Tours of Pacific island group are carefully supervised to preserve ancient ecology NATURE WATCH


November 11, 1990|By Beverly Lauderdale

On the globe the Galapagos Archipelago appears remote and unapproachable. The 13 large islands and more than 40 smaller one lie unto themselves, an isolated cluster, about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.

But because TAME Airlines sends a jet once a day, six days a week, from Ecuador's capital of Quito, about 40,000 to 60,000 tourists yearly enter an environment Jacques-Yves Cousteau likened to "being alive when the earth was young."

The plane lands on desolate Baltra. Using runways built by U.S. forces during World War II, the aircraft taxis near an open-air terminal, where visitors pay $40 for a park permit.

Since 1959, 90 percent of the land has been an Ecuadorian national park (the rest was was previously colonized). The park service selected 45 of the biologically and scientifically richest sites, ones capable of withstanding human use, mapped out trails -- marked by black and white stakes -- and ruled that a qualified guide must accompany visitors as they tour the islands.

From the Baltra airport a bus packed with people heads toward the Itabaca Channel and a ferry that chugs across green water to Santa Cruz, one of three island with towns. in this case it's Puerto Ayora, which dates from 1926.

The town contains several shops that sell postcards and T-shirts, a post office that likely will have no stamps, and a tidy cemetery where tombs sit atop the volcanic soil. Puerto Ayora offers tourist accommodations; the best-known, the Hotel Galapagos, comes complete with a Sadie Thompson ambience and marine iguanas that pose on black lava. As the archipelago's oldest inhabitants, these miniature dragons listen to an ancient internal metronome and at regular intervals sneeze a white vaporous cloud of salt ingested from seawater they drink.

Puerto Ayora forms a half-circle around Academy Bay where charter sailboats, power boats and cruise ships lie at anchor. Each operates with a government-certified guide aboard. Although personal tastes dictate the type of charter boat rented, smaller ones -- while more limited in amenities -- promise greater possibilities of reaching remote places.

Thus, Santa Cruz residents make their living from boats and year-round tourism, for individuals come in the cool or "garua" season (June to November) when morning skies are overcast and sea temperatures register about 70 degrees, or in the warm season (December to May) when rain may fall and the sea temperatures rise to 77 degrees.

Residents also graze cattle in the highlands, fish and raise produce. Their life is governed by days and nights of equal length -- because of the Galapagos' proximity to the Equator -- and by constantly having to cope with lack of water. Catch basins sit beside houses, while crumbling foundations on outer islands show humanity's surrender to limited moisture.

The archipelago, discovered in 1535 by the Bishop of Panama after his ship was pushed off course, was then and still is dominated by wildlife. For several centuries after the bishop's discovery, the islands -- free of indigenous peoples -- provided refuge for renegades and served as a base and a retreat for pirates intent on raiding Spanish ships.

In 1832, when Ecuador claimed this region, the government attempted colonization through encouraging pioneers and establishing penal colonies. Therefore, on the islands of Floreana and San Cristobel, early settlements struggled unsuccessfully for existence over 150 years ago.

In 1835, 26-year-old Charles Darwin arrived in these "islands beyond." Today on Santa Cruz the Charles Darwin Research Center honors the observations he made about difference found among finches on various islands. Such conclusions later led to publication of a revolutionary book, "The Origin of Species."

The research station was begun in 1962. Focusing on studies and conservation, it attempts to save the giant tortoise -- a majestic and intriguing beast whose origins in this chain are as puzzling as the creature itself. More than a century ago whalers in this "bewitched" area piled tortoises in ship holds. Able to endure up to a year without food or water, they supplied fresh food for sailors. Combined with the decimation (possibly about 100,000 were eaten) came eradication of eggs and newborn by feral dogs, pigs, rats and goats.

As a result, of the 13 tortoise species once living in the archipelago, three are extinct and one, represented by a single male, "Lonesome George," is doomed. Thanks to the center's breeding program, other species are increasing. After incubated eggs hatch, the young stay in captivity for at least five years before being repatriated to their ancestral islands.

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