The Origin of Paradise
Paradise, Heaven El Dorado, the Garden of Eden, Shangri-La, Utopia: all synonyms for a perfect place – either religious, political, ecological, economical, or all combined- that is considered to be highly desirable, exemplary, yet non-existent.
Planet earth is full of breathtakingly beautiful places that could almost be considered heaven on earth: almost because there always seems to be something just ‘not quite right’. Whether it’s garbage on a palm-fringed beach, violation of human rights in a democratic country or (ugly) graffiti on historical monuments, usually the conclusion is simple: leave it up to man to fuck things up. As a child, I remember watching David Attenborough – the legendary British biologist who made countless famous BBC nature documentaries and is himself even considered ‘ a British national treasure’ – standing on a rocky shoreline surrounded by seals, marine iguanas and blue-footed boobies who were all completely unphased by him. Wild animals, unphased by the vicinity of man? Humans living amidst all this wildlife, yet leaving it untouched and vigorously protecting it? Is that even possible? It seemed the garden of Eden actually exists here on earth, right in the Pacific Ocean.
Straddling the equator, positioned on top of the Nazca tectonic plate,1000 km West of the coast of Ecuador lie the Galapagos Islands. Fed by the Cromwell current to the West, the Panama current to the North and the Humboldt current to the South, fusing with the South Equatorial current and North Equatorial countercurrent, the water is full of nutrients, and therefore full of marine life. Wind and waves occasionally brought some seeds, birds and animals to the shores of these vulcanic yet arid islands, leading to colonization, adaptation and eventually evolution. In the early 19th century this uniquely evolved fauna caught the eye of researcher Charles Darwin. Roaming the globe for nearly 5 years on board the English research vessel, The Beagle , focused on exploring foreign geology and biology whilst improving nautical navigation charts, the crew studied the local Galapagonian flora and fauna intently for several weeks and even took a few land tortoises with them (one tortoise named Harriet even gained world fame for living past 170 years of age).
It were these physical characteristics, adaptations and differences within the same bird, reptile and animal species that laid the foundation for Darwin’s world-famous evolutionary theory : the more adapted one is to its surroundings, the better your chances of staying alive and reproducing, thereby passing those traits on to the next generation: survival of the fittest.
As with any remote, isolated ecosystem, any small disruption can have huge consequences. And not all visitors had good intentions either: for decennia, the Galapagos islands served as an outpost for whalers and maritime fur traders who killed countless whales and hunted the giant tortoises to the brink of extinction for their fat and meat. In the twentieth century, permanent settlers introduced domesticated animals such as cats, dogs, goats, rats, mice, and cattle which had a massive destructive effect on the endemic wildlife. And then we haven’t even addressed the numerous political events…
Somewhere down the line people came to their senses and realised what a gem this place really is, and what it needed to survive: in 1959 nearly all of the islands were declared a national park, followed by UNESCO World Heritage status in 1978, the declaration of a marine reserve of 70.000 square km.s and biosphere reserve in 1986 and a whale reserve in 1990.
So what I saw in those nature documentaries was not a hoax, but the result of conservation. And when I realized there were waves to be found too, it became an ultimate bucket list destination. And the reality was better than I ever could have imagined. There is so much wildlife it almost seems unending: in less than 5 ft of water, you can be surrounded by playful seals, big reef tip sharks, GIANT sea turtles and marine iguanas all at the same time.
And what’s even more remarkable: the wildlife is completely undisturbed by your presence. Seals will sunbathe in front of your bar stool at a local coffee joint, feed their pups ON your towel (I’ve had several literally lying next to me, pushing me off my own), follow you on a wave and even the pups will try to kiss you whilst snorkelling. Giant sea turtles float around you everywhere in the surf, making for some scary close encounters in the shallows, finches will land directly on your shoulder when sitting on the beach and marine iguanas lazily wander or swim past you in the shore break. Wherever you go, close encounters guaranteed.
As for the waves, they are like the islands: a mix of raw and relaxed, from turquoise beach breaks to bestial bombs. Because access and habitation on the islands are strictly regulated, going for a surf can be quite the adventurous ordeal. It can require long rough walks (some through military zones), treacherous paddles or some bargaining with local boatmen. Because of its position in the Pacific, it’s exposed to swells from all directions that can make multiple spots work on different sides of any island, giving you plenty of options to choose from.
And once you’re all surfed out, there are numerous activities above and below the water surface to keep you entertained and mesmerized: crawling through lava tunnels, watching giant land tortoises huff and puff whilst they slowly move around, spot rare birds or just have a beer and sit next to a seal on a boulevard bench. Yes people, the origin of paradise.