05/04/2014 11:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

New Book Offers 'Biography' of Galápagos

After I finished reading The Galápagos: A Natural History by Henry Nicholls, I felt as if I had watched a time lapse film spanning millions of years condensed into 195 pages. "I wanted this to be a biography of Galápagos," Nicholls says.
Basic Books, New York

In choosing his topics, Nicholls does what he calls "some cherry-picking" and the result is both entertaining and enlightening as he guides the reader through the theories of how the islands' rich sea life started, the possible ways that birds "with the power of flight were quick to colonise, using the bare rocks as a nesting base and the ocean as a larder." He also explains how vegetation took root: "first lichens, then hardy weeds, then bigger plants and trees." Eventually invertebrates arrived, land birds, insects, reptiles, sea lions, fur seals. Whether carried by the wind, or in makeshift rafts pushed by the currents, or hitching rides on another animals, they established themselves in different islands where they developed unique variations.

And then came man.

Nicholls mentions that there may have been pre-Columbian visitors in canoes or rafts but the first documented European visitor was the Bishop of Panama, Tomas de Berlanga, who was on his way to Peru in 1535 when his galleon was blown of course and ended up in Galápagos.

The bishop, who along with the sailors, had to endure a water shortage, was not impressed and later wrote to the King of Spain the place looked "as though at some time God had showered stones."

Subsequently a rogues' gallery of visitors called on the Galapagos. Some were buccaneers like William Dampier who arrived in 1697 to prey on Spanish galleons transporting silver and gold from Spain's colonies in South America. Others were explorers, followed by whalers and finally settlers in 1832 when Ecuador took possession of the archipelago.

The human impact was enormous. Thousands of tortoises were carried onboard ships to serve as a source of meat in the long cruises ahead. Later the settlers brought domestic animals and introduced mainland vegetation and crops which endangered endemic species.

And then in 1835 Charles Darwin arrived on HMS Beagle and the rest is history or evolution if you like. Darwin spent only six weeks in the Galapagos but his observations and further studies inspired his revolutionary theory of natural selection. To Nicholls, Darwin is "a central figure" who led him to become interested in the Galápagos. Throughout the book he ties Darwin to seminal ideas on the geology, the fauna and the flora of the islands.

Particularly interesting is the recounting of the efforts in the 19th and 20th centuries by the United States and other countries to purchase or lease the Galápagos from Ecuador. In 1938, with rumors of war in the air, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited the archipelago as the Americans were scouting for a possible base to defend the Panama Canal. Soon after Pearl Harbor, Ecuador agreed to a U.S. air base on Baltra island and the first landing strip was built. Thousands of U.S. servicemen were stationed on what was known as "The Rock".

Nicholls also reveals that President Roosevelt cared about the islands as more than a military outpost. He quotes from a 1944 memo the President sent to his Secretary of State: "These islands represent the oldest form of animal life and should, therefore, be preserved for all time as a kind of international park."

In 1934 Ecuador placed several islands and most of the fauna under protection and in 1959, on the centenary of the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of the Species, Ecuador declared the 97% uninhabited area of the archipelago as a National Park.

At the same time that conservation measures started to take root, tourism also sprouted. The American landing strip was later converted into a commercial airport and linked the islands by air with the Ecuadorian mainland. A small trickle of backpackers and other adventurers at first has turned into a flood of tourists. Last year, 200,000 people visited the islands.
Henry Nicholls photo by Charlotte Nicholls

The tourism growth has brought growth of the permanent population of Galápagos workers. This poses tremendous pressures on the fragile infrastructure and endangers endemic species with the introduction of insects, mammals and vegetation. Nicholls navigates these complex issues with care, sensitivity and honesty, while acknowledging that "the human chapters were difficult to write because there are so many sensitivities." He says that the Appendix on "How to Visit Galapagos" was also hard to write because he wonders "whether we should go there at all." And he adds that "every person should think very hard about the different ways to visit Galapagos and the impact and consequences it may have." He offers valuable tips on how to try to do that.

As the author points out, Galápagos is not only a living laboratory for evolution it is also a stark example of the reality of extinction. And nothing illustrates this better than "Lonesome George", the last tortoise of the Pinta island species and the subject of a pervious book by Nicholls.
Lonesome George in 2006 Photo by Mike Weston

After the pirates and the whalers carted away thousands of tortoises, introduced goats decimated the vegetation of Pinta leading to the gradual disappearance of the tortoises. In 1972, one tortoise was found alive and taken to the Darwin Research Station where it was cared for and named "Lonesome George." He died in 2012 and his body is now being preserved by taxidermists for public display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and eventually, in Galápagos.

"George raised awareness of extinction and because tortoises live so long we had four decades to be aware and reflect on the fact he was the last one of his species," says Nicholls.

It's easy to be pessimistic about the future, but Nicholls tries to strike a balance by concentrating on what has been done right. He asks, "Would Galapagos be alive today if the conservation movement had not come to the islands so early and so strongly?'

A longer version of this review appears in my blog