Viva la Evolution

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I’m sitting here cleaning animal muck off my walking boots, and try as I might I can’t stop smiling. This isn’t any old stinking animal muck you see, the origin of the faeces is the Galápagos Sea Lion, and in its current pungently fresh state, it’s as good a reminder as any of the ten days we’ve just spent on the Galápagos Islands. Not that we really needed a reminder to be honest, the Islands were every bit as enchanting and magical as we’d expected, and we’ve never been to a place quite like it. It seems Charles Darwin was of a similar opinion following his visit here on HMS Beagle in 1835, using his discoveries here as the basis for his theory of evolution. Nearly 200 years on and after some furious negotiations in Quito, we found ourselves on The Golandrina, where alongside a small Ecuadorian crew and fourteen wonderful shipmates we set off on an eight day tour of the Islands, and on our own voyage of discovery.

It didn’t take long for the discoveries to begin either, with it quickly becoming apparent that there was wildlife everywhere. Steps were taken with care for fear of treading on the hundreds of blackened rock like Marine Iguanas, while Sea Lions lazed across available surface, only coming to life under water where they’d effortlessly glide up to our faces for a closer look, as inquisitive as they were playful. On Genovesa Island on our first full day, there was a surreal sense of wonder among our group as we tip toed our way through thousands of nesting Boobies – Red Footed, Blue Footed and Nazca – Frigate Birds and Red Billed Tropic birds, all equally unperturbed by the sixteen gringos clicking cameras.

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Staaaaay on the paaaath!”, our naturalist guide Margoth would yell at us, keeping us both in check and informed throughout our forays onto land. “Well yes, but there’s a group of Mockingbirds scrapping it out on the path” would come the reply, before gingerly edging past the fighting balls of feathers who don’t even acknowledge your presence. The animals just don’t care, which as fearless as it seems today was pretty suicidal in days gone by, when visiting sailors, inhabitants and even Darwin himself would make use of the easy pickings for some fast food. In the water meanwhile, White and Black Tip Reef Sharks, Rays and Turtles would cruise by within feet of us as if we weren’t there. To add to the voyeuristic nature of our visit, it also seemed as though we’d arrived on the Islands in the middle of mating season; we witnessed copulating Waved Albatrosses and Giant Tortoises showing that these things are best done slowly, while the inflated scarlet pouches of Frigate Birds and the jovial mating dance of Boobies could be seen all over.

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As much as we found the Islands to be teeming with life here however, there was also death. Skeletons of Sea Lion pups were found frequently, starved by a vanished mother, while Iguana and seabird corpses rotted into the black, volcanic soil, back to the root of this fragile and wonderfully unique ecosystem. On the white sands of Cerro Brujo, San Cristobal, we were lucky enough to witness a breathtaking example of natural selection in action. Unusually by day, a nest of a Green Turtle eggs hatched, littering the beach with scores of tiny baby Turtles making their first steps into the big wide world, instinctively heading to the sea. Barely one of them made it. Those that escaped the pincers of crabs in the sand dunes were quickly picked off one by one by swooping Pelicans and Frigate Birds, first from the beach and then the shallows. We stood back, aghast. This was survival of the fittest in front of our very eyes – daft enough to hatch by day? You’re a goner my friend.

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As far as evidence of Darwin’s theory of evolution went, there was plenty around to see. The darkened colour of the majority of the wildlife was the most obvious – adapting to fit in with the volcanic setting – but then creatures seemingly of the same species would differ from island to island. Pre-historic looking Land Iguanas on South Plaza were more orange than their relatives nearby, blending in with the clay coloured earth around them, while we learnt that only 5% of Red Footed Boobies are white in colour rather than dark. Same theory, adapt to your surroundings in order to survive.

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One group who had no trouble fitting into their surroundings were the sixteen passengers on board The Golandrina. Combining a nice mix of ages and global backgrounds, we soon settled into life on the waves, enjoying the extensive feeding sessions in between our snorkelling and walks on shore. By night we’d hitch anchor and trundle off into the choppy, dark seas to wake in a new bay, with a new island nearby to explore. Not to be outdone by the wildlife, the landscapes were fascinating also. Millennia of volcanic activity had left twisted and patterned surfaces, starkly layered cliffs, lava tubes and extinct craters, while here and there majestic outcrops such as Kicker Rock rose from the ocean. Brackish lagoons housed pink Galápagos Flamingoes to add a dash of colour to proceedings, while the centre piece of the sensational views from Santiago Island was Pinnacle Rock, kindly shaped into something more aesthetically pleasing by some target practice from the Yanks based here in World War II.

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Aside from the remnants of the American base here on Baltra and the few small towns on some of the Islands, at first sight it appears that the effect of human habitation here has been minimal. Historically, settlement here were short lived and largely unsuccessful due to a
lack of fresh water and its isolation 1000km from the South American coast, and in fact the Islands were even used as a penal colony for some time. Look more closely however, and the effects are far more severe. Hotels continue to go up to supply tourist demand, most without Eco friendly solar panels or waste management systems, while faster and larger tourist boats continue to gain access to the waters. Sea life in the ports of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal compete with plastic bags and food wrappers for space, while as stringently as airport border controls check the baggage of the 200’000 odd visitors that come here each year, invasive species continue to arrive and upset the very ecosystem that makes the Galápagos so worth visiting.

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The Giant Galápagos Tortoises for example, the very creatures from which the Islands take their name, are struggling. There were once as many as fifteen variants of this ancient endemic spieces here, now there are just ten, with the Charles Darwin Research Centre on Santa Cruz doing its best to repopulate those on the endangered list. We were also fortunate to encounter a number of Galápagos Penguins at Isobela, where we went for a couple of days after the boat tour, only to learn that an entire population that once numbered 40’000 is now down to between 800 and 1’000. It’s worrying stuff, and not something that’s likely to change unless something drastic is done. Our visit here had been a truly unforgettable one, as well as a huge learning experience. We’d made new friends, seen some extraordinary sights in a part of the world like no other, and long after the smell has vanished from my boots, a headful of memories will remain. And so, I hope, will the beauty and wonder of the Galápagos.

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