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Galapagos Now

If I was asked to give advice to someone about to undertake a long journey, my answer would totally depend on that traveler’s liking for one science or another, and on the advantages that he found for his own studies. Doubtless, one experiences great satisfaction in contemplating such diverse lands, and to review, so to speak, the variety of human races, but this satisfaction far from compensates for all the hardship one is likely to endure. Therefore, one must have an aim, and this aim should be a study to complete, a truth to unveil. In short this aim must support you and encourage you.

—Charles Darwin, Voyage of a Naturalist (1859)

Be advised, the Galapagos lie on the Equator, about 600 miles west of Guayaquil, the western-most coastal city in Ecuador, between Peru and Colombia (not on N. 6th Street)

Using round numbers, it takes three hours to fly to Miami (from Washington D.C.), four hours to fly to Quito (the stopover 9,000 feet in the Andes), an hour to Guayaquil, and an hour and a half to fly to the Galapagos. When you count in the usual attritions—the one-hour layover in Miami; overnight in Quito; several hours in the airport at Quito (as flights are routinely oversold and travelers are forewarned to arrive way ahead); an hour to Guayaquil; getting out to Baltra on the islands (then two hours waiting for the bags to come in on the auxiliary, not altogether confidence-inspiring, propane flight); a half-hour bus ride to the ferry; a 15-minute ferry ride; and then a second bus and an hour and a half ride (good luck trying to sit) to Academy Bay—you have spent the better part of two days. Add in the fact that one might be traveling with two parents, two younger sisters, one husband (not mine), and you might begin to question whether Survival of the Fittest implies the voyage itself and that Darwin’s mythical, enchanted islands don’t, in fact, exist at all.

That said, there is a sense in which it is fitting that it should be a little bit difficult to reach the Galapagos Islands. The notion of “survival” pulses at the very core of this place. One day, one supposes, its little neighborhood airport will transform itself into a no-fuss tourist-friendly machine, but I hope the day is far off. Because when one finally does reach the Galapagos, one realizes that what seemed a laborious voyage was actually a set of necessary way stations before reaching the grail.

And the islands are nothing less than The Grail for naturalists and historians. They are appropriately remote, which is exactly what has allowed for the particular confluence of natural forces over the course of a few million years (not many in geologic time) resulting in its phenomena. Nowhere else on earth is there what is to be found there. And while it is first exhilarating to consider this, one is quickly forced to confront the reality of the first-sight of the Galapagos—that they are stark, remarkably uninspiring, lackluster rocks. Herman Melville likened the arid islands to heaps after he visited as a member of a whaling expedition in the 19th century: “Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot; imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea; and you will have a fit idea of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles. A group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles; looking much as the world at large might after a penal conflagration.” Was it worth it? Dry, stiff, and dehydrated, I noticed that the islands looked not unlike how I felt.

All this is by way of saying, great treasures are not always instantly recognizable as such.

Even the celebrated genius Charles Darwin did not recognize the importance of the Galapagos Islands—the archipelago that would become forever enshrined in history as the inspiration for his world-changing revelation on evolution—when he first set foot on their shores 165 years ago. Unbeknownst to Darwin, it was the animals he would observe and collect there that would provide his first inkling that species were not immutable, as the theological thinking of the day proclaimed. Instead, he would realize that the species he beheld were continually being shaped and changed over time.

It is tempting to imagine Darwin, then the naturalist aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, walking into what would become the most important five weeks of his life as an explorer, thrilled by each animal and plant encountered, his mind afire with grand ideas. Not so. Darwin tells a rather different story, penning in his diary at the time: “gloomy sky…The plants also smell unpleasantly…what we might imagine the cultivated parts of the Infernal regions to be…most disgusting, clumsy lizards…such insignificant, ugly flowers as would better become an arctic than a tropical country.”

Our hero can hardly be blamed. For sheer biological exuberance and diversity, the Galapagos are no match for the rain forests of the South American mainland that Darwin also visited, with their green scenes full of towering trees, threaded with vines and overflowing with squawking, chittering, garish, noisy life. In stark contrast, the volcanic Galapagos are bleak and desert-like, dry and jagged scrapes of black lava dotted with unimpressive shrubs and cactuses, and inhabited by a relative few types of creatures. But while these islands did not dazzle young Charles with tropical pizzazz, they were free of confusing excesses of species, and so better displayed evolution’s handiwork. The idea of their formation itself is fascinating. The Galapagos are not “continental islands,” meaning islands that were at some time in the past connected to the continent by a land bridge. Rather, they are “oceanic islands,” born from a submarine volcano and which emerge from the ocean devoid of life. The Galapagos’ first inhabitants thus reached these remote islands by flying, floating, swimming, riding on downed trees, or being blown the 600 miles out from the mainland. And each island has made the most of the solitude, diversifying into constellations of sometimes-bizarre new species that make up new ways of life and fill the empty islands with creatures never before seen.

With each new arrival, evolution played out the same story. A different variety of giant tortoise (which give the islands their name, galapagos referring to a type of saddle in Spanish and describing the shape of the land tortoise’s shell) could be found on every island, each with its own style of oversized dome and comically scrawny neck. Land-loving iguanas spun off the most curious of the islands’ unique species: a marine iguana that dives in the sea for its dinner, the only lizard in the world to do so. And all over the Galapagos blossom a multitude of finches, apparently descended from one standard little seed-eating type of bird that made its way to these far reaches, whose descendants evolved all manner of beak to feed on all manner of food. As scientists have since learned, these finches are no longer confined to seeds, but can make their living on nectar, by prying insects out of dead trees with sticks, by plucking ticks off tortoises and iguanas, or feasting on leaves and fruit. After returning home to England, Darwin hinted at the possibility of evolution in these finches in his book Voyage of the Beagle. “Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds,” he wrote, “one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.” His fully fleshed out notions of evolution and natural selection would not be published until The Origin of Species came out 20 years later.

Today, most of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Islands, as the Galapagos are also known, are designated as Ecuadorian National Park. Tourists are asked to tread lightly as researchers work to restore what has been destroyed in these habitats. One of the biggest problems is the toll taken by visitors like those aboard the Beagle. In the 1800s, such islands were viewed not as hallowed cathedrals of nature, but as variations on one-stop shopping for the sailing ships of the day. Hunting was easy as the animals of the Galapagos have always been strangely tame. “Little birds…not frightened by stones being thrown at them,” Darwin wrote in his diary. “Mr. King killed one with his hat and I pushed off a branch with the end of my gun a large hawk.” Giant tortoises were popular game, since they could be kept alive on shipboard for weeks or months to provide fresh meat on demand. “The tortoise is so abundant that a single ship’s company here caught 500-600 in a short time,” Darwin noted. He himself could not resist the urge to meddle with the beasts. “They were so heavy,” he wrote, “I could scarcely lift them off the ground.” Apparently, it didn’t help that many of the creatures were also quite tasty. “We lived on the meat of the tortoise fried in the transparent oil, which is procured from the fat,” he wrote toward the end of his stay. “Young tortoises make capital soup.”

Today, scientists are working to save both the giant tortoises and the land iguanas, which have already disappeared off a number of the islands. (In contrast, Darwin described the iguanas as infinite in number, and he constantly tripped over their burrows while trying to find a place to camp.) Scientists are even searching for a mate for a tortoise known as “Lonesome George,” a centenarian thought to be the last of his subspecies, a kind of turtle found only on Pinta Island. Attempts to find a mate for George have proved futile, so he’ll remain a bachelor at the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island and the outpost of the 11th subspecies of giant tortoise. After George, the number of surviving subspecies (from an original 14) will fall sadly to 10.

Even as scientists work to save the species, the islands continue to give rise to new ideas and new research. Studies out of Princeton on Darwin’s finches show these birds’ beaks evolving before researchers’ eyes. Studies from Wake Forest University on the masked boobies illuminate curious tendencies to kill siblings. From today’s perspective, the species of the Galapagos seem to cry out “Evolution!” and Darwin’s conclusions seem foregone. Yet when he set sail on the Beagle, he was 22, had little in the way of scientific training, and in his five-year round-the-world journey was bombarded with social, cultural, geological as well as biological information—in a world where creationist theory declared that life appeared on earth Sunday, October 23, 4004 B.C.

Remember too that he was not in search of a universal theory to explain biological diversification. Throw in the fact that this was a man who had nearly passed up the journey of a lifetime because he did not want to miss the opening of partridge hunting season in England, and it all seems quite a miracle. In a very real sense, Darwin was like any young man on an adventure—taking a brief detour from the life his father had decreed for him of ministering in a quiet, country parsonage. It was a series of serendipitous events really, much like the underlying principle of his theory.

One sees this, the simple humanity of Charles Darwin, most easily in the pocket notebooks in which he scrawled his thoughts on the journey, unedited. There he made memos to get his watch fixed or kept his shopping lists: “Night-caps, black ribbon, pillboxes, Bramah pens, 2 lbs. common soap, tobacco.” He meditated for himself on the tropical scene: “Twiners entwining twiners, tresses like hair, beautiful lepidoptera, silence…” Seen in this light, Darwin may perhaps be forgiven his youthful inability to fully recognize the value of the very handsome opportunities life has set before him. For while the Galapagos may have signified little to Darwin as he first set foot on them, he surely understood their importance soon afterwards when he began attributing many of his ideas to those lonely isles.

Approximately 60,000 tourists currently visit the Galapagos each year, paying minimal fees towards maintenance of the islands. Such upkeep involves, among other things, killing alien species imported there during the anarchical 19th century, even after the publication of The Origin of the Species first made people aware of the fragile relationship between the islands’ uniquely evolved species. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the islands became regulated as something of a natural monument. Before regulation, pirates, traders, and whalers introduced several species (now feral cats, dogs, pigs, sheep, and goats) that threatened the delicate balance, which caused Darwin eventually to draw his breath excitedly in his journal and credit the islands, “Here, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhere near to that great fact—that mystery of mysteries—the first appearance of new beings on this earth.”

The principal servant of the tourists is a 250-foot passenger/biology boat of 10,000 tons or so, called the Ambassador. Since no vessel is permitted more than 90 passengers at a time, several of its rooms go vacant. Some of the islands can be visited by no more than a half dozen people at one time, and none of them by more than 90 people at a time. (All of these fine judgments are made by the Intendencia del Parque Nacional Galapagos, and are geared to the amount of traffic the animal and bird populations can endure.) Not that there is any apparent danger of frightening the iguanas or sea lions or pelicans or hawks or frigate birds, because none of these frighten in the least.  The animal world of the Galapagos remains unaware that human beings are capable of inflicting damage. Indeed, seamen aboard the Beagle reported that in order to shoot a bird on the Galapagos it was first necessary to situate him at the correct end of the rifle.

The Galapagos are, of course, interesting not only to naturalists but also to historians of romantic, even legendary haunts. It is recorded that no one lived there permanently until almost 300 years after the islands were discovered in 1546, by the Bishop of Panama. The first person credited as a genuine resident was called Patrick Watkins, an Irishman who lived on Floreana Island between 1807 and 1809. It is not known whether he was marooned there or asked to be put ashore (Giovanna, our Ecuadorian guide, offered no third alternative). He evidently got on by giving visiting whalers vegetables in return for rum. And one day, while the whalers were on an island looking for water to drink and tortoises to eat, Mr. Watkins stole one of their whaleboats and, along with it, five of their slaves, and set sail for Guayaquil. He arrived there alone. Giovanna’s final words on the subject, in a foreboding, thick Spanish accent: “Whether he ate them or pushed them overboard to conserve water, is not known.”

Succeeding settlers tended to meet violent ends. It wasn’t until 1832 that it occurred to Ecuador to send out a military detachment to declare the islands a part of Ecuador (notably, no one else was interested in claiming them at the time). But the ensuing settlement became a penal colony. Several subsequent governors were assassinated, two in slave rebellions. Finally, in 1926, a small settlement of Norwegians settled on Santa Cruz Island at Academy Bay, raising vegetables for the tuna fleet and establishing the small community that exists there today. The air strip on the north of the island was built in 1942 by the United States to protect the Panama canal from Japanese air raids during World War II; but an attack never came. Rumor has it that the Americans were partly responsible for the eradication of land iguanas on the island, aided by the presence of (equally voracious in other respects) feral goats. In any case, it is there that the tourists, and anyone else flying into Galapagos, now land.

Since WWII, the Galapagos population has risen steadily from 5,000 in 1980 to twice that in the following decade. By 1995, the population reached 20,000 and has since stabilized. The growth in industry and population has begun to have repercussions for regulation—another chapter in the Galapagos survival story. Just this past November, commercial fishermen and their allies (the powerful interests in mainland Ecuador) refused to accept limits on their catch, openly and violently defying the Ecuadorian government’s efforts to preserve the island’s fragile ecosystem. The measure under protest was a 1998 law that established a marine reserve out to 40 miles offshore, prohibiting fishing in that protected area to all but local residents using “artisanal” means and requiring them to abide by a quota system for lobster and sea cucumber. In the past two months, the non-local fishermen have attacked conservation installations, blockaded ports, and harassed tourist groups. On Isabela Island, they went so far as to set the office of the Galapagos National Park ablaze, sacked the house of a park official, and, in a strange twist on “hostage crisis,” seized a group of rare giant tortoises from the breeding center there. Also currently in the crossfire are the 43 species of Galapagos sharks that serve as regulators of the entire marine ecosystem. Commercial fishermen hope to legalize shark fishing, inevitable creating an unhealthy imbalance in marine populations. The islands’ main source of income, tourism, would in turn be affected—particularly the dive sites that are rated among the best in the world. “Diving [in Galapagos] depends on sharks,” explains a marine biologist at Darwin Station, “if you reduce their numbers, and make them aggressive, you have ruined dive tourism.”

As for us (said tourists), all manner of people seemed to be among the 45 adventurers in our group, geared for the outdoors and fit, inasmuch as one needs to be moderately spry in order to make one’s way across the lava beds, up the hills, over the rocks along the shore, and swim along the crags. The routine, then, was to travel larger distances overnight, and sail shorter distances from island to island during the mid-day break when the heat required us to nap in the sun, rather than hike. Distances between the 19 islands vary from 1 mile to 50, and each has something of special interest—a particular species of bird, of reptile, or unusual lava formations. There is, as far as I could discover, no animal in the Galapagos in any way wary or dangerous (except for the sea lion who, after evolving for millions of years unaware of the dangerous potential of humans, rightly became so annoyed by the bull-fighting, red-shirt waving antics of my father, that he began to bark threateningly and forced the group to find an alternate path through the brush to avoid further confrontation). Even the hawks that we’d seen one afternoon on Rabida Island were unphased by our presence. Four of them were feasting on the carcass of a young sea lion; we had moved within a foot or two, disturbing them not in the least, and causing Giovanna to note that it was nothing short of miraculous that birds of prey should, even while feeding, permit human beings to come so close to them.

We saw blue-footed boobies (the most famous of the Galapagos birds), and learned of their tendency toward fratricide. Females characteristically give birth to four offspring at a time, each two days apart. Generally only the oldest survives, since there is not enough food about for the mother to keep all four fed, and the oldest, stronger than his siblings by a couple of days, has the strength to wrest the food from his juniors. Naturally, I contemplated the implications of violence toward siblings (six days into 24/7 interaction on the family “survival” trip), and was pleasantly surprised to find our dinghy guided under “Booby ridge” so that two passengers could be crapped on rapid-fire for the amusement of all—the “two” happening to be my definitely-never-crapped-on pristine sister (did I mention younger?) and her former college all-American basketball playing Jewish doctor husband. One certainly wonders exactly how Darwin’s booby notes on the Origin of Rivalry and Primogeniture might have read.

In retrospect, reading the naturalist guides to Galapagos hardly do it justice. The starkness and strangeness requires firsthand experience. The names alone are striking: opuntia trees, epiphytic lichen, liverworts. You come upon tender clumps of ferns and rain-filled ponds and sphagnum bogs. You are excited by the sight of shady spots of yellow-crowned night herons sleeping away the daylight. You marvel, when the weather is hot and calm (which it was for us), at myriad microscopic organisms that glow at night. Before sleeping, huddled together at the back of the boat next to a pelican perched on the railing, you might gaze at the tranquil mangrove-surrounded cove where the boat is anchored, with its flashing blue phosphorence, the lightest movement in the water provoking showers of light. And the green sea turtles are there, if you are lucky enough to catch one (which we were), outlined in a blue glow only a dozen or so feet away.

Apparently, Darwin wasn’t the first person to think about evolution. One of the first evolutionary thinkers whose ideas have survived to reach us was Empedocles of Agrigentum, who lived from 495 to 435 BC. The nuts and bolts of his ideas concerning the origins of living things are, quite frankly, downright bizarre; but he did hit upon one very important element of evolution. Empedocles actually suggested that plant life arose first after the formation of the Earth, and that animal life “budded off” from the plants. But the plants did not produce whole animals. Instead, according to Empedocles, parts of animals budded off from the first plants—heads, arms, eyes, and all the rest, as individual components which got together to create all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures. There were, in this picture, animals with the heads of men, two-headed monsters, centaurs, and all kinds of strange creatures. But, said Empedocles, the monstrous forms could not find mates and reproduce, so they soon died out—became extinct, as we would say today—leaving behind only those creatures in which the various components work together in harmony.

And here, amidst a welter of strange ideas linked to the myths and legends of the time, we find the first hint of the notion that evolution involves natural selection, with only the fittest forms (that is, the ones capable of reproduction) surviving. I would say a “nuts and bolts” mentality is required for the Galapagos. The non-scientists among us might be surprised to find themselves falling asleep to their own questions of How do things work? And what makes that lizard able to survive in a tidal basin, the other in a bog? Something about the islands’ rebellious formation, as not having broken off from the mainland, but rather developed entirely as entities in and of themselves, has effected the tone of relations with the place and resonates with Empedocles’s notion fitting parts together. One leaves wanting to know who “makes it” and how.

One returns from the Galapagos having approached a phenomenon, had a brief but searching look at it, and tiptoed back, to a world in which hawks keep their distance, marine iguanas vanish with the coming of the glacial age, and in which the most engrossing element is, for better or worse, the doings of Man—where “survival” tends to feel much less acute, and certainly much less romantic.

The enchanted isles are properly cordoned off. There shouldn’t be regular, licentious traffic, not only because traffic would rob them soon of their allure, but also because they would lose that singular glamour that gives them what enchantment they have. There should always be gates, moats, and portcullises to surround and protect distinctive places, whether natural or cultivated. The islands are comfortably remote, safe, inviolable, and so tend to remain in the memory.

NOTE:  No sooner had I finished this article—typed “remote, safe, inviolable”—than the news was out about a diesel fuel spill off San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos. Inviolable in memory, perhaps, but currently wrestling, literally, to survive. Fortunately, ecologist say the damage has been minimal, as favorable ocean currents have carried most of the fuel away from the islands. While there will be obvious impacts, the effects are not deemed “disastrous”—experts anticipate the ecosystem will make a swift recovery. As of 8:30 p.m. January 26, only two pelicans had died, while about 30 sea lions, several other pelicans, and numerous giant tortoises and blue-footed booby birds had been moved to centers to be cleaned.


Beth Rosenberg


The Brooklyn Rail


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