People-Watching in the Galápagos Islands by Mary Donaldson-Evans

People-Watching in the Galápagos Islands

Mary Donaldson-Evans

Two years ago, my husband and I took a Celebrity Xpedition cruise to the Galápagos Islands. We hiked along the black sand beach of Santiago Island, gazed down on Lake Darwin from a summit reached by a long set of stairs set into the rock of Isabela Island, slogged through a muddy lava cave on Santa Cruz Island. We saw iguanas as big as cats, 300-pound tortoises, bird species we didn’t even know existed. We took photos of penguins preening, sea lion pups nursing, blue-footed boobies diving into the water; we snorkeled in wetsuits alongside sea turtles and reef sharks. The clear turquoise waters, the near-perfect climate of these equatorial islands, the strangeness of the wildlife, the unadorned comfort of the small cruise ship (blissfully lacking casino, staff photographers, formal nights, and glitz)—all of that, and more, made this one of the most satisfying trips we have ever taken.

It was also one of the most memorable. However, we are convinced that long after the details of the naturalists’ lectures have faded into oblivion, long after we’ve forgotten the importance of Darwin’s finches and the adaptive features of the marine iguana, we will recall the passengers we met on our small cruise ship. Drawing a mere 3,000 tons, Celebrity’s Xpedition brings only 90 passengers on board (in addition to its remarkable staff of 68). What a lesson in evolution and natural selection!

“The Galápagos,” my pocket guidebook tells me, “being oceanic islands, have relatively few species of higher animals.” Ah, but the guidebook isn’t reckoning with the humans who crawl through the towns looking for T-shirts that don’t say “I love boobies”; the tourists who swim in the pristine waters and clamber up the volcanic rocks, the humans who interact with other humans on their own version of the isolated island. Darwin’s HMS Beagle may have carried her famous passenger to the rich laboratory provided by the Galápagos Islands, but Celebrity’s Xpedition is itself a laboratory for the observation of that most complex of animal species, homo sapiens.

Like Noah’s Ark, the Xpedition welcomed its passengers two by two. Unlike Noah’s Ark, however, there were a few exceptions. One 60-something year old woman arrived solo. There was a foursome from Long Island, another from Ohio, and a group of twelve from Miami. Nor were the couples necessarily breeders: we met a father-and-son pair, a mother and son, and two pairs of older women traveling together. We met architects and statisticians, schoolteachers and court reporters, nurses and bankers. Mostly what we met were people, with all their quirks and eccentricities: the dentist who serves wine to his nervous patients as they wait to be called to the Chair; the diminutive Canadian farmer who shears her own sheep; the pint-sized ex-cop who told us hair-raising tales of near-death experiences. We watched groups form and disintegrate as couples sought the comfort of a larger group and then discovered they didn’t have so much in common after all. We observed the principle of their attraction: overweight passengers found each other; “cool” people, ditto (just like high school!). The gym rats got together and signed up for all of the strenuous expeditions; older passengers slouched together in the Zodiacs for the more sedentary excursions. Women who wore make-up—I swear this is true—tended to befriend other dolled-up women; the plain, wholesome types found pals just like them. One morning I, one of the blush-and-mascara types, was telling a fresh-faced woman that the swell had been so great an hour earlier that it had knocked me right off my stool as I was applying my make-up.

“Make-up?” she replied with undisguised disdain. “As if the marine iguanas care!”

Simultaneously, we checked each other off our list of potential friends.

Curiously, perhaps, passengers didn’t seem to form groups with their compatriots. Canadians made friends with Americans, Germans with Brits; a Romanian couple living in London was admitted to a group of four from Dayton.

My husband and I were floaters. That is to say, we did not become part of a small group. I’d like to think that we chose to remain independent—we were, after all, invited to dine with others several times—but the doubt lingers:  maybe nobody wanted us? We learned roughly 50 names, but we secretly referred to the other passengers by their Galapagos wildlife equivalent. Hence, a woman whose legs met her torso at what was for me chin-level became known as “flamingo”; a well-endowed British woman as “blue-foot” (we prided ourselves on the euphemism). The “Sally Lightfoots,” named after the ubiquitous bright orange crabs, were those passengers who apparently preferred baby oil to sunscreen. The passengers included tortoises too, and sea lions, flightless cormorants, penguins, and frigatebirds. We were careful to choose only those species indigenous to the islands. There were no goats, cats, pigs, dogs, or rats on our motorized island. Perhaps there should have been. Such animals, having been introduced to the islands many years ago, were threatening to destroy their fragile ecosystem until the Galápagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation undertook to eradicate them in the 1960s, a program that has met with considerable success. I can think of several of our fellow passengers who failed to contribute to the general harmony of the group and whom I would gladly have thrown off our floating island, if given the opportunity.

But since that opportunity didn’t present itself, we satisfied ourselves with identifying the various species—native and non-native—and with noting their characteristics:  size, weight, coloring, distinguishing features, habitat, and breeding season (which, for most of the passengers on the Xpedition, “did not apply”). It was an endlessly fascinating game; nearly as fascinating as identifying the so-called lower species of the magnificent Galápagos Islands.

About the Author

After having made her career as a French professor at the University of Delaware, during which time she authored three academic books and co-edited four more, Mary Donaldson-Evans has decided to turn her attention from writing about fiction to writing fiction. Her non-academic pieces have been published by The New York Times (The Metropolitan Diary), AOL, Lowestoft Chronicle, The Stir by CafeMom, The Corner Club Quarterly, and GRAND Magazine.