Published: November 30th -0001September 30th 2010
Isla Santa Cruz
I try to move in on a giant turtoise.
Charles Darwin spent five weeks in the Galapagos in 1835. He wrote in his diary, "Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black basaltic lava, thrown into the most rugged waves, and crossed by great fissues, is every where covered by stunted, sunburnt brushwood, which shows little signs of life."
Darwin got it right. The Galapagos is not your usual tropical paradise. Palm trees do not fringe beaches, and the beaches don´t have spa-warm waters. There are no sunbathing chairs and no waiters bringing sundowners. Of course there is no trace of Darwin´s visit other than the research station named in his honour and his face smiling out of many of the T shirts hanging off the souvenir stalls.
So what makes the Galapagos special? There is its history.
Many years later, Darwin used field notes from his visit when he worked out his theory of natural development. In particular he noticed how the finches, which - he concluded - were descended from a single ancestor that had arrived on the wings of a storm from the American mainland, were slightly different on different islands. He noticed how the shapes
A clear bay surrounded by moonscape cliffs.
of their beaks varied to suit the type of food available on each island.
The islands are extremely isolated. They had relatively few settlers. Whalers and Buccaneers used them as bases and hiding places during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Settlers started to trickle in early in the nineteenth century. Ecuador, the nearest country, beat Great Britain and the United States to sovereignty by annexing the islands in 1832. 1000 kilometers away from the mainland, the islands were used as a penal colony right up until 1959. In that year 97% of the area was declared a national park, with the population, which now amounts to 30,000 or so, confined to the remaining 3%. There are farmers, fishermen and tourist industry workers. There is its geology.
This is what fascinated Darwin most while he was there. The islands are situated where two tectonic plates meet deep under the Pacific Ocean. Magma sometimes seeps through the cracks (or a hot spot) and erupts to form new islands. The archipelago is drifting towards the American coast at the rate of two inches a year. The islands to the east are the oldest and those to the west the
Frigate birds constantly circled above the boat.
A new volcanic landscape is solid lava. With the islands so isolated in the ocean, it takes thousands of years for vegetation and soil to develop. The first thing that grows is the lava cactus, and the first animal to arrive is the iguana, probably floating on a raft of vegetation. (It didn't take it long to crawl back into the ocean in search of food.) Over many lifetimes a fragile eco system develops on land. The newer western islands, at three quarters of a million years of age, are still lunar-stark; the older eastern islands go back four or five million years and have more normal vegetation and topsoil. They can even sustain farming.
This is one reason why Darwin´s finches found different foodstuffs on different islands. There is its climate.
Situated on the ecquator, the islands can be hot and wet as one would expect, but this regime is interrupted for half the year by the Humboldt current, which brings cold water up directly from the Antarctic. It flows due north as far as Ecuador, where it turns left and heads for the Galapagos, bringing with it a drop in temperatures, cloudy skies
A group of sea lions on the beach.
and mists. The months of June to December have less rain, cooler temperatures and much colder water than the steamy hotter months.
There are three more currents that impact on the islands, two that run counter to each other along the equator and one that comes down from Panama. This mix of waters makes it possible to swim with cold water sea lions and penguins and warm water turtles and tropical fish at the same time.
The impact of this complex pattern of currents is different on every island, and adds another factor that makes the islands so different from each other. And it provides another reason for the variety Darwin found in the finches. There is the isolation
Because of the isolation of the archipelago and the distances between different islands, the seeds and insects that would start breaking down the lava flows are slow to arrive, and contrasts between the different islands are extreme. A third reason for Darwin's variety.
The animals are tolerant of humans. There were never enough settlers to teach them fear. Huge depradations were made into the guant tortoise populations by sailors taking them for food and water. They
Isla Santa Cruz
The first thing we saw in the wild was this fairly rare vermillion flycatcher.
could live for months unfed and upside down in a ship´s hold, thus providing fresh meat for long peridos of a voyage. And there were oil extraction depots too; there is a sad photo at the Charles Darwin Research Centre of smashed tortoise shells strewn across a beach. Some species, like the iguanas aren´t blessed with enough intelligence to be scared, others are tolerant, like the frigate birds and boobies that continue their mating dances under the feet of the tourists, and some are actively curious, like the sealions that come to swim with humans. Galapagos
is the Spanish word for saddles,
and the islands were so named by the first bishop of Panama who discovered them in 1535, in honour of the shape of the giant tortoise´s shells. Later, the Spanish called them Las Islas Encantadas,
the Enchanted Isles, on account of the way they floated in the mist.
I don´t wish to denegrade those giant tortoises that remain, but I prefer the second name. There is something unreal about the Galapgos islands: both in the absense of humans and in the fearless way the animals and birds ignore human visitors. And then again, the Galapagos Islands
Isla Santa Cruz
We hopped out of the bus, and what did we see? ...
embody important realities of terrestial existence. This, above all, makes them enchanting.
The population is confined to parts of three of the thirteen major islands (each with its own airport) because they are far apart. The tourist industry is tightly controlled, there are no large luxury hotels, and most visitors transfer directly from the airport at Baltra to a cruise boat (standards span the gammit of what is possible) and national park-appointed guides shepherd them along the designated tourist paths (which are few enough to allow the wildlife to find plenty of privacy).
Many travel companies will link you up with cruises. Even the cheapest five day cruises leave little change from US$1,000.00. Eight day cruises are recommended, and boats come in all level of luxuary and cost up to five times as much. Then there is the $400.00 airfare from the mainland and the $100.00 national park entry fee. We booked online through CarpeDM
, a reliable outfit that caters to backpackers and budget travellers; these folks are friendly, and helpful with other matters as well. Galapagos Islands News
is a useful source of information.
We chose to spend two nights in
Isla Santa Cruz
... giant tortoises ...
relative luxuary at the Hotel Silberstein
(US$100.00 a night, twin share) in Puerto Ayora after the privations of our voyage. It helped us evolve back into the real world.
How I´ve Been
It took four days for terra firma to stop moving under my feet: the cruise was quite rocky at times. It took longer for my sore ankle to recover. No, I didn´t fall over on board or quaff too much, but I hadn´t reckoned with the boat breaking down for three days and cruise time being replaced with extra walks. I hadn't realised I would need my hiking boots on a cruise.
But swimming with sea lions, turtles, and penguins made up for everything!
There are more photos below