Thursday, January 13, 2011

Travel to Galapagos II: Exploring Darwin's Islands

( Read my Blog entitled Travel to Galapagos I: Quito, Equador)

The Galapagos Islands are one of the best and easiest to reach destinations outside the continental United States. It is surprisingly close and not outrageously expensive (as compared to Europe).

They offer rare and beautiful flora and fauna, great scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities, and a warm climate twelve months of the year.

Galapagos is chock full of  gorgeous animals and birds that have been indigenous for several millennia.  Prominent are the Iguana, blue footed booties, frigatebirds, land turtles and flightless cormorants. We were fortunate to see the albatross, which we had previously seen nesting on the South Georgia Island, which is a terminal at the other end of the migratory journey of these magnificent birds.

What I did not anticipate was the remarkable geography and how it  revealed the origin of species to the brilliant eye of Charles Darwin.

The Galapagos Islands lie about 600 miles west of the South American mainland. They were unspoiled and uninhabited for several thousand years. Even the pirates would not use the islands as safe haven because of a scarcity of fresh water.

The islands are not only remote, but they are largely isolated from each other.  Many of the animals cannot fly or swim from one island to the other. Thus many species have been confined to  their own self contained habitats for thousands of  years

Charles Darwin was a naturalist traveling with an English expedition that was mapping the western side of South America.  He was charged with identifying the plants and animals he encountered along the way.

When the ships reached the Galapagos Archepelago, Darwin was overwhelmed by the hundreds of animals and plants that had never before been seen in the western world. He dutifully sketched, and cataloged these new found species and carried his treasure trove back to England.

During the return trip he pondered on the significance of all the information he had gathered.  For instance he was struck by the fact that there were different species of mockingbirds on the various islands. These birds were similar in appearance but could not mate with their cousins from other islands. He firmly believed that these different mockingbirds had a common ancestor at some point in history, and wondered how they could evolve into different species.

He thus deduced that these birds living separately and apart  had been required to adapt to the demands of their own environment. He concluded that the animal that could adapt tended to propagate more abundantly and gradually the survivors passed their traits on to subsequent generations. Inasmuch as the mockingbirds on separate islands were confronted with different environments, they had evolved in different directions until they ultimately became different species.

Darwin thus anticipated what twentieth century scientists confirmed that environmental adaptation can alter our genetic makeup. As far as I know, the discovery of DNA did nothing but confirm the accuracy of his observation.

It is an unique and exciting experience for the traveler to visit these Island, which are largely unspoiled, and observe the flora and fauna in the same light as Darwin did. I have three specific recommendations  for the trip:.

- Read a good biography of Darwin.

- Be sure to travel by boat, while you are there.  It is important that you see as many islands as time permits and the boats are the most efficient means of getting around.

- Be sure to bring along some very good walking shoes and be prepared to walk over demanding surfaces of volcanic rock, which are everywhere.  It is not a place for flip flops.

And, of course there is one more recommendation - have a great time.