Before setting off for our ‘holiday-of-a-lifetime’ I had my forebodings. However wonderful it might be, the prospect of spending a week on a small boat in the Pacific Ocean, out of touch and miles from medical care, seemed risky, even ill-advised. Accordingly, for an oldie such as myself, looking forward unreservedly to spending time in such a hostile environment was difficult.
Now we have returned safe and sound, I can say that that our trip to the Galápagos Islands, 1000km off the coast of Ecuador was truly wonderful and, as is often the case with new experiences, the trip also caused me to learn more about myself.
On the last evening of our holiday we, that is my wife Rohan and I and a Swiss couple whom we had befriended, had just finished dinner on the 16-berth catamaran which had been our home for seven days as we travelled from island to island. Over a nightcap we reminisced and I suggested that each of us in turn might describe our most memorable images of the week. There were a myriad possible pictures: after all we had just visited a vast and unique World Heritage nature reserve where animals and plants have evolved in their unique ways, their development influenced not by the polluting effect of human occupation but by the local conditions on the islands, interrupted sporadically by volcanic eruptions that spewed lava flows and ash clouds.
For the others round the table, finding favourite images seemed easy. From the coastal rocks, it was the sight of young sea lions tumbling over each in the sea like puppies. When snorkelling, it was seeing marine iguanas grazing on vegetation on the sea bed and feeling giant turtles brush by, apparently unconcerned by human presence. In breeding areas on land, it was watching blue-footed boobies doing their strange, almost clumsy mating dance routine.
When it was my turn I felt awkward. While I shared the delights of the images they presented, I realised that for me, such images alone had relatively little meaning. This meant I could not easily join in with the game that I had initiated. I found myself explaining that I could not say that a particular flower or bird was for me memorable, for me sights were only truly memorable when they stimulated new ideas and that often it was the ideas that took precedence. Explaining my perspective was difficult and I soon gave up.
For me, one notable memory was of a dozen or so finches flitting through the branches of a tree, spotted as we walked past a seawater lake known as Darwin Lake. It was not because of their intrinsic beauty – they are in fact small, grey and rather dull – but because the forebears of these nondescript birds were observed by Charles Darwin. It was the variation in their size, beaks and claws from island to island that gave him key insights into the theory of evolution by natural selection, published after 30 years of research in ‘On the Origin of Species’.
Another memory was of our guide scampering dangerously near a cliff edge to pick up a sweet wrapper. We had climbed to a peak from where there were panoramic views but none of these views remain in my mind. It is a strict rule that the islands must never be contaminated by human artefacts so, when one of our group dropped the offending wrapper, no matter what the risk, it had to be retrieved. It was the picture of the retrieval that was retained in my visual cortex.
A third memory is of a nest of a flightless cormorant, a rare swimming bird found only on these islands. These birds have elaborate parental arrangements. The female of a pair sits on a flat surface just above the high water mark and builds a nest around her using seaweed collected by her partner, which she glues together with their droppings. After the eggs are laid the pair incubate them in turn for five weeks and together they look after the chicks for three months. The initial job done, the female leaves to find another mate while her erstwhile partner looks after the young for a further 6 months. Throughout the whole period the nest is home.
This particular nest was a sight to behold, but nothing like as captivating as our guide’s approach. The pair had built their nest on a narrow landing stage, which meant that we humans had to clamber across several metres of slippery rocks to avoid disturbing them. Over the months in which the nest is occupied, someone will slip into the sea or get stuck but, for our guide, the idea of sacrificing the nest was unthinkable. Yes, these birds are rare, and a few years ago were almost extinct, but the species is now safe and the image of this nest showed vividly the balance struck by our guide. On the one hand he was bent on safeguarding the flightless cormorant’s procreation and on the other, he has a responsibility for ensuring human safety.
Our voyage to the Galápagos Islands was extraordinary in terms of the wildlife seen, but my key memories are not just of the animals and plants but of their relationship with human endeavour – something it is impossible to photograph and proved difficult to explain. Moreover, Rohan was right; the trip she had dreamt of for years and which we had taken to celebrate her seventieth birthday was one of the best yet. I should never have been so reticent.
Photo Credit: Blue-footed boobies by Georg Kocherhans, 2016