Here follows a brief account of my sojourn in the Galápagos Islands, just to give you all a rough idea of what I was up to all this time. I’ve tossed in just a few pictures to illustrate what we experienced; I’m planning to dole out the rest a little bit at a time, each week. I took a lot of pictures, and I was a real piker compared to a few other people on the trip — I’m thinking that if I use mine and some of the other photographs people took, if I post one a week, I’ll be able to keep the blog going for about 3800 years.
This cruise was organized by the James Randi Educational Foundation, which made it especially good — our fellow travelers were all reality-based skeptics, so there wasn’t any petty annoyances from blithering creationists on the trip, and we could all focus on the real world evidence in front of our eyes. It was a great group of people, and I recommend keeping your eyes on the JREF for more travel opportunities in the future. It really adds something to have a smart, convivial group with a deficiency of looneys.
And, of course, we got to travel with James Randi, who is an awesome raconteur. Even if you never make it to one of their cruises, do try to attend one of the Amaz!ng Meetings sometime, just so you can sit at a table with Randi for a little while. You will be entertained.
Nice beard, too.
Our cruise ship was the M/V Xpedition. This isn’t one of your standard mega-cruise liner that carts along a whole city, it was a 50-passenger-cabin, 300-foot long ship, large enough to be stable and carry the whole suite of luxurious amenities, but small enough to be cozy and let you know everyone aboard. Just for comparison, though, the HMS Beagle was a third the length and half the width of this beauty, and Charles Darwin spent 5 years aboard her…we spent one week.
This ship had everything. In addition to the 50 cabins (which were more spacious than I expected), she had a restaurant big enough for all of us, a couple of bars, the usual decks with lounge chairs, and a roomy lounge. We took a tour belowdecks, and were very impressed: it has a desalinization plant to provide fresh water, and a full sewage treatment plant. Everything was designed so that our visits would have no significant ecological impact on the islands.
So here’s a typical day on the cruise.
7am: The restaurant opens for a buffet breakfast. It was great food. You could have everything from the traditional American scrambled eggs and bacon, to a light continental breakfast, to bagels and lox, to a plate full of tropical fruits.
8am: Everyone puts on life jackets and climbs into a zodiac for an excursion to the nearby island.
Excursions were ranked from low to medium to high intensity, depending on the amount of physical effort required. A low intensity excursion might be just a zodiac ride along the shore; high intensity would involve a hike of a few miles over rough terrain. The high intensity walks were not at all daunting, since not only weren’t they particularly long, but they were punctuated by very frequent stops while we took photographs or just stood in awe.
We were always accompanied by an Ecuadorian naturalist who made sure we followed the rules and also was able to identify anything we saw. These people really knew their stuff.
There were very few developed trails and no facilities available anywhere on the excursions (if you had to go, you had to walk back to the pickup spot and take a zodiac back to the ship — you weren’t allowed to leave anything on the islands, not even a little nitrogen-rich moisture). Most of the ‘trails’ were lines of black and white painted stakes marking a route through rugged fields of lava boulders or sheets of black igneous rock.
Another rule was that we could not touch the animals. This was not easy. I expected it would be easy to get close to them, but sometimes it was ridiculous — they’d be piled up right there on the trail, giving you a cool eye, and we’d be looking for routes to step through without disturbing anyone. The animals didn’t care, this was their island.
11am: We’d get back into the zodiacs and zip back to the ship for lunch at noon. Yet again, it was another full buffet with an excess of choices.
1pm: Siesta! Naps were a good idea, but if you were so inclined, the bar was open and you could get a beer or a pina colada or a vodka martini, and sit at a table and talk while the ship sailed to another nearby point.
3pm: Another excursion — zodiacs, hiking about, clicking cameras, snorkeling, etc.
6pm: Back to the ship. I was usually feeling like it had been a long full day by this point, so it felt very civilized to step aboard and get handed a pina colada. I don’t think Charles Darwin was quite this coddled, though.
7pm: Briefing. The cruise director would excitedly tell us about the plans for the next day, which never failed to get us enthused.
7:30-8pm: We’d go to the restaurant for a full 5-course formal dinner. This was real slow food, you’d just take your time over a well-prepared meal for an hour to hour and a half.
Night: The ship would make a longer cruise to the next island on our itinerary while we were sleeping. We’d usually wake to the sounds of the winches as the zodiacs were lowered for the next day’s excursions.
There were other events. Sandwiched in between the briefing and dinner, we had a couple of talks; I already mentioned mine, but we also had a Q&A with James Randi, and one evening Phil Plait, the new JREF president, told us a bit about his plans. I was pleasantly surprised. He breathed fire, put a cutlass between his teeth, raised the black flag, and declared war on pseudoscience. Randi, the former president, was no slouch at battling fools, but Phil promises to redouble their efforts. Rah!
After dinner, we had George Hrab aboard and got a couple of musical entertainments. Phil Plait purports to be an astronomer, so he tried to show us the southern stars, but most nights it was cloudy and we also had a waxing moon, so there wasn’t much he could do but wave his big green laser at the sky (which was very impressive, actually). I did get to see the Southern Cross and Alpha Centauri, at least.
So what did we see on shore? I’m just going to tease you a bit with a few photos, but there will be more appearing here regularly.
The rocky shores were covered with spectacularly colored Sally Lightfoot crabs.
The blue footed boobies were ubiquitous, too. I’ve got some video of a pair in a courtship dance I’ll put up later.
You couldn’t escape the sea lions. When you smelled wet dog and rotting fish, you knew they were nearby, usually just lolling about on the beach. On several occasions we encountered newborn pups, with mom hanging about nearby entirely unconcerned.
Further inland, we found the big land iguanas. They were also unconcerned, and would just give us a slow regal stare as we walked by.
Of course we met the tortoises. They were huge, and they weren’t to be distracted from the important job of chowing down on all the plants in sight. These we saw in the much more lush highlands.
For some amazing science, a fellow voyager, Joseph Albietz, sent this photo of a transitional form: the incredible goat-toise. You will notice the fragments of shell and plastron, and the unmistakable skull of a goat at one end. Boy, this one will shake up all of Science!
Actually, one of the activities the park is quite proud of is their campaign of extermination of all introduced species. Goats were one of the worst, since they actually thrived on the more arid islands and competed with the larger native species, but they’ve been getting pursued and exterminated. In addition to the living, and to the dead introduced species, we saw quite a few dead endemics everywhere. These islands are harsh places where the detritus of natural selection is scattered about in plain view.