Arguably the evolution of Homo sapiens is the worst thing to have ever happened to the animal kingdom. Our species is almost undisputedly responsible for two major waves of animal extinction:
(Bear with me, this relates back to my trip in the second half – there’s even a video and tips on going to the Galapagos 🙂 )
(Ideas and thoughts inspired by a chapter in the excellent book *Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. This post is a very thin slice of the book’s content; it’s coverage of human history is broad, deep, entertaining and highly educational. I can’t recommend it enough, far more useful than any history lesson I ever had.)
- The first wave occurred as Homo sapiens acquired the technology and organisational skills to break out of Afro Asia across the planet into Australia (45000 years ago), the Americas (12000 years ago), and other corners of the globe. Vast numbers of species of animal (including their fellow human cousins such as Neanderthals and Homo floresienses) became extinct during the period that Sapiens migrated to new areas. The same story occurred in every new area they inhabited; half of the planet’s big beasts along with many smaller animals were obliterated from existence, never to return. In Australia, 23 out of 24 of the animals species weighing over 50 kg went extinct (e.g. the 200 kilogram kangaroo, a marsupial lion (the size of a modern tiger), the diprotrodon (a two and half ton wombat). “North America lost thirty-four out of forty-seven genera of large mammals and South America lost fifty out of sixty” (e.g. mammoths, rodents the size of bears, native American horses and camels, sabre tooth cats, sloths weighing up to eight tons and up to a height of six metres were just some of them)*.
- The second wave of extinction coincided with the emergence of the Agricultural Revolution that started over 12000 years ago. Habitats were destroyed to make room for expanding food needs and animal suffering greatly increased. Even many of those unthreatened by extinction didn’t fair well. By genetic replication standards, chicken and cattle have been highly successful but their utterly miserable existence has been comparable to none.
More recently with climate change, global over-population, over-fishing / hunting and physical destruction of habitats, we are now on the verge of a third extinction catastrophe.
Very few areas have been spared this revolting assault on Earth by Sapiens. Until relatively very recently the Galapagos was one of them; an archipelago of volcanic islands off the coast of Ecuador famously associated with Charles Darwin’s inspiration for the theory of evolution. Animals that flew, drifted or swam over from the continent evolved to survive here in their own natural environment bubble and were protected from human destruction and other predators by a thousand kilometres of ocean. As soon as these majestic islands became frequented by humans, certain species predictably started to disappear (e.g giant tortoises). Unlike 99% of the world’s animals, many were unused to normal predators let alone those of the incredibly destructive two legged variety. They had no time to evolve an instinctive fear of these menaces resulting in an exceptional disadvantage. Fortunately they are now protected and certain rehabilitation programs are now in place to recover species that were almost lost (although it was too late for some). This support has most likely been garnered due to the vast amounts of money that pours into these islands from tourism. Although certainly not without it’s negative impact, it paradoxically seems that tourism and greed (in this case) has encouraged some infrastructure for protection. Would this place be mined for resources or (more) overfished otherwise? (Pure speculation on my part).
My visit to the Galapagos heightened my appreciation for Earth’s animals. It was an incredible experience: hundreds of sea lions lying about town in San Cristobal that playfully dive bomb you whilst you snorkel; the only marine iguanas in existence that almost look bored by your presence; penguins that swim near you; sea turtles that hardly care about your proximity. Is this what much of the world would have been like without Homo Sapiens? What can we do to protect our dolphins, sharks, tuna and whales before they vanish into the void never to return like so many others previous to them?
I hope this video I took can remind us of how valuable our fellow creatures really are. We must protect them not only from extinction but from unnecessary suffering by our own hands. (80000hours.org offers some pragmatic ideas as to how we make a difference with animal suffering). My experience running out of oxygen and tips on going to the Galapagos follow the video.
Running out of oxygen 25 metres under the ocean
Diving in the Galapagos with the right operator is normally a safe experience. However, as with anywhere, some dive sites are more dangerous than others. Five Fingers island off San Cristobal with its various swirling ocean currents and infinite deep sea drop-offs is one of them. Some years back a couple of divers were taken to 65 metres by down currents for a few minutes. They didn’t even realise until they looked at their computer back in their boat. For that reason not many people dive there. With only 8 dives under my belt it was not without some anxiety that I went. Even though I’d kept the guide informed of my oxygen levels as agreed, I ran out of oxygen at 25 metres of depth on the way back to the boat. A flash of horror understandably shuddered through my body and the unpleasant possibility of death entered my mind. I’ve felt similar sensations in nightmares. If I was separated from the group I could have been doomed and this place was notorious with its currents. The guide quickly passed me his alternate air source and we went up slowly; all was OK. The second dive went better and we circled the island twice hugging the rocky coral face that drops down into oblivion. The current surged us (and all the fish) back and forth several metres with every wave cycle (perhaps comparable to Gordon Rocks in some ways). An exciting place to dive.
TIPS: The Galapagos can be very expensive but it is possible to budget reasonably. With care I found prices for accommodation and food to be only 50% more than mainland Ecuador. Even the dive courses weren’t much more expensive than other areas if you go to the right place (see below for prices). Once you start doing cruises prices head off into the stratosphere.
It’s obviously incredibly touristy but the exuberant, rich and diverse animal life is fascinating. Visitors should aim to have minimal impact with the inevitable encounters and give them the space they need. Brief descriptions of the three main islands:
- Good diving sites with opportunities to sea hammerhead sharks (try Gordon Rocks, North Seymour, Mosquera). Scuba Iguana were a good dive operator. I found Puerto Ayora to be the busiest and least relaxing place in the Galapagos. Dive courses are a lot more expensive here than San Cristobal.
- Agencies: I had good experiences with Natural Selection and Galapagos Dreams.
- The quietest and perhaps most beautiful place to stay with some interesting hikes.
- Los Tuneles is a snorkelling option that involves a boat ride west along the coast from the main town. We didn’t get in due to the large surf that day. For ten minutes we were circling just outside the impact zone; not safe. They know there’s a chance that you won’t get in before you even leave but they don’t tell you. No refund. Choose a day when it’s calmer if you can. One boat overturned with tourists shortly after my time on Santa Isabela.
- Excellent surfing (over shallow rocks!); I had a couple of incredible days at Tongo Reef and managed to rent a surf board (although there isn’t a vast selection). It’s a 30 minute hike to get to the break and getting out over the slippery rocks is a little challenging but the rides are world class.
- Has the most economical places for dive courses (e.g. Open Water was generally $350 for SSI or $450 Padi): I’d recommend both Planet Ocean and Blue Evolution dive companies. I did my basic Open Water and Advanced SSI at Planet Ocean and it included a ship wreck and night dive (where I disappointingly dropped my instructor’s gopro in 120 feet deep water; not a nice feeling). SSI is newer and cheaper than Padi but seems to be a very similar course and (I’m told) is respected globally like Padi.
- Leon Dormido / Kicker Rock is an exceptionally impressive dive site and Five Fingers (if they’re going). Other than that there seemed to be less options than Santa Cruz.
- There are hundreds of sea lions right in town lying on the esplanade. At night the sandy beach town becomes covered with them, it’s quite a spectacle.
- Hotel San Francisco was a good budget option on the sea front in town – $15 private room with bathroom
- If you do a cruise around the islands the west side of Santa Isabela holds some of the most remote accessible areas. There seemed to be quite a few options from the agencies in Santa Cruz, if you’re flexible with dates it is probably worth picking up a last minute deal when you get there. Organising before even arriving in Ecuador seemed to be the most expensive option. Expect to pay up to the $1000 or more for just a few days if you book it on the islands.