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Life after Darwin: A trip to the Galapagos reveals beauty – and the heavy footprint of man

  • Tourists take photos at La Lobería, a beach that is popular for sea lions and snorkelers on San Cristóbal Island in the Galápagos on August 4, 2014.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)

    Tourists take photos at La Lobería, a beach that is popular for sea lions and snorkelers on San Cristóbal Island in the Galápagos on August 4, 2014.

    (WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)

  • A Galápagos tortoise is kept at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Islands on August 5, 2014. Giant tortoise eggs from the wild are brought to the CDRS breeding program, which raises the tortoises until they are large enough to avoid invasive threats like fire ants.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)

    A Galápagos tortoise is kept at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Islands on August 5, 2014. Giant tortoise eggs from the wild are brought to the CDRS breeding program, which raises the tortoises until they are large enough to avoid invasive threats like fire ants.

    (WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)

  • A naturalist guide from  Galápagos National Park leads a tour group through Las Tintoreras, an islet near the town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island, while a similar group walks in the background on August 7, 2014. Marine iguanas basked just off the walking path amid rocks covered in lichen.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)

    A naturalist guide from Galápagos National Park leads a tour group through Las Tintoreras, an islet near the town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island, while a similar group walks in the background on August 7, 2014. Marine iguanas basked just off the walking path amid rocks covered in lichen.

    (WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)

  • White-tipped sharks rest in a warm, shallow channel at Las Tintoreras, an islet near the town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island on August 7, 2014. The species is one of few sharks that is able to respire without swimming.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)

    White-tipped sharks rest in a warm, shallow channel at Las Tintoreras, an islet near the town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island on August 7, 2014. The species is one of few sharks that is able to respire without swimming.

    (WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)

  • A juvenile marine iguana shoots briny liquid from its nostrils at Las Tintoreras, an islet near the town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island on August 7, 2014. The behavior is an adaptation to remove the excess salt that comes with their diet of green algae.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)

    A juvenile marine iguana shoots briny liquid from its nostrils at Las Tintoreras, an islet near the town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island on August 7, 2014. The behavior is an adaptation to remove the excess salt that comes with their diet of green algae.

    (WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)

  • Tourists take photos at La Lobería, a beach that is popular for sea lions and snorkelers on San Cristóbal Island in the Galápagos on August 4, 2014.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)
  • A Galápagos tortoise is kept at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Islands on August 5, 2014. Giant tortoise eggs from the wild are brought to the CDRS breeding program, which raises the tortoises until they are large enough to avoid invasive threats like fire ants.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)
  • A naturalist guide from  Galápagos National Park leads a tour group through Las Tintoreras, an islet near the town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island, while a similar group walks in the background on August 7, 2014. Marine iguanas basked just off the walking path amid rocks covered in lichen.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)
  • White-tipped sharks rest in a warm, shallow channel at Las Tintoreras, an islet near the town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island on August 7, 2014. The species is one of few sharks that is able to respire without swimming.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)
  • A juvenile marine iguana shoots briny liquid from its nostrils at Las Tintoreras, an islet near the town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island on August 7, 2014. The behavior is an adaptation to remove the excess salt that comes with their diet of green algae.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)

The Galápagos Islands have always conjured images in my mind of hordes of black marine iguanas diving for delicious green algae, blue-footed boobies flapping their feet at each other and giant tortoises stretching their necks to reach a meal.

These glimpses, gathered from nature shows on television and photographs from biology textbooks, have accumulated in my mind throughout the years. And they have formed a vision of the famous archipelago that many people share – a deserted shoreline and a Victorian British naturalist combing the black volcanic rocks for finches. It was a vision I would put to the test when I visited the Galápagos in early August.

The first hurdle in traveling 3,000 miles to the Galápagos Islands was deciding whether to visit them at all. I faced this question in May, when my girlfriend Katie suggested the trip. She would already be in mainland Ecuador, participating in a summer program for medical school. And she couldn’t pass up the chance to tack on a trip to the Galápagos, regardless of whether I joined her.

But aside from funding my travels to such a remote destination, I had to worry about how to justify visiting a part of the world where the wildlife is as fragile as it is fabled.

The tourism question

The allure of the Galápagos is undeniable, but the very nature of its appeal makes it a place where the human footprint falls most heavily.

As an isolated and relatively young volcanic archipelago, it is home to few species compared to mainland Ecuador. The organisms that did manage to reach the islands, however, have evolved into a remarkable array of endemic species – plants and animals found nowhere else in the world.

And because few predators followed them to the islands, many species have lost the instinct for evasiveness. They have become the ideal prey for spectating tourists with wide angle cameras who are easily tempted to walk right up to a sea lion or a booby and snap away.

Though the popular fauna of the Galápagos is its main draw, the Galápagos’s current human predicament is what tipped the scale of my decision, ironically, in favor of visiting the islands.

Media impressed on me an untrammeled paradise, but I had also read that the Galápagos is a permanent home to more than 25,000 people. And another 200,000 people visited the Galápagos just last year.

I’m not the type of photographer who would be tempted to visit a war zone, but the Galápagos represents a very interesting battleground between the forces of conservation and exploitation. I would be yet another human footprint, but I had to see the islands for myself.

The arrival

Before our airplane even touched the ground in San Cristóbal, I witnessed the first assault.

Three flight attendants marched in waves, with the first one opening up the overhead compartments, the second spraying a continuous line of insecticide down the row of carry-on luggage, and the third quickly following to close the compartments.

I wondered about the effectiveness of the spray against us, the large mammals packed into the confined fuselage. We were the source of the problem, unwittingly bringing bugs, seeds and spores on our clothing as well as our luggage, so maybe it would be poetic justice.

From the top steps of the airplane’s exit ladder, the scene before me began unraveling my preconceptions. My surroundings felt very low and flat, as if they might slip back under the ocean at any time. It was also dry, as expected for that time of year.

The tarmac was loud, and it felt strange to be surrounded by pavement in a part of the world so consistently depicted as undeveloped, even though logically I knew I had just stepped off a jet holding well over a hundred people.

I was reassured by large cactuses looming just beyond the runway that the Galápagos I had pictured for years was not far away — in reality, 95 percent of the Galápagos is uninhabited.

At the open-air receiving terminal, we paid our mandatory $100 entry fee for Galápagos National Park as well as a $10 fee just for being in the islands.

The money goes to good places, with 40 percent allotted for Galápagos National Park, 25 percent for Galápagos municipalities and the rest distributed among various services.

After being processed, Katie and I joined other tourists being shepherded into a large van by our travel operator, SharkSky EcoAdventures.

What Darwin saw

Fittingly, San Cristóbal Island was Charles Darwin’s first stop in the Galápagos as well. After a short snorkeling session that day, we visited a statue of the discoverer of natural selection overlooking what is now called Darwin Bay. It was nearby that he first took his first steps in the Galápagos, scrambling over the black lava.

Our arrival, in contrast, came by a two-mile path through the rocks that was pleasantly paved. It offered a view of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, a fishing village of roughly 7,000 people. The frigate birds flying overhead would have been a sight familiar to Darwin.

That first day set the tone for the rest of our trip, in that it became a cascade of amazing scenery, mesmerizing wildlife, and reminders of the human influence, all in quick succession.

We snorkeled twice the next day, this time with green sea turtles, sea lions and countless fish and invertebrates. Though visitors are strongly cautioned not to get too close to any wildlife, Galápagos sea lions are known for swimming right up to tourists, and they didn’t disappoint.

Toward sunset, we saw our first marine iguana, a solitary creature sleeping underneath a mangrove. All we had was a view of its hindquarters, but we were still rendered giddy.

Footprints

In San Cristobal’s highlands, the mist and lush vegetation provided a completely different environment than the lowlands. Though it was as impressive as the lowlands, every bird and bush seemed to spark a tale of environmental missteps from the island’s checkered past.

A guide led us to a pair of huge volcanic sinkholes known as Los Gemelos that were full of invasive blackberry. Later, we watched giant tortoises munch on vegetation at a ranch that lies just outside the border of the national park. Within site of the tortoises we sat on a patio and ate fish for lunch.

If we had been pirates or sailors in centuries past, we might have been dining on the tortoises themselves. Of the 14 subspecies of Galápagos tortoise, four have gone extinct due to harvesting.

Back on the trail, a native carpenter bee – a crucial pollinator – buzzed near an invasive wasp that doesn’t offer the courtesy of pollinating plants. The wasp had arrived on the island with bunches of bananas that park guides would hang on boats as snacks for tourists.

I remembered the boat that had carried us to a snorkeling spot the day before, on which we had snacked on watermelon instead. The lesson had been learned, but perhaps too late.

On Santa Cruz Island, Puerto Ayora struck us as an even larger, more developed town than Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Seemingly every shop either had a name referencing the local wildlife, or pictures of animals painted onto whitewashed storefronts.

Lonesome George

One clothing company used Darwin as its mascot, portrayed realistically except for a coy smile, while another was named after Lonesome George, the Pinta Island tortoise who lived close by at the Charles Darwin Research Station.

Lonesome George was found roaming Pinta Island in the 1970s, decades after the island’s tortoises were presumed extinct. He was paired with two closely related females in an unsuccessful attempt to get them to reproduce, and he died as the last of his kind in 2012.

When we visited the CDRS, someone had etched RIP into the wooden sign bearing his name.

Not even 20 years ago, in 1995, Lonesome George was around 80 years old when he avoided an untimely death.

That January, roughly 30 sea cucumber fishermen, known as pepineros, responded to a ban on their industry by occupying the CDRS and holding its staff hostage for four days. The pepineros threatened to hack Lonesome George’s throat with a machete, and they had killed tortoises in protest before. Luckily for George, they dispersed on their boats when troops arrived.

It was no surprise to learn that an extractive endeavor like the fishing industry has been a concern to Galápagos National Park.

The park has pushed to supplant fishing by shifting fishermen into the ecotourism sector, which is a much less destructive livelihood for the people living on the islands.

For our part, Katie and I were supposedly being good ecotourists by taking small boats operated by locals. With every taxi fare, hotel stay and restaurant visit we were putting money into local pockets instead of spending our nights and meals on a big cruise ship staffed by mainlanders with few connections to the islands themselves.

Trip of a lifetime

With one day left in our trip, Katie and I thought we had already been treated to all the highlights. But there was more to be seen.

An endangered land iguana appeared on the long uphill trail to two volcanoes on Isabela Island. Penguins and boobies worked a shoreline like a stage, preening for our boat load of tourists and cameras. We went snorkeling yet again at a an islet called Las Tintoreras, spying more turtles, a puffer fish and sharp green urchins that would go tumbling with a tourist’s errant flipper kicks.

One and then another marine iguana took to the water, swimming right past Katie and me. I barely managed to take photos of a scaly pair of legs and a tail lashing the water as the iguana left us. We took a moment before kicking our flippers back to shore, where an unseen Sally Lightfoot Crab clipped at our toes before we climbed onto the rocks.

We flew to Quito the next morning, and were more or less back home the day after that. At the kitchen table I unloaded my camera’s full memory cards while picking at the splintered tip of a green sea urchin spine still lodged in my palm.

I began poring over photos to make sure I had gotten enough footage to make the memory of the trip last a lifetime.

My sentiments on visiting Galápagos align with David Attenborough, the famous wildlife broadcaster, who wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “Tourism is a mixed blessing for the Galápagos but the fact is, if there was not tourism to the islands and the local people did not get any income from it, there would be nothing left there now.”

I welcomed the notion that I might have somehow helped the islands persist for future generations to appreciate their intrinsic qualities and enjoy them like we did.

The question now is whether I could someday justify a second visit.

If ecotourism isn’t handled effectively in the Galápagos, the islands might change so much that I wouldn’t recognize them. But that might just give me another reason to return.

(Will Parson is a former “Monitor” photographer. He is now multimedia specialist for the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis, Md.)

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