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Guest Writer

Galápagos Journal (Part Eight)
How shall I end?
by Dan Buettner

'm on the boat in the glowing moments after the sun has set, watching the colors drain out of the day.

The blue sea has already turned gray and the bush-covered hills of San Cristóbal Island are fading from green to smoky brown. Jupiter has appeared in the sky.

The team has gone ashore to celebrate while I sit alone, writing this last piece.

Normally at this time the boat is abuzz with activity. We'd be preparing our daily Web reports, shouting questions to each other, reading each other's pieces aloud and haggling over which pictures to send. Now it's uncomfortably quiet, like a classroom after the day's last bell and everyone has gone home.

For four weeks, eight of us have lived in very tight quarters. We've spent eight hours a day gathering information, pictures, video and sounds, then spent another eight hours creating what goes onto the Web. It's exhausting, stressful work. But we've all learned, grown a little stronger and accomplished our goal.

We presented difficult issues regarding resource use and human needs. In all cases, our 100,000 online collaborators decided in favor of environmental declaration. Thousands of them signed the declaration asking the Director General of UNESCO to make these islands a "World Heritage Site in Danger."

But why should people in Gainesville, or St. Paul, or Tacoma care about 14 tiny islands off the coast of Ecuador? What difference does it make if, for example, the slug-like sea cucumbers are over-fished?

The answer represents a dilemma that faces all of us no matter where we live – whether it's spotted owls vs. the lumber industry, timber wolf vs. cattle, or wetlands vs. shore development. It boils down to this: Do you protect the environment or exploit it to benefit people?

I've led three Quests: MayaQuest, AfricaQuest and now GalápagosQuest. In all three expeditions, we've tried to solve a mystery. Why did the Mayan civilization disappear? Why are Africa's big animals declining? Why is Galápagos wildlife threatened?

In all three cases the answer is too many people. Each year, 100 million people come into the world. This means we as a species constantly require more land, eat more food and create more waste. On a global level, we haven't yet figured out how to live in harmony with other creatures.

GalápagosQuest has given me a new appreciation for animals. This is one place on Earth where you can get close enough to animals to see how they live. You can swim with sea lions, walk within inches of birds, and sit next to 400-pound tortoises.

You can't help but develop compassion for them. I will never forget snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters of Punta Espinosa. A marine iguana leapt off a rock into the water, paddled down to the bottom and began to graze like a miniature dinosaur. It was like watching a scene from "Jurassic Park."

Tomorrow, we all leave the islands and head back to the U.S. There, the team will split like pool balls after the break, all of us going in different directions.

Some of us will go back to our regular jobs. John, Christina and I will start organizing the next expedition, AsiaQuest.

In some ways, we won't fully experience GalápagosQuest until we see it on the Web. Then we will have enough time to make sense of what we experienced.

We've all heard the saying, "Life is a journey, not a destination." I've never liked it. It's one of those sappy quotes you see on inspirational posters – a half-baked thought that sounds good until you really think about it.

After all, if life were just a journey, wouldn't we all be nomads?

It seems to me that it's better to think of life as a string of destinations, a series of goals accomplished. After each one, we become a little smarter, stronger and bolder. Perhaps we look at the world in a different way.

So let me suggest an inspirational poster of my own. Under a picture of a marine iguana pondering the sea and his daily undersea journey for food, a caption reads: "Life may be a journey, but it's the destinations that light the way."

– Look for Dan's cover story in the November issue of National Geographic –

E-mail Dan, visit his Quest Network Web site and find his complete journal in our archives.

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