The Galápagos Death Trip

The Galápagos Death Trip

The Galápagos Death Trip
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Dec. 18 2002 5:59 PM

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Today's slide show: Images from Genovesa.

Genovesa is home to the red-footed booby
Genovesa is home to the red-footed booby

A man having seen a photograph of a thing needs no description of it. Samuel Johnson might have said this to James Boswell or Boswell to Johnson, but I definitely know that I said it today to Steven VanRoekel and Carrie Eiting, my photographers and videographers. When we returned to the Parranda from our first excursion and scrolled through the 70 digital pictures of North Seymour birdlife, I said to myself, I'm going to compete with that?

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Last night we made a rough voyage from North Seymour to Genovesa, just above the equator, and anchored in Darwin Bay. After a light breakfast, we ride a Zodiac across the mile-wide bay formed in the caldera, the collapsed volcano cone that excreted Genovesa in the first place. The creative destruction is ongoing. Concentric rings of cracked lava radiate out from the shore, and some day they, too, will tumble into the bay. In a few million years, the whole island will collapse upon itself and return to the ocean from whence it came.

Disembarking from the Zodiac, we climb concrete stairs poured into one of Genovesa's fissures. Atop the escarpment is a rookery where red-footed boobies, masked boobies, and frigatebirds rear their young. Carrie snaps away because Steven is back at the ship jigging with a stubborn satellite connection—our backup device, the relatively slow Iridium phone, is working fine. The red-footed boobies roost in the ghostly palo santo trees while the masked boobies nest on the ground, guarding their eggs.

Because we can't take a picture of it, let me tell you about masked booby sibling rivalry. A mated pair produces two eggs, which gestate for 35 days before hatching. As soon as the older or stronger chick is able, he kills the younger, weaker one, who was only laid for insurance anyway. The parents then take turns guarding the murderous chick, each flying out to the deep ocean for food, which they disgorge upon return.

The breeding colony resembles a sun-baked diorama at the American Museum of Natural History. As if by command, a red-billed tropic bird flies by, its thin, long white tail undulating behind. Our guide Luis Die points out a warbler finch, one of the 13 endemic finches on the Galápagos. Most Galápagos finches crack seed for a living, but the insectivorous warbler finch occupies the ecological niche of a warbler, flitting in the treetops eating bugs. Luis has prohibited me from calling the Galápagos "the laboratory of evolution," the hack phrase every writer uses to describe the islands. Even so, I can't help appreciating how opportunity and deprivation have driven the finch to reach into its genetic stuff and morph into a warbleroid.

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We march across a little peninsula populated with boobies and palo santo trees to reach the coast where an endless colony of wedge-rumped storm petrels mob the sky. Storm petrels live at sea and only visit land to breed. Naturalists estimate 200,000 pairs of storm petrels raise their chicks in the cracked pavement of Genovesa's lava, and I reckon most of them are here today. For the first time on our trip, description trumps photography. The birds are too small—8 inches wide—and too swift to be captured properly on film. Imagine the black snowfall from god's own pepper shaker and you get a sense of the spectacle.

Lava cactus is found throughout the Galápagos
Lava cactus is found throughout the Galápagos

What was that I said about there being no predators on the Galápagos? A short-eared owl rifles by with a storm petrel in its mouth and takes refuge in a fissure. In addition to fratricide, Galápagos also knows interspecies murder. The rust-colored owl finds perfect camouflage in the red lava. Luis finds another short-eared owl—unphotographable, I'm happy to say—lurking in a little cave. Watching owls hide is a little like watching ice melt, so we move on to admire the lava cactus, the only plant vigorous enough to live on this lava plain. Rather than describe the lava cactus, I'll let Carrie's photo do the talking.

Later in the day, we return to the Genovesa stairs for snorkeling with the sea lions. The underwater camera housing for Steven's digital video camera fails—catastrophically, I might add—so words again trump pictures, because we have no photos of the half-dozen sea lions who chose to swim with us. I resist anthropomorphizing the sea lions but can't help thinking they'd make good pets. They're clean, they fetch their own food, and they seem to enjoy us.

Our last stop in Genovesa is a coral sand beach. The prickly pear or opuntia cactus on other Galápagos islands brandish sharp spines to deter the land iguanas from dining on them. But here, soft bristles replace the spines. Evolutionists surmise the cactus has dropped its defenses in Genovesa because it has no land iguanas.

In our short walk, we see our first lava gulls, one of the rarest gulls in the word, and a yellow-crowned night heron. A disoriented baby great frigatebird huddles on the beach, 50 yards from its nest, waiting for death. Its parents won't find it here. When the frigatebird finally dies, its corpse will rot very slowly on the beach. Because Galápagos has no vultures, raccoons, or other carrion eaters, and very few flies, the job of decomposition is left to the Sally lightfoot crabs. Luis says the corpse will rest there for six to 12 months before it is completely consumed.

The dried husks of bird death can be found everywhere on Galápagos, giving the amateur anatomist multiple lessons each day. Outside of Galápagos, the abundance of scavengers make dead-bird sightings so rare there must be a cult who compile "death lists" of birds. The dead-bird watchers have surely established hot lines and Web pages through which they alert their fellow enthusiasts of new finds. My death list now includes all three species of boobies, a freshly croaked brown pelican, and the trip is still young. If this fuzzy and beautiful young thing would only cooperate and die on my timetable, I could add another.