Galapagos Notebook

Rebecca Newman opens her Galapagos notebook

Did you know that marine iguanas have two penises? That the temperature at which their eggs incubate determines the gender of a giant tortoise? That a female parrotfish can change into a male? Two weeks in the Galapagos and I’ve climbed volcanoes, swum with penguins, and worn out my shutter-finger photographing sea lion pups. I’ve also become a mound of wildlife trivia. It’s Darwin’s fault, of course. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species, I took a berth on a latterday version of The Beagle to retrace the great man’s steps. Crippled by seasickness for most of his voyage, Darwin wrote: ‘I loathe, abhor the sea and all ships which sail on it.’ But then his Beagle was a cramped ‘coffin’ brig with limited rations. Mine is a 105-foot luxury yacht with power showers and a good line in caipirinhas.

‘Darwin’s Finches’ have exaggerated fame. Instead, inspiration for his theory of evolution came from the mockingbird. Before I left I had lunch with Darwin’s charming great-great-grandson Randal Keynes. He explained how Darwin encountered a mockingbird on San Cristóbal which was dissimilar from those on mainland South America. On Floreana, 50 miles away, he found a second mockingbird which was different again. Darwin was struck by the possibility that the birds might be endemic to each island, and mused that this would throw into question the stability of species. While the Floreana mockingbird was wiped out in the 1880s, genetic analysis of Darwin’s specimens has confirmed that those on two nearby islets, Gardner and Champion, are direct descendants. There are around 100 breeding pairs left. Keynes is working with the Charles Darwin Foundation to try to restore the species. ‘The Floreana mockingbird was the clue to the theories which transformed our understanding of natural life,’ he tells me, waving his spoon aloft, his soup untouched. ‘It is critically endangered, and must be saved. This is a wonderful point for conservation. We can restore the most important bird in the history of science.’

Our first expedition from The Beagle is to the CDF research station on Santa Cruz to visit Lonesome George. An elderly American in our group is unimpressed by this last surviving giant tortoise from Pinta Island, yawning: ‘You’ve seen one turtle, you’ve seen ’em all.’ I leave them, and meet Felipe Cruz, a CDF director — and brother of The Beagle’s owner, Augusto Cruz (like the animals, Galapagos humans tend to be closely related). Under the shade of a muyuyo tree, he explains the urgency of the problems they are trying to address. ‘In the 1982-83 El Nino year we lost 70 per cent of penguins and flightless cormorants. If you factor in anthropogenic threats — that is to say, man — they could all be wiped out in one year.’ Some progress is being made. He proudly recounts the success of an eight-year project to eradicate goats from Isabela. The animals were introduced in the 17th century by English pirates laying in wait for Spanish galleons carrying Inca gold. In 1998 there were around 150,000 running wild, decimating native species. One of the hardest tasks for the CDF was locating the goats on Isabela’s twisted volcanic terrain. In the end they used Judas Goats — she-goats pumped full of oestrogen — to lure the billies, and tracker dogs and puppies, which were given special boots to protect their paws from the lava.

Human presence on the islands is increasing. There are seven times as many people living on Santa Cruz today than there were 30 years ago. Around 173,000 visitors are expected to visit the Galapagos this year, a number that has been growing 15 per cent per annum. When The Beagle reaches Bartolomé we go past the place where another yacht, The Parranda, burst into flames — achieving notoriety as Griff Rhys Jones was aboard. Several days after she sank, diesel is visible still coming up from the wreck. The slick on the water reaches out towards the neighbouring island. ‘There is no other Galapagos,’ Felipe continues. ‘Extinction is forever. This is the best opportunity to get it right. It is also the last.’

For all the efforts of the CDF, when I reach Isabela I am surprised to find cats running wild in the streets (feral cats are a huge threat to endemic species which have evolved without such predators; their prey include hatchling birds and tortoise eggs). Litter is blowing from a rubbish dump on the beach. Where there should be a flamingo lagoon, there is dry, pink mud. A local gestures to a nearby building site, soon to be Hotel Isabela Spa. He claims that the foundations of the hotel have blocked the channels which used to fill it. While the lagoon is a national park and a Ramsar-protected wetland, the owner of the prospective hotel is a wealthy friend of the island’s mayor. The mayor is also doing his bit for the island’s economy: he hopes to enlarge the airport to accept commercial aircraft. ‘There is a lot of politics,’ sniffs my friend. ‘Everyone wants a slice of paradise.’

Of course they do. That’s the point. It is the same determination manifested when magnificent frigate birds fight for a well-appointed branch on which to sit and puff out their red throat pouches (a sight we find charming and try to capture on video). Whether it is the Galapagos hawk I watch peck the eye from a dying fur seal, the mayor angling for more revenue, or me sitting here typing this, we are of common descent, fighting for status and to get the best mate with whom to propagate. With civilisation we hope that mankind is understanding the advantages of collaborative (evolved) tactics such as justice and, yes, conservation. But it is not just genes that are selfish. Survival of the fittest. It’s not pretty.

Original article published in The Spectator, in February, 2009

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