Changing Planet

Galapagos Expedition Journal: In the Footsteps of Charles Darwin

This is the third post in my account of a ten-day exploration of the Galapagos, on board the National Geographic Endeavour. You can read all posts for this expedition here.

In the first post, I described our arrival on the island of San Cristobal and our first visit to a Galapagos beach. In the second installment, I described what it was like to swim with sea lions.


NASA image courtesy of MODIS.


Photo by David Braun.

We arrived on the third day of our expedition at Floreana, one of two islands on our itinerary that were visited in 1835 by Charles Darwin. Back then it was known as Charles Island, which was named not for the famous father of the discovery of evolution, but after King Charles II of England. Darwin, 26 at the time he saw Floreana, wrote in his journal: “This archipelago has long been frequented, first by the bucaniers, and latterly by whalers, but it is only within the last six years, that a small colony has been established here. The inhabitants are between two and three hundred in number; they are nearly all people of colour, who have been banished for political crimes from the Republic of the Equator, of which Quito is the capital. The settlement is placed about four and a half miles inland, and at a height probably of a thousand feet.”

Darwin also noted that on Charles “the staple article of animal food is supplied by the tortoises. Their numbers have of course been greatly reduced in this island, but the people yet count on two days’ hunting giving them food for the rest of the week. It is said that formerly single vessels have taken away as many as seven hundred, and that the ship’s company of a frigate some years since brought down in one day two hundred tortoises to the beach.”


We were to see no tortoises on Floreana, but the scenery seemed to be as Darwin described it: “Higher up, the woods gradually became greener; and as soon as we crossed the ridge of the island, we were cooled by a fine southerly breeze, and our sight refreshed by a green and thriving vegetation. In this upper region coarse grasses and ferns abound.”


Galapagos heron with crabs on the background rocks. Photo by David Braun.


Booby fledgling with coral beach in the background. Photo by David Braun.


Basking sea lion photo by David Braun.


Our first excursion on Floreana was a 6:30 a.m. walk from Punta Cormorant, getting our feet wet as the Zodiac pulled up gently on to the beach.  There are two types of  landing on the islands – wet and dry. Wet landings require sandals that can be immersed in water; dry means it is possible to alight directly on to a rock or a stone step without having to remove closed walking shoes and socks.

The first beach we encountered was olivine, giving it a greenish hue. Of course, there were sea lions in residence. A second beach was fine, white coralline sand, which we were told was a favorite nesting place of turtles. We were permitted only to look at the coral beach from the edge of the green beach, lest we trample hidden turtle eggs. Both beaches were lined with mangroves and littered with shells and clumps of seaweed.


Looking down the two beaches at Punta Cormorant, Floreana Island, Galapagos. Photo by David Braun


Some of Floreana’s fascinating beach vegetation. Photo by David Braun.


Extinct volcanic cone reflects on the surface of a salt pond on Floreana Island. Photo by David Braun.


A short walk from the beach took us through some interesting vegetation to a salt pond. A couple of Galapagos flamingoes were foraging at the far end of the pond. An extinct volcanic cone reflected on the water. Vegetation was green and thriving, much as Darwin had described.

The Zodiacs returned to take us to breakfast on the Endeavour, followed by another deep-water  snorkeling exploration. There was also the option of going out on a glass-bottom boat. I elected to stay in the comfortable ship lounge to catch up on my email. The ship is equipped with satellite transmission for this purpose.


Photo by David Braun.


Zodiacs arrive to take the beach-walkers back to the ship. Photo by David Braun.


A little later I boarded one of the Zodiac rides around Champion islet, one of the last refuges of the very rare and endangered Floreana mockingbird. Like the tortoises, these birds have become extinct on the main island, in part because of invasive rats preying upon them.


Floreana scenery, viewed from a Zodiac. Photo by David Braun.


Two main ways we explored the Galapagos islands were on foot, along trails, and by Zodiac, motoring around the coves and islets to get really close-up views of the birds, sea lions, iguanas, and crabs. Photo by David Braun.


Photo by David Braun


Photo by David Braun.


Our first sighting of Galapagos penguins, the only penguins found on the Equator. Photo by David Braun.


Photo by David Braun.


After lunch, Paula Tagle, our expedition leader, regaled us with tales of some of the crazy characters who once lived on Floreana. Paula is something of a storyteller and has published a book about the islands, “Galapagos Bedtime Stories.”

There were opportunities for people to kayak, and then we were all taken back to Floreana main island for a visit to the Post Office Barrel. Apparently it’s been a tradition for two centuries for travelers to leave their mail in the barrel. Passersby sift through the letters and cards for those they can deliver, leaving their own mail in turn for others to carry. Several Endeavour passengers took postcards addressed to people in their home towns, leaving their own mail to be delivered by future visitors.


Post Office Barrel on Floreana Island. The tradition for centuries is to leave mail here for passing ships to collect and deliver. Photo by David Braun.


Tourists keep the Post Office Barrel tradition going by leaving mail for other visitors to deliver. The idea is that if you find mail in the barrel addressed to someone in your home town you will deliver it.


Floreana Island was once home to hundreds of political detainees in exile from the mainland, and apparently to some downright crazy people who came to the island in search of a perfect life. Today it is turned back to nature — and tourists. Photo by David Braun.


Photo by David Braun.


During cocktail hour in the Endeavour lounge, we were shown a variety of handicrafts made by the islanders. They’re offered for purchase in the ship’s store, and it’s another way that Lindblad-National Geographic explorers can help the tourism economy of the Galapagos. The more inhabitants gain from ecotourism, the more they have vested in securing the ecosystem that lures tourists to the islands.


As the sun was setting there was an announcement from the Endeavour’s bridge: Whales were swimming alongside the ship. Photo by David Braun.


The evening closed with a screening of the National Geographic-BBC documentary about the Galapagos. It’s a great show, I’ve seen it several times, but nothing could keep me from my bed after such an eventful day.

Next time on my Galapagos Expedition Journal: Face to Face with Giant Tortoises.


Photo by David Braun.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • Theo Tsourdalakis

    Interesting article. I am currently going through Darwins book On the Origing of Species for the 2nd time.
    The pictures and details of animal anatory etc but I ask myself what does this really prove?
    Does it prove that we all had a common ancestor which was a self replicating molecule?

    With all the recent advances (that junk DNA is not really junk) I am having real doubts about the core tenents of Evolution.
    Darwins assertion that eveything happened ever so graduauly used to make sense to me but now I wonder how can genders “evolve” slowly and gradually. A penis without a vagina is useless for procreation – they must exists TOGETHER.

    I will keep looking

  • David Braun

    Interesting discussion, Theo. Take a look at a post by a colleague blogging on News Watch: Birds Do It, Bees Do It…But Why?
    and Sex Speeds Up Evolution, Study Finds

  • Heidi

    Beautiful pictures of the life on the Galapagos.

    If you read the account of creation in Genesis it will be clear that they male and female did exist together for procreation of both animals and people. You are right, both are needed together for procreation and development of animals and humans.

  • Dominique

    I liked the pictures loved them. this is a 12 year old that loves nature

  • Jan

    Brings back still-vivid memories of my trip to the Galapagos Islands eight years ago and taking home post cards to deliver to people in my area. My own post cards arrived at their destinations very quickly!

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