Galapagos: Garden or Wild Place?

“The wildlife is so tame,” said several people on my recent trip to the Galapagos Islands, and the point seems inarguable as a brown pelican landed next to me on the beach.  The exotic blue-footed, red-footed, and Nazca boobies were oblivious to our tour of their home. Snorkeling in the off-shore waters floated us next to playful sea lions and above peaceful sea turtles. We kept the two meter distance our national park guides requested, but amongst fish, birds, and iguanas unperturbed to our presence, I could not help but think of Eden.

Like the long-lost garden, the Galapagos existed in my mythical geography long before I located these volcanic islands on a map.  My early education in biology was wrapped up in thoughts of British explorers and National Geographic photographers, and learning about evolution put Charles Darwin and his expedition to the Galapagos in the forefront of my imagination.  Now, when the place was tangible, and so were the animals, my thoughts were not about history, but rather about the future of wildlife and the relationship humanity has to nature.

Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos in 1835, primarily to study its geology and with hopes of witnessing an active volcano.  Instead, he was astonished by the wildlife and the notes from his five week tour are filled with descriptions of iguanas that swim into the sea, tortoises large enough to carry a person, and the twenty-six bird species new to him and found nowhere else in the world, including mockingbirds that vary from island to island.  This experience so influenced him that he spent the next next two decades puzzling through how different animals and plants come to be in specific places, a thought process that led to the publication of the “Origin of Species” and the theoretical framework of evolution.

For me, visiting the Galapagos was a pilgrimage. Walking the same lava shore that Darwin explored 180 years ago, reading his descriptions of marine iguanas that seem contemporary, and identifying several of the finches that bear his name, would have made my trip profound enough.  Even more, as a sometimes birder, I cannot recall ever adding 24 new species to my life list in one week.   And what birds: not only the famous boobies, but I also sighted the world’s only nocturnal gull (the swallow-tailed), the flightless cormorant, several storm-petrels, and a Galapagos flycatcher that almost perched on my hat.  Finally, to swim in the water with a penguin zipping by was beyond heaven.

Animals and Humans have had a difficult relationship and coming up close to so many species has me thinking hard about our shared existence.  The animals in the Galapagos are “tame” in the sense that they are accustomed to human visitors.  However, their docile behavior is inbred, the result of

evolving for generations in an environment without predators.  Take the flightless cormorant, which like other cormorant species is a superb diver and swimmer.  However, the bird has no need to fly in escape from a predator and over generations it’s wings have become appendages useless for flight.

“Ecological naivete” is the term David Quamen (“The Song of the Dodo”) uses to describe animals that have evolved without a need for defensive behaviors.  Sanderlings, the small shore birds that move in coordinated groups on the beach in North Carolina, are solitary creatures in the Galapagos as they do not need one another for protection.  The fierce appearance of the iguanas is all about competition between males for breeding privileges, not to scare off non-existent predators.  The Nazca boobies don’t really build nests, but just incubate their eggs on bare rock and soil.  The animals are truly defenseless.

To be in a place where animals are so approachable is both joyous and a bit unsettling. On the one hand, a romantic notion comes to me of humans and animals living harmoniously in nature.  But as ingrained as Genesis may be in my psyche, this does not seem quite right. I remind myself that these are wild, not domestic, creatures.  My son recalled the difficult lesson of Timothy Treadwell, the subject of the movie “Grizzly Man” that recounts his false, and fatal, quest to bridge the gap we have with wild animals.

Tortoise Extinction is the dark spot on the history of humans in the Galapagos. Well before humans arrived, one of the most fascinating evolutionary tales is how reptiles became the dominant herbivore of these island ecosystems.  The giant tortoise can grow to be several hundred pounds and in a lifespan of more than 100 years these beasts travel about disrupting the landscape, moving plant

seeds through their slow digestive systems, and causing cacti and other plants to evolve in response.  Sadly, the tortoise also became a prime food objective of seamen, whalers, and other explorers; hundreds of thousands were slaughtered and several species on some islands became extinct.  It is perhaps not surprising that while tortoises cannot easily move away from humans, they hiss and threaten visitors who approach to closely.

Humanity is now redeeming itself with the giant tortoises, and the full scientific skill of researchers and the generosity of conservationists has enabled both the preservation of threatened tortoises, the restoration of their habitats through the removal of invasive goats, the repopulation of islands, and DNA-driven efforts to restore subspecies of tortoises once though extinct.  The Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz Island offers a fascinating insight into this caretaker effort.


Island Ecology becomes the primary subject of any natural investigation of the Galapagos. The clue that got Darwin thinking about evolution was the brag from the Islands’ Governor that he could tell the island of origin of any tortoise merely by looking at the shape of its shell.  This led to the conclusion that each subspecies of tortoise evolved uniquely on each island.  Later work also identified the evolutionary differences in beaks of 14 species of Darwin Finches.  The lessons learned here continue to teach conservationists about the importance of biodiversity in habitats throughout the world.

More recent environmental challenges of the islands are a case study of the importance of sustainability in larger ecosystems and the planet as a whole.  In 2007, the World Heritage Center of the United Nations listed the Galapagos as a natural site in danger.  Work with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has resulted in the removal of this listing, and the Galapagos have taken concrete steps to ensure an environmentally healthy future.  However, the issues of concern that remain foremost are issues that all us most wrestle with as well:

  1. Invasive species threaten biodiversity and the ecological integrity of the islands.  Now the Ecuadorian government works to keep out non-native plants and animals and conservation groups have restored ecosystems.  Maintaining environmental health requires constant vigilance and intervention.
  2. Population growth and the associated pressures for land, water, and energy use could undermine the healthy functioning of the ecosystem.  After a period of rapid immigration to the island, controls were put in place.  Like most of the world, accommodating more humans in any given place is a challenge yet to be fully solved.
  3. Sustainable economy that can provide support to residents without extracting too much from natural resources is a universal balancing act. In the Galapagos, the economy is built on tourism, so limits are sought on the number and location of visitors.  All tourists contribute $100 per visit to support the islands, but that fee needs to be increased and more of the funds directed to environmental protection, supporting alternative energy sources, preserving water, and undergirding the local community.
We watch closely how Ecuador, Galapagos residents, conservation groups, and tourists come to terms with building a sustainable community with the wildlife, natural wonders, finite resources, and island geography of the place.  Our interest is not only in the Galapagos as a unique and delicate resource, but also as a laboratory for the rest of us.  While we may not think so, we all too live on an island.
Garden or Wilderness? This question came to me as I toured the beautiful Jardin Botanico in Quito before our trip to the Galapagos.  It is typical for a botanical garden, with a carefully curated collection of plants representing the many different ecosystems in Ecuador.  The flowers were stunning, and I was particularly taken with the several hummingbird species that circulated among the blooms.  It is a protected garden, and not a wilderness.  However, if we think about nature as both tended and wild, would we be able to draw a bright line between what is a garden and what is not?  
The Galapagos look and feel wild, especially the 96 percent of the islands that are unoccupied by human settlement.  But as you learn more, you realize that the vegetation is being altered–for the good–by removing invasive goats and controlling certain plants.  In some places volcanic soil has been brought in to aid the egg-laying efforts of land iguanas.  And tortoises exist in some places only because of the significant intervention of humans to re-introduce the species.  One can rightly argue that these gardening activities only seek to offset the negative impacts of earlier human actions, but they are interventions nonetheless. 
Where then is the wilderness on the Galapagos?  Perhaps at sea, where hammerhead sharks sneak in from the deep, and orcas and dolphins swim free between the islands.  But as we know, the oceans are not free from a human imprint either: whole species have been decimated, plastic is omnipresent, and now the temperature and acidity of the oceans are rising as we burn fossil fuels.  If wilderness is an ecosystem untrammeled by humanity, then there is no true wilderness anymore.
There are, however, wild places and wild animals.  The Galapagos is both wild and a garden.  For me, encountering animals that are wildly tame, that is innately defenseless,  puts the challenge of our age literally before me.  We have the power to respect these creatures, and leave them untouched.  We also have the power to capture, control, or even destroy the animals we meet.  However, we also have the power to help, tend, and care for the nature before us.  In the Galapagos, and increasingly elsewhere, we are using our power to not only practice restraint, but also to be stewards of nature.  


Our tour was with Ecoventura, which works with a number of tour operators, and I would recommend it highly.

To learn more about the islands’ environment, I would recommend “The Galapagos: A Natural History” by Henry Nichols.  Another book I read through the trip was David Quamen’s “Song of the Dodo” which is quite relevant in thinking about the implications of island biogeography.

To help protect the Galapagos, you can donate through the Galapagos Conservancy which encompasses the Charles Darwin Foundation and works with a number of local, international, and governmental agencies.


If you have the opportunity to visit mainland Ecuador, I would recommend spending several hours in the Jardin Botanico de Quito

Thanks Anna, Abbie, and Gus for being part of the trip; photographs by Anna Owens



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