When traveling to the Galapagos, remember: the animals are not afraid of you.
Most visitors come to the Galapagos for the experience of being in pristine wilderness—at far as that is possible these days. While the Galapagos are fiercely protected, with high entrance fees, and strict regulations designed to protect the fragile ecosystem, it has evolved into a mix of tourists, Ecuadorian residents trying to carve out a life better than one afforded on the mainland, and ubiquitous tour cruise boats arcing around the archipelago’s shores. It is hardly pristine.
Despite our invasion, what remains intact is the strange intermingling of human and wildlife that is possible on the islands. Since no large predators reached the Galapagos, the native animals evolved to have no fear of large creatures.
Stepping onto the shores of San Cristóbal, for example, one is immediately engaged in this drama. Hundreds of sea lion pods crowding beaches, sea lions sleeping in vacant boats, sea lions draped across stairwells and blocking access (“Ah, excuse me, may I pass?”). Gone are the walls between you and the natural worlds surrounding you.
There seems to be no limit in the degree to which you may be engaged in the animals’ lives. Standing on Mann Beach, in San Cristóbal, as I was looking out into the ocean, I didn’t notice that there was a female sea lion sleeping with her baby a few steps away from me. A male emerged from the sea, with laborious, goofy steps. How close is he going to come to me? I wondered. He came close, but he took no notice of me. He began sniffing and poking at the female’s rear. She endured this rude disruption for a few seconds before snapping her head back and sharply barking at him. I imagined her appealing to me with a look of shared understanding. “Men, right?”
Some believe that tourism numbers threaten to destroy the wildlife on the Galapagos, and tip the balanced interaction between the native wildlife and humans. In 2007, the Galapagos Islands was added to the United Nations’ list of world heritage sites in danger, and then removed in 2010. I wonder. Is it our numbers that threaten them? Our attitudes?
The experience of being around wildlife that does not fear us is one of most sobering experiences one can have. A gift, really. To walk into a world where you’re welcomed as a side-by-side participant, the live experience of ecological balance—births a feeling and attitude that may be more effective than any lecture on environmental threats.