Webcasting from the Galápagos

Author Mark Mardon with Earth Island Institute Chairman David R. Brower at the Brower home in Berkeley, California, circa 1996.

The following dispatches were uploaded via satellite onto the Web in the spring of 1996 from aboard the Alta, a three-masted schooner chartered by Mountain Travel-Sobek’s TerraQuest expedition to the Galápagos Islands. Reportedly this was one of the first-ever satellite transmissions of content posted to a Website.

I was aboard the Alta as a nature writer courtesy of my good friend David Brower, Chairman of Earth Island Institute, who alas was unable to undertake the journey himself. Dave graciously asked me to go in his place! It was the wildlife-viewing adventure of a lifetime. Thanks Dave! I’ll always remember you for your warmth, generosity, and fighting spirit!

Route of the Alta, TerraQuest Virtual Galápagos Expedition, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador, 1996.

Homage to Quito

Quito, Ecuador

FEW CITIES OCCUPY A LANDSCAPE AS OPERATIC AS QUITO’S. Her volcanic peaks pierce the ever-present storm clouds like daggers, while her valleys plunge to rivers rushing tempestuously in their eternal quest for Mother Ocean. The colonial buildings in the Old City look so gloomy and exhausted, you’d think romance was born here. Or that mysteries always resolve themselves here. No city in the Americas can claim a richer pre-Columbian history—though many often try—and none is more sensuous, temperamental, or possessed of as many lovers. Quito is to the world’s cities what Tosca is to music—beauty and tragedy played out on the grandest stage.

The grande dame still pushes my buttons, still gives me a thrill. Though no doubt she’s an aging diva, her faded charms still manage to stir up my emotions. She’s the heartbeat of adventure, the soul of wanderlust. She entered my life first in 1976 when, at 22, I embarked on my maiden voyage to the middle of the world, the jeweled equatorial beltway crossing the Andean crest. Quito’s cobblestone streets and musical street vendors bewitched me, saturated as they were (and are) with pachas and paquos—friendly and evil spirits—the benefactors and bane of ancient Incas and modern Quechua-speaking Indians alike. Kay Pacha herself, Mother Earth, keeps house here. So, too, was I smitten by Quito’s blend of Spanish and Indian heritages. Many a time since then I’ve taxied her modern skyscrapered boulevards, squeezed into her chaotic buses, navigated her byzantine marketplaces, and always found her a gracious hostess.

But the fact is, I just couldn’t keep my mind on dear, luscious Quito during my one day there prior to departing for the Galápagos Islands—and the last thing I wanted was make her jealous. When riled, I’m told, she can put on quite a terremoto, shaking things up considerably till her anger is exhausted and she calms down for another few decades.

My thoughts settled firmly on those islands, and in my impatience to reach them, even Quito seemed an impediment to my desire. The Galápagos archipelago, my ultimate quest, was the only thing I cared about. I kept running images of them through my mind, picturing them dotting azure waters, populated by strange, otherworldly creatures, reptilian and avian, mammalian and otherwise. All the fancy, finicky finches; the predatory, soaring frigate birds; the languid, indifferent ground iguanas–all the bizarre and wonderful wildlife that had gripped my imagination since I was a kid kept calling me.

But, then again, there I was in Quito, waiting to embark on my Virtual Galápagos adventure. And there she was, gorgeous and horrible, waiting for me to come calling, and we had no choice but to spend a whole day together. So, at last, I relented. Putting down my Galápagos natural-history book, I joined the others in my party—the multimedia specialists, video artists, photographers, writer-naturalists, and others—and strode determinedly out the hotel’s front doors, intent on greeting and embracing Quito once more, letting her shower me with her many charms.

Little did I know I’d end up acting like a monkey. It was hot-shot photographer Scott Highton’s fault. His bulky backpack, which he kept reminding us weighed a ton, held a fancy array of camera equipment, including a digital Kodak DC50 and a Nikon F3 fixed, first, with a 15 mm lens, then with and razzle-dazzle, panaramic fish-eye 8 mm lens. The day was warm, with plenty of blue sky, but ominous cumulus clouds drifted around Quito’s mountainous perimiter.

All-in-all, it was a nice day for shooting pictures. But what did Scott have in mind when he slipped off his backpack, unzipped the back panel, pulled out a camera mount, then squeezed himself through an opening in the outer rebar sphere? His purpose became apparent when he clambered up to the top of the inner sphere and affixed the camera mount at its top point. So he was going to take a photo from inside the sphere, I nodded approvingly to myself. That’s nice.

But why, then, did Scott want the rest of us, plus a bunch of local kids, to clamber up on the outer sphere, arraying ourselves around its circumference? The reason had better be pretty good, I thought, since I was feeling pretty self conscious on display in front of puzzled parents on park benches, no doubt more used to watching their kids play on the structure than a bunch of grown-up gringos.

Then I realized how ingenius Scott was. He’d affixed his cameras on a rotating axis, so that it would take a sequence of shots as he turned it 360 degrees, taking in the entire vista, with us hanging on rebar in the foreground, and the panarama of Quito in the background. Suddenly I felt like a super fashion model, posed in the hippest setup. If only I were wearing something trendier, I mused, as I happily monkeyed around on the structure.

After that bit of fun, the rest of the afternoon was all uphill—literally. We climbed up to the old city, carefully avoiding getting run over by crazed bus drivers as we crossed streets. I guided the lot of us, being the only one of our group familiar with the city or conversant in the local language. Being a guide got to my head, apparently–or maybe it was the altitude, at more than 8,000 feet, but I kept taking us higher and higher up the hillsides, into the more colonial sections of town, where cobblestones had yet to be paved over for the benefit of cars.

Scott was huffing and puffing with his camera pack weighing him down, but the rest of us eagerly scaled the heights, to the apparent curiosity of the locals, who seemed unused to gringos going out of their way to visit the neighborhood.

By and by, we wandered up and down steep streets, meandered through marketplaces, gazed in awe at cathedrals in various states of decay, and generally amused ourselves. We spent the usual amount of time oohing and aahing over the city’s grand geographic setting, snug amid peaks and precipitous valleys, while bemoaning the traffic with its smog and honking, the runaway development of skyscrapers, and the often tacky public sculptures. Of course, I could just as easily have ticked off a dozen flaws of North American urban settings–the hamburgurization of main streets, the strip-mall-itis, the barricaded communities, and so on. Nonetheless, we came through the day feeling perhaps a bit overly impressed with ourselves for having made our way around town without getting hopelessly lost, and without having anyone look at us as though we were aliens from outer space–an accomplishment not to be belittled.

For me, the defining moment of our group’s day in Quito came not on the streets of the city, but over a late-evening brew in the posh Hotel Sebastian restaurant. Sitting across the neatly-set table from me was Deva Fera, the 26-year-old multi-media specialist I’d met only a couple days before in northern California, at the Mountain Travel-Sobek headquarters. The rest of our crew—including Scott and his cameras—had either turned in for the night, or were off on who-knows-what adventures. Except for the waiter and one other unobtrusive party, Deva and I had the room to ourselves. Between us stood two tall bottles of ice-cold Pilsner, and two sparkling-clean glasses from which we quaffed our golden truth serum.

“After walking around this city and seeing how poor the people are,” confessed Deva (pronounced Day vuh), taking another slug of beer and looking a bit too glum for someone on his first venture outside of the United States, “I realize now just how well off I am back in the United States. I mean, in that market place in the old city, mothers had their ragged little kids working beside them, sitting on the sidewalk, selling junk food and other stuff, and I’ll bet they earned next to nothing all day.”

Deva Ferar records blue-footed boobies.

Ah, the lost innocence of youth. Its raw display in Deva touched me. Undoubtedly, when I was Deva’s age, back in 1978 when my now-20-year-long, on-again, off-again affair with Latin America still bloomed afresh—before the process of becoming jaded had settled in and helped me develop a protective layer of callousness—undoubtedly I muttered words very similar to Deva’s. And no doubt whoever listened to me thought me wet behind the ears, too ready—eager, even—to assume the mantle of guilt over other people’s plight.

But, of course, Deva is right: Most North Americans live in far greater comfort than most South Americans, and the inequality in living standards shows most starkly in the teeming market places of Quito, Guayaquil, Bogota, Lima, and other sprawling metropolises that in recent decades have swollen beyond their capacity to adequately accommodate newcomers. The contrast becomes all the more acute when gringos such as ourselves check into elegant hotels in the more upscale districts of these bloated cities. In such circumstances, one tends to become conscious of one’s privileges.

At the same time, if one is met face-to-face over a frothy glass of beer by an idealistic, impressionable youth, one can be made conscious of one’s responsibilities. That’s just what happened to me: Deva reminded me that my presence on this well-funded, high-tech expedition to Western civilization’s cradle of evolutionary thinking required that I pay attention not only to the natural history of the Galapagos—which though already well known to all the world are justly deserving of further paens—but to the plight of people whose less-fortunate circumstances leave them precious little time to appreciate their country’s natural wonders.

I would soon find out for myself how wonderful those wonders truly are, and how much they need protecting. In only about six short hours, I’d be on my way out over the Pacific, leaving behind warm-hearted, smothering, unpredictable Quito and rushing headlong into the welcome embrace of my archepeligo come true.

Downtime in the Galápagos

The Alta

SIX HUNDRED MILES OFF THE COAST OF ECUADOR, our sleek, three-masted schooner, the Alta, plies the Pacific through an archipelago now bathed in darkness. It’s a starry night, dominated by the Southern Cross. Behind us lies Espanola Island, where we spent the day observing sea lions, blue-footed boobies, swallow-tailed gulls and lava lizards. There, too, we photographed several of the finch species described by Charles Darwin in his revolutionary theory of evolution.

Ahead of us lies Santa Maria Island, where we expect to see pink flamingoes and a snow-white beach where green sea turtles nest. It’s warm outside, with a salt breeze wafting over the bow as the ship cuts through shallow waves. Yet as much as we’d like to be relaxing on deck, inhaling the briny air, we can’t: We have too much work to do. We’re the team that’s putting together “Virtual Galápagos,” a 10-day Web “event” being followed by tens of thousands of people tuning into TerraQuest, the ultimate adventure-travel Website. We’re crowded into the dining room, now converted into a computer operations center. We’ve got a Website to put together, and a live Internet chat to conduct with people online around the world.

We’re working with a sense of the world watching over our shoulders. Whatever we accomplish—or fail to achieve—during our journey will help define what’s possible (or not) on the Web. By traveling thousands of miles from home, bringing with us the ultimate in high-tech gear, and putting together a Web site via satellite, we’re conducting a grand experiment. We’re also conveying an important message to the world: that the Galápagos Islands’ native animals are imperiled by goats, dogs, and pigs set free by settlers, and by a huge influx of immigrants from the South American mainland.

Yet in the marriage of Internet technology and wildlife conservation aboard the Alta, the honeymoon period is proving to be rocky.

Members of the TerraQuest team prepare their dispatches aboard the Alta.

On our first attempt at a live Internet chat from the Alta, Kevin Twidle, our resident computer whiz (he’s a senior research fellow at London’s prestigious Imperial College of Science, Technology, and Medicine), and Jonathan Chester, our jolly Aussie leader, attempt to link our PowerBooks to the PowerPC using ethernet. It’s a procedure they never tried on last year’s Virtual Antarctica expedition. This year, for our Virtual Galápagos adventure, Kevin hopes to put more than one computer at a time into use, enabling several of us to get online at once. To link them to TerraQuest’s Web site, based in northern California, he has brought along a high-speed LAN system which must be re-oriented to the Atlantic West satellite each time the boat drifts, because the satellite remains stationary above the equator and the transmitter has no automatic tracking capability.

All this has something to do with protecting the Galápagos, ostensibly one of TerraQuest’s main objectives as an environmentally progressive outfit—but unless you’re a computer whiz, you’d have a hard time knowing what.

Getting the system connected to the Internet, so that our onboard naturalists can communicate in real time with Internet chatters worldwide, is trickier than getting it to transmit voice communications. While voice connections could operate even with static, Internet connections must be static-free. Achieving such perfection presents Kevin with a challenge, but not, he thinks, an insuperable one.

Now all the tech people are hunkered around my PowerBook, which I’m expecting to get on to “talk” about the Galápagos when the chat is up and running, but which promptly crashes. When it comes up again, Kevin looks for proper protocols. But he’s not finding them. Something’s amiss. He’s not getting connected. There’s a glitch somewhere, and he has to find out where it is.

“The link seems to be down out of London,” says Kevin matter-of-factly, after further futile attempts to get a connection. “The router must’ve fallen over—could be an IRA bombing,” he quips, “or maybe someone has broken in and run off with the equipment.”

To find out for sure if the problem is in London, Kevin uses telnet to dial up the computer directly, rather than going through the Internet. He gets back only messages telling him that the server is failing to respond. “It’s very, very unusual that the server’s down,” he adds. “It’s a major site in the UK”

The only alternative now is using the slow-speed satellite transmitter and using a dial-up account via a server in Holland. While Kevin switches the equipment, Jonathan attempts to contact Christian Kallen at TerraQuest headquarters in California, but can’t dial through the voice mailbox. He scrambles to get through on the emergency telephone line, but he can’t locate the number. It’s on a printout somewhere.

“Who’s got it?” Jonathan barks.

“I’ve got it in my cabin downstairs,” replies naturalist Alison Hill, dashing for her room to get the number.

Meanwhile, various onlookers are making jokes about how this scene resembles the bridge of the USS Enterprise. “It’s like Kirk calling for Scotty to give him more power,” says Norman, our videographer and resident comic.

“‘But Captain,’ Scotty says: ‘I’m already giving you all she’s got!'”

Over in one corner of the boat, Gary Young, our digital imaging specialist from Eastman Kodak Company, waits patiently for time on the main computer. Before retiring to his cabin for the night, he has to upload images from the two Kodak Professional DCS 460 Digital Cameras he took with him to the islands today. The photos must be sent to Christian for use on the Web site, but it’s looking like they won’t go out tonight.

Finally Jonathan gets in touch with Christian, who says he’s online, running the chat from California. He’s telling everyone logged on that the Virtual Adventurers are experiencing technical difficulties. He hopes they’ll be up and running soon.

“Oops,” says multimedia specialist Deva Ferar, looking at the main computer monitor. “We have a bomb.”

A fuse has blown on the high-speed transmitter. But that doesn’t matter now, since the London server is down. Now they’re going to use the slow transmitter to connect with a server in Berkeley. This limits data speed to 2,400 baud–too slow for images, but adequate for typing responses to chat questions.

Norman, pipes up from the sidelines again: “You can tell this is a government job–two guys running around doing all the work while everybody else looks on.”

As if to remind everyone that the focus of this adventure is on nature, not technology, Diane MacEachern, one of our nature writers, starts reading a literary passage she’s discovered from William Beebe, describing the Galápagos environment. It’s a gorgeous piece of writing, Diane keeps exclaiming, doing her best to write another dispatch amid the hubbub around her.

Kevin and Jonathan are beginning to look defeated. The slow-speed connection to the U.S. isn’t working, either. Maybe flow control is the problem, Kevin speculates. “Let’s look at the log-in sequence,” he mutters. “Yes, that’s it.” He’d been trying DNAI in the U.S., but the connection failed every time.

“Who wants to go up to the ship’s control room,” asks Jonathan, “to call Christian and tell him what we did today? That way Christian will be able to relay the information to people on-line.”

Alison volunteers, and scurries out onto the deck.

But as technical glitches continue to frustrate Jonathan and Kevin, the atmosphere in the room is turning somber. Norman and his wife, Gail, who’d been prepared to videotape the chat in progress, now turn off and pack up their equipment for the night.

Kevin tries getting into the chat through America OnLine, but realizes the boat has shifted. “The signal’s right on the edge. . . . There! It’s connecting! We’re coming down in America at the moment with Comsat.”

Alison comes back down and says that she spoke only a few minutes with Christian before voice contact failed. Kevin says that occurred because of the boat shifting. But even if they get into the chat through America OnLine, which is taking forever because of AOL’s painfully slow graphic interface, there may no longer be anyone online to chat with. In the brief time they spoke, Christian told Alison that people had dropped out of the chat because nobody from the Alta was online.

Finally both Jonathan and Kevin reluctantly concede defeat. But only for the moment. Tomorrow, Kevin says brightly, everything should be back in smooth running order. No doubt the London satellite link will be up and running.

And sure enough, all is in order the next day. Everything proceeds without a hitch, getting the Virtual Galápagos message out to the Internet world in good order. It’s as though all the computer glitches destined to occur during the expedition were deemed by the gods to occur on one night. From here on out, all is smooth sailing. Ultimately, the joining of Internet technology and conservation aboard the Alta proves to be a happy union.

Sea Cucumbers

and other endangered species

I CAME TO THESE ISLANDS expecting—knowing—that I would see extraordinary wildlife, and I haven’t been disappointed. Just today, on Hood Island, I walked with my companions from the Alta among a dazzling landscape inhabited by thousands of blue-footed boobies tending their eggs and hatchlings or engaging in elaborate mating rites. I watched marine iguanas snaking through the tide to clamber aboard algae-covered rocks, and inadvertantly induced a bull sealion to growl threateningly at me because I dared wander among the lounging members of his harem. Such experiences, common among visitors to the Galápagos, are worth a fortune in good karma. If everybody could see these sights for themselves, we might all experience nirvana.

I’ve seen so many television documentaries about the Galápagos, and read so many books on the islands, that I hardly needed a guidebook to know what species inhabit which nooks and crannies here. I’m thankful for those PBS shows and coffee-table books, because they’ve done much over the years to encourage people to care for the animals and plants I’m now seeing first hand. The media may fail miserably in promoting conservation in some places, such as in areas of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest (way up there in the northern hemisphere), but it has gone all out to encourage people to protect the natural heritage of the Galapagos.

So far so good. We—conservationists in general, and Ecuadorian conservationists in particular—have accomplished a great feat in keeping the Galapagos wild, almost as wild as the islands were when Darwin first set foot on them.

Once you set foot on one the Galápagos Islands and encounter its wildlife face to face, you understand the truth of David Brower’s oft-repeated dictum, that the Earth needs CPR—Conservation, Protection, and Restoration. When wild animals—like the sealions, ground iguanas, and Galápagos hawks I saw yesterday on the northeast shore of Santa Fe Island–can be approached by humans and show no hint of fear, humans must be doing something right. Sometimes doing right means doing nothing at all. For millions of years, ignoring the Galápagos and letting them fend for themselves was our policy by default. Not knowing that they existed made doing right easy. Of course, we were busy doing some evolving ourselves.

Then we discovered the islands—or at least the Bishop of Panama did—after which doing right became harder. The idea of protecting the islands didn’t occur to the whalers, pirates, and early colonists who subsequently visited the islands. Fortunately it occurred to Charles Darwin, who managed to conceive some use for the island’s creatures besides slaughter and profit.

Amazingly, for a species that so often manages to dismiss good ideas, ours embraced Darwin’s revolutionary notion of species evolution. We set to work preserving the Galápagos as a living laboratory in which evolutionary ideas could be studied. Thanks to such diligence, today the islands are a World Heritage Site, and therefore a world-class monument to human reason.

Yet, as I learned yesterday in visiting Galápagos National Park and the Darwin Research Station, all is not paradise in the Galápagos Islands. While we humans, and Ecuadorian conservationists in particular, have done a better job of preserving the Galápagos than we’ve done in most other wildlife-rich areas of the world, we still face serious problems here. Solving them will be the ultimate test of our ability to achieve our conservation ideals.

Sea cucumbers

For example, when people think of Charles Darwin and the Galápagos, they don’t generally think of sea cucumbers. Yet they should, because until recently, the islands gave safe harbor to the sluggish animals, kin to sea urchins and starfishes. Now fishermen are harvesting as many as 600,000 to 1-million sea cucumbers each month to satisfy the culinary tastes of Asian connoisseurs. As a result, one of the Galápagos’ fourteen indigenous sea-cucumber species now faces extinction.

If that were the only threat to the archipelago’s biodiversity, we’d probably be able to rectify the matter in short order. Unfortunately, other matters consume the resources and energies of Galápagos National Park authorities and conservationists. There’s the continuing matter of wild goats and pigs devastating giant tortoise habitat and consuming tortoise eggs. Along with the rest of my party, and perhaps everyone who’s ever visited Galápagos National Park since the early 1970s, I saw Lonesome George, the last of his giant-tortoise subspecies, living out his final years in captivity, his kind destroyed by the pigs and goats our kind introduced to his island long ago. The same fate awaits other tortoise subspecies if the remaining goats and pigs aren’t eradicated, a task that Park Service officials estimate will require another $5 million in funds and several years of effort.

But back to the marine habitat around the Galápagos: It’s under siege as never before, and not just by those with a yen for sea cucumbers. Large international fishing vessels, mainly from Asian countries, are plying the waters around the islands, illegally hauling in huge catches of fish by means of large seines and long-lining. Meanwhile Ecuadorian fleets fish these waters, and while their activity is allowed by Ecuadorian law, some observers question whether the home fleets are observing the regulations promulgated by their government to preserve fish stocks and ensure a healthy marine environment. On top of these pressures, local fishermen in the Galápagos increasingly sell lobsters, sea urchins, shark fins, sea horses, and pipefish to Asian buyers. Some are killing sea lions to use as bait. The numbers of fishermen on the islands has increased substantially in recent years, to more than 800, further pressuring the marine life. In response to conservationists’ concerns about the fishing industry’s impacts on Galapagos resources, the Ecuadorian government issued various decrees. These set up oversight agencies to monitor the fishing problems, and set a limit on the number of sea cucumbers that could be harvested legally.The effects of these decrees, however, has been less than satisfactory. Reliable reports indicate that sea cucumbers are still being harvested illegally, by clandestine means, in excess of the decreed limit.

What all of this means, I’ve quickly realized, is that conservationists in Ecuador and world-wide have to work harder to instill conservationist thinking in our fellow bipeds. It’s inconceivable that we’ll be able to practice effective CPR anywhere on our continents if we can’t do it right in the Galápagos. So while it’s good to appreciate the Galápagos’ wildlife diversity, to dive with her sealions, walk among her boobies, gaze upon her iguanas, and ponder the immense age of her giant tortoises, it’s essential to keep in mind that none of these species is yet assured a bright future. And that’s a crying shame, because the Galápagos should be a showcase for our species’ ability to respect other species. We should be raising an outcry at any depradations on the islands, and putting up money to help the Galápagos National Park Service effectively patrol its turf. It’s the world’s turf, too, if not by legal title, then by virtue of our common interests in living in harmony with all creatures, be they giant, blue-footed, scaly, algae-eating, soaring, diving, or otherwise adapted to their world. It’s time for boldness, as Dave Brower would say. It’s time to show how well we Galápagos lovers can practice CPR.


Multicolored Spectacle

A green sea turtle spotted off the side of the Alta. Photo by DJ Young.

OFFSHORE OF FLOREANA ISLAND, it’s just after dinner on the Alta, and the live satellite chat is underway at the computer set-up in the dining room. There’s a commotion from outside as voices exclaim over baby green sea turtles off the side of the boat. On deck, I find Kevin shining his video spotlight on the water, and can plainly see the tiny creatures struggling to gain their freedom. Their main goal now is to keep from being eaten, not an easy task since a bunch of sealions are cruising around among them. Once, then twice, I see sealions scoop up the baby morsels.

It’s been another of those mind-boggling days in the archipelago. We landed on Floreana in the morning, and were instantly agog at the beach’s green sand, produced by bits of olivine crystals. Then we went bananas over the first couple of penguins we saw fishing in the surf, along with some dive-bombing boobies. 

This island gave me my best idea yet of the differences between the various types of mangroves in the archipelago. I took notes as fast as I could as Reina, our naturalist, pointed out things she thought we should take note of. The first species we came to, she noted–the one on the beach where the pelicans were perching–was the black mangrove. Reina said that if you touch its shiny leaves, then lick your finger tip, you’ll taste the salt exuded by the plant. The white mangrove, by contrast, gets rid of its salt by means of two tiny glands at the base of each leaf. 

On Floreana there’s another beach that’s perfectly white, with the finest, softest sand I’ve ever set foot on. It sloped gently down to an azure surf, in which we could see the shadowy forms of giant rays gently flapping along. It was easy to tell where green sea turtles had laid their eggs, because you could see the tracks where they’d crawled up the beach and back, and you could see the pit where they’d deposited the eggs. Frigate birds overhead could also see the egg stashes, and were waiting for signs of movement, at which, it was clear, they’d swoop down.

As someone who was born and raised in the heart of the Arizona-Sonora Desert, I find a lot to relate to here in the Galápagos Islands.

 Not until I came here did it occur to me how much the Sonoran Desert and the Galápagos’ habitats have in common. I knew, of course, that I’d find cactus on the islands, and that desert conditions prevail across most of the archipelago. But somehow I never imagined myself hiking along on, say, Floreana Island–where we visited this morning–and saying to myself: “Hey, this seems familiar; it feels like home.”

I realise anybody who’s been to Floreana Island will probably think I’m crazy to say that, because the habitat differences between the Sonoran Desert and the island are greater than the similarities. On Floreana, for instance, you find pink flamingos in land-locked, salt-water lagoons sweeping up and devouring tiny shrimp. In the Sonoran Desert, on the other hand, the only pink flamingos you see are the plastic ones people in mobile-home parks stick in the front yards.

One thing the Sonoran Desert and Floreana Island have in common, though, is palo verde trees. They’re not the most exotic plants around, but if you’re from Arizona, and you visit a place far away and see palo verdes, you get kind of excited. It’s like running into someone you know in an airport halfway around the world.

In both locales, palo verdes look like a dry-climate version of a weeping willow, with their long, thin leaves, covered with leaflets, drooping like pom pons, gently swaying in hot breezes. I always loved palo verdes because, in the depth of summer, when the earth seemed scorched and almost everything turned brown and brittle, they remained green–even their trunks and branches–and their long, supple leaves appeared soft and somehow comforting amid the desert’s harshness.

Appearances in the desert can be deceptive, and usually are. From a distance palo verdes look cool and inviting under the summer sun, but up close they prove as inhospitable to humans as any desert plant. Hooked spines jut from their branches, ready to rip into the flesh of any hand that attempts to grab them, or, perhaps, any hoofed, fanged, or clawed creature that tries to munch them.

When I was a kid in desert country, the discrepancy between the palo verdes’ inviting look from afar and repelling defences up close both fascinated and troubled me. Whenever I was hiking in the desert, wilting under the sun and feeling parched, I’d see the palo verdes in the distance projecting a cool image, but I knew it was a mirage. The trees weren’t my friends. They weren’t my enemies, either. They just stood aloof, as innocently inhospitable to humans as the cacti and other spiked flora in their neighborhood. Sometimes they taunted me by remaining green and cool while I suffered sunburn and glare. They didn’t even offer significant shade, though they looked like they ought to. And yet I admired them, maybe because they seemed so resolutely self sufficient, like sturdy, stubborn homesteaders in a harsh environment, eking out a living, gradually improving their land. They were as cool as any of the thorny things in the desert–except barbed wire, a loathsome species.

Thank goodness there’s no barbed wire on these islands, at least not that I know of. I may not get to every part of the archipelago, but I’m getting to see more than I can easily process. It’s wildlife overload here in the Galápagos. At the end of each day, I’m exhausted but exhilarated. I haven’t even told you about the day’s snorkeling. I’ve skipped lots of details. I mean, people write books about this place. I’m just hitting some highlights. I’ve gotta tell you, this is fun. This is a lot like heaven.


The Black Volcano

The author on Isabella Island.

AT THE ‘PORT’ OF VILLAMIL, Isabella Island‘s one pueblo, we board a rickety bus and head up to Sierra Negro volcano. After passing through the sleepy village, we travel for a few miles through a desert landscape. This side of the island faces south, getting the brunt of the trade winds and the bulk of the moisture. The area is thickly vegetated with a jumble of ragged looking plants, including cacti, palo verde, many shrubs, and what looks like ocotillo. Higher up the road, the desert gives way to fenced-in farmlands. Along the roadside, we see many introduced cedar and other deciduous trees. We skirt banana plantations, citrus groves, and grazing cattle before coming to an area bordering the edge of an ancient lava flow–a ragged jumble of black rock spread across the terrain like pancake batter, surrounded by cacti and thorn bushes.

Kevin keeps sticking a device, looking much like a cellular telephone, out the bus window as we speed along.

“I’m trying to determine our location, altitude, and speed,” he says when asked what he’s doing. The gizmo he holds is a Global Satellite Positioning device, designed to transmit and receive satellite signals to determine precise geographic position (we’re at 50 minutes south and 91 degrees west), altitude, and speed of travel. Kevin and Jonathan explain that the instrument, developed by the U.S. military, is useful for, say, Antarctic explorers caught in white-outs, or tourists lost on the streets of London.

While some of the crew talk about such hardware, other exclaim over such non-high-tech oddities as vermillion flycatchers, which once or twice appear as brilliant flashes of color among the greenery along the road..

By and by we arrive at the end of the bus ride and the beginning of the horseback adventure. It’s a motley lot of equestrians that mount steeds and head up to the crest of Sierra Negra volcano on Isabella Island. For that matter, it’s a motley lot of steeds. Mangy beasts is more like it. Their flanks are all skin and bone, their hides are dull, and some sport flourescent-purple spots where medicine has been applied to treat bug bites or saddle sores or some such thing. Nor is this bunch of skinny caballos particularly keen to haul a bunch of tenderfeet and their equipment up the hill. In fact, the idea seems to bore them teriffically.

Expedition leader Jonathan Chester with an array of electronic gear on Isabella Island. Photo by Kevin Twidle.

Obviously somebody needs to make clear to them how unusual our little expedition is, and how they’re helping to make Internet history. From the looks of them, though, they don’t have a clue about computers. Nonetheless, this crew of horses hauls not only the Virtual Galapagos crew, but our e-mail equipment as well. We’ll be the first to send digital dispatches from the top of Sierra Negra and have them posted on the TerraQuest Web site the same day.

The going is slow, and not without hitches. A couple of our riders take spills that bruise their egos but not their bodies. In one case, a saddle came uncinched, and the rider came down on the trail in a cloud of dust, laughing as though it were the funniest joke ever played on him. Jonathan and I, perhaps having offended one of the mountain gods (or, more likely, one of the horse gods), get stuck with the slowest horses, ones that lack motivation to go faster than a plod. I end up playing the harmonica to amuse myself while bringing up the distant rear of the pack. Jonathan takes photos of the scenery.

But what scenery it is! We skirt the caldera, a vast sunken hole in the top of the mountain, perfectly circular and about three miles in diameter. Its floor is a mass of hardened lava, not smooth but jumbled, twisted, and cracked, occasionally overgrown with vegetation.

We dismount under a huge “jaboncillo” tree adorned with lichens, orchids, and bromeliads. Kevin set up his briefcase satellite telephone, while two of our group grab PowerBooks and start clacking away on the keys, composing instant Internet dispatches that no doubt some (though not us) will say rank with Edison’s first recorded words, or first telephone conversation.

After the dispatches are done, Gary calls his office, but the person he wants to speak to is out of the office. “Can you put me through to his voice mailbox?” he asks the receptionist. No, she replies, because voicemail is out of order. “Wouldn’t you know it?” replies Gary. “I can call from the top of a volcano in the Galapagos, but the voice mail in the United States doesn’t work.” .

Meanwhile everybody’s photographing or videotaping everybody else. I’m struck by the absurdity of it. But I’ve got to admit it’s fun. And, besides, it’s peaceful under the tree, where we eat our lunches. I listen to the birds, the wind, and Gary calling his office, and gaze off into the panaramic distance, to the cinder-cone dotted landscape stretching off for mile after hazy mile, to the ocean.

We hike off to the leeward side of the mountain, leaving our horses to enjoy the shade and striking out into the blazing sun. The heat is made more intense by the black lava under our feet. Little plant life relieves the stark, volcanic landscape here. With every crunch of my boot on the lava, I grind cinders together. Looking closely at the bits of basalt, I see that some sides of them have shiny manganese sides, making them glisten as though they were moist.

But it’s incredibly dry here. We all consume copious quantities of water, lather on extra sun screen, protect our eyes behind sun shades, and make sure our wide-brimmed hats shade our faces and necks.

Reyna leads us across the folded, layered, swirling, cracked, and broken terrain–which varies in color from rust red (iron) to purple (copper and iron) to black (basalt)–to the edge of a fumarole, a fern-lined vent in the earth emitting sulfuric steam and heat. Pure sulfur colors some of the surrounding rocks a vivid yellow, in swirls amid crystalline rocks colored white, rose, purple, green, orange, brown, and black. It’s a Dead Head’s dream come true, to venture to one of the planet’s remotest places and find a natural tie-die design.

I’ve been to a lot of volcanos in a lot of places, but none struck me as so primordial as this one. I imagined it in its heyday, when it was bubbling over and running in rivers down to the steaming ocean. At some time or other, it would have been laced with streams of fire amid pitch-black islands where the rock was already beginning to cool. The light show would have put any rock concert’s to shame. What a high. What a trip. I didn’t even mind that my thighs were already sore, and I’d soon be going back downhill astride old slowpoke.


We Human Animals

Galapagos_CactiTHIS EVENING I’ve been out on ship’s deck, lying in the dark in the warm, moist air, looking up at the cloudy sky, feeling a million miles from home. This may be the best moment of my journey on the Alta. That’s not to say the wildlife I’ve seen so far, or the landscapes I’ve traversed, or the ocean I’ve swum haven’t impressed me. On the contrary, they’ve overwhelmed me with their grandeur, their timelessness. I appreciate them in ways I can’t express in a single dispatch, or even a multitude of dispatches. Whatever paeans I write to the wonders of these islands during the twelve short days of my visit may turn out to be shallow words colored by the blush of giddy discovery, but empty of serious reflection, of hard-earned understanding. To know these islands well would require a lifetime of study, and I’ve barely cracked the textbook.

So lying here on the deck, looking at the dimly lit masts swaying against the nimbus clouds, I’ve gained something I had lacked so far during the hectic days of this trip: perspective. The Galápagos appreciation I’m gaining on this trip is like poetry, a slender thread unraveled from an enormous multicolored tapestry. I’ve been collecting such threads for more than forty years, weaving them into a fabric of my own imagining. The thread I gather in this archipelago may prove to be among the richest in my collection.

For some reason, out here alone under the vastness of the sky, rocked by the sway of the boat, serenaded by the hum of the engine below and the continual surge of the waves against the distant shore of Isabela Island, I’m reminded of how ancient civilization is. I want to remember this because the Galapagos is all about evolution over eons of time, and it gives me a profound sense of peace to remember that civilizations evolve much like species, that we adapt to our environments, thrive when conditions are favorable, decline when times are hard. And while I’m drifting through such thoughts, the words of an old poem by O’Shaughnessy come into my head, as if spirited to me from the past :


We are the music makers
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by the lone sea breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.


World movers and world forsakers
On whom the pale moon gleams,
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world forever it seems.


With wonderful deathless ditties,
And out of a fabulous story,
We build up the world’s great cities.
We fashion an empire’s glory.


One man with a dream, at leasure,
May go forth and conquer a crown.
But three with a new song’s measure,
Can trample an empire down.


We in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth
Built Ninevah with our sighing
And Babel itself with our mirth.
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth.
For each age is a dream that is dying
Or one that is coming to birth.

When confronted with giant tortoises and finches that have dapted over millions of years to particular habitats, I want to reflect on our own development. I want to remember that for all of the layers of civilization piled up in archaeological mounds, in ruins and temples, tombs and crypts, we have evolved relatively little. In evolutionary terms, we are a young, upstart species. We’re still curious about all the other animals with whom we share the earth, but we’ve yet to mature enough to grant them their dignity by leaving them alone, to mind our own business and not interfere in their llives.

Here in the Galápagos, we’re trying hard to behave responsibly. This may be the place where we best demonstrate our maturity. Rather than juveniles running amock, hunting and trapping wildlife to satisfy our selfish whims, here we observe with restraint and respect. Perhaps the Galápagos wildlife are unable to appreciate the lengths we go to in “granting” them freedom, for they haven’t seen the whole world and can’t know how other species have suffered and perished under our rule. Perhaps they’re not even aware that we rule them at all, that we are lords with the power to destroy them at whim–a power we have, fortunately, held in check. But even if the animals don’t know of our beneficence, don’t understand that they’ve been singled out for special treatment, they can perhaps sense our good will. This is why they tolerate us, let us observe them at our leisure. Perhaps they even like us. That would be a nice reward in return for our diligence. But whether they like us or not—and it would be a fantasy writer’s affectation to presume they feel one way or the other—we should give ourselves a pat on the back for doing the right thing here, for demonstrating that our civilization has come of age, that we’re ready to fulfill our obligations, to come in from playing our games and take our place in the great hall of the animal kingdom.


The Iguana Chase

Land Iguana. Photo by Mark Mardon.

IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE LAND IGUANAS ever working up enough energy to defend their turf against interlopers. The lumbering creatures look like they’re never in a rush. They seem to laze around a lot, their chicken legs stretched out behind and in front of them, their over-extended bellies flat against the earth. When they move at all, it’s often just to drag themselves over to a prickly-pear-cactus pad that falls within convenient eating range. Or to raise themselves up on their forelegs so that finches can clean their scaly bodies of parasites.

The reptiles adopt a plodding gait, putting first this foot forward, then that foot, their whole torso twisting in what looks like a supreme effort to accomplish the feat. More often than not, they let their tails drag in the dirt as they move, leaving behind conspicuous trails. But since the adults have no natural predators, they don’t bother trying to cover their tracks.

And getting anywhere takes the armored beasts almost forever, as they’re continually having second thoughts about where they’re going. They’ll be plodding steadily forward, testing the ground here and there with their tongues, then they’ll suddenly stop, blink, and look dumbly ahead, apparently having forgotten where they were going or why. Then they’ll turn to the right to see if maybe they should go that way, or to the left, in case that’s where they ought to be headed. If neither right nor left grabs them, they may turn all the way back around, seemingly possessing no memory of having just come down that path. As likely as not, they’ll finally decide that forward was not such a bad idea after all, and will continue lumbering straight ahead.

So what does a land iguana do when it gets riled? Given its usual lethargy, you’d think it would have trouble even working up to a good hiss. When I was assured by our ever-so-knowledgeable naturalist, Reyna, that land iguanas, like most other animals in the Galapagos, defend their nesting and foraging territories, I imagined the lazy creatures relying on posturing, standing up tall, sucking in a lot of air, and making themselves up to look as intimidating as possible to any intruder. What better reason to have a lot of spines than to look fierce from afar? But then, any reasonably perceptive land iguana (an apparent oxymoron) would know better than to flee at mere posturing by one of his kind.

So far on these islands, I’ve seen territorial aggrression by sea lions (the bulls bellowing loudly and throwing around their immense weight to dissuade outsiders from trespassing among their harems), boobies (the blue-footed kind pecking at the masked ones, forcing the latter to retreat to nesting grounds on rocky ledges, and the masked ones getting their revenge by forcing the red-footed ones to high-tail it to nests in trees), and marine iguanas (two of the males butting each other head-to-head, biting each other’s lips, and generally behaving atrociously).

But the land iguanas seemed so utterly docile that I was unprepared for an actual encounter between two rivals yesterday afternoon at Urbina Bay on Isabela Island. One of the creatures either unwittingly or knowingly intruded onto the turf of another, and—much to the stunned surprise of several camera-wielding onlookers—a high-speed chase ensued. It all happened so suddenly, it’s hard to say precisely what was going on, but the two creatures were both of impressive size and stature. One may have been testing the resolve of the other, or perhaps just sauntered in assuming he’d meet with no resistance. But if so, he was dead wrong: the defender leapt up and charged at the trespasser with such speed that he was all blur. It seemed as though he’d been transformed into another species, one that actually knows how to get up on all fours and exercise its muscles.

The chase lasted but a few seconds, but it dazzled the spectators. When he saw the defender barreling down on him, the intruder spun around and retreated in great haste, borne down upon by his angry attacker. The two beasts stirred up a trail of dust as they scrambled through brush, one in pursuit of the other, the intruder barely escaping having its tail nipped.

Fortunately, the entire scene was captured on video by our intrepid documentarian, Norman Bonney, had his camera trained on the showdown between the two reptiles. To see a land iguana run, and thereby dispel any notion you may have had that the animals spent all their lives dragging themselves on their bellies, all you need do is take a gander at Norman’s film.


The Buzz Aboard the Alta

We have too many coffee connoisseurs aboard the Alta, where espresso madness has taken hold. To understand how this outbreak occurred requires a bit of historical background.

While none of the Alta team hails from Seattle, the home of Starbucks and the place where specialty-coffee fanaticism took off in the United States, many of us dwell in the San Francisco Bay Area, where coffee snobbism caught on like cholera after traveling down the west coast and finding a ready host population in North Beach. There, in long-established Bohemian cafes—where formerly poetry had been people’s prime preoccupation—the coffee-as-art affliction incubated until it burst forth full-force and spread through other neighborhoods and nearby cities, especially Berkeley, where coffee and Zen exist in happy harmony.

Eventually, select beans from such disparate places as Ethiopia and Colombia made their way from laid-back California to bustling cities in the East and South, such as Washington, DC and Atlanta. There the rest of the Alta team caught the bean fervor—except those among us from Australia and the UK, where hard-core coffee snobbism first developed among effete tea drinkers. All of us (except a few teetotalers) then carried our coffee passion with us to the Galapagos, after making a quick espresso stop in Quito.

The Alta, fortunately, is equipped with lots of high-tech gear, including fax, radiophone, satellite transmitters, computers, and an espresso machine. Oddly enough, while most of the equipment was put in use from the very start of our sojourn among the islands, the latter item went untouched for two or three days, because none of our engineers, photographers, or nature writers could figure out how to use it.

Under pressure to spend 25 hours each day exploring wildlife habitats and sending off digital photos and dispatches to TerraQuest command post in California, something had to be done. The ordinary coffee served at breakfast and dinner each day simply wouldn’t do to keep our team operating at peak efficiency.

That’s when Deva Ferar, our multimedia whiz kid from Marin, threw up his hands one day and said: “Enough! I’m dying for a latte!”

Deva tore himself away from the computer screen long enough to examine the espresso machine in detail. After he was sure he had mastered its mechanics, he packed it with fine-ground espresso beans (thoughtfully supplied by the boat’s galley staff), filled it with water, prepared the milk for steaming, and turned it on.

Suddenly all the computer equipment flickered and shut down. The latte machine had blown a fuse. Several thousands of dollars worth of equipment had ceased operating to produce a hot drink worth, at most, $2.50 in the States.

Once a new fuse was located and installed, a choice had to be made: computer or latte. Of course the latter won out, and Deva prepared lattes for anybody who wanted one. He proved a master of the technique, serving up tall glass-fulls of kick-ass coffee and steamed milk, topped with a creamy foam.

Now, Deva’s role as multimedia master has taken second place to his position as latte chief. And the exclamations keep pouring out:

“Excellent latte,” attests Kevin, appraising Deva’s work.

“The latte-pooh is scrummy,” coos Alison, interrupting her online school chat for a sip of the foamy energiser.

And nobody can make lattes like Deva, as cyber-guru Kevin learns when he attempts to make one on his own. Grappling with the espresso machine, Kevin fiddles and fusses, attempting to measure the precise amount of grounds, fill the contraption with water, and produce steam to froth the milk. Nothing is going right. Deva, editing a QuickTime video on the computer right behind Kevin, keeps having to turn around to coach Kevin through the process.

Without Deva’s latte expertise, the dispatches and photos you’re seeing on this site might have been delayed for hours or days as the Alta team dozed through potentially productive middle-of-the-night hours. We may be crazy about coffee, but we’re mad about producing a great Web site. Now, if only we could get lattes while snorkeling…


The Newest Sea Lion

baby_sea_lionFOR A NEWLY BORN SEA LION, water is a scary element. A pup doesn’t just slide out of its mother’s chute and start swimming around. It has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the shallows.  The mother sea lion on Santiago Island, in the Galápagos archipelago, nudged, cajoled, dragged, and sweetly urged on her infant, just an hour or two old. The baby, full of energy but stunned by his arrival into the world, dragged his umbilical cord behind him, not quite realizing he’d been physically separated from his mother. Mom, having just gone through the exhausting process of giving birth, eagerly sought a place to stretch out and relax. She wanted to take her new-born across a shallow inlet, to nap on the flatter rocks on the opposite side. But the pup kept yowling, demanding attention, expressing fear of everything new around him. He had new sights, sounds, and sensations to absorb and contend with–skittish sally lightfoot crabs scurrying nervously along the rocks; fierce looking marine iguanas orienting themselves to the sun, crawling one on top of the other; camera-wielding photographers producing strange clicks and whirs and uttering strange, distinctly non-sea-lion noises.

The baby sea lion looked around with his eyes wide open, taking everything in all at once, curious to a fault. He started to waddle over to a photographer, but mom held him back with a growl. She wasn’t about to let him get too close, because he might become confused and mistake the human for his mother. At this crucial stage in the baby’s life, it was important that he imprint his mother’s smell on his memory. Any confusion in the baby’s mind about who he belonged to could lead to tragic consequences in the unforgiving, predatory marine world surrounding them. To demonstrate that the human was an intruder, the mother swept back her baby with her front flipper and lunged a few paces forward at the photographer, stretching out her neck and snapping at him with her sharp teeth. The man backed off, and the mother, satisfied she had made her point, returned to licking her child’s rumpled fur.

Now the mother decided it was time to nudge baby toward the water, but he wanted nothing to do with it. The waves’ surges between two rock flanks frightened him. He yowled and yowled, and resisted moving forward. When the salt spray splashed across his face, he flinched and withdrew. Why did he have to immerse himself in this strange, cold environment? He’d been born on solid rock, and young as he was, that’s where he felt secure. Somehow the pup instinctively sensed the water’s power and potential to do harm. He hadn’t yet experienced the freedom it would allow him to maneuver gracefully, fluidly. He didn’t know that he’d eventually find his food in the ocean depths. The idea of being a marine animal had yet to occur to him, and he would gladly remain on solid ground forever, as long as mom stayed around.

But mom wasn’t about to put off baby’s education. For her, the ocean was safety, the source of food, and her child must get to know it and trust it even in his first hours of life. She saw that he was afraid, and his constant bleating triggered her motherly, protective instincts. She sang and talked to him in her low-pitched, growling way to reassure him. Nonetheless, he was going to have to get into the water, whether he liked it or not.

With a gentle bite, mother lifted son by the scruff of the neck and dragged him half way into the surf. He yelped and tried to wriggle out of her grasp, but she held firm. The water lapped at his head, chest, and front flippers, then surged up the channel, lifting the front part of his small body. For a moment he felt as though he was being snatched away from mom. He feared being flushed out to that big wet place where the waves came from. But mom knew the waves at this spot weren’t strong enough to drag away her child. Baby’s panic would cease once he became familiar with the rocking sensation. So she tugged him again, harder, and he slid completely into the water, howling all the while. Mom let go of him, to give him a chance to accustom himself to his new element.

When the pup felt his whole body drenched by the surf, he momentarily forgot his desire to be close to mom. He attempted to bolt, to get as far away as fast as possible from the surf. But mom anticipated his reaction, and once more grabbed him by the back of his neck, pulling him backward. But the force of her pull threw baby off balance, and he flipped onto his back over momma’s flippers. Now he was upside-down in the water, and his panic increased. He wriggled up to the surface and bellowed in his high-pitched, childish way. But what he didn’t realize is that he’d already made it to the other side of the narrow channel. All he had to do now was waddle up a slight embankment to be in a solid place where he could nuzzle mom all he wanted.

The two animals, mother and infant, now ambled onto shore. While baby tagged along, scrambling over and around his mother, mom looked for a nice resting position. She wanted to relax now, for soon she’d complete the birthing process by expelling her placenta. She kept sniffing at her birth canal, rubbing her flanks, knowing what was to come and attempting to hurry up the process. Once the placenta was expelled, she would leave it behind for the gulls and other carrion eaters to devour.

The baby sea lion was hungry. He kept circling around mom, looking for a teat to suckle, but mom made no effort to help him find what he wanted. She let him sniff her, getting to know her smell so that he’d never forget it, never mistake some other sea lioness for his mother. So baby worked his nose all around mom’s body, for ten, twenty, thirty minutes. Finally, at long last, he found his food source. He suckled loudly, slurping up the rich milk. At last, when he was full, he became tired. Mom was tired too, and the two of them quieted down as the surf gently serenaded them to sleep, and the humans who’d been watching moved on for other sights, other sensations, on the wild Galápagos shore.