The Galapagos: Evolution's Lab While It Lasts

Sailing the Galapagos

A traveler's rule of thumb: Visit the most fragile places first. The Galapagos Islands, which straddle the equator some 600 miles off the Pacific coast of South America, are a case in point. The remoteness that has made this volcanic archipelago a vibrant laboratory of evolutionary development no longer can shield it from the shocks of the outside world. Such pressures threaten to engender more change in the next decade than would have occurred by natural processes in a million years. But more about that later.

The Galapagos have long been hailed as one of the weirdest and most marvelous places in the world. Cracked and jagged lava presents a landscape that seems more lunar than earthly. The chilly Humboldt Current, which sweeps up from Antarctica, creates a paradoxical climate. On the equator, you need a wet suit for swimming, and in the so-called wet season, it hardly ever rains. In the dry season, a cool mist called garua makes the air feel more English than tropical.

Strangest and most fabled of all are the Galapagos' fauna and flora. Probably best known are the giant land tortoises, which may weigh up to 600 pounds and live a century and a half. It is from these creatures that the island chain gets its name, although galapago, in Spanish, means not tortoise (tortuga) but saddle, a reference to the shape of their shells.

Marine iguanas--the world's only seagoing lizards--swim the shallows, nibbling algae off of rocks. Galapagos penguins, some 5,000 miles from the iceberg-dotted haunts of their Patagonian cousins, cruise equatorial reefs for fish, while flightless cormorants, using their vestigial wings like fins, dive along the rocky coasts. Huge colonies of blue-footed boobies lay their eggs on the bare ground, their territories delineated by neat rings of guano.

CRITTER-WATCHING. All these creatures are fascinating, yet in terms of scientific import the place of honor must go to the islands' 13 species of finch--known as Darwin's finches and surely the most studied avians anywhere. It was the small but crucial differences among these birds that more than anything else led Charles Darwin--who visited aboard the Beagle in 1835--to formulate his theory of evolution by natural selection.

As the Galapagos inspired Darwin, so they continue to enchant amateur nature buffs today--especially those for whom the joy of critter-watching is combined with a love of being aboard a boat. The archipelago sprawls across some of the most pristine and gorgeous waters in the world. The deeps between islands--almost two miles at their most profound--are classic indigo Pacific, with generally lightish equatorial breezes and long, round, mesmerizing swells. Emerald and turquoise bays give onto beaches whose colors vary widely with the local minerals: white, black, pink, orange, and even olive-green sands are found.

The islands are 25 to 40 miles apart, making for typical sails of three to five hours. On our boat--the swift and cushily appointed 93-foot trimaran, Lammer Law--this allowed time for meals, sunning, reading, and plenty of napping to stay fresh for the next island trek or round of snorkeling. (An 11-day itinerary, featuring 7 days aboard the 18-passenger Lammer Law and hotel and sightseeing in Quito, Ecuador, can be booked through Abercrombie & Kent for $3,295 a person, excluding airfare. U.S. travel agents can reserve less posh boats for about $1,200 a week; in Quito, you can secure passage for roughly $100 a day.)

The snorkeling was extraordinary--less for its so-so coral and rather ho-hum fishes than for the unique chance to swim among the sea lions. Galapagos sea lions, like virtually all the islands' creatures, are fearless. They simply have never learned to be afraid of people, because people have not been around enough to scare or hurt them.

VERY YOUNG. Equipped with mask and snorkel, you can dive with these beautiful mammals as they feed, veering and darting, on schools of thread herring and mullet. Or you can sit on the beach and watch them body surf, riding the waves with only their whiskered faces above the foam.

The Galapagos, in geologic terms, are very young islands, the first outcrops having appeared less than 10 million years ago. Like all volcanic islands, they began as lifeless, steaming hulks and were colonized with exquisite gradualness thanks to a series of accidents so unlikely that some would call them miracles: a plant seed, awash in salt water for months or years, landed on shore and sprouted in a crumble of lava; a mainland bird, blown 600 miles oceanward in a storm, found another of its kind, and managed to mate and survive. In between these rare invasions, species had plenty of time to adjust, adapt, and settle into their surroundings, so that the Galapagos boast the highest proportion of endemic species in the world.

But the earth has gotten smaller, and the Galapagos are facing encroaching threats. Surprisingly, tourism seems to be the least insidious of the problems. While the number of visitors to the Galapagos has risen steeply in recent years, the annual figure is still a very modest 55,000 (although a planned airport on one of the larger islands that would allow direct flights from North America could someday make that number look quaint). So far, Galapagos tourists tend to be very protective of the environment. Moreover, the Ecuadoran National Park Service places strict rules on where visitors can and cannot go and requires that all groups be accompanied by a guide. Ours, biologist Scott Henderson, argued that "tourism, if carried on with an awareness of the big picture, can be the best thing for the islands, because it will out-compete other economic activities that are far more destructive."

Most dangerous among those other activities is commercial fishing. In recent years, Asian fish brokers have appeared in the Galapagos in search of certain delicacies--mainly sea cucumbers and shark fins--whose stocks have been decimated in the western Pacific. The result has been an economic boom for a relatively small cadre of Galapagos fishermen--and an impending calamity for the islands. Sea cucumbers, humble bottom-dwellers though they are, are an important element in the marine food web, and the enormous shark-fishing nets also entrap and kill dolphins, green turtles, and sea lions.

When Ecuadoran authorities tried to limit these fisheries, the response was an uprising that propelled the Galapagos off the travel or science pages and into the dubious spotlight of world events. Last September, local fishermen seized the airport, occupied the Charles Darwin Research Center, and threatened to kill the giant tortoises.

The event suggests just how difficult it will be to reconcile various interests. Any Ecuadoran is free to settle in the Galapagos (although only 3% of the land area is outside the National Park and open for settlement); average incomes from fishing are more than double those on the mainland. Environmentalists complain that new Ecuadoran arrivals are cashing in on and destroying resources. Locals tell foreign do-gooders to go back to their own rich, polluted countries and let them earn a living.

POLITICAL CURRENTS. Nearly a dozen international organizations, including the U.N., the Nature Conservancy, and the Inter-American Development Bank of the European Community, are funding Galapagos conservation efforts. Yet there's no denying that the archipelago's fate will have mainly to do with political and economic currents within Ecuador itself.

What's the prognosis? It is clear that even if the degradation of the Galapagos can be stopped, these remote, untamed islands will never be more splendid than they are right now. So hedge your bets. Go soon.

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