The Galapagos Islands are truly an ornithologist's paradise. Frigate birds, boobies, gulls, tropic birds, finches, mockingbirds, herons, hawks, albatrosses and penguins. Add to this iguanas, giant tortoises and volcanoes - what a treasure trove of Nature, her processes and abundant works; much of it unique to the Galapagos Islands.
It is a dream of any geologist, biologist, most scientists and indeed many others to visit the Galapagos Islands, made so famous by the researches, deductions and hypotheses that led Charles Darwin to his conclusions that formed the basis of his seminal book: The Origin of Species - The Theory of Evolution. And here I was, at last.
Most readers' general familiarity with the story of Darwin and his theory renders it redundant that I should turn this piece into some sort of dry text on the subject. Suffice it to say that the science, although pretty conclusive to most of us, continues even today to present a problem to some; especially certain faith-based folk who see, unshakeably and some might say simplistically, major conflict with Bible teachings. It took Darwin many years of rumination on the specimens and data from his Beagle voyage (1831-36) and diversions into other topics (e.g. barnacle research) before the threat of being gazumped by a similar thinker, Alfred Russel Wallace, catalysed publication of The Origin in 1859. And such were Victorian times that even then, there was to be no plain sailing and acclaim for Darwin. His book scandalised the church and affronted those who believed humankind represented the pinnacle of creation and could not possibly have 'evolved' from 'ancestors'.
Subsequently, most Christian folk came to accept that the Genesis story might be merely a metaphor, and that continuing conflict between the discoveries of science and God's creation could be unproductive. Ian Stewart in his book Mathematics of Life puts it well: "Those who believed in the literal truth of the Bible painted themselves into a corner by tying their entire belief system to an unconvincing denial of a huge and ever-growing body of scientific evidence". Another well-known scientist has been more succinct: "If we ever find a fossil rabbit in the Jurassic, I shall review my contempt for the Creationists".
In order to understand why it was here, in the Galapagos Islands, that Darwin was able to gather the evidence he needed to formulate his revolutionary ideas, I need to summarise the geological setting and sequence of formation of these roughly two dozen islands of assorted sizes. For this purpose, a little personal history will not be irrelevant.
I feel very fortunate indeed to have had my initial geological training in the mid-1950s when it was well known that earthquakes and volcanoes occurred largely in defined 'belts' around the globe- but there seemed to be no convincing reason why this should be so. I recall that at about age six I pointed out to my mother how the east coast of South America fitted neatly into the west coast of Africa and that she was so interested in this observation that she found another example - Madagascar and Mozambique. For at least 100 years this had been only too clear to scientists, who felt some mechanism must exist to have produced such coastal correspondence. Then, in the 1960s, studies of magnetic pole positions over the eons, together with increased mapping of ocean floor topography, led to the startling conclusion that volcanic material was constantly welling up along mid-ocean ridges, and moving relentlessly towards the continents at which boundary the former, having to 'go somewhere', slid under the continent. The resulting friction caused earthquakes and also the heating that produced volcanoes. Sometimes continents had parted (e.g. South America and Africa) and at other times, when the 'irresistible force' met the 'immovable object', continental buckling produced features such as the Himalayas.
The Earth was shown to consist of a number of restless crustal 'plates', and the concept of Plate Tectonics was born - at last there was a scientifically acceptable mechanism to explain so much. And this is why I feel privileged to have lived through a time of such great, new understanding in my profession. There are still a few perplexities, such as Hawaii being situated in the middle of a major plate and far from a mid-ocean ridge. An anomalous 'hot spot' accounts for volcanism there. But the Galapagos is a more readily understandable situation. These islands directly overlie a point where two sub-plates meet (and part) and thus permit local upwelling of basaltic magma from the hot and fluid mantle, upon which the lighter crustal material 'floats'. To the south is the Nazca Plate, whose eastern margin is continuously sliding under the west coast of South America, producing earthquakes, volcanoes and, of course, the Andes. The northern Cocos Plate gives Central America an equally tough time.
So the Galapagos Islands are composed of uniformly basaltic rock with continuous but variable movement of oceanic material over this junction, and that of the hot spot itself, resulting in the oldest, more southeasterly islands gradually eroding and giving way to later islands to the northwest. And these latter are indeed where we find the active volcanoes - five on the largest island, Isabela, with Fernandina, still farther west, constituting a sixth. These recently formed islands are considerably younger than the older ones, which are themselves only some three million years; geologically, a milliwhisker of time!
As they formed in their turn, each of the islands, when cool enough, began to support its own assemblage of fauna and flora, which developed in their own way. Let's consider the finches, say. Originally finding their way from the mainland, they accommodated to their specific island environments over time in such a way that a single species slowly evolved into some fourteen different species to the point where interbreeding, even if that were possible, would not have produced fertile offspring (such fertility being a critical, definitional requirement of a single, viable species). The finches may not look all that different to the casual observer then or today, but Darwin was anything but cursory. Most distinctive were their various beaks, which evolved to a form most suitable for dealing with the food available - some with long thin beaks, others with shorter and stronger ones for a different job. Thus, did the finches adapt. Another instance of avian adaptation that my wife and I had found impressive a few weeks earlier was the way the very small and fast-flying swallows(?) darted in and out from behind the cascading Iguassu Falls in Brazil in the early morning to feed on mid-air gnats. That afternoon, after heavy overnight rainfall upstream had increased the flow immensely, there was not a bird to be seen. They were snuggled into their nests in basalt crevices behind what was by now an impenetrable cataract. Nothing can touch these birds and their survival is assured.
Coral 1, on which we spent eight days, is a small vessel carrying some 36 passengers with all meals found and excellent guides allocated from the National Park. The authorities are very careful about numbers visiting the Galapagos Islands, and if it looked as though there was quite a crowd at the little airport, we were soon assigned to our various pre-booked boats and rarely thereafter saw any human beings other than those on Coral 2, with whom we sailed (at a distance) for reasons of safety. We were now 1000 km from the mainland and mostly a touch south of the equator, although when we did cross that line in the evening some days later, I found the momentary GPS reading of 00° 00' 000" interesting for its final-figure precision of 30 cm. We were never going to be faced with "Where the heck are we?" at that rate!
Some people expect to see almost mythical creatures - weird hybrids, such as turtles with feathers. Sorry, no such luck in the 'real world', although most of the land birds, reptiles, land mammals and many of the plants and marine species are found nowhere else on the planet. For me, the one surprise was the size of the iguanas. They are far smaller than I had expected. I shall blame Richard Attenborough for this. It never occurred to me that although an iguana may well fill my TV screen, it is not necessarily therefore the same size as a gorilla that does likewise! Never mind - there are two species of iguana, black ones that can disappear against the same-coloured lava, and the so-called land iguanas which are far rarer and a ruddy yellowish colour. Both can approach one metre in length for the largest individuals, and the black ones are the only lizard on Earth that swims. The black ones, particularly, congregate in seething masses and are not bothered at all by our presence - a trait almost unnervingly shared by most Galapagos wildlife. Birds, especially mockingbirds, will often sit on a branch, half a metre away and, at our eye level, engage in a staring contest with us. The human is invariably defeated, and these aptly named fowl will trouble paranoiacs.
The blackness of the coastal iguanas' leathery hides has evolved for their protection. Such camouflage against the matte-black lava of their habitat certainly helps their young to survive predatory forays by some of the larger birds. But their colour has not helped them in very recent times with we humans invading their paradise, albeit doing our level best to avoid treading on their tails or worse. These islands consist almost entirely of this pitch-black basalt lava, which is of two types: aa and pahoehoe. They are both Hawaiian terms. Aa ('ah-ah') is the sharp, blocky more viscous basalt that spits from the volcano and remains close to the cone. Pahoehoe ('pa-hoey-hoey') is more fluid and flows much farther from the vent. It is commonly of a ropey texture, said to be due to wind disturbance as it flows and cools. You can happily walk on pahoehoe - aa will cut your feet (or footwear) to pieces.
Of our first landing, on the island of Santa Cruz, I have little recollection. I was ill and seriously enervated. What I do remember was watching strange pelicans that looked and flew like pterodactyls; and our guide telling us that male iguanas have two penises. Although the female knows her job, she is usually not terribly cooperative, it seems. But there is no escape - if she swishes her tail to the left, the male uses his right organ, and vice versa. By the time I re-boarded the boat I was miserable with severe tummy trouble. The next day, I wasn't game to leave with the others for the island of Santiago, and repaired to a padded recliner on an upper deck with a good book. Before long, the captain, a likeable seaman in his early 40s, sat down a few metres away and we commenced a long conversation in which we explored our lives, jobs, pasts, touched on the future, and wandered into sundry philosophical musings. His English and the weather were both close to perfect, and I sensed a certain restoration of abdominal balance as the day took its course. Late afternoon, I was told by our sympathetic guide that if I had to miss any of the islands for whatever reason, today's was the one he would have chosen. Right or wrong, I chose to believe him!
We had crossed the equator twice during the night to be lying off the youngest island of Fernandina by daybreak. This island owes its existence to La Cumbre (The Summit), a volcano which last erupted intensely in 2004 and has in recent years been threatening to do so again at any moment. At a mere 30,000 years old, Fernandina is the youngest island of the Galapagos. A startling way of looking at this age is that 30,000 years is approximately one trillion seconds (1,000,000,000,000) - a number in the order of magnitude of the US Government dollar debt as I write!
Nature goes about its business with a certain gusto in the Galapagos. Although iguanas fear no predators when mature, the population is (despite appearances) relentlessly trimmed with their young being regarded as delicacies by snakes and the Galapagos Hawk. Sharks love baby sea lions and turtles, who frequently seek the protection of mangrove-fringed lagoons. We were told that average annual rainfall on Fernandina is 100 millimetres; less than 250 mm defines desert conditions (e.g. the coast of Peru). According to various websites, this is very low compared with measurements elsewhere in these equatorial islands. Weather here is strongly influenced by El Niño (warm, higher rainfall) and La Niña (cool, lower rainfall), oscillating events which can bring hugely variable weather patterns. Far more rain will fall in the humid, green highlands of Santa Cruz, for instance. Extreme events have been known to seriously affect both marine and terrestrial ecosystems.
Upon re-boarding Coral 1, I noticed a brass plate affixed to the wall in the lounge which stated: "Marriages performed by the Captain are valid only for the duration of the voyage." Lunch, which my seemingly repaired stomach craved, commenced with my first taste of Cerviche, the most beautiful cocktail imaginable of shrimp, tomato, red onion, capsicum, lime juice and cilantro (coriander). Try it some time! I'm told that Costa Ricans, too, are devoted to the taste of cerviche. Black bean soup and heart of palm salad also became great favourites with most passengers.
Isabela is the largest island and, lying just east of Fernandina, is also very young. We sailed into the crater of Darwin volcano, so named for having been Charles Darwin's last landing, and one of five still-active volcanoes whose lavas have merged over the last million years to form the island we see today. Upon landing, we climbed out of the crater to the rim via some 130 old wooden steps, thence a further walk to a smaller, secondary crater filled with very warm, saline, and utterly lifeless water. There is no obvious channel to the main bay, and yet this lake is tidal, which bespeaks hydraulic connection at depth. It was on Isabela that I had my first sight of the bright-blue-footed Boobies (large birds, also bright blue of face and eyes, and the subject of some pretty tasteless T-shirts). As do we all, the boobies have their own idiosyncratic way of courting. Their courting dance commences on open ground and results in a large, clear, dished 'pad' into which eggs are eventually laid. Before their offspring hatch the parents defecate extensively around the boundary to seal the dust. Black and white Galapagos Penguins abound on Isabela and are perfectly camouflaged against the guano-spattered lava - an evolutionary imperative for their survival. They are the only species of penguin at, or anywhere near, the equator and have found their niche just here. Why? Because the local waters are so cold, courtesy of the Humboldt Current.
Bartolomé Island is in some ways my favourite. On this tiny island volcano there is a cone, easily climbed via recently constructed wooden steps, from which extends a gloriously unrelenting, small-scale landscape of various red, orange, green and black volcanic formations. Little cones and rising, jagged pinnacles as far as the eye can see (we are not very high - 114 m above SL). The main crater forms another protective cove into which boats now sail. Many of the surrounding 'vents' are in fact 'spatter cones', formed during eruptions when globs of steam-propelled highly gaseous lava crashed to earth like wet mud pies leaving structures that resemble vents but aren't. The somewhat unusual brownish, friable lava-ash mix here is the result of lava together with gas and water having emerged wholesale, as it were, from the sea floor rather than by a single conduit of basalt from the hot spot. The film "Master and Commander" (Russell Crowe et al.) was shot around these parts.
And so, back to birds. As the reader will realise, I am not a biologist, but one cannot be but totally impressed with Galapagan birdlife. Frigate birds are as beautiful a sight as you are likely to see. Males are all black with a scarlet throat pouch which blows up like a balloon during mating season; females sport a white breast. At nearly half a metre long and over two metres wingspan, these magnificent birds silently accompany every ship that sails upon these waters. The reason is that many vessels are indeed fishing boats, and the birds scavenge for scraps. They have not worked out that by National Park regulation the tourist boats are not permitted to throw anything at all (food or otherwise) overboard. Frigate birds eat only fish, but as they never land on or dive into the sea, their modus operandi is to hassle other sea birds such as gulls, boobies and albatrosses until they release their own hard-won catches which the Frigates then swoop on and consume as they fall. And this is one time you will note that what looks like a single spiky tail suddenly parts into a 'swallow tail' to give this huge bird a surprising degree of manoeuvrability. Later, on Española, we were privileged to be able to observe their nesting and courting displays. I could never tire of watching Frigate birds.
Apart from albatrosses, of which we saw few flying, the other spectacular bird goes by the rather ordinary name of Tropic Bird. They are pure white with black upperside wingtips, bright red beaks, and a two-feathered single wispy tail as long again as its body. All in all, one metre both ways, and pretty fast. Flaps more than a Frigate and somewhat 'nicer' in that the tropic birds dive for their own food (fish and squid). These we saw and marvelled at as we circumnavigated tiny Champion Island off the larger (southern) island of Floreana. Some of the local birds, like the penguins of Isabela, or the December flamingoes of Española, are seasonal and/or unique to a certain island. Others, such as Darwin's finches, the various gulls and the boobies are far more ubiquitous even if, as with the finches, different subspecies have evolved to fit snugly into their own ecological niches. The dreaded blackbird, unwisely introduced later by man, is a merciless predator and shot on sight as a matter of policy. And the National Park people are slowly winning the battle to eradicate rats (not to mention the odd cat, pig, goat, dog and donkey), also carelessly brought to these islands some 400 years ago. Many, like North Seymour, are now free of this pest; others are still being baited. The trick has been to develop a poison that will not affect native wildlife. Not easy.
The island of Floreana, by the way, is noted for its golden-greenish beach of olivine crystals, a major component of lava from the Earth's liquid mantle, and also for the Post Office, a wooden barrel set up by eighteenth century whalers into which they deposited addressed cards and letters to loved ones. Subsequent sailors would then go through this 'mail' and retrieve anything addressed to their own home towns to deliver upon their return. They would of course leave their own mail, and so it would go on. Nowadays, the tradition continues, and we collected the few cards to Perth in Western Australia - and left some of our own. I doubt the speed of delivery has changed much over 300 years.
As a last hurrah we revisited Santa Cruz before landing on the oldest island of Española. From Port Ayora, a medium-sized town of moderate prosperity, a bus took several of us to the central highlands to see a number of the iconic Galapagos giant tortoises 'in the wild'. That they were there at all was testament to an 'anti-extinction programme' that let them get on with breeding after generations of sailors and island inhabitants had eaten most of them. Their only natural predator is the Galapagos Hawk, which preys on eggs and, as with iguanas, newly hatched youngsters. Other dangers to the young include most of the imported pests mentioned above. Adult tortoises certainly are pretty big - 80 kg (small female) to 200 kg for a large male. Five to a tonne! Maximum authenticated age is 175 years - at Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney. As an aside, note that 'Galapago' is Spanish for 'turtle', so they got it nearly right.
The giant tortoise eats straw and grass and moves at about the same rate as its food grows. After spending an hour wandering amongst these beasts we gathered for the return trip, only to learn that our bus had suffered a flat tyre and would be at least half an hour late. No worries - the café would stand us a free coffee. We had just sat down to these when Erica, our guide for the day, came racing up breathlessly crying out "Quick, quick, hurry up, follow me - two tortoises are copulating!" So we all rushed up the hill to this Galapagan sex show only to be told a few minutes later that there really was no rush. Although the male had already mounted his mate, it would be at least an hour before they would manoeuvre themselves into a position where genuine consummation would actually take place. As a voyeuristic spectacle, the whole scene was a bit of a dud. The bus arrived shortly, and not a moment too soon.
That afternoon was spent at the Charles Darwin Centre run by the National Park. Here you can see in various enclosures tortoises, iguanas and other lizards, some birds caged and others free to fly where they will, but mostly staring at us at our eye height from close range. The enclosures are dry, dusty and dirty, the wooden and concrete fences are falling down and the boardwalks funnelling visitors from one species to another have largely deteriorated to dangerous levels. As far as public presentation is concerned, this visitors precinct is a national disgrace. I questioned where my national park fee of $100 had ended up. There were quite a few people thronging around at the time, and at one enclosure I noticed a small youngish Japanese woman bobbing up and down trying to get a look over the wall. I had a good spot where a couple of bricks had fallen out, so I grabbed her attention and beckoned her over. She pushed roughly past me, knocked out yet another brick, peered over the wall at an inoffensive yellow land iguana for some five seconds, literally screamed "Ugh" - and rushed off at a pace. I wondered why she was here.
The Charles Darwin Centre also conducts major research in a number of biological areas and hosts scientists of international status in many fields. To be fair, the laboratories and research facilities looked to be in top condition and of a high standard. So I guess that's where our money was going. The shops seemed adequate, if a little unexciting, and I came home with a poster depicting Darwin's finches, their distribution and beak variations. I was tempted by a T-shirt bearing the text "Survival does not depend upon being physically the fittest, nor mentally the most intelligent. Survival is the reward for those most adaptable to change". The message, whilst indeed conveying a powerful truth, seemed to me to lack that snappy pizzazz essential to a dynamic chemise. They didn't have my size, so I was spared the decision.
As the most southeasterly of all the islands, Española is the most 'ancient', dated at around three million years. It is home to very much its own variety of finches and mockingbirds, and the normally pitch-black iguanas tend here to be somewhat greenish, or even of a ruddy hue. We wandered amongst breeding albatrosses who paid scant regard to us, even as they tended their young, and also were able to approach fairly closely frigate birds while the males puffed out their scarlet throats to impress potential mates. As impressive as anything else was our elderly Canadian shipmate and friend, recently widowed and still travelling seriously at the age of 88.
A final note of some interest. A couple of years ago I read somewhere that scientists associated with UNESCO's Man and Biosphere Programme regard Western Australia's Fitzgerald River National Park along the south coast of my home State as in many ways comparable with the Galapagos Islands, especially with respect to the diversity and uniqueness of its flora. I recall spending time in that park not long ago, and the raptures with which my more botanically oriented wife greeted the flora there still causes me to reflect that perhaps we do possess a genuine, but as yet unremarked, sleeping treasure.
Quito, the capital of Ecuador, lies in the high Andes at 2850 metres. Landing (and taking off) at the airport is long and fast and can represent quite a challenge. After swanning around at sea level for ten days we had lost any elevational acclimatisation we may have acquired earlier in Peru and Bolivia. As with other Andean cities, Quito has its share of natural disasters; volcanoes, earthquakes and, no doubt, consequent landslides inflicted upon the poor. The city trends north-south and spreads west to the lower slopes of a major volcano, which is very active and last 'blew' properly in 1999. But there is a bright side - the main vent is just below the peak and itself faces west, so although it is an 'ash' volcano, with all the attendant dangers of its type (cf. Mount St Helens in Oregon, 1980), the ejecta is blasted away from the city and prevailing winds keep it west. Earthquakes are a different matter. The last big one was in 1987 (7.3 Richter) and inflicted serious structural damage. If you live in these circumstances rebuilding becomes a matter of course. The town of Ambato, some 150 km due south of the capital required almost total renewal following an eruption and earthquake in the 1950s.
I recall reading some years ago that, to reduce traffic congestion in the city, Quito had introduced a system whereby only vehicles bearing numberplates ending in even digits would be permitted in the city one day, and those bearing odd digits the next . . . and so on. This sounded most sensible, if a little disrupting. But the common 'punter' can be relied upon to find a way around most legal obstacles. In Quito, those intolerably affected acquired a second vehicle bearing a 'complementary' plate, and congestion was said to have increased to new levels within weeks. I doubt the situation is helped by fuel being heavily subsidised and retailing at $1 a gallon for diesel and $1.40 a gallon for petrol. The unit of currency in Ecuador is the US dollar, so this is not far from what we in Australia now pay for a mere litre!
For me, the highlight of these last few days in Ecuador was always going to be the Avenue of the Volcanoes. For this icing I had first to endure a couple of days' munching through the fairly ordinary cake of various markets. Those at Otavalo are indeed justly renowned for the quality and selection of leather and textiles produced by the enterprising local indigenous people. We had driven north to Otavalo, crossing the Equator on the way. Our driver stopped where he said it was, and indeed, high up on a hill to the west was a large, blocky, redbrick structure which, we were told, contained appropriate bronze plaques. The Equator had apparently been ceremonially 'opened' by some long-forgotten Presidente some years ago. But I digress - the point of all this is that the weather was sunshine perfect.
Unfortunately, the next day was overcast, but of course there was no option - the planned excursion went ahead. As we drove on through the grey gloom, various major volcanoes were pointed out where they undoubtedly would have been had they not been taking the day off. I could not help smiling at the whimsical notion that suddenly my logical life had become faith-based! But this was disappointing - such a pity to have missed my treat.
Lunch that day was great fun, and getting there was, for me, even better. Our driver took us up a seemingly infinite, winding road towards the top of Chimborazo which, at 6310 m, is not only the highest volcano, but also the highest mountain in Ecuador. We did not make it to the top, but then we had not expected to. This volcano last erupted around 550 AD and is considered 'inactive'. I'll accept that. Recently, I had noted that Wikipedia referred to Bolivia's highest (Andean) peak as an 'extinct stratovolcano'. Dormant (= inactive) I would accept, but to refer to any volcano within cooee of South America's western seaboard as extinct is to my mind a folly. But what I loved was that the otherwise barren slopes of this landscape were strewn with sharp-edged lumps (pebble to small-shed sized) of acidic lava, dating from that last eruption and looking as though they might well have been blasted out yesterday. Add the fact that it was lightly snowing as we ascended, and the overall effect was spooky. At 4700 m, we came to a large shelter where our driver talked some National Park guys into providing a large bowl of soup each and crackers. So welcome! While we ate, about twenty other folk there were re-kitting themselves in the appropriate gear for an overnight trudge to the summit - picks, boots, parkas and tents. And as much chocolate as they could carry.
We left Chimborazo for a more comfortable overnight stay at a motel in Riobamba. As with the Rio of the Brazilian capital, there is no river anywhere near Riobamba. Centuries ago, the Spanish could not handle the Quechua name Ricbamba, with 'ric' meaning 'wide green valley' in the local argot. So the invaders decreed that the town be changed to Riobamba, a pronunciation they could urge their reluctant tongues around.
Riding the famous Devil's Nose train at nearby Alausí involves a 500 m descent along a series of zig-zagging narrow-gauge tracks that were laid along the sides of a steep valley over 100 years ago for access to a mine. An amazing feat of engineering that nowadays is preserved purely for tourist purposes. The train is pulled along a portion of track for some distance until a spur line suddenly appears, branching back from the rails you are riding on. Once the entire train is past that junction, the points are switched, and the engine now pushes the carriages back as the train is now directed onto the next portion of line . . . and so on - pull, push, pull, push until the train reaches the bottom of the valley. The scenery is breathtaking and although from one side you will always be hard up against the near-vertical valley wall, a peek out the opposite side will reveal nothing, from the top anyway, but half a kilometre of sheer drop to the valley bottom. It is only by an act of will that you can imagine the truth of there being a set of rails beneath your carriage. Of course, you will never see them. We learned later that there had been a 4.5 earthquake in Quito while we were riding the train, at the same moment as one of magnitude 6.5 had killed about 60 people on the Chile-Peru border. It took little imagination to extrapolate the likely chilling effect of such an event on the Devil's Nose railway.
And, finally, for the really good news. On the way back to Quito that afternoon there was a series of partial breaks in the weather and the magnificent snow-capped symmetrical cone of Cotopaxi, at 5897 m one of the world's highest active volcanoes, emerged into view. I felt an overwhelming contentment - almost as though my working life as a geologist had in some way been endorsed. Our last night in Quito, indeed in Ecuador, the meal was excellent, South American red wine is not half bad, and I was at peace with the world and my fellow man.