In Darwin's Wake
In this book excerpt from Herb McCormick's One Island, One Ocean—the story of the 2009-2010 Around the Americas expedition—the crew of Ocean Watch calls at the fragile, challenged, and astounding Galápagos Islands.
Four days out of Peru, on March 19, 2010, the “advance team” of three swallowtail gulls arrived just before sunset, wafting aloft on the high thermals, well above Ocean Watch’s mast. The birds were like a trio of Indian scouts atop a Western mesa, taking the measure of the stagecoach snaking through the canyon. Once they had a bead on the situation, they disappeared, stealthily, to the west. They’d be back in a few hours, with reinforcements. They weren’t after homesteaders, or even sailors; they were interested in smaller, more delectable prey: flying fish.
They’d come to the right place.
Halfway between Lima and the Galápagos Islands, the crew was enjoying a relaxed day of sailing. It was a good thing, as everyone was working on little sleep. No one had wanted to miss a moment of the previous evening’s show.
Given the circumstances, and our next port of call, it seemed appropriate that the Galápagos wildlife we’d soon encounter played the central role in the work of a young naturalist named Charles Darwin, who sailed to the isles in 1835 and began to formulate his theory of natural selection—the crux of his masterpiece, The Origin of Species—based on his observations there. Hours earlier, upon the first appearance of the voracious gulls, we’d witnessed a vivid demonstration of how food chains work, of the survival of the fittest.
The gulls had disappeared at dawn; where, we wondered, had they gone? After all, we were hundreds of miles from the nearest land. But that advance party overhead at twilight gave an inkling of what the night might hold.
The encore performance began around midnight, with birds weaving high overhead. Out of the corner of one’s eye, at first, the fluttering flash of white could’ve been mistaken for a distant, falling star. But what we saw was much more immediate and animated. It wasn’t a galaxy of spearing meteors; it was a group of ravenous birds.
There was a distinct, quite civilized pattern to the subsequent banquet. The birds, several dozen strong, assembled in a wide circle, on a counterclockwise flight path. They would approach from ahead of Ocean Watch—never astern—and swoop in close aboard to starboard—never to port. There, in the waters abeam, illuminated by our green navigation light, the surface was roiled by countless flying fish.
The gulls would gracefully alight, pick up a snack, and flap off in a puff of air. The display was almost too much to process: the clear reflections of the white birds on the dark water; their clattering voices, a satisfied, throaty purr; the frothing bow wave and gentle stern wake as Ocean Watch cleaved through the seas; and, finally, the radiant sky above, the ceiling to an amazing, dynamic auditorium.
At the precise stroke of 0600, the last gowned gull flew away, and the lights at the banquet hall were raised. You could call that final bird Cinderella, for it was surely the end of the ball. But it seemed like a fitting introduction to what awaited us.