Once everything and everyone arrived on the Galapagos Islands by accident.The volcanic upwelling that continues to create the collection of lava islands almost 1,000 km from Ecuador on the Equator sits at the intersection of massive Pacific currents and so has occasionally received the flotsam of South America — plant, animal and man. Even the ‘discoverers’ of the Enchanted Isles or the Island of Fire (Incas in the 15th century and the Bishop of Panama, Tomas de Berlanga, in 1535) were accidental explorers caught in the doldrums and swept to the life-saving outcrop which offered food and water. The islands were beyond ‘the edge of the world’ and there is still a sense here of going back in time, but there is no sense of the random. Everything and everyone arriving at what is now the world heritage listed Galapagos Islands National Park is minutely scheduled and searched, tagged and taxed, logged in and logged out. Crowd control is Ecuador’s biggest challenge in using the golden-egg laying giant tortoises to attract tourist dollars but keep the islands ‘untouched’. It’s a national park where you can’t smoke, use a camera flash or walk on the grass and are urged to ‘denounce’ attempts at fishing from tour boats or the sale of lava jewellery.
Why at least 200,000 people a year go to the Galapagos is the key to both managing the fragile balance and attracting the burgeoning global middle class that can now afford to come to what was once the province of explorers, scientists, whalers, navies, Ecuadorean farmers and the super-rich. I had wanted to go the Galapagos since I was a child. An interest in animal picture books grew into a high-school study of biology and an adult pursuit of Darwinism, The Voyage of the Beagle and, yes, Master and Commander with its ‘fighting naturalist’ Stephen Maturin and Captain Jack Aubrey, a relationship cannily similar to the relationship between Darwin and Captain Robert Fitzroy of the Beagle. A loving and generous wife and family made the decision for me last Christmas Day — my 60th birthday — and sent me within days to cruise on the Mary Anne and stay in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, the most populated island.
On the flight between Guayaquil and the Galapagos, the Ecuadorean government tries to establish why people come, but the matter-of-fact questions miss the intangibles that are the motivation for so many. Yes, the unique wildlife is important, and the photography, filming and scuba diving that go with it are prime factors. But for most other tourists I spoke to on the ten-day cruise around seven islands, the answer was simply that it was ‘the trip of a lifetime’. As with Antarctic tours there is a quest for the isolated and remote, the untouched and the unique. Ironically, as more people find themselves able to go the Galapagos or the Antarctic, there is an increasing sense of haste to get there before it changes. For all the control on tourist numbers, the airport under construction is four times the size of the old iron shed and has an air of Jurassic Park about it, awaiting a vast influx of visitors.
As you snorkel among sea lions, penguins and marine turtles galore (it is actually possible to become blasé about swimming with turtles within arm’s reach) or walk along tracks past giant tortoises and birds without fear, an unease develops that this cannot last. There will always be the sense that the Galapagos has a special place in the scientific and cultural development of mankind because of Darwin. Darwin’s finches are everywhere and invariably the ‘first contact’ as they flit about the airport on Baltra behaving and looking much like house sparrows. Indeed, Darwin himself missed the significance of the island-by-island variations of the finches when he was there, noting the difference in mockingbirds, having his oversight pointed out on his return to England. Sea lions and iguanas are the next contact as they lounge about the ferry wharf or poke about the bus stop. One of the rules is that tourists must keep two metres away and not allow animals to approach, but this becomes
a moot point when you have to step over a sea lion to get onto your water taxi to the boat.
After a day’s trekking over velvet black and razor-sharp lava flows followed by diving among iguanas or manta rays, the twilight dinner conversation on deck would turn to travel. So many had been to Machu Picchu, the Antarctic, Africa, Borneo, Alaska, Venice and the ruins of Pompeii that there was a sense the Galapagos were the last frontier and that many of the ‘trips of a lifetime’ and wonders of the world were succumbing to the pressures of being seen and crumbling or closing from observation stress or self-preservation.
For me, the moment of a lifetime’s waiting appeared on the third day as I snorkelled and looked from water level to the black lava rocks, covered in grey iguanas and dark cormorants, and, there among the tones of drab was a large brilliant, red, orange and blue Sally Lightfoot crab like a firework against the night sky. It was then, and only then, I recalled the Time-Life book I had at age ten with its three-page foldout illustration of the Galapagos in brown and black with a starburst crab in the lower corner. The Galapagos do make it possible to go back in time and have the journey of a lifetime. But, as they try to fence off the sea lions from the bus stop seats near the airport because of the smell and danger to tourists, you have to wonder if it can last.
Dennis Shanahan is political editor of the Australian.
Give the perfect gift this Christmas. Buy a subscription for a friend for just £75 and you’ll receive a free gift too. Buy now.