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The Surprising Secret of the Galápagos Islands

By Rich Beattie
1/15/2014 7:49:31 AM

Dipping my mask and snorkel into the azure waters of the southern Galápagos brings a silent, serene world into focus: skinny purple angelfish with golden tails nibble on orange coral, while pink-tinted bluechin parrotfish wriggle through lush lawns of sea grass.

Suddenly, my eye catches something big closing in fast, almost brushing my right side. It's a sea lion, as long as me, that somersaults, doubles back, then starts literally swimming circles around me. She's just playing, showing off-but it is a lion, after all, and it takes my breath away. Still, before I can react, she swims right up to my mask, and for a couple seconds, we're nose-to-whiskers, gazing curiously at each other before, with a push of her flipper, she zips off.

Rich Beattie

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It's the kind of wildlife encounter one might expect on islands that lie 600 miles from their continental landlord, Ecuador. And not just any group of islands, of course, but the laboratory for one of history's most significant scientific discoveries, and an area that still plays host to species found nowhere else on earth.

But as renowned as these volcanic landmasses are, the idea of protecting the Galápagos is a shockingly recent development. It wasn't long ago that overfishing, irresponsible tourism, and a nonchalant attitude toward invasive species threatened the entire ecosystem. Without the relatively new-and ongoing-effort to preserve what's here, that beautiful, intimate dance with my sea lion friend might never have happened.

Rich Beattie

Landing at the Galápagos's San Cristóbal airport is oddly similar to landing at New York's LaGuardia. Out the window below you see water, water, water...until, at the last moment, a runway appears. The geographical familiarity ends there. Black, pockmarked volcanic rocks line the airstrip, which leads past a squat control tower and up to a simple shell of a terminal.

I arrived in September for a six-night cruise with Ecoventura, an Ecuadorian company widely recognized as a green pioneer (and a T+L Global Vision Award winner in 2009). Aboard the company's 20-passenger Flamingo I, my group would travel to five islands in the southern and central Galápagos for hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, and wildlife spotting.

Tour companies like Ecoventura are just one link in the islands' chain of eco-protection. That process begins at the Quito airport, where everyone flying to the Galápagos passes through "quarantine," with inspectors checking luggage for certain fresh fruits, animal products, and other items that could impact the balance of species.

The irony is that humans wrought imbalance in the Galápagos long before the islands became a tourist attraction. Eighteenth-century whalers hunted seal and tortoise species to the point of extinction. Cargo ships brought stowaway rats and cats. In fact, by the time Charles Darwin arrived on the HMS Beagle in 1835, the Galápagos region was far from untouched.

And while Darwin's watershed theory of natural selection guaranteed the islands a place in history, fame was no match for 20th-century geopolitics. Thanks in part to the presence of Ecuadorian prison colonies and an American air base, it wasn't until 1968 that the Galápagos fully became a national park. And it wasn't until this century-2001-that the government decreed the surrounding waters a marine reserve.

Yet even these actions haven't assured the Galápagos of anything: in 2007, UNESCO added the archipelago to its "In Danger" list. The islands came off the list in 2010, but between the 150,000 annual tourist visits, feral animals that prey on native species, and an exploding human population, maintaining an ecological balance is an often ferocious battle.

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