This is the third post in my account of a ten-day exploration of the Galapagos, on board the National Geographic Endeavour.
In the first post, I described our arrival on the island of San Cristobal and our first visit to a Galapagos beach. In the second installment, I described what it was like to swim with sea lions.
We arrived on the third day of our expedition at Floreana, one of two islands on our itinerary that were visited in 1835 by Charles Darwin. Back then it was known as Charles Island, which was named not for the famous father of the discovery of evolution, but after King Charles II of England. Darwin, 26 at the time he saw Floreana, wrote in his journal: “This archipelago has long been frequented, first by the bucaniers, and latterly by whalers, but it is only within the last six years, that a small colony has been established here. The inhabitants are between two and three hundred in number; they are nearly all people of colour, who have been banished for political crimes from the Republic of the Equator, of which Quito is the capital. The settlement is placed about four and a half miles inland, and at a height probably of a thousand feet.”
Darwin also noted that on Charles “the staple article of animal food is supplied by the tortoises. Their numbers have of course been greatly reduced in this island, but the people yet count on two days’ hunting giving them food for the rest of the week. It is said that formerly single vessels have taken away as many as seven hundred, and that the ship’s company of a frigate some years since brought down in one day two hundred tortoises to the beach.”
We were to see no tortoises on Floreana, but the scenery seemed to be as Darwin described it: “Higher up, the woods gradually became greener; and as soon as we crossed the ridge of the island, we were cooled by a fine southerly breeze, and our sight refreshed by a green and thriving vegetation. In this upper region coarse grasses and ferns abound.”
Our first excursion on Floreana was a 6:30 a.m. walk from Punta Cormorant, getting our feet wet as the Zodiac pulled up gently on to the beach. There are two types of landing on the islands – wet and dry. Wet landings require sandals that can be immersed in water; dry means it is possible to alight directly on to a rock or a stone step without having to remove closed walking shoes and socks.
The first beach we encountered was olivine, giving it a greenish hue. Of course, there were sea lions in residence. A second beach was fine, white coralline sand, which we were told was a favorite nesting place of turtles. We were permitted only to look at the coral beach from the edge of the green beach, lest we trample hidden turtle eggs. Both beaches were lined with mangroves and littered with shells and clumps of seaweed.
A short walk from the beach took us through some interesting vegetation to a salt pond. A couple of Galapagos flamingoes were foraging at the far end of the pond. An extinct volcanic cone reflected on the water. Vegetation was green and thriving, much as Darwin had described.
The Zodiacs returned to take us to breakfast on the Endeavour, followed by another deep-water snorkeling exploration. There was also the option of going out on a glass-bottom boat. I elected to stay in the comfortable ship lounge to catch up on my email. The ship is equipped with satellite transmission for this purpose.
A little later I boarded one of the Zodiac rides around Champion islet, one of the last refuges of the very rare and endangered Floreana mockingbird. Like the tortoises, these birds have become extinct on the main island, in part because of invasive rats preying upon them.
After lunch, Paula Tagle, our expedition leader, regaled us with tales of some of the crazy characters who once lived on Floreana. Paula is something of a storyteller and has published a book about the islands, “Galapagos Bedtime Stories.”
There were opportunities for people to kayak, and then we were all taken back to Floreana main island for a visit to the Post Office Barrel. Apparently it’s been a tradition for two centuries for travelers to leave their mail in the barrel. Passersby sift through the letters and cards for those they can deliver, leaving their own mail in turn for others to carry. Several Endeavour passengers took postcards addressed to people in their home towns, leaving their own mail to be delivered by future visitors.
During cocktail hour in the Endeavour lounge, we were shown a variety of handicrafts made by the islanders. They’re offered for purchase in the ship’s store, and it’s another way that Lindblad-National Geographic explorers can help the tourism economy of the Galapagos. The more inhabitants gain from ecotourism, the more they have vested in securing the ecosystem that lures tourists to the islands.
The evening closed with a screening of the National Geographic-BBC documentary about the Galapagos. It’s a great show, I’ve seen it several times, but nothing could keep me from my bed after such an eventful day.
Next time on my Galapagos Expedition Journal: Face to Face with Giant Tortoises.