A glimpse of Galápagos life before man intervened

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 4/28/16

The author next to a Galapagos giant tortoise in the wild on Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands

The author next to a Galapagos giant tortoise in the wild on Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands

In month 10 of my yearlong trip around the world, I flew from Quito, Ecuador, 600 miles west to the tiny Pacific island of Baltra in the Galápagos Islands. From Baltra, I took a spectacular cruise on a 75-foot catamaran, exploring six of the islands.

On this eight-day voyage, I was thrilled by the unique natural beauty of this volcanic archipelago. I also learned about some egregious human impacts that have taken a big toll here and the extraordinary efforts underway to reverse them.

The Galápagos, of course, are famed as the site of Charles Darwin’s epic 1835 journey on Captain Robert Fitzroy’s HMS Beagle. The strange wildlife endemic to this place — most notably Galapágos finches and giant tortoises — started Darwin’s wheels turning about natural selection and led to his eventual publication of “The Origin of Species.”

My longtime fascination with the Galápagos is shared with some 150,000 tourists who visit each year. Since 1959, most of the entire land mass of the Galápagos Islands was designated as a national park and as a World Heritage Site protected area. So, tourism is regulated, especially extended cruises, where trips to each island are professionally guided and well-coordinated.

Most of the islands still seem pristine and are incredibly beautiful. We hiked across huge spreads of black Pahoe-Hoe lava dotted with cacti. We got up close to some of the rarest birds in the world, including red-footed boobies, Galápagos finches and flightless cormorants. We plodded alongside huge Galápagos giant tortoises and land iguanas in the wild.

A marine iguana on Isla Santiago, Galapagos Islands.

A marine iguana on Isla Santiago, Galapagos Islands.

We snorkeled with sea lions, penguins, and Pacific green turtles and walked among hundreds of marine iguanas piled up on the beach like stacks of pancakes.

But, as our guide carefully explained, the monumental efforts now in place to conserve biodiversity on the Galápagos got a late start.

When the first Europeans landed in the Galápagos in 1535, there were no humans living there. The islands’ remoteness, inhospitable terrain and scarcity of water would have made permanent settlement very difficult indeed.

In the 1700s, the Galápagos became a frequent port for whalers, because of the islands’ proximity to prime sperm whale habitat.

In the 1800s, whalers aggressively sought out the slow-moving Galápagos giant tortoise as a food source. Because these reptiles can survive for months without food or water, they could be easily be kept alive on board ship before ending up in the stew pot.

Whalers took more than 100,000 giant tortoises from the islands. As tortoise populations plummeted, whalers looked for a new food source. They released a few goats to one of the islands, intending to return periodically to hunt them.

But the goats, without any natural predators, quickly reached a population of 100,000 that devastated the island’s native flora needed by the tortoises — another step down the path to extinction.

Similar stories have played out throughout the Galápagos with goats, dogs, pigs — and lately, a fly maggot — all continuously being imported by people and wreaking havoc on native ecosystems.

In 1959, when the Galápagos Islands was declared a World Heritage site, UNESCO partnered with the Charles Darwin Foundation to fund research, conservation, and education strategies to protect endemic species of the islands.

Since then, the Galápagos Islands have attracted top conservation scientists and witnessed some of the most extraordinary invasive species eradication projects anywhere. For example, Project Isabela, overseen by Galápagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Foundation, has eradicated feral goats and pigs from Santiago and Isabela islands.

While tourist dollars help fund conservation efforts, tourists also unwittingly import new invasive species every year. If you go, be prepared to have your baggage inspected!

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who is taking a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.