Galapagos History 101

“A hell on earth”.  “A place where God threw rocks at the Earth”.  These were among the first recorded descriptions of the Galapagos Islands.  That was back in 1535 by the Panamanian bishop who, on his way to Peru, was plagued by boat trouble and got carried by the current 1000km to the unknown islands.  It is easy to understand his negative first impression.  Barely any plants grow on the volcanic rock, there is hardly any fresh water, and many of the animals that are able to survive there look like monsters.  The bishop and his men suffered terribly but did manage to fix their boat and eventually made it to their destination.  This, according to our wonderful guide, Victor Hugo Mendia, was the first of many disastrous events that were to affect the Galapagos Islands.  Once the islands were on the map, people started coming and inadvertently upsetting a fragile ecological balance.  Of course, the islands have been there for millennia, being created over a volcanic hotspot and slowly moving on a tectonic conveyor belt, but there are no native people to the islands and no clear information of whether any humans had ever set foot there before the Panamanian bishop and his crew.

Whalers started coming to find the giants of the sea.  Pirates and sailors followed and began visiting the islands in search of water and fresh meat.  They found little water, but delighted in catching animals that had absolutely no fear of humans.  I was really struck by this lack of fear as we visited Genovesa, the first island on our tour.  Victor had told us that a strict national park rule is that visitors must stay 2m away from any wildlife.  However, staying 2m away from one bird meant I would be within 2m of another.  They simply did not care that we were walking past them! 

Pirates enjoyed the relative safety of the Galapagos Islands since the Spaniards believed them to be haunted.  They were able to mount their attacks on the Spanish fleet moving up and down the coast of South America.

The sailors harvested thousands of giant tortoises to fill their ship-board pantries.  Tortoises are immobile when flipped on their backs, require no refrigeration, and can live for up to a year with no food or water (which may explain how they ended up on the islands in the first place — being washed away on floating debris after a violent storm, and floating along at the mercy of the currents, much like the bishop).  Turtle soup became a common form of fresh meat on board ships.  Unfortunately, some populations of giant tortoise were wiped out due to over-harvesting, and the sailors introduced new species to the islands such as goats (purposely — to create another form of fresh meat that could be picked up en route), and rats (inadvertently).  These animals, as well as feral cats, pigs, and dogs, have wreaked havoc on the delicate balance of life on the islands.  Goats have practically wiped out the vegetation that tortoises depend on, and rats, dogs and pigs destroy the nests or eat hatchlings.  It was becoming a very serious problem.  The Galapagos National Park decided to take action through an ambitious eradication program some years ago.  They set out to exterminate all the goats on the unpopulated islands and did this in an  interesting way that Victor described to us:  a handful of female goats were rounded up, sterilized, injected with hormones to make them especially attractive to the males, embedded with a chip that was trackable by GPS, and then had their horns spray-painted fluorescent pink.  These females (the “Judas goats”) were re-released onto their island, where they promptly attracted hordes of males.  From helicopters, snipers shot every single goat around them, but always spared the one one with the pink horns.  She continued to attract more males, which were duly killed until, on a few islands, the goat population has been completely eradicated.  Tortoise populations are stabilizing, growing, and beginning to expand their territory.  A success story for the park.  It is much more difficult to eradicate introduced plant species or insects such as ants.

We were impressed by the level of control that the Galapagos National Park exerts over its tens of thousands of visitors.  No one can enter the park without a certified guide and each guide can only be in charge of a maximum of 16 people.  We could only go ashore at a few very specific locations on each island, and could not step off the trail.  No bathroom breaks allowed on land!  As I mentioned earlier, we were supposed to stay 2m away from the animals, although this was hard to do since the animals, especially the young sea lions, were curious observers of us humans.  

The most famous person to ever visit the islands was Justin Bieber.  Just kidding — it was, of course, Charles Darwin!  He arrived 300 years after the Panamanian bishop and had a somewhat similar first impression.  We saw several of the varieties of finches, each with its own unique beak shape, that inspired Darwin to come up with the theory of evolution.  One type, known as the “vampire finch”, actually sucks blood from the blue-footed boobies to meet its need for hydration when water is scarce!  We didn’t witness that particular event but Victor told us that it doesn’t seem to bother the boobies at all.

So, since being discovered almost 500 years ago, the Galapagos Islands have gone from hellish to haunted to enchanted to endangered.  Now, the Ecuadorian government is working hard to enlist the help of scientists, residents, tourists and tour operators to return the islands to a healthy balance.  A mammoth and worthwhile task.