The Harsh, Fragile Eden of the Galapagos Islands

Antonin Kratochvil / VII

Even from a distance, the Galápagos Islands look harsh and unforgiving. Arranged in an almost straight line, they jut out of the ocean, one after the other, a series of lava outcroppings 800 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador. The things that make them so harsh—the scarcity of fresh water, for example—are also what make them so important. The very harshness of the islands means that there are few things living on them and their struggle for survival is easy to see. But this also means that the ecology of the islands is fragile and, starting in January, the Galápagos National Park will be placing a series of restrictions on tourism, making it more complicated to visit the islands.

It is always horrible to learn that a destination that is difficult to reach is going to withdraw even farther into the distance. Here is the signal experience of going to the Galápagos: read ahead and decide if it is worth making the effort. You are on one of the islands, wearing your typical goofy, floppy, I-am-a-tourist hat. You bring a camera up to your eye. Suddenly, a finch lands on the camera and bends down to look into your lens. In your viewfinder you see the beak and enormous eye of the curious bird.

It is strange to apply the word “Eden” to islands that are so difficult to survive on, yet nothing else appears appropriate. The Ecuadoran government has done a good-enough job restricting access to the islands so that the birds and animals aren’t frightened of humans. You arrive on the islands and see the innocence of these animals and you feel vaguely embarrassed, not for any particular thing you have done but for the general cruelty and selfishness of human beings. If such trust is possible here, why isn’t it possible everywhere?

Many people compare visiting the Galápagos with going on a safari. This is wrong. The two experiences are nothing alike.

Go to Kenya or South Africa or Botswana, and the landscape is both jade green and often so crowded with animal life that it sometimes feels like being in Times Square. Visiting the seemingly barren Galápagos is closer to visiting a Japanese stone garden. Your senses get sharpened. At first, this process of forced concentration feels weird.

Look at the water, the guide said to me. Doesn’t it look like gin, like it’s oily? That’s because there’s so much salt, must saltier than the sea. How can anything live in that? Amazing, no?

We were looking at pink flamingos moving slowly across a shallow lake. The sun was setting, and the flamingos were walking with their heads seemingly buried in the sand. In the slow, meditative way they were walking, the birds looked oddly religious.

Look at the trails the flamingos leave behind, the dark lines in the sand, the guide said. See how one flamingo’s trail doesn’t overlap with another. Amazing, huh?

This was on my first day of a Galápagos cruise, and to me the guide’s frequent use of “amazing” felt like he was trying to sell me.

The next day we left the boat early in the morning, taking a series of blue, motorized rubber launches to one of the islands.

The islands are most famous for their finches, the birds whose varied beaks—short, long, sharp, and needle-like, or wide and similar to pliers—provided the impetus for Darwin’s theory of evolution. I had not expected to be able to appreciate these differences. How obvious would they seem to a non–bird watcher, I had wondered.

Shockingly obvious.

The finches were everywhere, hopping around on dirt and on cacti. There were those, with small beaks, that primarily eat seeds. There were finches with larger beaks that can be used to crack tougher objects. The finches with the long, sharp beaks can bore into a cactus.

Everything has consequences here, the guide explained. A large beak means a larger body, which means more calories need to be consumed.

Knowing the historical significance of the finches made it easier to pay attention, but the differences were obvious. Even where the birds tended to perch on the cacti had to do with their sizes and the shape of their beaks.

That morning outing was only a few hours long, but it had an effect. Afterward, I began to try to interpret everything for significance. Why are those crabs dark when they are young, and brighter later in life? Because young crabs have soft shells, and so they need to blend in with the lava rocks. Why do marine iguanas have fork-shaped teeth? For a number of reasons—one of which is that they make it easier for the iguanas to scrape algae off the rocks.

A British friend who loves football once said that he finds basketball vulgar. I asked him why. He said that points are so easy to earn in basketball that they seem not worthwhile, empty calories like candy. The slow, hard-won points in football feel more adult, he said, more reflective of real life.

Perhaps because more was demanded of me in the Galápagos, the birds and animals I saw there felt more meaningful than those that I have seen on safaris. Frigate birds flying overhead, revealing their red throats briefly, reminding me of Louboutin shoes. Albatrosses resting on a sunny cliff, enormous white wings spread out, and looking from a distance like sheets left out to dry. Taking motorized launches through lagoons crowded with mangroves, leaning over the boat’s edge into the water and seeing green turtles moving slowly and sea lions traveling like rockets.

The quality of one’s experience in the Galápagos is determined both by what you put into it and by the quality of the guides you have—guides who are, in a very real sense, teachers. The boat I took, the Eclipse, is very small, capable of carrying 48 passengers and, because of its small size, it is allowed to stop at islands that larger boats are forbidden to approach. The real value of the Eclipse, though, is that it specializes in more academic cruises and so has especially well-trained guides.

One afternoon, I went scuba diving. One of the guides led me deeper and deeper into the water. I had all my gear on while he wore only shorts. At first, the water was bright with afternoon sun, and then it became like dusk. The guide kept waving me down. Look at this, look at this, he seemed to be saying. There seemed no end to the things worth paying attention to.

The guide would have kept leading me deeper, except I decided to move back up toward the light.

Sharma is the author of An Obedient Father. his new novel, Stars From Another Sky, will be published later this year.