Heaven & Hell at Galapagos

Hermann Melville

Extracts From The Encantadas

Sketch First
The Isles at Large

Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot, imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea, and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles. A group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles, looking much as the world at large might after a penal conflagration.

It is to be doubted whether any spot on earth can, in desolateness, furnish a parallel to this group. Abandoned cemeteries of long ago, old cities by piecemeal tumbling to their ruin, these are melancholy enough; but, like all else which has but once been associated with humanity, they still awaken in us some thoughts of sympathy, however sad. Hence, even the Dead Sea, along with whatever other emotions it may at times inspire, does not fail to touch in the pilgrim some of his less unpleasurable feelings.

Another feature in these isles is their emphatic uninhabitableness. It is deemed a fit type of all-forsaken overthrow that the jackal should den in the wastes of weedy Babylon, but the Encantadas refuse to harbor even the outcasts of the beasts. Man and wolf alike disown them. Little but reptile life is here found: tortoises, lizards, immense spiders, snakes, and that strangest anomaly of outlandish nature, the iguana. No voice, no low, no howl is heard; the chief sound of life here is a hiss.

On most of the isles where vegetation is found at all, it is more ungrateful than the blankness of Aracama. Tangled thickets of wiry bushes, without fruit and without a name, springing up among deep fissures of calcined rock and treacherously masking them, or a parched growth of distorted cactus trees.

In many places the coast is rock-bound, or, more properly, clinker-bound; tumbled masses of blackish or greenish stuff like the dross of an iron furnace, forming dark clefts and caves here and there, into which a ceaseless sea pours a fury of foam, overhanging them with a swirl of gray, haggard mist, amidst which sail screaming flights of unearthly birds heightening the dismal din. However calm the sea without, there is no rest for these swells and those rocks; they lash and are lashed, even when the outer ocean is most at peace with itself. On the oppressive, clouded days, such as are peculiar to this part of the watery Equator, the dark, vitrified masses, many of which raise themselves among white whirlpools and breakers in detached and perilous places off the shore, present a most Plutonian sight. In no world but a fallen one could such lands exist.

Nothing can better suggest the aspect of once living things malignly crumbled from ruddiness into ashes. Apples of Sodom, after touching, seem these isles...

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Charles Darwin

Extracts From The Voyage of the Beagle

Chapter 17
- Galapagos Archipelago -
Tameness of the Birds
Fear of Man, an acquired Instinct.

Reviewing the facts here given, one is astonished at the amount of creative force, if such an expression may be used, displayed on these small, barren, and rocky islands; and still more so, at its diverse yet analogous action on points so near each other.

I will conclude my description of the natural history of these islands, by giving an account of the extreme tameness of the birds.

This disposition is common to all the terrestrial species; namely, to the mocking-thrushes, the finches, wrens, tyrant- flycatchers, the dove, and carrion-buzzard. All of them are often approached sufficiently near to be killed with a switch, and sometimes, as I myself tried, with a cap or hat. A gun is here almost superfluous; for with the muzzle I pushed a hawk off the branch of a tree. One day, whilst lying down, a mocking-thrush alighted on the edge of a pitcher, made of the shell of a tortoise, which I held in my hand, and began very quietly to sip the water; it allowed me to lift it from the ground whilst seated on the vessel: I often tried, and very nearly succeeded, in catching these birds by their legs. Formerly the birds appear to have been even tamer than at present. Cowley (in the year 1684) says that the "Turtledoves were so tame, that they would often alight on our hats and arms, so as that we could take them alive, they not fearing man, until such time as some of our company did fire at them, whereby they were rendered more shy." Dampier also, in the same year, says that a man in a morning's walk might kill six or seven dozen of these doves. At present, although certainly very tame, they do not alight on people's arms, nor do they suffer themselves to be killed in such large numbers. It is surprising that they have not become wilder; for these islands during the last hundred and fifty years have been frequently visited by bucaniers and whalers; and the sailors, wandering through the wood in search of tortoises, always take cruel delight in knocking down the little birds. These birds, although now still more persecuted, do not readily become wild. In Charles Island, which had then been colonized about six years, I saw a boy sitting by a well with a switch in his hand, with which he killed the doves and finches as they came to drink. He had already procured a little heap of them for his dinner, and he said that he had constantly been in the habit of waiting by this well for the same purpose. It would appear that the birds of this archipelago, not having as yet learnt that man is a more dangerous animal than the tortoise or the Amblyrhynchus, disregard him, in the same manner as in England shy birds, such as magpies, disregard the cows and horses grazing in our fields.

The Falkland Islands offer a second instance of birds with a similar disposition...
... As the birds are so tame there, where foxes, hawks, and owls occur, we may infer that the absence of all rapacious animals at the Galapagos, is not the cause of their tameness here. The upland geese at the Falklands show, by the precaution they take in building on the islets, that they are aware of their danger from the foxes; but they are not by this rendered wild towards man. This tameness of the birds, especially of the waterfowl, is strongly contrasted with the habits of the same species in Tierra del Fuego, where for ages past they have been persecuted by the wild inhabitants. In the Falklands, the sportsman may sometimes kill more of the upland geese in one day than he can carry home; whereas in Tierra del Fuego it is nearly as difficult to kill one, as it is in England to shoot the common wild goose.
In the time of Pernety (1763),...
At that period the birds must have been about as tame as they now are at the Galapagos. They appear to have learnt caution more slowly at these latter islands than at the Falklands, where they have had proportionate means of experience; for besides frequent visits from vessels, those islands have been at intervals colonized during the entire period. Even formerly, when all the birds were so tame, it was impossible by Pernety's account to kill the black-necked swan -- a bird of passage, which probably brought with it the wisdom learnt in foreign countries.

...From these several facts we may, I think, conclude, first, that the wildness of birds with regard to man, is a particular instinct directed against _him_, and not dependent upon any general degree of caution arising from other sources of danger; secondly, that it is not acquired by individual birds in a short time, even when much persecuted; but that in the course of successive generations it becomes hereditary. With domesticated animals we are accustomed to see new mental habits or instincts acquired or rendered hereditary; but with animals in a state of nature, it must always be most difficult to discover instances of acquired hereditary knowledge. In regard to the wildness of birds towards man, there is no way of accounting for it, except as an inherited habit: comparatively few young birds, in any one year, have been injured by man in England, yet almost all, even nestlings, are afraid of him; many individuals, on the other hand, both at the Galapagos and at the Falklands, have been pursued and injured by man, yet have not learned a salutary dread of him. We may infer from these facts, what havoc the introduction of any new beast of prey must cause in a country, before the instincts of the indigenous inhabitants have become adapted to the stranger's craft or power.

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Journal Galapagos_ Mushtaq Bhat (1991)


Extracts updated & modified Feb. 2006

"Hell!" felt Hermann Melville, taking in the volcanic landscape, where nature seemed to reveal her viscera and where she had her wounds still open, and as yet uncovered by life's benign skin.

"Heaven!" observed Charles Darwin confirming his slowly gestalting epochal insights into nature's great mysteries, acquired and inherited traits, reproductive isolation, diversification, radiation and convergent-evolution although probably not fully aware of the magnitude of resources, that the nutrient-rich cold currents from South bestowed on many of its inhabitants; that could have additionally contributed to harmless predatory behaviors of the species at the top of the food-chain. The blue-footed boobies breed on the ground, fully exposed, in the immediate vicinity of their "hunters" the frigate birds _ the latter building their nests in trees next door, each tolerating the other. All the hunting (robbing actually) occurs in the high skies and the boobies are robbed off only a part of their prey (the fish) with skills that every young frigate bird has to learn from his/her parents. Apparently due to abundance of the fish, there is no need to develop behaviors like robbing eggs or eating each other or one's defenseless brood. Of course the constraints imposed by isolation of the islands and the great distance from the mainland that favored avian and marine migration and excluded the land-carnivores or egg-robbers (till the introduction of domesticated animals by man) has contributed to this benign sort of behavior amongst the avian fauna here, who have persistently showed a remarkable degree of tameness and lack of fear of the greatest hunter of them all (man), from the times when the buccaneers first visited the islands until the dawn of last century.

Galapagos Now

Things are changing now. The _ trained _ personal for conducting the tours unfortunately did not seem to fully grasp the importance of adhering to the rather strict regulations imperative to keep the endemic fauna intact as long as possible, especially since the tourists access in short time areas, which probably nobody from the islands would normally access at regular intervals, this includes also trails leading through the breeding grounds of the blue-footed booby. The guide, we had seemed to have actually other interests more on his mind, like flirting with some young spoilt girls, whose reasons for visiting these islands is still a mystery to me, for they apparently confused the place with some Spanish Riviera, where you talk almost non-stop about private life & boulevard gossip, get drunk and giggle as loud as possible, so you could hardly hear the birds, with total disregard for what they left behind or for the ecology of the island. Maybe they were young and naпve enough to believe that the island had a municipality and a cleaning task force like at home! It would have probably not mattered to them if they had been transported unawares to a Disney land. They would not have noticed the difference. They were almost unaware of the place, only occupied with each other. True one can forgive the follies of the youth, but one can not help wondering, why one chooses of all the places in the world, Galapagos for such past time! I think, I am not being too harsh, in expecting, anybody coming to this place, to have more than a passing interest for the the ecology of the island. Anyway, this is a indication of what sort of crowd may find its way to the island. It would be banal to go into details of what I witnessed, but certainly these fellows (the guides) needed a more thorough training and no doubt they would realize that it is the ecological peculiarity of the place that is the primary source of their income and the wealth of their islands and perhaps exhibit a more concerned attitude rather than almost a total callousness toward taking some basic precautions for not jeopardizing the endemic flora & fauna in an abrupt and unnecessary manner. Tourists will always leave their mark (see the photo above). For those who earn through tourism, a tax for later cleaning of the _ visitor trail _ could be imposed, with which to pay the personal who may regularly check for such misdeed (for it may be, that someone disposes off his/her used batteries at the breeding grounds!).

But of course some may claim, it is all too precarious and maybe unrealistic to hope to maintain high standards for more than a day or two, or else there should be a total ban on regular tourism; but then a normal level on precaution and anything viable would certainly be the next choice, if other choices are not available, especially when we consider the need of keeping such places economically less dependant upon the fickle government policies or the goodwill of few persons and consequently they ought to be followed up a bit more rigorously. Here the enlightened work of dedicated political authorities is as important as the work of the biologists and the Darwin Research Centre. But through spreading this awareness amongst the schools and the younger generation of the island, that the Darwin Research Centre is in an commendable manner doing , we may hope the fulfillment of the first wish may become a reality in future, hopefully before it is too late.

An information leaflet issued to all visitors in their native languages may also help in keeping the group consens of the _ invading _ party at acceptable level, that way it may need only one visitor in the whole group to help keep trespassing at lower levels. Her or his convictions would be reinforced and would have more legitimacy, when imparting it to others, especially the trespassers, who may just be ignorant and not at all evil-intentioned It may also be irrelevant in certain groups if the persons read it or not, but it may impart a sort of official formal status to the message, which even in our _ enlightened _ age works wonders and lends legitimacy to the regulations and makes one feel that there is an institutional authority behind, not just some idealistic agenda of some group of people.

Lack of funds for keeping a watch on the islands may also contribute to neutralizing the efforts of those who are aware of the great importance that this laboratory of nature holds for mankind. I heard from one of the tourist; that he had witnessed a private ship sail to one of the northern islands, a crowd of people disembark and chase away the inhabitants (the sea-lions) so as to have the beach for themselves for the day!

I hope to discuss the importance of places like Galapagos, and most of all the hot-spots of biodiversity and endemic fauna in an separate article and include links to more information on the subject. My purpose here is just raise a discussion or thinking about a subject, which will probably confront mankind more and more in the coming decades, especially when confronted with too rapid mutations occurring in lower forms of life. It has been claimed that the aids virus may have spread through destruction of a habitat, which forced or gave the virus an opportunity to change its host and as if, despite the hybris the gods were still on our side, nature did not however give it the ability to survive in the open air. If she had, maybe some us would not have been here to read or write these tales! The same holds true for the Ebola.

It is obvious that these questions can not be fully answered by focusing our gaze on any particular locality. The issue is actually global in nature. But still we need a place to begin at. What better place than Galapagos, where we get them both, a benign form of predation, abundance of resources and behavioral peculiarity associated with it? Where the sheep and lion really live and breed next to each other, where nature seemed to have, through exclusion barred certain behaviors gaining a foothold, literally and figuratively and experimented in a different style. If it serves no other purpose than removing the preconception in hard-core community of _ believers _ who think nature and survival is just _ eat or be eaten _ and pure opportunism, and use it as justification for all sorts of greedy short-sighted almost ritualized _ egoistic _ opportunism, that is actually a conformation to a socially approved norm, and socially approved prestige system, and probably the least egotistical that way, than it will have served its basic purpose. Human nature is not only drawing the club for a resource (even different species of our genus once lived next to each other perhaps even sharing the same resources!) but (believe me or not!) also enjoying the dinner more, when there is a guest at the table!

Afterthoughts (Heaven & Hell) >>

Mushtaq Bhat 2005-2007 Reasonable Rights Reserved

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