Ten years ago, my husband and I spent seven days on a small boat touring the Galapagos Islands. We were 16 people, plus a guide and a crew of seven. At night we traveled (top speed, 10 knots) and every morning we awoke to find ourselves at a new island, sometimes with the deck railings covered by seabirds like blue-footed boobies waiting for handouts.
I don't think that anyone who has ever visited the Galapagos can forget this amazing place, but not because it is so beautiful--some of the islands are rugged and sparsely vegetated. It is because the animals that live here are unique; they own the place and offer visitors a glimpse into a people-less paradise. One can sit down next to a courting frigate bird without scaring him, and if you want to swim with the sea lions, it is you who must be careful not to antagonize the fiercely proprietary "beach-master" and his harem.
Of course, the Galapagos are not pristine and were not unspoiled even when Charles Darwin paid his famous visit there in 1835. In the 19th century, sailors hunted the seals for their fur and made turtle soup from the giant tortoises. Today, the seas surrounding the Galapagos are fished (illegally) for sea cucumbers. Over the years, dogs and cats that have jumped ship onto one or another of the islands have become feral and threaten the bird and tortoise eggs. On one island where an attempt is being made to eradicate feral goats and pigs, we learned that it's important to catch the pigs first. The goats eat the vegetation, thus making the pigs more visible.
The islands also have suffered natural disasters: volcanic eruptions, red tides, changes in the food supply caused by El Nino, devastating fire on Isabella Island. But these are part of the ecology that governs the lives of all the animals and plants that found their way on ocean currents to these barren volcanic outcroppings. Man is the intruder, and one must constantly weigh his impact--his capacity for doing evil even when he is trying to do good. The Ecuadorean ship that went aground near San Cristobal Island and is leaking oil that threatens the delicate environment was bringing fuel for the boats that ferry tourists around. The tourists bring much-needed money for further conservation and protection of the islands. They also encourage more mainland Ecuadoreans to move to the Galapagos to service the tourist industry.
The Galapagos Islands are a United Nations World Heritage site. The islands and the surrounding ocean also are a national park run by the Ecuadorean government. The Charles Darwin Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by the Smithsonian Institution, runs a research station on Santa Cruz Island that is studying, monitoring and trying to preserve the flora and fauna.
All of this takes money, and Ecuador is a poor country. When I first visited the Charles Darwin Research Station, I joined on the spot, as most visitors do. And over the 10 years since, I have retained my membership and received their annual research papers and bulletins about threats and disasters. I'm sure I'll be receiving one soon about the oil spill, but this time I'm not waiting. (The address is: Charles Darwin Foundation Inc., P.O. Box 96609, Washington 20077-7174. All donations are tax deductible.)
I want to see the Galapagos Islands saved not because I ever expect to see them again, but because I want others to be able to see them. And because I would like to think that, even in our crowded, polluted world, such a place can still exist.