Most of our group of twenty on the first of two departures for this year’s tour of the Galapagos Islands arrived on American Airlines flight 967 shortly after 8:00 PM in Quito, Ecuador. We had circled the famously high airport for some thirty minutes while other aircraft making their cautious approach in the precariously thin air of Quito’s elevation (9,200 feet above sea level) slowly descended into the twilight, wing flaps flared forward. And then finally it was our turn. As we held our breath, we may have taken some pale assurance from the number of uneventful flights to Quito each day. But, of course, each flight is unique and subject to the whims of fate. The heavy plane descended, its wingtips teetering for stability. And then, suddenly emerging from the dusk, trees and tin roofs rushed by beneath us, and then concrete, and then the first heaving bump and roar. We were uneventful, after all. A collective sigh of relief swept through the cabin. Like the Waved Albatross, the latest winged visitor had made its ungainly landing on the high precipice of its temporary home.
After collecting our luggage and clearing customs, we met our guides Roberto Aguilar and Alexandra Villacis, two proud, but very personable ambassadors of Quito and their Ecuadorian tour company. They loaded us and our belongings aboard a small bus of uncertain vintage and led us on to Quito’s Hilton Colon Hotel. Roberto did his best to provide some useful information over the bus’s balky public address system, citing statistics and offering further encouragement for our visit to the Galapagos Islands, where he himself had once been a guide.
As we rode through Quito’s dimly lit streets, we tried to glimpse some aspect of life as it is lived here. With a population of some two and a half million people, most of Quito seemed strangely uninhabited, though at the city’s center we found evidence finally of the Friday night festivities that Roberto had brightly promised. Yet even here the city seemed by its appearance rather uncertain of its direction. A few modest high rises rose among one- or two-story shops and residences, several of the latter evoking either the architecture of Quito’s colonial era or an uninspired application of modern designs, now grown rather shabby. There was an inescapable dinginess to this third world capital, a pervasive shade of unfulfilled promises. And yet as visitors it was well for us to keep in mind that people had made a life here, after all, and a brave settlement at that. Indeed, one might well appreciate a certain tentativeness in city planning: why, in the shadow of one of the Andes’ largest volcanoes, would the citizens of Quito attempt anything splendid?
Still, the Hilton had tried and succeeded. Her elegant lobby stood in marked contrast to whatever interiors we might have glimpsed on the way into town. Once inside our hotel, an entrance ceremoniously assisted by uniformed attendants, we received a very pleasant welcome of fresh fruit juices in the Hilton’s reception area, then strode briskly down long marble corridors. The hotel’s sleeping rooms were fairly small, though after a long travel day they were much appreciated—they had beds! Most of the group retired quickly. The six remaining members of our group would arrive around midnight—safely, one now had every reason to expect.
Among last night’s late arrivals was Steve Morello, a popular guide on past W&L natural history trips and our designated study leader for the two Galapagos programs. On this first departure, Steve brought with him his wife Mari, a lovely Japanese American who would be embarking on her first sea voyage. A noted photographer with work published in National Geographic, Steve has an understanding of natural history that is not only extensive but delightful, as it is leavened by his engaging sense of humor. The combination of Steve’s gift of storytelling and Mari’s guileless enthusiasm for all aspects of the trip made for a wonderful couple to travel with. Plus—as young David McCusty observed—Steve didn’t have “one of those five-word unpronounceable Spanish names.”
So on this morning, after months of anticipation, we were all together at last. Our group consisted of eight juniors and twelve adults, the juniors ranging in age from seven to twenty: Nate and Liza Adams and their two sons John (15) and Rob (18), Harry and Ellie Bosen, Bill and Martha Clark and their two grandsons Will (12) and Michael (16), Ric Hudgins and his daughter Rachel (7), Kevin McCusty and Scott Robertson and Kevin’s sons David (11) and Jono (13), Steve and Mari, and my daughter Anna (20) and I. All of us, with the exception of Steve and me, were new to W&L’s travel program and to each other. There was, of course, the inevitable awkwardness at our first breakfast as folks stole furtive glances at their new traveling companions. But we would soon bond in that companionable embrace of travelers sharing a warm interest in a common destination as well as in each other.
Roberto had asked for an early departure this morning, so after an ample breakfast buffet we departed for the two-hour drive to the Otavalo Market. In the early morning light, the spectacular Andean setting of Quito came into high relief. Towering over the city stood the great Pichincha Volcano, the mother goddess wearing an apron of tiny houses, their tin roofs glinting in the early sunlight. The volcano is classified as active, though her most recent eruption, according to Roberto, occurred some 500 years ago—yesterday in geologic time.
As we drove out through the city, we could readily observe that the grandeur of Quito’s setting is offset by its general poverty. This impression became more pronounced as we rode through Calderone and other northern suburbs, where a hard-scrabble, humble family life seemed patched together in a collection of cobbled shanties and unfinished concrete block houses. Once on the Pan American highway—the roadway that links all capitals in South America—the spectacular elevations of Ecuador opened to us. We rolled along a crest of barren Andean landscape, then down into the more fertile Guyllabamba Valley, a long descent that seemed to take us a couple of thousand feet below Quito. Once on the floor of the Valley, we paused in the agricultural town of Guyllabamba for a taste of “cherimoya,” a delectable fruit much favored by the locals for its sweetness. The cherimoya quickly assured our deeper interest in local culture and restored our smiles. Soon after this stop, we paused again at a highway monument demarcating the Equator, “Mitad del Mundo.” Many of us had our photos taken as we stood astride both hemispheres.
After another long ascent, we arrived at a crest above the Otavalo Valley, the vast Andes shouldering the sky in all directions. The ribbon of highway wound us down again through foothills eventually to Cayambe, where Roberto and Alexandra purchased some “biscocho,” a dense, crisply toasted biscuit served with a thick honeyed sauce and goat cheese. This was liberally dispensed to everyone’s satisfaction. Not long after, Roberto asked our driver Giovanni to pull to the side of the road in order to allow three Indian girls in native dress to board our bus. This pick-up apparently had been previously arranged, for somehow Roberto knew they could sing. This they did with little encouragement in their Quichua language before walking up and down the aisle hawking richly died woolens that had been fashioned into beautiful scarves.
Having arrived in Otavalo at its famous market, we seemed to enter the commercial heart of Latin America—or its most familiar expression. The Market occupies the central square of the town and spills down each side street. Scores of tented stalls displayed generally the same array of intensely colored wool fabric, each stall staffed by one or more Indians. There were stalls for jewelry and native arts among the vendors, and at the margins of the square, steaming food tents dispensed local concoctions of fish and pork to patron and vendor alike. This being a Saturday, several of the Market places belonged to local farmers selling various fruits and vegetables. Here again the vendors were primarily women, very small people (we felt like giants among them), dressed in layers of rough, brightly colored wool against the cool morning air. Most of them wore either what appeared to be a man’s felt hat or a pile of dark cloth atop their heads, with multiple strands of tiny gold beads—the family wealth—wound loosely around their necks. We spent a good two hours at the Market, utterly captivated by its extraordinarily colorful tableau of local life. Many of us were quite happy with our purchases as well and compared our bargains back on the bus.
Thereafter, we drove a short distance from Otavalo to a remarkable garden restaurant, La Mirage, outside the town of Cotacachi. After being admitted to the grounds by a remotely powered iron gate, we disembarked near another gate, this one guarded by two life-sized porcelain mosaic horses frozen in an eerily fanciful prance. Once through the entrance, we encountered peacocks, their jewel-like iridescence a further clue to the opulence beyond. La Mirage is an elegant combination of restaurant, inn, and spa fantastically at odds with the general setting of the Otavalo Valley. A Relais Chateau property, it obviously caters to well-heeled tourists who have probably read about it in off-the-beaten-track travel guides. We took our places at tables set for us under elaborately designed stained glass ceilings. This midday meal was superb in every respect, elegantly served by Indian maidens in native costume, an ample repast that left everyone quite delighted as well as somewhat mystified.
Following lunch—and with some purpose to walk off the weight of our meal—we stopped for some shopping in the town of Cotacachi, famous for its leather production. We quickly discovered exceptional bargains along the town’s row of outlet shops. So many of us, regardless of the demand for such apparel in deep summer, returned with soft and supple leather jackets, most notable among these was young Will Shiplet, who would wear his the rest of the day and on to the Galapagos.
Roberto had spent much of the drive to Otavalo discussing the history and culture of his native land, of which he is most proud, though he admits that as a people and culture Ecuador is separated from its neighbors only by its borders. Among the more memorable statistics was that the region boasted over 4,000 varieties of potatoes, a claim frankly difficult to comprehend, though no one wished to investigate it at this hour. Indeed, after our heavy lunch, Roberto kindly invited us to nap on the long way home. And yet the Andean landscape, with its fascinating array of local agrarian culture and village life, made sleep impossible for several. Roberto had directed Giovanni to take the scenic Tabacundo road through this portion of the Andes. We drove for a long time along the skirts of the immense Imbabura Volcano (elevation 16,000 ft.), chugging along through narrow, winding cuts in the basalt and limestone mountains, often behind rattle-trap truck traffic that appeared to be laboring at the point of exhaustion. By the time we had returned to Quito, the declining sun had cast the city into a somber light.
Although everyone professed to be still full from lunch, Roberto persuaded us to come to the pre-arranged welcome reception this evening at 7:30. Here we made our individual introductions over drinks and a variety of exotic hors d’oeuvres, including “cervice,” a soup-like concoction of shrimp and onions strongly seasoned with cilantro. Roberto also announced our rather alarming departure plan for the following morning—5:00 AM wake-up call, 6:00 AM departure for the airport. Thereafter, we gamely continued for our official welcome dinner at El Galpon Restaurant. We dined at a single long table, messing politely with our four-course meal, complete with a potato soup starter, salad, main course, and dessert. By the time we had returned to our hotel, several were whimpering softly from overindulgence.
The short night was evident in our faces as we gathered for our departure for the Galapagos Islands this morning. The sun rises late and sets early at the Equator, a diurnal rhythm that may well have inspired Quito’s more relaxed pace of life as well as more sensible travel schedules. But for us, the pre-dawn darkness was really no problem. We reminded ourselves that we had places to go, after all, exciting places. So, while most of us were wearing that thousand-yard stare, we were up and setting forth with a willful readiness.
As such preparations go in this era of great precaution, we waited well over an hour in the airport’s boarding lounge before embarking on our three-hour flight via Aerogal Airlines to the Galapagos Islands. After a long descent through the thick cloud layer that shrouds the western slopes of the Andes, we landed in Guayaquil for refueling, then set out again for the Islands. Here again, the landing at the airport on San Christobal seemed especially careful, with the pilot slowing his packed Boeing 727 to a near stall, wing flaps fully extended. Moments later, we landed with a bang and a prompt reverse thrust of the engines. The landing strip at San Christobal may well have been designed for smaller and slower aircraft. Unfortunately, another flight had landed only minutes before us, so we had to collect ourselves at the rear of a long line at customs until we were at last able to purchase the required National Park passes at $100 per head. Once through the bureaucracy, we met our two naturalist guides, John Garate and Pepe Castillo (the abbreviated form of the “five-word unpronounceable Spanish names”), and boarded a tiny bus for the short ride to the pier and then transfer by motorized dinghy, or “panga,” out to our home for the next several days, the M/Y Letty.
On first impression, everyone seemed pleased with the Letty, due to the general condition of her interior and the boat’s perfect size for our group (85 feet in length with ten cabins and a crew of eight). The cabins are necessarily small but commodious and efficient, with fairly spacious bathrooms for a boat of this size. One could reasonably have expected longer beds, which seemed to have been designed by Ecuadorians for Ecuadorians. Perhaps the Letty’s best feature is the spacious sundeck with its great view and comfortable deckchairs.
After unpacking and stowing our clothing in large under-bed drawers and a narrow closet, we paused for a rather unremarkable lunch of spaghetti with whole green olives, then sailed for our first disembarkation at a nearby beach named Cerro Brujo. Here amidst dozing sea lions, we did some splashing about in our newly issued wetsuits and snorkel gear. The turbulence of the waves and our general unfamiliarity with the gear made this difficult for several of us, but it was a happy occasion nonetheless to be underway, doing what we had come to do, frolicking amidst wildlife in one of the world’s greatest national parks.
After a good couple of hours here, we re-boarded the Letty and sailed for Kicker Rock, also called “the Sleeping Lion,” a massive tuff cone formation of considerable height that has been cleft in two by the tremendous geological forces that have shaped and are still shaping the Islands. We spent a good hour observing the Frigate Birds and the Blue-Footed Boobies soaring above and around these lofty monoliths. During our leisurely circumnavigation of the Kicker Rock, we watched the play of the late afternoon sunlight raking across the formation, then witnessed the panoply of colors in our first Galapagos sunset. The mood of the group was buoyant, for here was our first real opportunity to witness the magical beauty of the Galapagos.
Later, we listened with real anticipation to John’s briefing on the following day’s itinerary, then enjoyed a good dinner, a choice between pork chops and chicken. Most folks retired shortly thereafter as the boat began to roll in the long crossing northward beyond the Equator to Tower Island (Genovese). Three of our junior members elected to spend the night in bedrolls under the stars on the sundeck—to each his own. Meanwhile, their parents pondered the task of inserting themselves into their tight beds.
The 80-mile crossing to Tower Island was a long night of rock and roll. Just before first light, however, the Letty entered the breached caldera for which the Island, in Melville’s day, earned its reputation as a haven for ships. The calm waters of this vast inlet gave us much peace of mind as well as sufficient stability for bustling about in our cabins and navigating our way through the breakfast buffet.
The morning’s activity involved a slow cruise in the Letty’s two pangas along the wall of the caldera to observe the birds and whatever marine life happened to appear in the fractured basalt of the shore wall. Most striking here, perhaps, were the brilliant orange crabs sunning at the water’s edge. Once at Prince Phillip’s Steps, we gingerly climbed to the top of the wall for the trail that wound gently to the far side of the island’s arc. Along the way, Pepe and John generously provided a short course in ornithology, pausing every fifty steps or so for a fascinating explanation of the habits and characteristics of the Island’s bird life. Tower Island is home to Red-footed Boobies as well as a large population of Frigate Birds, along with gulls, finches, and many pelagic seabirds. The Red-footed Boobies and Frigates nest in the low shrubs while the Masked (or Nasca) Boobies make their nest on the ground within a circle cleared of pebbles. We were able to approach the birds to within just a few feet without apparent disturbance. This proximity was quite amazing, a rare opportunity to observe the beauty and ways of bird life face to face. Several of the nests had chicks at various stages of development, from large, white, fluffy Frigate chicks to tiny, rather helpless Boobie infants. On the lava field at the far side of the arc, we observed several Short-eared Owls waiting to prey on the unlucky souls among the thousands of Storm Petrels darting about the shoreline on evasive flights to their nests. The tour took well over two hours—a different sort of adventure for most of us, but by the end it seemed worth every minute.
Later in the morning, over half the group returned to Prince Phillip’s Steps for some deep water snorkeling. Immediately after lowering ourselves into the chilling sea, we beheld the amazing colors of tropical fish munching in schools on the coral, a white-tipped shark, and the dreamy blue of the deep. Our bodies soon adjusted to the cool temperature as we glided into and through this utterly fascinating neighborhood.
Later, following a great lunch of fish and rice, we enjoyed the Letty’s enforced siesta. Unable to rest, however, the juniors spied a youth jumping into the sea from the upper deck of the Letty’s sister ship, the Flamingo, anchored close to us, and soon organized a nervous jumping party of their own. Jono McCusty was the first to overcome man’s instinctive fears of heights and drowning by leaping the 30 feet down to a thwack and a glorious explosion of bubbles. Repeating the feat, he soon inspired the others.
Our afternoon excursion took us to Darwin Bay Beach where we enjoyed another contemplative walk along the nearby lagoon and trail. Here again, we observed many Red-footed and Masked Boobies as well as Frigate Birds in their nests on the ground and in the dense stands of mangroves. Following the guided walk, we had a choice between more snorkeling or a simple rest on the beach among the resident sea lions. The grand vista of the caldera, with several boats swaying gently at anchor far out in the bay and the long rocky sweep of the caldera’s arc, the turquoise of the water, and the joyful exuberance of the children at home in this natural setting gave us plenty to smile upon. A pair of sea lion pups, having given up on their lethargic parents, frolicked in the tide pools at our feet. We watched them with endless amusement.
Back on board before supper, John offered—in the spirit of Darwin—a talk on the evolution of birds from reptiles, using photos of fossils suggesting the earliest bird ancestors. This was followed by another briefing on the next day’s adventures. Immediately after our seafood or steak supper, Steve showed the photos he had taken that day. Many of these photographs were really quite remarkable and helped us study again what we had only witnessed in passing. We retired soon thereafter, our first full day in the Galapagos Islands come now to a happy conclusion. It is worth noting that the number of juniors electing to sleep topside had by now more than doubled. They were well into forming their own expedition, as youth will.
This was a wonderful day. After another night of rock and roll on seas swept by the dry season winds, we found ourselves at anchor and becalmed off the north coast of Santa Cruz Island, just out from Bachas Beach. Most of the junior group had spent the night topside and seemed to be suffering no ill effects. Following a late breakfast, we disembarked at 9:00 for a natural history walk along the shore, noting the tracks and nest of sea turtles. Thereafter, we tramped across the dunes to a lagoon where we spent a blissful thirty minutes observing three flamingos feeding on the muddy bottom of the brackish pond. A few marine iguanas and a black-necked stilt completed the study. Later along the shore, we followed a great blue heron and heard more about the hazardous life of sea turtle hatchlings—barely three percent survive to adulthood.
After our walk, we enjoyed a full hour of snorkeling in the shallow waters of the bay. The viewing was extraordinary despite the overcast sky. The proximity of the fish—angel fish, butterfly fish, parrotfish, and several schools of silvery sardines—made for a wholly absorbing study. Some of us were clearly reluctant to come in when the time for a return to the ship approached. There is something quite mesmerizing about marine life observed this closely. One floats at the margin of a wholly alien world, following the movements and interactions of an incredible variety of creatures who have their own element and their utterly separate lives. One is a stranger here and yet not an intruder, for the creatures who live in the sea seem to take our wonder lightly, able to escape it instantly if it ever becomes troublesome.
During lunch we sailed to North Seymour Island, a rocky, flat island created by tectonic uplift rather than by volcanic eruption. After the mid-day siesta, we were offered another chance for deep water snorkeling and a search for larger creatures—sea lions, sharks, and rays. But the surface of the sea was fairly choppy, so the swimming was rough. Ellie Bosen, who retired to the panga escort early, made the most impressive sighting, a giant sting ray gliding nearby just below the surface.
Less than an hour later, we made a dry landing on the island in search of Blue-footed Boobies, Magnificent Frigate Birds, sea lions, and iguanas. The sky had cleared at noon, so after mounting the huge stone steps leading up to the island’s broad plateau we strolled under an enormous canopy of blue, the glittering sea below us. Despite the climb, the island is a favorite resting place for sea lions. We saw a great many along—and often on—our designated path, dozing deeply in the warm sun. A few pups, fresh from a dip, labored along in search of their mothers, bleating like sheep. Michael Shiplet had the best line of the day in describing a sea lion’s movement—“like trying to crawl in a one-legged wetsuit.” We saw many birds close-up: infants, fluffy chicks, and juveniles nearly ready for flight. Our guides had wanted to find male Frigate Birds with their crimson pouches. We were not disappointed, for Frigate Bird courtship was everywhere to be found. We spotted a few perched very close to the path, so we had excellent close-up photo opportunities. The behavior of courting males is both quite remarkable and somewhat comical, as they retain their bright windbags in wait for females overhead, then throw their heads back and thrust out their chests, clattering and vibrating their wings when a female nears—like musclemen at the beach.
As we loitered about the rocky coastline, we saw several black marine iguanas sunning on the rocks and a large bull sea lion barking as he patrolled the shallow waters below his seemingly indifferent harem. Later along the island trail, we spotted and photographed several large inland iguanas, one of them busy preparing to dine on a cactus leaf by first raking off the prickly spines. We also observed a Blue-footed Boobie feed her chick by opening her beak and gullet to the chick’s ravenous probing. Altogether we had a splendid walk through this lovely and fascinating kingdom, a rather longer musing than had been scheduled, for we didn’t return to the boat until several minutes after the announced 6:00 PM departure for the islands of Fernandina and Isabela, at 115 miles our longest voyage. The Captain looked a little dark as he peered over the stern rail at our return.
At 7:00, Steve offered a short talk on the process of natural selection. Some of the passengers began to get a little woozy from the long day in the sun and the Letty’s gentle but incessant pitching. Dinner this evening was somewhat sparsely attended. Most of the juniors repaired early to their beds on the sundeck, ready for the stars and the idle pleasure of each other’s teasing chatter. During our turn at the Captain’s table, we learned much about the life of a sea captain, the long separation from home and family offset by the happiness of so many passengers, making his vigilant task of navigating the restless seas surrounding the Galapagos Islands somewhat easier, Among the many operational questions, we learned that the 1800 gallons of fuel that the Letty carried would be sufficient for our 500 mile voyage. We slept easier this night.
First light was quite murky on this day. The Letty plowed on through hues of gray, furling out a veil of white at the bow, bound for the island of Fernandina. Once at anchor, we boarded the pangas for a dry landing at Punta Espinoza. Here on the precarious footing of black lava beds glistening at low tide, we studied thick communities of marine iguanas. On his visit to the Galapagos, Herman Melville described this reptile as the “strangest anomaly of outlandish nature . . . no voice, no low, no howl is heard; the chief sound of life here is a hiss.” Though it is idle speculation, it is easy to imagine that, in the cycle of reincarnation, the vain return as marine iguanas, their bodies black and nubby with spines, their faces awesomely homely with flat snouts, large lipless mouths, and dull eyes, an utterly repulsive appearance made complete with a long, slithery tail. And yet—like the one consolation of hell—they are not lonely. They sit clustered in groups, often resting one on top of the other, motionless in their lethargy, though always with an eye directed toward their appalled observers. Occasionally, one would expectorate salt granules from his nostrils—a further endearment, no doubt.
Our goal on this walk was the Flightless Cormorant, which we found nesting at the farthest reaches of the point. Unlike the Blue and Red Boobies of previous days, the cormorants were taciturn and stolid, occasionally opening a sapphire blue eye to us, but largely ignoring our investigation. They had eggs to hatch, after all, more important matters than mere civility. Even without wings functional for flight, they seemed in full possession of their place in the great scheme of things. It was as if, in exchanging flight for this easy proximity to land and sea, Flightless Cormorants had become masters of a domain they merely deigned to share with us.
The barrenness of the landscape was another fascination. Much of the path was over “ropy” lava that had solidified long ago in rippling flows—the “pahoehoe lava” as opposed to the “aa lava” (pronounced “ah-ah), which is much rougher from the gases that percolate through the lava as it cools. Along the way we also discovered the spine of a finback whale laid out for us neatly on the ground by a previous party of Galapagos naturalists seeking to illustrate the deeper structure of things. The tidal pools along the shoreline were also worth watching, for we were soon able to discover several sea turtles in one of the pools along with a couple of playful sea lions.
The pangas returned us to the Letty only after a further exploration of the shoreline, where we spotted more sea turtles, a few more active cormorants and some adorable Galapagos Penguins. The penguins were sunning and preening on the lava escarpment. Finally taking notice of us—and sufficiently disturbed by our curiosity—they dove deftly into the cool envelope of the sea.
On our return to the Letty, we were given forty-five minutes to prepare for the morning’s snorkeling expedition. This proved to be a truly wondrous adventure. We were taken by pangas to a spot near where we had walked, a point known to be favored by sea turtles. With our masks in place, we flopped into the chilly water one by one and headed off along the shoreline, gazing into the shallows, our breathing audible to us in this inner space. Within a few minutes we had found and surrounded a sea turtle grazing on the algae cloaking the rocks. Pushing on, we discovered several more, along with a few young sea lions who seemed pleased to have us as playmates as they dove and wheeled around us. Several of the encounters with the sea turtles were virtually face to face as they grazed placidly, then turned towards us, casting a cautious inquiry in our direction before gliding toward deeper water with gently waving flippers as if in slow-motion flight. Our “thirty minutes” here must have lasted at least an hour, for in the enchanting swim we had slipped beyond mortal time.
Once back on board, we had our traditional snack at the wetsuit station on the aft deck. The Captain set off immediately for the short sail to Tagus Cove on Isabela Island. The overcast, which had begun to break up during our snorkeling excursion, had now virtually disappeared. A few clouds lingered at the tops of the great volcanoes towering in the distance over Fernandina and Isabela, making them seem even more mysterious and grand.
Following another ample lunch with Ecuadorian specialties, including shrimp cerviche, pork, chicken cooked in cilantro, plantains, cobbed corn, tiny potato cakes, and a basket of unsalted popcorn at each table, we were again scheduled for a midday siesta. But the juniors wouldn’t have it. Again they took to jumping from the sun deck high above the surface in great gasping plunges into the cold sea. Nearly all of them made the leap this time, including a new recruit, Nate Adams, having rediscovered through his sons his own boyhood.
The afternoon excursion on Isabela began with a long float on pangas along the shoreline of the cove, searching for Blue-footed Boobies and Galapagos Penguins, which were abundant. We got close up to the stark dignity of a Great Blue Heron as well, along with a few more turtles and countless bright orange crabs scuttling across the rocks. Later, after a brief stop for water back at the Letty, the pangas dropped us off at the foot of the trail to Darwin Lake, visited by Charles Darwin during his five-week sojourn in the Islands in 1835. The walk up to the Lake, which sits in a caldera, requires some 130 steps. Having huffed our way up to an overlook, we were given the choice of a one-mile or two-mile hike. Nearly everyone chose the latter. So on we trudged to the highest point above the Lake, a tuff cone well marked with a path. The vantage point afforded spectacular views of the sea and the great sweeping landscape north on Isabela. We remained at the peak taking photographs for a good half hour before our dusty descent. Later, pausing at the foot of the trail, we studied the dates carved into the rocks by distant visitors, one of them 1836.
The Letty sailed again at 6:00, though on the way out from Tagus Cove and the strait between Fernandina and Isabela, we were told to keep a sharp eye out for whales. Steve, who studied cetology in graduate school, has both a natural and an acquired affinity for whales, so it was appropriate that he should spot the first one. There was great excitement aboard the boat, none more vocal than his, as the Letty wheeled about in pursuit of a closer view. We saw two whales, a humpback and a finback, the finback breaching barely 100 yards from the boat. After that it was calm again in the failing light, the sea taking on a sunset sheen. The two worlds of land and sea resumed their separate peace.
John spoke to us before dinner on plate tectonics and the titanic geological forces beneath the drift of islands and continents, another well illustrated talk by our staff of naturalists. The popular choice for dinner this evening was freshly caught grouper, which the chef had acquired from local fishermen in exchange for bread and chicken. It was our best meal thus far. After dinner, we lingered in the dining room, unwilling to have the day come to an end. Seizing the opportunity, Steve entertained us with card tricks. The jolly naturalist/photographer is always “on.”
Last night’s 100-mile voyage carried us back up around the top of Isabela and down across the Equator for the sixth time to the tiny island of Bartolome, just off Santiago. This was another rolling cruise over dark seas swept by the steady Southeast trade winds. But the wind had done its work during the night: we awoke to blue skies this morning, though still a good two hours from our anchorage. Breakfast was a leisurely affair.
At Bartolome, an extraordinarily picturesque volcanic islet, we wore swimming gear to our dry landing for the planned snorkel later from the beach. First, however, we climbed the 350+ wooden steps across a veritable lunar landscape up to the tuff cone that is the little island’s summit. The view from the top was truly spectacular: the lovely arc of Bartolome’s beach sweeping out across a turquoise lagoon to the tall spire of volcanic rock at the point, and then the grand panorama of sea, land, and sky beyond.
Following our official group photo, we made the long descent to the pangas for the transfer to the beach. Here we donned our wetsuits again for a marvelous snorkel out along the volcanic rocks and around the tower. We saw wonderful things, as promised: many varieties of starfish, penguins darting by, sea lions pirouetting under and around us, shimmering schools of sardines, puffer fish, parrotfish, and, inevitably, the elusive sighting of a shark. The hour devoted to this gentle underwater flight passed quickly. Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that everyone takes to water differently. With snorkeling, the differences intensify: within our little group, a few swim purposefully as if on safari; some glide slowly as if engaged in research and survey every square foot of barnacle-encrusted wall; perhaps one or two, unwittingly buoyed by their unsinkable wetsuits, think mainly of death by drowning; while others, no doubt just past such lurking dangers, contemplate the dazzling variety of life normally hidden from our workaday worlds and ease into a state of happy wonder. Others enjoy snorkeling but with a sense that there are equally absorbing pursuits—seven-year-old Rachel Hudgins returned to the beach early to build sandcastles.
Following lunch on board, we took a three-hour sail around Santiago to James Bay. The tranquility of the cruise on a glittering aquamarine sea under a robin’s egg blue sky scudded with tufts of cloud inspired a blissful torpor. Several napped or read in the balmy breezes wafting through the sundeck’s canopy—the Equatorial sun at this hour was too hot for sunbathing. Ahead of us in the distance lay the mammoth island of Isabela, her three sleeping volcanoes mantled in cloud. To our left, the long rumpled mound of Isla Santiago revealed no evidence of human settlement, only low scrub vegetation, leafless now in the dry season, somehow managing to flourish on the red and gray volcanic crust of the island’s surface. There are no Edenic gardens on the Galapagos Islands, only the survival of the fittest, and the fittest vegetation here hunkers down until rain or fire returns.
We landed at James Bay at 3:30 PM, time enough, it was thought, for the nature walk to the famous grottoes and then another swim. But there was much to see on the walk and so many photo opportunities along the lava beach that our full two hours was spent on a languid stroll, gazing at sea lions, marine iguanas, Red-billed Oystercatchers, and Lava Herons, as well as the great views out to sea. The grottoes themselves consisted of rough bridges left from disintegrating lava pipes. The area is much favored by fur seals, a species of sea lions with thicker heads and coats, who prefer sleeping in the shade. The footing was precarious at times, but we escaped accident, even with the youngest juniors among us leaping about, seemingly oblivious to the dangers of a tumble. Late in the walk, we discovered our first snake—a striped Galapagos snake—a narrow fellow of about three feet showing some evidence of previous harassment by herons. Some members of the group did linger for a brief swim, but everyone was back on board the Letty by 6:30.
At 7:00, Steve, always the genial apologist for the way things should be, offered a brief talk on the hazards of species introduction—“Not that you shouldn’t grow the flowers you want in your garden, but you should also realize that they’re not native!” And “. . . not that you shouldn’t have cats as pets, but uncontrolled they can do a lot of damage!” Then Pepe spoke of tomorrow on Santa Cruz and the Darwin Research Station. It was also brought to our attention that the Letty was running low on water—a common hazard on voyages with teenagers who shower four times a day. Fried shrimp was the popular choice for dinner this evening, followed by few tricks with a string by Steve.
We arrived at Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz well before dawn. This was our day to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station and to spend some time—and money—in the local economy. The day was windy and overcast, so the schedule worked well for these visits—on a day without a beach, there was no absolute requirement of sunshine. The breakfast at anchor, with the steady breeze pushing Pacific waves in from the south, was a rolling affair. There was no delaying our landing on this day.
The Station, located behind an impressive stand of mangroves just east of the town, is mainly devoted to the preservation of Galapagos tortoises. We visited corrals assigned to different species, including one reserved for “Lonesome George,” the sole survivor of a species of the giant tortoises on the island of Pinta. Other corrals held scores of newborns, numbered and separated by age up to five years, in the Station’s repopulation program. On close examination, the giant tortoises themselves seemed prehistoric, moving at a glacial pace toward their thrice-weekly feeding, then slowly chomping with their beaks on the greens strewn before them as if time itself would provide—the earth’s longest living creatures, giant tortoises live 150 years.
After the visit, we strolled for ninety minutes through town, shopping for souvenirs among the ubiquitous tee-shirt and jewelry shops. Some of us made better use of Puerto Ayora’s many internet cafes for much needed contact with the folks back home. Following lunch back on board the Letty, Steve offered a short course on principles of photography, focusing primarily on the importance of knowing one’s equipment in this new digital age of photography and the vital importance of placing a subject in its context—“we have telephoto brains but 35 mm eyes.”
At 3:30 PM we returned to the Island, this time catching a chartered bus for the thirty-minute drive to the highlands, first visiting a pair of dizzyingly deep craters formed ages ago as large areas of the earth’s surface collapsed into ancient magma chambers well below the surface. Not surprisingly, John reported that in his not too distant youth he had climbed into and out of the deeper caldera three times.
The highlight of the afternoon was a visit to a farm where one can photograph Galapagos tortoises in the wild. Here we were set free to roam the lush grasslands overlooking the sea in search of the tortoises, which were quickly located. We mused on these for a good long while, imagining their lives among thousands well before the arrival of the first human visitors, who soon decimated their population for meat and the oil from rendered fat. The tortoises at this elevation were all males. In the coming months during the mating season, they would creep downhill to the forests in search of females. Females, John explained needlessly, are always in charge of that business.
Following an orgy of photographing these rather reluctant subjects, we took tea, coffee, and fruit on the farmhouse veranda, which afforded a commanding view of the grasslands dotted with foraging white egrets and the sea beyond. In the sky over the distance we could spy a band of blue. It would have been fine to sit there for the hours necessary to coax it inland, but John and Pepe had one more sight for us. So on we went to the Galapagos Islands’ largest lava tube. This consisted of a mass of broken volcanic rock opening to a long cavern as large as a subway tunnel. One by one, we inched down the boulder staircase to photograph the natural wonder. Waiting for others to do the same, Scott discovered a female tortoise minding her own business—too close, it soon proved, for privacy. Her rounded carapace was as large as an ottoman. Will could hardly keep himself from jumping aboard.
The bus trip to and from the highlands allowed us a glimpse of the neighborhoods of Puerto Ayora away from the tourist shops. Here was life as lived in the few small towns of the Galapagos: children playing soccer in the streets, women carrying vegetables home from the market, dogs running loose looking for scraps, young mothers with their elderly family members sitting in open air rooms watching television. The men were largely absent. Perhaps they were fishing or working on the tourist boats. Many of the structures in this part of town were either incomplete or abandoned. Population on the Islands, of which 97% of the land is given over to the National Park, is strictly controlled.
At the 7:00 PM briefing, John reviewed the families of seabirds to an audience somewhat more politely attentive than curious, though John wisely gave folks an opportunity to guess from their newly acquired knowledge what his mercurial mind would turn to next. Following another delicious fish dinner, Anna and Rob—seniors among the juniors—determined that they would return to town for reasons known only to them. A panga and three chaperones were quickly enlisted for the bobbing float through the harbor to the pier. In Ecuador, the drinking age is 18, so they soon found an open air bar where they could play out the fantasy of a life at loose ends in the Pacific. After an hour of this “land snorkeling,” the borrowed money was exhausted, so they were ready to return without complaint to the clutch of their families and friends.
When the Captain predicted on the night before that “there might be some pitching,” he was understating the likelihood. This was our rockiest night, as we headed straight into seas that had been stirred by the Southern winds all day Friday. It was a rockabye baby sleep for most of the night. The Letty heaved, rolled, and groaned into the surging darkness, while in the snug comfort of our cabins, tucked under a fast sheet and coverlet, we hunkered down to sleep as best we could. At breakfast, surprisingly, no one reported any difficulty. The sundeck sleepers were a little tardy but apparently untroubled. By this point, evidently, we all had our sea legs.
Our last full day in the Galapagos Islands began with a planned morning on the white sand beach of Espaňola, the southernmost island of the archipelago. This visit was slightly postponed by Steve’s sighting of a whale. “A whale, a whale!” he shouted as he hustled out to the deck from breakfast, followed by both the curious and the willing. So our beach disembarkation quickly became a pursuit of the sighting, which proved to be of a humpback and her calf. The whales moved about the bay as if playing a giant shell game with us, sending us dashing back and forth from one fresh sighting to another. We never got within two hundred yards of them.
The beach itself was quite lovely and a favorite napping place for sea lions. Strolling up and down the beach later, we took many close-up photos of nursing pups and their dozing mothers. The sky remained largely overcast, so no one was much inspired to lie down among these whiskered companions. But the sweet idleness was so thick and soft, you could cut it with a feather.
Just before lunch, seven of us went off for another run at deep water snorkeling. We took a panga to Isla Tortuga and spent a happy forty-five minutes in close-up viewing of tropical fish, coral, and starfish cast into vivid relief by the white sand floor. It was our final visit to the marvelously different world below the surface of the tranquil waters found in the coves and bays of the Galapagos. The immense variety of life here, both among the fish and the coral formations, remained as beguiling as ever.
The Letty departed for Punta Suarez on the opposite side of Espaňola as soon as we were back on board. After lunch and a short siesta, we boarded our pangas again for the short ride to the dry landing inside the point. Here we were greeted by many sea lions and a patrolling male, or “beachmaster,” along with the inevitable marine iguanas frozen in their swarthy vigilance. We set forth on a long, rocky trail across the point, pausing to photograph a few Blue-footed Boobies and a pair of Galapagos Hawks perched on a lava outcrop. At the far side of the point, we had a good chance to observe the magnificent Waved Albatross. But that is putting it poorly. In truth it is difficult to find words to describe the setting and the experience we shared there. But it is my obligation to try, so that it might live again, at least in my mind’s eye.
The vantage point is a grassy bluff on a long run of cliffs fronting the sea and the winds that drive the surf roaring over the rocky shoreline below. For as far as one can see in either direction, the mounting combers roll in one after the other in grand explosions of turquoise and foaming white. Above us, the birds are aloft in an ecstasy of flight: Red-billed Tropicbirds brilliantly white against the blue of the sky and sea, trailing their long tail feathers in groups of two or three, chattering to each other as they flutter along the cliffs, then out over the surf, then back again; and the Waved Albatross, a bird so ungainly on land, yet one that assumes the air with such mastery of flight, gliding down from the heights to a course just above the peaking waves and then up again with the surging wind currents rising against the cliffs to an elevation from which it can continue to watch its nest and yet still mark the far horizon, the great arc of the sea of which it seems forever fully possessed, soaring with such effortless poise in long loops back and forth over cliff and tide that the Waved Albatross must know it leads a charmed life. Add to these the Swallow-tailed Gulls, out and back to their nests on the cliffs with such dexterity that they seem to land on rock against the wind like winged ballerinas on their tiptoes; and the Masked and Blue-footed Boobies, relieved from nesting by their faithful mates for a turn, headlong and purposeful in their flight; and the pelicans galumphing along in the air until in a moment they wheel over and dive, arrow thin, into the sea; and the Galapagos Hawk in the distance, sitting on the wind so stationary in his predation that he seems nothing more than a dark spot on the sky. All this at once, this carnival of flight, this celebration of unbounded wings, and in a setting so overwhelmingly beautiful that in the end one can only describe it as a religious experience.
On the way back to the landing, we paused for several minutes at “the blowhole,” a formation in the rock through which the pounding surf thrusts in explosive geysers of spray. Thereafter, we strolled past a nesting site for the ubiquitous marine iguanas and then on across a rocky plateau where we observed several boobies on their nests with their chicks. A few minutes later, young Will had a hand in guiding the panga back to the boat, another life changing experience for youngsters on this trip. Marcos the waiter had snacks waiting for us when we returned, as he had on all of our previous excursions. This time it was tender morsels of chicken on the bone.
The Captain fired the Letty’s engines soon thereafter, heading for Puerto Moreno where he promised on this final night we would find a gentle sleep in the harbor. Several minutes into the last leg of our voyage, John Adams ventured onto the bridge, looking to learn a little seamanship. The word quickly got out that John was steering the boat, so up dashed Will, Rachel, Mari, and Rob, all of whom soon took a turn at the wheel.
This evening, just as the sun was setting, the call went out that dolphins had been sighted near the bow of the Letty. This was soon changed to pilot whales—“pilot whales!” Steve called out, virtually hoarse from excitement. In a moment, everyone was on the decks shouting and pointing. The pilot whales were everywhere, breaching and diving around and under the Letty. We all were laughing and dashing about, stumbling over each other as we rushed from bow to stern and back again to catch the next breach or ghostly green silhouette in the deep below the bow. “There’s one!” “No, over here!” “Just look at them go!” As if ordained by the spirit of our voyage, pilot whales would serve as a fitting end to our cruise as they piloted us homeward.
Later, as the Captain joined us for the farewell reception, we toasted the crew for their fine service and the guides, Pepe and John, for their leadership and friendship. Parents and grandparents received a round of applause from the juniors, and we spoke a moment further about future adventures through W&L. Our final dinner followed, the spirit of the voyage deep within us all. At 9:00 PM, the lights of Puerto Moreno flickered in the distance.
Following an early breakfast, we disembarked one last time so that the crew could prepare the Letty for the second group of W&L passengers. The sky was overcast, which matched our mood. We spent an hour poking around the port’s commercial street to kill time before our transfer to the airport. A few of us found the town’s Catholic Church by following the sound of choral music blaring over loudspeakers. The church was the largest building in town, as cavernous and spare as a circus tent, with many more chairs than parishioners. A few of the locals appeared to be praying hard—lest we forget that what we had experienced on the Islands was only one part of the life lived here.
On arriving at the airport, we discovered that our flight had been delayed an hour, so the tedium of waiting would be extended. Steve had joined us to say farewell to Mari, who was leaving with us, and to greet the next group, which arrived on time under clearing skies. We could only watch them pass by from a distance, confined as we were in the boarding area. Little did they know, beyond the language of promises, what lay ahead.
We arrived in Quito at 3:30 PM. Once again, Roberto greeted us, full of smiles. After another warm reception at the Hilton Colon, where this time we were assigned rooms in the executive tower, several of us strolled through the park across the street from the hotel. Here we found another market with a great many sidewalk artists exhibiting paintings and Indians selling pretty much what we had seen in Otavalo.
At 7:00, we departed for our final dinner at La Ronda. The food was truly outstanding, though the restaurant’s electrical power kept shutting down. We spent half the meal dining by candlelight while a terrific pan flute and guitar band serenaded the room—another image of Latin America, perhaps: a dazzling folkloric tradition shining through a new and uncertain technology. We opted to forgo the dessert and coffee, as many in the group were weary and had developed headaches from the abrupt change in altitude. Roberto had also alerted us to the 3:00 AM wake-up call for half the group, so we were eager to bank some sleep.
We’re all on our way home now. Group two is at Tower Island, having an easier time of it. We left the hotel in darkness at 4:00 AM, only to discover during a seemingly interminable wait in line at the Quito airport that our flight had been delayed 90 minutes, with the result that many of us had to be re-routed. Thus we had returned to the familiar world of traffic delays and the myriad frustrations of daily life, even before we had departed.
And yet, if memory is a form of consolation, we had with us now bright images to send our thoughts to—a mental menagerie of fantastic birds, sea turtles and tortoises, the glistening companionship of sea lions, elusive whales, smiling faces young and old, and the vast, untrammeled roll of the sea.
On reflection, Melville’s description of the Galapagos Islands, with its evocation of a Plutonian landscape full of shrieking birds and hissing reptiles, seems now a bit dark, more indicative of his era’s preoccupation with heaven and hell as well as his own obvious disappointment at not finding, after long months at sea, a verdant tropical isle. It is better to close with a passage from Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, with its gentle speculation on the birth of the islands and what they might suggest—to borrow a phrase from the book Darwin published years later—of “the origin of the species”:
“The archipelago is a little world within itself . . . . Considering the small size of the islands, we feel the more astonished at the number of their aboriginal beings, and at their confined range. Seeing every height crowned with its crater, and the boundaries of most of the lava-streams still distinct, we are led to believe that within a period geologically recent the unbroken ocean was here spread out. Hence, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact—that mystery of mysteries—the first appearance of new beings on this earth.”
The passage serves also as a fair extension of our own sense of wonder. We had discovered through our own voyage a place wholly different from our familiar world: far out from land in the wide, cold sea lay islands that, though strange, were hauntingly beautiful. And the life that we found there, so curiously different from the flora and fauna of North America, was most notable for its sweet tolerance of our presence, its untroubled return of our interest. In this way, these “new beings on this earth” offered a mute expression of a simple truth, one that we must all embrace or else ultimately fail as a species—that we must share the planet.
In the Galapagos Islands, we had found the Peaceable Kingdom.
-- Rob Fure