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Islands on the Screen 

The Galapagos, seen up close in a new IMAX movie, has so far survived both tourists and a massive oil spill.

As New Orleanians get their first look at Galapagos, a movie filmed in IMAX's new 3-D format that opened last week at the Entergy IMAX theater, they can see an exotic habitat as yet untainted by the 200,000-plus gallons of oil that spilled off the coast of the famed island cluster a few months after the film was shot.

Fortunately, the Galapagos' unique topography ended up saving itself from major damage, according to the Smithsonian Institute marine biologist featured in Galapagos. "The currents in the Galapagos are very strong, and it'll be flushed clean. It probably already is," says Dr. Carole Baldwin, whose deep-sea research -- in which she and other Smithsonian scientists discovered 15 new marine species in as many days -- was captured by the only IMAX 3-D cameras in the world.

Baldwin signed on to the Smithsonian/ IMAX project when she learned the equipment involved included a submersible that would bring her to depths she'd never encountered, down to 3,000 feet. "I never had a chance to see any of these [deep-sea species] alive and in their natural habitat, so I was excited about that," she says. "My goal was to study life in the deep sea. ... The shallow-water world of Galapagos has been studied fairly well, but the most compelling studies come from the deep."

The Galapagos, a group of volcanic islands on the equator about 600 miles off the Ecuadorian coast, houses an incredibly diverse array of plant and animal life due to its unique terrain and remote location. It gained worldwide attention after an 1831 visit by Charles Darwin, whose observations of life on Galapagos -- and of underwater activity, as seen through a glass-bottomed pail -- kindled his groundbreaking theory that life evolves via a process of adaptation and natural selection.

Lately, Galapagos has been overrun by attention of a different kind. People arrive there in droves, either to visit the islands or to capitalize on the tourist dollars they generate, and Baldwin says that means Galapagos' fragile ecosystem faces new strains. The January incident, in which an oil tanker ran aground off a remote Galapagos island, illustrates the toll that too much humanity is exacting: The tanker was to supply fuel for tour boats, Ecuadorian officials reported.

"All and all, it was a good lesson for Galapagos," says Baldwin, who returned to the island cluster after the spill to help repair the damage. "They've got to be more careful about that kind of accident in the future. They were lucky that the lesson came with a relatively small cost."

An international oil cleanup crew recovered a good part of the spill, and Baldwin says much of the leached oil consisted of diesel fuel, which is light, floats on the water's surface and burns easily in the hot tropical sun. A heavier petroleum product was more difficult to clean, Baldwin says, but much of it was washed away by the islands' powerful currents. Twenty-two pelicans and "four or five" sea lions died, which Baldwin calls an indication that the spill was not as devastating as it could have been.

"The one thing I would hope would be that the international attention drawn to the Galapagos because of the oil spill could be used to solve the real serious problems facing the islands," Baldwin says. "Problems with overfishing, with people immigrating from the mainland to live in Galapagos because of the tourism dollars there -- and with all the people coming, there are a lot of non-native species being introduced. And they compete with the native species."

Baldwin made her visit to the Galapagos with the IMAX camera crew in 1998. The crew returned last year, where Baldwin and her teammates -- Smithsonian ichthyologist John McCosker and marine biologist Dave Pawson -- completed the bulk of their research.

The research was hampered by the unwieldy IMAX cameras, Baldwin acknowledges. She describes a cumbersome 2,000-pound camera that "only holds about three minutes of film at a time, and it takes an hour to reload it, and each time you reload, it costs $4,000."

But it was worth it, she adds, if the 3-D IMAX view of sea life in and around the Galapagos Islands ultimately spawns greater interest in preserving the unique archipelago. "This film takes you on a trip to somewhere that most people will never see," she says.

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