Galapagos Journal: Tracing Darwin’s Footsteps

Inspired by the great naturalist, a modern writer keeps a Galápagos journal of her own.

Editor's note: Climate change will wreak havoc on the world's most famous garden of biodiversity. Three writers travelled to the Galapagos Islands to show us just what we stand to lose. Read Doug Peacock's take here. Read Rick Bass' take here.

March 11, 2014, the Samba sets sail

Today begins a 10-day sojourn in the Galápagos Islands with dearest friends, including my husband, Brooke, who visited these "Enchanted Islands" in 1983. Thirty-one years later we are fulfilling his vow to return. We are with members of our tribe, including Doug Peacock, whom I met on the trail in Glacier National Park in 1982. His wife, Andrea, and his daughter, Laurel, whom I have known since birth, have accompanied him. Rick Bass is here. (We met in 1989, when I picked him up hitchhiking en route to Ed Abbey's wake in Arches National Park.) Terry Osborne and M.K. Beach are friends from Dartmouth College who have joined us with their children, Hillary Beach and Jacob Osborne.

"We are in the middle of the world," says Juan Salcedo, our naturalist aboard the Samba, a 78-foot motor-sailor yacht built in Holland in 1966. Juan is a Galápagos native, born on the island of Santa Cruz. He comes to the naturalist gaze by way of his father, Jose Miguel Salcedo, a well-known expert on the Galápagos, having penned and illustrated a monograph of the islands for local high school students. As a boy always by his father's side, Juan lived and breathed this archipelago. At nine, his father was letting him lead tourists. Twenty-two years later sharing the natural history of the Galápagos has remained his passion.

Juan gives us our schedule in the language of military time: At 15:45 we will experience "a wet landing" on Las Bachas beach; at 18:30 we will be back on board the Samba. Dinner will be served at 19:30, an evening lecture will begin at 22:00, and at 23:00 we will begin our navigation to the island of Genovesa, traveling the open seas throughout the night. At 05:30 the next morning we will be walking on a new island; at 09:00 it's snorkeling in open water.

"Pace yourself," a friend said to me before we left for the Galápagos. She had visited the islands, and returned home invigorated but exhausted. I would be balancing choices of withdrawal alongside choices of engagement; such is the nature of being an introvert. One-on-one encounters sustain me. Groups do not. But community is something different: a group of people interconnected, interrelated, respecting one another's place within a shared landscape. The Samba quickly became a community, each person finding their niche, occupying their space on deck. The ecology of experience began on the boat with hypnotic hours spent simply staring out to sea toward the rolling horizon.

March 11, Las Bachas

We leave the Samba on schedule and file into the small Zodiac that motors toward the island in view. Once we step out of the ocean and onto the beach, my feet tell me all I need to know. I am on solid ground, even if it is shifting sands—white, like flour.

We follow Juan beyond mounds of green sea turtle eggs, freshly laid and buried in the sand, to a mangrove pond. Five flamingos, perfectly spaced in an embrace of green, meet us. The long-legged birds, pink with vermillion feathers, fan the humid air. Defying the stereotype of stolid lawn ornaments, they feed peaceably in paradise—walking slowly, with their small heads and black beaks submerged, only briefly coming up for air. And when they do stand in full view, their yellow eyes, like topaz, catch ours. It is a bejeweled moment of exotica in the tropics, a watercolored landscape saturated in light.

Watching the flamingos beneath a lapis sky, it becomes clear that the Galápagos is not a bow toward silence or solitude but an ongoing conversation with a multitude of species. The mockingbird has a Galápagos accent, a subtle variation from those living in North America. And variation is the key even for a bird skilled in mimicry. All around us we are being asked to discern familiar yet different narratives in the wild. This is no longer about facts and field guides but a saturation of the senses: salt, sea breezes, the touch of sand, stones, and shells.

Everywhere we turn, life is present. A marine iguana's silhouette against the lava rocks looks both sinister and seductive. The collision of sea lions barking on the beach is an exercise in territory. A female sea lion lies on her side purring, a pup is nursing; the sucking of milk is fast and fluid.

Sanderlings skitter directly in front of us—we yield. A Ruddy Turnstone is doing just that: turning stones. Ghost crabs appear and disappear like a seaside magic show. It becomes comical, species on cue. A theater in the round. Foreground, background, and peripheral; it is a steady state of awe.

I catch Doug's eye—we begin laughing. Brooke is bent over, examining a dragonfly. Laurel is photographing an iguana in the surf. Andrea is watching an oystercatcher. Jacob is crouched near hermit crab tracks, while Rick takes notes on stray pieces of paper. M.K. and Terry are walking ahead, eyes focused on something we cannot see.

Hillary, tall and elegant, enters the rising waters of the sea. She is a human radiance bathed in gold light in the descending heat of day. Each of us follows behind her and falls back, floating between the oscillations of the tide, arms outstretched, looking upward in a state of surrender.


March 12, Genovesa Island

Pajaro pirata. Pirate bird. Black crossbows are launched against a field of blue. Great Frigatebirds crisscross the sky, avian mercenaries bombing Swallow-tailed Gulls for the mackerel in their bills. They steal midair from boobies, from shearwaters, from any bird in flight carrying fish home.

When sailors saw these "man-of-war" birds, they knew land was near; on the cliff face of the island of Genovesa, hundreds of them gather in colonies, quivering for attention. Males perch on branches or nestle in the sand, inflating their gular sacs, like clowns blowing up red balloons, before indifferent females that circle above them. Long neck plumes of green iridescent heat flame and flare nuptial intent.

Hours pass as I watch the spectacle of desire through my binoculars. The intensity and solipsism of courtship humbles the male thief birds into amorous desperation. Their voices rise as a collective rattle and wail. Eventually, a soaring female descends upon the partner of her choice, mounting the male as he pants, his outstretched wings trembling. The next generation is ensured. It is dusk. Everywhere I look, the sky is a script of wings I am just beginning to decipher.

March 13, Marchena Island

Collapsed lava tubes become secret waterways for fur seals on Marchena Island. The lava rocks scorch our feet. The water is warm. We are snorkeling in an igneous pool, a blue eye lined in black. This is where Juan learned to swim as a boy. Curiosity is the great teacher. He simply watched fur seals wheel in the water— inquisitive, playful, and buoyant.

Little has changed. Underwater, the seals glide, spin, and turn abruptly—some just missing a brush with our bodies. I want to touch them, but resist. Can intimacy exist between two species? Or only longing?

Galapagos Journal from Audubon Magazine on Vimeo.

A baby fur seal erupts in front of my mask and blows bubbles in my face. I surface—no fur seal in sight. I submerge once again, swim ahead to find him. He nips my arm from behind. I turn—nothing. Suddenly the baby is back, suspended in the water, floating upside down. He is staring at me. I stare back. Curiosity is the great teacher. His large opaque eyes are a wilderness.

March 15, Punta Espinosa, Isabela Island

The hand of the iguana is my hand. The only difference I see between my fingers splayed on the lava near hers is one of scale instead of skin. Her eye blinks as my eye blinks. Her chest inhales as mine exhales. She is wary of my presence, and I am in awe of hers. I could choose to see this marine iguana as something alien to myself, more dinosaur than human, but that would be to discount and deny the very tail that remains in me as a remnant of our shared evolution. The coccyx. I fall hard on the rocks as a swift reminder that my family tree is not as neat and tidy as my kin would have me believe.

My religion tells me that the earth was created in seven days. The marine iguana tells me this is a myth. Here is another: Nature is tooth and claw. What if the survival of the fittest is the survival of compassion? The tenderness I feel is as unnerving as the spines that highlight her back. I move closer. She hisses. The hairs on my arm stand. Multitudes of marine iguanas leap off the ledges into the sea at sunrise.

March 16, Pacific Ocean

We are snorkeling, breathing, looking below. A raft of golden cownose rays is fanning the waters—hundreds of them, like an order of brown-cloaked monks that has retreated to the sea. Schools of creole fish, Moorish idols, parrotfish, pufferfish, angelfish, and eels swim through the pastel reefs. Masked, our human eyes focus on movement as much as color. Hammerhead sharks are in the distance. Blue starfish, purple anemone, and buried stingrays inhabit the sandy bottoms.

I am following Jose Ricardo, our captain, a black man with white flippers, at home in the sea, agile and elegant as he dives deep and surfaces, graceful as a sea lion. He takes my hand in his and points with the other: octopus.

It appears as a purple-veined orchid camouflaged against the coral. And then the eight tapered legs—long, white, and suckered—are suddenly wrapping themselves around the captain's taut arm as he reaches toward the unearthly creature now crawling across his chest, latching onto his back. I think I detect a struggle between man and beast—or is it play? I can't be certain, but the eyes of both are wild and intense, two minds locked. And as the captain tries to grab the legs and pull the shape-shifting octopus off his body—poof! A cloud of red ink, not blood, envelops us—the octopus is gone. We float in suspended disbelief.

March 17, Fernandina Island

If there is an underlying melody heard throughout the Galápagos—on all islands in all habitats in all hours of the day—it is the song of the Yellow Warbler. I hear them singing at the airport on the island of Baltra. I hear them singing from the bow of the boat when we are close to shore. When we walk across a bleak lava bed, their voices accompany us as a hymn against the heat. And the flashes of joy foraging in the poison apple trees of Fernandina sing in spite of the shadowed landscape.

The voice of the Yellow Warbler is an oracle and a bow to the power of small things. With my eyes closed, the bird is singing in the red-rock canyons of Utah. Perhaps this is the grace note that binds us together. Earth is our shared home, no matter where we live. Endemic, native, migrant, or accidental, Yellow Warbler reminds us: We are not the only species that flies around the world. Yellow Warbler is the relentless voice of the joyous traveler.

March 18, Santa Cruz Island

Time. The evolution of time in the Galápagos. A time of unexpected interludes, incantatory moments with fellow species that live somewhere on the edge of an evolving planet witnessed by a party of friends. In the beginning it is about love. In the end it is about relationships. I want to follow. I want to follow what I can never understand, a love that is wild. Cradled in the boat with a lullaby of stars, I am being rocked to sleep.

I am following my thoughts. Creation is not an act but a process. What is the process?

The world is a wobble. We are animals subject to the same laws of natural selection.

Has anyone been face to face with evolution? The other day I was eye to eye with a Galápagos tortoise that had spent three months walking from the top of the volcano down to the sea to lay her eggs at night on the island of Isabela. In the slow, deliberate nature of her world, she upholds 12 million years of perfection. Beauty is the origin of wonder. What enables her to live 18 months without food or water? Does a fast predicated by drought or famine become spiritual? What can we do for the tortoise? Step to the side. Give her the right-of-way. Kneel.

Read Doug Peacock's take here. Read Rick Bass' take here.