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A delicate balance on the Galapagos Islands


When Charles Darwin stepped ashore for the first time in 1835 during a five year voyage of zoological and anthropological discovery aboard H.M.S. Beagle, he wrote:

“In the morning we landed on Chatham Island, which, like the others, rises with a tame and rounded outline, broken here and there by scattered hillocks, the remains of former craters. Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black basaltic lava, thrown into the most rugged waves, and crossed by great fissures, is everywhere covered by stunted, sun-burnt brushwood, which shows little signs of life.”

Marine iguanas

When we stepped on to the quayside at Puerto Moreno, St.Christobal (Chatham Island) the scene was rather more inviting. The sun was setting over a harbour of small boats. Sea lions lolled lazily on their decks. Screeching sea birds plunged acrobatically into the sea and local school children jumped shrieking from the harbour wall for the entertainment of new arrivals. We passengers had been bundled into orange life jackets and shepherded into swaying, rubber zodiacs for the speedy, spray covered sprint from the companion ladder of M.V. Santa Cruz.

Our objective was to see as much of the unique wildlife and landscape of the Galapagos as Darwin had stumbled upon. From studying mockingbirds, tortoises and finches he later came to the revolutionary conclusion that they had evolved to suit conditions on the different islands they inhabited.

“One might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.”

Darwin’s studies were to be published in three great works, ‘On the Origin of the Species’(1859), ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’(1839) and ‘The Descent of Man’(1871), earning him a fellowship of the Royal Society, fame and controversy.

Flightless cormorants

We knew that Galapagos wildlife would be fearless but it was still a surprise to trip over George, and a number of his giant tortoise friends, sleeping on the paths or heaving themselves through the undergrowth in search of greenery and moisture. Darwin recorded the crew of a Royal Navy frigate as having embarked one hundred tortoises a day from the beaches so it is a surprise that any are left at all! Eleven species of giant tortoise evolved on different islands. Three are extinct. St.Christobal used to have 100,000 of them. Now there are less than 2,000. George still plods on, one of the lucky one to survive the whalers, sailors and pirates who used these isolated islands to replenish their galleys. Fortunately M.V. Santa Cruz was well provisioned with Christmas fare so we didn’t need to sample the Beagle’s menu. Darwin described it thus:

“While staying in this upper region (James Island), we lived entirely upon tortoise meat: the breast-plate roasted (as the Gauchos do – cane con cuero – with flesh on it), is very good; and the young tortoises make excellent soup; but otherwise the meat to my taste is indifferent.”

An account of Galapagos tortoises and iguanas was first reported by Fray Tomas de Berlango (1535), Bishop of Panama, in a letter to the Emperor Charles V.

 “On Wednesday, the tenth of March we sighted an island; and, as onboard there was enough water for only two more days, they agreed to lower the lifeboat and go on land for water and grass for the horses. And once out, they found nothing but seals, and turtles and such big tortoises that each could carry a man on top of himself, and many iguanas that are like serpents.”

We found seal lions and birds in profusion too when we landed at Puerto Suarez on Espanola (Hood Island). Bull sea lions slid sinuously through the water shepherding their harems and intimidating rivals with honking barks. Marine iguanas crawled over the black, basalt boulders hissing and sending orange crabs scuttling. Bobbing heads and twisting tails offshore indicated iguanas returning to land after feeding on underwater algae. We followed a lava path up to a guano covered cliff top overlooking a dramatic, angled stack. Waved albatross nests lay everywhere. A blow hole in the ledge below the cliff erupted with fountains of sea water. Stark, black cliffs reared over the boiling ocean below. Juvenile boobies lurched about testing downy, stubby wings. Squadrons of adults dive bombed the shallows. Frigate birds wheeled on the thermals. Mockingbirds hopped hopefully closer to sitting birds and tourist knapsacks. Permeating everything was the pungent smell of fish and a feeling of standing on the edge a stark and primitive world.

Heron

As inquisitive as we are, even to the extent of poking through tortoise droppings in search of germinating poison apple seeds, we drew the line at Darwin’s passion for dissection.

 “I opened the stomachs of several (marine iguanas), and found them largely distended with minced seaweed (ulvae), which grows in thin foliaceous expansions of a bright green or a dull red colour. I do not recollect having observed this seaweed in any quantity on the tidal rocks; and I have reason to believe it grows at the bottom of the sea, at some little distance from the coast. If such be the case, the object of these animals occasionally going out to sea is explained.”

Marine iguanas crawling over the rocks are amongst the iconic images of the Galapagos and we had still to see them in the numbers reported by Darwin. On our final morning we rose early and went on deck to find M.V. Santa Cruz ploughing a white furrow down the Bolivar Channel between Isabela (Albemarle Island) and Fernandina (Narborough Island). Dolphins were surfing through the water at the bows. The sea and the sky were an incredible blue. We could hardly see where one began and the other ended. Our first destination was Urbina Bay on Isabela. A visitor in 1825 recorded his first impression of this youngest and most westerly island of the group.

“As we shot into the cove we disturbed such a number of aquatic birds and other animals, that we were nearly deafened with their wild and piercing cries. The place is like a new creation: the birds and beasts do not get out of our way; the pelicans and sea-lions look in our faces as if we had no right to intrude on their solitude; the small birds are so tame that they hop upon our feet; and all this amidst volcanoes which are burning around us on either hand. Altogether it is as wild and desolate a scene as imagination can picture.”

On Isabela we saw turtle nests, depressions in the black, volcanic sand holding up to 200 eggs. We spotted male, sandy coloured, land iguanas eating fruit and cactus flowers. They are sensitive to the colours red and yellow and sport a convenient, supplementary penis. 60,000 feral goats roam the island. Some of them have adapted to drinking sea water and walking on hot lava, providing further proof of Darwin’s theories by adapting to compete and survive.

Neighbouring Fernandina is barely 600,000 years old, the latest outpouring from a geological hot spot below the ocean. Unhappily it was not a period of intense volcanic activity. Eagle rays flapped lazily around the cove where we landed. At last we encountered the greatest density of marine iguanas to be found on the Galapagos. We marvelled at the flightless cormorants, a hawk perched in the mangroves, bleached whale bones, a forest of cactus, solidified lava rivers, Galapagos penguins and a yellow crested night heron stalking through a salty pool at sunset.

Maintaining a delicate balance between preserving this unique environment and utilising hard currency earnings for conservation is a real dilemma for the government of Ecuador. How much more contact with the outside world can the Galapagos absorb before it is damaged beyond repair? The Galapagos is a distant and expensive destination, 600 miles out in the Pacific along the Equator, but it is no longer almost inaccessible. Lonely Planet, a practical and entertaining guide to the more isolated corners of our world, describes the popular entry port of Puerto Moreno slightly condescendingly as:

“…mostly the haunt of rich tourists getting off luxury cruises – it’s a grandmother’s Galapagos.”

Nevertheless, cruise ships are the most convenient and most comfortable way of seeing the islands and their distinct wildlife. Passengers are accompanied by naturalists when they visit sensitive sights. Briefings are given and explanatory information is available on board. Every effort is made to ensure that only footprints are left behind. On board, our crew were very helpful, the cabins comfortable and the captain even handed over command on the bridge to entertain us on his guitar during Happy Hour. As we left Baltra a sea lion was stretched full length on a quayside bench lazily waving a flipper! Did he just want to be left alone or what would he make of the next incoming party of tourists?

Getting there: Air France (http://www.airfrance.com/) flies from Heathrow to Quito. Tame (http://www.tame.com.ec/) flies from Quito to the Galapagos. A twin standard cabin on M.V. Santa Cruz (http://www.mvsantacruz.com/) costs $1,772 for 4 nights. Be prepared for peak season surcharges in December and April and a National Park Tax of $100.

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