The Galápagos Islands is a collection of volcanic islands that sit astride the equator in the eastern Pacific ocean off the shores of Ecuador – which owns it. There are eighteen larger islands, three smaller islands, and over one hundred other rocks and islets. It is both a national park, and a biological marine reserve.
Its history and ecology makes it the perfect location for a thriller:
“The local official’s poor English had created an assumption from the crew that he was none too bright, but it was the message he laboured that really confirmed it. He had lectured them on the peculiarities of the conservation legislation for the area. He stressed that some 95% of these islands were designated as a National Park and went into a stilted and detailed review of the regulations that Ecuadorian civil servants had woven around this initial decision. Given so many years unfettered at their task, this had become a labyrinth of red tape directives.
Tom was confused because if there had been one thing he felt these islands represented it was absolute nonconformity. At no stage of the islands’ formation or history had they ever been connected to any continent. All the life found on them today had been there from the very outset or had flown, swum or been washed up on to them. They had developed in glorious isolation from the rest of the world and in a spectacularly diverse way. There were only a few thousand species, but half of these were only found right here on these islands and absolutely nowhere else in the world.
That the Incas had regularly visited these islands was easily established by many pottery finds, but that had not stopped European history claiming that the islands ‘were first discovered’ by the Spanish Bishop of Panama in 1535. Tom bridled at the thought that not only were the Incas wiped out but it seemed that every one of their achievements had been systematically deleted from history too.
The name given to these islands derived from an old Spanish word for the extremely long-lived giant tortoises that they had found here. With time it contracted from gaư pagos and became the Galápagos.
Charles Darwin arrived three hundred years after the bishop. It was based upon his cataloguing of its fauna that he later compiled his theories of natural selection, resulting eventually into the much-delayed publication of his controversial Origin of the Species. This was precisely Tom’s preferred sort of science, the extreme unorthodoxy of the Galápagos meeting up with Darwin’s doggedness. His very ordered scientific approach in this remote corner of the world had led to the need for a total reassessment of the established wisdom. As a result the age of the Earth had to be recalculated based upon Darwin’s new principles of how animals had evolved and how we came to be what we are. “
“Tom said, ‘You have to appreciate that when Darwin visited these islands the world’s population was around a sixth of what we have today and of course international travel was still in its infancy. Travel to these islands back then was by sailing ships and that took time, time that made the traveller more appreciative of, less damaging to, the local environment.
‘Today, we rush around burning up resources, polluting with our waste and our noise, barely seeing what’s around us. We pause only to see if things we find are either edible, a suitable gift for friends and family or can be applied to something useful for us, useful today, right now. We dash about not noticing, plain ignoring anything that has no apparent immediate value to us. Today’s traveller wouldn’t have had or even thought to have made the time to notice the inexorable course of selection, nowadays he’d just take a few snapshots and move on to the next island.
‘We choose to ignore Darwin’s clear message at our peril. All of life is interconnected and constantly changing. The changes are mostly painfully slow, but they are mighty steady too. These changes are remorseless, yet still, they are very evidently affected by everything that we might choose to do, or choose not to do.’
Tom paused as the audience pondered this, then bestowed a broad smile on them, ‘I don’t want you all to think I’m some sort of extremist tree-hugger, but it’s not often that you can go somewhere that is so geologically recent, so zoologically different and so philosophically challenging.’ “
Mark explained, ‘Those “large lizards” are in fact marine iguanas, they’re found only here in the Galápagos Islands. You’ll see that they regularly swim out through the surf, dive to feed, staying down for perhaps twenty minutes at a time. Once they’ve fed, they need to warm up so they climb out onto the rocks to catch the sun. When fully warmed, you’ll see them turn away from the sun into the cool breeze. So all that twisting and turning isn’t just random, it’s their way of maintaining a regular body temperature.’
The three of them walked on in silence as they moved away from their landing point, spotting some of the flightless cormorants that had apparently ‘unlearned’ the art of flying as there were no predators to bother them on these islands. Mark once again thought of Hitchhiker’s Guide. ‘Do you think they forgot in the same way that Arthur Dent learned to fly by simply forgetting to hit the ground?’
Ellise puzzled aloud, ‘Sorry but I can’t imagine how that works. OK, I haven’t ridden a bicycle in ages but I’d still know how to get back up on to the saddle. I’m pretty darned sure that if I ever managed to learn a skill even half as amazing as flying, then I’d sure as hell never forget it!’
They walked on and she watched Tom and Mark ahead of her, quietly assessing them both. They appeared at peace here, each finding joy in what she was already feeling to be just a little too much of the same. The prehistoric-looking iguanas didn’t look very appealing with their habit of snorting out salt water leaving a crusty deposit around their nostrils. She felt if you’d seen one beachful, you’d seen enough to last a lifetime.“