Family Adventure in the Galapagos
I was sitting in the hollow of a rock carved over thousands of years by the incessant pulse of wind, rain, and wave. The sounds rushed in: Swissshhh-schwooosh. Tcha-tcha-tcha-tcah. Arerr, arerr, arrer. Chikoo-chikoo.
It was midmorning; a few hours before, my expedition group had ridden Zodiacs onto the beach at horseshoe-shaped Darwin Bay on Isla Genovesa, one of the northernmost islands in the Galápagos chain. The others in my group had moved on to snorkel off the far tip of the island, but I stayed behind to see how it felt to be the lone soul in that singular place.
Well, the lone human soul anyway, since I had lots of other company. To my left, dozens of charcoal-brown juvenile red-footed boobies perched among saltbush branches; their parents whirled around the sky. Two black-and-white Nazca boobies waddled past me. Soft-needled cacti sprouted from a cleft in the rock beside me; with no animals to eat them, they've evolved without their protective hard spines. To my right lay a sand-crusted driftwood tree trunk borne from who knows where.
The ancestors of some of the wildlife around me had probably arrived on just such a trunk, clinging perilously to the surface of the storm-tossed wood or embedded snugly inside, like passengers on an accidental ark. The volcanic rock around me -- pocked with air holes and studded with brown and red stones -- had been tossed from the earth's fiery crust through a hotspot that sent molten lava spewing onto the seabed in such quantity that it piled up and eventually broke the surface, forming Isla Genovesa, the other almost 60 islands in the chain, and even the hollow in which I sat.
Suddenly, from a thick stand of mangroves I heard a choked squawking, a male red-footed booby trying to attract a mate. Then, straight ahead, oblivious to the human playing castaway among them, three Nazca boobies screeched and squabbled in fierce beak-to-beak combat. Two were ganging up on one, and when the victim rose to confront her tormentors, I saw a light blue egg glistening beneath her. She occupied prime real estate, and the newlyweds wanted it.
A juvenile booby practiced landing to my left, its body wavering to and fro as it fluttered onto a branch. A male frigatebird flew overhead, flashing the red pouch that he puffs into a bright balloon at mating time. Black-and-white swallow-tailed gulls, their eyes outlined in brilliant red, fluttered onto a rocky perch.
At the waterline, black marine iguanas padded across black lava rocks, also dotted with red-and-white Sally Lightfoot crabs. A couple of sea lions fenced with their snouts, bellowing at each other while a whiskery pup flopped along after the bigger one, trying to nurse even while its mother barked at the intruder. Sea lion yelps and roars filled the air and the salt-scented Pacific swashed blue and white.
I swigged water and considered Charles Darwin. Certainly during his seminal visit to the Galápagos aboard the HMS Beagle in 1835, the father of evolutionary theory had sailed into the bay now named for him and set foot on this island. But, I thought, it was quite possible that no other human had ever sat precisely where I was. All islands are to some extent worlds apart, but few, as Darwin noted in Voyage of the Beagle, are quite so profoundly separate as the Galápagos. "The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable," he wrote. "It seems to be a little world within itself; the greater number of its inhabitants, both vegetable and animal, being found nowhere else."
Sitting in my little corner of that world 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, I couldn't imagine wanting to be anywhere else. And to think that just a week before I'd been having doubts about this trip.
THE DARWIN CONNECTION
Though Darwin stayed in the Galápagos for only about a month, his observations there led not only to his revolutionary theory of natural selection but also, 167 years later, to the presence of visitors like me.
Darwin's voyage from England took four years and was plagued by foul food and seasickness; the worst we faced on our two-day trip from San Francisco were airplane meals and in-flight movies. But I contended with one foe that Darwin didn't: long-distance déjà vu. Long before we departed, a film of the Galápagos reeled through my mind. I had already seen countless times -- complete with James Earl Jones narration -- boobies, iguanas, frigatebirds, sea lions, giant tortoises, and the rest of the islands' famously fearless birds and beasts. How could reality compete with the digitally enhanced version playing in my head?
Also, I am not really a wildlife person. Generally speaking, in my travels I've sought people, art, culture, and cuisine. But with my daughter turning 17 and my son 12, my wife, Kuniko, and I thought this seemed the chance to put together one final grand family fling before Jenny went off to college and Jeremy eschewed all travel with the folks. And what could be more climactic than the Galápagos? Given all that, I feared that not even Darwin had dragged so much baggage onto the islands.
Our voyage began late on a Saturday afternoon. After settling into cabins aboard Lindblad Expedition's M.S. Polaris, meeting our guides, and hearing the first of our daily natural-history lectures, 70 of us passengers and six naturalists piled into pangas (motorized Zodiacs) and headed for our first excursion on Isla Santa Cruz.
As we cut through the waves, the warm wind scrubbed away my jet lag and the salt water on my lips awakened my senses. As Jeremy took in his surroundings and spotted a great black frigatebird soaring over us, he wondered aloud at its wingspan.
"Up to seven feet," answered naturalist Paul McFarling.
"Wow!" said my son, reaching for his camera.
"You know what it's looking for?" Paul asked.
Jeremy shook his head.
"A booby," Paul continued. "Frigatebirds are the pirates of the skies. They snatch food from other birds, especially boobies. I've even seen them reach down the neck of a baby booby and take out the fish a mom or dad just fed it."
Jeremy swallowed hard.
"Look!" Jenny cried, pointing to eight bright yellow leaves the size of platters under the water, their edges gently flapping in the current. When the leaves began to swim, I thought my eyes were playing tricks.
"Ah, golden rays," Paul explained. They soared along with exhilarating ease, undulating in formation like oceanic Blue Angels. Jenny grabbed her camera. Click, click, click.
In two hours we motored past a spectacular succession of wildlife: pelicans up there, sea turtles over there, sea lions and sharks, two kinds of iguanas, three kinds of mangroves, hundreds of Sally lightfoot crabs. Overwhelmed, all we could say was "Look! Look! Look!" as if the world were being reinvented before our eyes.
AMONG THE BOOBIES
The next morning, after an overnight passage to Isla Espanola, we boarded pangas bound for Punta Suarez. As we pulled up to shore, sea lions slid through the waves beside us and bellowed and flopped onto the beach, oblivious to our arrival. Hopping onto black volcanic rock, we realized with a start that all around us were marine iguanas as black as the rock. They sprawled over every available surface, and where no rock was available, they sprawled over each other, sunning themselves, motionless.
Momentarily disoriented by the sheer abundance of life on the beach, I failed to see an iguana that was literally underfoot.
"Dad, look out!" Jenny shouted.
I froze, stopping my boot two inches above the creature's head. It didn't even blink.
As I recovered from my near-miss, Paula Tagle, our naturalist guide for the day, reviewed the rules. "One, don't touch the animals." (Jenny shot me a grin.) "Two, don't take anything -- anything." (A glance toward the L.L.Bean-clad septuagenarian holding a seashell.) "Three, don't bring any food onto the islands. And four, stay with your group; don't stray off the trails or beyond the marked areas, and don't wander around on your own."
Jeremy whispered to me, "Do we really have to stay with the group? Can't we just explore on our own?" There was only one answer: When in the Galápagos, you go with the group. So we walked with everyone else, our straggling line rising over boulders and slithering past sere silver-green scrub until we came to a bleak, wind-blasted depression.
"We're approaching a prime blue-footed booby nesting spot," Paula said. A moment later we turned a corner and there they were. At first glance -- at least to my untrained eyes -- they looked like any other gray-and-white birds. But then I spotted my first pair of blue feet. Superb, magnificent, like Dr. Seuss creatures come to life. Blue feet to the left of me, blue feet to the right of me, blue feet in the sky above me and nearly under my feet: "Honey!" my wife, Kuniko, called as I narrowly missed placing a big brown boot on two blue beauties, which looked up at me with curious brown eyes.
"Excuse me, your boobiness," I said with an elaborate bow.
Just then, a booby landed to our left with a feathery flourish, splaying its feet out, like Fred Flintstone braking his prehistoric car. "See that display?" Paula asked. "That's the male's way of attracting a mate."
"Guys," Jenny sighed.
Around another bend we witnessed another mating ritual, which I came to think of as the blue-footed booby stomp. Two birds face each other, and one lifts its left foot high in the air, holds it there and, then sets it ceremoniously down. It does the same with its right foot, like a blue-soled sumo wrestler limbering up before a match. Watching them, I realized that there was no comparison between seeing this on the small screen in my living room and actually being here.
It only got better, especially for Jenny and me. Having lagged a little behind the others, we were strolling along when, on the path right in front of us, a female lifted herself to reveal a bright white egg.
"Dad!" Jenny cried, gripping my arm and pointing. Right then, the shell cracked and a new, wet chick appeared. We watched, stunned, as it struggled into the world and its mother plopped protectively over it.
"I've never seen anything like that," Jenny said.
Me neither, I thought. Me neither.
I hadn't really associated the Galápagos with underwater life, but as we plunged beneath the waves off Isla La Tortuga, I realized I had omitted an important part of the equation. Black-white and-yellow Moorish idols with thin arcing top fins, blue-eyed damselfish, and banded butterflyfish swam lazily below us. A pair of sea turtles stroked gracefully by. I finned ahead through a school of brilliant gold-and-blue surgeonfish, which parted to pass me. For a few glorious moments their fins were close enough to tickle my cheeks.
I had been hoping for some bonding family moments, and as we poured out our day's stories over dinner that night aboard the ship, I realized that there was something about encountering these extraordinary creatures in their own wild world that cleansed the mind and tugged at the soul.
In the old days, Paula told us, sailors thought the islands were enchanted because they seemed to drift; they were never quite where mariners' maps said they would be. The islands were working some kind of magic on us, but still, there was the occasional minor mutiny, like when Jenny announced over dessert the next night, "I'm not going to the lecture tonight."
"Why not?" Kuniko and I asked simultaneously. Not go to the lecture? It was unthinkable.
"I'm suffering from an advanced case of I.O.," Jenny said.
"Ai-yo?" I asked, imagining some sort of exotic malady.
"I.O. -- Information Overload," she said, and then wandered off to stargaze on deck.
Over the next few days, I too began to experience symptoms of I.O. On every excursion, we had a naturalist assigned to our group, who was invariably a walking encyclopedia, proffering a staggering array of information about whatever serendipity sent our way.
Our morning walk on Isla Genovesa began with the unusual discovery of a frigatebird skull near the path. Picking it up, Paul said, "See the little channels that run down the beak here? They're unique to the frigatebird. It desalinates water through its eyes and the salt runs out down these channels in its beak. Very efficient.
"Oh look!" he continued, pointing to a speck in the sky. "There's a lava gull, the rarest gull in the world. There are only about 800 of them; they're endemic to the Galápagos. Completely gray and they have a very funny laugh. They're little scavengers; I've seen them pick up booby eggs and smash them to get at the food inside."
I was filled with guilt, wonder, and longing. Who knew the world was so rich with facts -- but who could possibly retain them all? Wouldn't it be nice to take a morning off and just sit on the deck in the sun, sipping something cool? But who knew what I'd miss? That would be the day everyone would come back exclaiming about the once-in-a-lifetime (fill in the blank) they'd seen.
I tuned back in to Paul's narration. "Ah! Now here we have the large ground finch. You've heard about Darwin's finches and how they were the key to his theory of evolution? On each island the finches developed different characteristics in order to survive. Well, the large ground finch has developed a beak that enables it to crack open and eat enormous seeds -- look at that beak! It could probably crack open a brazil nut. But the thing is, to have a beak that big and a body so small is very disproportionate, so when it jumps around, it always seems to be pitching forward. Its small body seems to be trying to catch up with its big bill."
It was dazzling and dizzying. In fact Lindblad provides four checklists for guests -- one each for plants, birds, and fish, and another that combines mammals and reptiles -- to keep track of what they see. One afternoon Jenny and Jeremy kept count and identified 32 entries on the mammals-and-reptiles list, 66 birds, 67 plants, and 78 fish.
OF TORTOISES AND SEEDS
At the Charles Darwin Research Station in the main town of Puerto Ayora, on Isla Santa Cruz, researchers are doing vital work, trying to redress some of the biggest problems man has introduced to the islands, such as the goats that eat the vegetation indigenous creatures need to survive. The Ecuadorian government has been performing a delicate juggling act since it declared much of the islands a national park in 1959. That same year the Charles Darwin Foundation was established, and five years later the research station opened. The station works closely with the Galápagos National Park Service to monitor the wildlife on the islands and the interaction between the species, including humans. In this setting, we are the threat -- that's why we're guarded by naturalists and confined to narrow paths while the animals and birds roam free.
The researchers and naturalists have won small but significant victories, such as raising 2,500 tortoises and repatriating them on their native islands, where they had been nearly wiped out by human predation and goats.
We encountered several of those Santa Cruz tortoises one afternoon in the island's lush highlands. There, in a world of spindly evergreens, moss-draped cat's-claw brush, and lush, broccolilike scalesia trees, we came upon a field of tall, dripping grasses where a group of giant tortoises had paused on their laborious migratory journey to the ocean. With their thick-ringed carapaces, scaly bent-in legs, long leathery necks, and squat, wrinkled heads, the tortoises seemed survivors of another age. Jenny reminded me: "Paula says fossils show that tortoises -- or at least mammals a lot like tortoises -- were alive when dinosaurs lived."
Ah, I thought, not even I.O. can keep the good stuff from sinking in.
I squatted down in front of one tortoise and tried to imagine the weight of the shell on my back, the slow, plodding journey over mud and rock and sand. "I wonder what it's thinking?" I said aloud, lost in my revery.
"Not much," Jeremy said, walking by. "Paul said their brains are about as big as a walnut."
In ensuing days, we witnessed a bloody head-butting battle between land iguanas, walked over ropy flows of pahoehoe lava, followed a zigzagging school of leaping dolphins, spied vermilion flycatchers and Galápagos penguins, explored moonscapes of rust-colored volcanic spatter cones, and contemplated repeatedly the sheer miracle that life had ever taken root on these distant, bleak, and barren islands. While snorkeling, Jeremy encountered a shark that was bigger than him, and on another day, a couple of frisky sea lions seemed to single Jenny out as their playmate. Kuniko had gone from amazement at not having to use a zoom lens to becoming emotional at the idea of so many different species living together in raucous harmony on these isles. And I had my castaway hour.
If we are lucky, we take a few journeys in life that send roots deep inside us, that live and grow with us. If we are extraordinarily lucky, we get to share such a journey with others we love, and it becomes a bridge between us.
Our Galápagos odyssey was just such a bridge. Our dinner conversations are still enlivened by sharks and sea lions, birds and iguanas. And as I recall the beating sun and the screeching birds, it occurs to me that maybe we are unwitting accomplices in a greater evolution than even Darwin knew, one designed to bring back seeds of peace and wonder to plant in the hard rock of our larger world.
THE ADVENTURE COLLECTION CONNECTION
The following members of the Adventure Collection offer tours to the Galapagos: