Sylvia Earle's Mission Blue is an exciting adventure that will bring scientists and celebrities on a Galápagos expedition to study ways of protecting the oceans. It is my hope that the expedition will generate action and bring in the funds to help preserve Galápagos because, as a native of the islands just told me, "Conservation without money is just conversation."
Whenever I tell people that I was born in the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador, they always say, "I didn't know there were any people on the Galápagos. I thought only strange animals lived there." To which I usually respond that people--strange and not-so--also made their way to the islands over the years.
The islands were unpopulated for centuries, although they were not unknown. There are oral accounts of one Inca ruler who made his way here on a raft. The first written chronicle comes to us from the Bishop of Panamá, whose ship was blown off course in 1535. The misplaced cleric and his party loaded up on water, but the volcanic terrain and the strange creatures reminded them of hell, so he said mass on the beach and promptly left. The islands, also known as "Las Encantadas" or "The Enchanted Isles," later became the refuge of pirates and buccaneers. In the 18th and 19th centuries, whalers made the Galápagos a way station to stock up on water and giant tortoises which they carried as a meat supply.
In 1832, the newly independent government of Ecuador took possession of the Archipelago and in 1835, a young Englishman by the name of Charles Darwin came calling.
And the rest is history--or evolution, if you prefer.
Throughout the early years, Ecuador tried all sorts of colonization schemes. When they failed, settlers left behind domestic animals which became feral and to this day threaten the native species.
Among the more colorful human specimens in the Galápagos saga stands Manuel Cobos, who planted sugar cane and ran with an iron hand a sugar mill and a railroad in San Cristóbal Island utilizing convict labor. He was killed during an uprising. A few years later Norwegian immigrants tried to start a fish processing plant. It failed for lack of adequate transportation. In the 1920s, several Europeans arrived searching for a Robinson Crusoe experience in this volcanic utopia.
In the 1930s came a woman who called herself a Baroness and lived with two lovers on Floreana Island, where she intended to open a hotel. She and her favorite boy-toy vanished mysteriously--but that is another story (and there is talk of a movie being made on that subject). Several Germans came in those years fleeing the impending horrors of war. Prominent among them were the Wittmers and the Angermeyers, whose descendants still live on the islands. Mrs. Margret Wittmer wrote a book Post Office Floreana about her experiences. A couple of "pre-hippies," Ainslie and Francis Conway, arrived from Berkeley, California. She wrote a book about their adventures, Las Encantadas.
Both authors praise my father, Lt. Col. Alejandro Alvear, who was appointed "Jefe Territorial," or Military Governor, of the Archipelago in 1939. They call him "enlightened" because he built the first school in San Cristóbal and cared about the settlers. When my father, my mother, Laura Triviño de Alvear, and my older sister Alexandra arrived in 1939, Baquerizo Moreno in San Cristóbal Island was a small village with huts of bamboo, lumber and corrugated iron. There were only about 900 people living in the whole Archipelago. My parents lived in a wooden house facing "Shipwreck Bay" (with a front porch view of the site where on January 16, 2001, an old tanker, the "Jessica" ran aground, spilling bunker fuel). That's where I was born and where I spent the first two years of my life.
Although I was never more than a toddler there, I know that we spent most of the days at the then-pristine beach. Sealions and iguanas frolicked on the nearby rocks. We watched the blue-footed boobies as they dove in swarms to catch fish for their dinner.
In the summer of 1996 I returned to Galápagos with a group of friends. As we approached San Cristóbal a school of dolphins rode the bow wave. They are magnificent creatures in their natural habitat: powerful and playful, enjoying an afternoon romp in the turquoise waters. Our squeals of delight seemed to encourage them to do even more elaborate somersaults, to flip over and then to look up at us to check our reactions. I felt they were welcoming me back home.
The Galápagos were declared a national park in 1959, and in the 1960s tourism to the islands started to grow and produce significant revenues for Ecuador. There are now about 160,000 annual visitors--including Bill Gates and his family, who are touring the islands in a private yacht this week-- and the local population, mainlanders in search of better job opportunities, now numbers 30,000 spread over four populated islands. My birthplace, Baquerizo Moreno, is now a small city of 4,000 with a concrete pier, paved streets, cars, and cement houses. The house where I was born was swallowed by the new Ecuadorian Navy base.
Although the Galápagos National Park and the Darwin Foundation are making efforts to protect the fragile environment from the impact of the human species, it is very hard for us to co-exist with endangered species. One famous story is that of "Lonesome George," the last one of the species of tortoises that inhabited Pinta Island. George now lives on Santa Cruz island, where the Darwin Foundation cares for him. Efforts to find him a suitable mate have failed thus far, but there may be some hope because recently another male tortoise was found with half of the genes of George -- so now the search is on for a female equivalent to try and save George's species. In the meantime George has also mated with young tortoises, but so far there are no offspring.
Some of the people who live in the Galápagos are fishermen. It has been difficult for them to accept governmental regulations as to the length of time they can fish and amount of crustaceans and fish they can harvest. In the past they have staged uprisings to protest the end of the lobster season and the constraints on the harvesting of sea cucumbers. Many residents work in the tourism industry, which continues to grow as more and more people want to visit the islands. In an effort to control the population the government is now deporting back to the mainland Ecuadorians who do not have permission to live and work in the archipelago.
Initially tourists came here because they loved to observe the animals and the wildness of the several islands that are still uninhabited. More recently, a new breed of tourist is demanding the amenities that can be found in the Caribbean or in Mexico: surfing, sports fishing, discos, luxury hotels, etc. That places tremendous pressure on the scarce water and sewage resources.
Islanders resent what they perceive as a policy that favors animals over people. They also feel that the profits generated by the tourism industry tend to favor well-established mainland operated tour companies. The locals feel unfairly criticized by environmentalists who portray them as desecrating this pristine place, when in effect some Galapagueños are fighting to save the islands. Native born Felipe Cruz is world renowned for his efforts to restore the islands. This week a group of scientists is meeting in Santa Cruz island to study ways to attain sustainable development and also In Santa Cruz several residents are opposed to an annual fiesta on Tortuga Bay, a once pristine stretch of beach where turtles and iguanas nest. But despite these efforts, it is true that through the years the human population has changed the inhabited islands. Domestic animals compete with endemic species. Goats introduced in the 19th century became such a plague that a military-style operation was launched a few years ago to eliminate them. Cars and electrical power plants require fuel, which is shipped from the mainland.
The islands were given World Heritage site status by Unesco in 1978 and in 1985 were declared a Biosphere Reserve. This was extended in 2001 to include the 43,500 square miles of ocean surrounding the islands. But in 2007 UNESCO joined the government of Ecuador in declaring the islands "at risk." Despite all these efforts the flood of tourism continues, and although it is the economic lifeline of the islands, it has many downsides. As information about the islands is transmitted virally by Twitter and Facebook and Galápagos becomes a finalist in the 7th Wonders of the World contest, I wonder if in effect we are loving the Galápagos to death.
Cecilia Alvear, a native of the Galápagos, is an independent journalist. She is a retired NBC Network News producer, a former president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and a 1989 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.
Cecilia Alvear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org