Humboldt from the south and the deep upwelling Cromwell Current that comes along the equator. So you get huge spatial and seasonal variability and these avenues from which species can arrive. It is one of the few marine areas left in the world that is close to pristine. And the fact that it is the path of major climatic events like El Niño also makes it exciting for scientists interested in climate change.”

Aboard my cruise boat, I try not to think of the ocean as just the dull, moving bit to be crossed to reach an island. We go from one to another, landing from rubber dinghies. Sometimes it is a “wet” landing on a rocky shore, less often a dazzling white sand beach, and sometimes “dry” on a wooden jetty, lined with basking sea lions reluctant to move even when the guides clap their hands to clear a way. At North Seymour, I actually have to step over a number of the comical boobies who are nesting on the path. One makes a half-hearted stab at my legs, then gets on with the more serious business of courting his partner.

Evenings are spent poring over the day’s photos, and nursing a cold drink while watching the sun set into the Pacific, creating a light show of reds, crimsons and blues. At night, I am lulled to sleep by the sound of the ship’s engines, to be awoken to a new view from my cabin’s porthole, another island to be explored. Each is different. Santa Cruz is a large long-extinct volcano now covered with dense vegetation. Isabela is much younger, with six volcanoes – most still active – glued together by lava. Fernandina is a highly active volcano, with rivers of black lava that look like they cooled yesterday and the only island uncontaminated by introduced fauna.

“Ever since humans first arrived, they have left behind domestic animals and plants which have caused havoc,” says David. “Goats, rats and dogs are a major problem. The National Park, with help from the Charles Darwin Foundation, has been eradicating these aliens and now many of the islands are as in good a state as when Darwin saw them.”

All this has been a huge financial cost, to which tourism has been the major contributor. “The idea of banning tourists has been mooted,” says David. “But this would actually have a detrimental effect as locals would turn to non-sustainable sources of income. Tourism is part of the Master Plan; it has just got to be in a controlled way.”

The islands lie roughly 900 kilometres off Ecuador, to which they belong, and many Ecuadoreans have fled the economically depressed mainland in search of jobs in tourism and fishing. The permanent population is now more than 27,000 and this boom has caused serious environmental damage, through seemingly harmless actions such as importing invasive plant species for gardens, which then spread into the wild to threaten native varieties.

Everything to support the tourists and the increasing numbers of people who make a living from them has to be shipped or flown in. The islands remained such a haven for wildlife because they were so barren and uninhabitable, with little water and infertile soil. They are one of the few places in the world that had no indigenous population.

“The main source of invasive species, from fungi to rats, is the cargo boats which now arrive almost daily,” says David. “The other is the growing number of flights. The islands now have three airports.”

The islands were put on Unesco’s World Heritage in Danger in 2007 and removed in 2010 after the Ecuadorian government made efforts to clean up such problems as cargo boats described as “breeding grounds for all types of potential invasive species and diseases, as organic residues rot among pools of stagnant water in their rat and cockroach infested holds.”

“I am not sure it should have been taken off the danger list – that was a political decision,” says Alex. “Some things have improved. The government has sorted out the institutional mess of competing regulatory bodies and there is now a very strong quarantine. But if we get something like West Nile Disease in Galapagos, then we are going to lose species. The risk is there and is not going to go away, not the way tourism is growing.”

The fishermen are another problem, harvesting sea cucumbers and shark fins for the seemingly bottomless Asian market. “Fishing for sea cucumbers was a lot of money for very little effort,” says Alex. “They were pretty much wiped out over a period of about ten years. When the government tried to control it, the fishermen went on strike and closed down the park. The social implications of that have not really been calculated. The merchants financed the fishermen, so the fishermen were in debt. How do you even deal with that with these grand ideas of sustainability?

“In retrospect we were talking to the wrong people, it should have been the merchants and not the fishermen. The merchants moved on to shark fins and sea horses. There were illegal fishing camps on Isabela Island and these guys were not dealing with quarantine: they were bringing in all their own fruit and vegetables and who knows what? So there were all these knock-on effects of the fishing that we are still dealing with now.”

He suggests that a reverse psychology took hold, with the fishermen saying “The worse the resources, the better because the NGOs will pay us not to fish.” He points out that the simplest argument against fishing is the economic one. “The entire Galapagos fishing industry – sharks, lobsters, white fish etc – now is worth a few million dollars. Just the diving industry is worth many times more than that. There is another couple of million dollars on merchandizing like shark T-shirts. It doesn’t make any economic sense to fish for sharks when you can make so much money from them in other ways. Conservation is worth much more than all the fishing.”

While a set of shark fins may sell for $100, the average diver in Galápagos will have paid out around $5,000 before seeing a live shark in the water. However, Alex recognizes that the problem is not simply a matter of enforcing the marine reserve better. “The hammerhead sharks, for example, are the main species of the reserve but it does not look like they reproduce in Galapagos,” he says. “Juveniles congregate along the coast of Panama and Costa Rica where they are being really heavily fished. How do you tell fishermen in Panama not to fish for juvenile sharks because some big tourism company in Galapagos is going to make millions from them?”

At Puerto Ayora, the largest town and home to more than 18,000 people, sharp knives flash at the fish market as fishermen gut the day’s catch on concrete stands. Customers waiting in line have to shoo away pelicans and frigate birds – and a pair of sea lions – all as unafraid as their relatives elsewhere on the islands, who ignore the camera-snapping tourists to beg for the scraps. The market is right beside the beach where the fishermen draw up their boats and the water is slick with oil. The peeling blue paint and air of neglect seem to suggest that not many of the tourist dollars pouring into Galapagos are making their way here.

“We used to refer to Galapagos as paradise,” says former naturalist guide Pepy Madunich, who lived there from 1989 to 2007. ”Our town was unique, very few roads and many bicycles, you could really feel you were in a very special place, you knew everybody. The arrival of modern life changed all that. The population grew because of the tourism and the fishery business, but very few companies are actually supporting the community. They basically make money and invest outside of the islands. Galapagos changed abruptly and exponentially after a few events: the Asians contracting fishermen to exploit sea cucumbers, the arrival of the internet and a major bank, facilitating business. Cars started to arrive in each cargo boat, as well as many new residents. In 1989 we were 2,000 people on Santa Cruz; by 2007 we were 15,000. Soon, we started to have huge social problems: a little town with huge city problems, including drugs and gangs, but a major one is the lack of good schools. The main reason we had to leave the islands was to give my daughter a good education.”

“The Ecuadorian Government is caught in a squeeze,” says David. “They do not want to encourage more settlers, but any reluctance to build an infrastructure that might attract more can be seen as neglecting the ones they have. Local politicians seize the opening to press for more tourism, bigger boats and more hotels, with the idea that will create wealth for local people. Of course, that’s not always true. Larger cruise ships, for example, may appear to bring in more money but much of the revenue does not reach the islands. Locals are trying to get a bigger slice of the action by building hotels and offering day-trips, but if this is left unregulated it will kill the golden goose.”

“The key is education,” says Swen. “The islands now have the most successful recycling program in the entire country and young people are learning from a very early age that they must not bring any prohibited organic matter to the islands. Many invasive species once came to Galapagos as decorative garden plants, but there is now huge awareness of the subject and it has become fashionable to create gardens using only endemic species. There is a new generation of young island residents who want to make a difference.”

“The biggest problem is globalization,” says Alex. “The issues with fishing and with tourism are both symptoms of the same problem. How can you have a set of local resources that have a global demand? The fishing resources have global markets for shark fins, sea cucumbers and lobsters – some legal and some illegal. And tourism is a global market that is driving population growth on the island. That is putting pressure on water and driving the risk of invasive species. The more airplanes, the more boats that come in, the greater that risk. But it is all this globalized world we live in.”

As tourist numbers increase, the quality of the experience for the tourist goes down. And there is no doubt that the quality of tourists goes down as well. Despite repeated warnings from the guides, a couple in my group continually strays off the path and annoys nesting birds to try and get a “better” photograph. The guide, reliant on tips and with the rest of the group to keep informed, can only do so much. But is the answer to raise entrance fees or impose a quota?

“I would hate to think of Galapagos as a place that only the rich can visit, so I imagine some sort of lottery is needed,” says Alex. “We could cap visitor numbers at about what they are now and concentrate on improving quality. But any limits should apply only to foreigners. It is really important that Ecuadorians have the chance to visit Galapagos.”

“At one time it was enthusiasts who saved up for years to come here,” says David. “The emphasis was seeing wildlife that you could find nowhere else. Now it has become a destination that many people are just ticking off their ‘bucket list’. What is needed is a return to emphasis not on quantity but on the quality of visitors – and the quality of their experience when they are here.”

I have a quality experience of my own when, on my last day in the islands, I go snorkelling at Tortuga, an islet off Española and find myself above a giant ray. At least five meters wide, it flows gracefully though the water, rippling silently. Continually in motion, they can only swim forwards. As I stroke down for a closer look, the ray wheels around in a loop. Its dark eyes fix me for a moment in perhaps a pitying gaze as my exhaled air bubbles to the mirrored surface. Then it turns, flicks its wings and is gone, leaving only a beautiful memory.

Published by Kieran

Travel writer

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