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Guest Writer

Galápagos Journal (Part One)
Off to a bad start
by Dan Buettner

Writer, adventurer and three-time Guinness World Record holder Dan Buettner recently spent some quality time studying ecology, evolution and the Galápagos Islands. Here, from his journal, are some impressions.

uidebooks endlessly brag about the Galápagos Islands. "The largest, most complex and most diverse archipelago left in the world," trumpets one book. "The best place on earth to swim with large marine mammals," boasts another.

For me this tiny cluster of islands, 600 miles off South America's Pacific coast, belongs in the same book of acquired tastes as caviar, blue cheese and those big snails the French call escargot. When you first experience them, you can't imagine liking them, much less paying for them.

Charles Darwin, who started all the commotion when he based his theory of natural selection on his five-week journey here, simply declared that the Galápagos "strike me with wonder."

Dan Buettner (Visit his Web site.)

I'm not as impressed. In fact, the first day here put me in a bad mood. I'm sitting on a boat rocking back and forth in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. After just six hours, I'm sunburned, dripping sweat and seasick. One of my teammates just puked overboard.

From deck, I can see three islands in the distance. They all look, as writer Herman Melville described them over 150 years ago, "like cinder heaps on a vacant lot."

They're covered with jagged rock and prickly vegetation. If you were unlucky enough to be marooned on any one of these islands, the heat and lack of water would turn you into a mummy in a matter of weeks – if not days.

About the same time our earliest human ancestors were standing up on two feet and walking, the Galápagos were erupting out of the ocean's surface. Over the next five million years, plants, animals, birds and insects floated, swam or flew to these islands. Here, they evolved into perhaps 8,000 unique species, many of which appear no place else on earth.

The arrival of human beings brought many problems to the Galápagos.

First, buccaneers and whalers stopped on the islands usually just long enough to hunt tortoises for meat. They took an estimated 100,000 tortoises, hunting two entire species into extinction.

Then, about 150 years ago, people began to clear land and build houses. Now, some 20,000 settlers are trying to make a living in a difficult part of the world.

In the process, however, they unintentionally destroy habitats (through land clearing), pollute the water and cut down too many trees.

Fishermen – local and foreign – take too many creatures from the seas. Populations that are dangerously low include sharks (caught for shark-fin soup), sea cucumbers and lobsters. Perhaps worse, their animals (pigs, goats, cows) escape and eat the food of native species.

On top of it all, 60,000 tourists (like me!) visit the islands, erode the trails and accidentally import intruders – in the form of insects in their luggage or seeds clinging to their socks.

Whether it's the Galápagos or your own community, it boils down to this: how can we strike a balance between our way of life and other creatures' rights to live?

– Read more entries from Dan's journal

E-mail Dan, check out his Quest Network Web site and find more of his work in our archives.

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