Charles Darwin came to the Galapagos over 180 years ago—he was in his mid-twenties with no stomach for the open seas. It was a different voyage then. His ship—the HMS Beagle—was made of wood and illuminated at night by oil lanterns and candles. The crewmen slept on hammocks with pillows and the officers slept on mattresses—all crammed together in a ship less than the length of two shipping containers. It was a far cry from the National Geographic Endeavor, devoid of Internet and big screen TVs and without kayaks, zodiacs, and glass bottom boats. The Beagle was a research vessel but it was not the floating classroom that the Endeavor is and it was certainly no cruise ship. But as I fly out over the blue abyss of the Pacific Ocean I can’t help but imagine that I am somehow reliving Darwin’s experience or, at least, retracing some of his steps. And so it is that I make my descent down into the world of the Galapagos.
Isolation and Adaptation
They are the strangest of places. There is nothing like them in the world. Any life that has settled here came from some place else, the product of one catastrophe or another, swept out at sea, pulled by the currents from either ends of the Pacific. There are sea lions here—descendents of their neighbors to the north in California. There are penguins too and iguanas that swim beneath the ocean. They’ve all evolved here in isolation and with various adaptations and they all coexist in a bizarre world where none belong.
I think about the power of isolation—we talk about it frequently in AP Human Geography. It explains how the Amish have survived as America’s last true folk culture and why the Basques are indebted to the Pyrenees mountains in Europe. It explains why Icelandic has changed less than any other Germanic language over the last thousand years and why Hoi Toider is a thing in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I think about the power of isolation and adaptation, about how different environments and different experiences led the English language to develop differently in America and Britain. Physical or cultural, the geographic concepts are much the same.
We begin our journey along the northeastern coast of Santa Cruz on a white sand beach called Las Bachas--formed over millennia from finely ground coral, digested and excreted by parrot fish and others. It explains why a lot of beaches look the way they do. The waters are shallow here and so we have to anchor off the coast and take the zodiacs to reach the shore. The abundance of wildlife is immediately apparent. Sally light foot crabs scurry about the black lava rock where the sea meets the land, their shells a satin red with a soft blue undercarriage—blue as the sky above. A Great Blue Heron sits perched on a rock, her eyes comb the pot-marked landscape left by the footprints of hatchling turtles.
The beachfront is busy, the sand a heavily trafficked thoroughfare. We all become trackers. A steady line in the sand tells of a nearby iguana. We follow the tracks of his tail and we find him basking in the setting sun down by a nearby lagoon. He is our first marine dragon and in those first few moments he is a star as we molest him with our telephoto and macros lenses. Back on the other side of the beach we sit in silence and admire two Caribbean Flamingos as they wade through the water atop legs of asparagus—two of maybe 500 or so throughout the archipelago.