Tales of Galápagos Research

The Log from The Enchanted Archipelago

Part 1 –  Expedition

Let me recount a most extraordinary research expedition. It involved a pirate ship, volcanoes, iguanas, scientists of a sufficiently eccentric disposition, lunar landscapes, whales and a bottle of rum.
The fundamental reason or motivation for the voyage which we all knew about but never admitted or indeed spoke of was John Steinbeck’s 1940s novel ‘The log from the Sea of Cortez’. If you haven’t read this book you should. If you haven’t read this book and you are an aspiring marine biologist or some sort of ocean indulging person then shame on you.

The scientific or unromantic reason for the voyage was to investigate algae and herbivores and different variables and associations in the aforementioned. Those who know me well and my algal desires will be suitably impressed.

The Captain Lenin was a Captain. I.e. they didnt break the Sea Captain mould when they made him, he was a sturdy, unmovable, undisputable commander of all that was his ship and where it went and how it went there. Good Captain.

Jorge the first mate didnt say a fricken word the whole time. He had a pair of sunglasses with one shade missing.

Angelo the chef was suitably round, jovial, bubbly, cheerful and cooked food that you would not think could be cooked on a tiny boat in the middle of the ocean. I shudder to think what he might create should he ever find himself in a kitchen greater than 2 square foot, and not rocking to and fro.

The boat was an 80 year old wooden pirate ship. No more needs to be said. Coolest boat ever. Flys the jolly roger.

The scientists were Luis, whose PhD and life depended on us not screwing up and we didnt, and the slaves who were Eduardo, Anne, Julie, Daniel the rice monster and a tall quiet guy from Ireland.

Part 2 – Putting Out Into The Night

After completeing the exhaustive quarantine procedure, which aims to prevent the grubby sailors from introducing any unwanted organisms to the relatively untouched landscapes we would be visiting, we sailed on a monday evening at 7pm.

The rules to the greenhorns (first timers, prepare yourself for the deluge of nautical terms) on the boat were firmly explained. 1. Never wear a hat in the galley area/captains quarters, 2. always wear a shirt in the aforementioned location. And that was all.

Our first passage was to Genovesa island which lies in the far northeast of the archipelago. In our pirate ship which achieves a max velocity of 9 kts under thrust and sail, this journey would take 9 hours or so. The south west swells were coming on our starboard as we rounded the south east corner of Santa Cruz. It felt good thinking of such nautical words at the time. It feels better writing them. Were one to do this for the rest of one’s life, speaking fluent sailor, it wouldnt be so bad at all.

My stomach which before this had never been tested by the sea for greater than perhaps one hour at a time, and had emerged victorious from all possible sea sick situations was about to undergo its greatest test of all. A normal person would aproach the situation by not eating so much beforehand, and perhaps sticking to inoffensive food to ease their stomach into the impending movements.

However being John paul, I ate a mountain of food, both offensive and inoffensive on the day of departure. I cannot tell you how much I ate. Later analysis proved this to be a response to a subconscious fear of going without enough food on the trip. Anyway, the result was a stomach of steel, not so much as a vomity burp. Its not a good idea to go below deck when sick. its not a good idea to read. Its not a good idea to eat sweets. I would go to my bunk and read my book while eating sweets and being flung around and laugh at the pacific ocean’s feeble attempts to make me puke.

Part 3 – Genovesa

Tuesday morning, I awoke to a glassy sleepy sea, the swells and such of Santa Cruz the legacy of the night before, to quote an Irish song ‘like the beer in last night’s glass’.

Genovesa island was nearing, this also meant work whcih would be carried out according to the timetable of the tide. Breakfast was excellent, perfect, nutritious, nice, hit the spot, great, fantastic. From now on to save internet paper, all meals will be understood to be as described above as I cannot lanch into a string of adjectives each time. They were all superb.

Genovesa is uninhabited, wild and crazy. To reach our worksite which was a gently sloping intertidal zone, the only one I think on an otherwise vertical cliff perimetered island, we had to take a ride in the panga (small wooden dinghy).

As there is no landing site, landfall was achieved by powering the panga close to a jumpable piece of rock in between sets of waves and making a pretty critical jump. from a tiny panga. To a slippery rock. Jumping. With heavy heavy gear. Old proverbs were springing to mind ‘He who hesitates is lost’. New ones involving many swear words in spanish and english were made up on the spot. The operaton was ultimately succesful with not even one life lost.

Part 4 –  Intertidal Construction

Two nights were spent in Genovesa, anchored in the semi circular bay chiseled out of the island seemingly by God with an accurate arc compass but in reality by a long since passed volcano. Actually everything in Galápagos is a result of a volcano at some time or another.

The work we did was, to the lay person, that is a person who is not a marine biologist, rather bizarre. Drilling holes in rock is normal. Everyones done a wee bit of construction work. Attaching metal objects is normal. Fumbling with screws and plugs and holding things in your teeth while your hands are occupied is all part of the fun. 

Hoisting the drill quickly over your head while a wave crashes over you is not at all however. Extreme construction. Despite working at the lowest point of the tide, there was swell in every location we worked in. Dropping anything was not an option. Dropping a plate which contained valuable data for Luis’ studies was not cool. We are a tough group of people however and the minimum was sacrificed to the angry sea gods to keep them happy. My personal contribution to angry Neptune was one herbivore resistant cage and a nutrient bag.

We sailed out of Genovesa on Wednesday afternoon, 18 hours later to arrive in Fernandina. I was delighted when the captain enlisted me to help him raise the sails. Despite it only being 5 minutes of useless help, in conversations to come with seasoned sailors I can now casually drop “……Ah yea, I did a bit of sailing aroud Galápagos once…in an old pirate ship….” and gleefully steal their thunder.

Part 5 – Visiting The New Earth

There is a sailing tradition which dictates that upon crossing the equator for the first time, the young novice seaman should endure humiliating and unspeakable acts much to the delight of the more seasoned grizzlies on board. This presuming that the young handsome sailor has not already been targeted for more devious reasons by the affection starved seamen.

Well I passsed the equator on the passage north to Genovesa and for good measure crossed it again two days later on the trip to Fernandina without succumbing to some ill concieved molestations. It is to their eternal shame that they let this opportunity to ridicule a know it all young college boy pass by.

For the second time in my life (the first being on passage to the small island of Ouessant off Brittany in NW France, where we cycled between 7 pubs which are there) I experienced the agraphobics nightmare and the closterphobic’s dream of being on a vessel with no view of land. 360 degrees of featureless horizon. 1/2 a degree of latitude, 90 degrees of longtitude and varying degrees of madness.
My sleep that night was interrupted by no swell, as I sleep better when I am being displaced in my bunk by high seas. I awoke to the maddening sensation of not moving. The morning grayness confirmed the earth was still turning however. I climbed up to the wheel where Captain Lenin was steering sentry like, exactly as I had bid him good night 10 hours earlier. I sat outside and watched dozens of dolphins jumping and spinning, delighted that I would have news for those who missed the spectacle at breakfast.

This day was rather special. Our next site was Fernandina Island, the newest of the Galápagos islands and a still active volcano. Brief investigations revealed us to have travelled back in time to the beginnings of this Earth. The island sloped uniformely from the shore a few miles to the cone. Chunks of rock, the smallest the size of a northern European, were scattered haphazard, interlockingly, higgledy piggledy from shoreline upwards. Entirely inpenetrable. You could not walk or climb or in any way traverse this violently placed terrain.

As you tried to walk on the perimeter of this otherworldly landscape, chunks of rock broke off under your feet. Primitive erosion, as a good Australian friend pointed out, which happened a long time ago in countries such as Australia and Ireland is happening in real time here.

The biggest Iguanas in Galápagos (they have more algae to eat, its why we were there) were splendidly inactive. The volcano even obliged by emmiting a slightly dark cloud of something. However only I saw this and nobody else believed me that I did. Despite reassuring me that they did believe me, I am quite certain that they did not.

Part 6 – Sailing Around Mars

In Fernandina I bled like a pig. A wave upturned me whilst I was holding two valuable algae plates. While the rest of me went underwater my clenched fist triumphantly stayed above the water heroically holding onto the plates in a death grip. Below the water, my entire bodyweight fell on my elbow which jarred along a most evily shaped barnacle. I continued working like a martyr with blood streaming down my arm and legs and discolouring the water around me. I finally sat down and self treated when it became apparent that I was either going to a) faint and drown or b) be bitten by a shark which would shortly be arriving to investigate the source of all this blood. Later, the horrible misfortunes would continue when Julie, who hails from a mafia stronghold in New Jersey, was bitten by the stupidest of birds, the flightless cormorant.

We sailed as soon as we finished working in Fernandina, we were sailing home, the voyage was over, the work was done. A bottle of the strongest rum was produced and we determinadely savoured our last few hours of daylight sailing. We whale watched as they are commonly sited in this area. 10 minutes later we saw one, my first time seeing a live one. Whales are big and beautiful and people shouldn’t kill them. Is what I thought at the time and I still do.

The southwest corner of Isabella was rounded. I have seen plenty of martian landscapes but this one is more martian. If the adjective martian may be used comparitavely. Craters, dusty rocky reddish expanse.

Upon rounding Isabella, you are hit by the ever ready south west swell. Lots and lots of swell. Growing in size as you round the point. Round swell, up and down round and round. For seasick people the word round must be the most uncomforting word in the dictionary. It makes them think of their head, their stomach and the waves.

Luckily my stomach doesnt subscribe to such things and I perversely anticipated a night of heaving and swilling and swelling and rolling and if your lucky the occasional slam as the bow clips a wave at just the right angle to collide violently with the next. Such noises enter your dreams pleasantly as you sleep like a sailor. To heighten the experience, I attempted to read a little before sleeping.

In Santa Cruz the next morning I anticipated with apprehension the normality, the unmovingness, the steadyness of the small town on the island. Boredom scared me. Everyone is hurrying and purposeful but going nowhere. There is nothing aweinspiring or indeed new around the next corner. You wake up at the same coordinates that you go to sleep at.

We took our time and moved methodically and went to the end of the earth. People would later ask us if we were bored on the trip……..




  1. Pingback: Back soon « Irish Marine Life - December 7, 2009

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