Ultimate Galapagos

Galapagos My Way

Jack Grove|July 20, 2002|Blog Post

In July 2003, Zegrahm returns to the Galapagos Islands aboard the Isabela II for an expedition designed and led by Zegrahm cofounder Jack Grove. Jack is eminently qualified to lead travelers to the Galapagos, as he spent seven years in the archipelago working as a naturalist guide and conducting marine biological research. The results of his labors, the book The Fishes of the Galapagos Islands, is the first comprehensive guide to the fishes of the region. In the following, Jack discusses how the islands have changed his life.

My connection to the Galapagos dates from 1975. I was pursuing a degree in marine biology at the University of West Florida, and my professors and I agreed that I should spend a semester doing fieldwork in the archipelago, so I took ship, serving as a deckhand on a privately owned sailboat. The resulting paper I wrote on the nearshore fishes of the islands was the genesis of the book I would publish many years later.

Encountering the archipelago for the first time, I was immediately struck by the juxtaposition of spectacular natural beauty and stark barren landscapes. On larger islands, volcanic peaks rise to over 5,000 feet and support lush flora. Some islands have recent lava flows awaiting their first covering of vegetation; elsewhere, cacti and silver-barked Palo Santo trees flourish in the dry climate. Pristine coastline surrounds each island, all with a version of glistening white, crystal red, or black sand beaches.

Coming to the Galapagos sparked a number of revelations. Growing up, nature was always important to me; however, my country upbringing in southeastern Pennsylvania did not offer any direct ocean exposure, aside from summer vacations spent at the seashore in Delaware. When I arrived in the Galapagos at the age of 24, my eyes were opened to a world I had previously only dreamed of. Once there, I knew I would never discover another place like it.

A second revelation, one that shaped the rest of my life, came when I visited the Charles Darwin Research Station to see what books were available on the fishes of the islands. I was astonished to learn that not one volume had ever been published on the subject. How could that be? This was the mecca of modern biology, the place where Charles Darwin formulated his theories of evolution and natural selection. The literature on the birds and land animals is extensive and justifiably famous. In sharp contrast to the much-studied terrestrial environment, life beneath the waves was poorly understood.

I set myself to the task of learning as much as I could about the fishes of the Galapagos. Another factor that spurred my interest was my belief that we need to understand before we can protect; by compiling a comprehensive book on Galapagos fishes, perhaps, in some small way, I could contribute to marine conservation. In 1977, one year after graduating from college, I returned to the islands, determined to write a popular account of the 50 most ubiquitous species of fish. The project grew over the years, from a Spanish/English edition published in Ecuador in 1984 that covered 105 species, to the culminating work published by Stanford University Press in 1997, which records 437. The Fishes of the Galapagos Islands also served as my dissertation, earning me a Ph.D. in marine biology from Pacific Western University.

To support myself during my research, I worked as a naturalist guide aboard the M/V Buccaneer, interpreting natural history for travelers and leading hikes and snorkeling excursions. This last duty proved the most scientifically productive, as it enabled me to do underwater photography and carry out observations on fish behavior and distribution.

The combination of fieldwork and ecotourism produced memorable, sometimes amusing, encounters. Once, I returned to the ship with a load of new passengers that comprised the graduating class of an all-girl's school in Quito. I was assisting getting everyone's baggage into the cabins when I heard bloodcurdling screams coming from the lower deck, where my marine lab was located. Dropping the bags, I ran below to find three 17-year-old girls pinned against a corridor wall. At their feet was the cause for alarm, an octopus that had escaped from one of the aquariums in the lab. I felt terrible for the poor cephalopod. It was covered in dirt and grime from the carpet and, I'm sure, was as terrified of the girls as they were of it. I quickly restored the octopus to its aquarium, and the girls were relieved to know that this marine creature, the first they had encountered in the Galapagos, was not some sort of eight-legged cockroach. The next day, I released the octopus at the same spot where I had collected it a week earlier.

Since completing my studies, I have returned to the archipelago many times to lead Zegrahm trips and conduct additional research. Most visitors to the islands miss out on fully experiencing the marine environment. I have planned next year's departure, which begins 06 July, to give our passengers a balanced overview of both the terrestrial and marine worlds. On land, we will hike the lunar-like terrain for encounters with the Galapagos' fabulous animal inhabitants. Thousands of seabirds make their homes on the islands. We will see colonies of waved albatross, storm-petrels, and three kinds of boobies, as well as the flightless cormorant, one of the world's rarest and strangest birds.

In the warm Pacific waters, we will search for whales and dolphins and snorkel among schools of rainbow fish, sea turtles, and maybe even penguins. Think about it. Where else can you comfortably snorkel with penguins? I never tire of introducing travelers to the myriad of aquatic creatures; seeing the look on people's faces when they swim with a sea lion for the first time is a joy.

By our journey's end, you will become modern-day Darwins, having achieved a greater understanding of the uniqueness and fragility of the Galapagos's ecosystem. I hope you will join me for an exploration both above and below the surface of these enchanted seas.

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