Dangerous Islands…

Volcanic landscape of the Galapagos
Volcanic landscape of the Galapagos

When I was a child, I belonged to the Weekly Reader Book Club.  I still remember the titles of some of the books.  One I loved was Dangerous Island written in 1956 by Helen Mather-Smith Mindin.  For some reason, I remembered this tale of children marooned on a sinking  island while I was in  the Galapagos, over 50 years later.

The cover of the book is just as I remembered it.
The cover of the book is just as I remembered it.

Maybe it was the landscape. The Galapagos Islands are not pretty, they are volcanic.  Not threatening, but inhospitable, for pampered humans like me.  September is the end of the dry season and most of the scrawny trees looked dead. One of the first trees that wasn’t dead had a fantastic name:  Poison Apple Tree. All parts are poison, according to our naturalist-guide. I’m pretty sure it was endemic (see previous blog post).

The children in Dangerous Island had no trees, just rocks, and little to cling to.  That’s what happens when you build a raft and it becomes unmoored. Sort of like the House of Representatives, minus the raft.

It was hard to come back from a place where there were odd trees, iguanas and blue-footed boobies.  And last week, what with the debt ceiling and the toddler-minded Republicans in the House of Representatives, I wished for a poison apple tree or two.

To assuage my feelings of despondency over the state our democracy and of no longer getting up in the morning to discover the Galapagos,  I re-read Dangerous Island.  I was struck by one sentence in particular.  When the kids were rescued by helicopter (that was big stuff in the 1950s), the townspeople and rescuers discussed  why their little island had sunk into the sea. The mystery was why it popped up and then disappeared.  “There are some things in nature we can’t explain,” one of the adults ventured.

We’ve learned some things about nature since the 1950s.  Genomes have been mapped and subatomic particles have been discovered. Sinking islands can probably be explained. But some of us are still debating Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and Natural Selection, formulated in the Galapagos, where I saw the living proof on my journey, both in plants and animals.

I may be wrong, but I think many of the evolution non-believers are part of the group that reveled in shutting down the government because they objected to health care for all.

It all comes full circle, in my mind at least, and there are many things we still can’t explain. Sinking islands maybe,  but human behavior is  a mystery.

Charles Darwin and me
Charles Darwin and me

Darwin, Mockingbirds and Vonnegut

booksKurt Vonnegut’s novel Galapagos was written by someone who’s been to the Islands.  How else could he describe the dance of the blue-footed booby, or the habits of a marine iguana?  Sometimes you just have to be there.

Things I did not take
Things I did not take

On the Galapagos Islands, you may take no souvenir, unless you buy it.  That was hard.  I wanted a rock, a shell, a feather, something tangible, and a t-shirt doesn’t count.  But I took nothing. All was left on the beach, because it was decreed, and because I have all the rocks, shells and feathers I need.  Which, as Vonnegut, would say, are exactly none.

When I found  the paperback copy of Galapagos in the ship’s library and started reading it, I wanted to finish it.  But, hard as it was, I took it back and placed it on the appropriate shelf during  my last hour aboard the National Geographic Endeavour.


Weeks later, I finished it on my ipad.  I don’t know whether or not Vonnegut would approve.  Maybe.  Hard to say.  Just now, I was trying to remember what was on the cover of the real book, and I couldn’t.  The trouble with not-real books is you can’t pick them up and handle them. Like so many things in life, first you need to find and then turn on a machine.

There’s a snake on the cover of Galapagos.  Why, I have no idea.  There are not many snakes on the archipelago.  There are not that many species in the Galapagos, but what there are are rare.  Endemic is the word visitors soon learn and repeat, as in– “Is that endemic?”  when referencing, say, the drink of the day.  A Pisco sour is not endemic, you can get one at most any bar.

GFMockingBirdOn the other hand, the Floreana mockingbird is endemic. So endemic, it is no longer even found on the island of Floreana, where it was driven to extinction, probably by rats, cats and other human-introduced predators.  We saw the Mocker on a nearby tiny lava-spewn speck called Champion Islet.  Like all birders, I know rare is good. People like rare. This bird is so endangered, it’s red-listed. Only about 200 exist.

I appreciated that mockingbird because it watched us briefly and then continued its search for food, oblivious to its fate and to ours. Survival takes many forms.  These mockers depend on prickly pear trees for nectar, fruit and nesting, but they also have adapted to eating bugs and even marine iguana eggs. Unbelievably, they might continue as a species partly due to the intervention of man and DNA from Darwin’s 1835 specimen. (Watch a fascinating video from the Natural History Museum in London. http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/species-of-the-day/evolution/mimus-trifasciatus/ )

It was the four distinct kinds of mockingbirds found on different Islands of the Galapagos, not finches, that provided Darwin’s first eureka moment about how species evolve and change.

So it goes.

Endemic prickly pear
Endemic prickly pear


Cerra Brujo Beach, San Cristobal, Galapagos
Cerra Brujo Beach, San Cristobal, Galapagos

It’s hard to imagine life without airplanes overhead.  In Bethesda, we lived in the flight path and could pick our house out when landing at National. In Ft. Myers, there is always noise- -planes, cars, motorcycles, garbage trucks, lawn mowers, blowers, edgers, or other paraphernalia, kids.

In the Galapagos, it’s silent except for natural sounds.  Birds.  Only one species of bee. The sneezing of marine iguanas. Sea lions. Waves. Wind.

The silence was the first thing I really felt, down in the part of me that notices such things.  That and the sparkly soft sand beach we landed on the first afternoon of our journey. It was the most beautiful beach I have ever seen.

That morning, after flying 700 miles from the coast of Ecuador, we landed at a ramshackle airport in Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal. We bused to the harbor and waited for the Zodiacs, which are black rubber boats with outboard motors, driver/operators that stand in the back, and funny wide rope-covers that looked crocheted. A fleet took us everywhere, 16 to a boat, but first we headed for our big boat, the National Geographic Endeavour.

A full zodiac

After food, the fire and water lecture and the lifeboat drill, the Endeavour’s engines sputtered to life and we headed for the north coast of the island. We wet landed off the Zodiacs at Cerro Brujo. Wizard’s Hill.  The same beach Darwin first set foot on in September of 1835.

The sand had diamond flakes in it.  Black lava rocks spilled on to each side of the cove.  There were tide pools, sea lions, iguanas, and sea birds.  The water was clear turquoise. And it was quiet. Occasionally if you got close enough you could hear the click of a human camera, but deep down, I think all of us knew the beauty of this place was beyond capture.

“So this is the Galapagos,” I said to myself over and over  in my mind.  And the silence held me.  I don’t know how else to say it, other than that. I’m sure the Wizard laughed to see such stunned, awed and travel-weary humans, but I didn’t hear it.