IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF DARWIN

The Galápagos gave Darwin a free rein and ample inspiration. Now, Rebecca Willis finds, they are tightly policed—and make you think about the destruction of species

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

SOME DIFFERENCES BETWEEN Charles Darwin’s visit to the Galápagos islands in 1835, and ours in 2012:

We go ashore for a couple of hours in our organised group at a designated landing place in a time-slot allocated by the National Park Service. We walk on paths marked by black-and-white posts, and if we stray the guide calls out urgently: "Please come back! We don’t walk there!" We must leave the island and be back on board our boat by 6pm.

Darwin went ashore whenever conditions allowed and explored where he wanted. He camped for a week on Santiago island (now known as James) while the Beagle went off to get fresh water. It was hard to find a place to pitch the tent, because the beach was so pocked with the burrows of land iguanas.

We look at the animals, which have no fear of humans, and our guide tells us how they mate, how they feed, how they raise their young. But we must not go too close; we must not touch the animals, or let them touch us.

Darwin opened up the stomach of one of the marine iguanas—he called them "large, most disgusting, clumsy lizards"—to find that they lived on seaweed alone. A crew member on the Beagle threw another one into the sea with a weight attached and found it was still alive when he pulled it up an hour later.

There are now about 30,000 people living in the Galápagos. When Darwin visited there were probably two or three hundred. When we lurch off our boat in the main town on Santa Cruz island, we stay in a hotel where we share the swimming pool with six ducks, a heron and a lava gull. Darwin didn’t.

UNTIL RECENTLY—AND the arrival of man is recent, very recent—change happened slowly in the Galápagos. Genetic adaptation moves in infinitesimal increments: it is the work of millennia, not moments. But before life could begin making the subtle, gradual adjustments to conditions on each island that Darwin was later to notice, it had to arrive here at the whim of the currents—seeds dispersed by the sea, creatures clinging to a drifting log or a raft of branches or leaves. And even before that the volcanoes rose with geological slowness out of the ocean. It was not until the last syllable of recorded time that man stepped onto the scene: the islands were discovered by the Bishop of Panama, blown off-course on his way to Peru, in 1535.

Since then the pace of change has accelerated to ecosystem-crushing velocity. The early explorers, and the buccaneers, pirates, convicts, whalers and would-be settlers who followed them, killed huge quantities of wildlife to eat and took more to restock their boats. The animals were pathetically easy to catch—"a gun", Darwin wrote, "is here almost super-fluous; for with the muzzle of one I pushed a hawk off the branch of a tree." Man also introduced species that would not otherwise have reached the islands and had no place in the finely honed and balanced scheme of life; over half of the plants today are "introduced" species, while feral goats, dogs and rats have wrought destruction on endemic species and pose a huge threat to the islands’ ecology, which scientists are engaged in a constant battle to check.

After Darwin’s time, Victorian collectors continued to plunder the islands, and then zealous zoo-makers came along and took away even more of the wildlife to "save" species from extinction. It was only in 1935 that the Galápagos Memorial Expedition, marking the centenary of Darwin’s visit, mooted the idea that parts of the archipelago might become nature reserves, and not until 1959, a hundred years after the publication of "On the Origin of Species", that the Charles Darwin Foundation was established. After 400 years, in which man had done irreversible damage, the tide began to turn towards conservation.

The change in the relationship between man and the Galápagos—and nature generally—was kick-started by the man known locally as Carlo Darwin. It tells of the shift in man’s sense of his place in the world—from a human-centric view of the planet where man had dominion over God’s creatures, to a holistic view of the planet as a single organism of which we are but one part, and a destructive one at that. That is the real difference between Darwin’s visit and our own 177 years later. His was a voyage of discovery. Ours was a visit of what you might call un-discovery: looking but not touching, treading lightly and leaving most of the place well alone. The age of Darwin was intent on understanding the world at all costs, whereas we understand the price the planet has paid for that knowledge, and are trying to put the lid back on Pandora’s box.

We must not take food ashore, and the cabin of the aeroplane in which we arrive from mainland Ecuador is sprayed before landing. We may not take anything away from the islands as a souvenir—not a shell or a bone or a twig; our luggage, we are told, will be scanned and searched for such contraband as we depart, and we must “leave only footprints and take only memories".

Darwin collected crates of specimens of the local flora and fauna for study back in England—including 26 species of land bird from a single island. It is not known whether he and the crew of the Beagle introduced alien species on their leather boots, through which the heat of the black sand burnt the soles of their feet.

Top the marine iguana is endemic to the Galápagos and, uniquely among lizards, forages in the sea

THERE IS A wonderful book about the Galápagos through writers’ eyes by John Hickman, a former British ambassador to Ecuador, who observes how early accounts often compared the islands to hell or the underworld. This was partly because the islands were such a hostile environment for human beings—they held out the promise of abundant fresh water to parched sailors in the middle of the Pacific, but like a mirage in a desert did not deliver it; water is scarce on the islands—one reason they are naturally home to birds, reptiles and marine life but not land mammals. But it was also for their appearance: fields of hideous twisted black lava, the fire and brimstone of erupting volcanoes, molten rock that flowed into the sea and caused it to bubble, and bizarre, outlandish creatures.

Herman Melville, who in 1854 wrote "The Encantadas" about the cruelty of life in the Galápagos, described them thus: "Take five and twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot; imagine some of them magnified into mountains and the vacant lot the sea; and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect." They looked, he went on, "much as the world at large might, after a penal conflagration". And lest the reader is in any doubt, he adds "in no world but a fallen one could such lands exist". Lord Byron, cousin of the poet, who had passed by these heaps of cinders in 1825, called the marine iguanas "the ugliest living creatures we ever beheld" which "sat on the black lava rocks like so many imps of darkness"—and indeed they would look quite at home in a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Fitzroy, the captain of the Beagle, described his first sight of Chatham island (now called San Cristóbal) as "a shore fit for Pandemonium" and when Darwin landed on it he found that the "many craters reminded [him] of those parts of Staffordshire where the great iron foundries are most numerous." Whenever people tried to find words to describe the Galápagos, they felt compelled to reach for dark, smoky, infernal imagery.  

At the same time they were aware of stumbling into a strange, untouched Eden. "The place is like a new creation," Byron wrote (in the same breath as calling it "as wild and desolate a scene as imagination can picture"). He was right about its newness: the islands are still being created, with bits of land lifted out of the sea by volcanic activity and others sinking under the waves; at Urvina Bay on Isabela island we walked on land which had been the sea floor until 1954. But it is the innocence of the wildlife, its lack of learned fear that gives the place its prelapsarian atmosphere. It’s not quite true what people say, that there are no natural predators on the islands: there is a food chain, but what they mean is there are no animals which kill, as wild dogs do, out of instinct, or with the machine-aided thoroughness of man. Until humans came along, the killing was at subsistence level, held in the delicate equilibrium of nature.

The first attempts to settle these islands in all "their emphatic uninhabitableness" (Melville’s phrase) were short-lived. The lack of fresh water was a major factor, even though they mostly took place on Floreana, which has the best supply. In the early 20th century a handful of Utopian settlers came to escape the horrors of what was happening in Europe, with Nietzschean or naturist dreams in their heads, in the optimistic belief that the Galápagos would be a paradise for humans. Hickman’s book is fascinating on this era, too. A German man, Friedrich Ritter, arrived with a woman who was not his wife—both were married to other people—and wrote articles for the Boston-based Atlantic Monthly with titles such as "Adam and Eve in Galápagos", and "Satan walks in the Garden". Then an Austrian baroness arrived intending to open a luxury hotel aimed at rich Americans, to be called Paradise Regained: she was almost certainly murdered. The linguistic link between the islands and paradise continued to be forged. But while the biblical and Miltonian imagery spread around the literate world, no one seemed to suspect that man himself might be the serpent.

It is the otherworldliness of the Galápagos that has made writers call up visions of the apocalypse, of heaven and hell. And when you visit you can understand why: it is a through-the-looking-glass land where things are familiar and at the same time strangely distorted. There are cormorants that can’t fly, birds with bright turquoise feet that nest on the ground; iguanas as long as your arm, painted the colour of a sunset; cacti with the corrugated bark of a tree; black lizards that live on land but swim underwater with the sinuous glide of a sea snake; penguins that live at the Equator when they should be in the Antarctic; finches that behave like woodpeckers; owls that hunt sitting down in broad daylight and, last but by no means least, giant tortoises that weigh as much as a grown man and can outlive him. It could all have come straight from the imagination of Lewis Carroll.

At a National Park breeding centre we see cages of giant tortoise babies, some as small as the palm of your hand. There are also full-grown adults living in semi-natural conditions, and we take photos of the lumbering beasts with their solemn, old-mannish faces from a respectful distance.

Darwin rode on the back of a giant tortoise, ate its flesh, drank the fluid from its bladder—"quite limpid and had only a very slightly bitter taste"—and discovered that some were too heavy to be flipped over onto their shells (the simple but effective way of capturing them). When the Beagle sailed on to Tahiti, the crew lived on tortoise meat and threw the shells overboard.

ON SOME ISLANDS the tortoises have dome-shaped shells, and on other, drier islands they have saddle-shaped shells, rising up at the front to allow the tortoise to lift its neck to feed; the word “galápago” is an old Spanish word for saddle. A chance comment by the deputy governor of the penal colony then on Floreana, who said he could tell which island a tortoise came from just by looking at it, lodged itself in Darwin’s mind; only later did he realise its significance. At the time he noted the tortoises were "so abundant that a single ship’s company here caught 500-800 in a short time". But they were not a sustainable resource. He also wrote that "such numbers yet remain that it is calculated two days’ hunting will find food for the other five in the week."

That word "yet" was prescient. To say that the giant tortoise population was decimated by humans is to use too gentle a term; they did not stop at killing one in ten. It is estimated that there were 250,000 in the 16th century, reduced to 3,000 by the 1970s. Because they could go for long periods without water, they were stacked on their backs in the holds of ships where they could survive for up to a year before being eaten. Melville describes three huge tortoises being hauled up onto the boat after dark; from his hammock he could hear them shuffling around on the deck during the night, and in the morning he found one of them head-to-head with the "immovable foot of the foremast", trying to push it out of the way. The next evening he and his shipmates "made a merry repast from tortoise steaks and tortoise stews" and then converted the "three mighty concave shells into fanciful soup-tureens".

The tortoise’s plight is emblematic of that of the islands as a whole, and for years it was one particular tortoise, known as Lonesome George, who carried all this symbolic weight on his single, saddle-shaped shell. Each island has its own type of tortoise, although whether it should be called a species or a subspecies is a matter of some argument. (On the island of Isabela every volcano has its own type, suggesting that once they were not joined together.) George was the last of the Pinta island tortoises, found there alone in 1971 and thereafter kept in captivity while increasingly frantic efforts were made to get him to reproduce with females from another island. At one point a Swiss naturalist who was looking after him volunteered to "manipulate him", as our guide rather coyly put it, to try to get him interested in mating. "Oh," an American man in our group said, "you mean he had a reptile dysfunction?" Poor George, he was either infertile, unable to reproduce with foreign females, or just not the breeding kind. His death in 2012 made headlines around the world because it was the actual, visible moment when a species—let’s call it that—became extinct.

We stay for one week on board an 87ft motor cruiser called the Flamingo, whose generator runs morning, noon and night so that we can have hot food and hot showers. We sleep between sheets in a small cabin in what, to our modern eyes, seems the smallest bed that has ever been described as a double.

Darwin lived for five years on a three-masted wooden sailing sloop, sharing a 10ft-by-11ft cabin with two other men and sleeping in a hammock slung over the chart table. Our boat held 31 people (20 guests and 11 crew); the Beagle—a mere eight feet longer—had 65 crew and nine "supernumeraries", including Darwin.

THE WORD PARADISE is still inseparable from the Galápagos today: the tourist industry pitches it as  "a paradise for nature lovers". It seems appropriate that before you go ashore you are warned not to eat the fruit of the poison apple tree (an unprepossessing thing, rather like a flat walnut). In fact only two of the 13 main islands are called "pristine"—without any introduced species: Tower and Fernandina. But at least it is now taken for granted that this paradise is organised for the benefit of the animals; the naturalist guide who must accompany every group of visitors is there to protect the wildlife from you, not the other way round. Meanwhile the debate about the impact of tourism rages on: the visitors may be caged in by regulations, but is it enough to operate a sort of reverse zoo? Should tourist numbers be capped? Should they be allowed at all? But it is partly tourism that brings the revenue that funds the conservation efforts. For now, as in parts of Africa, tourism and conservation are locked together in a prostitute’s embrace.

The story of the Galápagos is the story of Genesis writ slow. And so I found myself thinking about the Fall. There are numerous theories about what the Fall represents. To some it is the dawn of self-consciousness, and hence of morality and a conception of good and evil; to others it is the first word spoken, language itself, which opens the possibility for falsehood, a gap between signifier and signified into which misunderstanding—and by extension, evil—can creep. In the confined paradise of the Galápagos, you are most likely to conclude that the Fall of man is his very existence.

You feel highly toxic, being human, when you visit these islands, far more so than when you read about climate change. Unlike the issue of global warming, there’s no debate: the cause-and-effect cycle is relatively short and very visible. You feel the four centuries of mankind’s destructive power pressing heavily on your shoulders, and it makes your efforts at home to recycle—dutifully sorting bits of plastic under the kitchen sink—seem like an ancient penance. I think about the generation of young Germans who inherited the guilt of the war their forefathers started, and have an inkling of what that must be like. And I think of my son’s set of Top Trumps cards on the theme of "Predators", in which the only species with a Killer Rating of ten out of ten is Man. That score feels palpable here. You think you are coming to see the animals, a 3D version of a David Attenborough programme but with sea-sickness pills. And you do see animals and they are extraordinary. But what you really see is man in a brutally harsh and unflattering light. I should have known there’d be trouble in paradise.

Rebecca Willis is associate editor of Intelligent Life and a former travel editor of Vogue

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