Due to their ever-increasing popularity, the serene and exotic Galápagos Islands are at a critical crossroads. And part of the solution lies within the problem.
Six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador, the sun balances atop the dark-blue Pacific, its honey-soft light spilling across tide pools strewn with life. Here on Santiago Island, the salt air vibrates with barkings, hootings, whistlings, cawings, great belches, and snorts. Sea turtles rise in grottoes; sea lions loll on the sand. Bright-orange Sally Lightfoot crabs scurry over the dark rocks; marine iguanas lie languid and still; birds of every imaginable variety surround me. It is unforgettable, this Eden gloaming.

Make no mistake; the Galápagos remain a magical and otherworldly place. As Charles Darwin observed, the islands are a living experiment unlike any other. Scattered among 13 large islands, six small islands, 42 islets, and innumerable rocks and pinnacles, you have the Nature Channel on the fritz: a small bird, slightly larger than a tennis ball, that plops on the backs of bigger birds, pecks at them until they bleed, and then drinks their blood; the only gull in the world that hunts at night. Beneath the water, marine iguanas undulate gracefully with great powerful arcs, and penguins, stout little barristers, rocket past, trailing silver bubbles and blithely ignoring the fact that they reside at the equator. Nearly half the archipelago's birds and insects, 32 percent of the plants, and 90 percent of the reptiles exist nowhere else. Stand before the tide pools of Santiago Island, and it's easy to believe you are Charles Darwin himself.

That's the wondrous stuff. But Darwin's living experiment is at a critical crossroads. A 1960s projection warned that no more than 12,000 tourists should visit the islands each year. But in 2000, 66,000 folks visited the Galápagos. And last year, that number reached 109,000, with a continuing pressure to keep increasing the boom. Mainland Ecuadoreans, seeing the better standard of living enjoyed by their island countrymen as a result of tourism and fishing, have flocked to the islands. In 1960, the population of the Galápagos was 2,000. In 1998, there were 15,000 residents. Today, there are close to 28,000 people living among the islands - and they're raising all manner of problems, from trash to overfishing. Introduced species - goats, rats, dogs, cats ... pick what you like - raze native vegetation and gobble everything from turtle eggs to iguanas. Fishing, legal and illegal, has decimated species and segued into corruption and violence. A fishing frenzy has seen the sea cucumber population destroyed, fishermen flocking in from the mainland to harvest the cash cow of a slug, prized in Asia as a table delicacy and an aphrodisiac­ in bedrooms. When Galápagos National Park officials imposed restrictions on the sea cucumber take, irate fishermen protested by killing 72 tortoises on Isabela Island. Sharks, once gnat-thick in Galápagos waters, have thinned appreciably - caught for their fins. A single boat, boarded by Park Service personnel near Wolf Island, had more than 1,000 shark fins onboard.