In Darwin's Wake
In this book excerpt from Herb McCormick's One Island, One Ocean—the story of the 2009-2010 Around the Americas expedition—the crew of Ocean Watch calls at the fragile, challenged, and astounding Galápagos Islands.
Islands in Transition
Late in the afternoon on Sunday, March 21, the southernmost island in the Galápagos chain—Isla Española—rose out of the mist just off our starboard bow. It was a stirring sight, and perhaps quite similar to what Darwin himself might have seen 175 years earlier. These days, the Galápagos Islands serve as the crossroads for international cruising sailors voyaging across the Pacific. Taken in company with its designation as a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization World Heritage site, an Ecuadoran national park, and a biological marine reserve, the authorities enforced rigorous customs and immigration procedures. So we stood off overnight to deal with officialdom first thing Monday morning.
I’d visited the Galápagos for the first time over 15 years previously and was struck by how rigorous the rules and regulations had been. At the time, I’d been in charge of a group of sailors who’d chartered two of the handful of boats available for such trips, and in two weeks of rambling about, we rarely saw another vessel. Back then, it was a rare yachtsman indeed who was granted permission to wander about the Galápagos on his or her own boat. “Pristine,” I remembered thinking. “This place is pristine.”
It still was. But as we approached the lively harbor of Academy Bay on Isla Santa Cruz, another word came to mind: busy. It was very, very busy.
The very first thing we saw as we closed in on the bay was a big, three-masted “head boat” for liveaboard tourists that had come to grief on a reef just off the island’s southern coast only a week before. Though simplistic, it became difficult to dismiss the forlorn sight as a symbol of an archipelago in rapid commercial transition.
For as soon as we pulled into the bay and began searching for a place to drop our anchor, it was clear that it’d take many a shipwrecked vessel to put any sort of dent in the charter business. At least a dozen large dive boats and small cruise ships dotted the anchorage, along with several dozen private yachts of all sizes and description, including nearly 30 sailboats on a Pacific rally sponsored by a British sailing magazine.
A stroll through downtown Puerto Ayora—lined with hotels, hostels, dive shops, T-shirt emporiums, jewelry stores, restaurants, and taverns—was equally jarring. The assembled throng ranged from obviously upscale visitors on group tours to scruffy backpackers and surfers. Business appeared brisk. Darwin wouldn’t have recognized the place.