Following in the Footsteps of Darwin and My Dad in the Galapagos

Weeklong Galapagos Islands visit cruises through evolution’s birthplace

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” — T.S. Elliot

I always knew that someday my global explorations would lead me to the Galapagos Islands, since they are world famous for hosting a unique assortment of my favorite creatures that crawl, fly or swim. To satisfy my critter craving, I opted for a one-week cruise with Mountain Travel Sobek, mainly because of its 14-passenger limit (we had only seven.)

In addition to exploring the birthplace of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, I wanted to see where my father, as a young Air Force pilot, had lived from 1942 to 1943, flying long, lonely missions across the Pacific to protect the vital Panama Canal from attack by the Japanese.

After an overnight stay in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, our small group convened to catch an early morning flight to the Galapagos. Two hours later, we landed on tiny Baltra Island, one of the 13 islands comprising this Ecuadorean archipelago. I eagerly scanned the terrain surrounding the airport for traces of the military complex the American soldiers had built, but aside from the airfield, all signs of where my dad and his buddies had worked and played (betting on tortoise races) had disappeared.

Shortly after our landing, we met Patricia, our onboard naturalist, after which a private van took us to a Galapagos tortoise sanctuary in the middle of the surprisingly verdant island. I felt elated to encounter dozens of those unique, 500-pound behemoths on their native soil. As Patricia explained, “The only other giant tortoises in the world live in the Seychelles. There used to be thousands more tortoises here, but sailors over the centuries took most of them away, keeping them alive on their ships until mealtime.”

Following a brief rest stop in Puerto Ayora, the largest settlement (population 12,000) in the islands, we boarded our ship, the Galaxy, and I settled into my cozy cabin with its private bathroom, twin beds and large window. Culinary wizards in our ship’s galley prepared scrumptious meals that astonished us, particularly the fresh fish dishes at dinner.

Each day of our weeklong cruise, we sailed to either a different island or a different part of a large island, such as Isabella. I was struck by how greatly the vegetation varied from one island to the next — thick, green shrubs and small trees blanketed one island, while another featured jagged lava fields interspersed with sparse shrubs and cactuses.

Our daily itinerary alternated between three main activities: hiking modest distances on generally arid, rocky trails; cruising through mangrove estuaries in a small motorboat; and snorkeling (or kayaking when weather permitted) in the warm waters. I thoroughly enjoyed each type of outing because we invariably encountered fascinating and varied wildlife. Most creatures were unafraid of humans, which afforded us intimate views of sea lion families, iguana colonies and a wide variety of birds. One of my favorite encounters occurred during a coastal hike when a couple of small flycatchers, irresistibly drawn to shiny objects, repeatedly landed on the tip of my camera lens.

The snorkeling, when weather conditions allowed, revealed an abundance of colorful fish such as I have seldom seen elsewhere. Much to my delight, one morning I found myself swimming with a group of penguins near our boat.

Our mangrove excursions proved to be the most surprising of our activities. The mangrove ecosystem supported a large quantity and variety of birds, fish, manta rays and mating sea turtles.

This trip also confronted us with the reality of life and death in nature, as the El Niño-warmed ocean waters, lacking sufficient nutrients and algae, resulted in a large number of starving marine iguanas. Our guide, Patricia, explained, “Warm water is dead water. Cold water holds more oxygen, more nutrients, and supports more life. It’s sad to see, but this cycle has happened before, and the populations eventually rebound.”

When I reflect on my Galapagos adventure, I am thrilled to have walked in the footsteps of my dad and Darwin, observing close up so many of the islands’ unique creatures. Thinking about my dad’s time there, I wish he were still around to compare notes about our experiences on “the Rock.” I believe that if he had gone there with me, he would have arrived where he started and known the place for the first time.
Quito: Swissotel, 12 de Octubre No 1820, Quito; 593 2 2567 600;

Mountain Travel Sobek: (888) 687-6235;; January through May is hotter and wetter weather; June through December is cooler and dryer.

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