The Ballad of Lonesome George

Damned with us and damned without us, the Galápagos continue to attract hordes of nature-loving visitors. But whether you're drawn by the majesty of Darwin's discoveries or mesmerized by the brutal spectacle of survival, remember this: Evolution happens.

    Photo: Tui De Roy

THE FLIGHT FROM MIAMI TO Guayaquil, Ecuador, is packed with tourists headed to the Galápagos and elegantly dressed Ecuadorans returning from shopping trips. Judging by these passengers, Ecuador looks to be a thriving capitalist society. The woman sitting next to me, who's going back home to the southern city of Cuenca with her teenage daughter, asks me to help them force a heavy plastic bucket under the seat. I ask what's in it: tokens for video games.

But Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador and the jumping-off point for the Galápagos, presents a different picture. Even at midnight, the airport is bustling with customs officials and armed officers wearing ornate uniforms. The entrance to the Guayaquil Hilton Colón, an echoing monument to architectural excess, is guarded by private security wielding short-barreled automatic weapons. The glass wall of my hotel room looks down on blocks of razed shacks. When I get up at 5:30 the next morning to catch a flight to the Galápagos, I look out and see one inhabitant taking a leak against the leaning wall of his home, a structure that could have fit into one of the Hilton's vast bathrooms. A sentiment reinforcing the prevailing mood is spray-painted on the wall of a construction site near the Hilton: fuera yankees asesinos—viva colombia insurgente (Get out, Yankee murderers—Long live the Colombian Insurgency).
Guayaquil is a port city on the Pacific, and if I could look across 600 miles of open ocean from the Hilton's window, I would see the Galápagos: 15 islands and a few dozen rocks. In 1832, when the islands were officially annexed, Ecuador was the only country that wanted them. Spain turned up its nose in the 16th century, and around the same time an English sea captain concurred, saying that the islands "are desert and beare no fruite." Everyone subsequently changed their minds. Over the last 150 years, both England and the United States have tried to buy or lease the islands, recognizing their strategic military importance in the Pacific. But Ecuador hung on to them and is glad it did. The Galápagos are now its top tourist attraction and bring in over $100 million annually.

But the boom in the islands has come during a bust for the country as a whole. Ecuador, said to have one of the ten most corrupt governments in the world, is in dire economic and political straits. In 1999, after an El Nino year that devastated coastal areas and the Galápagos, as well as an eruption scare from the Guagua Pichincha volcano, which spread ash all over Quito, Ecuador defaulted on its foreign loans, and a bloodless coup in early 2000 installed the country's sixth leader (Gustavo Noboa) in four years. Violent crime aimed at foreigners and wealthy Ecuadorans has skyrocketed, including the kidnapping in October 2000 of ten foreign oil workers, five of them Americans, in the northeastern jungle. (By early November, two French captives had escaped, and the other eight were still being held.) Due to its crime rate, Guayaquil has been under a state of emergency off and on since 1999, contributing to an incendiary and unstable atmosphere that's obvious the minute one steps off the plane.

None of this appears to have stopped the tourists from coming to the Galápagos. A national park since 1959 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the islands began attracting a few thousand visitors in the 1960s and now draw more than 60,000 tourists annually, most on package tours. The presence of so many tourists, along with the success of the fishing industry in the region, has created a boomtown atmosphere there, attracting some 17,000 permanent residents—fishermen, farmers, park personnel—as word has spread that the islands boast Ecuador's highest standard of living. By necessity, to protect the fragile islands and famously tame wildlife, the archipelago is one of the most tightly controlled ecotourist destinations on earth: an antiadventure for the adventuresome. Licensed park guides watch your every step to make sure you don't trample an iguana nesting area or crush a bird's nest. And though we tourists make almost no direct impact, leaving, as the cliché goes, only footprints, our indirect impact is enormous. With our dollars and voracious needs for comfortable beds and gourmet meals, we're attracting hundreds of people to serve us. And we come bearing with us, in the bellies of the 727s that now fly out to the islands every day, untold introduced species—spores, insects, molds, scales, vines, viruses—that attack and destroy the very world we've come to treasure. Economically, tourists are the salvation of the Galápagos; ecologically, we're kudzu.

Never hospitable to Homo sapiens and crisscrossed with enough bizarre stories of human mayhem, starvation, cannibalism, and murder to prove it, the Galápagos still have one thing to teach us, with all the subtlety of a baseball bat to the back of the head: Evolution's a bitch. And we keep not learning it.

AFTER TWO HOURS CROSSING the ocean, the nearly full jet flops down on a tiny spot in the Pacific, the island of Baltra, which sports a leftover airstrip built by the United States during World War II, and not much else. The only building in sight is the airport, and the first impression is of an intense stillness. Parched tangles of desert vegetation and cacti stretch off to the distance, swept by a ceaseless warm ocean wind. A few flitting black finches—Darwin's finches—and a single land iguana, a heavy yellow lizard as fat as a house cat but with its own reptilian half-smile, are the only signs of life. Park guards search the bags of all arrivals, looking not for contraband but for nonnative insects, seeds, and animals.

There are only a few dozen hotel rooms in the islands; most visitors sleep at sea, joining scheduled cruises that leave from Baltra or traveling by bus and ferry to the largest town in the islands, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, to charter a boat and guide. Some 97 percent of the land in the islands belongs to Galápagos National Park. Camping, where it's allowed at all, is by permit only and is complicated by the scarcity of water. Whether on a cruise or a charter, all visitors must be guided on land by naturalists licensed by the National Park Service, who are trained to protect the tourist from the islands and, more important, the islands from the tourist. Herein lies the paradox of Galápagos-touring: Whether you're a bungee-jumping, gonzo-adventuring yahoo or a little old lady in tennis shoes, you must keep to the same trails and follow the same rules.
I embark for a week on the MSPolaris, an 80-passenger, 238-foot ship, operated by Lindblad Expeditions, that's one of the largest in the islands. My fellow passengers include birders, sketch-artists, and mad-dog video enthusiasts with cameras the size of sea lions. It being October, a low-tourist month, the ship's only about half full, so we head to the islands in groups of eight to ten in the Polaris's Zodiacs. Our expedition leader is Lynn Fowler, a familiar figure in the Galápagos, who coordinates our hiking and snorkeling trips (and makes sure nobody gets left behind when we return to the Polaris). The niece of animal wrangler Jim Fowler (Marlin Perkins's sidekick on the old Wild Kingdom TV series), Lynn first toured the islands in 1976 and fell in love with them so intensely that she sat in the Baltra airport and sobbed when it was time to leave. She returned a few years later as one of the first women admitted into the national park's naturalist program. After marrying an Ecuadoran ship captain, having two children, and starting a school at her farm on the Ecuadoran coast, Fowler (who is now divorced) began guiding for Lindblad and private groups in the early 1980s. She has baited sharks for Peter Benchley in one television special and snorkeled with Alan Alda in another. At nearly six feet tall, with long blond hair, she is an impressive figure in a wetsuit.

Fowler completed the work for her doctorate in 1980 by living alone for a year on the rim of one of the volcanoes on largely uninhabited Isabela Island, studying the impact of introduced donkeys on the resident subspecies of giant tortoise. She became renowned throughout the islands for going about naked on her own personal volcano (the clothes on her back literally rotted), and she was awoken one night by earthquakes; the volcano next door was exploding.

THE POLARIS STOPS AT MANY of the larger islands: Espanola, Floreana, Genovesa, San Salvador, Santa Cruz, Fernandina, and Isabela. The strong ocean currents, the distances between the islands (anywhere from three to 110 miles), their raw black volcanic profiles and ragged cliff faces, create a forbidding impression of isolation. Less than four million years old, the Galápagos Islands are some of the youngest and most active volcanoes in the world (the most recent major eruption occurred on Isabela in 1998). We cruise past the rocky oceanic outcrop called Roca Redonda, the tip of an enormous underwater mountain, and spend a morning in Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz, at the Charles Darwin Research Station. The 41-year-old station is funded by Ecuador, UNESCO, and various scientific organizations (the San Diego Zoo foots the bill for the station's giant-tortoise projects), and is staffed by biologists who oversee its conservation and protection programs.

The animals they study are as fierce and strange as the geological features of the islands: delicate little finches called vampires survive by pecking other birds and drinking their blood; fluffy masked booby chicks routinely kill their siblings to better their own chances; male albatross, with wingspans wider than a man is tall, gang-rape females returning from sea. Because these creatures evolved without predators in the picture, they have no fear of us, and we stand inches away from basking marine iguanas and sea lion pups. As our Zodiac pulls up to the narrow concrete landing on uninhabited Fernandina, one of the most pristine oceanic islands left in the world, we're instructed to give some room to a sea lion mom who's just given birth on the jetty, the afterbirth dripping into the water. On a trail through the interior of Espanola, the southeasternmost island, we have to take care not to step on a Galápagos snake or to disturb the rooster-size offspring of the waved albatross standing on the trail. Here, tiptoeing through this miniaturized Jurassic Park, we're the dinosaurs, looming over the inhabitants.
Not that they can't take care of themselves. At Punta Suarez, on Espanola's windward side, we're surrounded by thousands of breeding pairs of blue-footed boobies, masked boobies, and most of the planet's population of waved albatross, not to mention crowds of the island's endemic subspecies of mockingbirds, as well as shearwaters, frigate birds, and Galápagos hawks, all whistling, hooting, cawing, and shrieking. The blue-footed boobies are engaged in their bizarre foot-fetish rituals, ever so slowly lifting each blue foot to show their prospective mates. Albatross pairs are furiously clicking enormous yellow beaks that look like they could take your arm off. It's no place for people who have panic attacks brought on by a certain Hitchcock film.
As tour guides go, Fowler and the naturalists she oversees on the Polaris are remarkably frank about everything Galápaganean. Paula Tagle, an Ecuadoran geologist, unblushingly tells us about the sexual proclivities of the small black males of the Genovesa iguana, who live in an environment harsh even by Galápagos standards—raked by the sun and with meager food sources—and who are less likely to get lucky than iguanas on other islands. The females, for whom size apparently does matter, find the males puny and unappealing. The smaller males have developed their own compensatory routine: They work up a load of sperm by masturbating on a rock for a few minutes, ejaculate into a pouch, and then, when an unwitting female walks by, hop on, releasing the sperm.

Our guides are also hypervigilant, knowing full well that our very presence stirs the evolutionary stew. They make certain that we stay on the trails, that we constantly rinse our feet and snorkeling gear (so as not to track sea-lion poop onto the boat or carry seeds from one island to another), and that we strictly observe the No-Giving-Water-to-the-Mockingbirds rule (although flocks follow us everywhere, aggressively begging for a sip from our bottles on islands where the only shade trees are 30-foot cacti). Everywhere we go, the guides preach the gospel of Darwin and promote the destruction of introduced and invasive species. Lest the Galápagos go the way of Hawaii, with its dozens of extinctions caused by introduced pigs, snakes, insects, and plants, the fittest cannot be allowed to survive. One afternoon, as we gather for lunch in the dining room aboard the Polaris, we're greeted by an entire roast pig, a cheery apple stuffed into its surprised-looking mouth, shot that morning on Floreana. Message received.

GOATS AND PIGS, FIRST BROUGHT to the Galápagos in the 16th century by pirates and other sailors, still infest several islands, and Isabela is also home to feral dogs, cattle, and cats. With no natural predators to keep them in check, the goats raze whole hillsides of vegetation, threatening plant species, causing erosion, and wiping out the food sources of the giant tortoise. Pigs destroy the nests of marine turtles; dogs and cats kill land iguanas; black rats are wiping out native rice rats. During the 1960s and 1970s, goats were eradicated on several of the smaller islands, and Floreana was cleared of dogs. But on the larger islands, with their impenetrable areas of dense brush and razor-sharp lava fields—Isabela alone is 75 miles long—the process of elimination could take decades.

Hunters hired by the park laboriously track down and shoot every feral pig on an island before going after the goats (the logic being that if they killed the goats first, heavy vegetation would grow back, providing cover for pigs). To track the goats, so fleet of foot and hard to find, park hunters outfit a single animal—the "Judas goat"—with a radio collar; it leads them to the wary but naturally social herds.
In an attempt to reverse some of the damage wrought by introduced species, Lindblad Expeditions created the Galápagos Conservation Fund in 1997 to raise money from its passengers for special conservation projects. The fund had more than a half-million dollars by the end of last year, and one of the major projects it sponsors is the pig-eradication program on San Salvador. Tom O'Brien, Lindblad's director of environmental affairs, neatly captures the paradoxical fact that tourists bring both peril and promise to the region: "If tourism hadn't put such a high value on the Galápagos, I don't think there'd be a hope that it would be protected by Ecuador or the international community." As for the pigs, he says that scientists believe "there is only one shrewd juvenile male left" on San Salvador.

The islands have harbored other, more highly-prized survivors, like the tortoise Lonesome George, the tragicomic symbol of the devastation caused by nonnatives. George is the last of his Pinta Island subspecies, a male of many friends but no lovers. Last seen in 1906, the subspecies was long thought to be extinct, but Georgewas discovered there in 1971 and brought to live at the Darwin Station, while scientists searched the world's zoos for a possible girlfriend. Although there's a $10,000 reward for a Pinta female, none has been found, and George, who's been keeping company in a corral with two females from Isabela (genetically the closest match), has never shown the slightest interest in sexual encounters with them or anyone else, including a female researcher who tried to gratify him manually in order to get a sperm sample. George is about 70 years old, in the prime of his life, and could live another hundred years. Slowly prowling his capacious and beautifully appointed pen, complete with wading pool, he's a fearsome-looking 194-pound beast, seemingly unresigned to his fate. Perhaps because of his high saddle-back, his neck seems grotesquely elongated, his old-man's eyes sunk deep in his head above his beaky mouth. With our goats and our carelessness, we've done this to him, and he doesn't look happy about it.

George's Espanola relatives have been more fortunate. In the midsixties, the Park Service removed the few endangered giant tortoises left on Española (a unique saddle-back subspecies endemic to that island) and bred them at the Darwin Station; since then, more than a thousand young tortoises have been returned to the island. But this success is one of the few bright spots in the sordid human history of the Galápagos.

AT DAWN ONE MORNING, the Polaris stops at Floreana's Post Office Bay, where we go ashore to see an old barrel where a tiny population of colonists once left mail for passing sailors to pick up. It was, one of those residents wrote, "the loneliest mail-boxin the world." Despite the garish scraps of painted driftwood festooned around the barrel, it's an eerie spot, where the wind whistles mournfully through the scalesia trees. You can still leave postcards that may or may not ever reach their destinations. Visible from off the beach are the ruins of a low lava wall, evidence of an ill-fated, never-completed resort of the 1930s.

The first Europeans to visit these uninhabited islands thought they were bewitched. In 1535, Fray Tomas de Berlanga, the third bishop of Panama, nearly died of thirst in the Galápagos when his ship, en route to Peru, was caught by the powerful South Equatorial Current and carried into the archipelago. His impression: "It looked as though God had caused it to rain stones." In the 17th century, pirates, whalers, and whole navies used the islands as a hideout and provisioning station, stacking live tortoises—sailors' fast food—upside-down in the holds of their ships, where the animals remained miserably alive for months without food or water.
The first human to live in the Galápagos was Patrick Watkins, an Irish sailor marooned on Floreana in 1807. According to whalers who saw him, he went about "covered in vermin; his red hair and beard matted...so wild and savage in his manner and appearance that he struck everyone with horror." In 1809, he seized a whaleboat and disappeared with five hostages, eventually turning up in Guayaquil. No one ever learned what became of his hostages; legend has it he "ate them or threw them overboard."

Even Charles Darwin was alarmed by the islands when he arrived in 1835 on board the HMS Beagle. Of his first sight of the Galápagos he wrote, "Nothing could be less inviting." He found the weather "overpoweringly hot," the tortoise meat "very indifferent," and fancied that "even the bushes smelt unpleasantly." But after he got over his initial distaste, he spent his time riding tortoises and collecting what would become his famous finches, amazed at their tameness: "They approached so close that any number might have been killed with a stick." He threw one unlucky marine iguana repeatedly into the water to see if it would return to shore. (It did.) In the interest of science, he also took it upon himself to yank the tail of a land iguana, which was sticking out of its hole. "At this it was greatly astonished," he wrote, "and soon shuffled up to see what was the matter; and then stared me in the face, as much as to say, 'What made you pull my tail?'" Darwin spent a brief 19 days on the islands, visiting only four (San Salvador, San Cristóbal, Floreana, and Isabela). But his observations of the volcanoes and the geology, the plants and the animals—particularly the tiny variations in size and shape of finches' beaks from island to island—led to his mind-altering and world-shaking theories of evolution and to his great book, On the Origin of Species (1859).

In the 20th century, as it became easier to get to the islands, more strange characters arrived. In 1929, after reading American naturalist William Beebe's travelogue Galápagos: World's End, an egomaniacal German dentist named Friedrich Ritter, who fancied himself a successor to Nietzsche, dumped his wife and sailed to Floreana with his girlfriend. Resolved to limit himself to a vegetarian diet, he had his teeth pulled before the trip; once there, the pair lived off mashed fruit and the eggs from their chickens. Sensational press reports about the couple's Edenic exploits drew other eccentric Germans to the island during the thirties, including the colorful Baroness von Wagner de Bosquet—the self-styled "Empress of Floreana"—and two of her lovers. Sporting a pearl-handled revolver, bathing in the island's one source of fresh water, and stealing food from the few other inhabitants, the baroness commanded one of her companions to begin building the lava wall, now crumbling, that can be seen from Post Office Bay. The wall was intended to surround a retreat she planned to name the Hacienda Paradiso, "a lovely spot where the weary traveller can rejoice to find refreshing peace and tranquillity on his way through life."

The tranquillity was short-lived. In the summer of 1934, the baroness and one of her boyfriends disappeared, probably murdered by the other boyfriend, whose mummified body was found months later on an island to the north, after he attempted to flee on a rickety fishing boat. Ritter, the dentist, died that same year of botulism, and his girlfriend left for home.

More recently the islands have been the scene of sporadic mob violence as Ecuador's government has struggled to monitor the powerful tuna-fishing industry and waters rich in sea cucumbers, sluglike bottom dwellers considered a delicacy—and an aphrodisiac—in Asia. In 1994, after the government tried to crack down on rampant abuses and close the sea-cucumber fishery in the Galápagos, a virtual guerrilla war broke out. Fishermen resentful of the national park burned the Darwin Station's chief scientist in effigy and slaughtered 86 giant tortoises on Isabela, leaving, according to one scientist, "tortoise heads; [and] bits of their legs hanging from the trees." In January 1995, fishermen wielding machetes and knives invaded the station, taking the staff and the tortoises hostage for four days and threatening to kill Lonesome George. Two years later, a park employee was shot and nearly killed while participating in a raid on an illegal sea-cucumber harvesting camp. In 1998 Ecuador passed a Special Law of the Galápagos, which purports to limit immigration and to regulate tourism, fishing, and introduced species. Whether the country has the will to enforce it remains to be seen.

Almost every day, we snorkel off a different island, dazzled by the brilliant, seemingly abundant sea life: angelfish, butterfly fish, damselfish, parrot fish, trumpetfish, schools of golden rays flying through the water. But while snorkeling in areas where sea cucumbers once blanketed the sea floor, we see only a single cuke, as lonely as Lonesome George. I would never have known they were missing if Lynn Fowler hadn't mentioned it. But once she does, it becomes impossible not to feel like Noah seeing one of his passengers go overboard. When she asks for donations for the Galápagos Conservation Fund, I get in line.

AFTER SEVEN DAYS cruising the waters of the Galápagos, we're delivered back to Guayaquil and brought to the city's central square, known as Parque de los Iguanas, to see some more of the critters before we go home. The place is crawling with free-range iguanas the size of terriers, clambering in the trees and swarming around trays into which people throw lettuce and fruit. They're the bright, neon-green iguanas of mainland South America, garish, streetwise cousins of the clean-living marine iguanas of the Galápagos, with dangling dewlaps and a decadent string of fringe down their backs. They look as if they could mug somebody.

A long time ago, a couple of their ancestors became among the first tourists in the islands. During a period of heavy rains, possibly during an El Nino year, they may have been swept out to sea on a raft of earth, a chunk of land that broke off from a riverbank, carrying whole trees and hapless animals as it sailed off into the Pacific, caught in the current until it hit land: the Galápagos.

The iguanas had no choice but to stay and get on with their lives, evolving into something unprecedented and miraculously cunning: the only reptiles on the planet that can swim in the sea, eat algae, and snort salt through their snouts. On each island, they adapted, developing to survive the environment, becoming the fat red-and-black iguanas of Espanola or the wily little masturbators of Genovesa.

Sometime after the iguanas' big adventure, Darwin dropped by. He rode a few tortoises and pulled a few tails, not yet aware that he would one day change the course of human history. Now you, too, can come see what Darwin gawked at not so long ago: "that mystery of mysteries—the first appearance of new beings on this earth." But know, as you stroll along a trail among creatures found nowhere else, that you are implicated—for good or ill—in the evolution going on around you. Watch your step.

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