John Herzfeld, a teacher at Louisville Collegiate School, returned in December from studying in the Galpagos
I was snorkeling in 15 feet of cool ocean water, pursuing a parrotfish, when instinct made me turn my head. Three sea lions were torpedoing toward my face.
First, I was afraid; then, I was thrilled. These creatures wanted to play. Two became bored quickly, but one young female darted under me, blowing bubbles. I did the same to her. She swam around me, over me, and under me. I copied her moves, but without the grace. We danced this zero-gravity pas de deux for about 10 minutes.
I’m not alone in my jaw-dropping awe of the Galápagos Islands. Many tourists — about 160,000 in 2008 — visit this remote archipelago 600 miles off Ecuador’s coast. Jaded travelers become wide-eyed children again when they see animals close enough to touch.
A Hood mockingbird perched on one traveler’s shoe. A giant tortoise paused on a path to let hikers through. Indifferent iguanas returned our stares, and waved albatrosses performed their courtship dances unashamed as cameras clicked. Under the equatorial sun, colors are brighter, and nature has a rare richness and intensity. I thought I was in paradise.
I was wrong. Any human presence in the islands creates pressures on the environment. The very traits that make the Galápagos so unique could be the islands’ undoing. Tourists arrive seeking Eden; mainland Ecuadorians arrive to stake a claim in the tourism industry. About 30,000 people live on the islands now.
With the rush of tourists and residents, these small islands are in danger of being loved to death. “Tourism will stop when the islands are destroyed,” said Ángel Gunsha Amaguaya, a science and social studies teacher from Isabela Island.
It is easy to be pessimistic. Not far from the beach where I had my sea lion adventure on San Cristobal Island, raw sewage discharges into the Pacific. San Cristobal and Santa Cruz face the most pressure because they contain most of the islands’ population and tourist centers.
Foreigners believe the Galapagos are unspoiled because nature documentaries focus on the 97 percent of the island that is wildlife reserve, not the 3 percent packed with humanity. In most of the latter areas, beach town culture dominates. Tourists can buy identical t-shirts and garish souvenirs at many shops. Fishing boats bob in the harbors and sea lions doze on the beaches. And in Santa Cruz, tourists and locals dance at night in a bar where two screens depict the mating rituals of the six-plumed bird of paradise.
However, a regulated and informed human presence on the islands could be a benefit. Captive breeding programs have helped several giant tortoise species to endure, as well as an ambitious effort to eliminate feral goats, which compete with the tortoises for food. Because of these efforts, the islands are in better shape than they were 100 years ago according to Felipe Cruz, a conservationist with the Charles Darwin Foundation.
Also, Santa Cruz Island established an effective recycling program with the help of the World Wildlife Fund and several corporate sponsors. This center recycles 30 percent of the island’s waste. Prior to the recycling program, islanders burned trash, dumped it into landfills or tossed it directly into the ocean. Now plastic, glass and cardboard go abroad to be reincarnated.
The center’s director, Ulf Hardtner, said Galápagueños were slow to buy into recycling. Even his workers were a tough sell. When Hardtner discovered that they weren’t collecting much material and traveling only 8 kilometers daily instead of 40 to 80, he installed GPS devices on their trucks. He found that workers were not sticking to the prescribed routes and taking leisurely breaks. With the GPS device, he could confront one pair with the truth that they had stopped for a two-hour coffee break. With that technological magic — and a bit more environmental education — the workers improved their attitudes and commitment.
Persuading adults to change to more sustainable practices is best approached through economic appeals: If the islands aren’t preserved, the residents lose their livelihoods. But the islands’ best hope is youngsters. “With children, you don’t have to use economics,” said Arturo Keller, a professor of environmental science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “You can start with the heart.”
Yet while the Galápagos schools want to teach children about the uniqueness and fragility of the islands, their curricula mirror Ecuador’s, which don’t address environmental education. And while island children often aspire to be ecotourism guides, outsiders take many of the best positions, leaving the majority of the Galápagueños in low-paying service jobs. In fact, most of the money earned through tourism doesn’t stay on the island. The taxes and charges return to Ecuador, and the profits go mostly to foreign cruise and travel companies.
Many children never see the other islands because travel is so expensive. “It’s painful for me to see all these kids growing up in cement rooms. They don’t even know their own island,” said Felipe Cruz of the Charles Darwin Foundation. “We need to give kids the best education about where they are living, or we won’t last long.”
In a school auditorium on Santa Cruz, a large painting of Pinnacle Rock, a landmark on San Bartolomé Island, dominates one wall. Cupping this image as gently as an egg are human hands. The message is clear: The future of the Galápagos Islands is in the hands of its people.