Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz
At the end of the wharf just beyond the sleek sea lion sleeping on the wake-washed steps, a turtle slowly descends into the depths — a glimpse; nothing more. A yellow warbler flits a few paces ahead, tantalising, never quite allowing the opportunity for a photograph, and above the bay frigate birds circle incessantly: looking, waiting, patrolling. I know of no other birds that look so pointy — everything, bill, forked tail, wingtips, comes to a long, thin point
— and so unstable; the slightest change in the air seems to make them tilt and wobble. Yet in truth they're among the most accomplished fliers. I read once that they have the smallest wing loading of any bird; in other words they have the largest wing area in relation to their weight. Perhaps this is why they appear like paper kites, vulnerable to the whims of the wind.
I'd intended visiting Tortuga Bay today but the weather looks ominous, so instead I return to the Charles Darwin Research Centre and stop at the little beach where yesterday I photographed the marine iguanas. Today just a few photographs satisfy that compulsion and I prefer to sit and enjoy them, to listen to the sea breaking on the rocks and white sand, to gaze out at the big cruise boats anchored in the bay. Even in this relative shelter they're rolling and pitching; through binoculars the open sea looks wild. Two hours on that sea tomorrow. Even with dramamine it might be rough.
A movement catches my eye. I should mistake it for the tail of a lava lizard but I recognise it instantly — a small snake. The guide book describes the Galápagos snake as "locally common but difficult to see". This is one of the advantages of simply sitting still; of not being in a hurry, not feeling compelled to be always photographing or even constantly searching. For me, this is not even primarily a matter of patience — I don't think I'm a particularly patient person, although with practice I've learned some degree of that skill — but more a matter of paying attention and being satisfied with the opportunity to do nothing but notice and wonder. Still, being still guarantees neither remarkable sights nor worthwhile insights, and once again I feel blessed with luck — to have seen this small, thin, lithe animal gliding over the rough rock feels like a great privilege, as if the Galápagos has rewarded me for noticing small things.
Out in the bay the National Geographic Explorer pitches and rolls and slowly swings around on its anchor. What is it like to live aboard a huge, luxurious cruise boat like that, to be taken around these islands and shown the sights — the animals, the landscapes, the sea- and sky-scapes, the places significant in the human history of the Galápagos? I admit I sometimes feel twinges of envy; how great it would be to have all the practical things organised for me, not to have spend time trying to work out how to get to some of the difficult-to-reach places — places I'll never see, like Fernandina with its flightless cormorants. But the cost would be prohibitive, and the other cost would be the lack of time to be still, to reflect, to do nothing except live where I am.
A blue-footed booby glides in to join the pelicans at the fish-cleaning station, and through the recently rain-washed air the grey silhouette of the island on the horizon is as clear as I've yet seen it. Last night and early this morning rain pounded the roof, wild gusts howled, and I thought maybe the trip to Isabela would be cancelled, but now in the early morning the sea seems, if not calm, then at least not confrontational; the trip might be bumpy but neither frightening nor sickening (I trust). I'm actually looking forward to the journey — going somewhere new, just going somewhere; going somewhere I trust the wildlife will be just as inspiring. Ten days there. Ten days to relax and think and see and write and photograph unhurriedly.
The ride proves anything but smooth — a progression of leaps and lurches with an occasional huge thump as the sea suddenly vanishes from beneath the boat, leaving it momentarily airborne before the impact. I gaze out at the horizon from my lucky seat near the stern and trust the dramamine, and throughout the two-hour journey I'm not troubled in the slightest by any nausea. In fact, I enjoy the ride — the sight of the deep swell rising and falling, Santa Cruz and the island to the east gradually shrinking towards the horizon, small islands appearing, seabirds circling and gliding, and the unvarying, near-deafening growl of the two massive 225 hp Suzuki outboards. The sky darkens and softens, looks ominous. Soon we're surrounded by rain. The world contracts: above and all around, the indistinct grey sky; beneath it the heaving ocean, dull and leaden and churned white in the wake; through it all the strangely meditative roar of the motors. We pass through the rain and emerge into a brighter day. Isla Tortuga appears; we pass close by a spike of guano-plastered rock pounded by waves; Isabela draws closer. Behind the boat the wake sprays white against the dark raincloud, and a rainbow hangs there, motionless and beautiful among all this movement. Isla Isabela
The small beach at the Playa del Amor comprises countless shells and broken coral. Mangroves flank one side, a lava tunnel the other, then a long, steep embankment of black boulders, among which rest several of the largest, most colourful marine iguanas I've seen. Two of these beasts flick their heads up and down, apparently at each other in some kind of interaction, punctuating the display with bouts of nose-blowing, snorting salty water violently from their nostrils. A third, close by, looks on like a referee. The surf rolls in, smashes and foams against the boulders but the iguanas take no notice. Evening approaches; a heavy grey sky over an almost-turquoise sea. As far as I know, I'm the only person within at least half an hour's walk, probably more, and except for the information sign saying don't walk on the sand the iguanas nest there, I could have stepped back thousands of years, maybe millions. Before humans arrived, change here must have happened at evolutionary rates — except for the volcanic activity, of course.
When I began walking here in the early afternoon I didn't know how far I'd go. I walked along the beach, stopping to watch the little sanderlings rushing frantically back and forth to check the sand between waves, the whimbrels, the ruddy turnstones, the ghost crabs and the endlessly fascinating patterns they leave on the beach. Eventually I came to a section of sand untracked by humans and realised that beaches without human footprints must be one of the world's great delights. Maybe that's why I feel so reluctant to walk on them, or, if I must, my inclination is to walk where the sea will quickly erase the marks of my passage. Perhaps also this is one of the things I love about the sea: that no matter how badly the crowds might churn up a beach, within a day the sea will have erased those signs.
I crouch in the evening on the rocks of the lava tunnel at the Playa del Amor and admire the iguanas, look along the boulder bank and think about returning tomorrow. But the chances are good that other people would be here, and although I'm no misanthrope places like this have a fragile timelessness that the presence of people can easily destroy. Even my own presence seems too much — I write this back at Puerto Villamil at the little beachfront bar where I've stopped for a beer and a session of writing, and I think of the Playa del Amor now as night falls and no one's there, just the sea, the night, the iguanas; the smell of the ocean and wet rock; the sound of the sea breaking — a sound that pre-dated life itself — and the night breeze in the mangroves; the way it was millions of years ago; and I can't help feeling I'm an intruder despite the care I've taken to tread carefully and slowly, not to disturb anything — if I could have walked without leaving footprints I'd have done so. How much do we need to see and hear and feel and taste for ourselves; to what extent can imagination and the recorded experience of others replace our own experience? Of course imagination can mislead, but experience can also carry a cost: the observer effect is inescapable.
On the way back from the Playa I pass the small cemetery which sits just behind the beach, some distance from town. Few things seem as still and permanent as graveyards, but this one on Isabela seems particularly silent despite (or perhaps because of) the incessant sound of the surf and the occasional calls of birds in the dusk. White graves, each with a cross; bright fake flowers; the sky darkening. Each grave has a story, but how many are still remembered? This morning I woke feeling that perhaps the strongest argument I know for the existence of intrinsic value — the value residing only in the thing itself, not in any usefulness it might have for us — is the knowledge that eventually our universe will cease to exist, and everything it ever contained, including the Galápagos, my time here, and everyone who ever shares it, will be lost, irretrievable. Immortality is an illusion, but the extraordinary grief of knowing what will be lost seems to me to be the strongest argument that those things have value regardless of whether they're "useful" to us, and the value of these things, here, right now on Isabela in the Galápagos, seems immeasurably great.
1. The tip of the bill actually curves into a sharp hook, but from a distance the pointy effect remains.
2. Trying to format this post has nearly driven me crazy — large chunks keep disappearing for no apparent reason; the html seems simple and straightforward yet identical strings give completely different results in different paragraphs. I’ll post it anyway and trust the weird and illogical idiosyncracies aren’t visible. Besides, I have more important things to do with my time than sit in front of a computer screen, going nuts.
1. Galápagos flycatcher
2. Frigatebird (Magnificent frigatebird, I think)
3. Lava lizard. The red on the throat identifies this as a female.
4. One of the combative marine iguanas at the Playa del Amor.
5. Striated heron.
Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor
Labels: South America, Travel