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TRAVELING IN STYLE : THE SURVIVAL ISLES : A Trip Through the Strange, Legendary Galapagos Islands, with Charles Darwin's Books as Guides, Is Also a Sobering Study in the Evolution of Tourism

October 16, 1994|Betty Fussell | Betty Fussell is a cultural historian who writes frequently about travel and food. Her most recent book is "The Story of Corn" (Knopf)

When Charles Darwin landed on an island of black lava on Sept. 15, 1835, in his fourth year aboard the HMS Beagle, he found the scene so weird that he thought he'd arrived on "some other planet." He complained of the infernal heat, the nauseous smell, the hideous ugliness of the flora and fauna in this "little world within itself."

He was in the Galapagos Islands, a volcanic archipelago of 19 islands and numerous islets lying on the Equator, in the Pacific Ocean, about 600 miles west of Ecuador (which owns them). When I landed on these same islands more than a century and a half later, aboard a creaking tub named the Darwin, the scene was still weird--but in ways that the great English naturalist could not have imagined.

The isolation of this "world within itself" provided Darwin with a laboratory in which to study the biological change we now call evolution. But what was an evolutionary lab for Darwin is today an ecological lab, where the issue is not whether, or how, adaptive change takes place, but how fast and how irrevocably.

Darwin's concept of the "struggle for survival," as elaborated in his "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection" (1859), was generated by his observations of the unique flora and fauna of the Galapagos. Today the islands themselves are struggling to survive an onslaught of humankind. Since the first tour operator began offering organized visits to the islands in 1970, the number of tourists has grown from about 4,000 a year to more than 60,000. Today, 90 cruise boats (larger cruise ships were recently banned) serve the islands and there are 35 hotels--and the once sparsely populated archipelago now has at least 14,000 permanent residents. Anyone who wants to see the little world that Darwin saw here, with a minimum of human overlay, had better hurry.

I went to the Galapagos myself not long ago with my grown daughter, who was keen on snorkeling and hiking around the islands. I intended to laze about with camera and notebook. After a short flight from Quito, the capital of Ecuador, to the island of San Cristobal (the easternmost of the Galapagos), though, I got a look at the "economy motor vessel" that was to be home for the next seven days--and that ended my fantasies of restful observation. On board the Darwin, we found a band of 10 thrift-minded athletic youths--one Australian, two English, two German, five Dutch--and a crew of five Ecuadoreans, including a guide my age, a captain half my age and a cook and boat boys young enough to be my grandchildren. Just boarding the vessel had required a certain agility, and it was clear that if I couldn't swim, I'd sink.

Charles Darwin survived five years on the poop deck of the Beagle, where he was "a martyr to seasickness." Our bunks were stacked in the stern in a closet next to the engine and below a porthole boarded shut. One whiff of the diesel fuel and I downed the Dramamine given to us by a kind traveler who'd warned, "If you're on a small boat, you'll need it." Our boat was not only small, it also listed heavily to starboard for reasons that were never explained. Never explained either were the chronic failure of the motor in heavy seas or the frequency with which we took in water, occasioning frantic bailing by the boat boys. During the long hauls between islands (we stopped at eight), only the crew escaped

seasickness. But if Darwin could take it, reading Milton's "Paradise Lost" in his hammock "for comfort," so could we, reading Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle."

In his diary, Darwin expressed surprise that the islands had not changed more than they had since their discovery in 1535, for they had been "frequently visited by buccaneers and whalers," not to mention sailors hunting tortoises and, on their way, taking "delight in knocking down the little birds."

As early as the 1700s, the island's famous giant land tortoises were being taken by the thousands to Europe and Asia, where they were prized for their oil as well as their meat. Because they could survive for as long as a year aboard ship, they provided fresh meat for the sailors along the way. Because they could store large quantities of water internally, they were also sometimes killed by islanders who, when "overcome with thirst," Darwin observed, would slaughter one to drink the contents of its bladder.

Today, the Charles Darwin Research Station at Puerto Ayora, on the major island of Santa Cruz, is the chief conservator of the land tortoise in the Galapagos, numbering eggs and nurturing hatchlings. Here tortoises are so tame that we were astonished to see them stretch their necks and beg to be scratched, almost like dogs. To see a tortoise close its eyes in ecstasy at your touch, then sink back into its shell with a sigh, is in itself worth a week of mal de mer .

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