Thursday, August 29, 2013

San Cristobal Interpretation Center, Natural and Social History

We'll start our tour of San Cristobal, the Galapagos island closest to the continente, at the Interpretation Center, but make a few diversions and finish with a bibliography, just like at school. 

This facility, a gift from Spain,  is about half a dozen years old and is devoted mainly to natural history and the human history of the islands. 

It's pretty well done and worth the visit. I "read" it cover to cover. 

Apparently there was more going on in the Galapagos in the last 500 years than in the last 5? million, and plenty just in this century.
Geologically the Galapagos islands are unusual, being volcanic in origin, currently active, and located at  the junction of three different tectonic plates riding over one another. The islands have arisen in the west and are sinking below the sea in the east. 
The newest island is Fernandina, a fresh shield volcano of 500,000 years, whose lava continues to leak from a hot spot beneath part of the Nazca plate into a bay close to western Isabela, the most western island. 
The oldest islands are the eastern ones, Espanola and San Cristobal,  and they are expected to eventually subside below the sea.

At the same time, ocean currents swirl around, five of them in an intricate dance to the rhythm of the prevailing trade winds - no wonder water temps and sea conditions are so variable in the Galapagos. The nutrient-rich Humboldt Current originates in Antarctic waters so it's cold enough to cool the air, leading to the odd sensation of sleeping under blankets near the Equator. A fine mist, the garua, forms at higher altitudes, but the arid zones are less affected.  I'm told that from January into April, when northeasterly trade winds prevail, the Humboldt loses its grip so the weather is hot and it rains many afternoons, unlike the temperate conditions we experienced during July. Then there are the El Niño years when 'normal' is turned upside down.

The Galapagos are of course noted for the large number of endemic species, known nowhere else in the world, that developed in its isolated location.  

The famous ones are the tortoises and iguanas, which probably drifted in on logs from South American rivers but survived because there was no competition from mammals (tortoises) or adapted (the marine iguanas learned to swim and dive to the bottom). 

Several birds are special: the penguins, the flightless cormorant. Others, like the albatross, simply thrive in the isolation. The finches developed differently on each island from a common ancestor; Charles Darwin was  able to adapt or diversify his observations of them into a successful new theory.

The most notable mammal is the Galapagos sea lion. I like to think of this image as having persisted for umpty-thousands of years. 

Behind my back, though, are youths with surfboards, sunbathers, tourists with cameras, all new in the last century. I wonder what the sea lions make of it.

There may have been some human travel to these islands from around Manta area on the Ecuador coast, from whence we ourselves came in Galivant, for us a trip of five daysIn a reed raft back in the first millennium, it would have seemed hard work with uncertain prospects to travel in either direction. That culture is now extinct and known only by their pottery shards.

The earliest known Europeans to find themselves here were in 1535, in a ship transporting a Spanish Dominican friar Tomas de Berlanga from Panama to Peru, where he was to mediate a dispute between the Spanish conquerors there. 

Carried by the currents beyond sight of the continent, the ship eventually drifted into the Galapagos, out of water, horses dying, etc. Eventually they found water, but were otherwise unimpressed, not bothering to take possession of the islands or to name them. Other voyagers drifted through but none stayed, or were able to return, that we know of,  until the end of the 1500s.

Then it was pirates and buccaneers  and later smugglers, passing through the islands, attracted by fresh tortoise meat, and the sometimes possibilities of water. But the heavy, some say rapacious, human activity really began with the whalers in the late 1700 and 1800s. They took sperm whales, but also fur seals, sea turtles and fish, tortoises and iguanas, fresh water and firewood. And they left behind goats and other domestic animals.

 When Darwin sailed on the Beagle he was in his 20s (in the photo from the SC Navy Museum, he was 45). He was often severely seasick, and when he got back to England, he stayed put. He took decades to publish On the Origin of Species, and perhaps to grow the great white beard he's so often represented with.

Ecuador took possession of the islands in 1832, under the urging of General José Villamil. He went to Isla Floreana and established a rather utopian-sounding colony primarily composed of prisoners. He banished liquor, and
"with the colony free of this mortal enemy of man, I have the satisfaction of noting everyday better order, more harmony, more civility, more decency…these are the same people now that I removed, for the most part, from the jails of the State" Jose Villamil 12 Oct 1833

Villamil also introduced and released livestock as a 'good investment' never imagining the damage that would result from donkeys, goats, pigs and cattle, and associated rats, cockroaches, etc. When Darwin visited Floreana, he was visiting an active town, where residents could show him around.  After Villamil left, his happy little colony degenerated and eventually nearly disappeared.

There are other stories about people who settled in the islands and traded with the mainland in tortoise oil (used in street lighting), salted fish and cattle hides, but few precise details now exist, only the remains of thousands and thousands of harvested tortoises. 

One, Jose Valdizan, attempted to recolonize Floreana, again using convicts, and was eventually killed by one of his workers.

The same fate later met Manuel J. Cobos (left), who bought all of San Cristobal and planted sugar cane in the highlands. Later, either he or his son also began a coffee plantation which still exists today, a lovely spot under tall trees, and the coffee is delicious! However, he too used convict labor, (the Interpretive Center called it a concentration camp) ruling it with an iron hand, and was also murdered by one of his workers.

You can learn more about San Cristobal in the late 1800s on this cruiser's blog:
Cobos is on April 7, 2013, in case you get lost on this very prolific blog. Thank you, Pepe.

The  frisky blond-headed children were part of a Norwegian contingent  which came to the islands in the mid 1920s, hoping to make a fish cannery. But conditions were not as they expected and most of them soon left. 

In the 1930s more 'utopians', Dr. Frederick Ritter and his 'disciple',  Dore Strauch, established themselves on Floreana, as did the Wittmers, a German family. Not long after, an Austrian Baroness (as she styled herself) and her two, or was it three, lovers arrived in Floreana, stirred things up, then mysteriously disappeared two years later. 

And so the population of the Galapagos islands ebbed and flowed. Then, in 1978, the United Nations designated the Galapagos islands as the first World Heritage site, and the race was really on.

Ecuadorans from other parts of the country settle in the Galapagos. They are not motivated by love of tortoises or marine iguanas - they just want a better life in a comfortable climate.

 I've read that the Galapagos Province has the highest per capita income of any province in Ecuador. The fishermen from the mainland want to make full use of what had been abundant resources, while the National Park wants to ensure there is enough 'nature' left to keep attracting tourists. Things have settled down in the ten years since the incidents of fishermen storming national park and research center offices, but there are, as you would expect, conflicting views about what is best for the population, and for the islands. It all depends on who is calling the shots, and with what goal in mind. Of course, the buzz words are 'equitable and sustainable growth'.

"Until recently, the future of humans depended on the islands. Now the future of the islands depends on humans."

This is how the Interpretation Center introduces its section on current issues. Some of the issues confronting the present population, which has grown rapidly to over 30,000 people:

  • the population itself, 
  • overfishing and other resource conflicts such as how to develop agricultural land and 
  • lack of water,
  •  invasive species, 
  • tourism.

A growing population of residents and tourists needs more supplies, more imports, and produces more trash. So, add trash disposal, energy production, risk of oil spills.
The invasive species are particularly devastating to the local ecosystem, and hard to control. Just off the top of my head: feral dogs and pigs eat tortoise eggs while cattle and goats in addition eat the vegetation upon which the tortoises rely, wasps eat caterpillars the birds depend on (and sting tourists!), the rampant spread of guava trees and blackberry bushes overwhelms native plants. This photo may be from the Charles Darwin Center on Santa Cruz.

Ecuador is a producer of oil, and the subsidized price of gasoline and diesel is just over a dollar a gallon for Ecuadorans (yachts pay more!). So is this street mural from San Cristobal about energy sovereignty, or pollution? I am not sure that I understand the message, but I like the illustration.

El Niño is a phenomenon with great effects on life in the Galapagos, warm years favoring the land life, cooler years favoring the marine life, but with great extremes of drought or deluge each way.

And then there is tourism, the major engine of the economy.  Another 'invasive species'?
 This sign indicates why we had to pay so much to come here, and were not allowed to go anywhere on our own. Is it Disneyfication? Control firmly in the hands of politically-connected tour operators? A victory for the now-Galapagonian Ecuadorans who want to make full use of their resources? Or the only way to prevent the place from being loved to death? Similar issues face US National Parks, Yosemite a prime example, as I've read recently in the NY Times.

So, there's a lot to be curious about in the Galapagos. If you're interested, here is more:

A Galapagos bibliography This is the best single, non-touristic, source I found for a Galapagos overview. Jacob Lundh is (was?) a Norwegian who spent his life in and around the Galapagos and wrote a thorough and readable 'document' which is published and downloadable as a 248-page PDF.
    Wikipedia,ápagos_Islands The condensed version (19-page PDF), with pictures.
    Wildlife of the Galapagos (Princeton Pocket Guides), Julian Fitter. If you're interested in the wildlife, this is the guidebook for you, pocket sized and thorough without being pedantic.  has nice photos and useful information about  the 'nature' side of things.

    A Galapagos Affair by John Trehorne, published in 1983, details the lives of the three German-speaking households at Floreana in the early 1930s. I was surprised that these happenings were publicized in newspapers around the world at the time. And I was surprised at the number of yachts that called at Floreana, and often left items very valuable to the settlers. What yacht carries a wheelbarrow, or a spare stove, I wondered? So I Googled them by name. These were YACHTS writ large: like Velero III, (Allan Hancock in an elegant 100-foot motor yacht, scientific research by day, chamber music by night),  Nourmahal (Vincent Astor, 263' motor yacht, also doing some science),and  Phillips Lord, sponsored by Frigidaire and broadcasting a radio program aboard the 4-masted schooner Seth Parker. A reminder that it's all been around before.

Galapagos at the Crossroads by Carol Ann Basset "depicts a deadly collision of economics, politics, and the environment that may destroy one of the world’s last Edens" "A up-close personal account of the difficulty in balancing what's best for these spectacular, fragile threatened islands and/or what's best for people--fishermen, tourism industry" say the Amazon reviews of this $12.99 Kindle download, and I concur.  It's always interesting to peek behind the curtain. Published in 2009, from, I think, some older material, and sometimes repetitive; it would be nice to read her  version of the current situation, and how the issues have evolved under the current administration of Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa.

    Battle at the End of Eden, a 99-cent Kindle Single by Amanda R. Martinez and The Atlantic Books(Dec 23, 2012) How exactly does one go about ridding a tropical island of  invasive species, such as goats, and what are the politics of eradication? An interesting discussion especially considering Basset's description of the goat eradication efforts at Isabela. Martinez starts out with the story of a Galapagos fisherman setting a goat ashore as blackmail, but moves beyond the Galapagos in her discussion. Galapagos Islands are a World Heritage site; here are some reasons why. Good for a quick overview, references and photos is a site full of links to other Galapagos information.

Well, I thought I could cut this post into two or more parts, but it's too complicated. To paraphrase Blaise Pascal, who is becoming a favorite of mine: "I made this post very long, because I did not have the leisure to make it shorter."
Nor the leisure to fix all the formatting errors. Sorry, folks.

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