THRIVE NYC, October Issue 2007
To the Galapagos
Regarding kindness and the survival of the fittest.
I am here in the cradle or spiny nest of the theory of evolution; and as one tramps around the unwelcoming landscape, observing sea lions, red- and blue-footed boobies, and Darwin’s celebrated finches, you can do nothing but think about evolution. Evolution for us as a species, and for all the endemic birds, reptiles, and mammals I will never see again after I leave these strange, some say enchanted, islands.
Before I arrived here I compiled a tiny library: Jonathan Weiner’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Beak of the Finch; Evolution’s Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands, by Edward Larson, and of course Darwin’s own The Voyage of the Beagle. I attempted to read a few before arriving, and have devoured the rest as we “sail” from island to island on a noisy yacht that roils and racks from side to side, literally giving me a sleep where I toss and turn. (Ahh, so that’s where the phrase comes from.) But when I am not reading and tossing, we are being conveyed by the Zodiac, a small dingy, to the landfall.
The Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, stretch for more than 50,000 square miles — roughly the size of Florida. In 1959 the government of Ecuador set aside 97 percent of the land mass as a national park known as The Galapagos Marine Reserve.
A part of what makes the Galapagos so special is that they exist at the confluence of two major ocean currents: the Humboldt, from the Arctic, and the Cromwell, from the Equator. The swirling hot and cold temperatures give rise to a wild diversity of habitats and specially adapted creatures. This eco system is home to 3,000 kinds of plants and animals. About 20 percent are endemic, meaning found nowhere else in the world.
We have been to the island of Genovesa, where, as my books inform me, naturalists Peter and Rosemary Grant have undertaken a 20-year study of the incredible changes in the beaks, behaviors and lives of the Darwin finches. These unique creatures, and how incredible to use the word unique without it being hyperbole but rather a precise describer, do not exist anywhere else in the world; hence the changes that happen to them can be deconstructed and followed. In science, the finches can be very effective predictors.
Some of the finches observed by the Grants made evolutionary changes in leaps and bounds because of a period of drought, followed by the el Nino pattern of near-deluge rain which caused the bird populations to dwindle and then spike. These abrupt changes provided the ability to observe the survival of the fittest intimately.
The Grants observed that as the drought took hold, the myriad types of seeds normally available dwindled down to only large hard seeds, difficult to crack open, so only the birds with big tough beaks survived. When the rains finally came, the birds were ready to mate again. They had missed an entire year, because finches only mate after rain. when the males build nests in the cactus and sit on the highest points, singing to attract females. So after the drought, at the first mating opportunity, the first rain, there was a population of large, surviving males that greatly outnumbered the females. So the giant finch males took to singing, and the females had the pick of the songsters. They mated, and bumper crops of eggs and hatchlings and fledglings ensued. This continued while the avian population of Genovesa Island exploded and the mating went on and on. But then the ecological swing came. Like the stock market, good luck, or rainy weather, unless you live in Seattle or Scotland, all things have seasons or swings. And the flip came on Genovesa, and drought returned.
There on Genovesa was a quick-change generation of large birds, bred to crack difficult seeds, and all around them they found only small plants with small soft seeds. All of a sudden the evolved specialty of these big= beaked birds is null and void. Of course there are some small outsider birds still hanging around, and now it is their turn to shine as they peck and feed well on the teensy seeds remaining in a parched environment.
And the cycle continues. Natural selection by itself is not evolution. It is only a mechanism that, according to Darwin, can lead to evolution. As the Grants say: “Natural selection takes place within a generation, but evolution takes place across generations.”
All this has caused me to wonder, as a writer, an amateur naturalist, and perhaps a too close observer of humanity, What is our destiny as a race, given these seemingly perilous times? I see clearly that we are egregiously ignoring global warming and the graphic postcards it sends regularly. Here are some recent messages:
Times Square 2006 New Year’s Eve at 70 degrees
Flash fires in California
Unprecedented glacial melting
We ignore these signs to the peril of mankind and then ignore our animal and plant co-habitants. We ignore the over-simplistic truth that kindness has been bred out of modern human beings as a trait. Somehow we keep naturally selecting for self-centered greed.
I sometimes feel so distraught when I watch the news, an activity that more and more requires a cocktail to give me one thin illusory layer of protection from the callous destruction and persecution of the large part of the world by a tiny ruling class.
Nightly I observe a disregard for the signs of an apocalypse brought on by the inability to listen and learn from those less powerful in a world that is dwindling around us.
New Orleans’s Ninth Ward is still a disaster zone. Darfur and the entirety of Sudan is in an acknowledged genocide. The United States continues as the only developed country with no national health care. But the spending for war augments and rages. Oil profits are beyond record as the price of a barrel tops $95 and promises no near end. But we elect oilmen who ignore education and health in favor of a bellicose path, and they are nearly gleeful over the fear their paths have generated in a public ever more timorous.
On the Galapagos Islands one of the most shocking revelations is that the creatures — mammals, reptiles, and birds — evince very little fear or concern with the tourists trooping by snapping photos and asking for beakish grins. At first I thought it was just the newness of the situation, but I came to learn from lectures and reading that these inhabitants of Isabella, Fernandina, and Genovesa are so specialized that they each posses a unique niche. So the iguana, who eats the algae, is not in competition with the sea lion, who eats fish. The flightless cormorant wings have atrophied with disappearance of the need to fly to escape predators; also so the cormorant can fish unfettered in a pristine pool while savvy light-foot crabs watch from the banks clicking their claws like an absurd Greek chorus.
Yes, the giant frigate birds do steal fish right out of the mouths of gulls, but the fish abound. The hawk can feast on small marine iguanas, baby turtles do languish and die on the beach, and desiccating baby seals dot the beach of Genovesa. But Darwin’s famed finches have different feasts from the blue-footed boobies, and iguanas. And thus you see black lava beaches where sunbathers include mammals, reptiles, birds. and the occasional human interloper, all in respectful harmony. It is impressive and makes me wonder.
Has our human desire to have more, better, bigger perhaps caused a natural selection necessitating blindness to the needs, wails, and moans of others in our backyards and across the globe? When some more radical pundits propose that we, the hyper-mobile, super-rich American middle to upper class have alienated much of the world by our over-consumption in every arena of our lives, it is viewed as heresy and anti-patriotic blather bordering on treason.
Today I sit writing aboard a small yacht, the Letty, bobbing atop the Pacific Ocean. I eschewed the trek to the tiny island of Bartolome with the rest of my 14 eco-voyage cohorts, to observe what looks like the moon. I have selected (naturally!) to remain shipboard and write. I am a very gregarious person who requires large doses of alone time to keep up with an inner life that often feels neglected by my attentions to others. This is my rhythm; and at heart what propels me is a desire to be kind, to do well for myself and others, in a widening circle.
This is the reason we travel, to widen our circles and to hopefully take back more than T-shirts that read: “I love BOOBIES.” Travel, vistas, sounds, salty tastes, and ancient worlds never fail to open my mind, to embolden my spirit, and give me hope.
HOW TO GET THERE
I traveled to the Galapagos with a company called Eco Ventura. You may well ask: Can the fragile ecosystem of the Galapagos be best protected by plankton or by carbon offsets?
Well, EcoVentura, which became the first carbon-neutral boat operation to the Galapagos Islands in 2006, believes it is safeguarding the environment both regionally and globally by offering environmentally friendly holidays that minimize the impact of its operations.
EcoVentura purchased carbon offsets for its fleet from NativeEnergy Travel Offsets. NETO applies these offsets to renewable-energy projects such as wind turbines that help lower global carbon emissions. EcoVentura and its U.S.-based sales and reservation office, Galapagos Network, offer trips on board their three identical, first-class 20-passenger motor-yachts the Eric, Flamingo, Letty, and the 16-passenger live-aboard Sky Dancer.
Call (305) 262-6264 or go to www.ecoventura.com
Aerogal is the only Ecuadorian airline to fly to the U.S., so check them out.
American Airlines flies to Quito and Guayaquil, where you can catch connecting flights to the Galapagos. Quito offers much more in terms of site-seeing, but if you are just looking to maximize time, fly into Guayaquil.