“There was nothing more beautiful than seeing those islands bleed into view. I left a face imprint on the airplane window.”
In Dialogue With Darwin
I assume you know of Charles Darwin. Perhaps you were first introduced to him by your wizened biology teacher in elementary school. When I think of Darwin, images of a long grey beard, a boat, and finches immediately come to mind. What do you think of? Before you read any further, I will make the assumption that you have heard of the Galápagos Islands.
Darwin published a book, Voyage of the Beagle, in 1839, three years after his five-year voyage at sea. It catalogues his observations and theories and is, in a sense, a polished travel journal. I pulled quotes from Voyage of the Beagle and wrote responses inspired from my journey to the Galápagos Archipelago in January 2016, 177 years after Darwin’s.
Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black basaltic lava is everywhere covered by a stunted brushwood, which shows little signs of life. 1
There was nothing more beautiful than seeing those islands bleed into view. I left a face imprint on the airplane window.
The breastplate roasted […], with flesh attached to it, is very good; and the young tortoises make excellent soup but otherwise the meat to my taste is very indifferent. 2
It is now a heinous crime to kill a tortoise. But Zambo said when his Mom was young, she ate tortoise.
A few years since, the sailors belonging to a sealing-vessel murdered their captain in this quiet spot and we saw his skull lying among the bushes.3
Beware the Baroness ghost on Floreana Island. She comes to bachelors’ bedrooms and tugs on their feet. One night we told spooky stories on Playa Negra while a sea turtle crawled from sea to shore.
It is a hideous looking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid and sluggish in its movements.
They are not at all timorous: when attentively watching anyone, they curl their tails, and raising themselves on their front legs, nod their heads vertically, with a quick movement, and try to look very fierce.[4. Ibid. (p. 280)]
Zach is an expert on marine and land iguanas. They nod their heads as if they have a nervous twitch or something, cursed to live on black lava.
Of shells, there are a considerable number of land kinds, all of which, I believe are confined to this archipelago.[5. Ibid. (p. 286)]
No shells to bring back. Fernando shook his head at Grace when she picked up a broken sand dollar. Every piece counts.
The black sand felt much hotter, so that even in thick boots it was quite disagreeable to walk over it.[6. Ibid. (p. 274)]
Our tour guides strongly advised us to wear closed-toe shoes with laces. They went barefoot.
I was always amused when overtaking one of these great monsters [a tortoise], as it was quietly pacing along, to see how suddenly, the instant I passed, it would draw in its head and legs, and uttering a deep hiss fall to the ground with a heavy sound, as if struck dead. I frequently got on their backs, and then giving a few raps on the hinder parts of their shells, they would rise up and walk away;—but I found it very difficult to keep my balance.4
You must maintain a six-foot, or two-meter, distance from the animals. We took selfies with the tortoises. I preferred the tortoises on Floreana Island.
Extreme tameness […]is common to all the terrestrial species. […] A gun is here superfluous; for with the muzzle I pushed a hawk off the branch of a tree.5
The baby sea lion liked our toes. The yellow warbler hovered above my outstretched hand. The sea turtle and I came up for air together. The terrestrial species can break the six-foot rule (we stuck our selfie-sticks and go-pros too close to the penguins once).
I several times caught this same lizard […] and as often as I threw it in [the water], it returned. […] Perhaps this singular piece of apparent stupidity may be accounted for by the circumstance, that this reptile has no enemy whatever on shore, whereas at sea it must often fall a prey to the numerous sharks. Hence, probably, urged by a fixed and hereditary instinct that the shore is its place of safety, whatever the emergency may be, it there takes refuge.6
I felt like that lizard when I was thrown back into Manhattan. The Galápagos are my refuge from the city. But I can’t return. Too expensive, and I am dutifully responsible to numerous sharks at home.
This archipelago seems to be a little world within itself. 7
We all had different favorite islands. Mine is San Cristobal. I think Stella’s is too. Zambo likes “Isabela La Bella.” We met two boys, a bit younger than us. Ivan and Rashid. The former native to San Cristobal, the latter to Floreana. They’re both Galápagueños but are islands unto themselves.
When I first read Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, I missed many details. When I reread it upon my return home, I saw that he too noticed the marina iguana’s head-twitching, the birds’ ambivalence towards humans, and the tortoises’ hiss. The 177-year gap between us dissolved.