Galapagos Islands

Every day in the Galapagos Islands is like a day in a glass bottomed boat through which we peer — hundreds of thousands, even millions of years into the past. The island of Española, the closest of the 19 islands to Ecuador, is some 3.2 million years old. The youngest, and furthest from the mainland, is Fernandina, some 700,000 years old and, like most of the islands, lava formed from fire-nozzles of molten magma brought from miles below the drifting plates the oceans and continents sit upon.

On these tiny platforms are living creatures whose ancestors, very much like those we see, lived, begat and died in unbroken chains beyond our ability to comprehend, as if such lengths of time, carefully laid along all the neurons in our minds, would not fit.

It is not so much any individual sighting, or experience that amazes, as the whole taken as one. Yes, sea lions mimic our movements in the water when snorkeling; yes enormous yellow billed Waved Albatrosses barely move at our approach; yes Brown Noddys perch on the heads of Pelicans which have just dived, waiting for an opening of the enormous beaks to flash in and steal the catch. Sea turtle males mount and cling to the swimming females and copulate at the speed of sleep. Blue footed Boobies plummet from great heights and enter the water like torpedoes to snare their meals; Storm Petrels hover and seem to tap dance upon the waters to find theirs. Magnificent Frigatebirds, big as Turkey Vultures, swoop and nearly hover trying to steal a catch from a just resurfaced Booby. All these things are true and, if experienced alone, would be memorable. But being taken out of our own daily experience of newspapers, high-speed travel, multi-tasking, to-do-listing, shopping, pricing, judging and suspended for a week of days in eating, sleeping, walking, looking and absorbing is something of a different order. It is mind catching. It is time-travel.

It is to see at geological time, almost.

These birds, fish, amphibians, insects, plants (almost no land mammals) have lived in the round of days since some time after the first islands were formed, perhaps 14 million years ago. Nothing changes for them, as we humans understand change. Yes, the first islands are now eroded and sea-washed back into the sea, existing as sea-mounts closer to Ecuador and Costa Rica; yes, the Cocos Ridge, now buried under fathoms of ocean may have once been a land bridge from Central America to the early islands; yes storms come and yield to sun, rain increases in some years and declines in others; the temperatures over this thousand years is 2 degrees warmer on average than in that thousand years as the earth swings through its 3 great orbital cycles. All these things are change. Section 1,000 years from 3 million years ago and compare it to a thousand year section from 3 thousand years ago and we will see change, and yet, and yet this is not change, not as we humans, with memory, and future-fearing, and language, and writing experience it.

So, it is not that we are seeing precisely what we might see in the year 15,600,000 B.C. but that we are seeing –almost uninterrupted by the hand of man– what has come to us from then –wholly; not just one thing, not simply the Jurassic archaeopteryxical seeming Brown Pelicans, not just the sea turtles which come to us from before the Jurassic, their ancestors having survived the great asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, but all of it — the living living on, and on, and on, living on the living, among the living and for the living.

It is not, of course, paradise, though the tour guides will claim it so. Tourism to the islands has increased some 110 fold in 40 years, from 1,000 or so per year in the 1960s to 110,000 last year. Even regulated and kept from more than day treks on most of the islands these are a lot of feet, and a lot of food carried in, and a lot of waste to be dealt with. We 16, on the smallest boat of the tourist fleet, were part of this loving onslaught.

On the first night, smoke rising over the salt bush and candelabra cactus, was said by our guide to be from open-pit burning of trash. A couple of species of the famous Darwin Finches, of which there are some 14, congregate along the periphery of the outdoor eating area at the Baltros airport on Santa Cruz island and act for all the world like urban House Sparrows, landing on uneaten food as soon as the swishing hand is gone — turning themselves, perhaps, in 100 years or so into yet another species: the Garbage Beaked Finch.

The first known humans set foot on one of the islands in 1535. Today, about 20,000 people live on three of the islands, concentrated into a few towns. The town of Puerto Ayoro on the southern coast of Santa Cruz boasts Internet Cafes, fine and shabby hotels, tour and diving boat companies and on New Year’s Eve, 2007, an all night big-amp outdoor party for several thousand people who could not dance to the music provided because bodies filled every millimeter. New Year’s Day at 9 a.m. found an urban garbage scene and public drunks plucked straight from any city in the western world. By noon the plastic bottles had been swept away and the drunks rolled up and out, testimony perhaps to the ever present billboards and public campaigns to “Preserve Your Heritage,” “Keep Santa Cruz Beautiful.”

The National Park Service of the Galapagos seems to be paying attention. Every tourist group is meant to be led by a guide. In one case we saw a uniformed guide actively suspicious of a small group who seemed to be without a guide. Pressure from the mainland, the companies who will profit, and the government which wants its portion, is intense, however. Requests for luxury hotels, more and bigger tour ships, more and bigger groups are constant, with weak and disorganized opposition.

Speaking of humans… Spending a week in close observation, in conversations with companions who were biologists, heavy reading [ Galapagos Diary, Galapagos: A Natural History, Charles Darwin: Voyaging ] I began to sense the notion of speciation settling in me, not just as passive knowledge but as something I could use myself to look at a scene and begin to piece together the what, the how and the when. As weather turns dry and arid plants replace temperate ones, and food source changes the birds change too; they must. Those with beaks to break the new seeds, or probe the new cactus flower, survive; those without do not. Knots of seal-pup carcasses on all the islands spoke of failure; fat and happy pups finding mom and nursing spoke of success.

My mind turns as it always does, to us, we humans, in all our exotic differences. There is a kind of speciation going on amongst us, at all times in all places. Not that we ever become separate species, but that we arrange ourselves as sub-species. We differentiate ourselves according to our environments as do other species but also, as humans, according to our remembered pasts and projected futures. We differentiate ourselves because we must, it seems –as do the finches. We differentiate ourselves from others, not only to survive in the elements and with the food we know but — unlike the finches– so that we can know who we are.

The great problem is that for all living things but us species differentiation has a built in “enough.” The struggle for survival, except for us, does not allow one species to exterminate another. As the food supply diminishes so do those who depend upon it. The fighting within a species for dominance and place has an “enough.” Losers back down. The fight is over. The sea lion harem is 10 – 20 females. This is the “enough.” The bull does not keep on to 200, 2000, does not control an area beyond his range and food supply. Unlike us.

Learning to live in the world with the expectation that our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren will see it and love it as we do, means understanding our own differentiation. It comes out of our DNA deep history. It also means finding our own “enoughness.” It means we have to differentiate away from the all-consuming, all-dominating, all-voracious species we have become and find our satisfactions, our completion, in “enough.” It may be this sense of enough is built into us as it is to our great skein of cousins. If so, our other gifts have obscured it, have overwhelmed it, until it is very possible to imagine the end of our days. There is much to be done, and un-done; there is much we could do by not doing, by leaving alone. From somewhere, we all hope, the ways will be found, whether from wisdom from afar or wisdom already within.

So may it be. All of our days.

[cross posted at]

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