The landscape of the Galápagos archipelago has never much cared for first impressions. ‘Nothing can be imagined more rough and horrid than the surface of the more modern streams,’ Darwin remarks in his Journal of Researches (1839) as he recounts, with more than a little trepidation, his initial landing on San Cristobel: ‘A broken field of black basaltic lava is everywhere covered by stunted brushwood,’ whose black cones and chimneys, ‘strongly reminded me of those parts of Staffordshire where the great iron-foundries are most numerous.’ It is a fortuitous comparison: centuries earlier, the fourth Bishop of Panama’s accidental encounter with the Galápagos in 1535 led him to describe the rocky terrain and thin topsoil as, ‘like slag, worthless.’ The Bishop and his crew nearly died before they found fresh water – it would have taken little imagination to feel that they had been cast into a hell on earth.
Nowadays, the reputation of these islands is nearly paradisiacal. Last December, I flew to the Galápagos and joined the more than 1.5 million tourists who have been and gone since the islands opened to visitors some 50 years ago. These volcanic specks in the Pacific have become an environmental spectacle, a byword for untouched natural beauty that now embodies the very concept of evolution. The young gentleman geologist who stumbled ashore in 1835 would have found it all very bemusing. In fact, the famous association between Darwin and these isles has little to do with the man himself. It was researcher William Beebe’s 1924 book, Galápagos: World’s End, that helped popularise the link.
This reputation often feels like a testament to how much we, not the Galápagos, have changed. Arriving by plane into Baltra Island, the north-facing slopes of its larger neighbour, Santa Cruz, rise up nearby: huge and arid, they are as inhospitably beautiful as they have ever been. For the very reasons that repulsed early colonisers the Galápagos is now a marvel – a specially preserved meeting place of volcanic rock and natural selection. Perhaps even more remarkable is the continued survival of these fragile habitats even now. As far as we know, only 17 per cent of the 4,000 native species have become extinct, with 97 per cent of the islands now a protected nature reserve. Despite decades of conservation challenges, despite the dismissive greed of policymakers, despite the fragility of the climate we live in, the Galápagos endures.
On the evening of my arrival, our boat took us to North Seymour, the even smaller sibling island of Balra. A little slip of rock, it is home to an almost comically large number of birds, balanced on whatever will hold their weight. Upon landing, we were emphatically told to stay at a minimum of three metres from the inhabitants. At first it seemed unnecessary – there are few non-extinct species that haven’t learnt to keep out of arm’s reach. Yet this is a peculiar form of narcissism, for the animals of the Galápagos simply don’t care. Why should they? As Darwin observed shortly after his arrival: ‘The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable: it seems to be a little world within itself.’ Largely devoid of natural predators on land and protected from touchy-feely visitors by guides, the fauna has little reason to pay us any attention. This indifference struck Beebe nearly a century ago as he wrote: ‘once we were taught that the earth was the centre of the universe, then that man was the raison d’être of earthly evolution. Now I was thankful to realize that I was here at all, and that I had the great honor of being one with all about me, and in however a small way to have at least an understanding part.’ This is a rare insight – although it is worth noting that Beebe, like Darwin, had a tendency to test the tameness of the island animals by seeing how far he could throw various land iguanas. Yet, theirs was certainly not an understanding of the natural world shared by earlier visitors. A century of whalers and fishermen took advantage of the apparent tameness to eat around 200,000 giant tortoises, and decimate the populations of many other species. The islands were named after these reptilian inhabitants. ‘Galápagos’ meaning tortoise in Spanish, but less, it seems, as an observation, and more as a culinary invitation.
Perhaps it is foolish to hope that we can entirely escape the arbitrary self-importance that characterises our relationship with nature, no matter how well intentioned. It is salient to remember that the voyage of HMS Beagle was not primarily a scientific expedition. The ship was an Admiralty vessel, performing imperial charting of the South American coastline. Like every other tourist there, I too have dutifully produced the necessary fodder for social media, standing moronically in front of an unsuspecting sea lion for a group photo. Even the history of Galápagos conservation is marked by a conformity to human anniversary: a special law was passed to designate it a national park to mark the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. Ecuador’s formal acquisition of the archipelago on the 12th February 1832 even happens to coincide with his birthday. This occasionally feels like a kind of absurd posturing in the face of millions of years of tectonic and evolutionary development. The effect is not lost on Kurt Vonnegut, whose acerbic novel Galápagos (1985), abounds in human selfishness and meaningless coincidence. His narrator, looking back from a distant future where humans have evolved into seals, comments ‘a million years later, I feel like apologizing for the human race. That’s all I can say.’
Vonnegut would have been just as cutting if he were around to comment on the return of perhaps the most famous resident of these isles, Lonesome George, who was shipped back to the Charles Darwin Research Centre in March. It was a bittersweet reunion. George died of natural causes in June 2012, the last individual of the Pinta Island tortoise species. His doomed isolation for 40 years at the station cast him as a symbol of environmental destruction, and in the process galvanized a huge conservation effort to restore tortoise populations to historic levels. His embalmed body now stands on display, like some long forgotten antediluvian beast. Yet, the desire not to forget is strong. At the grand opening ceremony of his exhibit the theme was: ‘a legend, a hope, a future,’ a reflection of the immense, and sometimes contradictory, significance that accompanies the events of these islands. It can be hard to fully comprehend: a place so beautifully untouched yet so often threatened, where conservation has struggled and succeeded. There is even a hope of sorts for George – though it comes a little late for comfort – as recent genetic testing has revealed that mixed tortoise breeds on nearby islands are close relatives, and they could be used to engineer a de-extinction of his species.
Near the end of my trip, I stayed a few nights on Santa Cruz, passing through busy Puerto Isidro Ayora, where the majority of the 30,000 Galápagos residents work, on my way to the highlands above. These areas have the kind of lush greenery that usually carpets tropical areas, fed as they are by a cool southerly wind and, in the hot season, rain. Consequently, most of the landmass not designated national park is concentrated here, along with large populations of domed giant tortoises. This occasionally makes for strange standoffs between big tourist buses and wayward reptiles that have strayed onto the tarmac. But there is a larger confrontation taking place, one that concerns the future of the Galápagos. Tourism is big money, and Ecuadorians have been moving here in large numbers to make the most of it. Economic growth may have slowed since the early 2000s thanks to more stringent migration controls, but the pressure is still immense. In turn, invasive species are increasingly difficult to police with so much organic material now imported from the mainland, and a haphazard approach to town planning has exacerbated the effect of human activity on Santa Cruz. The Darwin Research Centre is only a few minutes from the port, but it can feel very far away indeed. Journalist and author Henry Nicholls outlined the problem in 2014: ‘the Galápagos is a perfect case in point – that if conservationists fail to consider the needs of humans they ignore a vital part of the ecology.’
The relationship between humans and nature encompasses a problem bigger than the Galápagos, and yet, as always, it is uniquely confronted by it. In Santa Cruz one of our guides, Roberto Plaza, took us to a final destination, high up in giant-tortoise territory. He and his wife Reyna, an experienced conservationist, have spent five and a half years designing and building the first completely eco-efficient buildings in the Galápagos. Compact, angular and otherworldly, the project, named MonteMar, is a startlingly beautiful departure from the houses back in town. It also doubles up as their home and as accommodation they rent out to tourists. MonteMar’s difference to the town is not just in appearance, but also design: built largely with local materials, the complex is almost entirely self-sufficient in water and energy usage. ‘It was born out of frustration really, how things are running in the human component’, Reyna said. ‘In the 3 per cent (land not designated national park) we are really doing business as usual, as if we were living in any other part of the world. MonteMar is a pilot project to prove that we as human beings can live in harmony with nature and that we can give back as much as we receive.’
It can be hard to wrap your head around just how impressive their achievement is. Although both Roberta and Reyna have degrees related to conservation, and the latter an M.B.A from INCAE Costa Rica, it took four years alone to develop the concept. With the help of an architect from the mainland they learnt how to properly treat bamboo so it wouldn’t rot, design natural ventilation systems, and collect enough water to support a small family. That is to say nothing of the headache that inevitably accompanies sourcing materials and builders in somewhere like the Galápagos. Then there was the greater challenge: to convince others that all this time and effort was worthwhile. As Reyna described it, ‘we have a tendency to do what we have done before – people are afraid of changing. It takes a lot of energy to go against people’s beliefs.’
Despite its arresting presence, it would be easy to mistake the mottled lava walls of MonteMar for something far more primal. As a visitor, it’s hard not to be enthralled, to seek some grander significance. Even Darwin cannot resist straying into a poetic register: ‘these huge reptiles, surrounded by the black lava, the leafless shrubs, and large cacti, appeared to my fancy like some antediluvian animals.’ Whether as a hell, paradise, or feeding ground the international significance of the Galápagos Islands matters. At the close of my conversation with Reyna, she summarised the intent behind so many years of work and research: ‘We feel the lack of power as individuals but understand the weight of the group. If there is a place with all the right conditions for this it is the Galápagos. It is a laboratory of social and economic issues for the world.’