In the footsteps of Darwin

Stuart Grant | VOLUME 24, ISSUE 6
A pair of marine iguanas bask in the sun, their colours changing as they near mating season. These unique creatures are the world’s only true marine lizards and are found only on the Galapagos Islands.
We travel to the Galapagos Islands where Darwin discovered the unique creatures that prompted his theories on evolution and natural selection.

“It appears to me that nothing can be more improving to a young naturalist than a journey in distant countries.”

So wrote Charles Darwin of his epic voyage of discovery and revelation aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. His own journey and subsequent musings of his observations in the Galapagos Islands were to change the course of human history and the very way in which mankind perceived itself.

For it was his encounters with the unique wildlife here during his visit in 1835 that formed the genesis of his ideas about evolution and natural selection subsequently published in the groundbreaking 1859 work, On the Origin of Species.

Subscribing to the spirit of Darwin’s travel and more scientific philosophies, I decided to journey to this mysterious, isolated archipelago located 1000km from the Ecuadorian coast, to broaden my horizons and evolve my own mind.

Like the famed naturalist himself, I was soon entranced by the spectacle of these enchanted volcanic isles rising from the depths of the Pacific, and equally captivated by the weird and wonderful animals that inhabit them.

Touching down at Baltra Airport, my first impressions were of a stark, barren place in the middle of nowhere. Equatorial heat rose from the tarmac as I walked to the terminal building, where I was greeted by concrete replicas of a giant tortoise and sea lion – the iguanas and cacti beside the walkway were, however, real.

‘Excuse the nuisances,’ proclaimed a sign at the airport entrance, apologising for the remodelling work in progress to cope with the growing influx of visitors.

No wonder they’re renovating. In 2007, close to 170,000 tourists landed on this runway, initially built by US forces in 1942 in an attempt to protect the Panama Canal during WW2.

After parting with the mandatory US$100 park entrance fee and US$10 tourist card, my fellow explorers and I were off on our shuttle transfer to our waiting boat. We’d barely alighted the bus before the unique creatures of Galapagos, still mostly devoid of any fear of man, had made an impression.

As if arranged for the benefit and amusement of the new arrivals, a posse of marine iguanas basked in the sun, while several snoozing sea lions did their best to escape the midday heat by occupying every inch of shaded bench space in the dock-side shelter. It provided a welcoming, if not unusual, greeting.

OUT TO SEA

Blue-footed boobies and brown pelicans circled and dive-bombed the impossibly turquoise waters of the bay, while frigate birds were silhouetted against the clear sky. Cameras clicked into life even before we left the dinghy for our vessel, lest we miss another opportunity to capture such close-up encounters. We needn’t have worried.

It was only a short sail on to the north coast of Santa Cruz Island, but by sundown there’d been sightings of breeding sea turtles, white tip reef sharks and stingrays to add to journal notes, all cruising in the mirror-like shallows of Black Turtle Cove. It was only day one of a week-long voyage.

Colossal forces from deep within the Earth have shaped the Galapagos, just as merging oceanic currents fuel the rich array of aquatic life that reside there. Anchoring at dawn off the small island of Rabida on our first morning, the volcanic origins of the islands were immediately obvious in the striking red sand of the beach and ash-layered cliff faces.

Sea lions basked on the fine red pumice stone that we scrambled onto from dinghies; their barking reminding me of visits to the circus as a kid.

Seal pups still trailing umbilical cords suckled from mothers’ teats as birds hit the water like darts. We donned snorkels after walking amid cacti and rocks and witnessed yet another kaleidoscope of life beneath the waves. Galapagos eels swayed in the gentle current, while myriad brightly coloured fish patrolled the lava coast. It made me wonder what Darwin’s impressions might have been if he’d had snorkels and goggles.

But not all visitors here have viewed this place with such wonder and respect. Caught in currents and adrift without wind, Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, was reportedly the first to encounter these strange Pacific isles, in 1535. In his letter to the King of Spain, he reported it as a forsaken place, strewn with rocks and strange creatures. As a number of his men and horses perished before fresh water could be found, his opinions are understandable.

The islands first appeared on charts soon after in the 1570s, the Spanish calling them ‘Las Encantadas’, the enchanted isles, but paying little attention to them. From the early 1600s, pirate ships plied these waters, their eyes fixed on Spanish gold and treasure, while whalers and sealers plundered the natural bounty of the archipelago in the centuries that followed.

These days, the boats carry tourists keen to marvel at, rather than exploit, the wildlife – and the only thing the creatures are shot with is a camera. It is the unique animals of Galapagos themselves that are now the treasure, and preservation rather than pilfering is the goal.

ECO TOURISM BOOM

Mainstream tourism began in the 1960s, as did the Charles Darwin Research Station on the main island of Santa Cruz, a century after its namesake’s theories were published. Visitor numbers have steadily increased to the point that almost 90 vessels, some carrying up to 100 people, now showcase the unique flora and fauna of the islands under stringent control.

All guides are licensed by Parks Galapagos and must accompany tourists for any shore visit, while ensuring the 6:00pm curfew to be back aboard vessels is also kept. The guides play a vital role in educating visitors and protecting the environment, and they value their highly-sought-after jobs with pride and passion.

Thankfully, our vessel of discovery had only a handful of guests, ensuring our hosts were attentive and our shore excursions never crowded. With each day, after often sailing overnight to a new destination, we would awake to yet another wondrous island, each with its own distinguishing features and life.

Like Darwin himself, we were able to see first-hand the subtle differences of the different volcanic atolls, each with its own unique variations of geography, animal behaviour and traits – the very cues that led Darwin to his theory of evolution.

In our week-long sojourn, my fellow explorers and I were privileged to witness many of the same astonishing and surprising scenes that Darwin himself had viewed and pondered.

We watched pink flamingos wade gracefully on the mirrored lakes and we thrilled to giant Galapagos tortoises lumbering as if in slow motion. Blue-footed boobies enthralled us with their funky court ship dances and wave dalbatross mesmerised us with their romantic bonding rituals.

While the islands may not be tropical paradises with swaying-palm-fringed beaches like those typically gracing travel brochure covers, they are engaging and beautiful on an epic scale both above and below the waves. The rich and fascinating history, together with the amazing array of bizarre and unexpected creatures makes a visit to Galapagos a truly once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.

My own discoveries on these still-enchanted isles may not be as profound or as revolutionary as Darwin’s, but the experiences of my visit, and those of my fellow modern-day explorers, left no less an indelible mark.

Being in Galapagos is like visiting the zoo without bars. It’s all right there: the genesis of the islands themselves; the bizarre courtship rituals of its indigenous species; the spectacle of the day-to-day struggle for survival in the hostile environment. The complete cycle of life, death and survival of the fittest; it’s all on display.

Hopefully, via the funds raised through eco tourism, we will ensure the continued survival and on-going evolution of the remarkable creatures that call these islands home.

The challenge now for these unique islands remains to preserve this incredible and fragile environment. Mass tourism itself is now placing pressure on the eco systems. Problems for the islands include the threat of introduced species and the growing infrastructure supporting the human population that attends to those keen to witness the place.

If you don’t leave this extraordinary place unchanged, then I’d suggest Darwin’s theory of the evolution of the species doesn’t apply to you.

Stuart Grant travelled to the Galapagos Islands as guest of travel company Peregrine Adventures. For more information, goto:www.peregrineadventures.com.


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