Thursday, December 6, 2012

Of Boobs and Boobies

No doubt thanks to Divine Providence, we were reminded of the fatuous creationism debate in America just before we left three weeks ago on a trip to the Galápagos Islands, Charles Darwin's original laboratory for his theories about natural evolution and survival of the fittest.

In a recent interview with Gentleman's Quarterly, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio--both a Tea Party acolyte and the Republican Party's Great Latino Hope for 2016--was asked how old he thought the earth was. I would have confessed I didn't know exactly and guessed something in the range of tens or hundreds of million years old (current scientific estimates put it at 4.5 billion years).

My guess would have been a plausible answer for Rubio too but he instead tiptoed around any specifics apparently to avoid any blowback from the sizable contingent of creationist boobs and other religious fanatics that populate the Republican Party these days.

A Blue-Footed Boobie, a star attraction in the Galápagos.
Rubio said it was all a mystery, that he didn't know, maybe six days or six eras, you know, man, nobody knows, man, you know, you know. It was a craven reply by someone certainly smart and educated enough to know better.

By the time we got back from the Galápagos, Rubio had amended his answer to 4.5 billion years and mentioned that his own Catholic Church--not exactly a loosey-goosey outfit in matters of faith and Scripture--had long embraced the theory of evolution.

But on to the Galápagos Islands, with its vast population of far more entertaining boobies, blubbery sea lions and impassive iguanas and tortoises. This unforgettable archipelago is as remarkable for its remoteness and forbidding terrain as for its teeming, often unique wildlife.

Getting there was a trek that took us on a ninety-minute flight from Quayaquil, Ecuador, directly west over the equator to the island of San Cristóbal six-hundred-plus miles way, where we boarded a small cruise boat.

You can only visit as part of small groups escorted by park rangers who will take you only to certain islands and spots, keep you within marked trails and remind you to take nothing with you except photographs.

If you're looking for a party-hardy getaway where you can throw empty beer cans at your buddies, this won't work. Indeed, a few weeks before our visit a young German tourist was caught smuggling iguanas in a suitcase and for his enterprise was sentenced to six years in an Ecuadorian jail. It shows you there are boobs everywhere, even where they make Mercedes-Benzes.

Do go home without me, if you know what's good for you. 
Our ship, fairly typical of those that ferry tourists around the Galápagos had only eight two-person cabins and including the crew carried twenty or so people total. This was hardly a splish-splash hydrofoil. Its two noisy two- hundred-sixty horsepower engines could muster no more than eight knots, which I understand is the equivalent of a funeral cortege on land. To reach some of the more remote islands would have taken our boat about twenty-two hours of huffing and puffing.

Our guide was the long-haired, blue-eyed, forty-something Jaime Domínguez Rodas, a naturalist with twenty years experience and a reserve that sometimes concealed some of his vast knowledge. He was also an amazing photographer, blessed with talent and the opportunity to explore all corners of the archipelago at leisure.

Darwin's five-week visit to the Galápagos in 1835 was a typically British exploration saga. With so many explorers, pirates, buccaneers and traders poking around here, Antarctica, Africa and a myriad other places I've often wondered how there were enough Brits left to mind the Empire.

Once you visit a few of the islands, though, it's not hard to see how the Galápagos Islands would have triggered evolutionary notions in a naturalist's head. They are remote and largely untouched--no country had claimed them until Ecuador did in 1832--and also relatively apart from each other. Though they are all of volcanic origin--volcanoes still hrrumph and spit lava periodically--there are also many distinct ecological zones and habitats, from relatively lush, to barren and to stark, reddish volcanic rock.

Darwin's eureka moment evidently came when he noticed that finches in the Galápagos had evolved into fourteen distinct species, particularly their beaks, according their habitats. He obsessively took notes and filled suitcases with plants and stuffed birds that he took back to England. Twenty more years of research led to the "Origin of the Species," a tome I haven't read but understand is quite impenetrable, up there with "The Wealth of Nations."

Small Ground Finch, thinking about what to evolve into next. 
Curiously his evolutionary theories triggered a furor among the religious classes in England who bellowed--much like some American evangelicals do today--that the world had been created 4004 years before the birth of Christ. Some English biblical scholars had even nailed down the exact month, day and time of creation.

What we found to be definitely, conclusively true was that the animals in the Galápagos, evolved or otherwise, are one gregarious, friendly bunch towards humans, perhaps because their isolation has spared them much exposure to human cruelty. Sea lions with pups days old sunned themselves on the beach, oblivious to human visitors. One young pup insisted on running up and rubbing his nose on Stew's legs.

Fantastically weird iguanas went around their business--which is mostly sitting on the rocks doing nothing--and also paid no attention to us. Even albatrosses and boobies with fuzzy chicks didn't squawk, run away or create a fuss. Lumbering giant tortoises, some about five feet long, stared back at the cameras and dismissively trundled away when their close-up had run long enough.

Five days was hardly enough to meet all the fauna. We saw Blue-footed and Masked boobies but not their Red-footed cousins. Also spotted were marine and land iguanas but not the legendary giant iguanas, five or six feet long, that supposedly live in other islands. We only saw two flamingos, standing immobile on one foot with their heads under one wing, looking like plastic lawn decorations.

And speaking of plastic, how about the Blue-Footed Boobies, whose legs and feet, bright blue and shiny, looked like prostheses rather than normal extremities.

Our snapshot of the Galápagos Islands was just that. I figure it would take a good month to visit all the islands, including the more remote ones, and three or four hours a day of trekking through rocks and other unfriendly terrain.

You must also be sure to allow a couple of hours a day, particularly at sunrise or sunset, to contemplate in awe God's creation. Whether over six thousand or six billion years, you've got to agree She did a magnificent job.


For a slide show of the Galápagos, please visit:

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