Enchanted Islands: Charles Darwin and The Voyage of the Beagle

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“In wildness is the preservation of the world.”  – Henry David Thoreau

By Clover Carroll

Pinnacle Rock
Pinnacle Rock

Imagine yourself on a narrow strip of soft, white sand, while the sun sparkles on clear, turquoise waters lapping gently at the beach and flocks of enormous sea birds wheel and swoop overhead. Sea lions honk and play on the beach, while a rare lava gull hops among the surrounding black lava rocks and a yellow-crowned night heron wades in the shallows. If you decide to don your snorkeling gear and take a paddle, you are dazzled by colorful schools of king angel fish, blue-chin parrot fish, and razor surgeon fish silently nibbling at the underwater rock surfaces that plummet to an ocean floor studded with sea stars so numerous they seem to reflect the stars in the sky. If you’re lucky, a playful sea lion or diminutive penguin might swim by, or you might even catch a glimpse of a prowling white-tipped reef shark gliding beneath you. A dream? Paradise? Eden? No, it’s just Darwin Bay on Genovesa Island in the Galápagos, which I was blessed to visit earlier this summer.

Before I embarked on this trip of a lifetime, I followed a friend’s advice and read The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) diary of his five-year trip around the world when he was a young naturalist of only 22. While this account–which included the visit to the Galapagos Islands that laid the foundation for his theories of evolution and natural selection—was published in 1845, it took him 25 more years of research and study of the specimens he had collected before he dared, in 1859, to publish On the Origin of Species, which he rightly guessed would turn society’s world-view on its head. It was thrilling to walk where Darwin had walked and to share his wonder and excitement as we encountered the many endemic species of animals and plants that occur nowhere else in the world. “Considering the small size of the islands, we feel the more astonished at the number of their aboriginal beings, and at their confined range…. Both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact–that mystery of mysteries–the first appearance of new beings on this earth.”

The book—encompassing visits to Brazil, Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, and New Zealand among many others—is an engaging combination of scientific rigor and unabashed wonder at the many new worlds young Charles was encountering. “Delight…is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest.” I would not have suspected that this revered scientific genius was also capable of such poetic writing.

Photo by Clover Carroll
Photo by Clover Carroll

The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago, that is, an expanse of water with many scattered islands, in this case the tips of extinct volcanoes that arose between 3 and 8 million years ago. It consists of 13 major and several smaller islands 600 miles west of Ecuador, straddling the Equator, which we crossed twice in the course of our journey. They sit on the Nazca tectonic plate atop a “hotspot,” a place where the Earth’s crust is being melted from below by a mantle plume, creating volcanoes; the last eruption, on Fernandina Island, occurred in 2009. Their total land area of 3,093 square miles is scattered over 23,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean. The government of Ecuador designated the entire archipelago as the Galápagos National Park in 1959, and maintains strict controls to preserve this geologic and wildlife sanctuary in pristine condition, limiting human habitation to only five islands and going to considerable lengths to keep out invasive species. Tomás de Berlanga, the Panamanian bishop who originally discovered the islands in 1535, called them “Las Encantadas” or “The Enchanted,” a name which captures the magical, other-worldly beauty of this priceless treasure, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our one-week National Geographic “cruise” was not the kind where you sit on deck with a book and drink pina coladas. Rather, it was an athletic, highly educational experience involving three or four daily opportunities to hike, swim, snorkel, or view the teeming underwater world through a glass-bottomed boat. Each outing was accompanied by one of twelve expert, on-board naturalists who were as enthusiastic and eager to share knowledge of their beloved nature preserve as was Darwin. Our small ship, with its 96 passengers and 70 crew, anchored in deep water and conveyed small groups to “wet landings” on the beaches of five islands via motorized rafts, called zodiacs or “pangas.” As we hiked over an arid landscape of lava rocks sparsely covered with cactus, mangroves, and white palo santo trees (valued for use as incense), we were able to get up close and personal with the amazing and abundant wildlife. This included giant tortoises after which the islands are named, orange land iguanas, red and black marine iguanas, bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs (named after a Caribbean dancer), large numbers of appealing Galápagos sea lions and (rarer) fur seals, and small, adorable Galapagos penguins. Darwin remarked on these creatures’ lack of fear of humans, concluding that their tameness was the result of genetic adaptation over thousands of years of isolation.

But by far the most amazing variety of wildlife we encountered were the birds, whose advantage in reaching the islands and lack of predators make them the predominant species (the only mammals on most of the islands are rats and bats). We were privileged to closely observe the nesting grounds, chicks, mating dances, and other fascinating behavior of the blue-footed booby, red-footed booby, nazca booby, waved albatross, and great frigate bird. In this bird-watcher’s dream come true, I added no less than 25 new species to my life list. The sight of a blue-footed booby, with its 7-foot wingspan, drifting over the beach, then suddenly folding its wings close to its body, streaking downward, and exploding into the water like a living torpedo is a most memorable experience.

As chronicled in The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin’s recognition that each island had unique species that had adapted to their habitat over millennia was the breakthrough that led to his revolutionary theories. “The most remarkable feature in the natural history of this archipelago is …that the different islands to a considerable extent are inhabited by a different set of beings.” Whether it be tortoises, mockingbirds, or the 13 species of finches (one of which is named after him) that evolved four separate types of beaks adapted to four different purposes (grasping, probing, biting, and crushing), the evidence incontrovertibly led him to formulate his theory of natural selection based on the survival of the fittest. “Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.”

On Santa Cruz Island we visited the Charles Darwin Research Center, which continues this research and works to restore the population of the Galapagos tortoise, which reached the brink of extinction when it was harvested for food by sailing ships in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Voyage of the Beagle might not be ideal bedtime reading, but it provides a model of scientific thinking, a meticulously detailed travelogue to one of the most unique places on earth, and a fascinating window into the mind of one of the greatest thinkers of the modern era.