Excerpts from 950-word article


Puerto Ayora, Ecuador: Night had already fallen when our yacht anchored and we transferred to the hotel. It was the second of our four day stay in the Galápagos Islands, and had been even more unforgettable than the first. We were 17 in all. Early mornings saw us boarding the 40-metre yacht Delfín 11 for transportation between the islands, where pangas (motorized rubber dinghies) took us ashore. It was a great routine, each day proving memorable for different reasons. .......

That same day, after lunch at sea, we climbed to Bartholomew's summit for a panoramic view of the archipelago. Next, some of our group donned scuba gear for a closer look at the marine life; others rode pangas along the shore to see fur seals and tiny penguins.

Now, at the end of another magical day, were pleased with our decision to return to the comforts of Hotel Delfín instead of living aboard a yacht as do most Galápagos visitors. Delighted too, with Cindy and Pierre, our patient naturalist/guides who doubled as hosts and advisors, and manager, Daniel Geller who always briefed us on the next day's activities. Every evening we asked him the same question: "Can we see the giant tortoises?" And for the first three evenings he gave the same reply: "We are trying."

The tortoises, many over 100 years old, are usually seen at the Charles Darwin Research Station, but during our visit protestors prevented entry, giving us our first glimpse of Trouble in Paradise.

Disappointed though we were by Daniel's doubtful reply our group was deeply impressed with Ecuador's management of the 5,000 sq km national park containing about 20 of these fragile islands. For the past 60 years, wardens have been working to reverse abuse which started in the 16th century. Back then whalers and pirates harvested enormous numbers of the tortoises, keeping them alive in their ships' holds for months as a source of fresh meat and oil. Next the settlers arrived with cattle, donkeys and goats which destroyed the vegetation, and dogs and cats which preyed on resident wildlife.

Now that a breeding program has stabilized the tortoise population and most of the foreign animals have been removed, the islands are not too different from 1835 when the young naturalist Charles Darwin brought them to world attention. Once again, nearly all the reptile species, as well as half the plants and many birds, are unique to these islands.

Regulations are strict. Visitors, limited to 60,000 per year, are usually accommodated on small yachts, which follow pre-arranged itineraries. While ashore, they must be accompanied by licensed guides. Animals are never touched. Nothing may be removed. Nothing left behind.

The handful of protestors at the research station signalled something all too familiar to Canadians with memories of logging disputes in Clayoquot Sound and Algonquin Park. Here, the little sea cucumber is the unlikely trigger. A delicacy in Japan, this relative of the sea urchin has been providing unprecedented wealth to local fishermen who sell their catch to foreign buyers. However, removing millions of cucumbers from the food chain on which sealions and other animals depend, has had serious side effects. Even worse, mainland families coming to join in the bonanza have brought chickens, dogs and cats, along with a garbage, rats and insects.

When the government responded by closing the sea cucumber fishery it brought out the demonstrators. To placate them, the national legislature passed a law to allow tourism expansion which would include cruise ships and big hotels. Only a Presidential veto stands in the way of its implementation. To appalled conservationists, this signals an unwelcome return to the past.

Before leaving, I asked the park superintendent what can be done to secure its precious environment. How long he and his supporters can keep development at bay is unsure. Advice to travellers is to visit now, while the islands are still one of the world's few remaining ecological wonders.

As for the tortoises, Daniel arranged for a bus to take us to the highlands, where on a day that surpassed all others, we encountered at least 20 of them in their natural habitat.