HELIO DE LA PEÑA, a member of the Brazilian comedy group, Casseta e Planeta, visited the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, swam among stingrays and sea lions, saw the birds that inspired the Theory of Evolution and came to the conclusion that Nature is not for amateurs.
One of the greatest pleasures of travelling is watching your friends’ and family’s chins drop when you return from your trip. If this is what you’re aiming for, there is no better destination than the Galapagos Islands. The trip can leave you breathless on two occasions: first, when you find yourself fumbling around with your snorkel mask underwater; and second, when you are listing the huge number of endemic species that you saw when you were over there. And you´ll still be able to do some showing off by explaining the meaning of the term “endemic”, a term you use very often in the Galapagos archipelago.
So for the trip we chose the La Pinta, a comfortable, average-sized boat with a 48-passenger capacity. For me, it was a completely new adventure. Spending seven days confined on a boat with 44 complete strangers can be a risky affair. It was something like a “Big Brother in Galapagos“ experience for me.
The captain calls us together to welcome us aboard. I get the impression of just having walked right into an Agatha Christie novel, in which one of the passengers will be murdered on the high seas. Petrified, I lock myself in my cabin and stop listening to the lecture.
The captain informs us over the loudspeaker that lunch will be served in five minutes. Like a true Brazilian, I immediately get ready to take a thirty-minute shower and get to the buffet starving. Unfortunately for me, though, the majority of the passengers is not Brazilian. They all arrive on time, eat and scrape the last bits of food from the bottom of the buffet plates. When I get there, all there is left is just a little bit of soup and one glass of peach juice. So I learn my lesson and wait for the first tour on one of the islands to see if I can find some cactus to eat.
The Galapagos National Park is a true example of environmental preservation. The entrance fee certainly isn’t cheap at US$100.00 per person. For some strange reason, which is still unknown to me, Brazilians pay half-price. Maybe because they’re afraid we’ll create a knock-off version of the islands? At the entrance, the control is quite strict: no fruit or animals may be brought in. So, if you were thinking of taking Rex to the islands, forget it. You’re better off leaving him tied to a post in Guayaquil or Quito and then picking him up when you return from the trip.
Charles Darwin is a celebrity on the islands. But, if he were to return today on the HMS Beagle he would be harassed by environmentalists. He collected a bunch of animals, plants and rocks that nowadays would be duly confiscated by the customs officers. Instead, Darwin would have to base his studies on his recollections from the trip. And because of this, most of his work divulged in Europe would probably be considered a big fat lie.
We were accompanied by a specialist on each of the islands where we stopped, and they would explain to us the habits of the endemic species (exclusive to that region), the origin of the species introduced there and the adaptation process which took place in the animals’ family tree up until they obtained their green card.
I was truly impressed by the knowledge demonstrated by my travel companions on the islands. But later on I found out that they really didn’t know all that much…they would stay up until the wee hours reading guidebooks in the ship`s library just to humiliate me the next day with their super-intelligent questions. At the end of each explanation, the guide would glance at me with that “Hey you, aren´t you going to ask anything, you moron?” look on his face.
Just about everything in the Galapagos archipelago is pretty strange. The geological formation of the islands’ soil is an example. They are all of volcanic origin. Below the archipelago there is magma flowing at high temperatures which erupts in the faults of the tectonic plates, thus forming a new island when the lava cools down. In other words, one could say that in the Galapagos things are pretty hot!
We arrive at Santa Cruz Island and we’re taken to a tunnel of lava: it’s an impressive cavity which is a passage for the flow of lava after a volcanic eruption. The surface of the flow cools down and hardens as the magma continues to flow through. When the flow stops, the tunnel is “constructed“. The Government of the City of Rio de Janeiro is considering adopting this technology: it is analyzing the possibility of installing a volcano beneath the city in order to build new subway lines before the 2014 World Cup.
On the third day aboard, I begin to speculate on which of the passengers will be murdered. It must be that annoying old lady who’s always the last one to get ready for the tours and on the way back she always manages to stray from the group and makes everyone go looking for her on the island all night. And the murderer will be yours truly. I just hope that Hercule Poirot doesn’t find out.
One of the great Galapagos islands attractions is the ocean floor. The diversity of the species and the crystal clear waters attract the attention of any tourist. Snorkeling there is a must. After all, you didn’t come here to stay onboard watching BBC documentaries.
But what was meant to be a fun activity quickly becomes a tense competition. There’s always the guy who’s the first to see a stingray, a turtle or a sea-lion. And you haven’t even managed to put on your flippers and the dork is screaming “Shark!” or “Whale!”. And when you get close enough to get a peek he says that the animal strangely “disappeared”.
To really enjoy snorkeling, you must first see one of those strange–looking animals. After having done that, you can relax and contemplate the colourful fish. Now you have some stories to share on the boat.
The animals on the Galapagos islands have one thing in common: they do not fear human beings. Like in no other place, you can really get close to them. You can even dive in shark-infested waters. But before diving it’s always a good idea to check what time they usually have lunch or dinner. And the eating habits of these beasts vary from island to island.
You can learn quite a bit about the Theory of Evolution by just walking around the islands. On Isabela Island, for instance, you can see iguanas that swim. And on some occasions you see things so surprising that you even begin to doubt some of Charles Darwin’s concepts. A case which is often mentioned are the Galapagos cormorants, which have lost their ability to fly. They simply don’t need to because they are not chased by predators. But how can a bird that “unlearned” to fly be considered an example of evolution?
The Charles Darwin Research Station, located on the Santa Cruz Island, is a must see attraction on the Galapagos Islands. Even though it recently lost its main attraction: Lonesome George, who passed away on June 24 of this year. I was lucky to meet him, but, quite honestly, I was expecting to see a hippopotamus with a shell on its back. It was frustrating. He was no bigger than his buddies. The animal, who had become a celebrity, was a snob and full of himself. He kept his distance from the tourists, didn’t even smile or wink at us. He treated us as if we were mere paparazzi looking for some gossip.
Naturalists are desperate because George, a Galapagos Giant Tortoise, sole survivor of his subspecies, died after a very long dry spell and did not leave any heirs. We don’t know if the female tortoises were playing hard to get or if George was being picky. The fact is that his predicament spread around the archipelago and he was the talk of the town.
You must surely know that the archipelago is inhabited by very peculiar species. A great diversity of animals live in perfect harmony on the Galapagos Islands. I swear I saw a marine iguana breast-feeding a baby crab!! Too bad I didn’t have my camera with me at that precious Kodak moment.
Darwin’s finches are a big attraction on the Galapagos Islands. The naturalist collected various birds on the islands. When he returned to England, he noticed that they were all from the same species; the only difference was their beaks, which had to adapt to the type of food available on each island. Since they didn’t have a fancy car to attract the chicks, I mean, the birds, they had to figure out other ways to attract them. First they build a nest, then they go looking for a female. That way, they can convince them that they have the best of intentions and that they already have a home to offer.
We also discovered that the boobies have a habit which is shocking to us human beings. The female lays two eggs within a short period of time (a few days between each egg). Once they’ve hatched, the two siblings start fighting like any normal brother and sister, and the mother never interferes in these fights. But this is nature’s cruel side. The fight is quite fierce and the objective is to kick the weaker one out of the nest, which is lined with stones, just like a boxing ring. Once expelled, the weaker sibling no longer receives mommy’s food nor her TLC. Now her center of attention is the victor. The loser dies off slowly, before the very eyes of his family, which does nothing to save him. In answer to a question posed by one of the tourists, the mother booby pokes around her nest, finds some of Darwin’s notes and tosses them in our direction:
“The mentally or physically weak members of a species are eliminated and the ones which survive are in good health. Undoubtedly, civilized man does everything to slow down this process of elimination; we build asylums for the mentally ill, the mutilated and the sick; we approve laws to help the poor and doctors try to save everyone’s lives. (…). And in this manner the weak members of civilized societies continue passing on their genes”.
My chin dropped when I read that and I just didn’t have any strong arguments to convince the bird that it was wrong to behave that way. Nature is certainly not for amateurs.
The saddest moment of the trip is when we have to disembark and go back to reality. No one was murdered. Not even the annoying old lady. Everyone followed the rules and didn’t bring back any “souvenirs” from the islands, not even a tiny rock – or maybe they hid it very deep in their suitcase and are praying the customs officers won’t check their luggage at the airport. Once they get home and tell friends and family what they saw, everyone will be impressed and full of envy. So the trip’s main objective will have been fulfilled!
english version by Cida Gomide Quintella