I have spent good amounts of my time in the wilderness, both in small groups of people and alone. I’ve sat on the shores of an island in Vancouver with a close friend, staring into the water and thinking about the lives we would return to. I’ve woken up in the rolling tundra around Denali, and been reminded that my snoring certainly kept the bears away another night. I’ve walked for days without seeing another human being and quite enjoyed the company of myself and the sound of my own voice.
But the Galapagos is altogether different. It is not just an experience with nature, it is a view into a world that does not exist anywhere else I’ve been. New Zealand, before the arrival of the Mauri and certainly before the arrival of the English, was a pair of islands without large predators, where almost two hundred species of flightless birds roamed. Today, none of those species exist thanks to the introduction of stouts and other predators who quickly exterminated species en masse.
But in the Galapagos, you personally experience a world without large predators. Massive tortoises slowly roam the islands, casting a less-than-interested glance at anything that approaches. Frigates form nests on the ground, with no need to fear anything other than the unmated members of its species (who often attack the young of other mated pairs, supposedly due to petty jealousy). Land and marine iguanas bask in the sun, and barely bat an eye as you pass. Sea lions bark at each other, seemingly unaware of the tourists whose cameras bloat with pixels and pixels of images that just can’t seem real.
One of my nephews takes some amazing photos, often spending hours waiting for just the right moment to capture an animal in just the right light or pose. In the Galapagos, you walk right up to the animal (respecting the 2 meter rule) and take a photo that you can’t quite believe you took, hoping that when you look at it in a month, a year, or a decade, that you’ll be able to evoke some memory of what that moment felt like.
A priviledged path
I spent time on Santa Cruz island, where the largest city of the Galapagos, Puetro Ayora, is located. While this is not a TripAdvisor review, I do need to mention (for my own future recollection – hopefully you realize I write this blog largely to suit my own purposes) Cecilia, who runs the Posada del Mar hotel in Puerto Ayora. Cecelia tried to talk me into staying somewhere else, simply because the school next door had music/dance/drumming practice for the next three days. Her care for me was so sweet, and if I didn’t feel like such a poser I would have called her ‘Tia’ instead of Cecilia during my stay.
Each day held something new. I went scuba diving my first full day in the islands, and despite limited visibility and contracting a cold from freezing to death in the water, the underwater world is always a great visit. I wouldn’t rate my dives highly, but a few white tipped reef sharks, a marble ray, a frog fish, and of course schools and schools of hundreds of fish were spectacular. The next day a somewhat dull half day excursion took me to a farm with amazing giant tortoises, some lava tunnels, and the two giant sinkholes called “Los gemelos” (the twins). These are pretty standard tourist fair because they are close to Santa Cruz.
A dream in the water
The most memorable moment of my trip came the next day on a tour of two islands just North of Baltra (below are the notes from my daily journal):
Today, on the Isle of Mosquera, or more accurately in the water in front of the beach, I connected with my fellow mammals like I never have before. We were given 40 minutes to snorkel, and I had been really reluctant to get into the water given my sore throat and oncoming cold. But I had rented a full wetsuit even though other people went in the water with just fins and snorkel.
The first ten minutes I swam along rocks, and saw some great fish. I thought to myself, “This is good. Not great like the Cayman Islands but good.” As I swam back towards the beach, a grey blur shot past me, and I realized a sea lioness had come to play. The next thirty minutes, I regressed to being seven years old, with a giant smile underneath my mask, spinning and spinning in the water (the signal for “let’s play” to the sea lions). They rode the waves in with me, spinning and spinning, almost always with their heads watching me. For a while they chased me, and one kept sticking her face in front of me as if to say, “Hey, are you paying attention to me?” Then I started chasing her and she went crazy wild, swimming quickly away and then shooting right back at me. We played tag without ever touching, and then her friend joined in. At one point, I began to roll over and over again as I propelled myself forward with the swim fins, and the two were swimming circles around me, making something like a double helix as I spun inside their orbit.
It was bliss. It was two different species, with no common language except physical movement, dancing in the water together. Euphoria. At one point, swimming less than a foot away from me, one sea lion showed me her teeth in what was either a giant grin or notice that if I messed with her she could tear me apart. I’m going to say it was a smile. I wish I could send her a postcard.
The morning before my departure from Santa Cruz, I woke early and walked out to Tortuga beach, which was entirely lacking in Tortugas. But I watched a juvenile sea liion hunt in an enclosed pond, saw heaps of Marine Iguanas (pronounced “mari-juana” when said quickly by locals in Spanish), and watched blue herons, pelicans, and other gorgeous birds along the ocean. I popped in a quick visit to Las Grietas, which is an interesting channel of water that goes through the rocks, but my cold was worse so I stayed out of the water.
The boat trip to Isabela island was two hours of hull-strikes-wave slamming monotony, though I did meet a great couple from Seattle (J&J) who I would get to see for the next four days. The next day we were on a boat headed to Los Tunneles, where a “Group Snorkeling Activity” ensued. For me, group snorkeling where you play follow-the-tour-guide through stop after stop with a host of people who don’t have any body control in the water and who often stand on the bottom (or worse, kick their fins on the bottom), is aquatic kryptonite.
Quickly I decided I would separate myself from the group. This led to 1) better visibility 2) a more intimate experience with the wildlife (giant sea tortoises, sharks, fish), who would usually come rushing away from the cloud of sediment stirred up by the group, straight to me, where we could just relax and share our thoughts about whether this is just a cycle of authoritarian populist regimes in power, if it’s the last gasping breath of ignorance, or if this is a sign of longer trend towards more neanderthalic thinking in our global society. (Note: Generally the sea turtles are less reactionary and believe that we can wait this out.)
I became quite separated from the group near the end, and as I headed back towards the boat, where I could hear the squawking of the tour guide, I passed through a low, narrow arch, just as two white tipped reef sharks, each just under two meters, came through the other way. While distances in water are deceptive, it seemed close enough that I could have touched both of them by just reaching out my arms.
Returning in the afternoon, I rented a bike and visited The Wall of Tears, El Estero, and all the other sights along the road out East.
Despite a growing skepticism about “hikes” as a part of tours, the next day’s trek to Volcán Chico did not disappoint. Our guide warned us gravely about having enough water, and pushed us to walk quickly so we could see everything. At the end of the 16k out and back hike, the last to arrive, and the one being given water, was the guide. J&J and I were joined by J&R, a couple in their last month of a a year-long, round-the-world trip before they move to San Diego. The change in climate is incredible along the hike, from misty wetlands to dry, barren volcanic rocks of red iron and black basalt.
I’m lucky to have had as much time as I did, but…
I am not sure I should be allowed in the Galapagos
Despite years of natural selection driven by market forces and the seeming lack of any development of taste, the Tourista Gaius species (Worldwide Tourist) appears to seek the same shallow emotional nourishment regardless of their presence in the Bahamas, Las Vegas, Rome, or the Galapagos Islands.
These appetites are the forces which spawn rows of trinket and t-shirt merchants which blanch the flavor of any endemic experience, and generate additional population pressure to satisfy the need for Crapus Souveniris that have multiplied on these islands.
If the appearance of these items amongst the native and endemic species is not unnatural enough, the beastial drinking instincts of Tourista Gauis cannot be quenched with water, but demands that establishments and encampments be created where malnutrition and inebriation can be readily experienced (Pubbus Cheesius) under a set of multi-colored lights.
Sadly these organisms also breed in almost any environment, and their offspring are rarely a mutation that has any improvement over the previous generation.
– Bryan J. Rollins, Origin of the Tourist Species, 2018
At odds with the deep, serene feeling of gratitude for this experience is the consideration that maybe I should not be here, and that maybe others should not as well. The numbers of tourists per year is said to be 150,000 – 250,000 per year depending on who you ask. Several full flights of passengers arrive in these islands each day.II
Now, cities really only exist on three of the islands, so the others remain very pristine, with only guided visits and scientists leaving any trace. Yet there is such a great deal to risk in even the footprint that is here today.
As the world population grows, I hope that places like the Galapagos get very strict about holding the limits of visitors despite the fact that there will likely be demand for a billion visitors in the near future.
Thinking in a new direction
I do want more people to experience nature – not in the voyeuristic sense to where these trips are trophies that turn into social badges of facebook posts or the story to tell co-workers that accompanies your sunburn or “I like (blue footed) Boobies” t-shirts. I cringe when I hear, “Now we’ve DONE the Galapagos,” as they stride away, having filled up a digital camera and a tote bag but their brains and hearts remain empty and the impact going only one direction.
Am I worthy to have visited? I can say that I know the Galapagos has helped in the evolution of my own thinking. This five month trip through South America is a physical journey, but my deeper hope is that with space, with nature, with time to reflect, and with time to project, I’ll emerge with some better notions of where my heart and mind are at.
As I left work in June, a part of me wanted to walk away from purpose, because of how hard a task master it has been for me for the last 40 years of my life. And yet, I can’t help start to think more deeply about purpose. Friends who know me well have furrowed their brows as I talk about disappearing into small town Australia to live a life by the ocean, with a local focus and less expansive vision for life.
The last two weeks on Easter Island and The Galapagos Islands have stirred up the beginnings of a hunger for something bigger. I asked myself, “What are the biggest problems in the world are today?” WIthout giving away too much of a future in-the-works blog, certainly climate change is an extinction level event, and spending time in nature has reminded me of how worthy the cause is. The Galapagos provides such a stark contrast between the sections that are so well protected and those where we’ve imported some of the worst of humanity’s habits. So I can at least claim I’ve been moved by my experience here and am considering a different direction for my life because of it.
But am I worthy? I think only my actions of the next 50 years can answer that question. (Note: I can answer this question for a lot of the other people I saw on the islands. No, no they are not worthy – excluding of course the company of the people I hung out with on the islands who were exceptionally great people. Clearly this time embedded in nature has not reduced my ability to summarily judge others based on their jeans shorts or quest for the fifth best mai tai in The Galapagos).