In Darwin's Footsteps

The Galapagos

(Below is a selection of photos from my trip to Ecuador July/August 2008, including the Galapagos Islands and Amazon rainforest. The essay, reprinted from The Spirifer of the New York Paleontological Society, follows.)

When we stepped from the plane the air was bright and warm, nothing like the high altitude chill we’d left in Quito. Tawny earth and desert scrub contrasted with the blue Pacific, whose whitecaps broke on rocks black as the tarmac beneath our feet. Such were my first impressions of Isla San Cristobal, and like Charles Darwin before me, it was my first port of call in the Galapagos.

Even though we’d arrived from mainland Ecuador, which claimed the islands in 1832, we were treated like we’d entered a foreign country. There were forms and stamps and special fees to be paid. After retrieving our bags we were collected by our guide, Williams, who herded us and another couple aboard a blue mini-bus. A short drive through the squat, pastel village of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno took us to the harbor to meet a panga – a rubber launch – that would ferry us out to our tour boat. At the docks we got our first taste of Galapagos wildlife: pelicans, gulls and frigatebirds wheeled over the bay. Crabs scuttled at impossible angles, like ants on a Mobius strip. And sea lions lolled along the pier like big lazy dogs with flippers. They were hardly as excited at the sight of us as we were them, but they'd no doubt seen tourists before.

We met the rest of our group on the boat, and after a quick lunch, were all whisked back ashore. Another short bus ride dropped us at a dusty trailhead on the edge of town. As we filed through the brush Williams, with flashes of deadpan humor, reiterated the rules for us newbies: keep two meters between ourselves and the animals, stick to the trails, and don’t take anything except pictures. I did my best to pay attention, but I was distracted by sudden bursts of movement underfoot as little lava lizards darted across the path. These were small fry compared to what was lurking around the bend.

As we came in sight of the ocean we cut across a black lava boulder field. Few of us noticed at first the four foot marine iguana sunning itself atop a nearby rock. The animal and its perch were both the color of old car tires. With its flayed skin, ramshackle spines and knobbed brow the lizard looked, yes, prehistoric. It suffered us a glance, then a slow blink like a sigh. Otherwise it didn’t move. These big reptiles feed offshore on algae where the chilly surf saps their ectothermic batteries. Now he and several others sprawled, recharging in the afternoon sun.

Like so many creatures found here, these lizards are unique to the islands. Their ancestors arrived as accidental colonists and evolved for generations in isolation. Not only have the Galapagos flora and fauna become different from their forbears on the continent, in some cases, like tortoises and finches, species differ from island to island. This is what so impressed Darwin on his visit and helped inspire the Theory of Evolution By Natural Selection.

Hiking on we came to a break in the rocks where the beach sloped to a green cove. It was a popular spot. Along with some local kids, several sea lions had hauled out to snooze on the strand.

Donning snorkels and flippers we plunged into a living aquarium of blue parrotfish and purple anemones. The July Pacific was cool, cooler than the Northeast summer Atlantic. I found it tolerable but many of my shipmates wore wetsuits. No sooner had I swum a few yards out, where the sea floor dropped a bit deeper, than I found myself face to beak with a Pacific Green Sea Turtle. Its shell was at least three feet across. It glided along with slow motion strokes of it’s great paddles, wary of the humans circling at a respectful distance, but in no hurry. I swam beside it, beside myself, for several minutes. I had only been in the Galapagos a few hours and was already having a peak experience.

When I returned to shore my companion was standing in the surf with a gaggle of kids. They were gleefully watching a pair of sea lion pups frolic right at their feet. Suddenly, the pups stopped playing and stretched out curious noses to nuzzle her knees. Now she was having a peak moment. Obviously, these animals had not gotten the two meter memo.

The minibus deposited us back at the pier and we were released to roam the village for an hour. After a stroll around the docks we joined the rest of our party for cocktails at a modest tavern overlooking the harbor. We were 14 in all, a mix of British, Canadian, Americans and Dutch. In fact, we heard so much Dutch in Ecuador you’d think it was an indigenous language. Several shipmates, like ourselves, had booked passage on this tour only days before in Quito. We’d all heard that booking in Ecuador was cheaper, if chancier, than abroad. Still, the sticker shock was considerable, with tour, airfare and park fees stacking up. But our first afternoon, cavorting with sea lions and turtles, left no doubt the expense had been worth it.

A handful of towns and settlements notwithstanding, the Galapagos are basically one big national park. To minimize human impact, travel is limited to specific visitor sites and these are accessible only with registered guides. While it’s possible to visit the islands without booking a cruise, we’d heard it’s hard to see the full range of wildlife otherwise. Joining our tour several days in, we’d already missed Blue Footed Booby and albatross colonies, swimming with a school of Eagle Rays and tracking giant tortoises in the wild.

Each day our boat dropped anchor off a particular island and we made excursions to sites in the vicinity. After supper we’d  set sail and travel overnight to the next stop. There are about two dozen islands in the archipelago, and they may be many miles apart.

We woke the next morning anchored off the wild north coast of Santa Cruz.  When we went ashore, a large brown pelican stood sentry over the beach. We were warned not to wander the dunes because we might trample sea turtle eggs buried there. Williams pointed out the wide chevrons of flipper tracks in the sand made by the nesting reptiles. Black lava jetties were studded with bright orange embers that danced away as we approached. These were Sally Lightfoot Crabs, psychedelic crustaceans that could have been designed by Peter Max.

We climbed a rise and descended to the shore of a wide lagoon where iguanas splayed black on the white sand. Across the pond a pair of pink flamingos, larger and more vibrant than the plastic lawn variety, foraged toward us. We sat quietly for a long while as the birds dipped their boomerang beaks in the muck, nothing but the wind and occasional whir of digital cameras to be heard. I realized how lucky we were to have fallen in with this respectful tour group when a more vociferous mob crested the dune.

We moved on to snorkel with box fish, to spy a stingray gliding in the shallows, and watch a great blue heron alight atop a nearby dune. I found chartreuse sea urchin shells on the beach where their spines littered the sand, and a multi-hued spiny lobster in a tidepool, recently deceased. Someone commented that the colors of Galapagos shellfish makes them look pre-cooked.

That afternoon we paddled through the mangrove thickets of Black Turtle Cove. Pelicans and brown noddy terns made kamikaze dives around the pangas while polka dotted eagle rays and white tipped sharks slunk below. In the more secluded reaches we finally spied the bay’s namesakes: large green sea turtles loitered just below the surface, poking their grapefruit sized heads up for a breath then drifting shyly off. Sometimes their scaly flippers broke the surface in a languid wave as they dove. We also spotted a smaller, yellower hawksbill turtle sharpening his beak on a mangrove root.

Back on the boat I lay on the top deck trying to photograph the frigatebirds ducking and weaving overhead. They were using the wind sheer off the bow to hover and spot fish in the bay below. The island of Baltra, home of the Galapagos’ main airport, lay to the East. Though I didn’t get to see them, chalk deposits holding marine fossils are sandwiched between layers of lava there. Sources suggest they date from the Pliocene, one to two million years ago. Younger fossils, tiny bones from prehistoric owl droppings, have been collected in caves. By comparing them with their modern descendants scientists hope to gain insight into the evolution of the local fauna.

The equatorial sun set swiftly as a storm passed out beyond the dog bowl shaped cinder cone of Daphne Major. With no moon, the darkening sky was littered with foreign stars. Some fell, but the constellations refused to resolve into anything familiar, and so remained gratifyingly exotic.

Most of the Galapagos lie south of the equator. During the night we crossed to the Northern Hemisphere to reach the isolated island of Genovesa. Darwin’s Bay is encircled by the sheer cliffs of this volcanic island’s flooded crater. A panga ride took us along steep, guano spattered crags to Prince Philip’s Steps, a natural rock formation giving us access to the plateau above. There we strolled through low, scrubby forest sheltering vast bird colonies. On the ground blindingly white Nazca Boobies guarded their twin eggs or sparred with orange bills. Red Footed Boobies, perching or nesting in the low branches of palo santo trees, tolerated our attentions. One of the islands’ few predators, a short eared owl, flashed by in the collective corner of our eye. On the fringe of the forest, great, black frigate birds coddled fluffy white chicks, frazzled little monsters compared to their stately parents. When we reached the arid meadows on the far side of the island the sky was alive with swarms of storm petrels.

Later we dove from the pangas to snorkel along the cliffs. King Angelfish, Moorish Idols and Giant Damselfish grazed just below the surface. A couple of fur seals, really a more bashful species of sea lion, lazed on rock ledges above. That is, until one plopped into the surf right in front of us. It inspected me curiously with big puppy dog eyes, then veered off.

That afternoon we landed on a strip of beach where a herd of sea lions napped obliviously. The herons with whom we shared a footpath regarded us less warily than farmyard chickens.  Frigate birds and boobies nested in the brush. Swallow tailed gulls with red ringed eyes loitered in the shade of prickly pear thickets. Finches and mockingbirds hopped atop the cactuses pecking at their succulent fruit. All these animals were within arm’s reach, their astonishing tameness the upshot of eons evolving without predators.

As these birds fell prey to our prying cameras Williams admitted the population was dropping year by year, probably relocating to less accessible shores. Tourism, regulated as it is, is still having an impact.

The surf in the bay was a bit rough but we snorkeled anyway. Visibility was murky, so you had to be right on top of the fish -- or they on you – to see them. I was startled by a stingray zipping past in the gloom, but less by a couple of white tipped sharks that came and went like ghosts. We spied parrot and box fish as well, and someone spotted a moray eel.

After supper we climbed to the top deck to watch the stars rise as the boat got underway. Mistake. We didn’t notice the seas roughen as we sailed out of the bay. When we stood from our chairs we were flung across the deck. Bruised and chastened we crawled on hands and knees to the ladder leading down to our cabin.

We rose at dawn to find ourselves in a strait between the close neighbors Bartolomé and a larger island known variously as Santiago, San Salvador, or James. Such is the storied history of the Galapagos that many of the islands bear multiple aliases. We trolled the craggy coast of Bartolomé in the pangas, binoculars peeled for some real early birds: Galapagos penguins. We spotted a few as they emerged from their rocky shelters and hopped into the sea in search of breakfast. Living right on the Equator, this species is the most northerly penguin population on earth. After our brief encounter we headed back to the boat for our own breakfast, figuring that was the last we’d see of these knee high avians.

Later we landed on Santiago (Williams’ preferred name) and trekked across vast fields of pahoehoe lava. The black swirls made the twisted rock look pliant and fresh, but its ropy ripples had frozen in place a century and a half before. Williams pointed out casts of tree branches incinerated in the flow, the closest thing to a fossil I saw on the entire visit. Here and there a yellow lava cactus or brick colored mollugo plant had taken hold, the first pioneers on this geologically infant land.

The Galapagos is a chain of volcanoes, born, theory holds, of the undersea spreading of two tectonic plates over a subterranean hotspot. The islands first emerged 4 or 5 million years ago and are forming still. They boast several active peaks, clustered chiefly in the younger northwestern isles. Here on Santiago, terra cotta cinder cones hem a charred vista eternally mid-boil around us. High overhead a Galapagos hawk collided with a dove, tumbling together into the heat shimmered distance, like Icarus falling.

The snorkeling off that beach was lovely but uneventful for me until I came ashore. It happened to coincide with the return of the local marine iguanas from their morning feed. They glided serpentine up craggy inlets and clambered out of the surf to bask in the midday sun. Then, motoring back to the boat, we were ambushed by a flock of penguins, two dozen strong, who popped up right alongside our panga. This tuxedoed flotilla eyed us a moment, then, like synchronized swimmers, dove as one, pointing their stubby tails skyward as they bobbed for fish below the surface. It was both comical and magical, and lasted only a moment, then we went our separate ways.

Sailing around Bartolomé’s answer to the leaning tower of Pisa, Pinnacle Rock, a reception committee of iguanas met us at a little dock. We climbed a flight of wooden stairs past volcanic spatter cones to reach the island’s summit. There we looked back on a picture postcard view over the bay and Santiago beyond.

That afternoon we set sail for the town of Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz. We’d enjoyed wonderful, sunny weather up to then, but over the six hour cruise clouds moved in and the sea buckled. Many of my shipmates retreated queasy to their cabins. The next day was to be our last, we would set out early for the overland trek to the airport across the island. But the four of us latecomers to the tour had yet to see any giant tortoises. We agreed there was no way we were leaving the Galapagos without seeing giant tortoises. So that evening we cornered Williams in a booth in the dining cabin and hammered out a plan.

Rising at dawn we packed our bags, then got a lift to the dock in a panga. Puerto Ayora was still asleep, but we found a pick-up truck taxi to take us to the Charles Darwin Research Station. At that hour the facility was not technically open, but neither was it locked. Williams had drawn a map that led us down wooded paths, past the Van Straelen Exhibition Center and the baby tortoise hatchery. There was no one about. We finally came to a series of low-walled corrals. There we caught sight of the massive, knobby domes.

The tortoises were just rousing themselves, craning their long leathery necks like the periscopes of battered bathyspheres. The Center segregates them by species, each from a different island. The truly tortoise savvy can distinguish them by the shape of their shells, the saddlebacks of Espanola from the high domes of Santa Cruz. The biggest stood nearly the height of my hip (and I’m six foot in shoes). One enclosure allowed us to mingle with them. Getting face to face with these enormous and ancient reptiles felt quite a privilege. Unfortunately we barely had time to take a few pictures before we had to hightail it to the main road to meet the mini-bus. But we were happy, we’d seen our tortoises, and a couple of golden land iguanas to boot.

As we drove north we became aware that the landscape of Santa Cruz was far less arid than the other islands we’d visited. In fact the interior was downright lush. We stopped at the overlook of Los Gemelos, a pair of immense sinkholes drenched in fog and overgrown with ferny forest, a haven for doves and flycatchers.

From there we made our way to a little ferry that shuttled us across the strait to Baltra and the airport. While waiting for our flight we sipped coffee in an open air café. Our visit had been wondrously rich…and way too short. It seemed appropriate that the last inhabitant of the Galapagos we encountered was one of Darwin’s finches. This brazen little beggar came hopping across our table, the beak fashioned for cracking seed now avidly snapping up pastry crumbs. Even as flocks of tourists pose new challenges for the ecology of the islands, some residents are obviously learning to adapt.