Evolution on the Internet: Virtual Galapagos

For me, going to the Galapagos was like going back in time. A week earlier I had been "On Assignment in Ecuador" for a World Wide Web site, and was wired to the gills. A Kodak DC-50 digital camera was my constant companion; an NEC Versa 2000 laptop awaited me every evening for image processing and journal entries, and a nightly Internet connection to ftp sites, e-mail boxes and Web pages assured my creative connectivity. Even though I was in the highlands of Ecuador, shuttling between Indian markets, colonial haciendas and urban hotel rooms, my musings and shootings were posted daily to http://www.terraquest.com. It was like living in the future and I loved it.Now, I had to make do with a Canon 35mm SLR, Kodachrome 64, a rusted pen and a notebook. I landed with a thud back in the present, aboard a 136-foot motor yacht called the Alta. She's only a 140-foot motor with eight double cabins, a Sperry Gyrocompass, Raytheon 48-mile radar, Si-tex GPS satellite navigator, and a Saturn 3S sat-com system with telephone and fax. That all translates down to "No Internet Connection," a condition I had to rectify in time for our next interactive expedition on the World Wide Web, "Virtual Galapagos."If I felt like an emissary from the future, I wondered how Charles Darwin felt, when he arrived in the Galapagos in 1835. Common knowledge to the contrary, Darwin came from an age when talk about evolution was rife, and the inter-relatedness of species was a subject of much debate. Evolution was like a vast treasure of answers to a vast trove of riddles. It only remained to find the key to the treasure. In the Galapagos-- with his youthful, inquiring 19th century mind in an isolated landscape millions of years old -- Darwin found the key.It was this isolation from many of the vicissitudes of change -- the profusion of species, of predators, of an abundance of competition -- that created the spare environment in which the development and separation of species could be clearly observed. In the Galapagos, there is but a handful of species, as if scarcity, not abundance, is the rule of creation. The result is that everything is seen as if in bold relief: Distinctions are razor-sharp beneath the equatorial sun, with little room for confusion or error. To succeed on these exposed hunks of stone is to succeed indeed: Any adaptation that helps ease that struggle is acceptable. And the Galapagos is where this primal lesson is best illustrated.Coming to the islands where Darwin contemplated these deep thoughts, I had a different mission. How could I get that Saturn 3S sat-com system configured to transmit data as well as voice? So that first night, while others talked of vacations past and future, or tried to pick out the trapezoid of the Southern Cross and the smudge of the Magellanic Clouds, I moodily paced the deck of the Alta, eyeing the antenna housing.At six in the morning, our natural history guide, Scott Henderson shouted, "Everybody load up in the pongas!" Ponga is an old Spanish word for small boat or launch, and even though these were inflatable Zodiacs with 40 hp outboards, pongas they remained. "We've got a walk to do! It's ponga time!""Come on, girls, everybody ponga!" Jayne Wood, a New York banker, led the line, while Teri Ryan from Brazil, Eve Levin from Illinois and Karen Bridges from California joined in the mock dance. After a few shimmies, they dutifully broke up and boarded the boat. Scooting across the quiet waters, we soon landed on the rocky shores of Fernandina, one of the nine major islands of the Galapagos group.Herman Melville calls them "clinkers," and on an island like Fernandina, it's easy to see why. The rough stones clatter underfoot like dinnerware, knocking hollow against each other, still shifting and settling a few decades after the latest lava flow. These are iron-brown stones, light only in weight -- roughly the same color as the hundreds of foot-long marine iguanas who warm themselves in the sun after their morning feeding. They are all but oblivious to the passing parade of mind-blown tourists who traipse along these volcanic pathways.In this spare world, it is impossible not to appreciate the world-famous wildlife of the Galapagos, the privilege of being where creatures are not afraid of humans. Few visitors are disappointed. The wildlife is profuse and easy to approach: the red- and blue-footed boobies, fur seals and sea lions, red-throated frigatebirds and swallow-tailed gulls, black marine iguanas and multicolored land iguanas, and especially the giant tortoises whose Spanish name lends the Galapagos its identity.While the accessibility of the wildlife is due to its evolutionary isolation from natural predators, such a scientific oddity did not stop whalers, sealers and sailors from slaughtering tens of thousands of creatures during the 19th century. But while whaling and tortoise-taking are now largely behind us, all is not quiet in paradise. Japanese entrepreneurs bargain with local fishermen to harvest the white-tipped reef shark for shark's fin soup. The long thick anemone known as the sea cucumber is coveted by the same market for its supposed aphrodisiac qualities. Introduced species -- in particular goats, rats, cats, pigs and dogs -- are decimating the endemic plant and wildlife. And several times in the past couple years, the offices and personnel of the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galapagos National Park on Santa Cruz have been surrounded, isolated and taken hostage."There's only a small but very loud group who spend a lot of time putting down the National Park, and the Station, and even the fact that the Park exists here," says Station Director Chantal Blanton, who has clearly dealt with this issue at length."Their political rhetoric runs along the lines of 'You care more about tortoises than you do about people in the Galapagos'," she continues. "And indeed, that's right. That's our job. There are a variety of other institutions whose job it is to take care of the population. But there's nothing like having angry tourists who want to go to the park and get turned away, to make a political point."Therein lies one of the paradoxes of travel in the Galapagos: One simply must go there to appreciate it, but do sixty-thousand people a year have to appreciate it? After all, whatever rules the Galapagos National Park has to control the human impact on the islands, humans remain the single most devastating element in the changing world of the Galapagos. So human interaction is exactly what the Park and Research Station are trying to minimize."We are trying to maintain an environment in which evolution can occur without the hand of man showing itself," says Blanton. "Look at it this way: though only 3 percent of the Galapagos are inhabited, humans have affected well over half the archipelago, especially through the introduction of plants and animals, directly or indirectly, intentionally or otherwise."While initial damage was done by humanity itself, modern threats to the wildlife here come from introduced species. Pigs root out not only the native plants but also the eggs of tortoises and birds. Rats eat not only the eggs but also the newborn of bird species previously devoid of predators to their nest. Cats and dogs prey upon the birds, baby sea lions, iguanas and even small tortoises wherever they have gone feral, or where their control is very lax. (There is no such thing as a dog-license in the Galapagos, nor any pet neutering program at all.)As for goats -- these prolific, tenacious and voracious creatures are the greatest threat of all. Wherever they have been introduced they have rapidly defoliated the landscape and driven native populations of tortoises to the verge of extinction. Their latest damage is feared on Isabela, largest of the Galapagos islands, where some forty-thousand feral goats have crossed a natural barrier from the south end of the island toward the north, reaching a giant tortoise reserve and decimating the plant life that has sustained the tortoises for centuries.Meanwhile, those sixty-thousand tourists still visit Galapagos National Park every year, seeking the strange magic and inspiration that changed the course of intellectual history. In this world -- the real world, after all -- digital connectivity seems an irrelevance, a distant dream. And the privilege of being in the Galapagos is all that matters.At our landfall at Garner Bay on Espanola, a group of us waded into the waters to go snorkeling. Fifty yards from shore, out of the corner of my eye I saw a flotilla of a dozen mustard rays -- known as cow-nosed rays for their blunt-shaped heads -- silently gliding by. I frantically grabbed at the swimmer nearest me to direct her attention to the sight, but by the time she turned around I had lost the vision in the hydrous clouds. Though we later saw parrotfish, lobsters and even a single spotted eagle ray, nothing matched the surreal sighting of that slow-moving squadron.Toward the end of the trip, I remember the afternoon that we slid over rolling waves, above the timeless deep, the Alta rising and falling on the bosom of the ocean. A half-dozen dolphins sensed us from some distance away, and chased us down in a flash, elatedly leaping and surfing the bow wave in a paroxysm of aquatic ecstasy. After a few minutes of surfing, the dolphins wandered off to seek more novel diversions.I wandered back to the upper deck to take another look at that Saturn 3S antenna. For the umpteenth time I wondered -- what was beneath that dome? I hoped it was a gyroscopic transceiver for the Inmarsat system, which I could appropriate for a data link. That way our "Virtual Galapagos" trip this May would be able to include live chat, digital photos and journal entries, uploaded daily to a Web browser near you. More novel diversions for the modern traveler, eager to cruise the information superhighway.GETTING THERETour Operators Mountain Travel Sobek: (510) 527-8100, fax (510) 525-7710. Quasar Nautica:(593) 2-446-996; fax (593) 2-436-625 Galapagos Network, (800) 633-7972 Inca Floats, (510) 420-1550 Southwind Adventures, (800) 377-WIND Holbrook Travel, (800) 451-7111 Galapagos Travel, (800) 969-9014 Ladatco Tours, (800) 327-6162 Roatan Charters, (800) 282-8932 Park East Tours, (800) 223-6078 Wilderness Travel, (510) 548-0420 OverseasAdventureTours,(617) 876-0533 Recommended Web Sites "Virtual Galapagos," an on-line adventure this May -- http://www.terraquest.com Peak Media's "Virtual Galapagos" CD-ROM edition of the Terra Quest expedition will be released in late May of 1996. Call (800)453-5322 "The Charles Darwin Research Station," on Santa Cruz island -- http://fcdarwin.org.ec/welcome.html "The Galapagos Coalition," a good resource for further enet research -- http://www.law.emory.edu/PI/GALAPAGOS/ "FunkyFish's Ecuador and Galapagos Guide," an off-beat web site -- http://www.qni.com/%7Emj/SIDEBAR ONEGalapagos Tourism EtiquetteThe Ecuadoran government's plethora of rules affecting tourism are difficult to argue with: You can't remove or disturb any plants, animals or articles such as bones, pieces of wood or any other natural objects; you can't touch or feed animals; you must not introduce plants and animals to a new location; you shall not litter (this includes food -- no picnicking here!); graffiti is banned, as are souvenirs made from plants or animals of the islands, except from legally obtained wood. Most importantly, all groups that visit the National Park must be accompanied by a qualified guide approved by the Park; landings are only allowed at certain sites, during daylight hours only, and hikes must take place only on approved and marked trails.There have been several recent cases in which guides who allowed violations of these stringent rules were suspended or had their licenses revoked. (Becoming a licensed guide in the Galapagos is one of the most coveted jobs in the world of natural history, a position held by relatively few.)

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