My friends, Jane and Travis, just got married. Initially, they were planning on a cruise in the Caribbean for their honeymoon. They’ve never been on one and Jane thought it would be the best of both worlds: legitimately fun and kitschily ironic. Travis was on board (so to speak) but he had reservations. He is a community activist in our city and he kept worrying that a cruise was just too wasteful, predictable, and commercial. I agreed with Travis but since it wasn’t my honeymoon I stayed out of it. Then I remembered: they’d never been on a cruise before! I, on the other hand, have been on several. Each one was a family vacation, paid for by my grandparents, and each one seemed more quintessentially American than the last. The ships were like giant malls complete with expensive cocktail bars, clothing shops, and fake plants. Sure, the accommodations were comfortable but it all felt so generic, so spring break, if you know what I mean. My experiences have left me rather jaded about the whole cruise thing and I didn’t want my friends to be disappointed. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I had to say something.
When I was a little girl (like many dreamy-eyed little girls) I wanted to be a marine biologist. I was fascinated by whales: their enormous bodies, buoyed by undulating ocean currents; their ultrasonic songs, traveling hundreds of miles through the water like whispers with wings; and their mysterious lives, hidden from the prying eyes of researchers, lived deep beneath the shimmering surface. To me, nothing was more beautiful, more magical, or more exciting. Then I learned about whaling and the bloody history of commerce on the open water. I learned about strandings, the result of sonic pollution, and saw pictures in the newspaper of hundreds of glorious humpbacks drying to dust in the noon sun.
When the average America thinks of high-profile humanitarian work, she probably thinks of Angelina Jolie. Of all the activist celebrities, only Jolie has become a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations. She’s a glamorous celebrity, and I think that makes it easy to dismiss her, but in truth she has helped an extraordinary number of people. From the point of view of my very non-Hollywood life, she seems superhuman. She has six kids, acts in movies, and manages to devote a huge percentage of her time traveling to far off places to give back. I think we should all be looking to her for guidance. She has all the privilege in the world and yet, she uses her power for good! She could be basking in the spotlight, frolicking in the Riviera, and showing off her crazy handsome fiance. Instead, she works hard, every day, to make the world a better place.
There is a close relationship between environmental conservation work and helping people. In many cases, like that of the Galapagos Islands, the restoration of habitats and rebuilding of populations leads to an increase in ecotourism that benefits a local region economically. In other cases, conservation directly impacts a community’s ability to find food, to farm, and to enjoy their own backyards. Conservation also has a watershed effect… literally. As habitats are cleaned up, the entire ecosystem improves, and that includes fresh water sources. Polluted bodies of fresh water harm humans just as much as they harm animals. If a community is located on the seashore, deep sea conservation efforts often have an immediate effect on the shallow fishery. More healthy fish means more food for humans, and it means a healthier economy to boot. The food chain is a complex system. When it is disrupted at any point, that disruption has a domino effect down the chain in both directions. Conservation projects teach us that humans are part of that chain. We suffer when it is disrupted too.
Ecuador is the perfect storm when it comes to biodiversity. The high Andes Mountains, it’s tropical location on the equator, and two major ocean currents along the coast create microclimates for a dazzling array of wildlife. Not only is Ecuador home to 25,000 species of plants, 1,600 species of birds (more than half of the 3,000 species found in all of South America), 369 species of mammals, 350 species of reptiles, and 800 species of fish, it is also home to the legendary Galapagos Islands, the inspiration behind Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Many of these animals are found nowhere else on Earth. They are unique and precious, both ecologically and scientifically. There is so much we can learn from these creatures and they are disappearing before our eyes.