A Journey Through the Galapagos
During a weeklong visit that’s as spectacular as it is educational, CW’s editor learns from naturalists about the evolution of both the islands of the Galápagos and their flora and fauna. From our December 2012 issue.
Visit the Galápagos photo gallery.
The first rays of sunlight pour past the curtain and dance dazzling red across the white walls of our cabin. That, and the slowing throb of the Caterpillar diesel should be reason enough to spring up and get a jump on the day, but then a speaker overhead crackles and a resonate voice declares, “Good morning, good morning, good morning, Evolution! Let me just say, amigos, it is a glorious day in the Galápagos.” As if we didn’t know already, Cesar, the ship’s hospitality manager, reminds us that breakfast will be served in half an hour. Then rocking tunes blare across the decks and throughout the 16 guest cabins of our 192-foot expedition ship.
And so begins another day in these lava-strewn volcanic islands that straddle the equator 620 miles off the west coast of Ecuador. It was here in 1835 that the seeds were planted for Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and it’s here that we’ll spend a week with trained naturalists and discover on our own how plants and animals and birds and marine life have adapted in their own ways to the climate and ocean currents that converge to make this a truly unique spot on planet Earth. We’ll see, too, how delicate the balances are here, and how easily the scales can be tipped by the often competing demands of tourism, fishing, commerce, and environmentalism.
Mostly, though, all aboard Evolution will be blown away by the beauty and complexity of all that surrounds us.
I step out of the cabin, and the view from our perch on the upper deck is nothing short of spectacular. Surrounding the bay off Isla San Salvador at tiny Sombrero Chino, where we’ve just dropped anchor, spatter cones rise sharply from the sea; these mounds of lava fragments formed over the ages as lava escaped from volcanic vents on the ocean’s floor. Along their shores, gulls and frigate birds soar high overhead; to sea, boobies and pelicans dive headfirst to feast on schools of bait fish. After breakfast, my wife, Sue, and I, along with our 22 shipmates, will split up and board the ship’s two pangas, large inflatables that are our main mode of exploration. And then the morning’s adventures will commence. By noon, we’ll have spotted our first penguins, come within feet of Galápagos hawks, and watched blue-footed boobies prance about and herons chase brilliantly colored red crabs scurrying across the lava flows of Isla San Salvador. We’ll have waded ashore on Sombrero Chino and stretched our legs on well-trod trails as naturalists Boli Sanchez and Alex Cox explain the geology of how the islands were formed and delve deeply into each species of plant and animal we encounter, including the alpha-male sea lion who barks at us to show he’s king of his harem of females lounging nearby.
What a place. After lunch and a siesta to dodge the heat of the day, we’ll return with snorkels and masks and drift with the current along the narrow channel between islands. Jet-black marine iguanas slither along the water’s surface; below, a rainbow of fish dart about in schools. On a large, flat rock, a ray, perhaps six feet across, rests and ignores us as we swim within inches; white-tipped reef sharks could care less about us as we kick along above them.