Quest For Wonder: Galapagos Islands (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

Sailors always knew these islands were different -- they were called Las Encantadas, the Enchanted Islands, the name by which Herman Melville knew them.
10/31/2012 08:01 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

To find the mystic islands of diversity we travel back along the spine of the Andes, back out into the Pacific and off the coast of Ecuador until we bump into the fragile island chain known as the Galapagos.

At first glance, the Galapagos don't evoke wonder, but something akin to dread. The landscape of this island chain straddling the equator is barren, severe, ragged and raw. Volcanoes still steam and fire, and in some places the ground is barely cool enough to step. It's like the birthplace of the planet.

Somehow the Galapagos, vulcanized by lava and sun, evolved to host among the most biologically intact places on the planet. Here, in full showcase, is the wonder of diversity.

When the first European explorers landed here, in 1535, they found no ancient gravesites or ceremonial buildings -- no trace that a permanent settlement had ever been established. Over the next 300 years, only sailors, whalers and pirates came here, but nobody stayed for long. But tens of thousands of years before that, the islands had been colonized -- not by humans, but by a bunch of mismatched creatures.

When Charles Darwin collected specimens here in 1835 he noticed subtle but dynamic differences between the flora and fauna of the various islands. What he found would change the way we see the tapestry of the world.

Darwin was only 26 when he approached the islands as shipboard naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle. He wrote in his journal:

In a few days' time the Beagle will sail for the Galapagos Islands. I look forward with joy and interest to this, both as being somewhat nearer to England and for the sake of having a good look at an active volcano.

Darwin's interest in volcanoes was inspired by geologist Charles Lyell, who posited that changes in the earth's surfaces occurred over time by natural forces, rather than in one fell swoop by divine creation.

And the Galapagos looked like prime proof of Lyell's theories, islands formed by active volcanoes.

Like Hawaii, the Galapagos grew from a "hot spot," a volcanic vent in the submarine surface that built first one, then another cone-shaped island rising from the sea.

As the earth's surface moved -- a theory later developed as plate tectonics -islands formed in different places, with the older islands in the east, and the younger more rugged islands of Isabella and Fernandina to the west.

The Beagle spent just three weeks in the Galapagos, but it was time enough for Darwin's earth-shattering discoveries.

As Darwin explored the Galapagos he let curiosity be his guide, and in time, unpuzzled what he saw. In doing so, he recast the study of life.

Darwin collected small finch-like birds from three islands. After returning to England he discovered there were 13 different species of Galapagos finch among those he had collected, a number that made no sense in the science of the day. Why were there so many closely related species in such a small area?

A seismic notion began to form in Darwin's mind, with aftershocks that reverberate today. Darwin theorized that species evolve by means of natural selection.

In its simplest terms, natural selection is the process by which only the organisms that best adapt to their environment will survive and pass on their genetic characteristics to succeeding generations.

Darwin wrote in his notorious book, The Origin of Species, "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

Sailors always knew these islands were different -- they were called Las Encantadas, the Enchanted Islands, the name by which Herman Melville knew them.

Without predators for tens of thousands of years, the creatures here grew up without fear. It's an Ark of distinctive wildlife, from blue-footed boobies to red-billed tropic birds, iguanas that swim and cormorants that don't fly.

The Galapagos got its popular name from the Spanish word for saddleback, the name given to the shells of the giant tortoises found here -- big enough, and docile enough, to ride--but strictly forbidden.

Giant tortoises are the first wonder of the Galapagos - the world's largest tortoise, Lonesome George, weighed in at nearly 900 pounds, was almost 6 feet long, and lived over 100 years in the wild. He died earlier this year, as possibly the last member of the Pinta Island tortoise, a species once found only on an islet near the chain's biggest island, Isabela. Although tortoises may live to as old as 250, the oldest known Galapagos tortoise was Harriet, who died in an Australian Zoo in 2006 at the age of about 172.

Harriet was captured in the Galapagos in 1835 by the young naturalist aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, Charles Darwin.

Before human contact its estimated there were over a quarter million tortoises on the Galapagos, in 15 known subspecies. Each subspecies was found on a separate island, with differences from the height of the domed shell to the length of the neck to the pattern of plates on the carapace. By the 1970s, because of poachers and collectors, those numbers were down to a fraction. But they're coming back due to the efforts of scientists, conservationists and mindful travelers.

Kayaking is a great way to explore. Natalie De Roy, the niece of an old friend of mine, is young, passionate and informed about her home, and she offers to take me for a paddle. We see all manner of colorful fish, Sally Lightfoot crabs, rays, eels, and penguins.
There are over 20 penguin species, many in Antarctica, a couple in the southernmost regions of South America, Australia and Africa. But penguins on the equator? How did these flightless birds migrate thousands of miles over open ocean to find themselves here, chasing schools of sardines in the tropical waters of Bartolome Island?

The closest relative to the Galapagos penguin is the Humboldt Penguin, who follows the cold-water currents along the shores of Chile as far north as southern Peru.

So even though the Galapagos are on the equator, it's the cold water that wells up from the depths of the Pacific that keeps these birds alive -- or have so far.
For like many of the species found on the Galapagos, the penguin is endangered, with only about 1500 thought to be alive today. On Isabela Island, introduced predator species like cats, dogs and rats, brought by the island's human inhabitants, have decimated their numbers.

Oil pollution and commercial fishing too have make life a struggle for these small birds, usually less than 10 inches and only 5 pounds in weight.

Even global warming might have a hand in their decline. The oscillation of El Nino seems to bring ever-warmer waters to the Galapagos, making long-term survival for the penguins, and other species, an open question. But with the questions, with visitation and curiosity, come the keys to dreams not remembered.

Some of the other islands' inhabitants, like iguanas, drifted in on rafts of debris from South America. Still others, like finches, were blown off course on passages across the Pacific. Isolated and untouched by humans and predators, the diverse and valiant tenants of the Galapagos are descendants of these castaways.

The Galapagos have been called a natural laboratory of evolution. But it took a curious traveler, Darwin, to come here, wander, observe and finally rock the world with his incendiary set of ideas.

These 19 volcanic islands, like fragments of a fallen moon, gave rise to the theory that challenged the established notion of how nature works.

It is through diversity that we catch a glimpse of unity, the continuous and the discrete, the forest and the trees--pieces of the mosaic that give us the sum of life.

I witnessed so many wonders on this journey. The landscapes of South America serve up such a surplus of wonder, wonder that quickens the blood, enlivens thoughts, and leads, by degrees, to joy. Why is this important? Because these feelings embolden us, and at the same time bring us humility, but perhaps most magnificently, they dial us back to an earlier time.
How, then, do we find the coordinates of Wonder?

Well, look as a child does and travel with eyes wide to discovery, because travel allows us to begin anew.

The APT/KQED television special "Richard Bangs' South America: Quest for Wonder" is airing nationally now on PBS. Click here for air dates and more info.

Explore The Galapagos