A Million Years of Memory

Travel Stories: In the Galapagos, Bill Belleville immerses himself in an environment that's part dream, part cradle of evolution

12.10.03 | 9:47 PM ET

We put ashore at Tagus Cove in the bronze light of late afternoon, scraping the bow of our Zodiac onto the hard black sand beach. A few yards inland, a mountain rises up from the sand, buttressed with thick ridges. It looks raw, freshly created from the earth.

I have studied local maps and know I will need a steady uphill climb to give me a perspective on the landscape that I couldn’t realize at sea level.  The spine of one ridge is fluted, and there is a narrow trail hidden inside of it.  I follow it up atop a thin patina of red soil, iron and magnesium and sulfur once spit out of the volcano as ash and smoke and fire, now finely ground to dust.  The path, which is at first a steep heart-pumping natural stairway of small boulders, becomes more of a gentle incline as it goes higher.

It leads me above a thousand feet, up to where finely woven nests of ground finches hang from the bare limbs of the ghostly palo santo trees.  Looking down, I see that the cove, in the shape of a perfect half moon, is what remains of a volcanic crater. Time and tide collapsed the seaward wall of its colder long ago, and now the ocean fills the geological bowl where magma once roiled. I have walked up the rim of the other half of the crater that still remains.

I’m in the Galapagos, 600 miles offshore South America in the Pacific, the lone writer aboard a research ship full of marine scientists.  These islands straddle the Equator, and common sense would have them tropical and warm. But they are also washed with bewildering crosscurrents, like the Humboldt, which transports ice-cold water up from the Antarctic.  Wayward penguins once rode this current northward, and today they have become part of a menagerie of animals and plants, which after drifting, flying or swimming here, have been singularly molded by the isolation of the place. They include giant land tortoises with shells shaped by how they feed on the individual islands where they live; iguanas that have learned to swim underwater and graze algae from boulders; a finch that hunts insects like a woodpecker, except that it holds a twig in its beak and uses it as a tool. Entire families and classes seem to have changed anatomically, just by the act of being in a place my shipmates call the “cradle of evolution.”  The scientists are here hoping for new discoveries, ways of describing a genus or a species that has never been examined before. I am here for discovery, too, except my logic is more inexact, a childlike sense of anticipation rooted somewhere deeply in my gut.

In some vague way, this place is a reflection of how we are all fashioned by our own realities. Here in the Galapagos, without the nonsense of civilization to muddle up the point, it is just more evident.

This is an odd piece of geography, where cold water meets warm sky and mist sometimes rises up unexpectedly, clouding everything in a pale blur.  I have been on the deck of our research ship at dawn by myself, and could not see more than a few yards in any direction. Once, a whale surfaced and splashed, maybe fifty feet away from me, fully hidden in a vacuum that was white, cool. As I stood there alone on the stern, I heard it release the air from its massive lungs in one extended monstrous breath. It sounded as if the entire sea itself was exhaling, expelling a million years worth of memory in a single giant burst of spray and power and light. The mist gradually parted, perhaps from the force of the whale’s exhalation, and I could see a portion of its immense body, dark and barnacled like the bottom of a ship, moving deliberately through the water. The moment seemed vaguely hallucinogenic, and I felt as if I were there but also somewhere else, my lonely soul like the disembodied spindrift of the whale’s breath. And then as suddenly as it had surfaced, the great cetacean had vanished, dissolving back into the water without a sound.  I was still alone on the deck, and with me in the white were only the sounds of the gulls, shrieking at each other, and then, even that was too was gone. No wonder the early Spanish, not sure if these islands were real or imagined, first mapped them as “Encantada,” enchanted.

And now, up here on the edge of this collapsed volcano, I realize the ridge I’ve been hiking has taken me to the top of the rim shared by Tagus and the wholly intact bowl of an adjacent caldera, one that sprawls out for a few hundred meters inland.  A young naturalist named Charles Darwin made this same hike after putting ashore here at Isla Isabella in the HMS Beagle in 1835.  For Darwin, these islands offered a rare glimpse into the beginning of the world itself. The experience was so powerful that it changed him from a creationist; but the dissonance was palatable—it took him the rest of his life to work up the courage to finally admit that animals and plants alter to adapt to their place on earth.

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Bill Belleville is a Florida-based writer, author and documentary filmmaker specializing in nature. His book, Losing It All To Sprawl, was named one of the Best Books of 2006 by Library Journal.

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