The Human Galápagos

Linda Xu

July 6, 2004

The Galápagos archipelago perfectly demonstrates natural history of the Earth by serving as an excellent example of geological and evolutionary changes. However, it also serves as a record of human history and captures elements of both island and mainland Ecuadorian culture. Through our eight-day tour of the Galápagos, the entanglement between the natural and human histories of the islands becomes apparent.

Day 1: June 17, 2004

We arrived in the afternoon on the San José and met our guide, Luis, for the first time. Born in Quito, Ecuador's capital, Luis moved out to the Galápagos Islands to become a guide partly to escape the rushed mentality of city life, much like many of the islands' current and historical inhabitants. Today 75,000 to 85,000 tourists visit the Galápagos per year, comprising the islands' major source of income. With these figures, one would think that each area would be crowded with visitors, but with the exception of our stop at Puerto Ayora, we were within sight of three other ships at most and only in the few most popular spots. This is because there are 58 landing sites and 62 ocean sites for tourists to choose from. Also, the itinerary of sites for each boat must be approved by the National Park, perhaps in order to space out the tourists so that no site is overcrowded on any given day. After lunch on the San José, we headed out for our first land tour on the island of Santa Cruz, also known as Indefatigable. We made our landing at "las bachas" beach on the northern shore of the island. "Las bachas" came from a phonetic translation of the English word barges. From 1941 to 1948 when the American military set up camp at Baltra, barges were needed to transport fresh water to the troops. After 1948 when the last troops left, the barges were abandoned on the shores of Santa Cruz, creating a neat grid of metal protrusions from the white sand beach.

Day 2: June 18, 2004

In the morning, we visited Bartolomé Island, home of the picturesque Pinnacle Rock. This rock structure juts out of the ocean and creates one of the most beautiful landscapes on the trip. Surprisingly though, this amazing natural landscape is not natural at all.

Pinnacle Rock was formerly a cone volcano until the US used it for target practice for its military, blowing out the middle of the volcano into two sharp peaks. Afterwards, the Ecuadorian navy leveled one of the peaks, leaving the lone peak we know today as Pinnacle Rock. We hiked 400 steps to the highest point of Bartolomé, where a monument states the distance from that point to the equator. These steps, while a disruption to the environment, prevent tourists from devastating the flora and fauna away from the trail.

From the top was a great view of the islands and Luis pointed out one small island named after a Chinese hat by the whalers who frequented the area in the 1800s. As we were to see on other islands, the whalers had a much greater impact than just a few names. In the afternoon we visited a lava flow on Santiago at Sullivan Bay. Darwin spent more time at Santiago then any other island in the archipelago. At the time of Darwin's visit, he described both marine iguanas and tortoises, but now there are no iguanas and few tortoises on the island. This is probably due to the introduction of feral pigs, goats, and rats by whalers and pirates. Recently, the National Park has eliminated all pigs from the islands, totaling about 5000 animals and has begun working on a million dollar effort to eliminate goats as well.

Day 3: June 19, 2004

In the morning we took a dinghy ride in a Bay on the coast of Isabela near Volcan Alcedo. This mangrove environment proved to be a haven for the numerous sea turtles, sea lions, boobies, dragonflies, finches, and small fish that lived there. While human activity is often thought to have destroyed special aspects of the Galápagos, the mangrove environment has been made more unique. The archipelago is now home to the world's tallest mangroves due to the destruction of other mangroves worldwide.

On our hike inland later in the day, we witnessed the feral goats that have been at the center of such great distress for the National Park. The elimination effort is active in Isabela, first starting with helicopter hunting of the feral animals, then ground crews, then using tagged goats to search out any remaining herds. When faced with an actual baby goat on the island, it was hard for me to fully support the elimination of these animals, but I had to keep in mind that these animals were not native to the islands and were only here because whalers and pirates left them here as a food source for when they returned from their voyages.

The effects of the elimination program were obvious in the regrowth of goat devastated areas within months. In the next month or so 100,000 more goats are expected to be killed. On a dive that same day, I saw my first sea cucumber, which may have been the much argued over pepiño. Since the marine reserve has been in place around the islands, fishermen are not allowed to commercially harvest any organisms from the sea. However, the pepiño business has proven to be quite lucrative for those that have been able to get away with it because pepiños have grown to be a delicacy in Asia. Recently fishermen have taken over the Research Center in an attempt to change the restrictions on fishing but to no avail. However, the frustrated fishermen have threatened similar takeovers in the future until the restrictions are curbed.

Day 4: June 20, 2004

The other islands have all suffered from the introduction of feral animals but luckily, Fernandina is the largest land mass without the presence of any introduced animals. Fernandina has been uplifted very recently, causing a problem for the jetty built in 1973. A month after the jetty was built, it was rendered useless because it had been uplifted and now was quite a bit away from the shore.

Thus humans involved with the tourism and conservation industries on the islands must stay flexible as the geology of the Galápagos is constantly changing. Near the intertidal zone we saw the engine of a sunken tuna ship which Luis estimated to be from the 1930s. This uplifted piece of machinery is another reminder of the commercialization of the Galápagos until it was converted into a park.

Day 5: June 21, 2004

On day five we visited Puerto Egas on Santiago, famed for the salt mines that prospered in the 1960s. In the 1690s, English buccaneers took a boat thought to be full of gold but instead carried only a cargo of flour and quince marmalade, of which the remnants can still be found on the island. In 1835, Darwin spent a week at Puerto Egas and drew the Bay and from Darwin's drawings and the lava embedded quince marmalade, we know that a lava flow occurred sometime between 1690 and 1835. In this way, human history has allowed us to have a better understanding of natural history. From 1965 to 1968 a salt mine flourished on the island, supporting about 300 people actively working in a salt plant that loaded its products right on the black sand beach.

In 1968, the Ecuadorian government deemed the salt industry a monopoly and took over Puerto Egas, driving it out of business. Only two men stayed behind, living in the single shack still in existence on the island, and after one year, one man left and there was only one lone resident on Santiago. The last man stayed about two years and after he departed, Santiago became part of the National Park. Santiago, like the other islands, suffers from problems caused by introduced animals. Whalers often careened boats on its beaches to clean off barnacles and steam out the rats. These rats and the introduced goats and pigs have caused significant damage so the iguanas that Darwin described on the island no longer exist. It was on Santiago that Darwin described the fearless doves, some of them so fearless that he could catch them with his hat. Buccaneers often took advantage of this, sending children to catch them dinner, sometimes 15,000 doves in one trip. Similar issues arose on our afternoon trip to Rábida Island. Its lagoon was once a favorite locale for flamingos, but a fishing boat introduced brown rats to the island in 1980s and today no flamingos reside there anymore. While we often like to think that human involvement in the islands today is only for conservation efforts, commercial industries have done a lot of damage to the islands even recently, especially those that do not respect the rules of the marine reserve around the archipelago.

In 1964, a few tortoises were found on Rábida during the National Park inventory of all the animals on each island, but none have been found since. It is unclear whether these tortoises were actually native to Rábida or were from nearby Santiago because sailors often used Rábida as a holding pen for tortoises captured for food. In recent years, the goats have been eliminated from Rábida and the cacti have flourished ever since, filling the rocky landscape with surprising signs of life. In the late 1800s, General Villamil, for which Puerto Villamil was named, collected a moss named orchila, which was commonplace on our hike on Rábida. The moss dyed purple after some processing, a much desired royal Roman color. Unfortunately, Villamil brought prisoners over from the mainland to collect the moss and was subsequently killed by the prisoners he brought. After the 1890 invention of the chemical dye aniline, dyer's moss fell out of fashion and the technology used to process the moss has now long been forgotten.

Day 6: June 22, 2004

After Luis knocked on our door in the morning, instead of tall rocks outside my room door, I found dozens of anchored boats and a town lined with palm trees. Puerto Ayora was built off of Academy Bay, a source of valuable brackish water for settlers.

The Bay is formed from a caldera and conveniently sits at the central area of the archipelago. Despite all the damage done by introduced species early on in the Galápagos's history, a survey in the 1900s determined that 95% of the original species of the islands still existed. Given this data, scientists requested that the U.N. make the islands a national park. Soon the Charles Darwin Foundation and Charles Darwin Research Station were created to conduct research, patrol the islands, manage fishing, and coordinate tourism.

A scientist first attempted to breed endangered tortoises in 1964, although not much was known about their growth and development at the time. As a result, many eggs actually died when they were improperly handled, and the most high tech device they had at the time to incubate the eggs was a closet like structure with hair dryers affixed to the side.

Today the breeding program is much more successful and 4500 tortoises have been reintroduced, at about a cost of $1000 per tortoise. Today 97% of the area of the Galápagos is incorporated as part of the National Park. Unfortunately before this time, several varieties of tortoise had already gone extinct. In the late 1800s prisoners on San Cristóbal were sent out to hunt tortoises thus tortoises from the nearby islands of Floreana and Santa Fe are extinct. In 1906, a photographer found the last recorded Fernandina tortoise and promptly killed it and ironically, many scientific expeditions also killed tortoises for their research.

In the 1960s, geologists found the famed Lonesome George, the last of his race, on Pinta. The Pinta tortoise had not been sighted for 60 years and currently there is a reward for anyone who finds another. While the search for a partner for George may seem futile at this point, this sort of program was successful for the Española tortoise. Fourteen tortoises were found on Española and brought back to the Research Center, but only two were male and neither wanted to mate with the others. However, another male Española tortoise was found in a zoo and brought back to the islands. This tortoise was able to mate with the females, and apparently even showed the other two males how it was done. This sort of disproportion of genders is found on many islands where hunting took place because the larger male tortoise was a better food source and therefore more often removed from the islands. Other than the breeding program, the Research Center is also the coordinator of the introduced animal elimination programs. As seen on our tours, after goat elimination, the flora has been able to grow quite a bit. However, in Marchena, the goat elimination was first completed in 1979 but goats were then reintroduced onto the island. Another costly elimination program had to be carried out again in 2000. This highlights the value of education of the goals of the Research Center to prevent incidences like this. Formerly tortoises had no predators or known diseases, but since humans introduced chickens to the islands, parasites have been known to kill them. This makes the Research Centers goal of tortoise preservation all the more important. The Center also works to preserve land iguanas as well. The famed story, and perhaps myth, of Baltra is that due to the military base built there, and the influx of bored soldiers, land iguanas were almost completely eradicated because of predation. A group of remaining iguanas was moved to Seymour and has thrived there since their relocation. Baltra soldiers were offended when accused of driving the iguanas nearly to extinction, and the iguana deaths perhaps may be better attributed to increased temperatures and elimination of nesting grounds.

In the afternoon we took a van ride up the highlands of Santa Cruz, passing by the town and farmlands. In the last twenty years, 18,000 to 22,000 people have lived in Puerto Ayora. In 1927, settlers left from Floreana for Puerto Ayora, in 1933 they moved up the highlands to farm, and in 1941 the first cattle were brought to the farms. Despite the farms, much of the food consumed is still imported. The road that we traveled on was actually on private property, an indication of the local cooperation with the National Park. Even in the wild, human intervention is evident from the high barbed wire to allow the tortoise's free movement and the prevalence of the introduced passion fruit.

We spent a few hours in town after dinner. Despite the fact that this is the same island where tortoises can be found crossing a dirt path, the town has many of the same issues as any other small town. Luis told us that teen pregnancies rate were high, he assumed because of lack of other things to do. On our drive, we also passed Club Amazones, a house of "ill repute" that was certainly unexpected to me. That night, we went to a bar, and also surprisingly, a painting of Darwin hung on the wall behind the pool tables. Where in Quito crosses were on every other street corner and a statue of the Virgin Mary stands over the city, the admiration for Charles Darwin is more evident on the islands. With 50 Cent playing on the dance floor and at least half a dozen internet cafes, I was reminded that westernization can be found on even the most remote corners of the Earth.

Day 7: June 23, 2004

On our last full day, we stopped at Puerto Suarez before heading to the airport. This island is an ideal breeding ground for the various island birds such as boobies and albatrosses. The albatross almost qualifies for endangered status due to human activity.

Like the other islands, goats were introduced to Puerto Suarez when tortoises on the island ran out as a food source. Because one side of the island ends in sudden cliff, Seymour was initially chosen for an airport, but because of lack of water on the island, the airport was eventually moved to Baltra, where we landed and would later depart. The remnants of the airport on Seymour now serve as a runway for the albatross that need a running start and a cliff to take off successfully.

Day 8: June 24, 2004

In the morning we took our last morning tour to see frigate birds for the first time. Back on the boat we shared our last breakfast on the boat. The meals on board the San José were different from typical cuisine found in the States. For breakfast, we always chose from a platter of fruits and a platter of sliced meat and cheese. Later on in the week, cereal was put out as well, but perhaps more to satisfy our tastes rather than as a typical staple in South American breakfasts. Lunch was the biggest meal of the day, usually starting out with a soup and then mixed vegetables and meats. Dinners always consisted of a meat dish, many times fish, and side dishes like potatoes. I was surprised that curry was used in a few dishes because I always assumed curry was used most often in Southeast Asia, but it was surprisingly good in mashed potatoes as well.

From our seven day tour, it was evident that much of what we see on the islands is today has been greatly affected by human activity, most of it to nature's detriment. Although the Galápagos may seem like a remote, uninhabited locale, it has a rich human history and a rich culture today. While nature and man have traditionally been in conflict with each other, they can help each other if we find a balance. Just as the tortoises once helped those at sea by leading them to water in the highlands, the researchers follow these same trails today to learn more about the tortoise nesting to help the species prosper. The National Park, the townspeople, the flora and the fauna when joined together can create an environment that will truly preserve the beauty and intrigue that inspired Darwin nearly two hundred years ago.