Galápagos: The Enchanted Isles

Inhabited by the strangest creatures imaginable, these mysterious and now fragile islands have captured the imaginations of many. Exploring their rugged coastlines, I entered a prehistoric world where amphibious dragons lair and exotic life clings to the sharp edge of an unforgiving home.

The towering peak of La Cumbre volcano was hidden behind a vaporous cloak of dense fog, intensifying the mysterious stillness as our “panga” shuttled us towards an unearthly landscape.

We carefully made our way across the slick hardened lava, taking our first tentative steps along the rugged coastline of Fernandina. In the cracks and shadows where the volcano meets the sea, some of the strangest creatures imaginable took notice of our presence.

As the nighttime chill began to yield to the equatorial sun, Fernandina awakened and the world’s only sea-lizards revealed themselves through subtle movements and periodic spurts to clear salt from their nostrils. The rocks were spitting.

Hundreds of spiny marine iguana draped the barren earth as we followed a marked trail over fields of swirling pahoehoe lava, punctuated by the occasional pioneering lava cactus.

Fernandina is the youngest and most inhospitable of all the Galápagos Islands. It is an active volcanic wasteland that grows at the very heart of a geothermal hot spot, straddling a complex series of tectonic plates and underwater ridges. Over millions of years, primordial forces have spewed a superheated magma, uplifting the Galápagos platform and exposing the visible summits of undersea volcanoes.

From the oldest in the east to the youngest in the west, the thirteen major islands and over 100 smaller islets and rocks of the archipelago are scattered over 320 kilometers and moving southeast with the shifting oceanic plates at a rate of four centimeters a year. This slow and sometimes violent journey along a geologic conveyor belt is evidence of a living planet.

The Galápagos Islands are still changing, still evolving, and still adapting to unpredictable forces—now witnessed, and directly influenced, by a growing number of curious travelers from around the world.

The small group of nature lovers I joined aboard the 20-passenger expedition yacht called Flamingo 1, were just beginning to bond as we continued our walk over the cracked and eroded lava, overwhelmed by the desolate beauty of Fernandina. As we neared the north shore of Punta Espinosa I stopped to photograph young sea lions frolicking in a small inlet and watched the flightless cormorant warming their wings on the rocky shore.

For a few brief moments I was completely separated from the constant digital news feeds, cell phones, and computer networks of the modern era—I was left with a sense of amazement at the timeless complexity of the natural world.

As the late morning sun broke through the haze, I could finally see Isabela, Fernandina’s giant island neighbor to the east, and the looming summit of the La Cumbre volcano. Everywhere, it seemed, the once motionless iguana were repositioning themselves for maximum exposure to the warming rays of the rising sun or scurrying into the water for a breakfast of algae.

The increasingly intense light exaggerated the already brilliant colors of the sally lightfoot crab, framed against a pallet of black, as they ducked into small fissures and holes to avoid the advancing parade of tourists.

We slowly circled back to the small rubber raft that would become our familiar shuttle to and from Flamingo 1. Our afternoon was spent snorkeling off the coast of Isabela with sea lions, turtles, and the Galápagos penguin—the only penguin species to live on the Equator—in the protected Tagus Cove.

In a routine that would be repeated throughout the voyage, we gathered for dinner, shared stories and pictures, and were underway as the sun began to set. We travelled the open ocean in darkness and at first light found ourselves on the doorstep of a new and fascinating island world.

LIVE, DIE, AND ADAPT

In February of 1535, just three years after the conquest of Peru by Francisco Pizaro, the Spanish bishop of Panama, Fray Tomás de Berlanga, was becalmed in the equatorial doldrums en route to Lima. His ship was seized by the cold ocean stream of the South Equatorial Current and drifted 1,000 kilometers west of the South American coast into the deep uncharted Pacific. On March 10th he unintentionally discovered the Galápagos.

The bishop’s accounts of a brutal place with no fresh water and strange animals are the first known records of human beings setting foot on the islands. Early visitors referred to them as “Las Encandtadas,” the Bewitched Islands, because phantom silhouettes seemed to appear and disappear unexplainably on the ocean horizon and volcanic peaks vanished as if by magic in the distant fog.

Others still, called them hell on Earth—a place so seemingly hostile to human life that the best recourse was to plunder and leave. It was described as a treacherous place of myth and legend where unknown forces conspired to create giant tortoises, hideous serpents, and flightless birds.

It was a lost world, without man, and seemingly inconsistent with a divine plan or intelligent design. For hundreds of years passing seafarers used the Galápagos as a hideout, refuge, or base of operations, often stopping only long enough to re-supply on tortoise meat and “foolishly tame wildlife,” as described by Tomás.

By the time a young 26-year-old Charles Darwin visited the Galápagos in 1835, there had been three centuries of human interaction with the islands. The bizarre wildlife now shared their geologic oasis with pirates, whalers, fur sealers, convicts, and castaways, but they had never been successfully or permanently settled.

Although several non-endemic species like goats and rats had been introduced to the Islands, Darwin found a nearly intact ecosystem molded by ancient forces largely unaffected by the hand of man. Not only was there an abundance of unique species, but identifiable variation from island to island. He and others later theorized that the very diversity of species and subspecies illustrated how populations adapted to ecological niches.

Darwin’s observations changed much more than the prevailing view of a distant and mysterious archipelago, they revealed a secret so seemingly simple yet so controversial, that it has irrevocably changed our understanding of the world in which we live.

While Darwin never directly addressed human evolution or abiogenesis in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection many of his ideas are still debated to this day. His revolutionary thesis suggests that natural selection combined with inherent genetic variation, is the mechanism that allows species under stress and in isolation to change over time, overcoming the challenges of their local environment.

Generation after generation, individuals better suited to live in the hostile environments of the Galápagos passed along traits that would give their decedents a competitive advantage—an edge towards long-term survival. The dramatic shifts and cycles of the ocean currents that converge on the archipelago both feed the incredible diversity of life and lead to drastic population crashes and rebounds that clearly favor “the fittest.”

But the Islands are a fragile jewel. As recently as the El Niño events of 1982-83 and 1997-98, which brought months of continuous rain and high ocean temperatures to the Galápagos, the islands have witnessed incidents of devastating animal mortality.

In 1983 alone, the marine iguana population crashed by 70 percent due to the sudden shift in algae species. They had nothing to eat.

Likewise, cormorant numbers dropped by half, most sea lion pups starved to death, and declines of more than 60 percent were seen in the Galápagos penguin, who have yet to recover.

The individuals that did survive these sudden climatic events are repopulating the various islands, but with a considerably smaller genetic footprint and bio-diversity, possibly initiating the next wave of micro-evolutionary change.

A TOURIST OF NATURE

After gently persuading a young sea lion to leave our landing stone, we disembarked our panga and climbed “Prince Phillip’s Steps” to a trail on the remote northern island of Genovesa. I stood for a moment in total disbelief, slightly embarrassed that after months of anticipation and travelling all this way, I didn’t know that there are red-footed boobies.

While the blue-footed cousins of these fascinating birds have been celebrated as a mascot of sorts for the famous archipelago, the curious red-footed birds have lingered in near obscurity.

There are, in fact, three booby species native to the Islands. Genovesa is home to the largest colony of red-footed booby in the world. Unlike the blue-footed and nazca boobies, the red-footed nest in trees and bushes and are an endemic subspecies to the Galápagos.

Although it is the most abundant of the three, it is the least observed, nesting primarily in the northern outlying Islands visited by only the quickest of tourist ships. For over an hour, we followed a thin trail along the crescent-shaped top of a collapsed volcanic crater under the hot afternoon sun. The birds we were so fascinated by responded to our group with indifference.

On most islands of the Galápagos, visitors follow a narrow band of marked trails where they discover the best-known creatures of the coast, prohibited from any sort of personal inland exploration. On the weatherworn and lightly visited southernmost island of Española, the tourist trail leads past blue-footed boobies, fledgling waved albatross, and the bleached bones of earlier generations to a stunning vista of soaring seabirds and ragged coastline.

Almost the entire world population of waved albatross live and breed on Española. They follow the shifting currents of the Humboldt and spend nearly half the year at sea feeding on squid. They return to the Island of Española in April to mate and raise their young. By December, they again take to the wing and follow the Humboldt Current to their feeding grounds off cost of Peru and Chile.

Every visitor is touched in unexpected ways by the mysterious wonders and natural surprises that have been island gifts to the observant for centuries.

Very few of us have ever had any real interaction with wildlife in their natural environments. Somewhere along the way we became “civilized” and lost our familiarity with the forces of nature just outside the protective walls of our society. We look at animals in simulated environments and view spectacular landscapes from guardrails at posted overlooks or the balcony of an all-inclusive resort. We are all tourists of nature.

In the Galápagos, I encountered animals with no visible fear or anxiety inspired by my close encounter—a genetic innocence that has evolved over the centuries in the absence of man.

I experienced a raw and intimate connection to a place where the cycles of life and death are not hidden by walls of civilization, but experienced, naked and authentic, just meters and moments away. I watched as a suckling newborn sea lion pup drifted in and out of a peaceful sleep as the click of my camera introduced a modern sound to an ancient world.

Hour after hour, day after day, I was captivated by the inquisitive stare of a young waved albatross and the paternal dominance exhibited by a male sea lion patrolling his small section of sandy beach on an island speck, marooned in a massive ocean.

A short distance away the broken wing of a struggling seabird foretold a certain death while an enthusiastic booby couple began their courtship with a silly display of affection. I cherished the fleeting moments of simple observation knowing that species have come and gone, adapted and died, in a constant chain of interconnected events for millions of years without human witness.

On arid, sparsely vegetated islands such as Pinta and Española only the giant tortoises—with a raised carapace and long neck survived to reach food high above the ground.

In the wetter regions such as Santa Cruz and southern Isabela, tortoises retained their domed shells and grew much larger with a more easily accessible food supply. It was, however, the saddleback tortoise that inspired the name of this infamous archipelago, which originates from the old Spanish word ‘galapago’ meaning saddle. 

FORCES OF CHANGE

As our journey aboard Flamingo 1 neared its eventual end, we were surprised to be joined by Santiago Dunn, the owner of Ecoventura. He was in the islands for the maiden voyage of his new solar-powered sister ship, Eric, the first of its kind in the Galápagos. After a wonderful dinner we all gathered in the main sitting area adjacent to the dining room and once again shared photographs and experiences.

We had gotten to know each other quite well so the conversation was easy and enthusiastic. We welcomed Santiago’s personal stories and watched a stunning underwater video shot off the coast of Wolf Island by Alexis, one of our expert guides and master diver.

As the night grew longer our conversation shifted to a more somber discussion about the future of the Galápagos. It was impossible not to notice the large congregation of cruise liners, tankers, and tourists at the bustling port of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz.

Most of us were unaware of the forces of change that are now influencing the delicate balance of life in the archipelago. There is growing concern among scientists and conservationists that uncontrolled tourism, expanding resident populations, pollution, and over-fishing may seriously threaten the islands.

The exploitation that began hundreds of years ago by pirates and whalers continues today with the brutal, senseless slaughter of nearly a million sharks every year that are “finned” alive and dumped back into the water to bleed to an agonizing death.

In the Galápagos Marine Reserve, tens of thousands of fins have been seized in a single shipment and endangered sea lions are often used as bait, solely to feed the appetite for shark fin soup, or what is more commonly known as “fish wing” soup in some parts of Asia.

Illegal shark poaching isn’t the only emerging threat to this once isolated ecosystem. Annual tourism has grown from 40,000 visitors to over 140,000 in just the past fifteen years. This worldwide interest has also swelled the resident population to over 30,000 accompanied by new predator populations of dogs and cats. New and potentially fatal diseases have also arrived with humans and their pets. There is a now-constant flow of food, energy, and resources to support this permanent colonization.

The Islands of the Galápagos are a unique world protected for millennia by its isolation. They are unlike any other place on earth.

Today the islands are no longer feared, are no longer a secret to our modern world or jet aircraft, and many of us have the wealth to travel. Sometimes by intent, though more often through ignorance, we are destroyers of worlds.

In one of the greatest ironies of human history, the place that inspired centuries of investigation, research, and reflection into the very nature of our existence, may ultimately be destroyed by our very presence.

Conservation, education, and visitation are all essential components in the struggle to control and manage one of the great “living museums” on Earth. While turning back the clock to a time before our intrusion into this prehistoric world is not an option, the Galápagos National Park Service and Charles Darwin Foundation in conjunction with the United Nations and dozens of NGO’s are aggressively initiating programs to seek answers to difficult problems and lessen the impact of essential tourism.

Untrodden partners only with Galapagos tourism operators committed to conservation and sustainable traffic to the archipelago.  

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