We booked a ticket to the Galapagos islands at the last minute. Literally the day before. Before that, we’d decided we would give it a pass. It’s expensive, even for a last minute deal and, c’mon, how could it be as incredible as the Antarctic? The Amazon? But everyone we’ve known who’s been there has raved about it. Some good friends in New York claim it was the best place they’d ever been. Sentiments like that are repeated time after time.
The next morning we were at the Quito airport again, abandoning our reality like Troy had but this time entering a new sort of fantasy, that of the luxury tourist, a species of traveler we hadn’t encountered since our Antarctic “expedition”. For the next eight days we wouldn’t have to worry about feeding or transporting ourselves, an incomprehensible luxury.
The plane was late taking off, no actual announcement for its departure ever broadcast. Most of the confused passengers made it aboard despite this, including a very small man with a gray bristle-brush mustache and a red baseball cap. He was approximately 4 1/2 feet tall and looking very confused. As often happens when I notice someone unusual in the airport, he ended up sitting next to us, his feet dangling off of the seat. He was staring intently at his boarding pass.
I caught his eye and we said hello. He told us that his son was working as a policeman on the islands, and that it was his first time visiting. We thought we heard him say it was also his first time aboard a plane and became sure of it when he asked where the driver sat. He also cautiously unfastened his seatbelt once the stewardesses were done with their safety check. When the plane took off with some empty seats, Little Papa (as I had started calling him in my head) moved to a window and gazed out at the distant ocean.
Soon we were over the Galapagos and the first of my many misconceptions were corrected. The archipelago is huge, 18 main islands in all, some of them larger than 2,000 square miles. Like the Hawaiian islands, the Galapagos is a chain of old and new volcanos, the oldest being the most worn down. Many have a distinct crater. Magda, who was reading The Voyage of the Beagle pointed out what Darwin had noted, which was that all of the craters were most eroded on their south rims do to the strong Humbolt current.
The water was turquoise, the islands a warm grey. It seemed to be there was no vegetation. My vision of relaxing on lush tropical islands was dashed as we looked down on a landscape more similar to Joshua Tree than to Hawaii. The plane circled the airport and more crater islands in the water became visible, white surf pounding against their edges, gradually pulling them back from whence they came.
As the plane began its approach, a strong sidewind knocked us about. Hovering over the runway, I watched nervously as the wing dropped and wavered. I sat back and braced for a rough landing. Glancing over at Little Papa, I saw that his belt was still unfastened and he was eagerly watching out the window and kicking his feet, perhaps wondering what to expect. Surely not what happened next. Just as we almost touched the runway, the engines roared, the throttle was pulled back and with a terrifying whine, we shot back up into the air, the airport wooshing by, the island receding quickly, landing aborted. All kinds of scenarios suddenly spun through my mind, most ended with us crashing into the sea and being eaten by hammerhead sharks.
Magda and I looked at each other, we held hands and prepared for the worst. I looked towards Little Papa thinking he must be terrified, but he was smiling at us under his push-broom mustache. He made a fist, flew it through the air like a plane, and then smacked it down into an open palm. I forgot my terror for a second and laughed out loud.
When we landed the captain apologized and said the crosswinds had been too strong. I felt a little lucky to be alive and appreciated fully my first few steps on terra firma, even if it was an ancient lava flow. We said goodbye to Little Papa and left him standing on the tarmac, staring back at the plane.
When we left the terminal, a round-bellied Ecuadorian wearing a light khaki shirt with matching pants met us, holding up a sign for The Beagle, our aptly named sailboat. It turns out that all of the passengers from the boat were there waiting for us, their plane having come in earlier that day. It didn’t help that our plane was more than two hours late. Most of them were annoyed, understandably, but fortunately never held it against us. Why they wouldn’t have ferried them to the main town and come back for us later was not clear, but it was the first of a few strange decisions made by the owners of The Beagle.
An hour later, we were aboard The Beagle for the first time. The owner met us at the dock with a sour acknowledgement meant to be a welcome. The twelve passengers and Juan Carlos, who was our khaki colored guide, piled into a zodiac designed for eight. With the harbor water churning behind us, we motored out towards our home for the next week.
We ate a quick lunch aboard the boat, all of the guests surrounding a table up on deck. Afterwards we were shown to our rooms where our luggage had magically appeared and took in our quarters for the next eight nights. There were two bunks, one large, one small, and a porthole. Everything was tastefully trimmed with a honey hued moulding, including a small closet and a bedside table. The bathroom was larger and more nicely designed than the one on the Arctic expedition ship, the Ocean Diamond. Funny since The Beagle was about 90% smaller than that ship.
Once we were situated in our rooms, the zodiac was prepared again for a trip to shore. The first of our many island excursions was about to begin. The moment we stepped ashore we were met by a large black pile of marine iguanas, devilishly ugly, and comfortably unimpressed by our presence. These strange beasts lounging around beneath our feet was exactly what I thought we’d see in the Galapagos and it took all of 30 seconds to find them.
Apart from the iguanas, that first day we didn’t see much of the islands. We saw the town of Puerto Ayora, which was your basic tropical tourist trap at its center and your basic Ecuadorian village on its outskirts. Half finished concrete buildings sprouting forests of rebar mingled with forests of introduced trees. Dogs, an introduced pest, roamed freely and lounged in the shade. The Charles Darwin Research Center was interesting, but it was essentially a zoo. It was here that naturalists are trying to breed a new generation of giant tortoises for reintroduction onto their respective islands. It turns out that the islands were at one point teeming with these giants, each island with its own endemic species, but with the discovery of the New World came shipping and buccaneers, all who used the tortoises as a portable larder. Stacks of these majestic creatures were taken as foodstuff for long voyages, no maintenance or refrigeration needed.
It was fascinating to see the tortoises in captivity and to learn about the breeding program, but by the way Juan Carlos was describing it, it seemed very unlikely we’d actually see these beasts in the wild. I wondered, wasn’t that what the Galapagos is famous for? The bounty of animal life, the ability to see these wonderful animals up close? We left the research center a little disappointed. Apart from a few ugly iguanas, it was starting to seem the Islands weren’t quite as cool as we thought. But then, we’re always jumping to conclusions.
That evening we set sail under a dark blanket punched through with stars. We stood on deck with our fellow passengers, looking up in wonder and discussing the southern constellations. On board was a Danish family of four, an American family of three and their friend, all from Virginia, a German from Munich, and a Kiwi named John. Our first conversation was a rousing political discussion (dangerous territory at the beginning of an eight day trip) where we learned we were all essentially a lot of bleeding heart liberals. It also occurred to us that this probably wasn’t unusual on a trip to the Galapagos Islands, the Sistine Chapel for atheism.
On the morning of the first day, the passengers all came above deck in various conditions of health. Many had spent the night heaving over the side, some had spent the night heaving in their spacious bathrooms. Others like us, simply hasn’t gotten much sleep, due to the rolling pitch of the Beagle. Nobody felt very well but the sky was clear and the water reflected it like crumpled aluminum. We motored out to Isla Santa Maria where we caught a bus to a giant tortoise sanctuary. Climbing over a low wall, we were instantly in the presence of giants. They had ponderous personalities, looking at the visitors with sleepy eyes and yawning. Most lay spread eagle on the ground, until anyone got too close at which point they’d retreat into their massive shells and scowl from within. Again, it was fun to see them up close, but so far it seemed that everything on the Galapagos was stuck behind a wall.
Briefly we wondered if we’d wasted our money. We were finding a lot to complain about and not a lot to appreciate. The landscape of Isla Santa Maria was uninteresting and aside from a sea lion pup, a few more marine iguanas and the captive tortoises, the famous natural encounters were a bust.
The Beagle moved on in the afternoon to the northern shore of Isla Santa Maria. We made a “wet landing” this time, wading to shore after the zodiac had run us up onto the beach. Unlike the east side of Isla Santa Maria, the North was incredible. Sea lions lounged on some rocks off of the shore, the fins of a sea turtle broke the surface of the water. In the interior, a briny pond was the home of three or four flamingos, all in the far distance. Two blue footed boobies watched our progress, but like the rest of the animals, only shyly revealed themselves: we were left with a tantalizing glimpse of the boobies, minus their famous blue feet.
Standing on the beach, Juan Carlos pointed out something in the water. Penguins. Again though, they were obscured by the waves and silhouetted by the sinking sun.
Myself, Magda, and Sue, one of the women from Virginia, suited up for snorkeling. We waded into the surprisingly frigid waters up to our knees and stood shivering. When we saw the sea lions plunge in bravely from their rocks, we did the same.
That was the point where the Galápagos Islands ceased being a barren chain of rock islands and became a series of minor miracles. First the sea lions came to visit. They twisted upside down and torpedoed beneath us. We came nose to nose, big whiskers filling our masks before they spun effortlessly away, slipping through the water like they were in flight.
A pair of sea turtles glided by, as graceful as slow motion. The afternoon sun dappled their giant shells. They had no fear or curiosity, they just floated beneath us, then rose up and softly took a breath, touching the surface as if sipping from a stream. Black and red starfish were scattered in the sand. Brilliant urchins clung to the rocks, fireworks frozen in mid-celebration. As we swam back, a chill setting in, the sea lions returned to see us off. Magda lagged behind to film them and the multiple other sea turtles that had come to join their friends. As she began her swim back to shore, a blue-footed booby landed on the rocks, blue feet and all. It craned its neck and walked back a forth, showing off its famous stockings.
As I staggered out of the surf, shivering, briny rivulets pouring from my swim trunks, Juan Carlos asked what we saw. I listed off our visitors. He looked happy and asked, ‘but no sharks?’ Apparently we’d seen only the usual suspects.
In the evening he gave the recap while we sat around the large dinner table, warming up with coffee. The tropical islands felt far from tropical, the night air almost as chilly as the sea. Juan Carlos described the itinerary for the next day, closing with his standard call and response:
“Was today a good day?”
The table truthfully answered, yes!
“Good, tomorrow will be better.”
Back in January, on the Ocean Diamond, I’d stood on the decks fruitlessly scanning the horizon for the wandering albatross. At some points I’d have settled for any albatross at all skimming across the tops of the waves. On our third day, on Isla Española, we walked through the middle of a Waved Albatross colony. Instead of specks on the horizon, they sat in the path. It was not only a walkway for tourists, but apparently an excellent spot to sit on an egg. Here nested some of the largest, most magnificent birds in the world, their yellow tinted heads twisting around to warily watch us pass. When the nesting bird’s partner arrived from feeding, it coasted in like a hang-glider, awkwardly regaining the earth. The folding of its great wings was a complex orchestra of pulley-like tendons tucking huge panels of feathers back into place, close to the body. It reminded me of collapsing a compact umbrella during a windstorm.
From the albatross colony we walked to a point where an occasional plume of mist was shooting high above the cliffs. From the edges of the island we watched great waves pummel the sharp chaos of lava rocks below. A blow-hole had formed, sending up a tall fountain of seawater whenever a larger wave crashed in. Its spray bent the light into its basic prism, a rainbow arcing over the sea. The mist floated across a scene of basking sea lions, a sky full of seabirds all endemic to the islands, and two Galápagos Hawks, the island’s top predator and pinnacle of an admirably unaggressive food pyramid.
As we sat looking out at this magical land and seascape, Juan Carlos pointed out an albatross, waddling awkwardly towards the cliff’s edge. As ungainly as a penguin, it hopped and hobbled, beak up, testing the winds. When the current picked up, it unfolded its wings. It barely needed a single flap before its perfectly designed gliders caught the wind and sent it sailing into the sky.
Like with the penguins in Antarctica, it was fun to start making up dramatic story lines behind the lives of the ubiquitous Galápagos Sea lion. Huge males barked orders from the shade, tiny pups hopped from rock to rock, searching for their mothers. Large bellied females returned from fishing, bodies slick and streamlined but flopping awkwardly across the sand. When we plunged into the cool waters for our twice daily snorkel, curious teenagers slipped as well, looking to investigate the odd beasts who swam so awkwardly in the water. A curious local was investigating one of Sue’s flippers when it cut through the water and tapped him on the nose. It’s easy to project human emotions on sea lions, but it really seemed like he was surprised, and looked at me to see if I could believe what just happened.
Despite the temperate water and the chill that followed snorkeling in it, we never missed the chance to jump in – though we usually dreaded it before we did. We knew that we’d miss something if we didn’t, like the sting rays patrolling the ocean floor, heckled by parrotfish, or the great and graceful sea-turtles who floated with as much elegance as the sea lions swam with speed. I gnashed my teeth in jealousy when the Virginians, who aside from Sue weren’t much for snorkeling, spotted a reef shark beneath them. We’d seen a beautiful Galápagos shark circling the Beagle, it was at least four feet long and it’s dorsal fin sliced across the surface like a cliché, but we hasn’t yet seen one while snorkeling. Nothing quiet matches that thrill, which we experienced on the Great Barrier Reef, or so I believed.
Of the half dozen Galápagos animals that remained allusive, we’d yet to see a Galapagos Penguin up close, just silhouetted flippers diving beneath the waves on the second day. After we emerged from the swim where the shark had been spotted, I was annoyed that Magda and I had only seen giant schools of beautiful fish, starfish, urchins, anemones and of course, sea lions. While our teeth clattered under the equatorial sun, I spotted a white blaze on a little animal sitting across the bay. I pointed it out to Juan Carlos and he agreed it was probably a penguin. We still had a while before the zodiac came to pick us up, so I grabbed the wet flippers and mask from the sand and along with some of the others ran across the beach to get closer. We swam out like navy seals and surrounded the flightless bird while it stood on a rock, lost in thought.
A chill set in, and soon myself, Hendrick and Sue were treading water and shivering at the same time. The penguin, adapted to the cold south and on permanent vacation in the tropics, looked at us with pity, but refused to jump in. As we murmured words of encouragement, another penguin waddled out of a little cave. It picked its way down to the edge of the lava, looked skeptically at the waves and then dove in. Without a word, the three of us submerged and converged.
The parallels between the Galapagos and the Antarctic peninsula are many, despite having the most extremely opposite climates imaginable. The animal’s disregard for your presence, the bleak dreamlike landscape, and of course: penguins. But in Antarctica you can only stand on the icy rocks and watch while the funny little waddlers flip flop their way to the sea to dive in, then becoming some of the most agile animals on earth. In the Galapagos that transformation occurred before our very eyes. The three of us swam towards the penguin, and it came to see what we were. It swam around and around us, and then, sending a great deal of penguin poop directly into my face, torpedoed away.
By the time we exited the water the penguin’s partner had also plunged in and the two of them were shooting around the bay, feeding. Magda and the rest of the group got back in to watch them forage in the coral. I settled for shivering on the beach under what was left of the sun, feeling it was a bit more like Antarctica than I expected.
Then, the way these things do, it ended. Somehow eight days had passed and we were heading towards the airport in a zodiac, feeling a little stunned. What we’d begun with a sense of skepticism had turned into an enchanted tour of a primordial world, populated with giant lizards and majestic flying beasts. While we stood on dry ground, missing the rocking of the Beagle (some of us anyway) we said goodbye to our shipmates, and pondered life back on the road. Back once more to planning our own accommodations, meals and transportation on a daily basis. Back to a world where giant tortoises don’t look at you and yawn.