An unforgettable trip to the “laboratory of evolution” and the inspiration of Darwin’s earth-shaking theory
The shadowy form appeared out of nowhere in the turquoise water. It made a bee-line towards me, swimming just above the bottom. What is this? Within seconds, however, its dark back, white underparts, and stout beak were unmistakable as was my sense of incredible luck. A bird I’d dreamed of seeing for a lifetime was right below me, and I even managed to get pictures before it sped off into the distance. I had seen my first penguin ever and the smallest and most northerly of its kind.
Could the Galapagos Islands really be as extraordinary as I’d always heard? Since the age of 12, I had dreamed of going there. A great uncle of mine had made the journey in the 1960s and regaled me of the remarkable wildlife. For years, I had heard how the animals are show no fear of humans, and how you could get a front row seat to their intriguing courtship displays, feeding behaviours, and nurturing of the young. My desire to go only grew as the years passed, and I became increasingly interested in Charles Darwin and evolution. Like few other places in the world, it is the subtle differences between species in the Galapagos – be they tortoises, mockingbirds, cacti or finches – that reveal the secrets of evolution and inspired Darwin in formulating “the greatest single idea anyone has every had.” In recent years, a disturbing sense of urgency had also set in as I read how climate change will irrevocably change the islands.
The Galapagos are a province of Ecuador, located on the equator 1000 km west of the South American mainland. They form an archipelago of 13 major islands and many smaller ones at the confluence of three major ocean currents. These include the Humboldt Current which brings cool, nutrient-rich water up from Antarctica. The islands emerged from the sea bottom as volcanic upheavals, which means that much of the time you are walking on lava. All the reptiles, half the birds, one-third of the plants, and one-quarter of the fish are unique (endemic) to the Galapagos – in other words, they are found nowhere else. Why would this be so? Why is the archipelago such a hotspot for evolution? It comes down to the islands’ isolation and to the subtly different climatic and ecological conditions from one island to the next.
We had booked our October 31 to November 10 trip a year in advance with Quest Nature Tours. Our group of 12 Canadians was accompanied by 28-year-old Josh Vandermeulen, who in 2012 set a new Ontario record for the number of birds seen in one year. A biologist and avid herpetologist (the study of reptiles and amphibians), Josh was an affable, attentive guide, expert photographer, and uncanny in his ability to find and identify wildlife of all kinds. We were also joined by a superb Galapagos guide, Juan Tapia. A native Ecuadorean, Juan has been guiding on the islands for over 30 years.
We flew from Toronto to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, where we spent two nights and enjoyed a guided tour of this historic city. We then took a flight to the islands via Guayaquil, before landing on Baltra Island. For the next seven nights our home was the 33-metre Beluga, a Canadian-owned yacht with a crew of eight. The food, accommodation and attentiveness of the crew were superb. Our itinerary took us to eight islands in the central and eastern part of the Galapagos. These included Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, South Plaza, San Cristobal, Espanola, Santiago and Genovesa. Most of the travelling between islands was at night.
Unlike anywhere else
My initial impression upon landing was that of a monochromatic, rocky outback, covered with cacti and small leafless trees. The uniqueness of the Galapagos quickly made itself known, however, even at the airport, which is one of the greenest in the world. The islands’ focus on sustainability – a necessity given the 220,000 tourists who visit each year – became immediately apparent, as well. Multiple signs spelled out the do’s and don’ts that tourists must follow. We even watched a dog sniffing the luggage for contraband fruit and vegetables that could introduce more invasive species to the fragile ecosystem.
Sensory overload began the moment we stepped off the bus at the harbour, courtesy of a Galapagos Sea Lion and Land Iguana within touching distance. Quintessential Galapagos birds like Darwin’s finches hopped about on the ground, while Lava Gulls and Blue-footed Boobies flew over the water. Josh and I went apoplectic trying to get photographs and not miss anything. Once on the boat, however, the mood turned more serious as Juan impressed upon us our special responsibility as visitors to respect the islands and their wildlife. “Take nothing but photos. No shells, no lava, no seeds. Nothing. And leave nothing but footprints. Stay two metres away from the animals. Don’t wander off the paths.” The values of respect and sustainability permeate every aspect of the islands’ administration, which is the shared mission of the Galapagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Foundation. This includes everything from a near-total ban on single-use plastics to where and when tourists can go ashore.
The daily routine
Each morning after breakfast, Juan would provide an overview of the day’s schedule and which species we were likely to see. We would then board the pangas – inflatable, motorized dinghies – which took us to shore for a dry or wet landing – the latter meaning you got your feet wet! Sometimes, before disembarking, we’d take time to travel along the shore looking for animals at the water’s edge or swimming underneath. This is how we saw our first Whitetip Sharks. Once ashore, Juan would allow us time to simply soak in the novelty of this special place: sea lions lounging on the beach, mockingbirds flitting about at our feet, brilliant orange Sally Lightfoot Crabs crawling over the rocks, Galapagos Hawks peering down from atop the cacti, and legions of black Marine Iguanas warming themselves on the lava as they snort out salt.
Once the proverbial “herding of cats” finally brought all of us together, we would set out on a trail walk, stopping regularly as Juan explained the amazing adaptations of the plants and animals. His knowledge of Galapagos botany was encyclopedic. There was always ample time to take pictures, ask questions and explore – within limits – on one’s own. After a couple of hours, we’d head back to the boat for a full-course lunch and time to relax. Later in the afternoon, we’d set out for a second hike. With the sun low in the sky, the light conditions for photography were wonderful. Some days, we’d also take the pangas to a snorkelling site for the unforgettable experience of seeing the islands’ underwater realm.
The day would wrap up with before-dinner beverages, trading stories of the day’s adventures, a gourmet supper, and the completion of our species checklist – not only the birds but everything from reptiles and fish to insects and plants. Josh would remind us of what we’d seen – species by species down the list – and we would dutifully check them off. “Blue-footed Booby, Nazca Booby, Red-footed Booby… Did anyone see a Lava Heron today?” When it came to the plants and fish, Juan took over. He then presented a short “slideshow” of the day’s highlights, and finally a preview of the next day’s itinerary. “Geez, this is like a dream university course!” one woman commented. By 9 pm we were all in bed.
Every morning I would get up shortly after dawn and join Josh on the deck. Together, we would scan the sea and shoreline for birds, cameras at the ready. There were always boobies, shearwaters, and frigatebirds putting on a show. On one occasion we watched a frigatebird attack a terrified booby, trying to make it cough up the fish it had caught during the night. Having to go back into the ship for breakfast almost seemed like a waste of time!
Experiencing the Galapagos from under the waves was particularly memorable. The number and variety of marine invertebrates and fish was astounding as was the sense of being in your own private world. In all, we recorded 35 fish species, including large schools of colourful surgeonfish and mesmerizing wrasse, parrotfish and angelfish. On several occasions, Galapagos Sea Lions joined us underwater, diving, twisting and turning within touching distance. One even came up and “kissed” me on the mask. I felt especially privileged to be able to follow a huge Pacific Green Turtle as it searched for food.
Next week, I’ll describe other highlights like the courtship displays of Waved Albatross and the other-worldly experience of hanging out with dozens of Giant Tortoises. I’ll also examine how the story of evolution is told by everything from Scalesia trees to the iconic Darwin’s finches. As I hope you can tell, these “Enchanted Islands” were truly the experience of a lifetime.
Local Climate Change News
Many of us with investments, either personal or through pension plans, are concerned about how to manage the risk in the stock market with looming climate chaos. Do we divest from fossil fuels? When and how? Financial planner Tim Nash, aka “The Sustainable Economist” and recently featured on CBC’s The National, will explain how to invest safely, profitably, sustainably, and ethically in these precarious times. This free event will be of interest to individual investors, investment dealers as well as representatives of institutions with investments. The talk takes place at Trinity United Church (Simcoe St. entrance) on February 7 at 7 pm.