Not everybody experiences the dream of living and working in the Galapagos Islands. Carol Ann Bassett recently did, for almost a year, on assignment from National Geographic Books to research into the way Galapagos and its people were evolving over time. She lived in the idyllic surroundings of Academy Bay, quite a fitting location for a well-recognised academic and journalist.
Here is her story, The Paradox of Paradise, extracted with her permission from her book Galápagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists, and Creationists Battle for Darwin’s Cradle of Evolution.
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In the time of the garua, when cold Pacific currents flow north from Antarctica, then west along the equator, a light fog shrouds the Galápagos Islands like a veil. In Spanish, garua means “mist,” and to the early explorers, pirates, and whalers who once passed through the archipelago, this ephemeral haze could be both seductive and deadly: The illusion of water called out like the legendary Sirens. Even Charles Darwin wrote in his field journal in September 1835: “The main evil under which these islands suffer is the scarcity of water.”
What Darwin and those before him did not understand was that the Galápagos had survived precisely because the lack of fresh water had rendered the islands uninhabitable to humans. But to the strange and lovely denizens dispersed to these islands by wind, water, and organic rafts, life had taken a different course. Land species that gained a foothold adapted to whatever food was available and evolved in ways unimaginable. Marine species thrived in the plankton-rich waters.
The Galapagos remained isolated until their accidental “discovery” in 1535 when Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, and his crew were caught in a dead calm and drifted westward on the ocean currents. Berlanga described the islands as “dross, worthless,” and was glad when the trade winds returned to set his ship free from this haunting inferno. In time, those who followed would learn to adapt to this volcanic landscape, just as the bizarre life forms that had evolved here throughout the millennia: Giant land tortoises that can survive more than a hundred and fifty years. Marine iguanas that can hold their breath underwater for up to an hour. Cormorants that no longer need wings to fly. Vampire finches that feed on the blood of masked boobies. Daisies that have morphed into trees.
But these islands and their unusual denizens now stand at a critical crossroad—a collision course with 21st century values on how to manage tourism, immigration, and the invasive species that prey on the very life forms that make the Galapagos special. The islands are a protected World Heritage Site, and scientists, conservationists, and Galapageños are working to protect the archipelago before it’s too late.
I first visited the Galápagos in 1990 as a young journalist on assignment for a national magazine. Like most visitors I felt as though I was entering a primordial dreamscape where time and space had stood still. On Floreana Island, I watched a school of spotted eagle rays float through the waves like butterflies. In the darkness of night, bottle-nosed dolphins frolicked beside our tour boat, their dorsal fins radiant with bioluminescence—living light from microscopic organisms. I had come to Las Encantadas (the Enchanted Islands), as the early Spanish explorers called them. On North Seymour Island male frigate birds floated on thermals, their throats puffed out like giant red balloons to attract mates.
But what struck me most was the baby sea lion on Santiago Island that trailed me like a puppy and sniffed at my shoes, not knowing what to make of me. As I gazed out to sea I spotted a lone sea turtle, plowing through the waves like a dark leviathan. Perhaps this is what Darwin saw when he wrote that in the Galápagos, “Both in time and space, we seem to be brought near to that great fact—the mystery of mysteries—the first appearance of new beings on this earth.”
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Like Darwin, I too was captivated by the mystical quality of the islands, and throughout the years I continued studying the archipelago, its lifeforms, and how rapidly life was changing throughout the archipelago. Back in 1990 an estimated 12,000 colonists lived on the islands, most of them in Puerto Ayora. (Today, about 30,000 people call the Galapagos home.) Fishermen in shorts, tattered shirts, and sandals worked in the equatorial sun, building wooden boats and weaving nets. Few amenities existed back then for visitors. Makeshift kiosks sold seafood and trinkets made of endangered black coral. The village consisted of a few modest hotels, a restaurant, and a bar called El Booby whose T-shirts were popular among tourists. There was no bank, nor were there telephones. The electricity was turned off after midnight.
None of the trendy art galleries existed, nor did sushi restaurants, day spas, discotheques, or Internet cafes. Today, when you ask a Galapagueño what time it is, most will pull out a cell phone to check. The truth is, the Galapagos, a region with no indigenous roots or mythology—a cluster of remote islands known to the world for less than five centuries—has gone from the Stone Age to the Space Age in a matter of decades.