On Galapagos



We’ve never seen any place like the Galapagos.

If you like being close to nature – and I mean really close – come here.

The islands are otherworldly, for a number of reasons.

Where to start?!

(Well, before we do, a note about people who leave notes on our blog. It means a lot to us! We love hearing from family and friends, and knowing that we’re not alone and forgotten out here. What better way to start the day than to get a warning from Deputy (Superintendant) Dawg Kelley to beware of malditos in country X, notes from sister Jean or brother Jackie about the family, shared exclamations from Ayse, or check-ins from old friends like Sabin, Philip and Todd.)

Isla Isabela is as good of a place as any to begin our report. It was the third island that we visited, and the most tranquil. The streets are “paved” with sand. At night, the dusted town square remind one of a small New England village after a fresh snowfall. All is glowing and white, gleaming unevenly under the few street lamps and shop fronts. As a cyclist rolls by, the sand kicks up and swirls beneath the tires, like a car kicking up a light snow at home, minus the cold.

We’ve taken some pictures that came out quite well (It’s hard not to take spectacular shots here, with various crawly and flyie things coming to rest so close you almost have to back away to take the picture. (Unless, I suppose, one inadvertently smears sunblock on the camera lens and snaps a bunch of photos that look as they were taken in a fog.) Yet at the same time there is so much of what we’ve experienced that is hard to record with a camera lens.

We spent three days on Isabela, exploring the waterfront and hiking up to Sierra Negro, an active volcano. It is the second largest volcanic crater in the world. You can explore its rim, but it has erupted sufficiently recently (two years ago), that entry into the crater is prohibitively dangerous.

The crater is gigantic. It’s akin to looking across Mount Washington Valley from one peak to the next, except the entire distance is one flat pan of hardened volcanic flow, like a giant bowl of chocolate pudding, with the line between the lava and the lush sides of the crater clearly delineated between flat black and lush green.

We did go into the crater of a smaller peak on Sierra Negro’s shoulder, which hasn’t erupted in some twenty-five years. (Safe!) It was like walking on, walking on, the moon. Miniature potholes, lava tubes, and various types of hardened lava pock-marked a bleak yet stunningly spectacular landscape. Occasionally there were bursts of color, made all the more spectacular against the colorless background. Here a green cactus had found a foothold. There leafy green vegetation was climbing out of a sink hole. And on the other side of a mound, a ledge revealed a colorful kaleidoscope of minerals and rock surfaces maturing in the sun.

Off in the distance, the next volcano in the chain, Sierra Alcedo, rose from a tundra-like pale green plain to rest huddled beneath a cloud sombrero. If Jurassic Park wasn’t filmed here, it should have been.

And the fish, animals, and birds. The first striking thing is how close they come. Sea lions swish, bark, and moo about the boat. Giant marine iguanas pose inches away. Darwin’s finches fly towards us, rather than away, as we walk along trails, and then sit patiently, even bored, as we fumble with our camera to snap their pictures.

Some endemic species have never known predators, so they are, as Thomas de Belangar, the first recorded visitor to the island, said, “so silly that they do not know how to flee.” Some 375 years later, they still don’t.

Now we’re on Santa Cruz. This morning, we walked along the waterfront to a place where the fishermen bring in their catch. As they cut it on tables, a host of animals bobbed about for scraps.

At one point, a sea lion scampered across the cement landing, chased by a fisherman, whose finger he’d just nibbled. Where to seek safety?! He came straight toward us, then darted around behind Sima, looking around her legs back at the fisherman with the cowed expression of an apologetic puppy. He was up against our legs, and Sima reached down and petted him. He eventually put his head down and rested. A moment later, a pelican came and joined him. Then one flapping overhead brushed against me when I didn’t duck quickly enough. A marine iguana waddled by a few feet away. A Great Blue Heron perched within reaching distance. All this was going on at once, in the middle of town, forget about a walk into “nature.” It felt like a zoo or Dr. Doolittle’s office, except there were no cages or walls to corral anybody or anything.

Pancha waiting for his reward

We later learned that the sea lion who’d been chased away was not welcomed by the fishermen, although another took a place just aside the table every day. They explained that his name was “Pancha,” and he was the only sea lion that they allowed near the table, the others always being shoo’d away. Pancha was extremely well behaved, they said. Not only did he never pull fish down from the table, unlike some of his more aggressive brethren, but he also actually guarded the table against other birds and animals who tried to do so.
As became obvious, the animals not only showed little fear of us, they usually also played well with each other. We saw lots of symbiotic relationships. Egrets who walked in the shadows of introduced farm animals, jumping up to eat bugs off of their skins from time to time. Ducks that swam next to giant turtles. Penguins and Boobies that nested interchangeably on the same rock. Lizards that climbed over marine iguanas. Sea lions, pelicans and herons that lined up for food together at the pier, their display of good manners marred only by the occasional squawking when one stole food from the other.

Some relationships aren’t as cordial. For example, massive frigate birds patrol the sky. Deft flyers, they harass other, smaller birds who happened to have picked up a morsel of food somewhere. They will keep up their airborne attack until the hapless quarry drops the food from its mouth. At that point, the frigate bird will go into a dive, and, usually, scoop up the food before it hits the water. They earn their nicknames, pirates of the sky.

Blue footed boobie

Our favorite sighting has been the Blue Footed Boobie. It is a striking bird. Its chiseled head is that of a hunter. Its molded torso that of a strong flier. But its big, webbed, sky-blue feet are what really set it apart, making the complete package something to see. And the bird is a graceful and lethal diver. To see one start from the water, arc up into the sky, and slice into the water after a fish dinner is a thing of beauty, and we’d have been sufficiently impressed if the show ended there. But they do this en masse. Thirty or so will alight from the water and float together to a height of 40 feet or so. Then, as one, they’ll pivot towards the ground, as if controlled by the same joystick, and knife towards the water, wings pinned back like an F-14, in a show that would make the Blue Angels blush. And then they pierce the water as one, like 30 synchronized divers entering the pool at the same time.

We also went diving! We’ve been befriended by Lucho, who owns a nearby dive shop. We gave him a lift from the first island we visited, San Cristobal, to Santa Cruz. In return, he helped us remove a part from the propeller that needed attention. He also gave us each 15 minute lessons, sized us for wetsuits, provided us with tanks, etc., and took us for a dive beneath the boat. After that brief experience, we were hooked. Sima went on a longer dive two days later, and swam with sea lions. They didn’t play with her, but did with others in the group.

We really could go on and on. If pictures are worth the proverbial thousand words, the attached photos tell a long story.
A note about the children here too. On San Cristobal, the first island we visited, we stayed in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. It is a small sea-side village. As we strolled about on the first day, a girl of about 5 said “hello” as we walked by. Sure she said it somewhat shyly, but she wanted to interact, and so we did, talking for 15 minutes. No grown-up in sight. Not that extraordinary, for sure, but it kept on happening — kids saying hello to us. Not unlike the nature of the animals we were “meeting,” they were uncommonly friendly. Living in small, close-knit communities, they weren’t trained to ignore strangers. One pair of kids, one nine and the other four, followed us for blocks, first ducking behind buildings, then calling to us, and finally sharing laughs as we said hello.

We also noticed, as we had in Spain, the extent to which parents interact with their kids. Dads bouncing babies on their laps on the stoop, the local port captain with his toddler with him at work, and a working mom with her son playing with trucks on her shop floor, were typical scenes.

Most folks know the Galapagos for Darwin and his theory of evolution. But the islands’ full background is somewhat darker. There were many failed attempts to colonize, most ending in failure, many ending in death, and some of those in murder.

Perhaps the most famous of these stories involves a fellow named Manual J. Cobos. (“Manwell Hota Cobos,” as the locals always say, with a heavy emphasis on his middle initial, the Spanish letter “J.,” perhaps to highlight his sinisterism, much as one does with the middle names of Presidential assassins.). He was a ruthless plantation owner who managed, unlike many others, to build a mini-empire on the island of San Cristobal. For laborers, he skimmed petty criminals and debtors from the jails in Ecuador, and then kept them permanently indentured by paying them miniscule wages that could only be spent at the Company Store. Workers were treated like dogs. If you crossed him, he whipped you, exiled you to another island, or stood you in front of a firing squad. (Exile to another island, by the way, was usually tantamount to a death sentence, although it depended on the island. If you went to, say, Santa Fe, you would die, because there was no water. If you were sent to Santa Cruz, you could usually survive, although it would be a somewhat desperate life.) He had informers in the ranks, so attempted conspiracies to escape or kill him were typically foiled, with harsh recriminations for those involved.

Finally, however, one group with a strong and clever leader, got its act together. One morning, the leader, a foreman, shot Cobos twice as crew leaders were gathered about him in his hacienda to prepare for the day. Gravely wounded, he stumbled into his bedroom, and locked the door. There was much confusion about the house and grounds, as folks tried to figure out who was loyal to whom. The assassin, having used his only two bullets, ran from the house, and met up with his co-conspirators. Eventually they charged back into the house. Cobos jumped from his second-floor bedroom window, and was finished off on the ground when he was unable to run away.

He was buried the next day, interred at the site where he had executed six workers a short time earlier. The ring-leaders returned by boat to mainland Ecuador, where, after a long trial that eventually revealed the brutal conditions under which they had lived, they were let off with no punishment or relatively light sentences.

The tomb and the ruins of Cobos’ manse are still standing, and are eerie to stroll amidst.
This is but one of several such dramatic stories. There are more. A second but more beneficent ranch owner also made the mistake of using prisoners as workers, but compounded that error by trying to convert them into god-fearing model citizens. They plunged a knife into his back one day as he served them wine at his house. A captain, his wife, and young son perished from dehydration on the northern part of an island when those who walked to the other end of the island to get help were unable to return for 11 days (reminded us of the story in “The English Patient.”) Evidence around the bodies showed that mom and dad had perished first, but had engaged in a futile attempt to keep the young boy alive until rescuers came. Two Germans got blown off course in their dinghy, and were found months later, their corpses dried out on a nearby waterless island. A supposed “Baroness” and her husband who disappeared from the island of Floreana under suspicious circumstances, followed by the deaths or disappearances of some of the main suspects in the following months. These stories go on and on, painting a dark but fascinating history.

We’ll leave for the Marquesas at the end of August. We are excited and, admittedly, anxious. It’s a very long trip, at about 3000 miles. Picture traveling across the US at running speed. We’re well prepared, and have no doubt we’ll make a successful passage. And if there weren’t some anxiety, then the reward at completion wouldn’t be nearly as great!

08/27/2008 | Jackie
Hi Paul & Sema! Sounds like the Galapogos are quite a treat. An oasis for you guys as you gear up for the long sail to New Zealand. Its great to hear about the sights, sounds and experiences.
Football season is starting. Princeton doesn’t play HC this year. I’d like to take Mike to the Harvard/HC game and maybe a home game at HC. We’ll see. He’ll have soccer games most weekends. (He declined his football coach’s invitation to move up to the 105-120lb league – Mike’s 106 lbs now- by the end of the year he may be taller and weigh more than Vicki).

Well, looking forward to the next blog. Great pictures, We’ll keep the prayers coming.

Love, XXOO

08/29/2008 | irene robertson
Great photos and writing–make a book of your travels some day–liked those blue feet, might get me some blue shoes . Love, Mom
08/30/2008 | steve and barbara Bucci
Paul we are so glad someone else we know got to see this palce before it is overrun with luxury. Its all about the animals, from Sally Lightfoot to Lonesome George (he may be a father at last). Will this experience make it harder to be a litigator? Only time will tell. Sail on!

Steve and barbara

Ps watch out for the Xpedition! I suggest you stop by at dinner time and ask for Jaimme!

09/07/2008 | Aunt Mary
Great pictures, especially the blue footed boobie. I wonder if HWB has blue feet. CAn you vote absentee? We need every vote. Havea safe trip to the next destination. Love Aunt Mary and Uncle Hank
09/14/2008 | Catherine Walter
Hey guys!!! My mom just told me about your site – very very neat! It sounds amazing…congratulations!
09/18/2008 | jeannie
Amazing pictures-which means the real thing must have been incredible…We are also blue footed boobie fans from a book we used to read…thanks for the bday greetings, special to be thought of while you are out in the middle of the Pacific. We are thinking of you all the time and telling of your adventures to friends…you both look good (ok, not when you drank the water) love Jean
09/24/2008 | steve bucci
Paul, its been nearly a month since your last entry. Are you enroute to the marquesa’s yet?
09/29/2008 | Jane
How spectacular! I’ve heard the Galapagos are awe-inspiring and your pictures and stories prove it. When are you in New Zealand? I’ll be there from Nov. 19 through Nov. 27, and then Fiji for a few days. Let me know if you’ll still be “in the area” (for lack of a better way of describing the South Pacific).
10/01/2008 | Geoff
Looking forward to more updates 🙂 You know, for those of us landlocked at a desk.
10/09/2008 | Jackie
Hey Paul & Sema,

Hope things are going well with you. The latest with us is that Vicki & I ran in a 5K race on Seton Hall U’s “University Day” which was held on 10/4/08. We have been running about 2 miles per day and we did well in the race. Starting tomorrow, I plan on running 1/2 hr a day. I’m trying to limit the running to running for health rather than race training.
We signed Mike up for CYO basketball. The season starts next week. His soccer season has three more games and then the playoffs if his currently 3-2 team makes it.
Well, miss you guys. Having you more accessible makes life’s tough times easier.
Happy trails. ‘look forward to your next blog.


P.S. What about the stock market swoon and the “financial crisis”. We’re excited about the breath of fresh air Sarah Palin is. How ’bout the Red Sox. If they make it to Manny’s team, won’t that be interesting? Can the Patriots regroup?

11/11/2008 | kathryn griner
Hey — really nice updates. Love hearing about all your travels. I’m jealous! All is well back here in Boston. Enjoying life, kids, work, friends. Keep up the good work!

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