While lounging at the Quito Hilton before joining the swarms of peering, prodding, picture-taking ecotourists in the Gal�pagos Islands, I picked up my guidebook to Ecuador and read a rather terrifying passage: "The islands don't need bored visitors tramping around and wondering why they've spent hundreds of dollars to sit on a rocky piece of lava under a searing equatorial sun to look at some squawking seabirds."
I thought of my two daughters, who'd probably be just as happy in the hotel sniggering at Baywatch reruns. I thought of my wife, who'd definitely be just as happy indulging in the eucalyptus-scented sauna. I thought of the Gal�pagos, the arid chain of volcanic islands that's a shrine for naturalists and historians. Then I thought of Wayne and Garth salaaming to Alice Cooper in Wayne's World: "We are not worthy!"
What ecotourist is? Squatting astride the equator, 600 miles west of the mainland, the islands within the national park are in nearly the state they were in when Charles Darwin visited them in 1835 and more or less discovered evolution. Penguins, seals and sea lions still bask on the beaches; marine iguanas still lumber around spewing saltwater from their nostrils like dwarf dragons; giant tortoises, as large as four feet and 500 pounds, clank along the lava, ignoring human gawkers.
That has not always been easy to do. Humans have been wreaking havoc on the archipelago's fragile ecology since the 16th century, when pirates and later whalers started slaughtering everything in sight. Tortoises, prized for their meat and oil, fell prey to virtually every ship that sailed in the waters. Stacked live in ships' holds, they could survive a year or more without food or water. Today the tortoise population, once estimated at 250,000, is down to 15,000. Three of the islands' 14 subspecies have been wiped out and another is on the brink of extinction. Much of the thinning was done by predators that early settlers introduced to the islands. Cats, dogs, pigs and goats turned feral and dined on iguanas, tortoise eggs and plants that endemic wildlife live on. Though park guards have exterminated some of these interlopers, human meddling goes on.
Which is why Alex Cox, the guide on our eight-day cruise, views the islands as a touristic Neverland. "Never feed, touch or harm the animals," he cautioned. "Never remove rocks, shells or bones. And never, ever, walk off the trail." A native Gal�pagan, Cox knows the flora and fauna as intimately as he knows his fellow crewmen. He knows the islands' history, too, and tells it with considerable learning. But Gal�pagos guides are in as anomalous a position as dude ranch cowboys. As much as they revere the place, they compromise a little bit more of its integrity with each ecotourist they bring ashore.
Ecotourism—the trammeling of curious crowds through relatively untrammeled habitats—is the oxymoron of the 1990s. It's a closed system, catering to the rich, designed to preserve what's there. "The key is sustainable conservation," says Cox. Still, "sustainable" is a slippery concept in the Gal�pagos. Four decades ago, when the Ecuadoran government designated 97% of the territory a national park, the annual flow of tourists was 10,000. By 1990 the number of visitors had quadrupled.
Now, with the yearly tourist population hovering around 65,000, some tour companies have replaced their eight-cabin ketches with enormous cruise ships. "It's economic Darwinism," says David Gayton of Safari Tours in Quito. "The islands are being loved to death." Gayton has dreamed up the ultimate unobtrusive Gal�pa-tour. "We send clients a bill written on recycled paper," he cracks. "They send money, but don't actually come to Ecuador. In fact, they stay home."
We went but strove to leave no trace. We didn't feed one creature, nick one rock or pocket one shell. We stuck closely to the marked paths, which often wove through nesting colonies of boobies who waddled on ridiculously large webbed feet of robin's egg blue. Mostly, we just observed. We observed a young man in a good mood veer off the trail, grab an albatross egg and toss it in the air. We observed an old man in a bad mood kick a sea lion to see if it would roar. (It did.) We observed a hot, bored woman on a rocky piece of lava muttering about squawking seabirds.
Unworthy, my family may have been. But at least we were only passively destructive.