Wednesday, February 11, 2009

How I Met Darwin

How I Met Darwin 

My biggest and most enduring passions in life are traveling and the natural world. I have been to the Galapagos Islands several times, the first was 23 years ago, when I saw Darwin’s famous islands arriving on a freight ship from Guayaquil. I had been on my first long voyage, traveling the Andes, when inspired by a photograph of the sky over the archipelago I headed out to sea. This first travel truly changed my life. It awakened lifelong passions that, growing over all those years,  I now make my profession. And it inspired me to learn more about Darwin, which is not so surprising as I had dreamed of being an explorer since childhood.

My most recent visit found the place as fascinating as ever, and I learned a lot of new things about every aspect of nature – including my own species (Homo sapiens). There was a lot of new development in the town of Puerto Ayora, and many places were hard to recognize. Some people I had met during previous stays were now gone, and others, trying to eradicate invasive species, had carried their passion for this marvel of nature to new levels of dedication.

In the highlands I saw (and heard...) the giant tortoises mate, and got really nostalgic seeing my hammock trees, the gigantic and non native balsas. I took several day trips on boats, and learned to appreciate the ocean surrounding the islands even more than before. These waters are teeming with the most amazing life, from crustaceans to the most colorful fish. Over 300 species have already been described from the rich ocean waters around the archipelago, and there is a strong effort made to giving them the same protection and control as life on land.

Chamaesyce amplexicaulis 
Euphorbiaceae- Native, from Isla Bartolomé

On the morning of the last day of my stay I decided to visit Tortuga Bay as a final good by. The hike from town takes a little less then an hour, starting at a tall rock overhang, which used to be a large obstacle along the trek, and now is the edge of the rapidly expanding residential development. A new cobbled path leads you over fields of rough lava, with the occasional group of tree opuntia.

In this arid coastal zone giant prickly pear (Opuntia echios variation gigantean and O. echios variation barringtonensis) and candelabra cacti (Jasminocereus thouarsii) grow on what seems to be barren lava flows, but actually hosts the most species. The path is great for bird watching; endemic mockingbirds and the famous finches flew by on their search of food in the first hours of the equatorial day.

Lizards basking in the emerging sun spread out on the black lava. This was a quiet place this early, permitting intimacy with my beloved Galapagos sky, dominating this island world.

Finally, I arrived at the long, wide beach. Years before I had seen sea (the pacific green) turtles laying their eggs here, but this was neither the right season nor the right time of the day. It was going to be a sunny and hot day, and the Pacific honored it’s name by producing a mellow surf. 

In the shallow water I could spot the fins of small sand sharks breaking the surface, and the few rocks on this sand beach hosted the ever-present sea iguana drying in the sun and spitting sea salt.

Luminous orange-red Sally-Lightfoot crabs contrasted with the black lava, and sanderlings ran up and down the water line.  

I had a wonderful walk along this absolutely pristine beach, and went all the way to it's end. Another well-laid path allowed me to walk along the water further, eventually leading me to a place where more birds were fishing along this rocky mangrove (Rhizophora mangle
) coastline, and I sat down for a while to watch them hunt for breakfast. 
What pure pleasure to take them all in on my last day of visiting. I think I remember masked boobies, a brown pelican,  lava gulls chased by the perpetual robbers the frigatebirds, and red-billed tropicbirds among others. I watched them for nearly an hour, and when I turned around I stared at a booby, sitting only a few meters to my right watching a lava heron, which in turn was watching the water’s surface intently for little fish. Sweet!

A turtle swam by, into the lagoon, and at one point I thought I could see a small manta fly by underwater. What a perfect good-by those Galápageños were giving me! 

But the sun was standing higher now, really heating up the day. I decided to finish the last part of the path and go swimming in the small sheltered bay, hidden around a long bend. The path led me to an area with an old grove of gorgeous tree opuntias, and immediately there were a few finches circling about.

Coming around another turn I startled; 

A few meters ahead between a few tall plants, stood a man wearing a old straw hat and wide shirt and trousers of a rough material which looked like linen. I looked closer:

He was a young odd-looking fellow with huge 19th century reddish-blond sideburns, staring at me at least as surprised as I was.

‘Hi – my name is Darwin’, he said with a clearly British voice.


‘Hi – I thought so!’ I answered without thinking.


What a stupid response, where were my manners? How about a polite “Nice to meet you Charles, heard a lot about you!”

Something was truly odd here, and in my puzzlement I turned to my left still not thinking properly.

There it was: about half a dozen more people, all in normal modern clothing, holding microphones and cameras. A film crew!

And not just any film crew as it turned out, but those insanely dedicated and talented guys that were finishing the shooting of the great BBC documentary ‘Galapagos: The Islands That Changed the World’.

We exchanged a few greetings and explanations, and they asked if I had seen any sand sharks. After I told them where, I went on my way, still quite bedazzled.


Yes – my Darwin was ‘only’ a filmmaker taking advantage of his likeliness with the great naturalist, and was acting as him in a segment of the documentary – but to me, that morning, I had truly met Charles Darwin in his world.

Happy Birthday