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Published: February 17th 2010
Adapted from and quotes by
Carol Ann Bassett, 2009, Galapagos at the crossroads, National Geographic Society
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes¨
- Marcel Proust
1000km off the west coast of South America, a lonely Albatross soars majestically just above the reach of the rolling swell. It’s been a long journey and although his wings never seem to tire it feels good to be home. Las Encantadas “the enchanted islands”. A meeting place for the life bringing cold, nutrient rich Humboldt current, driven perpetually north by the south east trade winds, and the opposing life depleting El Niño current which meanders south from the equator, bringing with it death and destruction. The albatross slowly banks and rises, seemingly effortlessly on the equatorial, warm thermal air. The archipelago is seductively hidden behind a veil of mist; illusions of water calling out like an enchanted siren of Greek mythology. In Spanish, garúa means “persistent light rain” and for early explorers, pirates, and whalers the archipelago proved to be a formidable temptress, somehow devoid of fresh water. Soaring high above volcanic cliffs which jut abruptly from the ocean’s surface, scientists believe they are less than 4 million years old.
A day in the life of a student
Wake up, swim, snorkel, talk to the turtles,surf, eat breakfast, swim, talk to the sea lions, school, swim, eat lunch, swim, school, swim, eat dinner....sleep....hectic hah
In earlier times the archipelago lay dormant hidden under the earth’s crust silently stewing, then something shifted as the very earth itself (known here as the Nasca plate) passed over a hot spot in the planets mantle. Chaos reigned free, so much heat escaped, that liquid rock vented up through the waves, forming volcanoes one steaming inch at a time. Pressure mounting from below finally exploded into what one can only imagine as hell on earth. Ash spewed forth hundreds of meters into the sky, launching volcanic bombs, lava that cooled into solid rock before ever coming to rest on the oceans floor. Rivers of fire snaked down canyons at temperatures well beyond 1000 degrees. As magma cooled, it froze into mirror like images of the rippling sea.
What Darwin and his predecessors didn’t realise was just how precious these islands were. The lack of fresh water for many years rendered the Galapagos inhabitable to humans. But for the strange and exotic creatures which have arrived here, dispersed by the wind, water and on rafts of organic debris life has somewhat continued behind a closed door. Land species that have managed to
gain a foothold in this young archipelago have adapted to whatever resources are available, and evolved in ways unimaginable. The Galapagos had few residents before the 1800s, only visitors that came and went. The Incas are believed to have come first, a Bishop Tomas de Berlanga from Peru and his party managed less than a month after their accidental discovery, even early explorers could not manage to survive in such an inhospitable place.
In the late 17th century Galapagos became a haven for pirates and whalers pillaging up and down the down the west coast. It’s estimated that during the 19th century as many as 200,000 tortoises were slaughtered not to mention the whales which were driven to near extinction. (In my head I wonder who was worse - the pirates or the whalers) War bought navy ships to the Galapagos in the early 1800s and with them invasive species such as feral goats, pigs, dogs, and cats which today threaten endemic species which make the Galapagos so unique. One man an Irish man Patrick Watkins stands out as the first inhabitant of the Galapagos. He lived on the island of
A local Galapaguenos
Baby Galapagos sea lion on Carola beach
Floreana from 1807 to 1809. Living alone Watkins grew a multitude of fruit and vegetables which he traded with the whalers in exchange for rum. Consequently he was drunk for most of his time on the island. The first colony was established in 1832, Charles Darwin arrived in 1835.
Darwin exposed a brave new world and at the same time shifted a deeply engrained paradigm in traditional thinking. It wasn’t long before the door which had kept the Galapagos relatively untouched was swung open for ever.
Today the Galapagos Islands stands at a crossroads- To heal or endure as one of the world’s most intact natural museums, or to succumb to human greed and development. On a collision course with 21st century values driving unsustainable tourism and immigration, illegal fishing; including heart breaking shark finning and sea cucumber poaching. Introduced invasive species such as cats that kill indiscriminately and viral diseases that spread like wild fire throughout the islands virgin to such threats. Today about 35,000 colonists call the Galapagos home and more arrive each year despite laws intended to limit immigration. Ninety seven percent of the land mass
is protected by National park; the remaining three percent is occupied by town houses and private land. However it is this three percent that has such a devastating effect on the archipelago. For example a 10 million dollar eradication campaign began in 1998, 800,000 goats were culled on the Archipelago. On the island of Isabela alone 100,000 goats were eradicated to prevent the extinction of the Galapagos Tortoise's who were unable to compete with the invasive species.
Scientists are fast becoming the enemies, in the eyes of the Galapaguenos. Visiting for short periods, with fat funding they care more for the marine Iguanas than they do for the human inhabitants. However this is not an indigenous culture, the majority care little for conservation and efforts to preserve this pristine environment. This detachment is more a result of a lack of education than from any malicious intent. Galapaguenos view the islands like many other places in this developing nation. As a resource to be raped, pillaged and plundered just as the whalers and pirates of the past. However the inhabitants still enjoy a far richer life than
Chillin out, relaxing watchin the world go round and round
The Island of San cristobal is sinking at a rate of 7 cm per year. This bloke doesn´t seem to worried
most South Americans, poverty is unknown and most families live comfortably. There are 128 taxis on San Cristobal alone an Island with only 7000 residents.
However not all is lost and institutions such as GAIAS headed by Diego Quiroga and Carlos Valle are striving to educate not only international students (who bring in the money) but also the local population. GAIAS trains naturalists who accompany tour groups on sustainable visits to the island. This seems like the way forward, eco tourism will, with a bit of luck and hard work, provide a sustainable future for all the inhabitants of Galapagos.
¨Given our history as a species and the impacts of climate change, the Galapagos will forever remain at risk, but Mother Nature always wins in the end. Long after we humans are gone- to the moon, to Mars, to the dust we evolved from- blazing new islands will push up through the waves over the volcanic hot spot near Fernandina Island as the older islands to the east return to their home on the ocean floor. It’s a cycle that has continued in the Galapagos now for 90 million years. Some species will continue to adapt and evolve in this brave new world and others will vanish. Those that survive may morph into creatures that look nothing like their ancestors. Life will continue- resilient as ever. To the Children of the Galapagos, May you teach your parents well.¨
Carol Ann Bassett (2009)
Quotations taken from Carol Ann Bassett, 2009, Galapagos at the crossroads, National Geographic Society
A fantastic reflection of life on the Galapagos Archipelego
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