I’ve been fortunate to do some pretty amazing travel in the past, but the journey I just returned from has certainly stolen the show.
As an evolution nerd, a Darwin enthusiast, and a lover of the natural world, a trip to the Galapagos was truly an experience I will never forget. I’ve wanted to visit the Galapagos for a long time*, and while I had thought about visiting in my 6 months off between med school and residency I only booked the trip about a month ago. My father (also an evolution nerd, Darwin enthusiast, and naturalist) and I travelled with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions on a trip to the Galapagos aboard The National Geographic Endeavour (named in honor of the first vessel that Captain Cook used in his explorations – the one that landed on the eastern coast of Australia; Cook never visited the Galapagos). I’ll just start by saying the company, the experience, the ship, the crew, the staff, the naturalists, the whole package- were all first rate. It’s a top of the line option for visiting the Galapagos, and it really shows.
In many people’s minds, the Galapagos are inexorably linked with Charles Darwin and his theory of Natural Selection. Darwin visited the Galapagos, on HMS Beagle, in 1835. Darwin was aboard the Beagle for 5 years, but he only spent 5 weeks in the Galapagos of which only 19 days were on land! Nonetheless, the observations he made there and the samples he collected were important ingredients for his future theory.
Most of the walks we took on this cruise were rather relaxed, but this evening’s hike was a change of pace, and we made good speed up a steep trail. Looking back, we could see the Endeavour and a large pond that Darwin wrote about in The Voyage of the Beagle. Alas, while he was hoping for a refreshing dip in some fresh water, he was frustrated to find that this pond is brackish.
I recommend the Galapagos chapter of The Voyage of the Beagle (Chapter 17). It is a delightful and quick read, and if you have an e-reader you can find it for free online. The Voyage of the Beagle was a travel journal of sorts, and while Darwin was the naturalist aboard The Beagle (well he was eventually, he didn’t start that way but eventually replaced the original Naturalist) he first became famous as a travel writer (his theory of evolution didn’t make him famous until quite late in life, and strangely his book on Barnacles wasn’t a big seller…).
Over the years, the Galapagos became a popular stopping point for ships. While there is very limited fresh water, it was a good place to replenish food. Early visitors introduced goats (a species that quickly flourished on the islands, wreaking havoc on endemic creatures) and the Galapagonian tortoises were particularly popular as well.
There are a number of species that are uniquely Galapagonian- the tortoise being a prime example. These giant creatures at one time roamed the islands in great numbers, but their populations were decimated by humans in ~150 years. The tortoise had two great misfortunes- first, they apparently taste pretty good (Darwin wrote of roasted tortoise breast “Gaucho style” being quite tasty, and was complimentary of tortoise soup (from medium sized animals), though he found nothing remarkable in the rest of the animal). Perhaps the greater misfortune for these giants is that they can survive for ~2 years without food or water. In a time before refrigeration, when fresh meat was almost an impossibility on long sea voyages, tortoises could be stashed on boats for ages until they were finally consumed. I admit to being rather bad about anthropomorphizing animals, but I can only imagine that being kept in the hold of a ship for over a year before being killed and eaten was a rather unpleasant end.
The tortoises on different islands are considered different sub-species (though where you draw the line at species vs. subspecies or variety was a common quandary during our tour of the Galapagos) and some have gone extinct due to human harvesting, competition (with things such as introduced goats), and decreased hatching (because of damage to nests due to introduced species). One of the most famous Galapagos Tortoises was “Lonesome George”, the last of his kind- a subspecies of tortoise that inhabited Pinta Island. While a number of attempts were made to breed George and “save” his kind, none were successful, and he died- the last of his kind- in 2012.
Lonesome George had been living at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island since his discovery in 1971, and for many years was the center’s most famous denizen. We visited Santa Cruz, and the Charles Darwin Research Center, during our cruise, and we got to see the conservation efforts there.
After his death, Lonesome George was sent to NYC where he was preserved by experts at the Natural History Museum. The current celebrity at the Charles Darwin Research Center is a much happier tale. When conservation efforts were initiated, there were only 14 tortoises of the Española subspecies- 12 females and 2 males. While conservationists hoped to build the population from these animals, the females were not interested in the males. In an attempt to save the subspecies, a global search for a male of their kind was initiated- seeking out giant tortoises in zoos and private collections around the world. Eventually a male was found in the San Diego zoo, and after some negotiating “Diego” made his way back to the Galapagos. Now, having fathered over 1000 offspring, Diego is known as “Super Diego”, and the subspecies is doing well!
The conservation of the Galapagos Tortoises seems to be on the road to success, which is wonderful. The Charles Darwin Research Station has also had good success breeding and reintroducing some subspecies of Land Iguanas. In fact, the breeding program at the research center has now been closed because the efforts were so successful.
You may not know it, but about 30,000 people live in the Galapagos. While 97% of the island is National Park (for which you need a permit and a naturalist to visit- no more than 16 tourists per naturalist), there are a number of inhabited areas. At the end of our cruise we visited Santa Cruz, where the Darwin Center is, and San Cristobal, from where we flew back to the mainland. In Santa Cruz we took a walk through town, and it was fun to stop at the fish market and see the catch of the day. Humans weren’t the only interested customers!
The Galapagos are part of Ecuador, and until fairly recently were not inhabited. Initially, colonists were “gifted” land, as encouragement to come and live in the Galapagos, but now there are significant efforts to curb immigration. When we were in Santa Cruz we headed up into the highlands to see tortoise in the wild (they much prefer to be in the highlands with lush vegetation and more water, but the females come out of the highlands to lay eggs- an unfortunate habit, since the smaller females were more desirable fodder for hungry sailors, and were much closer to the ocean than the large males who stayed in the highlands).
While we were in the highlands we visited a plantation where a family grows coffee and sugar cane. Both grow well in the Galapagos, and while we visited we learned how people traditionally processed sugar (into molasses and alcohol) and coffee.
We got to try coffee beans, sugar, coffee, sugar juice (delicious with a squeeze of lime), and hooch (ditto). While I certainly took lots of pictures in the Galapagos thing, the only physical product I’m coming home with is some Galapagonian Coffee.
I have a lot more to write about, and many more pictures to share, but this seems like a good stopping point for now. I’ll get the next post up ASAP, but it may be a bit of a wait since I head to the UK tomorrow for a quick visit with family.
*While I have always been keen to visit the Galapagos, I have also been somewhat wary. There is no doubt that humans have done a lot of damage in the Galapagos. While the bulk of this damage was done by early visitors who purposefully introduced a number of hardy species, tourists certainly have the potential to damage the environment, spread seeds, and introduce species or disease. That being said, done correctly, tourism can be an incredible force for good in the Galapagos. A lot of damage has been done in the past 200 yrs by sailors, settlers, and visitors. Progress is being made to repair these damages, with money coming largely from tourists. If humans were to now abandon the Galapagos, the endemic species would be pushed out by species that have already been introduced. Well-regulated tourism, appropriate management of the land, and conservation efforts can help preserve the Galapagos. They are certainly a wonder worth saving.