In 1835, Charles Darwin wrote these worlds in the Voyage of the Beagle: “The archipelago is a little world within itself, or rather a satellite attached to America, whence it has derived a few stray colonists, and has received the general character of its indigenous population.” Chapter XVII: “Galapagos Archipelago” (second edition, 1845), entry for 8 October, pages 377-378
A mere 186 years and 106 days later, I set foot out of the airport on San Cristóbal, a plucky little airport with long queues and a rainbow ceiling. It was windy. I was excited. Darwin’s piecing together the theory of evolution using, among other things, the animals found here has given these islands a mystique matched by few other wild places. I was there to participate in a conference on island sustainability hosted by the Galapagos Science Center (GSC), a partnership between UNC Chapel Hill, the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, and a number of other consortium members.
I was met at the airport by a young National Park guide named Sol, who brought me the short distance into town and the hotel, which faced onto a beach full of Galápagos sealions, Zalophus wollebaeki which diverged from their ancestors, the California sealions Z. californianus somewhere between 2 to 2.5 millions years ago. They’re small, noisy, playful, and – like every other animal on these islands – completely unconcerned with humans. In the tiny town of San Cristóbal, they sleep on park benches, loll in the gutter outside your favorite pizza joint, and hop the zodiac that was going to take you diving. Underwater, the juveniles play games with you, blowing bubbles in your face and doing alligator rolls, in both cases expecting you to follow suit.
Outside the hotel, have a light lunch on the beachfront, the crumbs will be stolen not by sparrows, but by Small Ground Finches Geospiza fuliginosa. Yes, one of Darwin’s all-important finches is hopping into your bread basket pilfering their afternoon meal. It was hard to accept, until another icon, the San Cristóbal Mockingbird Mimus melanotis, hopped onto a chair back next to me. This fabled tameness around humans is evident everywhere you go there.
San Cristóbal is a small town that doesn’t take up much of the island. The rest of it, save for a few villages and farms, is left to largely nature. There are marine iguanas snorting salt on the rocks as they have been for millions of years. Two species of frigate birds nest on waist-high shrubs alongside beaches strewn with the nests of blue-footed boobies. Each booby nest is a rough pile of vegetation, circumscribed by an almost perfect circle of guano. No nest can be closer to another than than this circle, the length of a nesting bird’s pecking reach.
This idyllic picture is not to say that the Galápagos Archipelago is without its environmental or social issues. Over the course of history, the giant endemic tortoises Geochelone chathamensis, which display inter-island variability among species, have been hunted for meat and eggs, their young destroyed by feral animals and much of their territory degraded by generations of escaped livestock. That’s a common theme with many of the endemic species here. Fortunately, there’s work being done to protect them and rehabilitate their populations. La Galapaguera is a tortoise reserve in the highlands of San Cristobal, open to the public, in which many hundreds of tortoises have been hatched in protected semi-natural conditions and raised to get them over their most vulnerable period in the wild. See more about official work to restore tortoise populations here.
Something that struck me when I was there is that the while abundance of most species is high, as is endemism (many species on San Cristobal are native to there and nowhere else), biodiversity – on land at least – is relatively low. The only species present are those whose progenitors managed to travel the great distance from somewhere else, whether aided storms, floating vegetation, or humans. Underwater, however, it’s a different story. There diversity of marine life is high and the ecosystem complex. There are sand dollars as big as dinner plates and green sea turtles Chelonia mydas as big as dinner tables, and a riot of reef fish everywhere. The conference highlighted for me the excellent ecology happening on the archipelago and the importance of the GSC to enable it. Aside from an excellent education program, the 20,000 sq. ft. GSC facility is host to nearly a hundred ongoing projects out of four laboratories, each with a dedicated research focus: terrestrial ecology, marine ecology & oceanography, geospatial technologies, and microbiology.
A truism that’s extremely palpable when you’re there is that environmental and social issues are intimately connected. At the conference we also heard about local inhabitants’ issues with water quality, isolation, obesity and – perhaps unsurprisingly – depression. A contingent of the fishing community resent the marine park from limiting their catch. Changing climate threatens rainfall in the highlands, on which the entire island depends. Despite this, however, the islands, the national park, and the GSC remain important exemplars of what can be done for conservation in partnership and inputs into the islands from tourism are an important feature of the positive outcomes that can result.
The conference brought together researchers from all over the world, working not only on the Galapagos, but in the Caribbean, the Great Barrier Reef, the California Coast, Hawaii, and elsewhere. It was important from its breadth and quality, but equally that wherever people were from they came with a common goal: to address pervasive concerns in some of the Earth’s most vulnerable ecosystems.