Invasion of the Tourists: Journey to the Galapagos Islands

The explosion of tourists and residents here is the reason why in 2007 the United Nations added the Galapagos Islands to its list of world heritage sites in danger. Alien plants, animals and insects introduced by humans threaten the fragile ecology. And humans are clearly the most invasive species of all.

"Now, it has grown so much," lifelong Galapagos resident Marco Galarz told us in Spanish. "Before, there were just a few people living here, but people keep coming and the islands are getting overpopulated."

Felipe Cruz, 50, technical director of the Darwin Research Station, was also born on the Galapagos, long before tourism became a booming industry.

"The danger list is supposed to be a tool that the World Heritage Center has set up in order to help the sites with publicity, with access to funds, with more action from the governments of the place -- but never to be a punishment at all," Cruz said. "I wouldn't put as a fair that Ecuador has messed up the Galapagos. I think that the world has messed up with the Galapagos."

Cruz insisted it is not too late to save the Galapagos.

And to be fair, Ecuador is doing a lot to protect the Galapagos.

Access is tightly controlled. The best of the tour companies are conscientious and careful. For all the problems in the towns of the Galapagos, the park itself, which is 97 percent of the land mass, is meticulously maintained. Only four of the 13 main islands are inhabited. The rest are open to a limited number of visitors during the day.

Feeling Guilty

Even for tourists, this is an expensive place to get to and an expensive place to get around. Most who come here bring with them a respect for the extraordinary natural history they are witnessing up close. They are constantly reminded: Stay on the paths, don't touch or feed the animals, no flash cameras.

Susan Roux, a physician from Monterey, Calif., brought her son and grandson here. It was an unforgettable 16th birthday present for Mitchell. Susan wanted to see the Galapagos, and she wanted her grandson to see it before it disappears.

"It's tremendously fragile, and I worry very much about all these people all over it, walking so close to the animals," she said. "They seem not to mind, but there's gotta be a tipping point when it's too much.

"The more we tromp around in the sand and get really close shots of these beautiful little seal faces, I start to feel guilty," she added. "I don't want to be a bad guy and I don't want to be impacting anything that's this special, and I try really hard to do everything they tell us to do -- not get too close. But in the back of my mind, I still worry about it."

The tourists may be looking on in wonder, but the animals here seem to be just as curious about the strange creatures who wander their islands.

Make no mistake. We are the visitors here. This is their home.

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