Last month I was lucky enough to spend a week in the Galapagos Islands while leading a walking group in Ecuador. In fact we didn’t do much walking on Galapagos itself, but spent most of the time on board ship, landing on dinghies at different islands to look at the wildlife.
It was simply one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been to. Herman Melville once described Galapagos as the closest thing on earth to hell, and other visitors during the nineteenth century were similarly unflattering about the islands and the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit them.
Today most visitors see the islands very differently. Thanks largely to Charles Darwin, these islands have now come to occupy a unique place in the world’s imagination as a ‘living musem and showcase of evolution’, as UNESCO calls it.
While I was there I wrote a short piece about conservation on the islands for the New York Times International Supplement, which interested readers can find here. I’ve also put together some photographs that I took to give you an idea of why Galapagos is a such a special place.
From the moment you land at the former US military base on Baltra Island, you have the feeling that you are stepping through a portal into another dimension. Even the toilets remind visitors of the ongoing conservation efforts of the Ecuadoran government to balance tourism and human settlement with conservation:
It isn’t long before you realize what all this is intended to protect. As barren and desolate as some of the islands appear at first sight, they are teeming with incredible, weird and beautiful creatures on land, in the air and underwater, from sea lions:
To frigate birds:
Or the splendid iguanas that Darwin once unkindly called ‘ imps of darkness’:
I mean, there are lots of iguanas, and sometimes you can be in places in Galapagos where you feel transported back to some far off period in the earth’s unwritten history, long before human beings ever got here:
And then there are the giant tortoises, which have taken slow living to an entirely new level:
Melville has a wonderful passage about Galapagos tortoises in The Enchanted Isles, where he describes them as ‘mystic creatures, suddenly translated by night from unutterable solitudes to our peopled deck, [which] affected me in a manner not easy to unfold. They seemed newly crawled forth from beneath the foundations of the world. Yea, they seemed the identical tortoises whereon the Hindu plants this total sphere… Such worshipful venerableness of aspect!’
One time I came across that ‘venerableness of aspect’ while snorkeling. I was admiring the amazing array of fish, some of them ghostly and seemingly transparent, others decked out in the most brilliant and vibrant colours, when suddenly a giant turtle appeared just below me, gnawing away at the weed on the rocks, followed shortly by another. For a few unforgettable minutes I swam with them.
On another occasion I saw snorkeling when a fairly large shark came zipping back and forth through the water just in front of me.
Normally I don’t really like to spend too much time with sharks, but the ones in Galapagos are harmless, and in any case there is something so disarming about the wildlife in the islands that you don’t expect to be attacked by anything. Nor, it seems, do the animals themselves. There aren’t many places in the world where you can find sealions in deckchairs:
Of course the Galapagos aren’t only inhabited by animals. 170,000 tourists visit the archipelago every year, and the numbers are rising. Some 27,000 Ecuadorans live on the islands, attracted by salaries that are three times higher than those on the mainland. Human settlement brings with it the risk of commercialisation, urban growth, and invasive species, from rats, cats, and goats to blackberries, all of which have threatened the wildlife and eco-system of Galapagos in various ways.
At the Charles Darwin Research Centre on the island of Santa Cruz, you can still see the compound where scientists tried unsuccessfully to breed ‘Lonesome George’, the last tortoise on Pinta Island, which died in 2012 aged more than a 100 years old:
The Pinta tortoises were wiped out because fishermen brought three goats to Pinta in 1959, which multiplied to the point when they ate all the foliage on the island so that there wasn’t enough for the tortoises to feed on. Scientists believed that they had become extinct, until Lonesome George was found in the early 70s. Today this conservationist icon has become a commercial opportunity even in his absence, in the town of Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz island:
Despite this kind of nonsense, and despite the risks from the rising numbers of visitors, tourism actually helps fund the conservation effort. Galapagos is one of the main tourist attractions in a country whose economy vitally depends on tourism. The challenge for Ecuador – and the world – is how to balance conservation with sustainable tourism in such a way that both become possible.
It’s a difficult but essential task, and it needs all the help it can get. Anyone interested in this amazing place ought to check out the Galapagos Conservation Trust.
But one thing is certain, this amazing place must be preserved. Because this is the place that told us where we came from, and if we can’t protect it, then it might just tell us where our world is going.