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.
Leaps and Bounds
Over the next several days, we met many people who shed light on the ever-evolving islands, particularly Stuart Banks, an oceanographer at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, who’d lived in the islands for nearly a decade. He confirmed that the population was growing in leaps and bounds.
“Fifty years ago, there was hardly anybody here,” he said. “In 1960, there were 4,000 people. Now we get between 140,000 and 160,000 tourists a year. In the last 10 years, there’s been an increase of 14 percent every year. It’s one of the greatest increases anywhere, and that kind of pushes everything else.”
Obviously, according to Banks, the influx of vacationers, particularly eco-tourists, was growing exponentially. But international visitors were only part of the influx. More Ecuadorans were arriving to benefit from the increasing opportunities.
Unofficially, we were told that there were upward of almost 50,000 full-time residents at the time of our visit, spread over five of the group’s 19 islands—the rest are uninhabited—with the grand majority centered on Santa Cruz. The trend was clear.
A lot of what Banks and his fellow researchers at the Darwin center address in their daily occupation is “the inevitability of climate change” and how it relates to the incredible biodiversity that literally defines the place and has for centuries.
“In the Galápagos Islands, we still have the opportunity to do something, but that window of opportunity is rapidly closing because Galápagos, like most other parts of the world, is also developing very rapidly,” said Banks. “Galápagos was once disconnected from other parts of the world because logistically, the islands were particularly inhospitable places to be. Now all that’s changing, and Galápagos has connectivity to the rest of the world that was never there before.
“There are all these additional human effects,” he continued. “Fishing, tourism, perhaps local pollution in port zones, local development, and how all that intersects with this complicated climate dynamic, which is particularly difficult. In other parts of the world, people are trying to do the same, but there are few places like Galápagos, where in many senses it’s a natural laboratory to follow processes and see what’s really going on.”
Thanks to Banks and his colleagues, the isles remain a living marine lab, and in that sense they’re also a microcosm for the grander world in which they’re a small but important part. As in the rest of the planet, more than even climate change or global warming, the greatest threat to the islands, and to mankind, seemed elemental: too many people.
At least that was our supposition strolling down the bustling streets of Puerto Ayora, a tiny dot on a twirling planet that might just be spinning out of control.