Our sandals had barely hit the tarmac when our passage was blocked by a lizard the size of an overly large baguette sporting a broomstick tail. He was implacably eyeing a cactus fruit along the path. We literally stepped over him.
Stump-tailed sparrow-sized birds looking like new fledglings flitted about and when a coal black adult stump-tailed by us, I realized these must besome of Darwin’s finches.
The Galapagos rise up to meet your flight path as volcanic island interruptions in a 360 degree vista of blue. They lie 1000 km west of South America, but on the surfaces of these thirteen islands, a more immediate and intimate level, their emissaries crawl, fly and swim up to meet you with abject disregard for any predation.
Indeed, Darwin himself picked up a marine iguana, flung him into the surf, watched him swim back to the rock at Charles’ feet only to be tossed back in three more times. They simply don’t give a natural damn about us. One never needs more than a 175 mm telephoto so leave the horse-cock lenses at home.
Later, we saw sacks of large iguanas being collected around the airport for translocation away from the unforgiving 300 kph jet wheels. Death by docility or disregard.
The classic way to experience the various islands is on a 75-foot sailboat named “Samba” anchored off each shoreline with water and land-based explorations. We sailed some, but honestly, we burned some diesel most days to thumb our noses at wind direction and to quickly approach the scant approved anchorage spots.
Travelling the Galapagos Islands I simultaneously read the Pulitzer Prize winning book The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner. My existing beliefs, training, and now exposure changed me even more. The first thing to know though is whether a reader will even allow the possibility that evolution occurs. If the answer is “No!”, the reader will probably let you know their thoughts even before you can write them off and shut ‘er down. I, however, believe. I stole ideas and images shamelessly from the boat’s library and accepted many of the photos here from other photographers on the trip. Like this one (mildly envious)
Globally, there are other extremely isolated island chains, say, over 500 miles from the nearest land mass, populated by cool birds and reptiles and some of the same speciation pressures are no doubt at work there.
The Galapagos, however, have a unique distinction. They sparked insights by Charles Darwin regarding one mechanism to explain evolution, or the changing body features between generations of birds as the average population members are continuously adjusting toward alignment with ambient conditions.(Pedantic postscript added at end)
Where else would it be beneficial for a cormorant to lose its wings and save the effort of building large breast muscles? Well, somewhere with no predators, no need to fly, nesting platforms adjacent to the water, equatorial temps, and abundant fish; voila! Queue Sir David Atteborough’s intonation. . . “Flightless cormorants”.
Human-directed selective breeding created French poodles, Holsteins and Secretariat. Evidence from the fossil record shows a steady progression of fish herpetiles,birds and mammals. Species went from gilled newts to dinosaurs and back to iguanas. And Darwin’s finches show a roll out of 13 species, each isolated long enough to be favored, as a population, into having specialized beaks, different songs and different foods. Many an aphorism has been spawned and an evolutionary explanation is as close as we get to answering the great existential question “Where did we come from?, Where do we go? [Where do we come from Cotton-eyed Joe]?” Survival of the fittest may better be said “demise of the less fit” operating within the individual yet playing out as a downward bend in the abundance trajectory of their futures’ lineage.
Seeing firsthand the evolutionary ecology lessons lifted from the pages of our university text books was intellectually titillating but of the 13 boat guests and six staff there were no less than seven PhD holders in the sciences and one physicist. Yet, we didn’t completely geek out the whole time. There was some leaden napping, drinking of local beers and Chilean red wine, recreational swimming in the cool clear currents and sharing of delicious mildly-spiced Ecuadorian meals. Still, quiet nap and reading time were often shattered by the cries of “Bottle-nosed dolphins riding the bow wave!”
Interestingly, I did my best Flipper imiatation and they instantly fled. Nobody was happy about that.
Later, “Drop the pangas (zodiac rafts)! There is a travelling pod of 300 false killer whales!”
“Galapagos penguins on the rocks!”
or “Masks on! Giant manta ray feeding on the port side!” We also traveled with two pods of Orcas as one killed and ate a sea turtle to the delight of the scavenging bird throngs, massive yellowfin tuna schools, and later a pod of 350 Common Dolphins making fantastic leaps and synchronized breaches surrounded the Samba.
Frankly, it was somewhat overwhelming at times. Sheepishly, after the 400th green sea turtle viewed from below, above, on the nesting beach, sunning in the shallows, they escaped mention. Sorry turtles.
How does one maintain wonderment and intrigue? Apparently, the same inurement builds at nudist beaches so I don’t feel so alone.
With us humans there may be fitness arguments in that we have to live long enough to reproduce and hopefully find some personal fulfillment and joy. My favorite sociologist (below) nods toward the biological determinism of our lives but also coats it with the social influences that fill out the personal meaning we seek. We no longer fight the nature versus nurture argument. Our certainty was shattered and we were brought to our egotistic knees by having children who disproved all rules.
Retired enlightenment is privilege, luck, having the right world placement (helped by skin color, parental resources, geography) in a society that elevates us beyond what we could accomplish alone. Gratitude and resilience are the best responses we have to offer.
There are both fur seals (above) and sea lions (below) present, but both are actually eared seals (Otoriads)and were constant swimming companions even bumping our cameras and face masks.
Our grasping the natural awesomeness was hugely complimented by the trained (and governmentally required) guide, the indefatigable Jimmie Paquino, who not only knew every spot, species, diving technique, photography trick, timing, local culture, but was a mild celebrity with the coterie of other guides. There were fist-bumps, shouted inside jokes, and affectionate kisses for the cute women. As the week wore on, it was apparent our group was a slightly different crowd as we all knew each other (not common) and inside humor flourished including the slightly dark or racy Ecuadorian teasing. We didn’t let him get the upper hand entirely though and we called bullshit when necessary. He was a good sport about hanging with a bunch of folks sporting far too much book learning.
The one newcomer, Jerry (3rd from left below), was a replacement who missed our departure due to a Denver blizzard delay. We snagged him at day seven and he swirled into the mix as overwhelmed as the rest of us. Jerry, a newish snorkeler, thrived on the daily hikes.
One take on how species come into being is they are driven by the rigorous conditions under which generation after generation exist. Me? I think habitat conditions create the hole shape and random variation of genetic combinations creates greater and lesser degrees of peg shape to fit into that habitat hole. Having a range of beak sizes in a highly variable habitat means each season has a winnowing effect like a series of differently sized sieves. Then, add in dollops of seasonal windfalls and winners and losers are separated. Separation can come from distance, barriers, exploitation ability, random genetic variation, dramatic lucky mutations, or extreme survival events. Some finch beaks are better when conditions are flush and easy, but of course, any beak shape will work when soft seeds carpet the ground. Other beak shapes are the only ones that work with severe protracted drought, scant seeds with densely armored shells. Those stoutly beaked birds survive, even if barely, while most others die. Who is left to reproduce and what do their offspring look like? Big strong funny-looking beaks!
Over and over again we were brought up short by slipping beneath the mundane blue ocean surface and into a frantic and somewhat sorted glassless aquarium of fish. Astounding iridescence, shapes, speeds, and interactions. There was abundant mega fauna such as calmly resting two-meter white-tipped sharks, the graceful giant manta ray like a flattened VW bug calmly flying figure eights filtering plankton, or the ominous hammerhead and bull sharks large enough to keep an eye on. There were also uncountable fish arranged in fractal schools gracefully parting ahead of my mask and ferocious thumb-sized cavity defenders flashing ridiculously rich reflective yellows and blues. Everyone had favorites we came to recognize and anticipate. I am awaiting some underwater images from snorkel partners with waterproof cameras. My old Lumix X8 MFT had a decent telephoto but is not submersible.
The seabirds were a treat. Continental birders get quite excited over an occasional brush with a fulmar, shearwater, frigatebird or albatross. The Galapagos offered them all in abundance.
The elegant Red-billed Tropicbird was a challenge to photograph for a bunch of reasons, a white bird against a light sky; they race to their sub-terrainian nest holes, and they like open water areas. I hunted them with photons and after 40 attempts, got this.
These are birds of the wide pelagic zones, only approaching shore for nesting. The Galapagos are scattered like tiny sea mounts surrounded by the expanse of a 1000 meter pelagic zone so the great feathered wanderers are nearby but also exploit the predator-free nesting cliffs.
Two species of frigate birds, Magnificent and Great.
Like sky dragons haunting our ships every move, swooping to snatch any tidbit, wind current or unattended nestling. Nesting Forked-tail Gulls remained ever vigilant.
Brown Pelicans were clowning around as frivolously as the Frigate birds were malevolent.
Yeah, upside down on purpose. Made you look though didn’t I? :)
There are two types of diving seabirds in Galapagos called boobies. Can you guess their respective names?
Not to be out-done by the abundant boobies on display, the womenfolk took up the challenge. The did well but lost out in the foot color category. The Boobies were not impressed.
Much of the trip was social and comparing observations, thoughts on academic thought and really enjoying the post-script of our respective academic careers. My wife, who is still in the thick of it as a dean, took some notes on what senior faculty members thought about administration. Mostly though, this became a way to continue learning and viewing ecology, evolution, and adaptation in action. I found some gold afloat because I am undertaking a short term project to describe opportunities for wildlife research in British Columbia and my shipmates were a treasure trove of insights and suggestions. As wise as the tortoise below appears.
Of course we had to make a token visit to the extensive recovery program of Giant Galapagos Tortoises on the respective islands, however, that was somewhat anticlimactic since we all had seen big examples in zoos our whole lives. Still, seeing these 70-year-old wizened animals approaching ¼ ton in size and knowing they had been extensively harvested as “living meat” for pirate and trade ship holds, made them seem important at the Galapagos.
In my 60+ years of wildlife work, I have fallen into the cliché of escapism (getting outdoors whenever possible, remote living, eschewing technology, disliking telephones etc. — it is a syndrome in my field) . It probably springs from me being someone not completely comfortable in complex or large social settings (I am better now). In my pursuit of wilderness settings, this was the wildest. Isolated by 1000 km of water, 97% protected area, careful regulation of human entry, and full protection of the flora and fauna meant most nights were out of sight of any human light, we virtually never found shoreline plastics or garbage. As if we were in a sound-proof blind, we were treated as invisible human observers while in plain sight. It was wonderful to feel like we really didn’t matter much. We often stepped over or around indifferent iguanas, sleeping sea lions, and nesting gulls and frigate birds.
The sea lions in town treated themselves as honorary citizens in fact.
The island is not entirely predator-free however and the oceans abound with a ferocious predator prey dynamic of sharks, sea lions, fur seals, barracuda, diving birds and more.
Galapagos short-eared Owl with a freshly caught petrel
The Galapagos Hawk, seemingly a localized, evoloutionized derivative of the Swainson’s Hawk.
What was the real gift of the Galapagos though? Humility. It is such a different, approachable, and contemplation-inspiring environment every one of us walked away with various senses of wonderment and expanded appreciation for the drape and formation of life to a rigorous environment with minimal interference from humans. I know some were there almost exclusively for the wild stuff and that is fine but the nurse, forester, sociologist, housewife, and various retirees found the human and social element compatible with seven hours a day of nature experience.
We all had a great appreciation for Warren and Wini for letting us in on, and helping arrange this two weeks of wonder. It was as expensive as a safari where a few big animals get brought home, however, we brought memories, renewed friendships, new ideas and insights. Here we tag team Wini with a big thank you kiss.
Brad Stelfox and I tick off another great shared trip (camping, motorcycling, hunting, and now photo safari-ing without killing each other . . . yet).
And friends for over 50 years, Naomi(L) and Tammy(R) tag-teamed Sarah(M) into becoming a teenager again.
All the humans made it home intact and with no lost luggage, however, there was a later trip Covid contact so . . .hmmmm we all need to test now.
As for the wildlife? They impressed us, drew us to the trip, are doing great, and have, and will, get along just fine when humans no longer walk the earth.
1 Even that is misleading however because Darwin only glimpsed the sheer amount of death, disfavor, and second-place-ism at work that led many types of organisms to extinction and allowed those fitting better to remain and reproduce more effectively. As my friend Warren says, “Not ‘fittest’ but rather ‘fitter’” . Subsequent research shows this is just a first step however. Careful sexual selection by discriminating females following hardship periods furthers the heritable effect of the stag with the largest antlers (many fawns destined to grow large-antlered), finches with the most appropriate beaks (best seed-cracking ability) or most aggressive sea lions (largest harem, most pups). This double whammy is the springboard of fitness that directs natural selection and ultimately results in evolutionary change.