World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

The Queen of Santa Cruz

It’s Friday night in Puerto Ayora, a town of some 15,000 people on the island of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos archipelago. Avenue Charles Darwin runs from the harbour, filled with tour boats, and past the public plaza where on most nights young men play pick-up games of volleyball. The north side of the street is lined with restaurants, bars, Internet cafes and souvenir shops. Tonight, the street and plaza are alive with lights, music and a throng of hundreds of Galapagueños and tourists. A parade of floats plows its way along the avenue and through the crowd like ships through the surf, toward the stage at one end of the plaza.

The floats are carrying the contestants in the Queen of Isla Santa Cruz beauty pageant, a highlight of the island’s week-long Fiestas celebration. The first is covered with balloons, as well as little Galapagueño girls who wave to the crowd. Standing at the back of the float in front of a ten-foot tall heart made of red balloons is one of the beauty queens. She is dressed in a silver and white, sequin-covered costume. The next float is commanded by a pale-skinned, disinterested, overweight Nemo, complete with trident and crown. But all the attention is on the young beauty queen hopeful, standing in a giant seashell behind him.

Silver queen_2639_1200px         As each float arrives at the end of the plaza, the girls step down and make their way onto the stage. After the final float has come and gone, there are nine young contestants smiling and waving to the crowd. Each represents a different neighbourhood of Puerto Ayora or region of Isla Santa Cruz: Miss Barrio Pelikan Bay, Miss Barrio Pampas Coloradas, and so on. Some represent local companies. There is even a Miss Charles Darwin Foundation.

The girls take their turns greeting the crowd. My Spanish isn’t good enough to know what they’re saying, but my guess is they’re giving their “I want to cure world hunger” speech, which down here might sound more like: “I want to preserve Galapagos as a home for the flightless cormorants and marine iguanas”. Wow. Beautiful, and committed to conservation.

It turns out this isn’t the actual pageant ceremony. So there’s no bathing suit or talent competition, no crowning of a winner, no tiara, flowers or tears. Instead, the winner will be crowned Saturday night. But I and my companions will be leaving Puerto Ayora on a ten-day scientific field trip to another Galapagos island, Isabela, at 5:30 Sunday morning. It’s an early start, so I’ll have to wait until we return to find out the name of the new Queen of Santa Cruz.

 

As I’ve discovered during the course of three trips here, there is no place on Earth like the Galapagos Islands—where fish fly through the air, lizards crawl about underwater, and volcanic rocks float in the ocean. It is unique because there is no other geographical location on the planet that is synonymous with an idea as significant as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. It is an enchanted place that provided the inspiration for the theory that changed our idea of ourselves and of all life on the planet. It is home to species found no where else on Earth, and is a living laboratory where scientists observe and study both evolution and the engine that drives it, natural selection.

Hawk over Sugarloaf_0367_1200px            The Galapagos Islands are comprised of a dozen main islands and over a hundred minor ones, straddling the Pacific equator, a thousand kilometres off the coast of Ecuador. They were first discovered in 1535, and once found, served as a way station for buccaneers and whalers, and as a source of water, firewood, and fresh tortoise meat. Over the last two centuries, various attempts were made to settle in the archipelago, and it was in 1832 that the islands became the sovereign property of Ecuador.

It was in 1835 that the most famous visitor to the islands arrived: twenty-six year old Charles Darwin, who spent 5 weeks exploring the archipelago. In “The Voyage of the Beagle”, Darwin wrote of one of the islands that “…nothing could be less inviting”. Herman Melville visited during the years he spent aboard whaling ships. In his short work, ”The Encantadas or the Enchanted Isles”, he described them as “…heaps of cinders dumped here and there…a most Plutonian sight. In no world but a fallen one could such lands exist”.

In one sense, there is no other place on Earth like the Galapagos Islands. But in another, they are like every other place on Earth where humans and wildlife, residents and outsiders, conservationists and local communities, and economic and political interests clash. In this sense, the Galapagos Islands are no different than Uluru (otherwise known as Ayers Rock) in Australia, where paying tourists clamber over a site sacred to aboriginal tribes, and swim in hotel pools set amidst a desert with a precious and diminishing water supply. Or, countless other nature reserves and parks where the same conflicts exist.

Since before the Beagle dropped anchor, these islands have been a battleground of forces shaping the archipelago’s evolution. Whether they survive in a form that resembles the Galapagos Darwin saw, or suffer the tragedy that has befallen most tropical archipelagos depends on the unnatural selection taking place today.

 

My first trip to the Enchanted Isles was in 2005 to attend an evolution conference held in Puerto Bacquerizo Moreno, on Isla San Cristóbal. At the conference, I met Frank Sulloway, science historian, Darwin scholar, former MacArthur Fellow, and Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. Frank’s expertise and interests are diverse. He’s not only written important works about Darwin and “On the Origin of Species”, he’s also author of “Born to Rebel”, a book describing the effect of sibling order on personality, and “Freud, Biologist of the Mind”, a critical and well-received critique of Freud and his theories. He’s been profiled in the New Yorker magazine and has even been a recent guest of Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report.

Frank scalesia_0320_1200px         At the conference, I discovered that Frank returned to Galapagos every year to do research, and that he invited people along with him on his expeditions. I asked if I could join him, and so my second visit to Galapagos was as part of his sixteen-day field trip to Isla Santiago in 2006. On that trip, we landed in Buccaneer Cove and camped on the very site Darwin used in 1835. It was a “Darwin Slept Here” experience.

I’m back in the Encantadas for a third time to accompany Frank on another trek. This time, we’ll be visiting Isabela, the largest of the isles. We’ll climb to the top of Alcedo Volcano, and split our time on the rim and down on the caldera floor. Frank’s goal on this trip is to collect wasps, and revisit sites he’s photographed over the decades in order to document changes in the vegetation.

The rest of the team includes Eric Rorer, a professional photographer and wilderness adventure leader for the Sierra Club, and a member of the 2006 trip to Santiago. Rob Smith, an infectious disease specialist from Maine, who will be kept busy giving out medical advice during the trip, but who is really along to collect land snails. Ryan Buss, a 22-year old psychology and computer science student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, whose parents are good friends of Frank’s. Chuck Lemme, a mechanical engineer from Tucson Arizona, who has also accompanied Frank on a previous trip. And, there’s Daniel Sabando, a young Galapageño student and volunteer at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora. Completing the team is Novalino Castillo who, along with three other porters, will make our journey possible by carrying heavy packs of food up to the rim of Alcedo – twice.

I am privileged. Our experience of Galapagos will be nothing like that of the hundred and fifty thousand tourists who visit every year. We will be camping on Isabela and will be going where Frank’s research takes him. Tourists, on the other hand, discover that each step of their visit is highly restricted and regulated. They explore the archipelago only as part of a tour group, aboard licensed tour boats, accompanied by trained and licensed naturalist tour guides. Groups visit designated landing sites and follow marked hiking trails.

As part of any well-planned itinerary, visitors see and photograph all the major Galapagos species: marine and land iguanas, giant tortoises, Galapagos hawks, Galapagos penguins, finches, and many other species native and endemic to the islands (in other words, species that arrived naturally, and which are found no where else in the world).

Plus, they see other species, not endemic but tourist favourites nonetheless, including blue- and red-footed boobies, frigate birds, and countless more. The tourist experience of Galapagos is like a visit to a well-conceived Darwinian theme park—but one in which it’s easy to imagine you are seeing the islands as they were in 1835.

But, as all visitors discover to their surprise, it’s when you leave the tourist trails that you realize the islands are not “heaps of cinders”, home only to exotic creatures. In fact, the current permanent population is about 30,000, having grown from some 1,300 residents who reportedly lived there in 1950. (And it is likely larger, given the number of illegal residents.) In Puerto Ayora, it’s easy to find t-shirts with “I Love Boobies” printed across the front. Thursday night is ladies night at the Bongo Club, with free body shots between 8 and 10. Looking for a prostitute? Try “Quatro y Media” or “Amazonas”, just outside of town on the way to Bellavista. In Puerto Ayora, you’ll even find the occasional beauty pageant.

Today, the population of the archipelago is expanding at a rate of 6% each year, making it the fastest growing province in Ecuador and putting it on course to double over the next decade. It is the economic opportunity created by tourism that attracts people to the islands.

But with increased tourism and population comes invasive species of animals, insects, plants and bacteria that have caused the disappearance of many endemic species on many of the islands. With more people, there is also more pollution and the need for more developed land. Clearly, humans are the most dangerous and destructive invasive species of all.

 

Before leaving for Isabela, we spend three days in town preparing for the trek. Whenever a team of scientists heads into the field, Darwin station personnel must inspect all their equipment for any seeds, dirt or insects that could be transported from one island to another. So, we take all our gear to the station where we dump the contents of each backpack onto a large table. We have to wash one of the dirtier ground sheets. And, the inspectors find two ants in one of the spare packs and we’re told we can’t use it.

All the gear is then placed in large plastic bags, sprayed with insecticide, sealed, and locked in quarantine for 48 hours. (The insecticide smells familiar. As we flew into Galapagos from Quito, the flight attendants opened all the overhead compartments and sprayed our carry-on luggage with the same chemical. Not something you see on Air Canada.)

The rest of our stay in town is spent relaxing and getting to know each other. We arrived in Quito on “Super Tuesday” of the American presidential primaries, and ninety percent of the conversation during meals is about the race between Clinton and Obama. Mainly because of Frank and Eric, I am evolving into a Barrak supporter. We also hook up with researchers from Australia who have been studying finches. Other than Toby, the group consists of four attractive female researchers. While we will be carrying 60lb packs up a volcano, the Aussies will be driving to their research site every day, catching finches, and in the evening returning to Puerto Ayora for a shower, a meal in a restaurant, and a hotel bed. I’m thinking of asking to be traded.

Departure_2664_1200px            Finally, the quarantine is over, and before dawn on Sunday morning, we gather our gear and food from the station and drive to the docks where we meet Novalino and the other porters. We load everything into a pair of boats, then motor our way through an armada of harbour taxis to open water. As the sun rises above the Pacific and we reach open water, pick up speed and head northwest across the archipelago. In two and a half hours, we’ll be hiking up a volcano. We’ve left the tourists, t-shirts and beauty queens behind.

 

The rim of Alcedo is 1100 metres above the surrounding ocean, and the hike up is a long, hot, humid, day-and-a-half trek. The first leg of our route is gentle, where the broad shield of the volcano slopes to the shore. As we climb higher, the shoulders of Alcedo become steeper. The trail also becomes harder to follow as the Palo Santo and Cat’s Claw trees, ferns and other vegetation grows thicker.

We spend a night on the side of the volcano, and it’s near our campsite that I see the first Galapagos tortoise of the trip, grazing on the grass and low vegetation. When we resume our climb in the morning, more and more tortoises appear along the trail. In addition to the tortoises, Darwin’s famous finches are like the cosmic aether of the Galapagos and are with us constantly.

Then, after a few hours of climbing, we take our final steps and the caldera appears before us. It’s eight kilometres across, with the floor of the crater 400 metres below. It’s a breath-taking sight.

The floor of the volcano’s interior is like a sunken, circular tabletop. It’s covered with trees, pitch-black lava flows, and ochre-coloured mud flats. On the wall of the caldera to the south, plumes of steam rise vertically in the still air from an extinct geyser and two large fumaroles or vents. The slope around them is sulphurous white and yellow. Even from this distance, the blast of the fumaroles sounds like a jet engine idling on the tarmac.

Bones_3072_1200px         After a short hike along Alcedo’s circumference, we reach the caseta, a small corrugated-metal and wood shack built by the Galapagos National Park. The shelter serves as home for scientists in the field, like Frank and Rob. It was also base camp for the hunters who helped rid the northern half of Isabela of tens of thousands of goats. Introduced to this and other islands by whalers, settlers and fishermen over the last century and a half, the voracious animals were devouring endemic vegetation and had to be eradicated to preserve the natural flora.

The caseta sleeps up to 16, and comes with a gas stove, tables and chairs, as well as large tanks of rainwater collected from the roof. But as we did two years ago at the caseta in the highlands of Santiago, Eric and I choose to pitch our tents outside. We do this partly because, with our tents at the edge of the rim, it’s a phenomenal setting. But my main motivation is the fact the caseta is filthy and home to rats. When we arrive, mattresses are rolled up and hang from the ceiling because they would soon be covered in feces if left out on the bunks.

Rob collecting_2729_1200px copy         Over the next couple of days, Frank and Rob begin their collecting. I tag along with Rob as he visits various GPS-marked locations on the rim looking for snails. Over the decades, more than fifty species of Galapagos land snails have become extinct. Frank points out that while the cause of their decimation is unclear, the extinctions corresponds to the growth of tourism and the explosion in the archipelago’s population. It may be that the snails are a “canary-in-a-coalmine” species, extremely sensitive to environmental stresses. On his first trip to Alcedo, in 1970, Rob found many snails. On his second trip, in 2004, there were many more empty shells and fewer live specimens. On this trip, they’re numerous. Perhaps it’s a sign of recovery; or maybe it’s just the wet weather.

Frank collects wasps, an invasive species that eats insects that are part of the endemic Galapagos birds’ diets. Ironically, they have migrated throughout the archipelago just as the finches, tortoises and other creatures of the islands did over the millennia. By studying the wasps’ DNA, Frank is shedding light on how species spread and, through natural selection, evolve into different species.

 

After three nights, Rob and Chuck must return to Puerto Ayora and home. It’s also time for the remaining five of us to pack up and head down to the caldera floor. It’s a relatively short hike that takes us past the geyser. Along the way, we see bleached carapaces of giant tortoises that have tumbled down the slope to their deaths. I half-expect to find dinosaurs or prehistoric women in wooly-mammoth fur bikinis in the volcano. There are none, but what we find is only slightly less out-of-this-world.

Once inside Alcedo, its precipitous rim separates us from the rest of the universe. It is a boundary between the outside world and a virtually untouched, unchanged Galapagos. All we can see above the surrounding summit is sky. Away from any airline routes, the blue dome is free even of jet contrails. For all we know, the world is gone. There are no towns, no tourists, no Obama, no Hillary.

We find a relatively flat lava flow below the fumaroles, pitch our tents, and begin to explore our new surroundings. “It’s like a diorama in a natural history museum”, Eric laughs. For me, this is especially true of the view from a small hill near our campsite. To my right, the caldera wall rises green into the thick, wet mist called garua that shrouds the rim. With the garua ringing the caldera wall, it’s like a 400 metre tsunami and the mist is the white foam of the breaking tidal wave. A series of yellow and white hillocks and slopes surround the nearby fumaroles; a vapour rises from the volcanic ground. Finally, a perfectly flat, muddy plain lies between the base of the wall and, on the left side of my panoramic view, the lava on which we’ve camped.

Early morning_3161_1200px         Directly in front of my small hill, the muddy plain is carpeted with rich green grasses and other low vegetation. But instead of grazing cows, there are giant tortoises on this meadow. They wander through the scene like boulders slowly rolling across the landscape. There are the “babies”, no more than 10 years old, with shells about a foot in diameter. And the giants, surely over a century old, with stony carapaces surpassing a metre and a half in diameter. Galapagos tortoises live to be over 150 years old; it’s possible one of these creatures grazing in the meadow was around during Darwin’s visit.

Melville described the tortoises as “antediluvian” and wrote: “They seemed newly crawled forth from beneath the foundations of the world…The great feeling inspired by these creatures was that of age: dateless, indefinite endurance…What other bodily being possesses such a citadel wherein to resist the assaults of Time.” He then goes on to describe the “merry repast” of tortoise steaks and tortoise stew he and his shipmates enjoyed.

We don’t eat any tortoises during our stay, but we do enjoy observing a variety of tortoise behaviours. We watch as they raise their bodies and heads as high as possible, and stand motionless until a finch arrives to eat the ticks from their wrinkled hides. (Unfortunately, finches won’t do the same for us, and we have to find and pluck the ticks from our bodies for each other.) Male tortoises challenge each other by raising their heads in a face-to-face showdown, until one backs away. And as Darwin described, we saw many times as tortoise after tortoise “…gave a deep hiss, and drew in its head…” when we approached too closely.

On top of that, there’s a whole lot of tortoise sex going on around us. Tortoise foreplay begins when the male climbs up on the back of the female. He stands on his hind legs, and pushes down on his partner’s back with his front legs. Thanks to natural selection, the top of her carapace fits nicely into a concave hollow on his underside. That’s when things really begin to heat up. The male starts to thrust and with each thrust lets out a loud groan. As the two slowly rock back-and-forth, the pair sound like two boulders banging and scraping together. Small avalanches of dirt fall from their backs. It’s absolutely tectonic.

 

After two nights inside Alcedo, we break camp and head back to the rim through thick garua and rain. While the caldera wall shrank our world to 8 kilometres across, the garua has made that small existence even smaller. As we hike, we can see nothing other than the surrounding wall of thick mist and a patch of ground some thirty metres in diameter. The floor of our garua bubble changes constantly. At times, we’re on a perfectly flat, windswept mudflat; half an hour later, we’re navigating a series of sulfurous knolls. Then, we find ourselves at the top of a rise where we hike between the decomposing corpses of five giant tortoises. Is this where tortoises come to die? Perhaps, but they all seem to be in the same state of decomposition, meaning they must have died at the same time. More likely the creatures were killed by a sudden venting of poisonous gas. Time to move on.

With limited visibility, and despite a GPS unit, we struggle to maintain our bearings. Frank stumbles and drives his hand into the hot, volcanic ground. He pulls it out, cut, bleeding and burnt. At one point, it looks like we’ve reached the rim. But Eric thinks the caldera is to the right, and Frank and Ryan think it’s to the left. Finally, the mist clears momentarily, and we catch a glimpse of the caldera floor. From that point on, the route is easy to follow and we arrive at the caseta in the late afternoon.

It’s been an unusually wet February in the Galapagos. After the garua and rain of the past two days, Eric and I decide to spend the last two nights sleeping in the caseta, protected from the elements. But after one night inside, I have second thoughts when Daniel tells us he was awakened in the middle of the night by a rat, sitting on his chest. Nevertheless, with the wind howling and the rain still crashing loudly on the metal roof, I remain inside for the last night of the expedition and hope I don’t get a rat wake-up call.

 

On our final morning on Isabela, we hike down to the shore. Our packs are lighter, we’re going downhill, we’re anxious to get back, and so we make good time. As we reach the dry, gentle slope leading down to the ocean, the dampness begins to leave our bodies and gear. I think about my first meal back in town: Irish Whiskey, beer, ceviche, grilled lobster tail. Even before reaching the shore, I can see the beach where we’re to be picked up, as well as the ocean stretching all the way to Isla Santa Cruz. It’s noon, and I find it odd that our boat isn’t waiting for us, or at least on the water speeding our way.

After an hour or so at the pick-up point, it’s clear there’s a problem with our ride back. We begin to make contingency plans in case we’re stuck on Isabela for a while. There’s a tourist site across the water on Santiago. Perhaps we can signal a passing tour boat, either with my shaving mirror or with a fire (or does that only work in movies?). We have plenty of water, but our inventory of food includes only some beef jerky, two cans of sardines, two cans of smoked oysters, a container of Pringles, a can of assorted nuts, and some Fanta orange soda.

Then at around 4 o’clock, our boat – the Flipper – motors into view from the wrong direction and drops anchor. The captain and his assistant both jump in the dinghy and head toward the beach. To me, that’s a bad sign. If all we had to do was load our gear, climb aboard and go, only one of them would be coming to get us.

Once on the beach, the captain explains that they were waiting for us at the wrong pick-up spot. He also tells us they don’t have enough gas to get back to Puerto Ayora because, so they say, they’ve been going up and down the shore looking for us. But we’re assured that another boat is on it’s way with fuel and we’ll make it home after all. The plan is to depart and meet the other vessel halfway, so we load all our gear and climb aboard the Flipper. After sitting for a half hour, wondering why we’re not weighing anchor, we realize we’re not going anywhere after all—perhaps because it’s getting dark and the two boats could pass in the growing gloom. Still, the captain reassures us we’ll get home tonight.

After sunset, a boat finally arrives and we refuel. But it’s final: it’s too late and so we’re staying put. We realize that all of the captain’s reassurances were merely to placate us and disguise his incompetence. And neither can we get back to shore in the dark through the crashing surf, so we’re stuck on the boat for the night – ninety kilometres from Puerto Ayora and fifty metres from shore. There is just enough room for the seven of us on the benches and floor of the Flipper. Before lying down to sleep, the captain promises with a smile that we will leave at 4:30 sharp the next morning. If the mariners’ superstition is true that evil sea captains are turned into tortoises, the Flipper’s captain will soon be wallowing in a muddy pond somewhere in the caldera.

 

As I lie awake on the boat, I remember Melville’s caution that “…nigh a month has been spent by a ship going from one isle to another, though but ninety miles between.” Then again, he also wrote of the islands that “…to them change never comes”, and he couldn’t have been more wrong.

In Frank’s words, “I haven’t seen anything change in my life time like I’ve seen Galapagos change.” And according to Graham Watkins, the Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation, the manner in which that change continues will involve many different forces. A Guyanese-born British citizen with a Welsh background who used to guide tourists throughout the islands, Watkins is quick to credit Alfred Russell Wallace, the Welshman who developed a theory of evolution independent of Darwin and whose picture hangs on his office wall.

“In the past,” Watkins explained to me during my visit in 2006, “fishing created opportunity in the Galapagos, which resulted in increased immigration to the islands. Politicians then responded to this population growth by delivering services, which drove the population up even more, and so on. In the meantime, the increased population led to an increase in invasive species, pollution, and demand on resources.”

Tourism, he continued, has become the new engine of this cycle, creating opportunity in the islands, leading to more residents, more pollution, and more demand on resources.

That’s why, according to Watkins, the key to preserving the islands is in slowing economic development by slowing tourism. Watkins is clear: the preservation of the islands lies in setting limits on both tourism and population.

At the same time, saving the Galapagos Islands is not like eradicating goats or saving a Scalesia tree by putting a fence around it to keep out the goats and pigs. The islands are an ecosystem comprised of more than just living organisms and natural habitats; the ecosystem also includes people, economies, social systems, culture and the dynamics surrounding them all.

In other words, you wouldn’t ban fishing even if you could, because it is a viable livelihood for residents. You wouldn’t eliminate tourism, because tourism is a key component of Ecuador’s economy—the country’s fourth largest source of income after oil, bananas and fishing—and a key weapon in reducing poverty. This model for the future of Galapagos understands that everything is dependent on and affects everything else. It’s an idea that Darwin the naturalist would readily recognize. As such, Watkins says, the long-term preservation of the archipelago is a complex problem requiring a holistic, collaborative approach.

But, from what I’ve seen, a holistic, collaborative approach will be incredibly hard to come by, if it’s possible at all. So many I’ve talked to over the years agree that the greatest impediments to such a solution are endemic corruption and culture.

Transparency International is a worldwide organization with the aim of fighting corruption in government. Their annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) ranks the nations of the world “…in terms of perceived levels of corruption, as determined by expert assessments and opinion surveys”. Countries are rated on a scale of 0 – 10, with the most lawful countries regularly scoring close to 10. There may be no place on Earth like the Galapagos Islands, but in 2007 there were 11 countries just like Ecuador, tied for 150th place with a CPI of 2.1. In previous years, the country’s ranking was just as abysmal, with CPIs of barely over two. If Ecuador’s CPI was an NHL goals-against average, the country would have a shelf full of Vezina trophies.

The analysis of global consultants Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu is consistent with Transparency International’s assessment. In a July 2005 report entitled The Effects of Corruption, Deloitte described Ecuador as a country in which “corruption is now accepted as part and parcel of life and has resulted in the country being categorized as one of the most corrupt in the world”.

The Deloitte report goes on: “Ecuadorians cannot remain indifferent, thinking only of themselves or their political party…Each and every Ecuadorian needs to contribute to the best of his or her capabilities, acting with responsibility and working for the good of the country and not merely at a personal level.” Even Pope Benedict XVI agreed, saying in August 2005 that “the war against corruption in all it forms” should be a priority for Ecuador.

 

On a local level, this sorry state of affairs is reflected in the stories known to everyone familiar with Galapagos. Allegedly, military, local police and various officials don’t enforce laws in Galapagos because of their own commercial interests, or because of their family ties to fishermen, or because they can be bought. In early 2007, Galapagos National Park Director, Raquel Molina, was physically assaulted and ended up in hospital because of her attempts to stop an illegal kayaking tourist operation. She was attacked by Ecuadorian military personnel.

Along with corruption, attempts to preserve the islands must recognize culture. An individual’s short term needs often take precedence over the long term needs of the whole, understandable in the context of hand-to-mouth poverty. As well, a disregard for the rule of law seems to be more acceptable here. Days before leaving home for Ecuador, I read news reports describing the slaughter of some fifty sea lions on a remote northerly Galapagos island named Pinta. It was Frank, Novalino and Ryan who’d made the grisly discovery, on the field trip just prior to ours. Frank had seen reports that local fishermen recently requested that the National Park reduce the sea lion population. No such cull was carried out, and he suspects fishermen simply went ahead and “culled” the sea lions themselves.

If fishermen are responsible for the killings, it wouldn’t be the first time they took matters into their own hands. In 2004, in response to quotas, fishermen stormed the Darwin Station and threatened to kill Lonesome George, famously the one remaining Pinta Island tortoise.

Still, there have been positive signs. Ecuadorian President Correa recently declared that the Galapagos Islands were at risk and were a national priority for action. But only the future will determine if his promises are sincere, or merely designed to placate the world. I wonder if the president will end up as a tortoise, wallowing beside the Flipper’s captain.

 

Unable to sleep on the boat, I half dream, half imagine arriving in Puerto Ayora at long last. There to greet me at the dock is the Queen of Santa Cruz. She is beautiful, and doesn’t mind that I smell of gasoline, sweat and mosquito repellent. She takes me by the hand and we ride on the backs of sea turtles across the busy port to Angermeyer’s Point, the best restaurant in town. The night air is chilly but she doesn’t seem to mind the cold, even though she’s only wearing the smallest of bikinis, a sparkling tiara, and her brand new Queen of Santa Cruz sash. Over a dinner of grilled lobster tails, she tells me how important it is to her to preserve the islands as Darwin found them. There is no place on the planet, she says, like Galapagos.

Then it starts to rain and I’m back on board the Flipper. I don’t bother moving under cover because the drizzle can’t possibly make me feel any more uncomfortable than I already am. Eric must have been looking at his watch since the wee hours of the morning, because at the crack of 4:30am, he announces loudly, “Quatro y media! Quatro y media! Vamanos!”

A day late, we head out under a brightening Pacific sky. After fourteen hours on the Flipper, we arrive in port, but the Queen of Santa Cruz is nowhere to be seen.

Sunset_2659_1200px

February 2010

Advertisements

Filed under: darwin, evolution, Galapagos, Long-form non-fiction, nature

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: