Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos Islands

Imprinting in the Galápagos

Carol Ann Bassett|September 30, 2010|Blog Post

The Isabela II has just crossed the equator and has anchored off the shallow cliffs of Genovesa in the Galápagos Islands. It’s 6 a.m. and a partial eclipse is devouring the moon like a giant wafer. Jack Grove springs into a yogic shoulder stand as he does every morning, despite the rocking movement of the boat. This is completely in character for the renowned marine biologist and cofounder of Zegrahm Expeditions. Jack, a fit man with a shaved head and a broad smile, has spent most of his life tugged by the moon’s tides, or with flippers up beneath the sapphire waves, studying tropical fishes and the diminishing health of the oceans. But, he tells me, “This is the first time I’ve ever watched an upside-down lunar eclipse.”

Soon the moon vanishes completely and the ship’s passengers move up to the bridge deck. We’ve been told that here in the cold waters of the Bolivar Strait it’s common to see whales or schools of bottlenose dolphins frolicking in the surf. To everyone’s delight, someone spots a whale spouting in the early morning light. Jack focuses on its dorsal fin, but the behemoth keeps diving. Then it nearly breaches. “It’s a blue whale!” he yells, the largest cetacean in the world and a rare sight in the archipelago. Its skin tones blend with the waves as though the whale has become one with the sea.

This is my sixth ship tour in the Galápagos since 1990 when I boarded the M/V Santa Cruz and entered a realm so other worldly that I vowed to return. On Española Island I watched a waved albatross use a cliff as a runway for take-off near a giant blowhole, and stood in awe as marine iguanas snorted brine after emerging from the sea. But this tour is different. In just a single day I will see more wildlife than ever before, delve deeper into the natural history of the islands, and free dive with Jack among white-tipped reef sharks, Pacific green sea turtles, Galápagos penguins, fur seals, and shoals of rainbow-colored fish. The quality of this journey is due, in large part, to the expertise of our crew and guides: Greg Estes, Carlos King, Socrates Tomala, and of course Jack Grove, whose book, The Fishes of the Galápagos Islands, remains the only comprehensive treatment of the Galápagos ichthyofauna in the world.

Later this morning I get to experience his knowledge first-hand while out snorkeling. The Isabela II’s Zodiacs take three groups of passengers out along a rocky ledge. We don our masks and fins and one by one fall into the turquoise waves, where we are immediately surrounded by a large school of yellow-tailed surgeonfish. “Prionurus laticlavis,” Jack announces, referring to its scientific name. Red sea stars sparkle where the sun filters through, and pale green anemones cling to rocks. Jack dives down, braces his arm against a ledge, and photographs a blue-chinned parrotfish. It looks so easy, but to this divemaster and photographer, this is second nature. As a young man studying Galápagos fishes, Jack would ask local fishermen to catch and save any species they couldn’t identify, and then stroll through the town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island carrying a plastic sack of fishes to study at the world-famous Charles Darwin Research Station. His behavior, peculiar to the locals, earned him the moniker “Pez Loco,” or Crazy Fish.

Now, as he surfaces again, the former Galápagos national park certified naturalist guide spots movement along the ledge. “Sea lion emerging off cliff,” he yells. Sure enough, a young female slithers off a rock and plunges into the water. I follow her down, spiraling to mirror her movements. She’s just as curious and looks directly into my mask before darting off in a shaft of bubbles. When I come up for air, Jack is telling the snorkelers, “I don’t know which one was having more fun!” In less than an hour we have observed at least 30 fish species, including a “super male” rainbow wrasse that can change sex from female to male.

Speaking of sex, this morning while on a Zodiac ride near Tagus Cove, we catch a glimpse of mating penguins. Our driver cuts the engine so we can observe one of the most stunning rituals in the archipelago. A small male penguin, no higher than two feet, suddenly mounts a female. His body quivers for perhaps twenty seconds before he hops off and the two part in opposite directions as though nothing has happened. Next we drift past two brown pelicans, their broad wings a frenzy of movement as they mate on shore. “Well,” says Jack to the children in our Zodiac, “I didn’t expect this to be an X-rated morning!” The youngsters, meanwhile, stare with curiosity and innocence. They adore Jack and vie to be around him at all times.

On Genovesa Island in the afternoon, we enter a virtual bird-land. Red-footed boobies nest in mangrove trees, Nazca boobies shield their hatchling on the ground, and blue-footed boobies dive dagger-like into the waves. Against a sapphire sky, male frigatebirds soar with their throat pouches inflated like giant red balloons to attract mates. We hear the melodious sound of mockingbirds, observe finches feeding, and come upon a yellow-crowned night heron perched on a boulder. And then there’s the swallow-tailed gull, the only nocturnal feeding gull in the world, which is regurgitating squid to its single chick.

I’m delighted to be back in the Enchanted Islands with Jack Grove and Zegrahm Expeditions where magic unfolds wherever one looks. This is a place of beauty and mystery where time seems to have stood still. If you tread lightly and pause long enough, you can feel yourself changing from the inside out—a transformative imprint that lasts a lifetime.

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Carol Ann Bassett is the author of three works of literary nonfiction, including Galápagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists, and Creationists Battle for Darwin’s Cradle of Evolution (National Geographic Books).

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