The Galàpagos Islands
For a modern reader, the most surprising thing about the Galàpagos Islands chapter in Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle is probably its brevity. Darwin describes the apparently recent volcanic origin of the place, runs through a quick list of its notable species, includes a figure of some finches’ beaks, and then departs for Tahiti. His entire visit to the islands lasted only five weeks, during a voyage of nearly five years.
Contrary to folklore, Darwin’s findings in the Galàpagos were neither the cornerstone nor the primary inspiration for his theory of evolution. The seminal Origin of Species spills more ink on fossils than finches, and Darwin’s reading of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology was Origin‘s unmistakable origin.
How, then, did the Galàpagos become virtually synonymous with natural selection, and why do so many biology enthusiasts yearn to replicate Darwin’s trip there? Well, we could follow in Darwin’s footsteps by taking up pigeon fancying, or by procrastinating for decades before writing up our most important work, but a vacation to some tropical islands for a photo with a giant tortoise is a lot more appealing. And while evidence of evolution is easy to find anywhere there’s life – that’s the whole point – Darwin’s Galàpagos finches illustrate it in a way anyone can grasp instantly. The Galàpagos became a Darwinian icon because they are inherently iconic.
They weren’t always easy to visit, though. Before World War II, the only way to reach the Galàpagos was by ship, and tourism there was nonexistent. The US Army changed that by building an airstrip on one of the flattest islands, now called Baltra, as a base for bombers defending the Pacific approaches to the Panama Canal. After the war, ownership of the airfield passed to the government of Ecuador.
There was still little or no infrastructure on most of the islands, but by the late 20th century cruise companies had realized they could station self-sufficient ships there and fly passengers and crews in and out. Ordinary people could finally visit the Galàpagos without taking months off work, at least wealthy ordinary people. The high cost kept the crowds small, and made it the kind of aspirational trip that granted instant bragging rights back home.
Locals catching some sun on the deck.
The arrival of tourism led to more efforts to conserve the unique and fragile ecosystem people were now paying a lot of money to see. Unfortunately, the high cost of cruise-based tours put them well out of reach of most Ecuadoreans. Cruises sent their profits to companies on the mainland or overseas, and the Galàpagos became an exclusive playground for rich foreigners. In a country where images of Che Guevara are still stenciled everywhere, this neo-colonial approach inevitably got ugly.
A second wave of development began around the 1990s, as entrepreneurs started expanding the tourist infrastructure on shore. Hotels and restaurants appeared on a few islands, multiplied, and adapted to occupy different niches. It’s now possible to visit the Galàpagos and see all of the famous species and sites without setting foot on a ship. While some have decried this trend as the “Disneyfication” of the islands, I see it differently. Yes, there are now rows of shops with “I Love Boobies” t-shirts hanging in the windows, but there’s also something much more important for the Galàpagos’ future: Ecuadorean tourists.
About a third of the passengers on our inbound flight went to the “domestic arrivals” line in the airport terminal, and at the open-air cafeteria where we ate dinner a couple of times, hardly anyone spoke English. Hotels and hostels that clearly cater to Ecuadoreans line the streets of Puerto Ayora. That can’t be a bad thing. People who feel that a place belongs to them are people who will fight to preserve it. Before complaining that the islands have been “cheapened,” relatively wealthy foreigners should remind ourselves that we’re foreigners, and then keep our mouths shut.
For my family, the choice between land and waterborne tours was easy. Galàpagos cruises involve small ships on rough water, and my wife is prone to both claustrophobia and seasickness. However, anyone researching a trip to the Galàpagos will quickly find large quantities of literature and numerous online discussions claiming that land-based touring is the poor cousin of a “real” Galàpagos trip. According to this argument, the only way to appreciate the spectacular biodiversity of these islands is to take a cruise, preferably a long one. Cruise marketers can pat themselves on the back for that; they’ve successfully promoted a fundamental misunderstanding of the islands’ biology.
What’s unusual about the Galàpagos is not their spectacular biodiversity, but their spectacular lack of it. Different islands don’t have strikingly different species, just minor variations on the same small set. With only a few exceptions, those animals that are present are astonishingly uninteresting-looking. Here’s a group of islands located at the equator, covered in rich volcanic soil and with numerous freshwater springs. They should be full of colorful life. Instead, we find a handful of reptiles, some land birds so dull they make the sparrows at my backyard feeder look like peacocks, and a few widespread tropical species that obviously flew or swam in from elsewhere. Everywhere you look on the islands, you see half-assed biology. That’s what makes the Galàpagos such a tidy illustration of natural selection and evolution; if there was an intelligent creator, he was a complete idiot here.
If you’ve read Darwin, you also know that it’s not hard to see most of these species. The endemic wildlife is globally rare, but extremely common and mostly tame here. Checking into our hotel, we immediately saw a pile of marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) lounging on the waterfront deck, in between the Galàpagos sea lions (Zalophus wollebaeki). There was a gate on our ground-floor terrace to keep the larger wildlife from invading our room.
A pile of marine iguanas.
Iconic species and scenes immediately became part of our everyday lives. One afternoon I shot a photo of a lava heron (Butorides sundevalli) in my socks (1), Darwin’s finches begged for handouts at outdoor restaurant tables while magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) soared overhead, and Galàpagos geckos (Phyllodactylus galapagoensis) infested our shower. The Charles Darwin Research Station was a convenient place for a morning jog or afternoon stroll, past pens of giant tortoises (Geochelone nigra) and land iguanas (Conolophus subcristatus). One of the stranger aspects of the Darwin station is that it’s hard to tell the exhibits from the surrounding land; is this Scalesia tree on display, or did it just grow here?
We also took tours, of course. As part of the all-inclusive package we’d booked, the hotel generated a daily agenda of trips for us, each including a taxi driver and a licensed Galàpagos guide. It’s illegal to go anywhere outside the towns and roadways without a guide. The tours revealed giant tortoises in the wild, blue-footed boobies nesting on cliffs, and the sinkholes and lava tubes that highlight the islands’ volcanic origins.
Galàpagos tourism owes a lot to the imagery of nature documentaries and magazines. That’s because they’re part of the same industry. Tourists pay thousands of dollars to haul a good segment of the B&H inventory up an empty beach, then film an iconic species engaging in its natural behavior in an unspoiled environment, recreating the very images that inspired them to take this trip in the first place. Those images, in turn, were framed, shot (sometimes staged), selected, and presented to entertain an audience while subtly reaffirming their cultural biases, culminating in an ad for a trip to this empty beach. It’s a voyeuristic feedback loop: a touroboros.
The problem is that the Galàpagos aren’t empty, natural, or unspoiled. These islands have been exploited, destroyed, colonized, and then partially reconstructed for the past three hundred years. Sailors hauled away and ate an estimated 200,000 giant tortoises, fishing has been a staple of the local economy for years, and introduced species have invaded the entire archipelago; at one point some of my fellow New Englanders incinerated one of the islands completely. Darwin cataloged the wildlife, including several introduced species, while dining on tortoise meat.
Humans are an intrinsic part of the archipelago, and land-based touring gave us lots of opportunities to see that. In the highlands we visited a small family farm known simply as “el Traphiche,” or “the sugar cane press.” Adrian, the owner, showed us how his donkey-powered press operated by enlisting me as the motive power. He then demonstrated his manual coffee-roasting technique, gave us a tour of a rum-distilling operation that my kinfolk would’ve recognized, and treated us to a tasting of the farm’s products. Sure, it’s a tourist trapiche, but we enjoyed it.
Most of the Galapageños we met were knowledgeable, friendly, and clearly proud of their islands. Even taxi drivers enjoyed pointing out the changes in temperature and vegetation as we moved up or down a mountain. The locals are a self-selected bunch. Wages are high in the Galàpagos, but so are costs. Air shipping is exorbitant, maritime freight has to be lightered ashore one container at a time, and real estate is scarce. One of our guides grew up on the islands, and commented that he’d never had a room of his own. It’s a harder place to live than the mainland, so people are there because they want to be.
They also seem to have a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the tension between conservation and tourism than many foreign commentators. I had a lengthy conversation with one of our guides about the inherent risks of development, and a taxi driver demonstrated a keen appreciation of the biology of invasive species. It’s a hot topic in the islands.
Stow your tray table while we fumigate the cabin.
The natural history of the Galàpagos Islands has always been about randomly-selected species managing to land there, then adapting and flourishing in the new environment without their old competitors. As a result, the islands are completely vulnerable to takeover by aggressive new arrivals, and it’s impossible to predict what will be a threat. Farmers have grown coffee, bananas, and sugar cane there for years without incident, but introduced blackberries are now running rampant across several islands. Mosquitoes have been there for centuries, but an obscure parasitic fly that arrived a few years ago now threatens to wipe out the finches.
The Galàpagos Special Regime, the arm of Ecuador’s government responsible for the archipelago, tries hard to prevent these disasters. Checking in for our flight from Quito to Santa Cruz entailed filling out a form attesting that we weren’t carrying seeds or animals, and hadn’t recently visited any farms. We then submitted our checked baggage for its third x-ray of the trip to confirm that we weren’t fibbing on the form. Shortly before our descent toward Baltra the stewardesses went through the cabin, spraying the overhead baggage bins with insecticide. On arrival we checked in at two more government desks, paid our Galàpagos Park fee, and sent our carry-on baggage through an x-ray, presumably to find any wildlife that hadn’t shown up in our checked baggage. I was almost expecting to be issued scrubs and a hair net next, but we were finally released into the custody of the hotel’s taxi driver.
It’s far too late to prevent the invasion by Homo sapiens, of course, but the Ecuadorean government does try to limit our impact. The sewage systems recycle water, so flushing toilet paper is illegal and the tap water is undrinkable. Large cruise ships, aerial tours, and Jet-Skis are all banned, and fishing regulations are extremely tight. Most of the archipelago’s land area is now part of the Galàpagos Park, circumscribing future development.
By the end of our week there, this ecototalitarianism felt both excessive and inadequate. We were in one of the nicest hotels in the Galàpagos, but the cramped room, sea lion-scented air and weird toileting arrangements made it feel like we were camping in the wilderness. Every outing showed us places that were simultaneously protected and exploited; taxis and trails led us to Scalesia trees and tortoises, accompanied by a licensed, uniformed guide whose salary depended on taking people trampling through the scenery. Tourism pays for conservation, which tries to prevent destruction by tourism. Around and around it goes.
A river of lava ran through it.
Ultimately, though, it’s all hubris. The Galàpagos aren’t what they used to be, and won’t be what they are for very long. There were ravenous sailors and vandals, now there are blackberry bushes and parasitic flies, and tomorrow there will be something else, each round slowly supplanting the endemic wildlife we treasure. Humans have accelerated the changes, but we didn’t start them. The arrival of the first iguanas was probably death to some fascinating cactus we’ll never know about.
Even if we could turn back all of the anthropogenic damage, we couldn’t save this archipelago forever. While we were in the air between Atlanta and Quito, a massive earthquake struck the coast of Ecuador. The Nazca Plate made another jump eastward, Lyell’s geology inexorably pulling Darwin’s finches on a one-way trip toward the bottom of the Andes mountains.
A few million years ago the volcano that would produce the Galàpagos Islands was completely underwater, and there was nothing here but open ocean. A few million years hence it’ll be that way again, and the geological clock will tick away another second. The environment of the islands doesn’t favor fossilization, so when the last tortoise sinks beneath the waves they’ll leave no trace.
As our flight departed from the flat lava flow of Baltra and climbed into the clouds, I suddenly wondered: how many times has this happened before? There’s been complex life on Earth for half a billion years. Islands rise from volcanoes in the sea, and whatever manages to land on them and survive adapts to its new environment. Unique endemic species radiate and thrive. An ecosystem like no other develops, flourishes, changes. Then the islands sink and it’s all gone. How many times have we had giant daisies taking over mountaintops, swimming lizards scouring seabeds, or still stranger adaptations we can’t even imagine? There’s no way to know, and no way to find them again.
Except for that one time: the time when some islands rose from the sea and had a chance to become just strange enough, just interesting enough, at just the right moment. When there just happened to be a species that landed there and could understand what was going on, and remember it. What’s special about the Galàpagos is that we saw them.
- How he got into my socks, I’ll never know.