This is what conservation looks like: Galapagos 101

I didn’t know much about the Galapagos Islands. I had heard there were blue-footed boobies, iguanas and the giant tortoise, each living without predators. And that it was difficult and very expensive to get there. Still, people said to go. It’s like nothing else, they told me. You won’t regret it.


My experience in the remote Ecuadorian island chain went beyond incredible, sharp-edged lava landscapes, clear waters and rare and docile animals living in a protected environment. It took me several days to realize that I wasn’t just entering a unique ecosystem preserve; I was entering a conservation mindset like none I’d encountered.
Isla Isabela

Galapagos is made up of more than a dozen large islands and many more small islets. The largest of these include Isla Isabella, Santa Cruz, and San Cristobal. Other islands can be reached by boat, each offering a unique landscape or species. Isabella offers penguins; Seymour, the rare land iguana. Many visitors choose to visit each island by boat, some sleeping as their vessel move from island to island by night. This option was simply too expensive for us this time around. Instead, we based out of Santa Cruz and took days trips to nearby islands, spending much of our time in and then under the water.

The Galapagos Islands’ growth plan is based on the idea and practice of sustainability and conservation. No animal is to be touched, and one always stays a meter’s distance from the variety of large, lounging creatures: marine iguanas, sea lions, tortoises and the like. It became famous largely through Charles Darwin’s, The Origin of Species, in which he wrote about the evolution of small finches on various islands, noting how these small birds had evolved to meet the conditions on various islands. The Theory of Natural Selection. And while the writing on Galapagos animals is only a very small part of his work, Darwin has become a kind of founding father to Galapagos mythology and renown.

At The Charles Darwin Research Station, based on the island of Santa Cruz, naturalists work to preserve and reproduce some of the last remaining Giant Tortoises. These gentle creatures were nabbed by pirates and early colonists as an easy food source as they could live on ships without food or water for up to six months or longer. Preservation and breeding efforts began after researchers realized the creatures were almost extinct.

At the Station, signs referring to Darwin’s work abound: “The only thing we can be sure of is change,” or “The most adaptable to change survive.” And yet the way I saw it, Galapagos is and works hard to remain, frozen in time. In so doing, it also has seen a way to create an economic return that few other National Parks or cities in Ecuador can claim.

In 1978 UNESCO designated Galapagos as the first World Heritage site. A variety of conservation efforts have forced locals to adapt. For example, because of lobster overfishing (and the illegal harvesting of lobsters with their eggs) restaurants are allowed to serve lobster only two months of the year. Restaurants comply, and fishermen were encouraged to convert their vessels to serve tourists.

From the moment you set foot on Galapagos, you are entering a conservation zone. No fruit or organic matter is allowed. Your bags are carefully checked before you enter the plane at your departing city, and your luggage is sprayed with disinfectant while in the overhead compartment. Once you’ve landed, you step through a disinfectant puddle before entering the small airport, which is built with sustainability and energy conservation in mind (with levers that open when the temperature becomes too high). Then trained dogs are let loose on your luggage to sniff out natural elements (like my all-natural hand lotion, apparently).

Signs everywhere remind visitors not to throw trash on roads or in the ocean. No one is to approach or touch any animals, and along the stretches of road, there are turtle crossing signs. In fact, when a tortoise stopped to drink in a puddle in front of our bus, we were not allowed to move it. It’s an illegal act, our driver said as we waited five very long minutes.

It’s not just about animals; it’s also about the environment generally. One restaurant featured a sign advising their patrons that they didn’t offer straws because the instruments polluted oceans and didn’t biodegrade.

Many snorkelers and divers would agree that Galapagos is not best for color or tropical fish as there is little intact coral reef, and the species found there are far fewer than the Caribbean or IndoPacific. It’s about the big animals: alongside the white and black tipped sharks, sea lions, and sea turtles, there are also eagle and manta rays, and at greater depths, schools of hammerhead sharks.

One of the joys of this adventure was introducing my 10-year-old son Aiden to the world of scuba. Only one adventure dive in, he’s ready to get his PADI license!

Galapagos is also about turtles: sea turtles at many of the islands and the giant land tortoises that wander many islands. We spent time visiting the rehabilitation centers of Isabella and Santa Cruz, as well as a private ranch on Santa Cruz that has tortoises of all sizes in their natural environment enjoying the rich vegetation of the rainy season. We sipped iced tea, as the bellows of mating turtles broke the calm. Unfortunately, the last giant Pinta tortoise, ‘Lonesome George’ died in 2012 having failed to produce offspring.

What continued to strike me was the level of consciousness about habitat. Each tour is required to have a knowledgeable naturalist. Beaches and streets are clean, and I saw many tourists inspired to pick up random bits of trash when encountered—rare indeed. The water is crystal clear, and animals show little fear. One afternoon, a large marine iguana swam up to me and my son as we sat on the beach. He stretched out alongside us to absorb the suns rays, completely indifferent to our presence.

Visitors be forewarned: the equatorial sun is brutal and despite wearing 30 sunblock, hats, glasses and long-sleeved shirts at all times (also in the water), I was burned within minutes of exposure. April is apparently the hottest month, with the sun directly overhead.

So we hiked and swam, kayaked and snorkeled, watched amazing blue-footed boobies and red-breasted frigate birds fly overhead, and marveled at the gentle nature of the protected bays, which harbor dozens of baby sharks.

I leave these beautiful islands with a heavy heart, knowing I’ve witnessed something unique indeed. Not just protected species that exist nowhere else, but a way of thinking that is also endangered. One that informs and educates, teaches respect and responsibility and shows us circumstances where man and nature can coexist peacefully – and result in economic bounty for local communities. How different the world would be if people in other regions showed similar respect to the land and seas, and to the creature inhabitants of each. My comfort is in knowing that my young son now knows this is possible. He has seen it in action, has seen the economic and natural promise, and vows to   recreate it. It is the hope we should all share.

P.S. Here are a few more shots.

Hour 8 in a day
Blue footed Boobies
Playful friends off Isla Santa Fe

 

First time scuba diving. First of many!
Beach heading to Tortuga Bay
Diving companions
Giant tortoises out and about

 

The dock at sunset
Fresh water pool
Sitting with a lazy friend. Isla Isabela
Preparing for a first dive

 

Kayaking at Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz

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