Chuck Darwin and the Adventures of Iggy Plop

Today’s slide show:Images from Punta Espinoza.

Our home for a week, the Parranda

Traveling the Galápagos on a chartered vessel is like moving into a floating group house with the first 14 non-Ecuadorians you bump into while clearing Quito customs. We’re not sharing bathrooms on the Parranda, but we dine together, swim together, hike together, and ride the Zodiac together. I’ve experienced more vacation togetherness with my excursion-mates in the last four days than I ever did with my family, and these kind folks are probably as weary of my face as I am of theirs.

Paul Theroux made a sub-industry out of voyaging to exotic places and publishing his bile about his fellow travelers, so I can’t take that already occupied editorial niche. Things could be worse: I could be on the 45-passenger Eclipse, which shadows our route. And I’m probably exaggerating the obligatory togetherness. The Parranda is about the same length and width as the HMS Beagle, which ferried Darwin around the world, and it carried 65 men. During downtime between Zodiac trips, I can escape to my room or to the top deck or the lounge or the dining space on the stern deck to avoid small talk and singalongs. But if I could press a button …

Back to our voyage. From Genovesa we swing 120 miles west and anchor at Punta Espinoza in the channel between the active volcanic islands Fernandina and Isabela. Fernandina last erupted in 1995, and if it were to bark out several thousand quality eruptions, it could close the four-mile-wide channel and join Isabela, a six-volcano landform that was six separate islands before they poured into one another. Galápagos encourages you to think in terms of millions of years, whether the topic is geology, geography, biology, or group-house dynamics.

We Zodiac to the coastal lava lair of the marine iguana. The marine iguana’s ancestors, the South American green iguana, got here the same way most of the non-flying residents did: via a three-week, accidental float from the mainland. Traveling group-house style on a log or a chunk of storm-tossed mangrove forest, the ur-iguana first adapted itself to the arid life by evolving into the land iguana, living off cactuses, plants, insects, and a rare nestling. According to DNA studies, the land iguana then evolved into the hyperspecialized marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus), which has colonized lava outcroppings such as Punta Espinoza and survives almost exclusively on a diet of submerged seaweed.

Male marine iguana in profile on the lava rock shoreline

Pictures tells Punta Espinoza’s story best. Double-penised male marine iguanas tend harems of females and warm themselves on the melted chocolate mounds of pahoehoe lava. In Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin describes how he played frat boy with the wildlife. Allegedly testing scientific theories about marine iguana behavior, he chucked one into a pool and rechucked it several times when it emerged. “Perhaps this singular piece of apparent stupidity may be accounted for by the circumstance, that this reptile has no enemy whatever on shore, whereas at sea it must often fall prey to the numerous sharks,” Darwin wrote.

The juvenile marine iguana, however, does have an enemy—the Galápagos hawk, which we spot roosting in the shoreline forest of white and red mangroves. The Galápagos hawk will take young iguanas, insects, mockingbirds, rats, and the tiny lava lizard, which scampers across this terrain. Later in the day and tens of miles away, we watch a Galápagos hawk disembowel a newly dead pelican that it has discovered. The Galápagos hawk will eat any fresh meat and especially craves the feral goats eradicated in their thousands by professional hunters. Fun nature fact: The Galápagos hawk practices “cooperative polyandry”: Up to four males will mate with a single female and then all assist her in raising the chicks.

Constructing a narrative around our two-hour Punta Espinoza stop challenges my skills as a writer. We observe the freakish biological oddities of the marine iguana, the endemic lava heron, and the flightless cormorant. The flightless cormorant’s streamlined body is optimized for swimming, and it rarely ventures very far from shore to hunt. Birds have a tendency to abandon the energy-intensive skill of flight if no predators exist. New Zealand is the prime venue for flight-surrender, with one rare flightless bird mimicking the burrowing and foraging style of rabbits.

Later in the afternoon, we call upon the archipelago’s other flightless species, the Galápagos penguin in Elizabeth Bay, 35 miles south. The Galápagos penguin is the only species seen above the equator. The population is very small—a couple of thousand at best. Galápagos penguins depend on the cold waters to bring them anchovies and other small fish and on the solar heat of the lava outcropping to keep them warm. The penguins’ appearance causes an intense and noisy “cute attack” among my houseboat-mates.

Minutes later, when our Zodiac slips into a mangrove lagoon, I board a double kayak we’ve towed in with us. One of my houseboat-mates all but drowns me by bounding into it as if it is a trampoline. If only the Norfolk virus would infest the tidy Parranda and harvest this clown!

My own Therouxian bile, never far from the surface, starts to rise. The red mangrove lagoon is a silent space, muffling the nearby sea. It abounds with singing yellow warblers and chatting finches. We paddle the still, clear waters above sea turtles, which enter the lagoon to be groomed by tiny fishes. Sea lions come, too, climbing like aquatic monkeys into the big branched mangrove. A striated heron lights on a branch and the sunsetting sky turns the color of baked orange. I’m not a tithing member of the church of nature, and I don’t demand respectful silence at every stop, but my companions are making more racket than a dozen conventioneers in a hotel bar. Would a jury of my peers—or the court of evolution—convict me if I snuffed everybody?