About 1,000 miles west of mainland Ecuador lies the unique Galapagos province, 97% of which has been protected, since 1959, from any use except tourism and science.  It is where Charles Darwin stayed for 5 weeks during the survey voyage of the HMS Beagle and which stimulated his eventual theories of Natural Adaptation and Evolution.  Initially his observations started with 5 mockingbird species, each unique to a different island. Then back on-board, he studied the Beagle captain’s collection of 13 finches from different islands.  It was the finches’ varying shaped and sized beaks that became the final catalysts for his life’s work. On our Galapagos voyage, we were lectured by Jonathan Weiner, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Beak of the Finch and his wife, Deborah Heiligman, who wrote Charles and Emma (Darwin). The National Geographic / Lindblad tour was terrific and their naturalists were the best ever!

In the harbor of the main port of San Cristobal island, we boarded the 95-passenger Endeavor ship, the Walleighs’ home for the next week which would cruise from east to south to north and back. The stateroom Rick and  Wendy shared had one porthole,

two beds and very compact but adequate storage.  Shortly after boarding, they were instructed on the ship’s layout, emergency procedures, overview of activities, and itinerary.  And each received a life vest that would be in their cabin for use on board any zodiac or boat they would ride when off the main ship, as well as in any emergency.  They were also fitted to snorkeling gear and “short” wet suits since the ocean temperature was in the upper 60o F. as the region headed into autumn.

Besides animals, Rick and Wendy learned a great deal about the islands’ geological history, ecological differences—some were lush and some were volcanic desert—as well as reasons for different animals being isolated on different islands. For example, many of the dramatic rock formations were made from Tuff, meaning compressed volcanic dust.  Tuff often erodes through cracks to form arches and eventually stand-alone columns or other interesting formations like Kicker Island which looked like a soccer boot.

Genovesa was the northernmost island the cruise visited and was rarely on the typical Galapagos tour route. After they “wet-landed” from the zodiac into the waves at the beach, the Walleighs walked up to the top of the hill to view the outline of a Caldera–a collapsed volcano as well as the rest of the arid, volcanic,  moon-like landscape which allowed only hardy cacti to survive.

Founded in 1959 in parallel with the Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS) and due to the province’s protected status, the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) is dedicated to ensuring that animals within the park are protected in multiple ways.  E.G., they breed depleted species and help GNPS rid the island of human-introduced predators, like now-feral dogs, cats, goats, pigs, donkeys and of course, rats and mice.  Passengers also received a lecture one evening about this Research Station’s purpose and history from a long-time scientist working there.

Yes, Farming on the Galapagos

Of the 3% of Galapagos Province not protected by the National Park, there are actually some farms.  On Santa Cruz Island, the Walleighs visited one small sugar cane plantation. This farm operated with equipment from what looked like the early 1900s, such as the family donkey which drove the turning of the sugar cane press, which squeezed out the juice.  The cane juice was then converted either to molasses or cane liquor, like rum (Moonshine!). The owner demonstrated the liquor’s high alcohol content by the tossing a cupful into the fire powering his still. And it tasted like fire-water, too!

It was fascinating to learn about the farming, the volcanic nature of islands themselves, the wide range of weather and landscape among the islands, and how humans have positively AND negatively impacted the animals and land.  And of course, the animals were amazing!!!