Our panga motored to within a few feet of a nondescript crescent beach backed by jagged, guano-encrusted rock cliffs. Though it looked like a thousand other beaches, its unremarkable appearance didn’t temper my excitement, for this was Darwin Bay on the island of Genovese in the Galapagos Islands, one of the most iconic natural destinations in the world. I hopped out into calf-high water and followed our naturalist up the sand trail and into an arid landscape of prickly pear cactus and dense mangroves. Balls of brilliant white fluff peered out from nests that were little more than vague piles of sticks heaped in the mangrove roots. Juvenile Great Frigatebirds, Nazca Boobies and the rarer Red-Footed Boobies examined us with curiosity but made no attempt to flee or even hide, though they were close enough to reach out and touch. Galapagos Doves with red feet and startlingly blue eyes hopped around on the ground, indifferent to our intrusion. On the rocks, pairs of Swallow-Tailed Doves trained red-ringed eyes on us as they preened, while Yellow-Crowned Herons raised their distinctive head feathers as they stilt-walked through iridescent turquoise tidal pools.
The Galapagos Islands are famous as the place where Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution by natural selection during his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle in 1861-65, but they enjoy a near mythical status as a sanctuary for exotic animals that have never learned to fear humans. Indeed, during our walks around Genovese and on every subsequent visit to other islands in the archipelago, the animals seemed completely unruffled by our presence. Piles of marine iguanas basked in the sun, paying no heed as we squatted down to film them spitting excess salt from their bodies. Ages-old mating rituals were performed, as if for our pleasure: Male Magnificent Frigatebirds puffed up a red sack around their gullet and spread their immense wings, while Blue-Footed Boobies raised their colorful feet in a dance designed to woo females. One afternoon we spotted an enormous Short-Eared Owl napping in a lava crevice; as we gawped he perused us through yellow slitted eyes, raised one giant claw to scratch, then nonchalantly went back to sleep. Sea lions frolicked with us and marine turtles munched on seagrass as we snorkeled. Even the schools of tiny silver fish, who turn collectively as if sharing a single consciousness, seemed less skittish in the Galapagos, daring to touch my extended hand.
Prior to arriving in the Galapagos I believed that its animals were unafraid because they had never been threatened by man. My assumption could not have been more incorrect. In 1535, Fray Tomas de Berlanga, a missionary whom the King of Spain had named Bishop of Panama, was sailing home to inform the king about lands recently conquered from the Incas. Off the coast of what is now Colombia, they were becalmed and forced to drift with the currents. On March 10 land was finally sighted; they had discovered the Galapagos. Berlanga later provided His Majesty with the first written account of the islands:
“…since the ship had only enough water for two days, it was agreed to lower a boat and go ashore for water and grass for the horses, once ashore, nothing more was found but sea lions and turtles and tortoises so large that each could carry a man on top of itself, and many iguanas that are like serpents. On a second island, there were the same conditions as on the first (…) many birds like those from Spain, but so silly that they didn’t know how to flee, and many were caught by hand…”
Man, the greatest predator the Galapagos have ever known, had arrived. Continue reading