Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 15, 2017
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I prescribe the Galapagos

Lost world: An FM makes an unexpected trip to the unusual islands where rare species rule

Stepping out of the plane into the eerie volcanic landscape scorched red and brown by the sun, I knew I had arrived at a place like none I had ever seen before. Twenty-four hours earlier, my friend Kelly and I had been on mainland Ecuador feeling dejected about dismal weather dampening our plans to hike in the Andes.

Then we had bumped into Angela, a German veterinarian returning from working on the Galápagos Islands. "You have to go," Angela had insisted. "It's a wonderland."

The Galápagos, made famous by naturalist Charles Darwin, are an archipelago of volcanic landmasses that straddle the equator over 1,000 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador. Abundant in bird-life and teeming with animals, these islands are home to several unusual and endemic species that have evolved in geographical and ecological isolation.

Remarkably, the birds and animals have no fear of humans and behave today much as they did when Darwin studied them in 1835. Galápagos National Park and the Galápagos Marine Resources Reserve are UNESCO World Heritage sites. The only way for tourists to see them is to take an organized tour by boat with a certified guide.

Even on short notice, we were easily able to arrange a tour through one of the many travel agencies in the main town of Puerto Ayora. Within two days, we boarded a small 10-passenger boat, and met crew members colourful enough to rival the characters on Gilligan's Island.

A Macho's Harem
On the first night, our boat travelled across dark, placid waters from Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz to the tiny red island of Rábida. When the engines died, the sudden silence woke us from a fitful sleep and we found ourselves moored in a tranquil cove with a rugged rust-coloured peak looming before us, catching the soft purplish light of early morning. Above us, magnificent frigate birds, graceful and acrobatic, soared effortlessly on their immense black wings. A colony of boisterous sea lions made their presence known with sharp, abrupt barks and playful splashing.

A dinghy took the passengers and our guide, Marlon, over to Rábida's dark red beaches where we were greeted by more sea lions. The Galápagos sea lion is a subspecies of the California sea lion and, with numbers close to 50,000, it is the most frequently encountered mammal on the islands. The colonies, often established on beautiful sandy beaches, are jealously defended by the macho or dominant male who works hard, sometimes without eating or sleeping for days, to protect his right to breed with the females in his harem.

While it's unwise to get near the machos, we didn't mind when the baby sea lions approached within arm's length of us on their own, gazing up with large mournful eyes and an endearing tilt of the head. Photographic opportunities were plentiful with these natural models so close at hand.

By now we could feel the equatorial heat surging in the air around us. Clad in an armour of sunglasses, hats and sunscreen, we followed Marlon on a short hike past saltwater lagoons that used to be the home of pink flamingoes but now were the domain of bachelor sea lions. The dry forest covering most of the island was composed of giant prickly pear cacti and skeletal palo santo trees, the only vegetation tenacious enough to survive the harsh conditions. Foraging and nesting in the vegetation were a number of the famous Darwin's finches. The study of these 13 species of finches and their differences in size, beak shape, plumage and feeding habits helped Darwin formulate his theory of evolution. A prime example of adaptive radiation, Darwin surmised that each species had evolved along different lines from a common ancestor in response to selection pressures.

Schools of Surgeonfish
Seeking respite from the heat, we returned to the beach, stripped down to our bathing suits and entered the inviting waters with our snorkels. The diversity of life and the plethora of colours we encountered just beneath the surface belonged to another world. Magnificently coloured parrot fish, in scintillating shades of green and pink, swam alongside the bold black-, blue- and gold-striped angelfish. Schools of hundreds of yellow-tailed surgeonfish drifted by us gracefully and the sea-bottom was dotted with green sea urchins, orange cup coral and several aptly named yellow-and-black chocolate chip starfish. The Galápagos are also rated as one of the prime diving destinations in the world. One-day or multi-day diving cruises can be arranged to some fantastic sites for viewing the exhilarating variety of life forms in the ocean depths.

 

After a much-needed siesta mandated by the searing afternoon heat, we made our way over to our next destination: Puerto Egas on the island of Santiago. Much to our delight we were accompanied by a school of playful bottlenose dolphins surfing the bow waves of our boat. Further along a giant manta ray leapt out of the water displaying its impressive black-and-white body, which spanned over six metres. A close relative of sharks, these harmless creatures are the largest of the rays and are frequently encountered in deep waters as well as near shorelines of the Galápagos Islands.

Black sandy beaches and striated grey rocks formed by lava flows distinguish Puerto Egas from Rábida. This destination is well-known for the endemic Galápagos fur seals that hide in rocky shelters to avoid the sweltering sun. At first glance it's easy to mistake these creatures for young sea lions, but closer inspection reveals a shorter, broader head, thicker coats of fur and larger front flippers. Their thick, luxurious coats attracted sealers in the 19th century and they were nearly decimated. Fortunately, their crafty behaviour and secretive hiding places prevented them from being hunted to extinction. Today they are a protected species and have recovered in numbers.

Preservation of the islands for future generations was the topic of after-dinner conversation. Will chronic overfishing, the introduction of non-native species, and the stress of 70,000 visitors a year eventually erode the bountiful ecosystems? Is enough being done to protect species that previously never had to adapt to foreign disturbances? Marlon thought not. Working as a guide to finance his studies in environmental science, his ambition is to come back in the administrative ranks of Galápagos National Park and direct conservation policy. He agreed that the government and national park had legislation in place to protect wildlife and prevent overfishing, but he wanted to see more stringent rules for waste disposal by tour boats, vigorous enforcement of conservation rules at visitor sites and more aggressive measures to contain non-native species on the islands.

The days that followed did not disappoint. An early exit from the boat one morning allowed us a glimpse of the dainty Galápagos penguins. Standing only 30 centimetres tall, they are the only species of penguin that can live north of the equator. On the following day, we walked through unearthly lava landscapes on the islands of BartolomÄ and Santiago with unusual pioneer plants such as lava cactus and carpetweed growing in the most inhospitable environments. Further snorkelling expeditions brought us in contact with enormous Pacific green sea turtles foraging near rocky shores, white-tipped reef sharks lurking in deeper waters and golden mustard rays gracefully undulating along sandy sea-bottoms.

The last stop on the island of Seymour was an absolute treat for birdwatchers. The island houses the largest seabird-breeding colonies in the region and one can observe courting blue-footed boobies, nesting swallow-tailed seagulls and magnificent frigate birds rearing their young in such great numbers and from such close vantage points that even the reluctant birdwatcher cannot help but be fascinated.

The importance of nature conservation on these islands was undeniable, especially in light of the amazing sights we took in. However, the days we spent afterwards in Puerto Ayora really brought the human side of the equation into focus. The tide of immigration from economically languishing regions of mainland Ecuador has been difficult to stem despite the tightening of immigration rules by the Ecuadorian government.

Almost no one we met seemed to be originally from the islands, having come to the Galápagos for employment in fishing or tourism. Local fisherman we befriended took us out to sea on their boat. Their task that day was not to fish for seafood but for garbage. Due to overfishing, the national park authority had severely reduced fishing quotas and, in an effort to diminish the economic impact on the fishermen, the park employs them for coastal cleaning projects.

But as our friends explained, they were fishermen by trade and not garbage collectors. They felt betrayed by a government that cared more about fish than it did about the well-being of its people. We were not surprised a few days later to see their colleagues demonstrating in the streets of Puerto Ayora. They staged a sit-in at the gates of the Charles Darwin Research Station to make their plight known to tourists, government officials and scientists. While these enchanted islands seem like a wonderland to tourists, they represent a livelihood to the Ecuadorian people and the only hope for the continued existence of several unique species.

 

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