I peeled the striped wrapping paper from the coffee-table book and opened to the inscription. “For you my darling, to bring the Galápagos a little nearer until the time we can visit.”
In a biology class in my early 20s I first read Darwin’s The Origin of Species and was rapt. I grew up in the fifties with Yellowstone National Park in my backyard: places that remained, for the most part, the province of forests and birds and wild beasts called to me. And my yearning to visit the Galápagos had never waned. Darwin had looked forward to the Galápagos with more interest than any place else on his five-year voyage around the world—so he wrote to a friend in 1835. I, too, longed to see the unique plant and animal life of the Galápagos, its peculiar environment hostile to human habitation, the wild laboratory of evolution and survival.
I closed the book and ran my hands over the picture of the craggy-faced creature on the cover. But I didn’t leaf through the book. I had held the mystery for twenty years; whenever I made the trip to the Galápagos, I wanted to be gripped by the place itself; I didn’t want my wonder appropriated by photos in a book, though that’s not what I said to my husband.
The book sat on the shelf in the living room for another twenty years. In 2012, when I was finally researching and planning my trip, I began to suspect again, as I often did, that I’d been born a century too late. The plundering of the Galápagos had begun long before Darwin’s arrival: fur seals for pelts, tortoises for food, whales for lamp oil. Darwin wrote in his journals of ‘single vessels having taken as many as seven hundred tortoises’. The islands had been at various times a hideout for pirates, a stopover for whalers, a target for Spanish colonisation, a penal colony, and home to a sugar plantation. After Darwin’s world-changing book came out, the archipelago attracted scientists from all over the planet, some to explore, others to exploit. The Galápagos provided a refuge for a miscellany of people escaping Europe before World War II and once housed a US air base. Incomers brought goats, dogs, pigs, cats, cattle, and chickens, along with exotic plant species for cultivation.
In the 21st century non-native plants outnumber natives, and 40 Galápagos species are critically endangered. The 35,000 residents who live there cater to 200,000 tourists each year. Adventurers who find the wildness of nature no longer thrill enough have the option of sport fishing, skydiving, or big league surfing.
I feared I might be on my way to a prehistoric theme park.
I landed at Baltra airport in the Galápagos on one of three daily flights from the mainland of Ecuador and joined a scrum of fishermen, newlyweds, Rastafarians, and grey nomads wearing T-shirts that boasted of adventures in the Amazon and Machu Picchu. Outside, locals hawked bags, hats, tea towels, and night-shirts on which wildlife was reduced to logo. With forty other fly-ins I jostled onto a bus that delivered us to a boat dock. There, I left most of the others behind and got in a Zodiac that ferried us to the Mary Anne—a three-masted ship with accommodation for sixteen—on which we would tour the eastern islands of the archipelago.
You can no longer point your private vessel toward the Galápagos, anchor, and disembark—at will to scrabble over hillocks and craters and ancient slabs of basalt in order to gawp at the wildlife. UNESCO has designated the entire area a protected Biosphere Reserve, and Ecuador has declared the islands a National Park, the waters a Marine Reserve. Access to the islands is highly controlled. All visitors must be accompanied by a certified National Park guide. Enforcement is another matter
We chucked our bags in our cabins and gathered on the aft deck for introductions and lunch. There, we met the captain, the crew, and our naturalist guide, Carolina, a twenty-something who was born and grew up on the Galápagos island of Santa Cruz. In her lightly-bronzed skin you saw the Ecuadorean heritage of her father and grandmother. The gold that marbled her plait came from her grandfather Fritz, one of three Angermeyer brothers who arrived on the islands in 1937, having fled Germany in a yacht during the build up to World War II (a fourth brother died along the way). They believed they were travelling to a paradise and were surprised to arrive in a harsh, arid landscape. After attempting farming, then fishing, they eventually established themselves as master boat builders. Carolina’s mother and grandmother still lived in the town of Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz. Her uncle Fiddi had been a leading pioneer of tourism in the Galápagos.
Under a blue canvas awning, we ate pasta, fresh fruit, potato, and vegetable salads and introduced ourselves: we were Australians, Italians, Brits, Germans, one Cuban, and North Americans. The Mary Anne slid through a lagoon of jade water. A female frigate bird, flying the white sail of her chest, followed us. Her red-throated partner joined her—pirates, vigilant for fish stirred up in our wake. We cruised around the mesa-topped cliffs of Baltra, an island of lava rubble pushed up from the seabed, dotted with dead-looking trees and nesting brown pelicans. Off portside, a large shoal of tuna corralled schools of small fish then took turns racing through the water and scooping as many fish as possible into their mouths. Frigate birds and sooty shearwaters hovered and dived to share the bounty.
“Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance,” Darwin wrote of his initial landing on the islands. An intent and unsentimental observer with an eye for detail, he kept the objective record of a scientist in his journals. But the peculiarity of the environment also moved him to less dispassionate comments: wretched looking weed; stunted, sunburnt brushwood; great odd looking cactus; strange Cyclopean scene; ugly yellowish-brown species; miserably sterile; hideous looking creature; singularly stupid appearance.
I anticipated a strange and curious scene; I had not expected to be spellbound. Sea lions lolled among the rocks and shallows of aquamarine waters with their young. As the waves ebbed, we could hear a dozen pups suckling, and mothers and pups calling to one another (a sound not unlike vomiting). Carolina led us up a rise to an endless expanse of basalt covered by large patches of ruby and copper foliage, and scattered with prickly pear cactus trees, up to 15 feet in height (some reach 40’). Spiny paddles the size of tennis rackets, each representing a segment of cactus growth, hung in bunches from the trunks, sprouting lemony flowers. Galápagos Land Iguanas were everywhere. Their spiny backs the color of red clay, ochre faces and legs. Black pupils watched from pale-lidded lizard eyes on either side of their heads. Thin lips cut a ‘smile’ from ear to ear. At the end of scaly feet, curved needles clicked on the rocky ground as the creatures clambered along the trail, seemingly oblivious to our presence. The yellow warbler in a tangled thicket, too, ignored us, as did the sea lion that hurled itself over the rocks and past us to reach higher ground.
I imagined Darwin’s first encounter with this great odd looking cactus and the strange Cyclopean scene: the otherworldliness of the landscape and the bewildering fearlessness of the animals. It still seemed miraculously intact. As I watched a cactus finch drinking nectar from the prickly pear flowers, I thought how astonishing it must have been when Darwin eventually understood, as he wrote in his journal, “that the different islands to a considerable extent are inhabited by a different set of beings”. And that he was witnessing “that mystery of mysteries— the first appearance of new beings on this earth.”
Each morning and afternoon Carolina, wearing the khaki shorts and shirt of a National Park guide, organised us on and off the Zodiacs to explore.
“Stand very still,” she commanded at Plaza Sur as a hungry baby sea lion nosed among us for its mother, sniffing at our calves and ankles (no one is allowed to touch the animals).
On San Cristobal, she urged us to dig our hands into the gypsum-like sand and let it sift through our fingers. “Millions of years of parrot fish poop,” she grinned.
Wearing fins and snorkels, we dove over the side of the Zodiac into a fizz of cool water. Galápagos garden eels waved in the current like thick stalks of grass. We hovered above white-tipped reef sharks resting on the bottom of the sea and swam into a fancy-dress party of technicolor fish: Cardinal, Surgeon, Rainbow Wrasse, Moorish Idol. Sea lions joined us. “They want to play,” laughed Carolina.
With her practiced eye, she directed ours to the unparalleled elegance of Española Island. A sea lion shot through the curl of a wave. Two more bobbed and frolicked, waiting their turn. Marine iguanas, hundreds of them, in their aqua and ruby courting suits, clustered on the rocks and sand and faced east, their ‘third eye’ sensing the equatorial sun. They warmed their bodies after the cool night and before their treacherous dive into the sea for breakfast algae. Phhht, Phhht, they ‘sneezed’ through an opening above their nostrils on the flat part of their lizard snouts, spraying filtered sea salt into the air. Away from the beach, in the stony scrub, the wave albatross rookery was nearly deserted. A female regurgitated fish oil into the mouth of her chick one last time before she abandoned it for the sea, and a dozen juveniles, at various stages of molting and now on their own, practiced their flying techniques. Standing in one spot, they extended and rapidly flapped their wings; some ran awkwardly on webbed feet over the rocky runway with wings outstretched; others became airborne momentarily then fell to ground. Further along, in the Nazca booby rookery above the steep cliffs, females sat on their newborn chicks to protect them from scavenging frigate birds. Unpaired males pointed their bills skyward, whistled, and waited for an interested honking reply. Meanwhile, a pair of courting blue-footed boobies danced with their clown feet and presented each other with twigs.
My senses spilled into one another: manta rays bruising the skin of the sea left a plum taste in my mouth; salt water stung my eyes as a wave curled around a sea lion; sinews of lava baked into the landscape seemed to soften and ooze under my feet; the smell of fish rose from my skin.
Carolina disappeared each time we returned to the Mary Anne. An hour before dinner, she emerged in the lounge. Gone was her casualness of the day. Using a white board, maps, and video, she showed us where we would land the following day and spoke of what we would find there, as well as the natural and human history of each island. As an aside, she touched lightly on the threats to the islands from tourism and settlement. She responded to our questions, but didn’t encourage conversation. She steered clear of the politics of the islands. When the dinner bell rang, and we shifted into the dining room carrying our gin and tonics, Carolina vanished again.
She was pleasant enough, even waggish at times, certainly knowledgeable, but her aloofness on the boat bothered me. I wasn’t sure if she was reserved or just saw us as one more assortment of tourists who came to be entertained by the wildlife as if they were monkeys in the zoo, which perhaps we were. I liked to think my travel had a loftier purpose. I liked to think I was different from the stop-and-gawks in national parks, the shutter bugs with a back pack of lens attachments, and the techno-addicts who hold up their iPads to show the friend they have Skyped in Michigan the beeee-yu-ti-ful scenery.
But I had to admit that each day when I returned to my cabin salt sticky, feeling part sea lion, part cactus finch, with aqua coursing through my veins, something stabbed at my conscience: the intent of my visit, no matter how virtuous, didn’t alter the fact of it. I was one of the throng of visitors who pour from tourist boats onto the islands, risking damage to the vegetation, the good will and health of native species, and contamination from seeds and beasties carried on our shoes and in our luggage.
Carol Ann Bassett, an American journalist who first visited the islands in 1990, moved to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in 2007 to research and write her book: Galápagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists, and Creationists Battle for Darwin’s Cradle of Evolution. Her account of the number and complexity of problems facing the islands made it hard for me to ignore the impact of my presence.
Tourism has precipitated a boom economy on the inhabited islands, attracting entrepreneurs and opportunists from mainland Ecuador. The population of the towns has doubled in the past twenty years. Most residents, Bassett claims, have lived on the islands for less than ten years and have no real connection to them as ‘unique environmental preserves’. Many have minimal contact with nature; they are there simply to respond to tourist demands for adventure, beer, burgers, beds, and the conveniences of a techno world. She describes towns with a ‘frontier mentality’ where there is an ‘inability to build social capital’.
The infrastructure required to accommodate tourists and residents strains resources and swells the demand for goods and produce from the mainland, further increasing the risk of importing invasive species that attack the native animals, decimate their food supply, compete for scarce water, devastate vegetation, destroy nests, prey on the young, and introduce disease. And one can only imagine the garbage disposal problem 200,000 peripatetic people create year after year in a throwaway world.
Then, there is the continuing plunder of wildlife resources, mainly to appease Asian appetites—sexual, as well as culinary: sea cucumbers, thought to be an aphrodisiac and, according to Bassett, worth as much money as cocaine on the international black market, are being ravaged; sea lions are killed for their penises, claimed to enhance sexual potency; and that bowl of shark fin soup popular in Chinese restaurants around the world, is made possible by the practice of shark finning, where sharks are line-caught, their fins hacked off, and the sharks dumped overboard to drown. The unintended by-catch from long-line fishing, according to Bassett, includes even more sharks, as well as turtles, seabirds, and other marine animals.
There are multiple players with competing agendas: residents—new and long term, scientists, the fishing industry, the tourism industry, international conservation and protection bodies, an unstable and often corrupt Ecuadorean government, the National Park Service, and an assortment of special interest groups. There is no agreed way forward.
I desperately wanted to have the political conversation Carolina avoided in her nightly briefings. I wondered how she felt about the growth of settlement in the place where her family was so deeply rooted. And what about the dilemma of tourism, her family industry? How could the islands achieve a balance between economic activity and conservation? What about government corruption, powerful moneyed interest groups, and the political nature of the National Park Service? Where did Carolina stand? Her Uncle Fiddi? Her mother?
The third evening, following Carolina’s presentation, I hung back while my shipmates made their way to ceviche and bread rolls. As she fiddled with the DVD player—no longer wearing her ranger beige, but a short pale blue dress and sandals, her hair unbraided and hanging down her back—I mentioned I was reading Bassett’s book, hoping to start a conversation.
“Yes, I know of her from when she was living on the island,” she said as she gathered her papers, hung the whiteboard that outlined the next day’s schedule and moved towards the stairs that led to her cabin. “I’ve never read her book,” she smiled and turned away.
It occurred to me that probing questions, whether from curious tourists or book researchers, may have felt to Carolina like an attempt to ransack the family closets: in 1937, the Angermeyer brothers could not have anticipated the eventual controversy over how the islands had been and should be managed.
Darwin recorded that his time on the Beagle had been the “most fortunate circumstance in my life”. As the Beagle sailed back towards England, Darwin knew he had witnessed a distinct botanical province even though at the time he did not fully understand the significance of what he had observed and collected.
I, too, felt the extreme privilege of my journey. By the end of the week, I had fallen in love with an archipelago—a shipboard romance. Unlike Darwin, I was not puzzling over the size and shape of the beaks of finches or the distinctive markings of the ‘mocking-thrushes’ or the fact that the islands shared no common species of insects. But I was brooding over something else Darwin had noted in his journal: “the birds of the archipelago [had not] as yet learnt that man is a more dangerous animal than the tortoise”.
The nature writer, Ellen Meloy, once noted that it is not enough to admire or even to love the beauty of this earth—these wild and remote places; we must be prepared to enter into a reciprocal relationship, wherein each of us accepts an obligation to preserve and protect them. I didn’t know how to preserve and protect the Galápagos. I had no tenure, no history with the islands. I sat outside the complex social, political, economic, and scientific interests that knit around the islands. I had no significant money, no compelling title or clout. I lived thousands of miles away. There were language barriers.
This idea of a reciprocal relationship with the natural world has nagged at me for years. I have fantasized about inventing a stun gun to use on those who exploit wild places for their resources or turn them into playgrounds. At times I have wanted to become militant: cut fishing lines, cut off penises, thump chests, join Sea Shepherd and fire rancid butter bombs, but confrontational activism isn’t my style.
Instead, my sword arm reaches for the pen. Sometimes I join the anguished chorus of doom and gloom. I whisk facts and figures into a broth of despair. But the news has been dire for so long it seems many of us are walking around with our eyes closed, our fingers stuck in our ears, loudly singing “lalalalala” to make it go away. I try to offer words that bypass the cacophony, words that press upon the senses like a summer’s day on Española Island and spill the reader from the human pedestal into a spectacle of wonder, land her on waves of ancient lava to marvel at the significance of a land iguana and a sea lion asleep side by side in the shade of a giant cactus, unafraid. Still, I feel like David without a stone in his sling, facing the Goliath of forces working against nature. Sometimes a selfish resignation seizes me: I decide it is too late and I just want to experience the remaining magnificence of this earth before its inexorable demise. I start thinking about a raft trip down the dying Colorado River and forget all about my obligation to have a reciprocal relationship.
A few years ago, as a friend and I lamented the declining number of salmon that return to their breeding grounds in our native Idaho, I asked her what kept her from succumbing to despair. “Gaia,” she said. “I have to believe the earth is a self-organising system and that it will find a new balance despite all the damage human beings are doing.”
Perhaps the dynamic nature of the Galápagos Islands is some consolation: the western region of the islands remains seismically and volcanically active—in the past 200 years there have been more than 50 volcanic eruptions, continuously forming new islands. Applying Darwin’s theory of evolution, it is likely that gradual transformations, which will allow the species of the islands to adapt to the presence of humans and other invasive species as well as the changed environmental conditions, are invisibly accumulating and being preserved. Hooray! Gaia! But let’s face it: this is pretty damn slow when you consider that in one three-month period, according to Bassett, an estimated seven million sea cucumbers were harvested. The annual legal limit is 550,000.
Carolina’s ancestors chose the Galápagos as their home and made themselves a part of the islands. Today, it is the place their descendants belong like the myriad non-native but endemic finches that have adapted to the unique environments of the islands and whose offspring know no other home. With this deepest of connections to the islands, I would expect Carolina’s family and the others who identify the islands as ‘their place’ to assume primary responsibility for preserving and protecting the Galápagos for the benefit of the wildlife and for all humanity. They, in collaboration with scientists, conservationists, and international bodies like UNESCO must be the ones we can trust to shape a long-term strategy that balances preservation and sustainable development. And, positive things are happening: eradication of invasive species, wind farms to meet the demand for electricity, waste recycling, patrolling of the seas by Sea Shepherd, and monitoring of sensitive marine species, to name a few.
But what about someone like me, a migrant and a traveller who cares deeply about many places. What is my responsibility? As a visitor, I honor my experience through my words. I also try to satisfy a reciprocal relationship by committing to ethical travel in the places where I have no claim to belonging: paying carbon fuel tax to the airlines; sending left-over foreign currency to research foundations and wildlife sanctuaries; refusing to participate in activities that treat nature as the backdrop for amusement; choosing tour guides carefully to ensure they embrace a philosophy and practices that preserve, protect and educate; buying nothing made of native woods, coral, or animals; scrubbing bits of leaf, feather, seed, and soil off the bottom of my boots; and supporting organisations such as The Nature Conservancy and Wildaid.
Is that enough?
The truest form of protection and preservation of these far-flung, fragile, and magical places would be to stay home, never go, take satisfaction in simply knowing they are there and appreciate them through stories and art. Let David Attenborough do the travel. Yet, I feel fundamentally altered by my actual experience of such places: it is as if, like the marine iguana, I have a ‘third eye’ that senses my coherence as a being. Don’t get me wrong, I marvel at having the mating habits of stick bugs and the courtship rituals of the birds of Papua New Guinea delivered into my living room through the lens of a camera, but I have my doubts that the vicarious experience evokes what, to me, is vital: an encounter with our own animal essence. For me, it is ingesting the smells, the sounds, the feel, the visual feast of a place—soaking my senses—that takes me to a mental space of deep connectedness. “It becomes an endless process,” Jane Hollister Wheelwright has written. “[Y]ou and nature have become one and you borrow its infinitude. You then have to go back again and again, because each time you outgrow, in some way, the self you were before.”
Before the publication of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, humans placed themselves confidently outside the biospheric web; they stood at the center of existence, separate from the rest of nature, which was there for their use and exploitation. But, as Julian Huxley wrote in his introduction to my 1958 Mentor Edition of The Origin of Species, Darwin made it clear that human is merely one more species upon which biological and environmental forces are continuously operating. And, while humans have evolved into the latest dominant group, following the principle of evolutionary succession, we will likely, in time, be usurped by a “new and biologically improved type”. For now, concludes Huxley, “man’ holds a unique position”: “In his person the evolutionary process has become conscious of itself, and he alone is capable of leading it on to realizations of possibility.”
We can only hope that the gradual transformations invisibly accumulating in a ‘new and biologically improved type’ select in favor of a highly evolved ecological conscience.
In the meantime, I struggle with this ‘unique position’, this power to influence, to shape, to realise, and what it requires of me. I put my words into the world, at best, to stimulate a curiosity about our relationship with the natural world, to bear witness, to say, ‘this is at stake’, to invite the reader to step in from the outside, because I believe unreservedly that without a sense of connectedness at some level, it is unlikely any of us is going to be moved to preserve and protect, let alone realize possibilities. But not for a minute do I believe words alone are going to make anyone fall in love with the natural world. One is more likely to fall in love with the words because they evoke a memory of one’s own participation in the world.
I’m reminded of a nature writers’ gathering I attended years ago in a small town on the east coast of Australia. The sessions were held in a century-old community hall that had a corrugated metal roof. Early, during the readings, the sky darkened and needles of rain pinged the roof. The convenors turned on the lights and turned up the microphone. The rain began to pound. Readers stepped closer to the microphone. Rain turned to hail. It beat a percussive jam session on the roof. Nature was speaking and we were trying to talk over it. Finally, it overwhelmed our words. The irony was not lost on us. We listened. Some gathered at the windows to watch the white balls skittering across the grass. Others stepped into the pelting ice and scooped up the frozen crystals.
We humans are sensual beings. It is how we make sense of the world around us and our place in it. Our well-being, individually and as a species, depends on engaging with our animal nature. When we live separate from the natural world, when we avoid participation in it in order to protect it, it loses personal meaning. It becomes Other. We perpetuate detachment.
So how do we honor our animal nature, nurture our yearning to connect with something wild and primal in ourselves through participation in the natural world and reciprocate in a meaningful way?
It is like a koan I continue to puzzle over.
On our last day in the Galápagos, Carolina gathered us before sunrise to watch a giant female tortoise return to the sea after burying a dozen eggs in a sand nest where they would incubate in the heat of the day. We watched a pair of giant tortoises mating in the surf. The enormous male rode on the back of the smaller female. They drifted into the sea and back to shore with the push and pull of the tide, never separating (they couple for up to two hours). The light of a new day split the horizon and cast a sepia tone over the water and the backs and heads of the tortoises. It felt like the beginning of time.