by Tim Farmer
first appeared in December 06 Canoe & Kayak

Our kayaks cruised quietly over the clear water, just yards away from swirling, foamy waves that crashed against a sheer black cliff. Soaring hundreds of feet into the turquoise sky, Punta Vicente Roca is a place where sea and earth meet dramatically. Almost exactly on the equator, it seemed an unlikely place for us to see penguins. But there they were—perched on the rocky, volcanic shoreline—a pair of the small, flightless creatures looking like tuxedo-clad waiters. We paddled closer, and the two Galapagos penguins stood their ground, oblivious to our bright yellow kayaks and orange PFDs. The Galapagos Islands are the only place on the planet where these evolutionary oddities exist.

A volcanic archipelago composed of 13 major islands and a handful of smaller islets, the Galapagos are renowned as the crucible of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. They are scattered over 28,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean, roughly 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The islands lie above the intersection of two tectonic plates that are still being thrust upward by the restless earth. The Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela Island had its most recent eruption in October 2005, and still vents gases continually. Some days the smell of sulfur drifts for miles across the open sea.

It’s no wonder that the islands are a naturalist’s playground. Dozens of species that exist here are found nowhere else on earth, including giant tortoises with unique subspecies that differ from one island to the next, and ferocious-looking marine iguanas, the only ocean-feeding reptile in the world. But it was the birds that caught Darwin’s eye, in particular the finches. He noticed that their beaks varied from island to island, and appeared to have adapted over time to specific food sources available on their respective islands. But such thinking was heresy at the time, considered antithetical to traditional creationist views. Darwin himself was a creationist, and didn’t change his own mind until he returned to England and began to weigh all he had seen.

Dozens of species that exist here are found nowhere else on earth

Darwin happened into his trip to the Galapagos quite by chance, the third choice of Captain Robert Fitz Roy, who was seeking someone to accompany him on a mission to chart the east and west coasts of South America and to log a series of navigational points as the ship circled the globe. Fitz Roy knew that, as captain, he could not develop friendships with the men under his command; so he sought out a companion, a friend of appropriate social standing, to accompany him on the trip. In return, the companion would get to visit exotic and remote locations as the HMS Beagle traveled the world. Fitz Roy’s first two choices to join him—a naturalist and a botanist, both clergymen—turned him down. It was the second man, John Henslow, who recommended Darwin for the trip.

At the time, Darwin was a 22-year-old student who had bounced from medicine to divinity and eventually to geology before it was considered a
formal field of study. His apparent lack of direction in life outraged his father, a prominent physician who considered his son a failure. When the elder Darwin learned of his son’s intention to join the expedition, he was adamantly opposed and refused to allow him to go. His uncle persuaded Darwin’s father to allow his son to take the trip that would shake up the worlds of science and religion forever.

The Beagle set sail in 1831, and spent the next three years charting the coasts of South America. It wasn’t until 1835 that the ship and Darwin reached San Cristbal, the easternmost of the larger Galapagos islands. Over the next five weeks the Beagle charted the islands, creating maps so accurate that they were in use for more than a century. Darwin spent as much time as possible ashore, not only because he was interested in the geology and wildlife, but also because he was afflicted with terrible seasickness. During the five-year voyage, he spent only 18 months aboard ship.

While in the Galapagos, Darwin saw distinct differences in the tortoises, mockingbirds, and finches occupying the islands that could not be easily explained through the conventional wisdom of the day. Still, Darwin did not have a eureka moment in the Galapagos. In his journals, he confessed that the contradictions struck him with wonder, but it wasn’t until years later that he laid out his theory of natural selection.