Twenty-two years ago, I was a bright-eyed, idealistic university student learning Spanish and biology in Ecuador. As part of the comparative ecology program I was undertaking in this phenomenal country, I had the opportunity to study for eight days in the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles offshore of the mainland, living on a small boat and cruising from island to island.
The experience changed my life. It helped me to realize that I wanted to be warm, and outdoors, and studying my subject first hand on a daily basis. I also realized that I had the opportunity to share my understanding with willing students as a naturalist.
And so, it was a great privilege to return to the islands last month at such a different point in my life, but essentially living out my Galapagos fueled dream of traveling the world’s oceans and sharing my oceanic insights one-by-one.
In a weird coincidence, going through old papers today, I found my notebook from the four months I spent in Ecuador back in 1992. There are some descriptions of the Galapagos Islands in my small, studied handwriting that capture my first impressions of a few islands and some of the wildlife on each. I wish I had more of these notes, but I’ll share what I do have and indeed, had I written this from scratch tonight, instead of using two-decade-old notes; it would still go a lot like this:
Clear water breaking on the rocks at Plaza Sur looks like it belongs in the heart of an aquamarine gemstone. Desert cactus stand like sentinels planted in a red carpet of succulents. A swing of the head and I’m looking at an electric blue bay with organic white beaches and in the distance, long, gently sloping volcanoes. There is little green except for the cactus on top of volcanic rock full of chocolate bar bubbles.
Bright red and orange crabs hang on the astronomically black rocks, next to cobalt blue water.
Frigate birds fly past at eye level as I stand on the cliff’s edge. Struggling against the powerful wind, the birds are nearly stationary and hover with wings spread wide, forked tails wide open, and eyes boring into your own.
Galapagos sea Lions with silken bodies wave through the water like a banner in the wind. The pups, mothers, aunts and other female relatives are close and affectionate with each other. They seem to kiss in greeting and at other times cry out and hide a softly folded face against a jagged volcanic rock in an expression of emotion left open to interpretation.
I swim with sea lions, or as they are known in Spanish; Lobos del Mar – literally ‘sea wolves.’ As they twist around me and float by upside-down without effort, one will swim toward me and at the last moment before impact, somersault away, back-flipping in jest and no doubt enjoying the reaction the behaviors elicit in me.
The sea lions lay around ashore looking like hung-over college students on a Sunday morning. It’s 10 am and no one is in any rush to wake up. I watched a pup alone in the surf. I watched the waves break over him and toss him around and there wasn’t anything I could do to help.
The males are huge and get offended when you come too close. They sit up and bark. The noises they all make are incredible, like burps and belches, or like someone saying, “Yuuuukkkk-allagh.”
I don’t think I’ve ever been so at peace. It takes no energy to concentrate my thoughts on the here and now – on the moment.
Saw a huge sea turtle swim by the boat yesterday as we cruised along with me sitting on the roof of the highest deck listening to Enya in my headphones. It was just me, the waves, and the distant islands. (Listening to Enya…it had to be the 90s.)
Last night I jumped off the roof of the boat at anchor. I leapt into the clear, green water and into the night. I could see rays and sea lions swimming all around me in the ring of the ship’s spotlight.
And then in my notes from 22 years ago, I wrote just this:
Vivir en la playa
Live on the beach.