Struggle for the Islands

The most dramatic moment of our trip to the Galápagos Islands in May 2008 was on the last day. My wife and I were leaning over the railing on the deck of the tourist boat Integrity, watching an orca whale. The orca swam close to the boat, almost directly underneath us. Then, just ahead of the orca, a large sea turtle appeared. This was not one of the giant tortoises for which the islands are famous, but an equally massive marine turtle. The females of the species come to the islands to lay their eggs under the sand on the beaches.

My wife had met this turtle earlier in the day, when she was swimming in the ocean with a snorkel. Only a second after we saw the turtle from the boat, the orca snapped, biting through the turtle shell as if it were a pie crust. Immediately the sea turned red and fifty frigate birds appeared from nowhere to pick up the larger remaining scraps of flesh. After the frigate birds were done, flocks of smaller birds came to pick up the smaller scraps. The red sea rapidly faded. In less than a minute it was all over. It was like a scene from National Geographic on television, but real.

Perhaps we were partly responsible for the turtle’s death, since the turtle and the orca were both attracted to the boat. If we had not come to disturb the normal rhythm of her life, the turtle might now be out of harm’s way, mother to a new batch of hatchlings. But in the ordinary course of nature, without boats and tourists, such a death is not unusual. We had seen nature doing her daily work, holding the balance impartially between predator and prey. Only in our eyes is nature beautiful and cruel.

Galápagos: The Islands That Changed the World is a combination of four books in one. It is first a picture book, second a guidebook, third a history book, and fourth a political manifesto. I will describe the four components in turn and then reflect upon their message. The picture book is a gallery of magnificent photographs of the islands and their nonhuman inhabitants, taken over many years by Tui De Roy and others. Tui De Roy is a professional photographer who arrived on the islands with her family at the age of two and spent much of her life there. About fifty of the pictures are hers, including two portraits, of Darwin’s finches and of blue-footed boobies.

Darwin’s finches are inconspicuous little birds that Darwin observed when he visited the islands in 1835. They later provided crucial evidence for his theory of the origin of species. Blue-footed boobies are big seabirds that walk around the islands on bright blue duck-feet. These two images exemplify the clash of cultures that compete in historic places around the world: the culture of preservation and the culture of exploitation. Scholars and scientists try to preserve historic sites, while local…

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