Where the wild things are

Where the wild things are: An archaeologist explores the Galapagos on an expedition run by school kids.

Published March 16, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

"Look over there!" yelled our enthusiastic naturalist, pointing to some nearby rocks. "You can see a male marine iguana in his breeding colors! These are the only underwater reptiles in the world and they're endemic to the Galapagos." While cameras click, and we learn about ecosystems and adaptations, I'm most impressed by how profoundly ugly these beasts are, with their Godzilla scales, slimy claws and heads encrusted with primordial snot. "Imps of darkness," was Darwin's gut response. I have to agree with the father of evolution on that one.

I'm in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, with a team of scientists and educators for a four-week interactive journey of exploration and discovery. Our project, called GalapagosQuest, uses the Internet to engage an online audience of kids and their teachers in a study of this unique archipelago. We send reports, photos and video back to our Web site, while kids vote to set our course, sending us into the most life-threatening scenarios possible and getting us into all kinds of trouble.

The Galapagos Islands are unlike any other place I've seen. I've yet to figure out exactly why, but part of it has to be the feeling of being outnumbered and insignificant. The iguana that I had a staring contest with seemed to be unfazed by my presence.

It's 6 a.m., and from our ship's bow the only sounds I can hear are those of seabirds and fresh coffee being ground. We've traveled eight hours over open ocean by night and are now at the island of Espaqola, one of 19 islands that make up this volcanic archipelago. As you approach by sea, these islands appear stark, rocky and extremely unwelcoming. Dense, thorny brush covers jagged boulders, giving the impression that you've arrived at nature's original fortress. Peering over the bow, coffee securely in hand, I'm reminded of Herman Melville's unflattering description of the Galapagos as resembling "heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot."

Punta Suarez is one of the most popular tourist sites in the islands, and we're determined to be the first group to land. Ecotourism is funny that way. We all want the most authentic experience of nature, and the last thing we want is dorky tourists with funny socks in the background of our photographs. As our dinghy approaches land, the beach comes alive with the dark forms of sea lions, strewn about the beach like overweight sunbathers. We swarm among the sea lions with cameras in hand, while they regard us with true apathy. They seem used to the drill by now, rising up on their flippers barking and snorting when we get too close for comfort.

Later, when a whole family of them starts rolling into the surf, I put my snorkel on and roll in after them. It's hard to imagine a creature less graceful on land than a sea lion. It's almost painful to watch them as they waddle and drag themselves to the water. Underwater, they're liberated. They play in pairs, diving down, rocketing up, pirouetting and wrestling with each other. I plunge between them and pass close enough to feel one brush against my stomach. I turn and swim straight for the 400-pound bull, hoping he knows we're playing. We meet head on, whiskers to whiskers; he barks bubbles into my face and veers off. I swim to the surface, catch my breath and go back under, but my friends are gone, bored no doubt with these tedious tourist stunts.

Looking back now, it seems strange that I wasn't excited about coming to the Galapagos. I'm an anthropologist. I thrive on the rhythm of culture, the hum of city life and human eccentricity. My research usually takes me to exotic places where I dig up the remains of ancient peoples who tamed the wilderness, and usually destroyed themselves and their environments in the process. That's good stuff to me. The Galapagos, by contrast, have mostly been spared the wear and tear of history, at least until recently. For me, traveling to a place where people are more of an accident than a theme, and the animals don't know enough to flinch when you approach, struck me as, well, boring.

But to an ecotourist, the Galapagos Islands are a dream. More tourists visit Disneyland on a good day than the Galapagos in a year. "The Galapagos Islands aren't for everyone," warns a standard guidebook, and they're right. The only way to properly visit them is by booking onto one of the many pricey tour boats that operate here. Only four of the islands are inhabited and just two have hotels, restaurants and other tourist facilities. You might think this would be a great place to camp, but it's all but outlawed. There are only two or three campsites in the entire archipelago, and you need special permits from the park service to visit them. Ninety-five percent of the islands' land is protected park, so tourists have to be careful about the impact their stay has on the unique animals and plants that make their homes here.

Puerto Ayora, on the island of Santa Cruz, is the hub of all tourist action here. Avenida Charles Darwin, the main drag, is a sleepy seaside strip where you can buy "I love boobies" T-shirts to impress your friends at home. I keep wondering why those lovely creatures couldn't have been given a nobler name. Tourists meander about town with seasickness patches behind their ears. Like me, they're relieved to be on dry land for a change, to see banks and stores, and to hear music that reminds them they're in Ecuador. The port itself looks like the San Diego Freeway at rush hour. I hail a water taxi, which is emblazoned with the name "Pink Floyd." I ask the driver about the relevance of the name and he seems as perplexed as me, so I spend the five-minute ride out to my boat explaining the social impact of Pink Floyd on '70s youth culture.

Outside of this strange scene, the highlight of this city is Lonesome George. George is a giant tortoise and one of the most famous animals on the planet. He weighs in at almost 400 pounds and was chewing grass on the tiny island of Pinta when Teddy Roosevelt was president. His lonesome status is due to the fact that he is the only tortoise left of his subspecies and has been uninterested in mating with any other females. Most of his kind were hauled off by 19th century whalers who stored them upside down in the holds of their ships and lived off them during long ocean voyages. As the main showcase of the Charles Darwin Research Station, George is well cared for. One afternoon I spy on him as he sits monolithic in his inaction in the back of a pleasantly shaded corral. I wait and wait, but he doesn't move an inch.

After three days in port we're all itching to leave, to head back to the wilds and to see penguins or cormorants or whatever lies ahead. The Ecuadorian sucre is plummeting, mainland banks are closing and the government has declared a state of emergency. None of it reaches us here on the boat. We measure time by the tide and the rhythm of meals served diligently by the crew. The biggest decisions we face on an average day are whether to snorkel, climb a volcano or visit a nesting site for rare birds. The greatest danger we face is eating bad ceviche. This must be paradise.

As night sets in, after another day of cavorting with sea lions, the sharks start their nightly hunt around the boat. I retreat to our floating computer lab and bask in the comforting blue glow of my laptop monitor. Contrary to some of my naturalist team members, I harbor few illusions about becoming one with nature on this trip. The beauty of the Galapagos is overwhelming. I have no reference for it and more than a little difficulty making sense of it. I belong on this boat -- like it or not -- downloading my digital camera and processing the day's impressions while sipping a Pisco sour. A few hours of rollicking through paradise and I'm ready to take my leave, apple in hand.

By John Fox

John Fox is an archaeologist/anthropologist who lives in Los Angeles.


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