Creature Comforts

Time travelling to the Galápagos Islands
A shorter version of this story was published in the October 2007 issue of enRoute.

putter fish galapagos

Something is staring at me in the warm salty water, its wide-set eyes dumb and blank. He hovers there, this striped fish the size of a football, swimming  near the shore. After what feels like minutes he glides away. We’ve had a moment, whether he knows it or not, and this is what you seek in the Galápagos: Big Important Moments.

I am snorkelling off Santa Maria Island, 600 miles west of Ecuador and many thousands more from my landlocked home. The yawning jaws of the Pacific Ocean, which stretches beyond this point to the horizon, seem capable of swallowing a person in one quick gulp. Here, though, the water is tepid and calm. It becomes murky from my feet shuffling across the bottom.

With their barren remoteness, the 18 Galápagos Islands are the iconic evolutionary laboratory. The real action is under the lava-crusted moonscape, beyond the acres of unchecked brush–a wedge of green in the vast blue wilderness–and past the little volcanic burps of islands.

The Galápagos are in the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire. (British Columbia and the Yukon are also part of this seismic network.) Sixty-mile-round pillars of molten rock, known as mantle plumes, rise from their submarine base about 1,800 miles down, perhaps deeper than the crust of the Earth. Magma shoots up from a hotspot, creating an underwater island that grows with every eruption. Eventually, these submerged mountains become new islands. As one of the books in the cruise ship’s library puts it, the islands rose from the ocean floor–they were never connected to the continent. When a volcano dies new islands form, the cycle of life is repeated at a yawning pace as the continental shift pushes the islands away from their life source, like Cheerios in a cereal bowl sailing off into the distance.

The brown fish gone, I go back to my snorkelling and inhale through my nose in a kind of graceless reversed snort to suction the mask to my face. The pressure from the suction and from clamping on the bit causes an immediate headache. Peering down in the shallow water, I see a penguin the size of a large duck dive bomb off the cliff and shoot past me underwater. Big Important Moment #2. I spin around to follow the penguin but see only dirty water and other peoples’ flippers.

Paddling a few metres, I keep an eye out for the penguin, but instead have intimate views of bare legs and bright swimsuits. You travel to the middle of nowhere to observe Nature at its most pristine and elemental and end up swimming in a school of people. Then, I glance down to see a gelatinous mass shifting under me – a stingray. Seconds later, a three-foot reef shark glides by. Big Important Moment #3. They’re harmless, I’m told, but  I pull off my mask, head to the beach and entertain myself by watching a colossal pelican perch in a tree.

That so few creatures managed to populate the islands makes the ones that did all the more remarkable. The origin of species wouldn’t have been possible in this forsaken place without the volcanic rock. All wildlife and organisms originally floated, swam or flew from the mainland, and many were lost or perished; the ones that survived are accidental tourists. Even with carefully controlled crowds of people marching by every day, the blue-footed boobies, frigates and Sally lightfoot crabs prosper and the blubbery sea lions pay us no mind. Eventually, says Roman, a native Galápagonian, as we plod down a trail one morning, “they’ll retire, eat some sardines, get some sun, take it easy”. One afternoon, I watched the fast-moving sea lion surf a wave and swim out to do it again.

Ecuadorians, mostly young women, move here to work 12-hour days every day for six weeks straight on the cruise ships. Other people are searching for something, and it’s easy to find deep meaning in even innocuous brown fish. Nowhere is the ridiculousness of life, of the human condition, more apparent than when stumbling down a trail to find a bottleneck of about 20 people gathered to watch all of civilization on show. A pair of blue-footed boobies perform their mating ritual in the middle of the path, oblivious to us as they open their wings in a heart shape, fanning and cawing. They peck at each other’s beaks, their flirting looking an awful lot like fighting. After taunting and teasing, the male flies away out into the ocean.

On arriving at Baltra Airport a few days earlier, the Galápagos National Park attendant handed out a questionnaire asking which activities visitors were most interested in. One option: solitude. But on package trips, solitude is practically impossible. Our twice-daily nature walks are divided into brief parcels time in which we shuffle down a few hundred metres of shoreline. On an hour-long desert walk on Santa Cruz (“It looks like Baja,” someone says), we see the jawbone, perhaps of a land iguana, placed just so on the side of the trail. Our guide picks it up and waves it in front of us. “This was from the last group of tourists,” is his well-rehearsed sound bite. We head back to the ship after an hour or two and hide from the equatorial sun.

The landscape on the islands is not so much barren as it is minimalist. The edges are gritty and messy and smelly. A cliff side on Punta Suarez, on Española Island is coated with the bones and feces and feathers of colonies of blue-footed boobies and chick-snatching frigrates. Despite their Edenic reputation, the Galápagos are brown most of the year. Flamingoes, masked boobies and jellyfish with their electric blue whips are bright spots in a mass of muted plants and animals. On San Cristobal, lichen hangs from trees–Galápagos Gothic. The hardened lava moonscape on Santiago Island looks menacing, but the volcanic rock underfoot sounds tinny and light. In a crevice, what appears to be ice, but is in fact hardened salt, pools at our feet. Nearby, a miniature rainbow crests in the slipstream of a crashing wave.

Here, the concept of time is as outsized as the islands themselves. The oldest island, Española, is between three and five million years old. The youngest, Fernandina, a mere 700,000. Tortoises can live a year without food and their life expectancy is 200 years. At the other end of the scale, slightly bewildered blue-footed boobie chicks wander around the rocks on Suarez Point, their wispy bleach-white feathers not yet slick and smooth.

One night after dinner, I retreat to the empty top deck of the cruise ship. The boat is small and each morning at 4am I wake with a maddening nausea. Now I’m laying on a wooden chaise longue, slowly rocking to sleep. As the boat sways left and right, the entire star-marked sky appears to slide back and forth to the tick of a  silent metronome.

The next morning, I have my last Big Important Moment. A colony of sea lions has congregated around the makeshift dock where we wait for a our ship. An eight-week-old sea lion nudges its mother’s belly for food, but she isn’t serving. The pup flops around, trying another female lion, but gets barked out by his mother. The pup, still fuzzy and lean and naïve, furiously inches over the rock toward the ocean’s edge as the mother tries to block him like a goaley. The mother barks and groans, but still the pup tries to get to the water. So the mother picks up the pup in its moth and hauls it a couple feet away from the water across the rocks. The pup is determined, and crawls again over the rock, making it to the cliff face as the mother follows.

Then the mother heads to the surf. The pup, now alone, totters on the cliff’s edge as if in slo-mo, his life a cradle hanging over an abyss. If it ends badly I don’t want to know. I cup my hands over my ears and turn away, watch the waves crash against the rocks and waiting for everyone’s gasp as the pup goes over the edge.

+ Read more from enRoute – Seoul Searching: a journey through modern Korea and its monasteries