Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Wonders of Galápagos Laid Bare by British Author Henry Nicholls

By Russell Maddicks
It's not every day that a prestigious journalist, author and broadcaster agrees to an interview, so it was really exciting when Henry Nicholls offered to answer a few questions about his new book: "The Galápagos: A Natural History". The author studied zoology at Cambridge University and writes a regular column for the Guardian newspaper on evolutionary biology, conservation and the history of science, so who better to tackle the natural history of Ecuador's famed Galápagos Islands:

You called the Galápagos Islands "volcanic belchings" in a recent article. Why do you think this small group of remote islands continues to attract so many visitors?
There are lots of reasons. Most obviously, it is simply an absolutely stunning place and visiting it is an experience that is likely to stay with you forever. I think this has a lot to do with the way that the animals show no fear of humans, but accept us for what we are, just another species attempting to get along in this inhospitable outpost. Everyone knows that it’s possible to get close to animals in the Galapagos but it’s impossible to appreciate the impact this will have until it happens. It has the power to change lives, to transform the way we think about our place in the world. 

In addition, the tourist experience is - on the whole - brilliantly orchestrated. In the 1970s, the Galápagos National Park established dedicated visitor sites, a measure that has contained the impact that humans have on the landscape. They also insisted that visitors be accompanied by a qualified guide, a great system that enhances the tourist experience and helps police behaviour. 
The islands have also become famous, largely owing to their association with Charles Darwin and his ideas on evolution by natural selection. This is how I heard of them and the reason I was so keen to visit.

When did you first visit the islands? Were you immediately hooked?
I first went in 2003 and, rather predictably, sailed on The Beagle. The first island I stepped ashore on was North Seymour and I remember so clearly standing near the shoreline with pelicans drifting past at head height. I could have reached out and touched them. A young sea lion climbed out of the sea, walked towards me and began to chew on my shoe laces. I could never have anticipated this kind of welcome. 

Your first book "Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of the World's Most Famous Tortoise", was also about the Galápagos. What made you return for a new book and how do the two books differ?
My publisher Profile Books asked if I would write a book on the Galápagos and at first I was reluctant. There are so many good books out there already. But then I hit upon a structure for a Galápagos book that I had not seen before, one that was so intuitive and simple I wanted to get writing immediately. The book mirrors the way in which the islands have been colonised. So I begin with the volcanic, lifeless origins of the archipelago and then slowly build up the ecology, with chapters on the ocean, sea birds, plants, invertebrates, land birds, reptiles and eventually humans. Since writing Lonesome George in 2006, I have been an ambassador for the Galapagos Conservation Trust in the UK and the editor of its members’ magazine Galapagos Matters, which I think has helped to develop and deepen my relationship with the islands. 

You paint a very vivid picture of a young Charles Darwin that differs greatly from the old, bearded man pondering the great questions of life that is usually portrayed in books. What was Darwin like in 1835 and how important was his trip to the Galápagos for the development of his theory of evolution?
As a young child, Darwin had been fascinated by natural history and shown an incredible attention to detail. But during the Beagle voyage, he really began to develop as a scientist. In the Galápagos, as elsewhere on the voyage, I am continually impressed by the open-minded way in which he approached a new problem. As he collected specimens and other data, he was acutely alive to anything that didn’t quite stack up and was intent on resolving these inconsistencies. There was no Eureka moment in the Galápagos but he did later acknowledge the islands as one of the key places that had influenced his ideas on evolution by natural selection. 
There was definitely also a playful side to Darwin in the Galápagos. He was only 26 at the time, so I suppose we can forgive him for trying to hitch a lift on the back of giant tortoises (he admitted that he’d found it hard to keep his balance) and flinging marine iguanas into the sea (he was intrigued that they would always swim straight back to his feet like faithful dog). I’d have loved to have been there with him. 

The Galápagos has been called "the best preserved tropical archipelago in the world". Does tourism pose a threat to the islands? And how do you feel about your book inspiring more people to visit?
There is no doubt that the explosion of tourism in the Galápagos has had enormous consequences for the archipelago. In general, however, tourism itself is not really the issue. The tourism operation is very well managed and the direct impact of visitors on the landscape is minimal. The problem is that tourism has made the Galápagos the fastest-growing province in Ecuador and, in the past, far too little attention was paid to the human population and the development of the islands. The challenge for Ecuador is to use the revenue generated by tourism to create a more sustainable society in the Galápagos. With all the tourist dollars, the international support and the Darwin brand to boot, there is a real opportunity to fashion a more sustainable future for the islands. 
I am not so bold as to imagine that my book will increase the number of visitors to the Galápagos. But I do hope I have captured what is at stake. Most tourists are incredibly well-behaved, sensitive individuals. But in everything we do, we can always find ways to make our footprint on the planet that little bit lighter. 

When I was in the Galápagos my group found it inconceivable that snakes and giant tortoises could have simply floated such a vast distance from the mainland. Is that the current theory?
Yes, though reptiles like snakes and tortoises could well have made the journey over hundreds of thousands of years in shorter, more plausible hops. There are several islands between the Galápagos and Ecuador that are now submerged but could have acted like stepping stones in the past.

Did you discover anything new about the islands while doing the research for this book?
That is the great privilege of writing a book. You get the chance to read far more widely than is normally possible and to talk to people who know far more than you. I learned a huge amount. I used to be a zoologist so I already knew a lot about the creatures that live in the Galápagos. But I knew almost nothing about the islands’ geology and plants and these chapters were the most rewarding to write. If I am fortunate enough to go to the Galapagos again, I will see the islands very differently.

What is your favourite place, or experience when visiting the islands?
I love flying in to the islands. It is so exciting. I am so familiar with seeing the Galápagos on a map that it is thrilling to see the islands from the air. It is very important to have an overview of the archipelago as a whole, to have a feel for its isolation from mainland South America but also the proximity of one island to the next. It is precisely these conditions that have resulted in the evolution of so many novel plants and animals. 

For many visitors the dilemma is always whether to take a cruise (an expensive option) or travel on day trips from a base on one of the islands. As a frequent visitor, what is your recommendation?
Take a cruise. There are several reasons this is the preferred option. First, it is the most environmentally sound way of seeing the islands. Your ecological footprint will be smaller. Second, it is the most appropriate way to see the islands. You will get to see many different places and perhaps even sense the subtle differences from island to island that turned out to be of such significance to Darwin. Third, it makes for a great holiday. Sure it might cost a bit more but as and long as you insist on a class III guide (the gold-standard) you will not regret the expense.

"The Galápagos: A Natural History" is available at all good bookshops and online retailers in hardback and Kindle editions. Follow Henry Nicholls on Twitter

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