Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021

© Andrew Farquhar

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Darwin’s Demons

150 years after The Origin of Species, the Galápagos are still a mythical place

Home to some of the strangest species and most startling landscapes on earth, the Galápagos Islands are an ecological jewel. These islands, which Charles Darwin described as “horrid,” would inspire him to have the “greatest thought of all time.” When Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species 150 years ago, it would change forever how humans saw themselves on planet earth, and shake science and religion to their core.

This archipelago of 19 volcanic islands dotted around the equator, 1000 kilometres west of continental Ecuador, has been called a living lab of evolution. The islands owe their character to ongoing volcanic activity, a fortuitous position at the vortex of three major ocean currents, an unusual exposure to hot and cold trade winds, and, critically, extreme isolation.

Drifting on the ocean or carried on the wind, hardy seeds, seabirds and reptiles somehow managed to survive vast distances to reach the young volcanic islands and slowly life took hold. Life that could adapt survived; life that could not perished. This wonderfully simple concept was the basis for what has been called the “greatest thought of all time.”

The cursed islands

In 1535, the Bishop of Panama, his ship blown off course, came across a hostile volcanic landscape with rivers of molten lava, treacherous ocean currents and dense sea fog. Cursing the islands, they became known as “Las Encantadas” — the Bewitched — and gained notoriety as the haunt of cutthroat pirates, armour-plated dragons and lumbering 250-kilogram giants. The stuff of legend.

Darwin’s involvement was an unlikely accident. He had set out to be a physician, studying medicine at Edinburgh. After two years he moved to Cambridge to read divinity. Shortly thereafter he successfully applied for a position as a gentleman companion to the captain of HMS Beagle shortly leaving on a mission to map South America.

In 1835, the captain decided to make a Galápagos stopover in search of water. There for five weeks, Darwin would spend only two on land, visiting only four islands. Describing the islands as “horrid,” he was nevertheless intrigued by the local flora and fauna, made voluminous notes and shipped thousands of specimens back to England.

A God-fearing creationist, Darwin agonized over the ideas inspired by his short stay on the Galápagos, and for 24 years continued to seek further evidence supporting his theory. Learning that anthropologist and biologist Alfred Russel Wallace had similar ideas about natural selection and species diversity, Darwin hastily prepared a manuscript that was published in November 1859.

It was a sell-out on the first day. On the Origin of Species sent shock waves through the scientific and religious worlds. Viewed by some as heretical, others have described the book as the greatest scientific publication of all time. Darwin could not have imagined that its momentous impact would continue to reverberate 150 years later.

Goats vs penguins

In 1978, the Galápagos archipelago became the first place on the planet to be designated a World Heritage Site. Fame came at a heavy price, and in 2007 UNESCO put the islands on their World Heritage “In Danger” List, stating they were under threat from “invasive species,” tourism and immigration. Introduced domestic species like goats and pigs proved deadly to local flora and fauna.

Heroic conservation strategies are underway. There is a massive global effort led by the UN and the World Bank to save this tiny but invaluable piece of our planet’s heritage. It is an uphill battle. Avian malaria has recently been identified in Galápagos penguins.

Simmering hostility among some locals who resent fishing restrictions may have been at the root of a senseless slaughter on Pinta Island where 53 sea lions were clubbed to death in January 2008. Serious measures have been taken to control tourism. Travel on land is carefully regulated and only small groups of tourists, always accompanied by a certified naturalist guide, are allowed ashore at a time.

My wife and I visited in February. Our arrival in Baltra found us jostling with hordes of tourists and feeling apprehensive about the rest of our trip. Soon, however, we were whisked off to a nearby dock to board a transfer vessel to our cruise ship. We had left the throng behind and had our first encounter with local wildlife.

A solitary bench on the transfer dock had been taken over by two sea lions languishing gloriously in the sunshine, occasionally opening a sleepy eye to survey the newcomers. Their body language oozed total indifference and a sense of ownership. As we bundled aboard the transfer vessel I began to feel excited about what lay ahead.

Booby watching

Surpassing the visual feast of stark lavascapes, lush highland forests and paradise beaches was getting up close and personal with some of the most unusual “wildlife” on our planet, including giant land tortoises, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, flightless cormorants and equatorial penguins. All have evolved in the absence of land predators, have no fear of humans and almost appear to “ham it up” for photoshoots!

It was impossible not to be moved by the antics and fearlessness of creatures as curious about us as we were of them. A nosey flycatcher repeatedly landed on my camera to check out the lens and the person behind it. A cheeky sea lion eyeballed my wife Stephanie inches from her diving mask, then gently tapped her on the leg as if to say, “Come play!”

But the marine iguanas and giant tortoises stole the show. The fantastically monstrous appearance of the marine iguanas belied their placid nature, as they lay unfazed by our approach, blending magically with the lava, making it hard to tell reptile from rock. Although only 1.5 metres in length, they have likened to “armour-plated dragons,” but like all Galápagos creatures they’re completely harmless.

Our introduction to giant tortoises was a distant, noisy grunting. We arrived on the scene a few minutes before the male dismounted. Mating, like everything else in the life of a tortoise, is a prolonged affair of two to six hours. As I lay on the ground to photograph a colossus, lumbering in my direction, I suddenly worried that his 250-kilogram frame would go right over the top of me. Given that it moves at five metres a minute, I did manage to get out of his way.

It is easy to be seduced by the Galápagos. Nowhere else on our planet can we experience the intimacy afforded by encounters with animals so at ease with humans. You leave with a heightened awareness of the beauty and fragility of nature, a sense of humility and a deep conviction that human beings are, after all, part of this grand mosaic of life. As the most advanced life form on earth, it is within our power, and is surely our duty, to be responsible caretakers for our planet and its creatures.

Dr Andrew Farquhar is a family physician in Kelowna, BC, with a special interest in diabetes. An experienced photographer, his work has been published in PhotoLife and on the cover of a Canadian Geographic calendar. This was his first trip to the Galápagos, but he previously spent time in Ecuador and recently travelled around Patagonia. He plans to visit Costa Rica in the coming months.

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