An Evolutionary Experience – Galápagos, Ecuador

An Evolutionary Experience
Galápagos Islands

Who is the least useful crew member in an emergency on a Galápagos cruise ship? According to the emergency instructions on board The Pelikano, it was the assistant chef. The notice outlining the duties of the crew in an emergency included the following instructions. Captain: command operations. Sailor 1: Operate pump. Sailor 2: Prepare nozzle. And so on. The assistant chef’s task was listed as “Carry hatchet.” Not exactly something that requires too much training!

The unique wildlife of the Galápagos Islands inspired Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the islands provide an unparalleled opportunity to see some remarkable animals up close.

The archipelago lies just over 1000 km off the coast of Ecuador and consists of fifteen main islands and several hundred smaller islands. Flights are available from Quito or Guayaquil to the main island of Santa Cruz. Although most of the islands are uninhabited, Santa Cruz has a population of over 10,000 people and its main town, Puerto Ayora, is the island’s tourist hub. It’s not possible to visit the other islands without an accompanying biologist and most tourists choose to go on cruises that leave from Puerto Ayora. I signed up for a five day cruise on The Pelikano – a comfortable ship with cabins for up to sixteen people. The ship wasn’t full, so I had a cabin to myself.

A Giant Tortoise

A Giant Tortoise

The tour started with a visit to the Charles Darwin Scientific Station, where you can see the animals most associated with the islands – the giant tortoises. These placid but fascinating creatures can live for over one hundred years. Several species of tortoise have become extinct because of hunting and the animals (rats, goats, dogs and cats) that were introduced to the islands. It’s hard to imagine being more alone than Lonesome George – the last known Pinta Island tortoise in existence. He was discovered in 1972 and no others of his species have been found. Efforts to breed him with other species of tortoises have failed.

There is also a nursery at the station where baby tortoises are cared for and a hatchery where tortoise eggs are incubated. The temperature at which the eggs are kept determines what sex the tortoise will be born. The research staff employ the very high-tech method of using hair dryers keeps the eggs at the desired temperature.

Our next stop was Floreana Island, where we went snorkelling at Devil’s Crown. The islands are one of the world’s best diving and snorkelling locations, and we saw all manner of colourful fish. Floreana Island is also home to Post Office Bay, where a post barrel still resides. The first post barrel was left by whalers in the late 18th century. They would be at sea for long periods and the Galápagos were a common stopping point for whaling ships. Crews left letters in the post barrel and when the next ship stopped, they would leave their own letters and take and deliver any letters addressed to locations they were soon to be visiting. The tradition continues today and you’re encouraged to leave letters and to take a letter from your home country and post it when you get back home. The letter I left in the barrel did eventually reach its destination.

Floreana Island was also the site of an interesting social experiment early last century. A German couple tried to create an Nietzschean überworld by colonising the islands but ran afoul of a want-to-be baroness and her sex slaves. John Treherne’s The Galapagos Affair documents this bizarre true story.

At night the ship cruised to the next island, leaving us ready to begin exploring in the morning. The sea was really rough and one night my bed literally slid back and forth across the cabin. I don’t get seasick, but many of the other passengers took on a decidedly green pallor.

The other passengers were friendly but conversation options were limited with a group of elderly French who didn’t speak English. Olga, the Dutch language teacher, proved to be our go between – speaking French to the French, German to the Swiss, Spanish to the crew and English to the rest of us. Tomoko from Japan was travelling on her own – she left her husband and job behind to travel the world for a year. She had got it into her mind that the American couple onboard were from Kansas and no matter how many times they insisted they were from Wisconsin, she kept talking about Kansas and The Wizard of Oz.

A Blue-Footed Booby

A Blue-Footed Booby

At Española Island we witnessed blue-footed boobies doing their mating dance. The feet of these birds are so blue, you’d swear they’d been painted. The boobies have their nests close to the path (in some cases actually on the path) and you have to be careful where you walk. Many of the islands’ animals aren’t afraid of humans and while you’re not supposed to touch any, you can get very close to them. We also had to avoid stepping on clusters of sunbathing marine iguanas – the so-called dragons of the Galápagos.

The animals aren’t the only attraction on the islands. The terrain is mostly rocky and harsh but it does have some unusual vegetation, such as the cactus forests. These are clusters of prickly pear cacti – which have been known to grow up to nine metres in height. And Española’s Gardner Bay has a beautiful beach with fine white sand. We were fortunate enough to have it to ourselves – except for several hundred sleeping sea lions. I went for a swim and one of the curious sea lions swam up to me and stuck its face in my mask. The sea lions are usually very friendly, but you have to be careful around the large bull sea lions. They are protective of the females and have bitten people in the past. We also came across a baby sea lion that had just been born a couple of hours earlier and was being watched over by its mother.

A newborn Sea Lion pup and its mother

A newborn Sea Lion pup and its mother

At another swimming spot, a penguin darted around us and pelicans dive-bombed into the water near us. It can be disconcerting to look up to see a pelican hurtling through the sky and watch it slam into the water close to you. I just hoped it didn’t mistake me for a fish!

On the final morning, we visited North Seymour Island and saw some frigate birds. When they want to attract a partner, these birds puff up their red chests that expand like balloons.

At the end of the cruise I was overwhelmed by all the different wildlife I’d encountered. My visit to the Galápagos proved to be one of the most remarkable experiences of my life.