Thursday, May 29, 2008

Civilization Far from Everything

It's been a little jangling these last two days, as we ease off the diving and back into time on land, so see parts of the Galapagos Islands where people actually live. Yesterday we spent some time in Puerto Ayora, by far the most populous place in these islands. Walking around there, one could easily be in any number of towns in the tropics that cater to tourists: restaurants, bars, art galleries, and t-shirt shops. And oh, yeah: people making a living.

We had a lovely time at the waterfront in Puerto Ayora yesterday, watching pelicans trying to steal fish from the fishermen, and fishermen cleaning their catch and tossing unwanted bits to aggressive sea lions and pelicans. We bought a few souvenirs here and there, and looked into a lot of the shops.

But after over a week of seeing mostly desolate islands and a few other dive boats, it's odd to see groups of tourists and the trappings that follow them everywhere. People dressed up for a night out. Internet cafes. Plastic shopping bags. Drinking straws. Fountains. Boardwalks. Buildings!

All these things that never catch my eye as I walk through my home town or the place where I work seem oddly foreign in this place. And I suppose the fact that the scavenging birds are pelicans, not pigeons, is quite stark. Or the fact that the sea lions just fit in, flopping for a rest on the dock, on the sidewalk, wherever. It's not like they've taken over a part of the town like San Francisco's Pier 39; they're just part of the town here.

The main focus of our stop in Puerto Ayora was a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station. The bits we could see were mostly the visitor center, but we did get to walk through some of the areas where they incubate Galapagos tortoises. These are perhaps the iconic creatures of the islands, but this is the only chance for us to see them. They tend to live quite high on the larger islands, and are not easily accessible in our limited time on land. So unlike the other creatures we've gotten to observe in their natural habitats, we see these only in pens.

The tortoise breeding program is terrific. They rescue eggs from the various islands when they are laid, because they are vulnerable to introduced predators such as rats and pigs. They take the eggs to the research station and raise them for about 5-6 years, then release them back on their native islands. This is key, because all the tortoises on all the islands (and often on different volcanoes on the same island) represent different, unique subspecies. They're adapted very well to their particular environments, so it is important to return them to the habitat that suits them.

Although it was nice to see lots of tortoises (and the young ones are quite cute!), seeing them in this way just wasn't all that satisfying. Maybe it's because I'm jaded by having grown up near a zoo that had a captive tortoise (that we could touch and climb on – yikes!). Or maybe it's just the realization that this is the only practical way to conserve these magnificent creatures. If they didn't raise them in protected pens, more or even all of the subspecies would be extinct or closer to being so.

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