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Lessons from the Galapagos

| Tuesday, October 25, 2016

At about 5 a.m. Monday a white van pulled up to main circle and 14 undergraduates, myself among them, stumbled out into the bleary morning. We had been traveling for almost 19 hours, taken two buses, a small boat, three airplanes, two vans and a shuttle, before finally dragging ourselves and our duffel bags back to our dorms for some much needed sleep. We had just gotten back from the Galapagos Islands.

The trip was amazing. We spent our mornings hiking up ancient volcanos and our afternoons snorkeling in the Pacific; we saw dozens of species of wildlife that can only be found in the Galapagos and many of them only on specific islands. Class favorites included the sea lions, the penguins, the iguanas and the tortoises; there were frigate birds and lava herons, sea turtles and manta rays and about a hundred species of plants worth mentioning. The animals, plants, geology and ecology of the Islands are their main attraction; but what I thought was truly amazing, what blew my mind minute by minute, was the way that the humans and the wildlife worked together. For the first time in my life, I saw humanity not as an imposition on the natural landscape, but as a benefit to it.

The Galapagos are a series of islands about 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador. The archipelago includes 21 distinct islands, each of which is the result of different volcanic activity from different time periods, is bordered by different ocean currents, has a different shape and ultimately a different story to tell. The result is a collection of incredibly unique islands, and I mean unique in the most absolute sense of the world: the kind of life that exists on these islands cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

In many ways the Galapagos Islands felt like something out of time. On our first full day we took a boat to Santa Fe Island, and our jetty let us off on a beach littered with sea lions. The small strip of sand hosted 30 or 40 of them, mostly mothers and pups of various ages, basking in the sun or playing in the shallows. I walked out of the water and right up the beach, passing within a foot or so of a dozen animals, and none of them seemed to even notice me. Another time, a young tortoise let me get close enough to touch his shell without retreating into it; later, a penguin swam right up to me and nearly ran into my snorkel mask. Being this close to wildlife, none of which seemed to care how close I was or even notice that I was there, I couldn’t help wonder if this is what nature was like before humanity took over. Before animals learned to run from approaching people and wilderness retreated in the face of human expansion — maybe that was when people could walk with sea lions and swim with penguins.

And the really incredible thing? The Galapagos Islands aren’t isolated. There are humans on those islands, and lots of them. In addition to the 200,000 tourists that visit the Galapagos every year, the three inhabited islands boast a total local population of around 25,000. These numbers are growing rapidly, bringing with them a serious set of risks and threats — but carefully planned and well-enforced policies seem to be curbing the numbers and protecting the environment. Despite the encroaching humanity, the wildlife of the Galapagos has been preserved and the wilderness is nearly pristine. The critical question to ask, of course, is how.

The short answer: lots of hard work and careful thought. Scientists working to preserve the Galapagos must possess incredibly detailed knowledge of their target species: the environmental niche it lives in, its predators and prey, how it interacts with other species, how it raises its young. Getting this information is step one and it can require meticulously designed experiments and years of collecting data. Step two is using this information to help the species overcome whatever struggle it’s facing, man-made or otherwise — and, of course, ensuring other species aren’t negatively affected in the process. The work isn’t easy, it isn’t always possible and it never ends, with new threats popping up virtually every year.

The good news? The work often pays off, and the Galapagos Islands are teeming with examples of how human intervention has helped or even saved species of wildlife. These include some of the Islands’ most iconic species, like the Galapagos tortoises, land iguanas and Galapagos petrels. If humans hadn’t acted, each of these species could be extinct. Instead, they are thriving.

These are just a few, brilliant examples of how humans and wildlife work together on the Galapagos to the preserve planet we live in. In a world where the Amazon rainforest loses thousands of trees each year to deforestation and a third of the northern and central Great Barrier Reef has died to coral bleaching, I’ve become accustomed to thinking of humanity as something of a parasite; the idea of humans and wildlife coexisting happily seemed more of a utopic fantasy than a potential reality. The Galapagos Islands changed my mind. I saw there what the world looks like when we take the time to understand the life around us, and make the effort to help it live. I can tell you firsthand: The results are worth it.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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