Endangered Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Don't touch anything is the new motto of these fragile islands

By Adam Roy

As our engines sputtered to a stop, a group of blue and crimson Sally Lightfoot Crabs strolling across a nearby Heading Outrock froze in place and trained their eyestalks on us, skittering away when we drifted too close. From a grotto in the lava cliff high above our heads, a pair of Blue-Footed Boobies peered down at the Queen Mary as divers moved about the deck, donning scuba equipment and checking computers. Clearly, we were causing a bit of a stir.

Geared up, I leaned against the railing of the cabin cruiser as the dive master ran through his final briefing. He would lead us along the edge of the wall and signal us if he saw anything interesting. We should keep an eye on our pressure gauges and let him know when we were down to half a tank. And please, added the dive master, don't touch anything.

In the protected seas of the Galapagos Marine Reserve, "Don't touch anything" is more than an admonition: it's a way of life. Even as cruise ships have replaced whaling vessels, runaway growth in the Galapagos' tourism industry and the islands' skyrocketing population have kept native fauna on the defensive. With the Ecuadorian government hesitant to turn away tourism dollars, the future of the islands' ecosystem may well rest on visitors and residents' ability to create a new culture of sustainability on Galapagos.

Much like the islands themselves, what makes the seas surrounding Galapagos so unique is their remarkable biodiversity. Located at the intersection of the warm Panama Current and the frigid Humboldt, Pelicanthe waters of the archipelago support a wide variety of sea life, including marine iguanas, dolphins and several species of shark. It's a kind of aquatic Wonderland, where cold-water species like the Galapagos penguin swim among schools of gaudy tropical fish.

The localized temperatures and finicky currents that make these odd juxtapositions possible also made diving in the Galapagos a bit tricky. 50 feet below the surface, the water was clear but cold, chilling me even through my thick wetsuit as we swam along the ocean floor. Next to us, a pair of comically mismatched manta rays, one about five times the size of the other, shuffled along the sandy bottom. Underneath a spur of lava rock, a green sea turtle regarded us before gliding off with a lazy wave of its flippers.

The wilderness of the reserve finds its counterpoint in Puerto Ayora, a bustling bayside town on Santa Cruz Island's southern shore. The dive shops and restaurants jockeying for space on Puerto Ayora's streets are a testament to the eco-tourism industry that built this town, and most residents seem determined to preserve that livelihood. Restaurants' landscaping doubles as marine iguana nesting ground, while hotels provide biodegradable soap and encourage guests not to kill spiders out of concern for the island's food chain.

Unfortunately, as the population of Puerto Ayora continues its explosive growth, alarming signs of friction are beginning to crop up. Tires, plastic bags and other detritus wash up along the shore of Academy Bay with increasing frequency. Over the past 15 years, the number of introduced species has more than doubled.

According to the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), a scientific organization based in Santa Cruz, current rates of growth in the tourism industry seems to be following a "boom-and-bust" pattern, putting both Galapagos' ecosystem and economy in grave danger. To avert the crisis, CDF looks to get island residents involved in the tourism. In July 2007, after UNESCO placed Galapagos on its list of World Heritage Sites in Danger, CDF Executive Director Graham Watkins emphasized the role of local, family-owned businesses in promoting conservation.

"This island culture must prevail over the existing frontier culture that does not recognize such limits and the Sea Lionsneed for sustainability," Watkins wrote on the group's website. " It is our fervent hope that we can create a truly sustainable society that cares for these islands ."

A two hour boat trip away, sleepy Floreana Island offers both a glimpse into Galapagos' past and a showcase of what the islands still have to lose. The highlands of Floreana were once a hideout for pirates, who took advantage of the island's supply of fresh water and convenient lookouts to keep watch for enemy vessels. Later, the island would become home to one of the first families to settle in Galapagos, the Wittmers.

When Heinrich, Margaret and Harry Wittmer arrived from Germany in 1932, they found themselves in a challenging new world. There were no stores, no post offices, no cruise ships puttering from island to island. Their chosen life was the garua rainy season, a wooden house in the shadow of the mountains and the impossibly vast, blue stretch of the sea. Their home, now a hotel, still has an aura of pioneer sturdiness around it. Above one door, a sign in German reminds passerby "God helps those that help themselves!"

Back on the boat, we followed Floreana's coast to a small cove, where we donned snorkeling gear and slipped beneath the surface. Only a few minutes in, I did a double take when I spied a mountain of manta rays in the shallows. I counted 21 of the flat, heavy-lidded fish heaped one on top of another. A quick tally by the guide came up with 25. As I gaped, a pair of white-tipped sharks emerged from a grotto and swam a few circuits before retreating back into the darkness.

On the way back to the boat, the guide paused to dive down, resurfacing a moment later with a sea cucumber in his hand. Snorkelers immediately clustered around him, passing around the sea cucumber and stroking its nubby hide. When the guide noticed me treading water at the edge of the circle, he held out the spiny orange critter to me and asked if I wanted to touch it. I shook my head no.

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