November 15, 2008 (Go To Source) SMH.com.au
Dugald Jellie hears the calls of nature on the Galapagos Islands, 150 years after Charles Darwin’s revelation
So life has come to this. Lounging among marine iguanas on hackled black lava on Isla Santiago, the fourth-largest isle in this far-flung archipelago, I start to think of these lizards as punks. They look the reptilian equivalent of Sid Vicious, all claws and blistered skin, louche demeanour and Mohawk haircuts. I half expect to see a pierced nipple.
Charles Darwin called them “hideous-looking creatures” in his 1835 diary – “large (two to three-foot) most disgusting, clumsy Lizards”. The feted naturalist spent a full week on this island, once named after a British buccaneer, observing the freaks of nature. “Somebody calls them ‘imps of darkness’,” he said. “They well become the land they inhabit.”
Now I lie on my belly in hot dusk sun, mimicking the dragons for a once-in-a-lifetime digital holiday snap. Then one spits on me. The little rascal, it squirts me fair in the eye with a curse of salt. Purged from its nose.
Nothing about the Galapagos Islands surprises any more. I have seen nothing like it, no equal to its natural wonders and grotesque novelty. Don’t touch the animals? I’ve been nudged already by a centenarian tortoise, looped by cavorting sea lions, shat on by a blue-footed booby and now the local lizards take to spitting on me. And we’ve paid good money for a first-class cruise.
How could anybody conceive of such a bizarre “world within itself”, as Darwin described it? Not the Bishop of Panama, who in 1535 was the first to encounter these desolate volcanic upthrusts in a far corner of the Pacific and thought it a land cursed.
“It seems as though some time God had showered stones,” he reported to the King of Spain. Two of his sailors and 10 horses died of dehydration. He thought it no place for humans.
This no-man’s land was on no map and had no name until a Spanish naval officer chanced upon the infernal outcrops in 1546. He saw smoke rising from a mountain “covered by a cloud” and thought it a vision of “apparent fleetingness and unreality”. He called it Las Encantadas, the Enchanted Isles.
And that is what they’ve been ever since, 1000 kilometres adrift from South America but forever close to public imagination inspired by BBC documentaries, breathless David Attenborough commentary and tourists noosed with cameras who come here year-round and take home stories of an otherworldly life on Earth.
“Another one coming out, right behind you, ready for the picture,” our Ecuadorean guide says on our first afternoon as we paddle up a tidal inlet sheltered by red mangroves. Sea turtles pop up all around. “That’s just like Jurassic Park,” says Lyle Bishop, 57, a retired electrician from Canada. “My wife and I have always wanted to come to Galapagos.”
From the outset, it’s a nature-world theme park. Brown pelicans spear and slap into the sea, silver-glinting baitfish skip on the surface, sea lions swirl beneath and white egrets fill the sky like flapping origami. In 1970, the first full year of scheduled air services, 4500 people visited the Galapagos. Last year, more than 170,000 arrived.
Never have the islands been so popular. And next year, a century-and-a-half after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species, all eyes will again turn to this zoological anomaly to commemorate the young scientist whose landfall changed the course of history. And all because of a mockingbird and a few finches.
“It was on the Galapagos in the early autumn of 1835 that Darwin took the first step out of the fairyland of creationism into the coherent and comprehensible world of modern biology,” wrote Julian Huxley, the eminent British naturalist and grandson of T. H. Huxley, Darwin’s confidant and champion. “Here he became fully convinced that species are not immutable – in other words, that evolution is a fact.”
Darwin’s revolutionary treatise – his theory of natural selection – irrevocably shifted how people have viewed nature, life and humankind.
“No area on Earth of comparable size has inspired more fundamental changes in man’s perspective of himself,” wrote Robert Bowman, the contemporary dean of Galapagos researchers. This is the attraction: the great tease and curiosity of a strange land born of tectonic plates torn asunder, that seems the very crucible of life itself.
But for now, a man in a pink Ralph Lauren shirt tugs wheelie luggage. A young girl blows bubble gum. There’s a woman in high heels and a short skirt as others don khaki and backpacks. Jackets come off. Chatter in the arrivals hall is in German and Dutch, Italian and English. American accents are as thick as the equatorial heat. All are excited to be here.
Baltra Airport, built by the US Army in 1942 as a base to protect the Panama Canal, is a hubbub of activity, a constant midday loop of leisure as planes turn over daily, ours painted with iguanas and frigate birds. Wildlife-watching is big business. Foreigners queue to pay a $US100 (about $145) park entry fee, then $US10 for a turista card, before they even set foot on a boat.
It’s a procession of mass eco-tourism that began in 1959, the centenary of On The Origin Of Species, when UNESCO created the Charles Darwin Research Station and 97.5 per cent of the archipelago was declared as Parque Nacional Galapagos. “The islands can become an important asset for attracting tourists,” a study reported, “but only if they are protected as national game reserves, like those in Africa.”
Then 30 years ago, its status as a must-see natural wonderland was assured when UNESCO proclaimed the park a World Heritage Site – alongside Yellowstone in the US as one of the first four on the planet. Its marine reserve is second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef.
“All the cheap boats are gone,” says Sue Kennewell, 22, from Sydney, who we meet in Quito, the Ecuadorean capital. She has spent the day haggling at travel agencies for a berth. “I want to see a manta ray. It was the reason we came. You think we’d have booked.”
Tourism on the remote isles is restricted to 82 registered boats, some small yachts, others carrying up to 100 passengers, circling on clockwork seven-day itineraries. Passengers alight at designated sites and must be accompanied by guides. Prices hinge on the level of comfort, the season and who you talk to. “The more you pay,” says one agent, “the better the itinerary, the better the guide, the better the boat.”
Our week-long cruise had been booked through Peregrine Adventures and I share a two-bed berth with an old school mate from Melbourne who knows more about boobies than a man really ought to. It’s not a luxury cruise but it’s no steerage class either. We have a cabin maid, ample room, a knowledgeable guide and snorkel masks big enough even for my schnoz.
Enforced idleness and routine take hold in the heat. I walk about barefoot. Drink beers at sunset. Fall asleep most afternoons on a top-deck banana lounge. Put in earplugs at night to dull the engine grumble. Awake to the breakfast bell. And on one rocky trip between islands, I spend some time arched over the gunwales being seasick.
The Galapagos looks a whole lot different from this vantage.
For the first two days I am spellbound by wonders. The word I am most wont to utter is “amazing”. I am amazed by pelican chicks prying deep in their mothers’ mouths for fish, and boobies diving en masse into the water like synchronised swimmers; by orange-legged sally lightfoot crabs scuttling on black lava and candelabra cacti on a blanched landscape looking every bit an Armageddon.
I behold its marvels of tropical fish, penguins, turtles and gargoyle marine iguanas that climb on each other and spit salt on strangers. And I’ve not yet seen the great tortoises (Los Galapagos, in Spanish) from which these mysterious isles take their name.
Others at first sight were less fond. “The interior country exhibited the most shattered, broken and confused landscape I ever beheld,” George Vancouver wrote in 1795 aboard the Discovery. Herman Melville, who visited a decade before he published Moby Dick in 1851, was also ill-pleased. “The chief sound of life here is a hiss,” he wrote. “[It’s] an archipelago of aridities, without inhabitant, history or hope of either in all time to come.”
None of this deters modern travellers. The 12 other passengers on our 32-metre launch are mostly middle-aged and middle-class, from London, Auckland, Brisbane, Winnipeg, Zurich and Memphis. And most, like Darwin, have fled desk jobs on the dream holiday that could well be a personal voyage of discovery.
Other pleasure-seekers we encounter – on baked lava, coral-white sandy beaches and by mudflats with pink flamingoes – are for the most part from the US, wear name tags and look every bit like well-heeled National Geographic readers. But all are equal in the eyes of an iguana, and sea-lion bulls at Isla San Cristobal will bark at anyone.
Wet, glistening females don’t care much who photographs them as they nuzzle and rub into the sand, all whiskers and flippers, like big, crumbed slugs. Playful pups show off in the turquoise brine, with somersaults and corkscrews, leaving a trail of quicksilver bubbles where currents comingle. Colourful schools of fish flitter like hanging mobiles. We see spotted eagle rays and, in a rock crevice, a lobster family that looks good enough to eat.
Pirates and whalers on this knot of islands feasted long ago on tortoise meat. “The fat of these animals, when melted down, was equal to fresh butter,” British navy captain James Colnett commented of his 1794 visit. Expeditions also plundered the gigantic reptiles for museums and zoos, including the eccentric naturalist Walter Rothschild who alone amassed 12 dozen live specimens as keepsakes.
Steve Irwin had one, too. It was named Harriet and he claimed it was 176 years old and collected by Darwin when aboard the Beagle (which was probably hogwash). It died at his Australia Zoo two years ago, two months before the Crocodile Hunter died himself.
At Darwin Station we meet Lonesome George, a saddleback tortoise found in 1971 by park wardens on Pinta Island and believed to be the sole survivor of his species. Despite an offer of a $US10,000 reward, no mate was ever found. He’s now an international poster boy for Galapagos conservation.
Darwin was transfixed by these “inhabitants of some other planet” and soon learned the great beasts differed markedly from island to island. It was a key to unlocking “that mystery of mysteries”, the origin of species, although it was from a mockingbird and his famous finches that he deduced the irrefutable proof of his idea.
“At the Galapagos he’s immediately struck by the weirdness of the animals and he starts then to think about their relationship with the geology,” says Iain McCalman, a professor of history at Sydney University whose forthcoming book, Darwin’s Armada: How Four Voyages to Australasia Won the Battle for Evolution and Changed the World, traces this succinct moment of inquiry. “He asks, ‘What on earth are these animals doing here?’ “
It’s a fundamental question of mankind. What am I doing here? All I know – and maybe it’s because of the godforsaken locale, or the romance that comes with days spent at sea, or the enervating heat – is after a week I feel as Darwin did. “I fancied myself brought near to the very act of creation.” And I think even of growing a beard like his.