Dr. Charles F. Urbanowicz / Professor of Anthropology
Department of Anthropology
California State University, Chico
Chico, California 95929-0400
530-898-6220 [Office]; 530-898-6192 [Dept.] FAX: 530-898-6824
e-mail: / home page:

[This page printed from]

5 February 2001[1]

© [All Rights Reserved.] This article (submitted on February 5, 2001) was published (in a slightly modified form) on Sunday, February 25, 2001, in The Chico Enterprise-Record (pages E1 and E2) and was placed on the WWW on February 25, 2001.

On January 16, 2001, the tanker Jessica, while approaching San Cristobal Island (part of the Galápagos Islands) in the Pacific Ocean ran aground and began leaking oil. Fortunately the capital of the islands, Puerto Bacquerizo Moreno, is located on San Cristobal (also known as Chatham Island) and the proximity to a population center, prevailing currents, and quick responses, helped limit the environmental disaster.

The Galápagos Islands are one of the 21 provinces of the Republic of Ecuador. Spaniards first discovered the islands in 1535 but their fame really came about because of a three-week visit that the British scientist Charles Darwin made in 1835 while going around the world on the HMS Beagle. Darwin wrote that the "natural history of these islands is eminently curious, and well deserves attention. … Hence, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact--that mystery of mysteries--the first appearance of new beings on this earth" (Charles Darwin, 1845, The Voyage of the Beagle [Edited by Leonard Engel, 1962, NY: Doubleday], pages 378-379). Darwin's ideas concerning the "mystery of mysteries" resulted in his 1859 publication of Origin of Species.


Home Of Unique Animals

The Galápagos Islands are home to some of the most unique species of animals in the world, including the giant tortoise that it is named after, as well as flightless cormorants, penguins, and a variety of finches known as "Darwin's finches."

Approximately 97 per cent of the archipelago was designated by Ecuador as a National Park in 1959 and the islands are officially the Archipiélago de Colon, named after Columbus (who never sailed the Pacific Ocean). Located on the Equator, 600 miles west of South America, the 141 islands range in size from miniscule to massive. Isabela Island, also known as Albemarle, is 1,771 square miles, or some 58 percent of the archipelago's estimated 3,043 square miles. For comparison purposes, Butte County is 1,640 square miles.


Seven-day Tour

In July 2000, my wife and I, along with fourteen other individuals in an organized tour, sailed through the Galápagos for seven days on the M/V Rembrandt Van Rijn, a 184-foot three-masted sailing ship (originally a herring boat), now converted to a motorized passenger vessel. I am an anthropologist by training and Darwin has been one of my passions for many years; we managed to stop at several of the islands that Darwin visited in 1835.

Tourism today, as opposed to Darwin's time, is strictly controlled and in order to travel in the islands you must be accompanied by a trained naturalist provided by the Galápagos National Park Service. Only certain islands may be visited (itineraries vary) and while on the islands, visitors must stay on marked trails and be accompanied by the naturalist. A ratio of 16 tourists per naturalist was the standard in July 2000. Although we were on a somewhat controlled schedule, we did have free time in the two towns visited (Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno) and I managed to meet a friend that works at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora.

Although the Galápagos Islands have a permanent resident Ecuadorian population estimated to be 15,000, some 70,000 tourists visited the islands in 1999-2000, up from the estimated 63,000 in 1997. These recent visitors must be compared with the mere 25,000 visitors to the islands in 1987 and the paltry 12,000 in 1974. How many tourists are too many tourists? Ecuadorians have been moving to the Galápagos Islands because of jobs associated with the growing tourism industry: how many permanent residents are too many permanent residents?


Charles Darwin

The Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, was established in 1959 and is dedicated to various scientific activities, including re-stocking some of the islands with the giant tortoises that gave the islands their name. The word galápagos means "saddle" in Spanish and refers to the shell of those tortoises. The 18th and 19th century European and American voyagers that came across these isolated islands carried off thousands of tortoises as foodstuff for their continuing trips across the Pacific; the giant tortoises could stay alive up to a year without food or water and thus served as a source of fresh meat for the sailors. The islands were devastated and the fabled Galápagos tortoise is an endangered species.

In addition to removing indigenous animals, voyagers over the years introduced cattle, dogs, donkeys, and horses (some escaped and went wild) and destroyed the young or the habitat of the indigenous species. The introduction of non-native animals was not strictly a 19th century phenomena as the Norway rat came to the islands in the 1980s. A massive decontamination facility is being planned for the future: an increase in the residential population, and an increase in tourism, means increases in various supplies (such as the fuel oil that the Jessica was bringing in for the tourist boats) and foodstuffs (which can bring in contemporary unwanted pests).

The January 2001 oil spill was not as disastrous as it could have been because of quick responses from around the world, including the United States Coast Guard. Trained specialists in wildlife decontamination and oil-spill containment rushed to the scene and major disaster was averted. Extensive television, newspaper, and World Wide Web coverage, made the world aware of what was going on in the Galápagos Islands.


Disaster Postponed

Unfortunately, disaster may have only been postponed. Changes are occurring throughout the world and there are similarities between Butte Country and the Galápagos Islands: what happens when something "new" is introduced into a unique environment and what is the "carrying capacity" of any region? How many people can live in an area or travel through it before that area becomes too crowded?

Late in the year 2000, Galápagos fishermen rebelled against a fishing ban: on one hand, the fishermen say fishing is their livelihood and on the other hand, officials point out that too much over-fishing will eventually end all fishing! How much is too much?

The 20th century anthropologist Gregory Bateson once wrote that the "unit of survival is organism plus environment" and he continued with the poignant phrase that we "are learning by bitter experience that the organism which destroys its environment destroys itself" (Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 1972: 483).

Massive environmental damage to the Galápagos in January 2001 was averted, this time; but next time? The islands are a magnificent refuge: the scenery, wildlife, and scientific exhibits at the interpretive centers make it a once-in-a-lifetime experience and scientists from many nations have been to the islands since the young Darwin started gathering evidence about the "mystery of mysteries."

The Charles Darwin Foundation is located in Falls Church, Virginia, and is an internationally recognized non-governmental organization that works with both the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galápagos National Park Service. Numerous professionals are interested in eradicating some of the animals that were introduced to the islands; other scientists are working on the conservation of threatened plants and still others are working on the creation of a marine reserve throughout the archipelago.

In 1978 the Galápagos Islands were designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, meaning that they belong to all of humanity, not just the Republic of Ecuador. The islands are beautiful and unique, as all life is unique.

As Charles Darwin wrote in his first revision of On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in 1860: "There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." Darwin developed some of his ideas based on evidence from the Galápagos Islands and the islands must be saved. Every little bit helps.

# # # [Charles Darwin Foundation, Inc.] [Oil Spill in The Galapagos Islands] [Charles Darwin Foundation, Inc.] [The Friends of Charles Darwin Home Page] [Darwin Day Home Page] [The Ilkley Pages: Darwin Gardens] [UNESCO} World Heritage Sites] [Urbanowicz Visuals} November 2000] [Urbanowicz Words} October 2000] [Urbanowicz Visuals} November 2000]

[1] © [All Rights Reserved.] This article (submitted on February 5, 2001) was published (in a slightly modified form) on Sunday, February 25, 2001, in The Chico Enterprise-Record (pages E1 and E2) with the following nine images (all taken by my wife, Sadie Urbanowicz):

To return to the beginning of this essay, please click here. Also please note: to enhance this web page, and convey some of the current visuals about the Galápagos Islands, the following images are included on this web page: All of the images below are from and of the 100+ images available at this excellent site I chose but sixteen to make them more accessible for educational purposes.

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To go to the home page of Charles F. Urbanowicz.

To go to the home page of the Department of Anthropology.

To go to the home page of California State University, Chico.

For more information, please contact Charles F. Urbanowicz

Anthropology Department, CSU, Chico
25 February 2001 by CFU

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