In 1835, Charles Darwin came to the Galapagos on the HMS Beagle, at the end of an around-the-world expedition. He spent five weeks in the islands collecting samples of plants and animals to take back to England to study.
More than 20 years later, he published the groundbreaking On the Origin of Species based largely on what he had seen here. Darwin theorized that life forms evolve over the course of generations through the process of natural selection, which later came to be called survival of the fittest.
Darwin claimed that small, random differences in living organisms might make them more or less likely to survive long enough to propagate, and that, over a great long time, these different survival rates might move an entire species in a new and different direction.
The biggest implication of his theory, that all animals including man might share a common ancestor, caused an uproar that has not subsided.
On a crisp, clear night in the Galapagos, the best stargazing on the Xpedition is on the top deck, at the bow of the ship, and it is spectacular. Our group gathered there each evening after dinner to see the Southern Cross and the Milky Way and watch for falling stars.
On Wednesday, we saw beautiful, pink flamingos and the sandy nests of endangered sea turtles on our morning hike on Santa Cruz Island, staying well clear of the latter. In the afternoon, we climbed 380 steps to the top of the volcanic cone on Bartolome Island for one of the most dramatic views in the Galapagos -- volcanic formations stretching to the horizon, two blue bays with crystal-clear water and sandy beaches.
Afterward, we visited one of those beaches for snorkeling with a huge variety of tropical fish, swimming past volcanic boulders where endangered Galapagos penguins rested.
On Thursday, we landed on the largest island in the Galapagos, Isabela, composed of five active volcanoes. On our long hike we saw endangered giant tortoises and 5-foot-long, yellow-and-brown land iguanas. We spotted one of the feral cats that the government is trying to eradicate due to the damage they inflict on native animals, and later, snorkeled with sea turtles nearly 3 feet in length.
That afternoon, we visited Fernandina Island, the youngest and most volcanically active island in the Galapagos. We picked our way through knots of marine iguanas and sea lions (including newborn pups) along the black lava shore, and I wondered how the endangered flightless cormorant, with its withered wings, could possibly have evolved from the flying cormorant, as the naturalists said.
We stared up at the black cone of the volcano, the top shrouded in clouds, but no amount of wishing could make it rumble.
On Friday, we visited the grottos of Santiago Island, lava tunnels along the beach that have collapsed in various spots to form beautiful blue pools where sea lions play and sleep, protected from the crash of the surf.
Next, we enjoyed my favorite snorkeling of the cruise, swimming with sea turtles and whitetip sharks, through an underwater archway with colorful plant and coral formations.
If you have noticed how often I have used the word "endangered" in this letter, it was not by accident. The years since Tomas de Berlanga stumbled onto the Galapagos have not been kind to wildlife anywhere. Many of the birds and animals here are the last of their kind.
Whalers and pirates exploited the bird and animal and fish populations, wiping out countless species and decimating many others. An estimated 200,000 giant tortoises were carted off for food -- stacked upside down in the dark, they could live almost a year without food or water, an easy source of protein for long voyages.
Whales were more than abundant then, sperm whales and orcas and blue whales and others. Now they are a rarity.
Settlers came to live and fish in these waters, introducing non-endemic species such as rats and cats and dogs which preyed on the native species and competed for scarce resources. Goats were introduced to the islands as a source of food for the locals, but were allowed to run wild and quickly defoliated large parts of several islands, leaving nothing for other animals to eat.
Since 1965, the Galapagos Islands have been a national park, with 97.5% of the land set aside for nature. Rules have been implemented to limit where, when and how many visitors can come ashore on each island, and new, stricter limits are set to go into effect in the next few weeks. Programs to eradicate goats and other non-endemic species have been implemented, but with limited success.
The biggest threats today are fishing boats that sit just outside the protected waters, longline nets that kill indiscriminately and snare albatross as well as marine life, and the growing local population.
There have been clashes between the locals -- now estimated at 40,000 -- and Ecuadorian authorities as the government has tried to limit fishing and the harvesting of sea cucumbers and the exploitation of other natural resources. There seems to be no workable plan to stop the human population growth, which comes at the direct cost of the animal populations.
Whenever I have intruded upon one of the world's last, great nature preserves, I have asked myself, "Should I be here? Should anyone be here? Should the Galapagos and Antarctica and the Serengeti and the Okavango Delta and all the other parks and reserves be closed to visitors?"
But stopping responsible tourism won't stop illegal hunting and fishing and destruction of ecosystems and interruption of food supply for endangered species. The pressure of the world's exploding human population drives the effort to harvest all the planet's resources farther and deeper.
Just last month, a vessel was seized here for illegal fishing, and more than 400 sharks were found in its hold. It would soon have been bound for Asia and the insatiable desire for shark fin soup.
Better enforcement of the existing rules is needed, but enforcement costs money, and the Galapagos and many other nature preserves are located in countries with very limited means.
The true economic value in these last wild places is just that, that they are still relatively untouched by man. Their rich diversity of rare and fascinating creatures will grow more valuable continuously and forever if not destroyed for short-term gain.
That value can be monetized by the local government through sustainable ecotourism, which creates good jobs and provides the money to educate locals and visitors and create and enforce the policies that protect the park.
Ecotourism is an essential and irreplaceable part of any solution, and here in the Galapagos, Celebrity Cruises and the Xpedition are playing a leading role in this regard.
The Xpedition is consistently honored as the most eco-friendly ship in the Galapagos, and its features include the most advanced wastewater treatment system in the islands, an onboard desalination system covering the freshwater needs of the ship (other than drinking water, which is bottled), and dedicated recycling room and staff.
Celebrity Cruises provides financial support to numerous local conservation projects, education and habitat restoration. The ship hires and trains native Galapageons as naturalists, giving locals a financial stake in preserving this special place.
I can attest that the Xpedition's visitors leave only footprints and take only memories (plus, in my case, 5,000 digital images).
The long shadow of Charles Darwin is still evident in the Galapagos today, from the streets and birds and island and research station named in his honor, to the great statue near a cliff on San Cristobal Island.
But mankind changes the environment faster than many species can adapt to the changes, faster than the mechanism of natural selection, as envisioned by Darwin, can possibly work. If the human species wishes to share the world with more than pigeons and cockroaches in 100 years, it is our approach to the natural world that must continue to evolve.
Can the stewards of the Galapagos restore the giant tortoise and the Galapagos penguin and the sea turtle and the flightless cormorant to sustainable populations? Can they protect the only nesting spot in the entire world for the waved albatross, essential to protecting the species? Can they limit or reverse the growth of the human population, reduce the waste they create and the damage they do to the environment?
For the sake of this precious natural paradise and all the future generations who might experience it, I hope so.
To read more about the Galapagos Islands, please click to visit GalapagosCruise.com.
Vacations To Go
Galapagos Cruise, Part 1: Quito & North Seymour Island
Galapagos Cruise, Part 2: Sea Lions, Albatross and More
Peru Trip, Part 1: En Route to Machu Picchu
Peru Trip, Part 2: Cuzco, Gateway to Machu Picchu
Peru Trip, Part 3: The Lost City of the Incas