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Darwin’s Archipelago

Scientists strove to commemorate the Galápagos Islands by building a park in Darwin's Archipelago. Did they destroy it instead?

By Kenneth BrowerPublished 8 years ago 10 min read

In 1966, I spent four months in the Galápagos Islands, gathering materials for a picture book on that archipelago. My Galápagos, the Galápagos of 1966, had been discovered by science but not by Lindblad. Charles Darwin had come 131 years before, but tour boats were not yet calling; there were no hotels, and the Ecuadorian government had yet to establish the Galápagos National Park. The islands were best known among the citizens of the mainland for their old penal settlements. The Encantadas—the enchanted isles, as the Spanish had first called them—for a time had been devil's islands of the Pacific.

As we drove slowly to the boat that would take us there, making our way through the steamy squalor of Guayaquil's waterfront, ragged crowds parted before the taxi. I tried to find in the dark Indian faces of the descendants of the men who had been shipped westward to those volcanic purgatories. There were plenty of hard types in the crowd. Guayaquil, we had been told, was once The Most Sinful City in the Western Hemisphere. That was easy for me to believe. I could not imagine a seamier place. All the boards of Guayaquil, even the very concrete, were cracked and distorted, as if by the force of poverty below and the heat, the humid weight, of the sky above. The streets smelled of urine and tropical decay. At least half the owners of the faces outside, estimated, would have happily slit my throat.

The cabdriver asked in Spanish where we were sailing. When we answered "Galápagos," he turned in his seat to look at us gravely. We were, he said, brave men.

It was a nice compliment, but not reassuring. This cabbie inhabited an equatorial Tartarus, a city as hellish as any I had seen, and he was worried about us.

The cabdriver's Galápagos was something like Herman Melville's. "The special curse, as one may call it, of the Encantadas," Melville wrote, "that which exalts them in desolation above Idumea and the Pole, is that to them change never comes; neither the change of seasons nor of sorrows. Cut by the Equator, they know not autumn and they know not spring; while already reduced to the lees of fire, ruin itself can work little more upon them. The showers refresh the deserts, but in these isles, rain never falls. Like split Syrian gourds, left withering in the sun, they are cracked by an everlasting drought beneath a torrid sky 'Have mercy upon me, the wailing spirit of the Encantadas seems to cry, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame.' "

It was not as bad as all that. Melville's description applied fairly well to certain lava flows on Santiago and Isabela islands. Although rain in fact sometimes fell there, it fell sparsely. Nothing grew on the black lava, and the temperatures were withering. Sometimes we found the weightless carcasses of grasshoppers, mummified by the heat; sometimes, the bones of wild goats that had fallen into collapsed lava blisters and had died there. The bones and grasshoppers seemed to call out for Melville's Lazarus, but other parts of the islands did not. The summits of many islands, above the coastal desert zone, were rain forest. The problem for the farmers in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island was not lack of water but too much of it. The area is literally afloat.

Diverse Landscapes

The islands have their lava flows and cinder cones, but they have mangrove swamps and brackeny highlands as well. There are sulfurous lakes, but brackish ones too, and one lake is actually fresh. The islands have a lot of beauty, though none of it is comfortable. They are the finest desert islands on the planet.

The absence of a park here was the reason for our presence. That the most important archipelago in the history of biology (the archipelago is most famous as the natural laboratory where Charles Darwin began asking his epochal questions) should go uncommemorated, that the ongoing evolution in those natural laboratories, which happened also to be the most beautiful desert islands on earth, should go unprotected, was wrong. Our book would help rectify that—our photographs would celebrate the place, Our text would argue for an international preserve.

We traveled around the islands in Nixe, the black, hand-built fishing boat of Fritz Angermeyer, a German settler in the islands. Angermeyer and his three brothers had escaped Hitler's Germany in a sailboat and had found their way here. They were Crusoe's, having come when the islands were virtually uninhabited. Fritz, the strongest brother was a lean, tanned man with powerful hands he kept in constant use. He had built Nixe from scratch, using copper wire to make the nails. The fishing boat's marine diesel and her sail took us wherever we wanted to go in the islands. Fritz chartered her at an easy rate, for he loved the islands, believed they should become a preserve, and thought our book would help accomplish that.

I spent much of my time in the company of Fiddi Angermeyer, Fritz's 14-year-old son. I was 21, not long out of my teens myself, and there was plenty of boy explorer left in me. No one else could keep up with us. We wandered wherever our feet led.

Fiddi's feet were big. The rest of him was skinny and freckled. His voice was changing and occasionally squeaked, especially when he was speaking German. If one can read a boy's feet as one can read a puppy's, then Fiddi was destined to be a big man. His toes were splayed from a lifetime of going barefoot. I began going barefoot myself, and soon my soles were as horny as his. On Santiago Island we ran across trackless lava to investigate one cinder cone, then saw a more interesting cone beyond and crossed another strait of lava to investigate that. On Fernandina lsland's beaches, we teased sea lion bulls, dodging away as they lumbered after us. On San Cristóbal we hunted goats with Fritz's rusty old English .22. I shot them, Fiddi butchered them, and we climbed down the mountain with the quarters over our shoulders.

As we traveled the islands by sail and by foot, it struck me how lightly they bore the weight of history upon them. The place never felt the least like a museum. The finches and tortoises did not seem to know or care, how profoundly they had altered man's view of natural history and himself. I was aware that pirates had been here, and whalers and Melville and Darwin, yet as far as the eye could tell, we were the first.

On Isabela Island we watched the galapagos, the giant tortoises for which the islands were named, as they mated ponderously. We might as well have been the first witnesses to that rite. The bull tortoises sometimes mistook large stones for their targets, and mounted those, but they connected with the real thing often enough to perpetuate the race. When mating, the bulls roared, the only time in their lives they spoke.

Diverse Wildlife

On Barrington Island we were divebombed by Galápagos hawks when we got too close to their nests. They came at us boldly as if they had never seen shotguns or fowling pieces. On Hood Island, mockingbirds drank from cups held in our hands. Fearlessness is characteristic of Galápagos animals. The advent of man in the islands has been too recent for evolution to have provided a better response to us.

On every foot of shoreline, black marine iguanas sunned themselves. Theirs is the only lizard species in the world to have adapted to sea life. They moved away from us with that Galápagos lack of urgency and it was easy to catch them. Fiddi and endlessly duplicated Darwin's old iguana experiment, tossing the lizards out to sea and watching them make beelines back to us. The instinct of marine iguanas, when alarmed, is to head for the nearest land. From this Darwin deduced that the iguanas principal enemies are sharks and other ocean creatures. That seemed a sensible explanation to us.

Adult iguanas were blunt-headed, black-lipped dragons, four feet long. They snorted from time to time, blowing out a salty vapor. One of the lizard's marine adaptations is a gland that removes salt from its body. The lizards seldom bite, which is a fortunate thing in a four-foot lizard. Maybe in a million years evolution will have taught the iguana that its teeth can be useful in persuading boys to leave it alone.

The young iguanas, in the way of all reptiles, were miniatures of the adults. They were small dragons not so heavy to carry around. They seemed somehow more perfect in their reduction. They fit well in the palm. There was something about holding them—the dry taut sides, the black and perfect scales, the prick of their long claws, designed to hook into porous lava and hold the flattened lizard against the ocean's surge, now lightly hooking you. I couldn't get enough of them. In the islands, handling young iguanas became my principal vice.

In 1976, I revisited the Galápagos. I was a tour leader this time. Our book had come out, I was coauthor, and that made me an authority. Ten years had passed, and I had to read my book again to learn a few facts about the place.

The Guayaquil taxi driver who drove me to the airport did not consider me a brave man this time. I was just another American on his way to the Galápagos. The islands were a national park now and tourists were always going there. Those former devil's islands were a hangout for pale foreigners now, not for murderers and thieves.

I was afraid that plane travel would make the islands seem less dearly earned. The voyage on the Cristobal Carrier, the wreck that had taken me the first time, had lasted three days, at the end of which the islands had seemed remote and difficult. But now, as stepped out onto the Galápagos airfield, the islands looked as beautiful as they ever had. The desert smell brought back memories. Ten years, after all, is not very long. I did wonder a little, now about my conviction that these were the finest desert islands on earth. Could that conviction have had something to do with their being the backdrop of my young manhood? I put on my tennis hat. The equatorial sun beat down, and no longer had much hair up there for protection.

Bureaucracy's Impact on the Islands

The dirt streets of town, at Academy Bay on Santa Cruz Island, looked pretty much the same. I found Fiddi in the bar. He was 6'4" and had recently become captain of Beagle III, the Darwin Research Station's vessel. He was, I noted happily, still barefoot. It was odd to see him drinking beer. It shouldn't have been—what could be more natural than a towering 24 year-old sea captain drinking a cerveza with his crew?

Later from the deck of our tour yacht, I saw a man sculling his dinghy toward town. He passed close, and I recognized Fritz Angermeyer and grinned. It was like Fritz, the Galápagos Crusoe, to be sculling places. Everyone else in this harbor used an outboard for short trips to town. I started to call to him, then stopped. I'm not sure why I think I felt that by not communicating, by just watching him, like a man sculling in a movie, the old Fritz Angermeyer would still exist for me.

The next day I relented. I visited Fritz in the house he had built from lava stones. As in the old days, he was laconic, listening with those strong arms folded while Carmen, his wife, did most of the talking. When he did speak, it was to complain, with a strange agitation, about the park rangers. You couldn't just go out and shoot goats anymore, he said.

Bureaucracy, which had driven him from Europe, had now after 40 years, found him on this furthermost end of the earth. He was given the park he had wanted; now he wasn't sure he wanted it.

For a month the yacht took us around the islands. The park rules were admirably strict. There were now designated spots where tourists could stop; every place else was forbidden. It was against the rules to touch the animals. It was necessary for the group to stay together, accompanied everywhere by our naturalist guide. At each of the places we put ashore, a line of small, black-and-white stakes designated trails from which we were not to stray.

The trail stakes were unobtrusive—models, very likely of how to do these things well—but the first time I saw them they stopped me in my tracks.

These are peculiar moments for an environmentalist. In a way they are worse than seeing the pipeline your efforts failed to prevent. Your book succeeded, and you got the park you wanted you can't very well complain.

I was at a loss to explain my feeling to the people I led. They had not known the Galápagos before. The archipelago was still huge and roomy. Days passed without our seeing another party—once a whole week. Those tiny stakes hardly altered the sweep of this landscape.

"A wonderful thing about islands," I had promised in our book, "is their capacity for discovery. They can be discovered, rediscovered, and rediscovered again, yet still seem virgin ground. Nowhere is it easier to imagine yourself the first than when you're alone on a desert island in the center of a blue sea."

That had ceased to be true, or possible. Where Fiddi and I once had rambled in freedom over the lava, I was now following, at a snail's pace, down a staked path, the ample and elderly ass of one of my female charges.

My explorations of 1966 would not have satisfied any of the Galápagos buccaneers, the real explorers. These explorations of 1976 did not satisfy me. The people in my tour, who did not know any better, thought the experience was great. As human numbers grow, this is how freedom and space depart the planet: in small increments, with few the wiser.

One day under a growing compulsion, I slipped away from the others. I had to be careful. I was the leader, and my conduct was supposed to be exemplary Making certain one turn of the beach lay between me and the naturalist guide, ran down to the water I selected my victim, and after a short scuttle caught it. I straightened and for a moment held the taut sides, the black and perfect scales, the black-lipped dragon's head, in my hand.


About the Creator

Kenneth Brower

American nonfiction writer; Best known for his books about the environment, national parks, and natural places.

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