After eight months of snorkeling next to white-tip reef sharks, climbing volcanoes and deeply immersing herself in a bioregion so sensitive that some species may soon become extinct, School of Journalism and Communication Associate Professor Carol Ann Bassett can now celebrate the success of her third book. READING next Tuesday, June 2, at 7:00 p.m. in the Knight Library Browsing Room
Carol Ann Bassett will read from Galápagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists, and Creationists Battle for Darwin’s Cradle of Evolution at the UO Knight Library Browsing Room Tuesday, June 2, at 7:00 p.m.
Released on May 19 by National Geographic Society Books,tells the story of the Galápagueño culture, the rich natural history of the islands, and their endangered wildlife. It also offers solutions for conserving the islands before it’s too late.
Now an endangered UNESCO World Heritage site, the Galapagos Islands are home to some of nature’s most extraordinary species: giant land tortoises the size of wine barrels, vampire finches that drink the blood of Nazca boobies, and a member of the daisy family that has morphed into a giant tree. Like other visitors, Bassett discovered she could walk right up to most creatures to photograph them.
“Most species in the Galapagos have no instinctual fear whatsoever. It’s like walking around on a different planet.”
Bassett first visited the Galapagos in 1990 as a journalist on assignment for a national magazine. In 2006 she began leading the UO-SOJC Study Abroad Program, “Environmental Writing in the Galapagos.” Bassett will spend this summer on an informal book tour raising awareness about the islands and educating readers about what’s being done to preserve them.
On her sabbatical 600 miles west of Ecuador, Bassett soaked up as much Galápagueño culture as she possibly could.
“I very much believe in immersion journalism. I like to participate in the stories I write and get deeply involved in the issues and characters. My goal is to document these people and places before it’s too late.”
Bassett truly immersed herself in natural history on her many research trips; she learned when breeding and hatching occurred for several species, accompanied scientists on treacherous expeditions, and observed the islands and their wildlife alongside naturalist guides who helped her understand certain processes.
For instance, Bassett traveled with a scientist and her group of volunteers to document the Pacific green sea turtles laying their eggs on Isabela Island.
“It’s an extraordinary experience that attracted volunteers from all over the world,” Bassett recalls. “We walked along the beach at night time counting turtles, their nests, and eggs while wearing headlamps covered with red cellophane” (Sea turtles can’t see that color in the light spectrum.)
Using minimal light was key to allowing the sea turtles to continue their natural process of laying eggs on the same beach where they were born. It also allowed researchers to monitor the species for parasites or injuries from boat rudders.
The passion Bassett has for the island and its inhabitants is clear from the way she relays information.
“Did you know that when marine iguanas dive for algae they can hold their breath for up to one hour?” Bassett asks, eyes lighting up. She is equally enthusiastic about adaptive radiation—when a species arrives on an island, finds its ecological niche, adapts, and evolves rapidly by developing new traits. A few examples are the giant land tortoises for which the Galapagos were named, as well as land and marine iguanas.
“These islands are ruled by reptiles, not mammals,” Bassett notes.
The unique features of the Galapagos are all the more reason tourists flock to the idyllic, picturesque islands. But when six tour boats arrive at once, the “avalanche of tourists” that emerges can trample the vegetation and scare the wildlife. Tourism first caught on in the late 1960s, with only a few hundred people visiting the islands each year. In 2007, about 174,000 people came from all over the world. That number is expected to rise rapidly—it’s growing so fast that the island does not have the infrastructure to handle it, she says.
“It’s such a fragile place,” Bassett warns. “A lot of people have moved there from mainland Ecuador to get rich quick. But now these colonists have out-fished certain species, and some are depleted to the point of being endangered…More tourism means more pressure on the resources, which are already scant to begin with.”
Controversy also arises when boundaries between populated islands and the national park collide.
“There’s a lot of controversy over this because only three percent of the Galapagos is earmarked for town centers and agriculture. If a village wants to expand its boundaries, it can’t. Ninety-seven percent of the islands are protected as national park,” Bassett said.
UNESCO declared the islands endangered in June 2007 because of an onslaught of colonists, tourists, and invasive species, including goats, pigs, and rats, and feral dogs and cats.
Ultimately, Bassett hopes to bring environmental awareness to the people of the Galapagos. She dedicated her new book to the children of the Galapagos, advising them to teach their parents well.
“The bottom line is education,” she said. “The educational system [throughout Ecuador] is very outdated and Marxist-like. It’s based on rote memorization instead of critical thinking or reasoning.”
To truly preserve the islands, Galapagueños must first learn the basics of science and evolution, she added. “If they don’t realize how significant these species are or understand their habitats, why should they become conservation advocates?”
Back in Allen Hall teaching literary non-fiction and environmental writing, Bassett still allows her mind to drift back to the Galapagos. She hopes to go back next summer with a group of students. And what she learned is still with her here.
“I realized how complicated issues are in the Galapagos on every level: socially, economically, politically, environmentally,” Bassett said. “I learned how to become a better listener, and in doing so, discovered within myself a deeper sense of peace by learning to pay attention to the tiniest details, like a carpenter bee pollinating a flower or the way a marine iguana blinks its eyes.”
“I have a deep sense of curiosity, a deep sense of justice, and I make a point to try and give a voice to the voiceless.”