Galápagos: the inhabited isles | Battle at the end of eden (multimedia)

  • Galápagos: The Inhabited Isles

    Exploring the cultural identity of the world's most sacred ecosystem

  • Images from the Galápagos typically feature sweeping vistas of volcanic terrain, devoid of people and lush with some of the most storied flora and fauna on earth. While it's true that 97% of the archipelago's land is maintained as a nature preserve, nearly 30,000 people live on the remaining 3% (approx. 100 sq mi), spread over five islands.
    Map creator: Eric Gaba; Translator: NordNordWest; Source: Wikipedia Commons

  • Santa Cruz Island has the largest population, with approx. 20,000 residents.

    Map creator: Eric Gaba; Translator: NordNordWest; Source: Wikipedia Commons

  • Puerto Ayora, located on the island's southern shore, is the archipelago's hub of tourism and economic activity. The main street is lined with restaurants, hotels, clothing boutiques, and souvenir shops.

  • The Galápagos has no indigenous culture and is one of the most recently colonized places on the planet. Most residents emigrated from Ecuador, with the first inhabitants arriving on Floreana Island in 1807. Permanent settlements on Santa Cruz date back to 1920.

  • A public awareness campaign, sponsored by the Ecuadorean Navy, aims to instill within residents a sense of appreciation and responsibility to care for the archipelago's unique wildlife. This billboard reminds passersby that nature is life and to be careful not to harm it.

  • A poster on a main street kiosk announced a public festival with the theme: "Defending the ecosystems of the Galápagos Islands is the responsibility of everyone."

  • Still, on any given street, the species that possess an almost mythical status in science history and Western consciousness, often retain all the grandeur of a pigeon or squirrel on the streets of Manhattan.

  • Galápagos sea lions snooze on a city sidewalk close to the waterfront.

  • A marine iguana, belonging to the world's only species of marine lizard, returns from a mid-day meal of algae off the ocean floor. Behind it, surfers head out into the waves.

  • A lone blue-footed booby perches on a guano- and graffiti-stained rock wall that lines Academy Bay just off the coast of Puerto Ayora.

  • The fishermen and brown pelicans of the Galápagos have a special relationship. Hoping to partake in the spoils of the fishermen's daily conquests, the birds, with their long bills and papery throat pouches, track the fishermen's every move. Here they stay close at hand as fish are transfered from boats to the shoreside scaling-and-gutting station.

  • This pod of pelicans stood rapt, as a fisherman prepared his catch. Moments later, as he set the fish carcass on the ground and used a hose to wash out the innards, the birds swarmed him, their powerful beaks snapping up bits of offal dislodged by the spray. The spectacle occurs every morning and evening as the fishermen skin, cut, and debone their fresh hauls of yellowfin tuna. (see video, next slide)

  • A mural on the outside wall of an elementary school features portraits of Galápagos wildlife painted by local children. Below it reads: "We live in the marine reserve."

  • In this child's rendering, a stark, black fence represents the marine reserve, protecting the abundant Galápagos sea life. Outside the fence, the waters are empty. 

  • Co-opting the archipelago's ecological attributes, a local band bills its music as endemic nature rock. 

  • A small church on the west side of town weaves imagery of Galápagos wildlife among its traditional iconography.

  • Stained glass windows, usually reserved for the portrayal of apostles, instead show dolphins, flamingos, sharks, opuntia cacti, coral reefs, frigate birds, and manta rays.

  • Above the altar, a stained glass window depicts a pelican with its wings outstretched.

  • At the east end of the island, sculptures and statues bear reverence to a different deity.

  • Centered on the arch, Charles Darwin's divine, white-bearded visage presides over a sculpture of a blue-footed booby.

  • Signs posted all along Ave. Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora's main drag, tempt tourists with promises of access to the archipelago's untouched wilderness. The first organized tours of the islands began in 1974. By 1990, the Galápagos was hosting 40,000 tourists annually. Today, the yearly number of visitors exceeds 170,000.

  • If there is one species whose likeness has been enlisted to bear the brunt of souvenir exploitation, it's the blue-footed booby. 

  • But with its striking blue feet, suggestive name, and funky mating dance, the sea bird perhaps was destined to become charismatic fauna.

  • This store is named after Lonesome George, the last remaining giant tortoise from Pinta, an island located at the archipelago's northern edge. In 1972, Lonesome George was brought to live at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz, where scientists hoped he would mate with females from a closely related species. The attempts were unsuccessful. His death in June 2012 marked the extinction of the Pinta Island tortoise.

  • On the east side of town, the main street tapers to a smaller road that leads to the Galápagos National Park offices and the Charles Darwin Research Station, which houses the tortoise nursery.

  • The influx of people to the Galápagos over the past 40 years has introduced an estimated 1,500 invasive species, some intentional (such as livestock) and some not (black rats, a fly that parasitizes finch chicks, and the A. aegypti mosquito, which carries dengue fever.) Poison traps like the one above were ubiquitous on Santa Cruz. Their target, an invasive paper wasp, arrived via cargo in the '80s and is now found on all major islands.

  • Scientists at the Charles Darwin Research Station design educational materials to alert residents and tourists alike as to how destructive invasive species can be to native Galápagos wildlife.

  • In this cartoon, the villainous fanged berries, declaring their infinite reign, belong to the Mora or blackberry plant, an aggressive invasive that has spread across several Galápagos islands. An opuntia cactus tree, endemic to the archipelago, perspires in the background.

  • This poster at the Charles Darwin Research Station shows some of the invasive species that appear on each island, as well as those that have been successfully eradicated.

  • Next to the human footprints are the claw tracks and trail a marine iguana leaves as it drags its tail through the sand. Efforts to remove invasive species from the inhabited Galápagos islands will require tight collaboration between residents and scientists. Read about the quest to protect the Galápagos and other islands threatened by invasive species in the The Atlantic's single "Battle at the End of Eden."

Images from the Galápagos are typically devoid of people and lush with some of the world’s most storied flora and fauna. Yet people first settled in the archipelago in 1807 and today, nearly 30,000 residents live on five of the major islands. While in the U.S. and Europe, the Galápagos is revered for its role in the history of science, to Galapagueños, most of them emigrants from Ecuador, the islands symbolize something totally different: a paradise refuge from poverty and crime on the mainland. This slideshow explores the emerging cultural identity of the Galápagos as one of the most recently colonized places on earth. Read about the quest to eradicate invasive species from the archipelago’s inhabited islands.

All photos and video by Amanda R. Martinez and Rob McGinnis unless otherwise noted