[A few years ago, I spent almost seven weeks in the Galapagos Islands as part of my life as an itinerant nature writer. I was required to write and help with a film when I was there. But when I had a spare moment, I wrote another piece, one that came much closer to describing my own relationship with this strange and wonderful place. Here it is.]
Ashore on Tagus Cove in the remote Galapagos Islands, some 600 miles offshore Ecuador, I need the perspective of a steady uphill hike to tell me what I couldn’t begin to know at sea level: This nicely rounded natural harbor cut into the side of a mountain was once a volcanic crater. Time and tide took its toil on one wall of the caldera long ago in prehistory, letting seawater sluice into a geological bowl where magma once roiled.
The trail I follow today at the edge of Isla Isabela winds through a rocky culvert, onto the dry reddish dirt that lays on surface of this island like a patina, up to where the ghostly, bare-limbed palo santo trees cradle the finely-woven nests of the ground finches. Looking around, I find I’m atop a rim between the sloughed-off crater of Tagus, and the wholly intact bowl of another volcano, a few hundred meters inland. A young naturalist named Charles Darwin stood near this same vantage point after putting ashore at Tagus in the HMS Beagle 160 years ago, carefully recording his visit in his journal.The landlocked crater holds a small, sullen lake at the bottom of its bowl. It is a steep walk-crawl down the sides, almost 1,000 feet worth. Darwin, who was here in the heat of the midday sun—and thinking the lake might quench his thirst—had scrambled down the crater with no hesitation. When he cupped his hands to drink, he was startled to find the water was saltier than the ocean itself. All was not lost: Mapmakers named the crater “Volcan Darwin” in his honor.
Like Darwin, I too am here on an expedition. The sails and wood of the HMS Beagle are modernized into diesel and steel; the transoms that once navigated by the stars are buzzing computer screens that now chart nearly every thing there is about our position here on earth. What the technology of our oceanographic ship cannot read, though, is the feeling of the place.
I look down on the sea crater of Tagus where a half dozen green turtles are mounting the shells of each other, frothing the water in their passion. As I watch through my binoculars, I see them raising their ancient, armored heads up out of the water, gulping air in sheer turtle bliss. I have seen the turtles underwater often during my month here in this isolated archipelago. And, each time I have been struck by their primitive grace, the way the glint of another millennium shines in their eyes.
I hike back down to the craggy shore of Tagus just as the sun dips below the volcanic peak of nearby Isla Fernandina. In the scarlet light of early evening, I see Jupiter and Venus burning atop each other next to a crescent moon, watch the brightest meteor I have ever seen leave a long white trail next to them both, like a cosmic hand checking off one more day of life.
After dark, I put on scuba gear , and with a marine biologist, slip under the black water at the edge of the cove. Here, with our dive lights turned off, we settled to the bottom at 80 feet, flashes of bioluminescence sparkling in front of my mask like the fields of fireflies I used to see as a kid. I look for my dive buddy but he seems to have been swallowed up by the ebony sea. Finally, he exhales, and the upwelling of his air exhaust tears through the plankton over his head, outlining each tiny bubble in a rim of blue-green.
Briefly, we turn on our lights and shine them under the rocky ledges, down into places where the molten lava flow from the craters ran so long ago. The sea has done a magnificent job of colonizing itself over the eons, upholstering the old lava with a thick fabric of coral and worms, sponges and tiny invertebrates, all united here in their isolation from the mainland.
From under the ledge, a Port Jackson shark swims excitedly out, a slender and spotted dwarf-like creature no bigger than my arm. In doing so, it pinballs off a rock, and my light and my attention ricochets with it. I hesitate at the rock and see a tiny nudibranch the size of my little finger. Striped and iridescent, like a Day-glo poster from the sixties, this marine slug is speciated, custom-designed by its own special needs in the cosmos. Local fisherman, in awe of its bright strips, call it El Tigre, the Tiger.
We flick our lights off again, plunging us back into primal darkness. I watch as a large discus-shaped form moves easily away from us in the water, its shell and flippers clearly outlined by the broken bioluminescence, a sizzle of blue-green. It is a sea turtle, perhaps one of those I saw earlier on the surface.
They tell me reptiles don’t dream, having evolved long before the rest of us earned the right to that luxury. But do they even need to, out here in the Galapagos, a place that is still part dream itself, gliding underwater like colossal, heavy-trunked birds, tiny wings of scales moving them as fast as they ever need to go ?
Perhaps they don’t, but who can ever say with certainly but the turtles themselves.