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Darwin's Eden

A journey through the Galapagos.

by: Oscar Sogandares

In 1997 I had the experience very few persons have enjoyed, the opportunity to visit these magical, mysterious, and perhaps enchanted islands! A once in a lifetime (now maybe more then once) trip and mecca for all aspiring naturalists everywhere. Here were the fabled islands of Darwin, Melville's Islas Encantadas, or perhaps the legendary Garden of Eden.

A place with animals so tame that the birds would alight on your head or feed from the hand, as they once did with the first pirates and bucaneers whom sought shelter there. The Spaniards never ventured there, once after Bishop Berlanga first discovered them in 1532, christening them "Galapagos", for the saddle shaped land tortoises he found there. Since they were considered adrift, due to their everchanging ocean currents, they were also considered not exactly "enchanted" but were called "encantadas" or "bewitched". Something which worked to the buccaneer's favor. Even "types" such as Ambrose Cowley were to take notice of this honoring himself by naming an islet between Abermarle (Isabela) and James (Santiago), Cowley's "Enchanted" Isle.

Although Pre-Columbian ceramics have been found on the islands and world renowned anthropologist Thor Heyerdale (Kon-Tiki) has advanced the notion that Inca Yupanqui and others had previously been there. Some believe however that ceramics may have made it there at a later date, perhaps at the hands of corsairs, after plundering the South American coasts. But it certainly remains until this day an interesting possibility.

After the buccaneers, came the whalers who mercilessly depleted the noble leviathans; and the sealers, who almost drove the fur seals to extinction. Both stocked on the peaceful land tortoise. Of the original 14 subspecies of this placid, venerable creature, only 10 survive today. It is believed that during this whaling boom easily more than 100,000 were killed. It was also during this period that Herman Melville (Moby Dick) visited the islands aboard a whaler. But it probably wasn't man himself, but his "best friends", which have done the most damage. Goats for instance have been responsible for overgrazing, outcompeting the placid land tortoise for the sparse vegetation. Dogs have been found to hunt marine iguanas and cats have been preying on the islands unique bird life. Domesticated animals gone ferile have been the major cause for the sharp reduction in native species throughout the years.

Just as a beautiful lady, the Galapagos were coveted by England and the United States alike. But before anyone could lay claim to these, the newly formed Republic of Ecuador promptly took possesion of them in 1832. It was during these years and shortly thereafter that the young Charles Darwin first set foot on these islands and formulated his concepts of Natural Selection. Of the islands he wrote in 1845: "The archipelago is a little world within itself, or rather a satelite attached to America, whence it has derived a few stray colonists, and has recieved the general character of its indigenous productions..."

Swept by the powerful Humboldt Current originating in the Antarctic Seas, it is to the Galapagos, what the Gulf Spring is to the West European coast. While lying flat on the Equator, its anything but tropical. The notable exception are the years when "El Nino" ocean current, also known as the ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation) takes its toll on the native marine wildlife, while inland it becomes a lush, green, exhuberant tropic land and land species flourish. Located 1000 kms. West of Guayaquil, on the same time-zone Guatemala and New Orleans. The isles took up travelers from the most diverse and distinct places: sea lions from California, the fur seal from Chile, the iguana from Central America, The flamingo from the Caribbean, the penguins from the Antartic.

The Galapagos are a National Park since 1959, centennial of Darwin's "Origin of the Species". In 1979 they were declared "World Heritage Site" by the UNESCO, and finally its coasts were declared "Marine Resources Rerserve" by Ecuador in 1987. The "Galapagos National Park" comprise 97% of the islands territory. The remaining 3% are where where the islands towns, villages and farms, along with its rapidly increasing 15,000 inhabitants are located. Actually concern exists, that in the last 10 years, there has been more than 100% increase in population, mostly from the mainland seeking the islands higher standard of living originating in tourism, but not always with conservation in mind. Last year alone there has been more than 50,000 tourists, leaving an estimated 100 millon dollars in the island economy. There have also been pressures from outlaw fishing trawlers from Europe and Asia (as well as some local unscrupulous fishing vessels), on its pristine marine ecosystem. Today the Galapagos remain the prime testing ground for the world's conservation policies everywhere.

THE JOURNEY

MONDAY: GUAYAQUIL ECUADOR, SAN CRISTOBAL ISLAND

Our journey began on February 3rd 1997, after arriving to Guayaquil the night before. We flew into San Cristobal Airport where, long lines after long lines, we were picked up by Mr. Miguel Pazmino, our naturalist guide for the next week. We made it to Port Baquerizo Moreno (named for the first governor of the Galapagos) and our yacht Dorado. That evening we sampled the first taste of the Galapagos with a visit to Loberia Beach. There we got to see a lonely sea lion. Someone "urfed" and this placid 600 lb. bull immediately took after us. Fortunately we were faster, but we had learned our lesson. I could only hear my guide saying "you see I told you so, do not bother the sea lions".

TUESDAY: ESPANIOLA OR HOOD ISLAND, GARDINER'S BEACH.

On Tuesday we set out to Espaniola Island (Hood). The only spot on this earth where the waved albatross (wingspan 2.5 mts.) nests. Unfortunately they had already parted. Although we did spot one solitary unhatched egg, left behind by their parents. But we did see blue footed boobies or "piqueros" (as well as the "masked" ones), the colorful red and green marine iguana (only here do they assume these startling colors, during the mating season), swallow-tail gulls (with their peculiar red-rimmed eyes) and of course our friendly sea lions (although we did not see the land turtles here). All of these with the spectacular "blowhole" in the backdrop.

We finished off the day with a cool swim off the boat to Gardiner's Beach. Where we swam with the sea lions, although we got to see reef sharks and rays right below us. Our guide jokingly said that these only feed on "palms" and "plants", although we knew that sharks weren't exactly vegetarian. But due to the superabundance of fish, even the sharks were "friendly" and seemed always to be in a "lethargic" mode. But right before dusk, just after levying anchor, one of those rare occurrences, no less than 30 dolphins were playfully escorting our craft on our port side.

WEDNESDAY: SANTA CRUZ ISLAND, CHARLES DARWIN RESEARCH STATION, THE HIGHLANDS.

On Wednesday we were off to Santa Cruz (or Indefatigable) Island and Puerto Ayora visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station. There we saw Lonely George, the last of his kind (subspecies from Pinta Island). He is always accompanied by 2 females from Wolf Volcano (very similar subspecies), his hormonal level continously monitored in an effort to breed him. We also visited the Van Straalen Center with the complete Natural History of the Galapagos.

After a pleasant stroll through Port Ayora's main avenue, where we purchased T-shirts and sent off post cards back home, we visited a Lava-Tunnel, which was created by soft basaltic lava flowing through an already solidified basaltic lava core. The core is all that remains. Not everyone was fond of caves, but for those who were it reminded them of Utah, Arizona or New Mexico. Later that day we toured a farm in the highlands, where we were greeted by a lively vermillion flycatcher, who proudly posed for us, and saw even more tortoises in their cool moist pond setting. Afterwards we were treated to refreshments. We ended the day with a visit to the native "scalesia" cloud forest and the spectacular Twin "Pit" Craters (or "Los Gemelos").