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The Legacy of Lonesome George - The Enchanted Islands

By M. E. Schuman

My copy of The Origin of Species traveled with me since I left home in 1974, until it vanished after I moved to Alaska in 1982. Charles Darwin presented his theory of natural selection in the introduction:

“As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.”

At the end of the book, Darwin inscribed:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed 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.”

The Origin of Species no doubt played a key role in my decision to work with wildlife and nature. It was Darwin’s description of the Galapagos and the quickly changing climate that escalated the Islands to my ‘red flag’ travel list in October 2012.

Unfortunately, it was not soon enough to say hello to Lonesome George as my travel companion and I stared at his empty enclosure on Santa Cruz Island.

Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise died June 24, 2012 at the Charles Darwin Research Station where he had lived in captivity since 1972. Until recently, they thought Lonesome George to be the last of his Chelonoidis abingdonii subspecies until researchers discovered a surviving female and descendent of George’s. A story of hope that the giant creature’s legacy lives on.

After visiting the historic research center Aimee and I boarded the Tip Top, a 16-passenger boat owned by the original settlers of the Islands, the Rolf Wittmer family. For the next 14 days we sailed the eastern route of the Galapagos and became enchanted.

The Galápagos archipelago, a chain of 13 major islands, lies approximately 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador in South America and is best known for their diverse array of plant and animal species.

Environmental conditions make the Galápagos a unique island ecosystem located near the equator, yet they receive cool ocean currents resulting in tropical and temperate climates. Isolated for most of their history, this combination of factors created a laboratory for the evolution of an unusual mix of plant and animal species.

Many species are endemic, which means they are not found anywhere else in the world. These include the giant Galápagos tortoise, the marine iguana, the flightless cormorant, and the Galápagos penguin. The Galápagos penguin is the only penguin species to live in the Northern Hemisphere.

The Galapagos is a must-see destination for any nature traveler. But how you see the Islands is another matter altogether. The Galapagos is an experience. One difficult to achieve in a floating city, unless you are prone to seasickness.

As a nature snob, I recommend using the smaller local boats, which allows a more intimate opportunity to enjoy the natural environment and get a glimpse of what the Islands were like centuries ago. It is imperative as a visitor to observe the magic of a place like the Galapagos and to understand her vulnerabilities. Climate change is a threat to the Islands but so is tourism.

With the desert type of vegetation still evolving on the island, current plant surveys estimate 600 native species and 825 introduced species, the majority brought in by humans. A potential disaster to this natural wonder.

Snorkeling in fast moving currents was a challenge. Snorkeling with hundreds of hammerhead sharks while red-footed booby birds dove skillfully into the water, and not into my body, was a once in a lifetime experience. Sea lions darted in and out of my legs, while penguins would zoom by, leaving white bubbles in their wake.

Beaches came alive as black prehistoric creatures crawled from the cool ocean water aiming their spiked white tipped mohawk’s towards the sky. Their expression, almost human-like on their reptilian face, was one of sheer pleasure as they basked in the warmth of the sun. It is the only place in the world I have experienced swimming with the marine iguana — the dragon of the sea.

Every hike was an adventure; a gift from the Island. I watched a baby albatross learning to fly just feet from where I sat as her parents clumsily ran off the edge of a cliff. A tortoise disrupted one hike as he lumbered across the trail. And then one day, as my 6-foot travel companion stopped to take a picture, a mockingbird decided her straw hat on her head would make a perfect nest.

Six months later, I returned to the Galapagos with my partner. Within that period, I saw a devastating change. Sea lions, especially nursing mothers, venturing further from shore to find a shrinking food supply, became easy prey to bull sharks. This left many young sea lion pups abandoned and dying of starvation on the beach. There is no such thing as adoption in the sea lion world. It was heartbreaking to witness.

With nearly 8 billion humans on this planet, I ponder, “What will be our legacy for this earth?”


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