The enigma of Fernandina - perhaps the world's most pristine oceanic island...

In 1968 Paul Colinvaux, the paleoclimatologist, wrote the article "Eruption on Narborough" [the former English name for Fernandina Island].  The eruption was, in fact, a 1000 foot instantaneous drop of the caldera floor in a gigantic multi megaton explosion. Its extensive lake evaporated. The 1800 Bahama ducks, delicate black-necked stilts and many species of plants vanished leaving a massive hole 3000 feet deep.

Yet, for all the geologic drama which fired the imagination of the human mind and caused a scurry of human visitors to the smoldering debris of this dusty void, the real event that was unfolding was of a very different sort; a question of biological survival in virgin habitats.

Colinvaux knew that when Charles Darwin visited the Archipelago in 1835 the islands visited, namely San Cristobal, Floreana, and Santiago, were "even then the homes of men".  The clearing of land, killing of the giant tortoises, and the introduction of domestic animals and plants were features of those homes. Forests of endemic trees vanished, introduced species spread quickly. Darwin was just in time to observe the biological uniqueness of each island, and interpret their isolation within the Archipelago.
 
New homes grew on Isabela in the 1890s and the last "lush" island, Santa Cruz, with its ancient forests and abundance of native and endemic wildlife, followed in the 1920s. Inexorably the Islands became "unnatural".

Fernandina - a wonderful plateau of virgin life ©  NASAColinvaux was worried and painted Fernandina well...."true, it was no substitute for the wetter richer islands that had gone, but it was virgin. Hardly a man had been there. Not one of his animals had been introduced. Not even a rat. High in the clouds which ringed the island summit was unique plant and animal life, life totally unaffected by the presence of man, perhaps the last truly virgin tropical community left on the earth."

And it had exploded - had this wonder of pure nature vanished?

But, in fact, it was that very pure nature that had spoken on Tuesday, the 11 June 1968! Yet the blast that hurled ten-ton boulders across the plains surrounding the caldera had not destroyed life in this magical world.  The unique Scalesia forest that circled the huge basin as a haven above the clouds survived, mostly.  The native and endemic life survived too.

So all's well that ends well?  Not quite!

How many times has this event happened in the life of the island?  How many times have lakes formed and the birds alighted for the first time on new still waters.  Perhaps in time gone by the totality of life around the caldera was wiped clean. 

Colinvaux made an analysis of the plant life he found on a tuff cone on the caldera floor in 1966. Of the 25 samples identified, all are native to Galapagos and at least 33% were endemic. All are known from Isabela Island.  They "moved" to Fernandina by the wind or were carried by birds.  

Thus the extraordinary wilderness landscape of Fernandina is a product of unleashed tectonic forces, its colonization by native wildlife a product of time and the possibility of its arrival from existing populations elsewhere....

What happens when the birds who carry the seeds no longer exist? What happens if the winds move empty handed or carry the weeds of the world? What is the future of our virgin island? Our challenge is not only a Fernandina without introduced species but also to ensure that native birds and wild winds continue to move in nature's time and space, for the result is nature's treasure, Galapagos!

45 years ago, Colinvaux stated "Doves and finches came into our camp. As we dropped off to sleep two owls were hovering over us.  Two hundred yards to the north were the lifeless lava flows of the outer slopes. Six hundred yards to the south was that snoring void.  And between those two sterile things was this wonderful plateau of virgin life".

In 2010, I spoke the same words.  There is time but dwindling.