Encyclopedia of Islands

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Galapagos archipelago. Stark Worlds of Wildlife

Sea mist wreathes Isla Cowley, one of scores of isles in the Galápagos archipelago. Home to bizarre wildlife, the remote island chain straddles the Equator 600 miles west of Ecuador.

It had long been a dream of mine to visit the Galápagos, those enchanted isles at world´s end, and my chance came one recent summer. Renowned for their singular wildlife and their austere beauty, the Galápagos are as remote as they are bizarre. Bearing a mix of old English and Spanish names, they lie on the Equator about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, a group of 13 major and 6 minor islands and scores of small, nameless rocks. All are volcanic, born of a geologic hot spot on the ocean floor during the last five million years. They total approximately 3,000 square miles of land in 23,0 square miles of ocean, a land area less than the size of Connecticut broken in pieces and scattered across a body of water nearly the length and breadth of West Virginia.

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The impression persists that the Galápagos are uninhabited, so I was unprepared to find about 10,000 people, mostly Ecuadorians, living permanently on four of the islands. The largest settlement, numbering about,4,0, people, is Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz, where the three remaining Angermeyer brothers live.

As you ascend the slope of Santa Cruz´s central ridge, the vegetation changes. Leaving the arid coast, you climb through increasingly lush countryside, where moisture-laden clouds from the southeast bump into the mountain. An agricultural zone has been set aside there, where farmers grow fruit and vegetables, and a hundred or so ranchers herd about 14,000 head of cattle. Ecuadorian law forbids importing cattle into the islands— there´s a danger of introducing pests or diseases—so government agencies allow cattlemen to improve their stock through artificial insemination.

Farther up the slopes, the vegetation changes again. Ferns and orchids grow thick beneath trees hung with mosses and epiphytes. An evergreen shrub, Miconia, clothes the hillsides with a nearly impenetrable blanket. Photographer Sam Abell and I walked upward through it one rainy day with Felipe Cruz, slipping and sliding along a dirt road slick with mud, as a steady drizzle fell. A native of the islands, Felipe had developed an interest in birds while collecting finch specimens for a visiting ornithologist. Now he is employed by the Charles Darwin Research Station, inaugurated in 1964 to promote conservation, conduct research, and disseminate information related to the Galápagos. Four years later the Ecuadorian Galápagos National Park Service was created. Almost all the islands´ land area is included within the boundaries of the park.

Tall, dark, and bearded, Felipe led us through the dripping trees to a cabin, where his wife, Justine, served us coffee. For several years, Felipe and Justine have been studying the nocturnal dark-rumped, or Flawaiian, petrel. "It´s the only officially endangered bird in the islands," Felipe said. "There was a time when you couldn´t sleep here in the highlands for the sound of them. During the day they nest in deep earthy burrows, where pigs and rats can get at them, so their numbers have decreased tragically."

Felipe and Justine monitor about 50 burrows, spending weeks at a time in the highlands´ drizzle and mist. Sloshing through a mini-torrent in a narrow gully, we followed them. Felipe stopped at the mouth of a burrow, reached into the soft bank up to his shoulder, and pulled out a bird. By the beak! Where the beak goes, I guess, the bird is sure to follow, but it seemed a good way to get pecked. The Cruzes put the bird—about the size of a pigeon—into a small canvas bag and weighed it, then measured a wing, a leg, the beak, and the tail. When they returned the petrel to the burrow, you could hear it muttering to itself as it disappeared.

"Future navigators may perhaps obtain here an abundant supply of goats´ meat; for unmolested as they will be ... it is probable their increase will be very rapid." Today there are an estimated 100,000 feral goats on Santiago.

The station, in conjunction with the Galápagos National Park Service, assesses the effect of tourism on the Galápagos. Ecuadorian officials to day suggest that the number of tourists visiting the islands be limited to 25 year, and some officials worry that that´s too many. "The danger," said Günther, "is that the Ecuadorian government might begin to think that tourism in the Galápagos can save the country´s economy. It can´t do that, but with improved management support we could handle a few more tourists here. It´s possible to look at animals without harming them."

Scientists from all over the world come to study the ecology of the islands, and undergraduates come to assist. I met one of them, Ecuadorian biology student Ana Sancho, among the tortoises at the station. Weighing as much as 600 pounds, the Galápagos tortoises—together with those on Aldabra in the Seychelles—are the world´s largest living tortoises. There were once 14 distinct subspecies in the archipelago, but now there are 11, all threatened by loss of habitat and predation by exotic animals. Each race had its own island or habitat where it evolved independently. This shows up most clearly in their carapaces: The shape depends, at least in part, on the food source. On the isles where food grows some distance off the ground, the tortoise shell is shaped in such a way that the tortoise can crane its neck and reach up high; in contrast, on lusher islands, the shell design features a 22 tighter fitting collar, since a tortoise need only stick its neck straight out and move it from side to side to eat the food growing a few inches high. Probably all Galápagos tortoises evolved from a common stock, animals that reached the islands hundreds of thousands of years ago, perhaps on rafts of floating vegetation from mainland rivers.

In an effort to help the threatened tortoises, the research station assists the park service in breeding captive animals, hatching the eggs, rearing the young for several years, then freeing them on their respective islands. About 900 young tortoises have been released. I found Ana surrounded by pens full of baby tortoises. They ranged in size from silver dollars to small dinner plates. Of the smallest, 99 were fast asleep, but the 100th was trucking across the bodies of its sleeping peers, on some vital errand.

Scientists are unable to determine the sex of a newborn tortoise without killing it, Ana told me. They believe the temperature of the nest may be the factor that decides the sex, so some of the station´s eggs are put in incubators kept near 79°F—a temperature that should produce females. Other eggs are stored at about 92°F—and should be hot-blooded males. "After all," said Ana, as she carefully buried a fresh batch of Española Island eggs in plastic dishpans full of cushioning vermiculite, "if we raise tortoises that are all the same sex, it doesn´t go far toward solving the problem of their dwindling numbers." The incubators were plywood chests, like clothes closets, with hair dryers inside rigged to thermostats. In the wild, biologists believe, the depth of the nest and the position of the eggs within it provide the critical temperatures for determining sex.

The first scientist to study the tortoises was Charles Darwin, the Galápagos´ most famous visitor. He arrived in 1835 as naturalist aboard H.M.S. Beagle. Neither Darwin nor the captain, Robert FitzRoy, was much impressed with his first view of the islands. "A shore fit for pandemonium," wrote FitzRoy. And Darwin noted: "Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black basaltic lava . . . crossed by great fissures, is everywhere covered by stunted sunburnt brushwood."

The Beagle spent five weeks in the Galápagos, busy weeks for Darwin. He was able to go ashore on only five of the islands, but from those five he collected specimens—and lingering impressions. A local official told him he could tell which island a giant tortoise came from just by looking at it. Also, Darwin noticed, many of the plants and animals were similar to those of the South American mainland, yet different. What´s more, they differed slightly from island to island. Certain finches, for instance, seemed to have beaks especially suited to the food available in their particular habitat. A finch with a long, slightly curved bill probed fleshy cactus pulp; one with a thick, powerful bill cracked open hard seeds and fed on them; another, with a bill like a sparrow´s, plucked ticks and mites from reptiles.

By the time of Darwin´s visit in 1835, the islands were well known to the world´s mariners. In 1535, a Dominican friar named Tomás de Berlanga, on a mission to Peru for the king of Spain, drifted into the Galápagos group. He later wrote of "many seals, turtles, iguanas, tortoises, many birds like those of Spain, but so silly that they do not know how to flee. ..."

Tricky currents often made finding the Galápagos difficult, and the legend arose that they floated randomly around the Pacific. In the 16th century, Spanish explorers referred to the Galápagos as Las Islas Encantadas: The Enchanted Isles. (Novelist Herman Melville picked up the name in 1856 for his account of the islands.) Buccaneers and pirates used the Galápagos as a refuge during the 17th and 18th centuries, and whaling ships arrived in great numbers in the first half of the 19th century. More than 30 called at Floreana alone in 1834. For the seafarers, the islands provided an easy source of fresh meat—the giant tortoises that lumbered across the lava fields. Hauled aboard ship and stored in the hold, or even on their backs on deck, they lived for months without food or water and could be slaughtered as needed. Perhaps a hundred thousand were taken. By the early 20th century they were extinct on Floreana and Santa Fe.

Few but scientists visited the Galápagos for the next fifty years, but the outbreak of World War II gave the islands a sudden strategic importance. The Panama Canal, just a thousand miles to the northeast, was vital to Allied shipping, and fears arose that Japan might use the islands as a base from which to attack it. In the summer of 1942, the United States began constructing an air base on Baltra. When it closed in 1947, the Ecuadorian air force occupied the site, and today most visitors to the islands touch down on the resurfaced main runway.

The town of Puerto Ayora is in the midst of a boom, with new buildings going up, new boats being built, new shops opening. Tourists explore the gravelly streets, shopping for T-shirts and black coral jewelry. The venturesome visit the smoky pool hall or the disco, where American rock thumps and whines half the night. Because of the international nature of the visitors, many Puerto Ayorans know a few words of several languages, which can give their conversation a colorful twist.