Our morning walk on the third day of our Galapagos cruise is at Isabela’s Tagus Cove, a quiet inlet that has offered refuge to travelling ships for centuries. The visitors of yore have included pirates, whalers, and travellers, most notably Darwin himself, who devoted a great deal of his writing on the Galapagos to this site. And these visitors have left their mark, quite literally, in the cliffs along the shore. Everywhere the rough sandstone is hewn or painted with the names of ships and dates. Though the formation of the National park technically put an end to this practice, there are inscriptions from as recently as the late 80’s. And if you look closely enough, you can find carvings from as far back as 1836.
Our trail leads uphill, away from the shore and into the dusty, dry terrain of Isabela. It’s steeper than our previous hikes, though after all of the walking on our travels I’m hardly winded, so I take the chance to enjoy the scenery. Unlike the terrain we saw on the first day’s hike (North Seymour Island), Tagus Cove is covered in dense shrubs and grass, although it’s still mostly dry and brown. The trees here are the same as those on Seymour, the palo santo, but they grow larger and taller, less stunted by the environment. Even so, at this time of year they are also gray, leafless skeletons of trunks and branches. The rain has not yet come to Isabela.
Despite the sparse greenery, animal life continues. We spot a couple of land iguanas browsing through the grass, their dusty orange skin blending in with the surrounding landscape. They eye us warily and plod away into the underbrush, wanting nothing to do with our group. More curious is a Galapagos mockingbird that flits by, curious enough to eye us from a branch for several seconds. It’s enough time for me to get a decent picture, and then the bird is off, hunting for grubs under tree bark. A guide last night told us that these mockingbirds, and not finches, that Darwin actually studied and brought home to England to help develop his ideas of how evolution worked. Though I read On the Origin of Species in college, I cannot remember a mention of either bird. Evidence online suggests Darwin studied both, albeit somewhat haphazardly, which I take to be the actual truth because that’s how pretty much everyone starts any kind of research.
We finish our upward climb at the top of a ridge overlooking Darwin Lake and further out toward sea. We can see our ship, the Santa Cruz II, drifting lazily in the current around her anchor. Below, the blue-green of the lake dazzles, but offers little relief to the life here–it’s brackish saltwater. The volcanic cone that comprises the lake’s basin is highly porous, so rainwater that collects here mixes with the ocean’s water, creating a brackish mix that sustains only algae and bacteria. I ask the guide if he’s ever seen fish in the lake, and he replies that he hasn’t.
After a lining up to photograph the lake and sea, our group turns around and heads back down the trail. We’re moving faster now, passing through areas we’ve already seen, but I spot a plant that looks surprisingly familiar: cotton. This is the Galapagos cotton, a smaller cousin of the mainland plant. It made its way to the island before human colonization, either in the feces of birds or borne by ocean currents. And while not harvested commercially, the birds here use the cotton puffs to line their nests, much like birds on the mainland use yarn, string, and mainland cotton.
As we return to the boat, we’re treated to one last animal sighting: the Galapagos penguin!
This penguin is the only species to live north of the Equator and is the rarest penguin species in the world. Here in the Galapagos, they have a unique problem: they get far too hot, and require cold water to reduce their body temperature and avoid becoming roasted penguin. As such, most of the birds live in the western Galapagos, where the frigid Humboldt Current is strongest and provides an effective means of cooling down.
While land here might be a bit toasty for them, they seem to have few problems in the water. Our guest penguin torpedoes through the water near our boat, first in front of us, then gone in a second. He resurfaces again a moment later, off to the side. He’s gone for another moment, then he pops up in a new spot, this time with two friends. Then the three of them disappear for good.