Galapagos: Natural selection

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01 May 2011
  • Sun-loving marine iguanas, Fernandina
  • Blue-footed boobies
  • Galapagos strata development

The wild and remote Galapagos Islands are nature writ large, a living laboratory where the beginning of the world is an ongoing experiment.

It is the moment I’ve dreamed of. In the Pacific Ocean swimming freely through the navy blue alongside sea turtles and Galapagos penguins; one penguin so bold – or maybe just boofheaded – it swims straight into the glass of my mask and startles us both. On the sand beneath, sharks lurk and manta rays flap lazily. There’s a brown flash as two fur seals shoot past, twisting round each other like corkscrews. It’s the watery Eden scene from a dozen documentaries, but it’s happening now, and to me.

Though 13 years of foreign corresponding took me to some fabulous places, I’ve always regarded the Galapagos Islands as a destination apart, sitting at the top of every want-to-go list; the animals and birds an essential part of the allure and the Darwin story, but also because this is where you can witness with complete clarity the formation of our world. West to east, the story unfolds: at one end the volcanoes rise black and naked from the sea, utterly inhospitable to life. By steadily moving four centimetres west each year they reach the other end of the “geological conveyor belt” millions of years later, treed and tracked, teeming with species we have never seen before or, at least, not together. A penguin sharing a beach with a flamingo, with a cactus or two in the foreground. Lizards that can swim and cormorants that have lost the power of flight. Giant centenarian tortoises migrating across grasslands.

The lucky Americans are pretty much next-door neighbours, but for Australians, the Galapagos Islands are far away and expensive. Tightly regulated, too; ships of all sizes cruise these waters, but all must have at least one – usually, many – wildlife guides on board, and landings run to a timetable. But this summer, I decided, was to be the time. After consulting with previous visitors, I picked a boat based on the fact Lindblad was an early Arctic expeditioner, which has nothing to do with Galapagos, but I thought deserved points. Also they had teamed up with National Geographic, whose yellow-and-black covers make my under-the-stairs loo a more edifying place.

 I booked the longest trip possible, 10 days (eight at sea) and dug up a wetsuit. This was to prove a brilliant idea, planted by Pip Smith, who’d been to Galapagos with Dick the year before and been astonished by the chill of the water. She lent me her inner-skin to go beneath my full bodysuit and jacket. I was thinking Diana Rigg; the other passengers just thought I was way overdoing it. They wore the half-suits provided, laughed and pointed, and finished each snorkel session blue with cold. I was snugly, smugly warm.

The water is a good place to start because the islands of Galapagos are the meeting place of powerful currents, including the Humboldt, flowing cold and rich with nutrients from Antarctica. Seeds, eggs and living creatures drop from all quarters and climates onto the shore of the islands, where over time they either thrive or die. It’s so exciting to see the whole process of natural selection and evolution laid out in front of your own eyes; I found myself wondering if my lifelong hero Charles Darwin was such a genius, after all. A beautiful theory, but really, it seemed kind of obvious, didn’t it? Again, overdoing it.

Then there’s the situation with drinking water. The islands are desperately short of it, as the early explorers discovered. Ironically, given Darwin’s later bother with the Church over the implications of his theory, it was a clergyman, Fray Tomás de Berlanga, under instructions from the King of Spain, who arrived first, with blinking eyes, in 1535. He thought it a terrible place. His thirsty men tried to extract juice from the thistles of prickle pear, which “looked like slops of lye and they drank it as if it were rosewater”. Bishop Berlanga believed the islands to be owned by the Devil. So the Galapagos, or Las Encantadas, are not the “enchanted isles”, as tourist brochures like to translate, but the bewitched isles; the damned isles. Stretching 430km from the baby of the group in the west, Fernandina, about 500,000 years young and still visibly a work in progress – to the oldest, Española in the south-east, five million years old and sinking fast. At this end of the conveyor belt the Nazca Plate slides deep beneath the South American continent, taking the islands with it one by one. So the waterless isles die by drowning.

Rather destroying the idea of the Galapagos as nature’s perfect laboratory is the competition from imported species. As so often happens – think Macquarie Island with its rabbits and rats – these isolated, protected places provide excellent environments for domestic animals and plants, which can – and in islands such as Isabela and Floreana, did – drive out native species. As usual, humans don’t help. Declared a national park in 1959 and a UNESCO World Heritage site (at Ecuador’s request) nearly 20 years later, the government has now regulated to stop locals moving onto the islands to try to reverse some of the ecological destruction. But there are still as many as 30,000 permanent residents to disrupt the natural evolutionary processes.
As for tourists, Quito-born naturalist Rocio Nicolalde has been guiding in the Galapagos for 24 years. In that time, she estimates, visitor numbers jumped from 6000 to 170,000 a year, and there is still no ceiling. Conservation efforts are fierce, all tourists are invited to contribute to the cause, but the risk to the Galapagos is rated as high. On the other hand, every visitor becomes an ambassador.

 I kept thinking of Antarctica while in Galapagos because, though the landscape and conditions are so dissimilar, it is subject to similar arguments over human impact. Also, it was the first place I’d had the experience of meeting [wild] animals with no fear of me. It’s thrilling to be reminded that we are not, everywhere, the master race; to observe the struggles, rivalries, triumphs and defeats of other species close-up and effectively with consent. It was the same in Galapagos. The creatures simply pass by, or take up positions and force you to go around them, watching your step so as not to trip over a day-old sea lion pup or a big pile of marine iguanas (or an “ugliness”, which some thought the appropriate collective noun). We all enjoyed our Hollywood moment with famous Lonesome George, last survivor of his giant tortoise clan and virtual symbol of Galapagos, but it was the unanticipated encounters that stuck in the mind.

That moment alongside the sea turtles was mine, their flippers flapping and gliding like wings so it felt we were flying. For my 16-year-old son it was the sparkling morning we woke to find ourselves at the centre of a 200-dolphin escort (two species) that travelled with us so far and so long we eventually had to cut across them to get back on course. For my husband, a close encounter with a playful young pair of sea lions who appeared out of nowhere while we were snorkelling in a small, deep cave. Briefly, unmistakeably, they included us in their games. These are moments no documentary can prepare you for.

Though the star creature among the 46 passengers turned out to be none of the headliners, but a class of bird called boobies; so-called because early sailors reported them so slow on the uptake they could pick them off while still in their nests. Of the three types, the boobiest-looking is the blue-footed, which became expedition favourite, with legs of such ridiculously bright blue (a colour hardly ever seen in nature, according to the guides) they shone like glowsticks from the shoreline. Second favourite was the Nazca booby, with boring black feet, but a sensational Zorro mask and criss-cross eyes that made you think of Gomer Pyle. The red-footed booby, well, it has red feet.

Our last landing on the last day was at Española, where we climbed the high sea cliffs to see the world’s main breeding colony of waved albatrosses, then watched the plunge-divers drop hundreds of metres, snap up a fish and pull out so fast they scarcely wet their beaks. The path back to the boat threaded down through a vast crowd, perhaps many thousands, of nesting and breeding boobies. They honked, they squabbled, young ones practised their courtship ritual, which involves both members of a pair lifting their feet in turn and waving them in the air before turning the beak, tail and wings upwards, or “sky-pointing”. We thought they were a hoot, but they registered zero interest as we had the privilege of passing through their lives and loves.


So, for me, the dream came true. I couldn’t imagine any of the other passengers feeling any different, so it was a surprise when, the morning of that last day, I got talking to a fit-looking American bizoid over breakfast who said he’d liked aspects of the trip, but really, he wished there had been more to do – fewer lectures from the Ecuadoran naturalists, more kayaking, perhaps a bit of jet-skiing, even. Good grief, I thought, what are you doing here? But he was a bright guy, so I guess it’s worth mentioning that Galapagos doesn’t enchant or bewitch us all. The restrictions on access can sometimes chafe. Sorry, you can’t go water-skiing.

But I loved this extreme place. From the volcanic pinnacle and lava mountains of Bartolomé – which Buzz Aldrin said made him think he’d returned to the Moon – to the menagerie of bizarre jigsaw animals and birds that gave Charles Darwin what has been described as
“the best idea anyone ever had”. It makes you realise – which I find comforting, rather than confronting – that homo sapiens may come and go, but that nature itself, raw and beautiful, will forever adapt and, for all the threats, persist.

Source: Qantas The Australian Way May 2011

Jennifer Byrne

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