– Ansel Adams
Rising from a rolling amethyst sea, white crested waves curl over, wind-whipped, and crash in slow motion against the black lava rock boulders. Deep thunder reverberates. Rapt, you take a deep breath to convince yourself it’s real. And the metallic salty tang reminds you: yes, it’s real enough – but you’re far from home. For these are the Galapagos Islands – or Islas Encantadas (Enchanted Isles) to Spanish sailors of almost half a millennium ago.
Six hundred miles west of South America’s coast the Galapagos are exactly on the equator; it’s not surprising they belong to a country called Ecuador. The group comprises about 13 large islands of volcanic origin. Toward the close of your visit here, you’re grateful now for the chance to reflect on nature’s marvels. Here, these are presented unfailingly up close and personal.
Examining the boulder-strewn beach with more care, you see scattered blobs of bright orange. These are sally lightfoot crabs, darting and scuttling among the water-filled, bubbling, seething crevices and into the calm pools left by the receding tide. All else – giant tortoises, marine iguanas, the unique, bizarre flora, and the astonishingly abundant marine and bird life – has been so spectacularly worth noticing, it seems shallow not to think at least a short while about these apparently trivial creatures.
Suddenly one of the crabs begins to flail about. Oh! You realize a small green heron is battering the crustacean against a rock so as to knock its legs off. Without its appendages, the crab presumably makes a more manageable morsel. Ah, yes. The Galapagos – here is life writ large. The eternal cycle of life and death: growth and decay, seed to flower, predator and prey – encompasses all living things with a cruel immediacy born of necessity. The heron flies off and its rocky ledge is taken over by a pair of black and white oystercatchers, who use their blunt scarlet bill to split open some stranded sea-urchins, whose green-yellow guts spill in a mess onto the black porous rock.
The drama goes unnoticed by the inscrutable marine iguanas; "signature" animals of the Galapagos that are found nowhere else in the world. These reptiles – described by Charles Darwin as "antediluvian" – sprawl across and over each other, capping one rock, tails interwoven like Medusa’s snaky head. Hundreds in a monochrome vista of black and grey, bask in the tropical light, soaking up warm rays after foraging in the cold sea for slimy green seaweed.
Further down, nearer the pounding surf, a few hardy iguanas cling to the dark basalt, their long, powerful claws affording a grip strong enough to resist the pull of the heaviest waves. Their tenacity is remarkable – and inspiring.
And there’s much that is inspiring here: mile upon mile of naked sun-baked rock, black as coal; giant tree-like prickly pear cactus, with papery brown bark and an unlikely refuge for a unique bird: the small, black cactus finch – one of the unique species noticed by Darwin; the plodding patience of lumbering giant tortoises, said to be over a century old, whose shells come up to your waist; the wheeling, turning albatrosses whose solemn grace gliding in the air is nullified by the hilarity of their gangling clumsiness on the ground.
In the rich dark offshore swim a million fish, cavorting in three-dimensional freedom, chasing or being chased, flashing of color, then zooming off into the deep blue. Upon the white sand sea floor, broken in places by dark ridges of volcanic rock, rest sea turtles and sting rays, while in secretive clefts rest groups of reef sharks, nocturnal in habit, and awaiting the cover of dark to prey on sleeping fish. A silver torpedo of bubbles flashes by, followed by another. Seeming to hit an invisible wall, they do a one-eighty and head back your way, almost too fast for your eye to follow. A sea lion and her pup eye you warily, as curious of you as you are of them. They dive spiralling, then with consummate grace perform a series of aquatic maneuvers. It occurs to you that these pinnipeds are trying to impress. But they don’t need to try. As with much else in these "Enchanted Isles" the impressions stamp themselves firmly on your mind.
Above, a stark desert, an earth tone daubed palette, dotted here and there with bizarre unique animals, strange plants and spread with an overwhelming abundance of seabirds. Below the waves is a convoluted emerald realm, splashed with dynamic colour, enveloped by endless cool sapphire. But mere words can never do justice to this phenomenon – surely one of the natural wonders of the world. These islands inspired Charles Darwin to the most revolutionary thought of our modern world: the theory of evolution by natural selection. Well, I can’t say all travellers to the Galapagos will be inspired to theories that change the world, but any visitor will come away with thoughts that will change themselves.
"Our task must be to free ourselves…by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty." – Albert Einstein