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Protecting Nature's Laboratory

 

The Galapagos Islands are one of those 'must-see, trip-of-a-lifetime' destinations.

Dominic Hamilton travels to the archipelago to find out what effect the increasing numbers of visitors seeking that life-changing experience are having on the islands' delicate ecosystems.

Talk to anyone who's been to the Galapagos Islands and chances are that at some point they'll say, 'You just have to go.' This Noah's Ark of volcanic isles stranded in the Pacific is one of those destinations that inspires superlatives and sits atop many a traveller's wish list.

The Galapagos Islands, located 1,000 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador , remain, in large part, as Darwin would have experienced them more than a century and a half ago. They are the last true Garden of Eden. Many of the archipelago's animals, such as the amazing marine iguana that grazes on seaweed, are found nowhere else on the planet. Due to the islands' isolation, the giant tortoise, for example, has evolved into 14 distinct forms. The small, brownish finches that famously inspired Darwin to formulate his theory of evolution by natural selection, now known collectively as Darwin's finches, have adapted to a range of different foods, resulting in 13 distinct species. Here you encounter the only cormorant that lost its will to fly, and a pocket-size penguin, preening in the tropics. Endemism is par for the course on the Galapagos.

The plant life of the archipelago is equally intriguing. It boasts its very own species of pepper, cotton, guava, and tomato. Members of the daisy family have evolved into whole arrays of species on different islands. In the highlands, one encounters endemic scalesia trees, bromeliads, tree ferns and orchids. The islands' diverse and unique natural world would be reason enough to pay them a visit. But there's more, much more: the animals are virtually devoid of fear. Finches will eat from the palm of your hand; mockingbirds will land on your head; iguanas will run between your feet.

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The Galapagos archipelago is larger than most people imagine. The marine reserve that protects its waters extends over an area of 133,000 square kilometres. I began my cruise from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island , and by the time we returned to port a week later, we had sailed many hundreds of kilometres. Cruise boats follow a set route, determined by the national park authorities. They sail between the islands, stopping at a dozen or so of the60 designated visitor sites.

The islands are as diverse as the flora and fauna that inhabit them. As Darwin put it, the archipelago 'seems to be a little world within itself. 'In the morning, you could be climbing a hill on Bartolomé Island, looking down across a craggy moonscape to a sandy beach below, and by the afternoon you could be on one of the haunting Plaza islands, the flat expanse only punctuated by lonesome tombstone-like cactuses.

The southernmost island, Española, formerly known as Hood, was our first stop after an overnight crossing. A small dingy ferried us 100 metres or so to the visitor site of Punta Suárez, a long, low headland of twisted volcanic stone. Laden with cameras and binoculars, our party of pink-skinned bipeds disembarked onto the black solidified lava.

I immediately felt as if I'd entered a cross between the Garden of Eden and Dante's Inferno, into an 'infinitely strange' world, as Darwin put it. Prehistoric marine iguanas, which he dubbed 'Imps of Darkness', lounged about in the warm sun, occasionally sneezing salt from their nasal salt glands, while slithery (and often smelly) sea lions basked on the beach. Española is where much of the Galapagos's wildlife cast takes to the stage. Decidedly daft-looking blue-footed and masked boobies are always in the spotlight, while marine iguanas and the ubiquitous sea lions make regular appearances. Among the supporting cast are Galapagos doves, mockingbirds, hawks, lava herons, night herons, oystercatchers, lava lizards and a snake or two. And always is in the wings is the reclusive Española subspecies of the giant saddleback tortoise, some 700 of which have been reintroduced to the island during the past 30 years. But top of the bill has to be the waved albatross, a creature famous for its elegant flight, elaborate courtship display and, above all, its size -- it's the biggest bird of the archipelago, only found on Española and an island off the Ecuadorian mainland.

During lunch, our boat motored over to Gardner Rock off the northeast shore. We donned our snorkelling gear and plunged from the dinghy into waters that glinted and flickered with myriad tropical fish. Bursts of excitement rippled through the group as we were fortunate enough to witness a marine turtle glide through the waters below, the colours of its polished carapace transforming as the sun and sea played tricks with the light. One feels a constant sense of privilege at having the opportunity to enjoy close encounters with such tame creatures. The Galápagos imbue a sense of wonder in all its visitors. With the aid of knowledgeable naturalist guides, one becomes acutely aware of the interdependence of all species, and of the worrying impact of human activity on these 'enchanted isles'.

The most pressing threat to the area's wildlife is illegal fishing. 'In recent years Asian entrepreneurs have created a demand for sea cucumbers and shark fins,' explains the director of Galapagos National Park Service, Marco Altamirano. 'It's a lucrative, if illegal, industry, and many fishermen have immigrated to the Galapagos in search of easy money.' In late December 2003, for example, police raided a house on San Cristóbal Island and discovered almost 16,000 sea cucumbers destined for the Asian markets.

Introduced species of both plants and animals are also a grave concern. The goat, introduced by whalers, fishermen and farmers as a food source, is of particular concern. At one point, the goat population on the three northern volcanoes of Isabela was estimated at between 75,000 and 100,000 animals. The explosion in goat numbers has put pressure on numerous species, most notably the giant tortoise, whose habitat is being eaten by the voracious animals.

Costly eradication programmes for several species are under way, and a Special Galápagos Law, introduced in 1998, places more emphasis on quarantine and introduction controls. But, as Alan Tye of the Charles Darwin Research Centre admits, the national park authorities and the scientists are fighting what is perhaps a losing battle. 'Progress has been made on inspecting inbound travellers' baggage, and on transportation between the islands, but the biggest problem is the cargo brought to the islands, for both tourist operations and locals.'

Visitor sites are strictly controlled and direct impacts caused by tourism are minimal, according to studies carried out by scientists. However, the indirect impacts will, without doubt, continue to affect the islands' wildlife. With visitors now numbering some 60,000 a year, boarding around 90 vessels, the growing human and physical infrastructure to support the tourism industry is a cause for grave concern. Even though the Special Law put severe restrictions on new migration to the islands, their population is still growing at six per cent a year, and much of it is in an unsustainable manner. 'Conservation in the Galapagos is a mixture of damage limitation and long-term projects that aim to avoid future problems,' says Leonor Stjepic of the Galapagos Conservation Trust. 'We also work with projects that we hope will secure the long term protection of the Galapagos such as providing support to young Ecuadorians so that they can study for the qualifications needed to take the top jobs in conservation in Galapagos in the future.'

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The huge Galapagos Marine Reserve is widely considered to be one of the world's best dive sites. The incredible array of marine life, which includes 3,000-strong schools of hammerhead sharks and the massive whale shark, draws dive enthusiasts from around the world.

But although I made three immersions during my week-long cruise, the best underwater experiences I enjoyed were with nothing more than a mask and snorkel, off one of the Plaza Islands. There I frolicked with a group of female sea lions and their pups. These curious creatures, so awkward and lumbering on land, shot and twisted, rippled and dived, zoomed and banked around me, strings of incandescent bubbles streaking along their sleek, elegant bodies. I dived down alongside one with a lung-full of air, gazing into her beautiful dusky eye as we swam side by side. Our dance only lasted some 20 seconds, but in my memory, those seconds last for hours.

I came away from my visit to the Galapagos full of serenity and energy, and full of hope, that at least somewhere on this messed-up planet of ours there is still somewhere that you can still feel at one with all the creatures, great and small.

 

 

GALAPAGOS FACT BOX:

When to go

The warmest and clearest months are December to April, even though this is the rainy season. This is also a good time to go if you like snorkelling or diving, these two months are the most pleasant time of year to visit. In May the sea is still calm, but getting cooler. By July the weather has become almost cold, and snorkelling isn't pleasant without a wetsuit. In August the sea tends to be rough and the weather becomes misty until October. The coldest month is September, when many boats stay in dock.

How to get there
The best way to see the Galapagos is as Charles Darwin did, by boat. You sleep through the hours when you are travelling the considerable distances between the islands. Cruises are expensive, ranging from the bare-bones minimum of around US$60-a-day to US$300-a-day on the most luxurious yachts. Cruises are usually between four and seven days in length.

Flights from mainland Ecuador depart from the capital, Quito, and Guayaquil on the coast. Return fares are around US$400 from Quito, and the national park entrance fee is US$100 per passenger, payable in cash at the airport. Children under 12 and students under 26 pay half price. Flights, packages and tailor-made itineraries can be arranged in the UK with

Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk). In Ecuador, Metropolitan Touring (+593 2464 780; www.metropolitan-touring.com) run two excellent, up-scale boats, the Santa Cruz and the Isabela II.

Numerous internet sites offer last-minute deals, including www.guide2galapagos.com.

Further information
Charles Darwin Foundation and the Charles Darwin Research Center: www.darwinfoundation.org
Galápagos Conservation Trust: www.gct.org

What to read
Galápagos by Michael Jackson
A Field Guide to the Birds of the Galápagos by Michael Harris,
Plundering Paradise: The Hand of Man on the Galapagos Islands by Michael D'Orso
Darwin and The Beagle by Alan Moorehead
The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner.




All material on all sites (unless otherwise stated) is © 1998-2007 Dominic Hamilton
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