Stephanie Taylor

California Sketches: Timeless, primordial Galapagos Islands

Sheer black lava cliffs plunge into the sea. From a distance, the island appears flat, dark, foreboding. As we approach, details of the cliffs emerge as spectacular formations, a chorus line of columns and mysterious caverns.

Our 16-passenger catamaran anchors offshore, and we pile into inflatable boats. About 620 miles west of Ecuador, my dream is realized – visiting the Galapagos Islands.

After gingerly climbing the cliff, pristine North Seymour Island stretches before me, timeless, primordial. A million years ago, this island looked pretty much as it does today, a flat plateau graced with leafless trees and deep sienna-colored soil. Rocks and boulders of the same intense color lie everywhere, many covered in what looked like dripping white paint.

Charles Darwin’s fearless creatures live here. Blue-footed boobies and frigatebirds with babies dot a plateau teeming with life, in the air, in trees, on the ground. Birds perch on rocks profuse with guano, lending an air of surrealism to a landscape of stark contrasts.

It’s mating season. With the remarkable diversity that has made these Pacific islands famous, each species exhibits distinctive traits and rituals. Blue-footed booby males dance, raising one cerulean webbed foot at a time, tilting to the other while emitting a long melodic whistle and spreading wings wide. Frigatebird males, their blazing red throats transformed into balloons of impossible size, wait with great expectation.

On Santa Cruz Island, massive land tortoises make a long, tedious trek from moist highlands where they feed, to beaches to lay eggs. Back and forth. Darwin observed that it took one turtle 10 minutes to travel 60 yards. Their tracks and nests adorn the sand. Invasive rats compete with scientists who rescue endangered eggs, hatching and nurturing the babies for five years, until their shells are hard enough to protect them from predators. Distinctive patterns on their shells identify the specific island where each was born.

On Fernandina, the most volcanically active island, brutal lava, giant bubbles, caldrons and flows disappear into the sea. From a hot spot near the earth’s core, plumes of magma spew. The islands move and shift vertically and horizontally in slow geological time, but sometimes swiftly.

In 1835, Darwin explored five islands in five weeks. I visited eight islands in eight days. His group wandered a living laboratory. Mine was tightly controlled to protect a fragile ecosystem. He said, “It seems to be a little world within itself.” From his descriptions of the two islands we both explored, it appears little has changed. But life on the islands continues to evolve.