19.12.2005 - 24.12.2005
Located about 600 miles off the coast, for many years the Enchanted Islands were a total backwater, ignored by everyone, including Ecuador, which annexed them shortly before Darwin visited in 1832. The only practical way to see them on a short visit is on a boat, which acts like a floating hotel. No camping is allowed. Despite popular misconceptions, the islands have been inhabited for years, but the only significant towns are Puerto Ayora and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Of late, the population, especially of Puerto Ayora, has increased significantly. We flew from Quito to Baltra, a former US army base, as most tourists do. From there we took a bus for the ½ hour ride to island of Santa Cruz, where we were ferried out to our ship on zodiacs. When full, the ship has a capacity of about 80, but now there were 50. They showed us to our rooms, small, but efficiently laid out with two portholes and our own bathroom. Shortly thereafter lunch was served, and not surprisingly, it was a lavish affair with more food than we could eat. Much to our relief we saw that most of the people were younger than us. We envisioned that on a bigger ship, most people would be older, more conservative, and less fit, God forbid, than we were. The sedentary life of a cruise has never appealed to me, and this was my first. Next to us was a delightful French couple, Zoey and Nicolas, an older gay American couple, and a couple of young American docs on their honeymoon. While we ate, the boat sailed to another nearby island where we would make our first stop.
A short, rather pretty, mid 30's, Ecuadorian woman got up and introduced herself in English, and then in Spanish, as the activities director. Oh Suzanna, I thought, from the old TV program with Gail Storm.(I date myself badly here). She introduced the captain and the ship's officers, and told us that we would be assigned to different groups of 8 or 10 passengers and a guide, with whom we would stay with for the entire 5 days, whenever we left the ship. The ship would make two ports of call daily. Wake up call would be at 7 AM sharp, breakfast at 7:30-8:30, and usually the first landing would be around 9. We had to be ready to leave as soon as the name of our group was called over the loudspeaker. Some landings would be “wet” and others dry, and we would be snorkeling almost every day. Each night, there would be a lecture on what we could expect to see on the following day, as well as some kind of informal entertainment. "As soon as we finish here, I'll make the group assignments. Any questions?"
She was certainly the model of organization and efficiency, as was the entire ship. We were assigned to the Frigates, with a rather international mix of people.
We were the only Americans. Zoey and her husband were in the group, a young Italian and his English roommate, Will, who had come separately, two Dutch girls in their 30's, and finally another young and somewhat shy, Japanese couple. Our guide, Carlos, was from the mainland, and in his early 40's. Right after lunch we had a brief meeting with him, and he told us what we would see that day. We had to stick together, and he again emphasized that we had to be ready to leave as soon as we were called over the loudspeaker. You'll want to touch many of the animals. Please refrain from doing so. as they will then have a human scent and may be rejected by their own kind. In addition they may look harmless and cute, but they can and sometimes do bite, so it can be dangerous. Please walk only on the paths and don't wander off. Uh, oh. How regimented was this going to be?
Not to worry. Carlos turned out to be a very bright, personable, and obviously well informed naturalist who spoke five languages. Our group was a lot of fun, and in general stayed out snorkeling the longest, and was always up for more adventures. The islands are mostly volcanic deserts, rough and rocky, with various types of lava stretching all the way to the sea.
Some of them have volcanic cones that reach up another 2000 feet or so, and the tops are often shrouded in cloud, and a constant mist known as Garua. There are some desert plants at sea level, such as cacti, and various bushes, many of which have sharp thorns.
The vegetation gets noticeable thicker as the elevation increases. There is not a lot of fresh water, and all in all, it is a harsh environment, beautiful, but unforgiving.
And then there are the animals, the reason everyone comes here. They are everywhere. There are thousands of marine iguanas, anywhere from 2 to 4 or even 5 feet long, sunning themselves on the rocks and crawling into the water. It is hard not to step on them.
There are large male sea lions with their harems of females. who can sometimes be aggressive, and it is necessary to give them a large berth. There are playful seals, also thousands, little ones, big ones, some dark and others light brown, cavorting in the water or lying on the rocks or sand not far from the iguanas.
There are bright red crabs scuttling in between, and seemingly in constant motion, avoiding the surf as it moves up and back.
There are giant and ancient land tortoises, some more than 150 years old, not to mention the inimitable Lonesome George, said, at one point, to be the last remaining tortoise.
And of course there are the birds. Blue footed and masked boobies,
albatrosses, swallowed tailed and lava gulls, mockingbirds, Darwin's finches, pelicans swooping down to catch fish,
flamingos, penguins, and yes, our namesake, frigate birds. They all let you get close enough to feed and touch them, which dutifully, we did not. And this doesn't even include the fish and the sea turtles.
My favorite part was the snorkeling. Every day, sometimes twice a day, we would go out for an hour or two. The seals would play near us, sometimes even bumping into us by mistake. They were very curious and would swim right up to my body and face, before darting off to do flips and spinners. At times, I would spend 15 minutes swimming above a turtle or manta ray, the occasional shark, or a brightly colored school of parrot fish. One time we snorkeled along a cliff face, and not only could I glance down and see the world below, but I could look up and practically touch the rookeries on the rocks just above the water, and watch the birds dive for their dinner.
They took good care of us on the boat, while keeping us very busy. The staff was there with fresh towels when we returned from a long snorkel, and there was usually a snack just as we came on board, to hold us until dinner. At times lunch was served outside by the pool, and the daily lectures were informative without being too long. The schedule worked like a Swiss watch, but never felt oppressive because there was always the option to skip something. Not that I took advantage of that. There were just too many interesting things to do and see. On the last night the crew, led by our indefatigable activities director, who could dance a mean salsa, put on a talent show, and then our group stayed up late, led by Zoey's husband, drinking caipurinas and singing karaoke. A first for me, but our Japanese couple who didn't speak much English, knew all the English songs. It was indeed, a trip. We managed to avoid getting sea sick until the very last zodiac ride to shore, when Nanette felt queasy, but by then, it didn't much matter.
A LITTLE HISTORY
This is the typical tourist picture of the islands, an Eden wilderness of tame and often exotic wildlife, that is protected by the Ecuadorian government for the benefit of all. It was my view, until I returned home, did a little research, and read Michael D'Orso's book Plundering Paradise. He presents a very different view, which in many ways is the opposite. Far from being an untouched paradise, the Galapagos are under siege from both rich and poor out to make a buck, and the government has been anything but helpful.
Shortly after annexation in 1832, a penal colony was established by the government on Floreana, and then abandoned 30 years later. In 1870 another colony was established in San Cristobal. Known as El Progreso, its residents were little more than slaves on a sugar and coffee plantation that also harvested moss, used for making dye. There was a revolt, and the sadistic overseer was killed in 1904, after which the inmates fled to the mainland. Largely uninhabited for the next 20 years, the first permanent settlers were Norwegian farmers.
The islands have always attracted their share of oddball characters and misfits. One of the more infamous stories is that of Frederick Ritter, a German doctor. Inspired by a popular book about the Galapagos, as were the Norwegians, Ritter, a vegetarian nudist and astrologer, left his wife and moved to Floreana in 1929 with his new girlfriend, Dore Strauch. Not far from the old penal colony, the couple constructed a dome of logs and hacked out a farm in the jungle highlands. They started writing home, and several accounts of their success were published, encouraging others to come and see what they had created. Most left after a relatively short time, but in 1932 another German couple, Heinz Wittmer and his wife Margaret came and stayed. They built a house some distance from Ritter. However a few months later a Viennese “Baroness” showed up, replete with silk panties and a revolver, as well as three men. A couple of years later, two unrecognizable bodies washed up on a beach 120 miles away, and created a huge sensation in the international press. This eventually brought to light the long standing feud between the baroness and the other two families , including an unexplained shooting of one of the men living with her. Not long after, the baroness and one of the other men disappeared, and then the third went missing. Finally, Ritter died that winter, supposedly from a case of botulism. To this day no one knows exactly what happened. Were they murdered or was it suicide? Dore Strauch left that year and returned to Germany where she wrote a book about it, as did Margaret Wittmer, who stayed on, and whose family continues to run the same beach hotel on the island.
On a less lurid note, the national park was created in 1959, when the Ecuadorian government bowed to international pressure. At the time, there were only a few hundred residents in all of the Galapagos, and a compromise was reached that 97% of the land would be put into the park, and 3%, the settled areas, would be left outside and therefore not subject to park regulations. The park would be controlled by a newly created park service, and a system of boat-touring was initiated with specific landing sites, so that only 8% of the land would be open to tourists. To pay for it, the government would charge everyone a park entrance fee, and the boat owners would be subject to taxes and licensing fees. All well and good. The problem has been that the government of Ecuador, like those of Central America, has been incredibly corrupt. Although nominally a democracy since 1973, many of the presidents have been little more than demagogues beholden to wealthy families, and often concerned with lining their own pockets. As a result , the park regulations have rarely been enforced.
What has happened in the Galapagos is also linked to the larger history of the country. In the mid-20th century, oil was discovered in the Amazon basin. Initially developed by a consortium of American companies, a pipeline was built over the Andes, and as the government of Ecuador came to depend on the revenue, the size of the government bureaucracy increased rapidly. Though nepotism was rampant, some of the money was spent to improve infrastructure, and subsidize basic services and commodities, including gasoline and cooking gas, which were sold below cost. However, a good deal of money was skimmed off the top. As the economy continued to expand, the middle class as well as the rich benefited, though least of all, the Indians. The government did not have the foresight to set aside money to deal with the market fluctuations in the price of oil, and in the mid 80's when the price began to fall, it was caught flatfooted. It responded by increasing production, but it never reached the intended levels. Industrial growth came to a halt and there was little foreign investment. Government expenditures exceeded revenue, and by 2000 the country was in debt close to $14 billion, with a GNP of just slightly more than that. Political unrest followed the gradual collapse of the economy, and the most powerful indigenous rights movement in South America, headed by CONAIE, began to launch protests and demonstrations.
In response to demands by the IMF and World Bank, the government launched various austerity measures in order to secure more foreign loans. As in other developing nations, the burden of these measures fell disproportionately on the poor. The value of the sucre began to plunge. When D'Orso initially visited the Galapagos in 1999, it's value was somewhere around 2000 per US dollar. Within a year it dropped to 7000 then 20,000, and finally to 25,000, just before conversion to the US dollar. Except for those rich enough to shelter their money overseas, many people lost their entire life savings. Three presidents were thrown out of office in what amounted to bloodless coups, and the government has changed hands several times until recently. Despite widespread opposition, monetary policy continued unchanged for many years. In addition, the "War on Drugs," being fought against the narco-trafficers by the Columbian government, encouraged and paid for by the US, made the border areas with Ecuador increasingly dangerous and violent. Immigration from Columbia, both legal and illegal grew accordingly, and some drug dealers moved their operations to Ecuador.
The economic pressures on the locals in the Galapagos increased, as it did on many people on the mainland. Pepineros, or sea cucumber divers took to the water in increasingly larger numbers, as the price rose to more than $2US a piece. This is important because sea cucumbers are considered vital to the ecosystem. At one point in 1995, “fishermen” even attacked the Darwin Research Center. The Ecuadorian commercial fishing fleet also began to raid the islands in larger numbers, even though it was illegal. They spread huge nets, sometimes as long as 70 miles, that would catch everything in their wake. Despite the increases in tourism, and in the local population, almost 27,000, in the late 90's, the park service had just one boat to patrol an area the size of Pennsylvania. Eliecer Cruz , a Galapagueano, who became park service director in 1996, took the job seriously, but his efforts were hampered by a lack of resources and by a totally corrupt judge, who released boats and crew members caught for illegal poaching.
As 2001 drew to a close, the battle between the Galapagos National Park Service and the illegal fishing fleets, had escalated. Cruz, and the park service, supported by a Greenpiece ship, had sized sixteen fishing vessels for an array of violations. The government's response in each case was either to release the ship and its crew, or at the most, to delay legal action, (D'Orso, P, 323.) Not a pretty picture, and certainly not one I would have imagined from my own idyllic excursion. On a somewhat more positive note, the current Correa administration is trying to limit both the number of tourists, and the number of Ecuadorians immigrating to the islands. We shall see.