Darwin and the Tortoise


IMG_2032Buccaneer’s Bay, Galápagos, Ecuador
Friday, January 16, 2015
Here we are in the Galapagos.

I’d envisioned the Galapagos as a kind of modern day Eden, where giant tortoises and sea lions snuggled on white sand beaches, framed by waving grasses and gently chirping finches.


I imagined Darwin twirling among them all– a bearded Snow White with a finch on each shoulder, wisely identifying the secrets of life, using science to discount God.

I guess this is partly right? Because there ARE sea lions, and giant tortoises, and beaches and finches.  And Darwin WAS here.  But it’s all much more complicated than I imagined.

I was surprised that learn that Darwin was only on land in the Galapagos for NINETEEN days.   AND he was initially disappointed with the bird-life here.  (There are only 60 species of birds and most of them are brown).  He thought the birds here were boring compared to the tropical birds on the mainland (can’t argue with that); but he captured and killed lots to take home with him anyway, probably more as proof to his boss that he was working and not just twirling, singing and frolicking than because of any real interest.

While Darwin was here, he ate giant tortoises.  Ate them.  He didn’t take any home to England because the hold of the Beagle wasn’t big enough to pack any upside down live giant tortoises to save and eat later, like a lot of whalers and sailors did, but that was OK with Darwin, because his favorite meal was Galapagos Dove.


Probably that’s why Darwin ended up studying finches, because he ate all the doves before he got home.


It was only after Darwin returned to England that he noticed that the beak of each dead finch was just little different from the beak of the dead finch next to it, and this, eventually, led him to publish “Origin of a Species”.


It also led to all 13 finch species being called “Darwin’s Finches”, while the poor Galapagos dove, which was so placid that Darwin said he could kill one just by throwing his hat at it, is called Zenaida galapagonensis.  I think “Zenaida” means “yummy”.

Many of the Galapagos Islands are hot sand and rocks and hardly any trees, although there is a special species of giant prickly pear cactus that grows a spiny trunk, a trunk does not a forest make.

Also, please note that the snakes here are small and only “mildly venomous”, hardly malicious enough to bring about The Fall.

The only apple tree available is the “poison apple tree” which has hard, ping-pong-ball sized fruit and toxic sap.  The antidote to the skin-burning sap is lemon juice but oops, no lemons grow here, so it’s best to just stay away from the poison apple tree, even if a small, mild-mannered, semi-venomous snake tries to convince you otherwise.

Few of the islands have fresh water sources. If you want a drink of water in the Galapagos, you either have to transport it 600 miles from the mainland in plastic bottles that will eventually end up floating in the ocean, or open your mouth and tilt your head back and wait for rain.  Except sometimes it doesn’t rain for months at a time.

When I was in Tanzania, the guides warned us to stay away from the animals because they might want to eat us.  It’s the opposite here.  The guides here tell us to stay away from the wildlife because they don’t want the wildlife to find out that humans will eat them.

Only five Galapagos Islands are populated by humans. Many of those humans are so excited about making money from the booming tourism industry that the population has grown 1500% in the past forty years.  There were about two hundred thousand tourists last year.  That’s a lot of plastic water bottles brought over from the mainland by a bunch of tourists keeping secrets from the native animals.


According to my “Wildlife of the Galapagos” book, the islands are appealing to tourists because there are so few different species of plants and animals that they are relatively easy to identify. If you see a yellow bird, you know it’s a yellow warbler.  If you see a red bird, you know it’s a vermilion flycatcher.  You win!

It’s also pretty easy to be an expert “explorer” in the Galapagos because since 97% of the land is national park that you can’t walk on without being accompanied by a guide who already knows everything about everything.  This means you can’t get lost, or be late, or stop to look at a grasshopper, or get in the boat with too much sand on your feet, or have any questions haven’t been asked and answered, 199999 times before.

I was vaguely disappointed to learn that the giant tortoises and the sea lions don’t cuddle,  ever, because the tortoises don’t like the ocean and the sea lions do. It’s like penguins and polar bears.  Or like those women who marry convicts on death row without actually ever spending time together.


But that’s ok because ALL the animals on the Galapagos think the world is a wonderful place because

  1. We aren’t ever going to them how horrible people really are
  2. They don’t need to drink much fresh water and
  3. The only predator is the Galapagos hawk, which has a total population of about 270 and is only big enough to prey on small lizards. They don’t even eat the Galapagos Dove.  The seals and sea lions and iguanas etc etc have nothing to worry about but sleeping through breakfast.

Such naivate is sweet, isn’t it? At least that’s what all 200000 plastic bottle bearing tourists say as they tramp around taking pictures of it.

But guess what happens when an animal dies on a beach where there are no predators or scavengers to strip the flesh from his dead bones?


I’ll tell you.

The corpse lays on the beach for days and weeks and months and slowly twists and mummifies until there is a collection of dried up corpses all over the neighborhood and all the iguanas and bluefooted boobies and sea lions and tortoises live out their peaceful innocent lives surrounded by the desiccated corpses of their friends and family, which seems weird, to me, for Eden.




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