For centuries, sailors and whalers called the Galápagos Islands “Las Islas Encantadas” (the Enchanted Islands), not because of welcoming magic or charming mermaids, but because of mysterious and often menacing conditions. 600 miles west of South America, sailors would hope for a respite from the high seas and instead find cacti, lava flows, gigantic animals, and scarce water.
I, on the other hand, while visiting the islands last week on a ship with all the amenities of the 21st century, was truly enchanted (in the charmed and delighted way) by the islands. Famous as the foundation for Darwin’s Origin of the Species theory of evolution, the Galápagos Islands are a living microcosm of evolution and adaptation. As a self-declared bird nerd and snorkel connoisseur (and as someone who works for Environmental Incentives to conserve habitat and natural resources), I couldn’t have been more impressed with not only the ecological wonders of the islands, but the excellent stewardship by the Galápagos National Park and the Ecuadorian Government.
Because of the harsh and unwelcoming environment of the islands, there were no permanent human residents until the 1800s. Nonetheless, European mariners devastated the populations of giant tortoises, whalers decimated the marine mammals, and ships stopping over introduced rats, cats, dogs, and pigs. These invasive species quickly impacted the native bird and reptile populations that had evolved without any predators for thousands of years.
Now, however, Ecuador is committed to the conservation of these islands. 96% of the land mass is designated as a national park, with strict visitation caps on each island. Galapagoan residents farm and fish, but mostly rely on ecotourism as their primary livelihood.
A few of the fabulous species I met:
The Giant Tortoise! They can live to be 150+ years and weigh over 500 pounds. In fact, I met a tortoise named Diego who was captured in 1932, brought to the San Diego Zoo, returned to the Galápagos in 1977, and now is instrumental in the captive breeding program that has brought the tortoise back from near-extinction.
Marine iguanas! The only lizard in the world that can live and hunt in the sea! They are found only on the Galápagos Islands.
Nazca Booby! Galápagos has three species of booby (blue-footed, red-footed, Nazca), but the Nazca is the only endemic species. On Genovese Island, I walked through a colony of nesting boobies who were busy tending to their nearly-fledged, molting chicks.
Sharks! The Galápagos Islands are one of the premier shark habitats in the world. I was lucky enough to snorkel with five white-tipped reef sharks and a black-tipped shark. I didn’t see a hammerhead, but, in recent Galápagos news, they did just discover a new hammerhead shark breeding area in the mangroves of one of the islands.
As with all conservation projects, there is a fine line between providing for the needs of humans and supporting the diverse requirements of the ecosystem. The Galápagos is an excellent example of adaptive conservation—using well-funded research and communication with all users, they support the islands as best as they can. I left feeling renewed and inspired by the collective action and dedication it took to restore the natural wonders of the Galápagos ecosystem.
— Kristen B.
Photos by Kristen Boysen and Angie Boysen