For one visitor to the Galapagos Islands, the most memorable moment occurred when a playful fur seal retrieved her husband's flipper and returned it to him as he snorkeled nearby. Said another tourist of her trip: "I saw things I never thought I would see in my lifetime."
They were were not alone in their delight. The fabled Galapagos--with their mix of whimsical, blue-footed boobies, prehistoric-looking iguanas and black-lava beaches--meet or exceed the expectations of nine out of 10 tourists, according to the first systematic survey of visitors ever done there.
At the same time, those surveyed expressed concern that the hordes who follow them could jeopardize the spectacular wildlife and natural scenery that makes the largely unspoiled archipelago so appealing. Nearly a quarter of all respondents said steps should be taken to restrict tourism.
"They're essentially saying, 'Don't love this one to death,' " says Gary E. Machlis, a professor of forest resources and sociology at the University of Idaho who supervised the survey. "You get dropped into this very bizarre ecology and you get to interact with animals in a different way than anywhere else."
The survey results--which were based on questionnaires distributed to 457 Galapagos visitors between July 25 and Aug. 10--were provided recently to an Ecuadorean government commission that is formulating a new tourism policy for the Galapagos.
Many of the Galapagos animals--including giant tortoises, seagoing marine iguanas, one-foot Galapagos penguins and Darwin's adaptable finches--are found only in these remote islands. The animals are remarkably fearless and approachable because they have generally evolved removed from most mammalian predators, including humans.
Machlis, who conducted the study for the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Isles and UNESCO's World Heritage Program, said that the commission has already used the survey's findings in its deliberations, demonstrating "a good-faith effort by the Ecuadorean government to take what they've learned here and use it in their decision-making."
The new policy is much-anticipated by international conservation groups who are increasingly concerned that the growing Galapagos tourism trade--as well as the immigration and development it has spawned--imperils the unique and fragile environment made famous by Charles Darwin.
In 1989, Machlis' study notes, 45,800 visitors came to the Galapagos, which are 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The park's management plan, last revised in 1984, calls for a maximum of 12,000 visitors a year. There are no tourist limits other than the capacity of tour boats and hotels.
About one-third of all adult tourists were American, another third came from Europe or elsewhere and 28% were Ecuadorean, Machlis found. The average visitor traveled throughout the islands for four to seven nights, staying on a tourist boat with 11 to 20 passengers. There are only a handful of small hotels on a few of the islands.
Complaints, while relatively limited, tended to concern accommodations on the boats, inconveniences of the flights and the high cost of the trip--which generally runs several thousand dollars or more.
Asked for recommendations for the Galapagos' future, 23% of the respondents favored limiting the number of visitors. Substantial numbers also called for preserving the islands, strictly enforcing park regulations and capping the number of permanent inhabitants.
"It was a wonderful experience and I hope it can be protected for the enjoyment of future generations," one respondent said, expressing a widely shared view.