barefoot across the lava
Saturday, January 29 2005
setting: Genovesa Island, Galapagos, Ecuador
An analogy that kept occurring to me during this Galapagos cruise is that of space travel, the kind popularized by the various incarnations of Star Trek. I haven't watched much Star Trek in my life, but in the little of it I've seen, I was always particularly struck by the weak justifications made for going to the various destinations. At the drop of a hat they'd set a course for, say, the Xyvholian System, a trip that (even given such enabling technologies as warp drive) must have come at considerable expense. The whimsy of their travel wasn't too different from the kind undertaken by my plastic toys out in the dirt pile or down in the creek. Travel in Star Trek was always justified by the oddness of the destination, and it's there that it finds its greatest suitability as a Galapagos travel analogy. The "universe" of the Galapagos is relatively small, only about 200 miles by 150 miles. But the slow boats used to move between them make it vast. To save on usable time, the boats are forced to do most of their sailing at night. So, after familiarizing yourself with the strange creatures of one island, you go to sleep and wake up to meet a whole new ecology of unfamiliar creatures on another.
During the night we crossed the equator on our way northeastward to today's destination, Genovesa Island, also known as Tower. By the time I woke up this morning the Golondrina was mobbed with birds, most of them Red Footed Boobies (which I'd never seen before). It seems the crew were dragging a dead fish through the water, perhaps in an effort to attract sharks. But it had mostly attracted the boobies. They would glide alongside the Golondrina's rigging or flag poles, avoiding them as best they could when they'd swing with the waves, though they'd occasionally reach out to grab at shiny metal poles with their beaks. As we approached the cliffs of Genovesa, we could see them swarming with birds.
In the southwest shore of Genovesa is Darwin Bay, a fairly large round-shaped body of water that is nearly encircled by land. There the crew dropped anchor in preparation for our morning walk.
On the panga ride to our landing, we kept along the base of the Genovesa cliffs where we saw a number of new birds, particularly the Tropic Bird, a white bird with long streamer tail feathers. As we made our way along the cliffs, we came upon a seagull chick that had fallen into the bay prematurely. It was still alive, but I'd written it off as dead, since it was too young to be out on its own and its mother wouldn't feed it where it was. But then one of the guys on the Golondrina's other pangas rescued it from the water, clambered up over boulders and placed it in a flat spot. The chick was probably still doomed, but now at least the story had a hero and a dim ray of hope.
The trail on Geovesa begins with a dry landing at the base of the cliffs. From there, a manmade stairway leads up to the island's plateau. Due to athlete's foot, sunburn, and abrasion problems, I'd decided to do today's walk without shoes. I would have happily done it with flip flops, but the only shoes I'd brought for this trip were a pair of fancy hiking sneakers that I'd made the mistake of wearing without socks. As I was getting off the panga, the crewman who'd been driving it expressed concern about my lack of shoes. I told him I'd be alright, but that didn't satisfy him and soon I overheard him alerting our guide Cezar. "No te preocupes," I assured him. (The irony, with respect to Spanish, is that I'm the cold uncommunicative one yet I always use the familiar ["tu"] form of the second person while Gretchen, the chatty sociable one, always uses the formal ["usted"] form.) Despite the face that much of what we walked on was rough lava and even rougher lava gravel, my feet enough were tough enough to handle it.
The landscape atop the Genovesa cliffs was comprised mostly of ancient, heavily fractured lava flows. The fractures could be as much as ten feet across and of unpredictable depth. It was wise to stay on the trail.
In amongst the low, scrubby trees were the nests of the Red Footed Boobies and a few Masked Boobies. There were also a couple of strange individuals with the plumage of Masked Boobies but the brick-colored feet of the Red Footed species. Cezar said that these were hybrids, though a web page I found claims that Red Footed Boobies come in two different morphs.
After our walk we all went snorkeling along the cliffs, seeing all sorts of colorful fish (particularly parrot fish). I'd perfected my snorkeling technique somewhat by this point and was finally able to breathe in the leisurely manner that comfortable snorkeling demands. I was still dependent on a close shoreline, particularly whenever water found its way down my snorkel. But for the first time I could just relax and enjoy myself. In this newfound state of comfort, snorkeling felt like flying. Here I was, up above all this dazzling beauty, looking down, lingering, moving on, and circling back if I wanted to. The thing that makes snorkeling so mind blowing is that it grants access to a completely different visible universe full of saturated, hallucinogenic colors, all hidden beneath the comparatively drab scrim of pounding waves and colorless rocks. It's like Alice going down the rabbit hole or Neil Diamond taking his first hit of acid. It's intense, addictive, and life altering, or at least feels that way when you're doing it.
"Mum," (an overly-helpful Australian) gave me a little advice about swimming with flippers that I actually found useful. The key, she said, is to try to avoid bending the knees when flippering.
By this afternoon my illness was catching up to me. The sore throat had become worse and I was starting to have trouble mustering my ambitions. Late this afternoon I decided to nap in my bunk instead of going to the beach. So I missed out on the sea lions, turtles, and Bull Sharks.
A Red Footed Booby in flight near the Golondrina.
Saving the seagull chick beneath the Genovesa cliffs.
A Tropic Bird. These fly so fast that they are difficult to photograph.
I'd said "Everybody in the dinghy say 'Ho!'" just before taking this picture.
The dry landing at the base of the Genovesa cliffs.
That's me without a shirt and Gretchen is the one in blue in the top left.
(Photo by Karin Tideström.)
A Red Footed Booby on Genovesa.
A large crack in the Genovesa lava.
A gnarly piece of Genovesa lava.
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