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A Cruise Through the Galapagos

Elizabeth Cary Agassiz

On a lovely day in June, 1872, we were approaching Charles Island in the Galapagos group. A marvellous school of porpoises, to be counted by hundreds, or perhaps by thousands, formed our escort. It was impossible to count them; but the surface of the water, for half a mile around, was broken into foam by their antics. Crowding about the bows of the ship, springing and jumping yards at a time, tumbling over one another, turning somersaults, they seemed to be having a great jubilee. One must be very familiar with the ocean to recognize the fact that there is as gay, as tumultuous, as enjoyable a life for animals in the sea as on land. I once passed many weeks in the Gulf of Mexico; and there, as we floated for hours in our row-boat over the coral reefs lying fathoms below us, and with the help of our water-glass watched the floor of that transparent sea as we might have studied a vast and ever-changing aquarium, I first became aware that a life full of physical enjoyment and the mere delight of living was provided for the tenants of the sea as well as for those of the forest.

Among the purple and green flexible coral fans, as they stirred gently with the movement of the water, were swimming bright-colored fishes, sometimes singly, sometimes following each other in zigzags, as if they played a game of hide-and-seek between the branches, sometimes in large schools advancing all together, as if with a special purpose, toward a given point. Occasionally a barracuda or a huge garupa [grouper] would loom up in the neighborhood of such a crowd of small fry, and instantly they would disperse and be gone among the thousand nooks and crevices of coral growth. There they would be hidden until their enemy had disappeared, when they would come out again and resume their play. The fishes made, however, but a small, though the more active, part of this submarine population.

Lovely sea-anemones, crimson or pale green, opened themselves to the waves, or perhaps to the light; for do not the creatures who live in those limpid waters enjoy the broken, softened sunbeams as they come shimmering down to them? Star-fishes without number, and brilliant ophiurans, all arms and no disk, crimson, purple, and yellow, crawled over the huge masses of coral. These made up the living, glowing picture as you looked down into the water; but the dredge brought up to us many beautiful things which a cursory glance from the surface failed to reveal,—single corals so like flowers you would say a convolvulus-cup had crystallized under the sea, and exquisite shells, Hyalinas delicate as blown glass, glossy Marginellas, and hundreds of others equally pretty. Even shells, which we are wont to consider very inanimate, are quite active and busy in their native element. I have seen a little Oliva from the Rio Plata fold back the edges of the foot upon which mollusks drag themselves along, and, flapping them with a quick, wing-like motion, dart through the water with the rapidity of flight.

Still more novel and unexpected to me than all this vivid life among the smaller marine animals was the playfulness and activity of the huge monsters of the deep, such as whales, or their less conspicuous fellow-citizens, porpoises, seals, and the like. Seeing these animals in numbers, as one meets them in the Pacific Ocean or about Cape Horn, you cannot resist the impression that they have an excellent time in their way; that they romp and frolic and enjoy life and each other immensely.

But to return to the Galapagos. The outline of Charles Island is picturesque, rising into several abrupt heights, the loftiest of which seemed, from the deck of our vessel, to be a broken crater. A low, shrubby growth, mingled with cactus, covers it. It seemed strange that these islands, lying in the line of the moist trade winds, should be so destitute of verdure. We cast anchor in Post-Office Bay, so named because there was formerly a settlement upon the island, and a mail-box stood on this lonely shore. Passing vessels dropped their letters into it, and they were collected with those of the settlement, and forwarded from time to time. The box seems to have disappeared with the colony; at least we saw no traces of either. §

§ On FitzRoy's 1835 visit, he noted that the post-office barrel was no longer used, as visitors would leave letters at the settlement instead. That date at which it was discontinued is unknown. And of course it was subsequently put back into service at some time after the Agassiz visit—again, date unknown.

We went on shore later in the day; some to drag the seines, others to geologize, others to shoot, others to botanize or collect in various ways. On landing it was my purpose to reach a small but very symmetrical crater which seemed not more than a mile from the shore; but I found the brambles so thick and the cactus so thorny, that I was soon discouraged, and, changing my plan, I wandered along the shore for an hour or two. The whole island, as far as I could see, looked like a burned-out furnace. Huge masses of slag, like the slag of an iron-foundry, were scattered everywhere. The beach ridges were built of the same substance broken into fragments; and the soil was but a finer, more pulverized material of a like character. Arid and scorched as the ground looked, a few mangrove-trees had found foothold along the shore, and, throwing down, their long, stilt-like roots, had bordered the beach with a scanty rim of verdure and shade. Under such a shelter I sat on a gnarled mangrove root, and wiled away the time in watching the armies of brilliant red crabs swarming on the rocks and sand, until our collectors assembled at the boats again.

We returned to the ship laden with as many specimens as could well be taken off in one day. After dinner we visited a rookery of sea-lions, whose hoarse cries had attracted us from time to time during the day. We could see them lying on a small beach some quarter of a mile from the ship; but as we approached them we found their numbers much greater than we had supposed. They were seen distinctly on the white sand; but as we neared the shore, the reefs of rock running out from either end of the beach grew alive with them. A hundred glossy, uncouth shapes lifted themselves from the black rocks of which they had seemed a part, and gazed at us, uttering their strange, gruff, hoarse cries. Then they scuttled down into the water, till its surface all around the boat darkened with their heads. As we reached our boat, those that were lying on the sand took fright also, first stretching themselves to look, and then hurrying down to the surf with the awkward, limping movement characteristic of amphibious creatures. On landing, however, we were suprised to find many of them still on shore hidden among the mangrove-bushes, at quite a distance from the water. The shot from Captain Johnson's gun, which killed one of their number at least, frightened them all away.

Our half-dozen men had much difficulty in dragging the huge, unwieldy creature down to the water's edge and getting him into the boat. At last, however, we secured our bulky prize; and as we rowed away with him through the surf, crowds of mourners followed us, coming so near as almost to touch the boat, crying and howling, whether in anger, fear, or lamentation we could not tell. At all events, it was a strange funeral procession, to which the twilight fading into night upon the sea, the black rocks fringed with surf, the white sand beach with its dark background of mangroves added a wild picturesqueness.

Returning to the vessel after dark, we found an unexpected guest on board. He was, by his own account, a native of Ecuador, had been in the opposition, and, after seeing a number of his friends and family executed, and being imprisoned himself, he had, at last, made his escape. A friend, who had rented one or more of these islands, offered him a refuge here, on condition that he should plant a part of the island, look after the cattle, etc. At first, he had sixty or seventy “peons” under him; but, after a time, his friend had withdrawn the greater part of the men to work on another island, promising to return after two months. Many months had now passed away, and he had had no tidings of them; and knowing that a mutinous disposition existed on the vessel, he feared evil had befallen his friend. He and his half-dozen companions had exhausted all their provisions, except such as the island afforded,—fish, wild cattle, and wild pigs. They had neither coffee nor bread nor sugar nor salt nor tobacco left; their shoes were worn out, and their clothes were not in much better condition. Seeing the smoke of our vessel, some of them had come down with their leader from their huts, some four miles away, had succeeded in attracting attention by their signals from the beach, and a boat had been sent for them. They passed the night on board, and the next day returned to their settlement with such supplies in food and clothing as we could give them. Whether the story was true or not, whether the man and his companions were exiles for social or political offences, the situation was dreary and desolate enough to excite compassion and charity.

We remained but two days at Charles Island, and started for our next station, Albemarle Island, on the 12th of June, accompanied on our departure by a crowd of blackfish. They followed our vessel a long distance, playing so close about us that we could look into their great, blunt snouts as they threw themselves out of the water, and watch every movement as they swam alongside. All the afternoon we coasted along the western side of Albemarle Island, trying to make a landing. It was a strange scene,—a barren mountain rising from the sea, the base and slope of which were covered with extinct craters. In a small tract upon the shore, certainly not more than a square mile in extent, I counted forty-eight little craters, some perfectly symmetrical, others irregular, and blasted out on one side. Involuntarily there rose to one's mind the picture of a vast underground foundry; these craters seemed the chimneys of some huge smelting-furnace in the bowels of the earth, worked by a subterranean Vulcan and his men. At sunset a long, narrow thread of cloud stretched ribbon-like across the whole mountain-side. It was deeply tinged by the setting sun, and shed a red glow beneath it, contrasting strangely with the black streams and sheets of lava which threw themselves down the mountain-side as if they had cooled but yesterday.

Our chart directed us to Iguana Cove; but the so-called cove proved to be a rocky, open shore, against which a heavy surf was breaking. As we could see no chance for landing, we slowed down, and crept along till toward daylight, when we made for Tagus Sound and anchored in a deep, quiet bay, which cannot always have been peaceful as it now is, since it was blasted out by volcanic eruptions. The steep sides, which plunge down into the water and hardly give foothold anywhere, are the walls of an old crater; and the whole ground consisting of abrupt hills and ravines, seems built of contorted lava sheets. The first day, owing to the heavy surf and difficult landing, I did not go on shore, but contented myself with seeing the great variety of new and beautiful fish caught on board, with watching the large, lizard-like iguanas swimming past, and with feeding the pretty gulls, with soft brown and gray plumage and red bills, which came round the vessel. The next day, the sea having gone down, I joined the shore party. We landed at the foot of a ravine which you would say must once have been the bed of a stream in this burned and parched-up region. We followed this ravine for a little diistance, and then, climbing the left bank, we found ourselves, after a short walk, on the ledge of a large crater holding a beautiful lake in its depth. The curve of the banks was perfectly regular, but they broke down to a low ridge toward the sea, and thus formed a symmetrical amphitheatre, instead of a circle, the ridge being only high enough to hold back the waters of a shallow lake, lying green and crystal clear in the bottom of this broken cup. From this point the view was beautiful, over the lake to the pretty harbor of Tagus Sound, where our ship lay at anchor, and far out to the blue sea beyond. This lake crater is but a smaller one lying within another much larger, which rises in a higher and equally symmetrical amphitheatre about the first.

Following the brink of the lake to its upper end, we struck across the head of the ravine by which we had come. Here we entered upon a truly wonderful lava region. We found ourselves upon a kind of ridge, from which we looked down upon an immense circular field or sea of lava, spreading out over an area of many miles until it reaches the sea-shore. We went down upon this field of lava, and found it full of the most singular and interesting details of lava structure. In some instances a lava bubble was blown up, the side blasted out, and you could see down to the floor of a deep, vertical tube or hole running thirty or forty feet into the ground. I remember one in particular, where a stray sunbeam had found its way to the very bottom, and had lighted up the black walls and floor with a strange brilliancy as if illuminated from within. Memory has a singular persistency and power; as I write of it, I see the light quiver and tremble in that dark recess as when I looked down into it out of the glowing noon.

Frequently we met with large, heavy splashes of lava, evidently thrown up, liquid and burning, into the air, and then falling and spreading by their own weight and plasticity, like cakes of dough. Rounded domes were common, sometimes broken, sometimes whole; but most curious of all were the caves. Wherever the interior of a large mass of lava, once cooled, had become heated again and flowed out, leaving the outside crust standing, this outside crust formed a hollow tunnel or arch. They varied, of course, greatly in size, according to that of the mass of lava; some being large enough to hold a number of persons standing upright, others barely large enough for one to creep through on hands and knees.

While I stood in the midst of this field of strange, charred ruins, looking about me in blank wonder, I missed my companion, but suddenly heard him calling to me in a stifled voice that seemed to come from below. I looked around vainly, and it was only after a little search that I discovered him standing at the black opening of one of these underground tunnels. Heated and dusty with his walk, a large club in his hand, he seemed the very subterranean Vulcan my fancy had predicted. Climbing over the huge débris of the ancient fire-time, I followed his invitation and entered the mouth of the cave, expecting to find, at the least, a one-eyed Cyclops at his forge hewing out a thunderbolt for imperial Jove. But I found only the lunch-basket, more prosaic, but also more acceptable at the moment; while some of the party, resting on the seats formed by the old levels of melted lava along the sides of the cave, were refreshing themselves with claret and water. This cave, or rather open gallery—for it had an entrance at either end—was some thirty or forty feet long, at least ten feet high in the centre, and perhaps six or eight feet wide. The roof was fretted with curious fine incrustations, like delicate coral.

Part of our day's adventures and amusements consisted in a hunt for the red and orange colored terrestrial iguanas which haunt this island in numbers. The ground is burrowed in every direction with their holes. They look like huge lizards, are about two feet long, with large, clumsy bodies; and though they move rapidly enough, they never lose a kind of awkward grotesqueness of appearance. As I was returning through the ravine in advance of my companions, I saw an iguana running very actively around the foot of a tree. I had heard one of our party say that these animals were easily attracted by music, and cound be quieted and caught in that way. Remembering the charm, I began to sing. Suddenly he stood quite still; and, delighted with my own success and with the susceptibility of the uncouth creature, I drew gently nearer, always singing, and beckoning meanwhile—though not without a certain self-reproach for taking such unfair advantage of his love of music—to one of our sportsmen behind to come up cautiously and give the final blow. He approached silently and quickly, but suddenly exclaimed, “Why, Mrs. Agassiz, he's tied!”

The emotional side of his character was at once explained; his seemingly breathless appreciation of my music was wholly due to the fact that he had twisted his rope round the tree till he could not move another step; and I think a more mortified prima donna was never hissed off the stage. Some of our sailors had caught him on coming up, and had tied him there to await our return. The rope having slipped down to the root of the tree, I had not seen it. Notwithstanding my failure, other means were found more efficient, and we succeeded in capturing a number, both alive and dead.

We left Albemarle Island with the greatest regret. Indeed, our visits to all these islands were the merest reconnaissances, giving time for nothing more than a superficial survey of their geology and zoölogy. Our collections, were, indeed, large and various, because our small corps of naturalists was multipled by the whole working force of the ship, officers and men joining in the search with a hearty good-will which trebled and quadrupled the strength of the scientific party; but they would have been far more interesting had we been less hurried. Leaving Albemarle on the 14th of June, we passed the 15th at James Island, the aspect of which was greener and more inviting than that of either Charles or Albemarle, probably because the fires of this island were earlier extinguished, and it has had time to put on a garment of vegetation. And yet, even here, one vast lava stream started from the higher ground, and, though comparitively narrow in its upper course, widened into a broad area below until it reached the sea. These volcanic regions take strong hold of the imagination. So perfectly do they tell the story of past eruptions, that, to the fancy, the blackened field is once more a heaving, palpitating sheet of fire, the hardened stream turns to a flowing river of molten lava, the dead slags are aglow, and the burned-out furnaces are alive again, throwing up flame and smoke as of old. You can track the course of the whole as if it had happened yesterday.

After the steep, rocky walls of Tagus Sound, which hardly afforded a ledge wide enough for a safe and steady spring on shore, the broad sand beach of James Island, presenting a safe and easy landing, was a pleasant change. As I sat under a belt of trees on the beach ridge, a superb flock of flamingoes swept past me, their pink necks stretched, their red wings, tipped with black, glittering in the sunshine. Part of them alighted, some on the water, some on the land, and I had the greatest pleasure in watching them. Swimming they are prettiest. They look then like pink swans. Their attitude in the water is full of ease and grace, and they arch their long necks proudly as if they liked to turn the soft, rose-colored plumage in the light. On land they are very attractive also. As I sat hidden by the trees, two of them promenaded near me, walking along the edge of the surf. They stepped high, with a certain dainty caution, an aristocratic deliberateness of movement, which seemd to imply that haste was vulgar. The curve of the neck was no less graceful in walking than in swimming; but in flight, though their color is wonderfully brilliant and shows to great advantage, their position, with the legs and neck stretched out, is awkward. Shall I confess that, beautiful as they were, and seemingly unfit for coarser uses, we dined on roasted flamingo that evening? Very tender and delicate it was, and of a delicious flavor. In the somewhat monotonous state of our reduced larder, the temptation was irresistable. James Island, however, abounded in game,—ducks, snipes, and other small birds,—so that for a day or two our table was not without its luxuries.

On the 17th we arrived at Jarvis Island, where we passed the afternoon on a beach which was covered with large seals. As we approached they looked curiously at us, and then waddled into the water, remaining, however, in the surf, sometimes coming up on the sand, sometimes rolling over and over in the waves, playing with one another, rubbing their heads together, and indulging in endless gambols and fun. These creatures were quite tame, for we found a little family of them on land who were not in the least disturbed by our presence. A mother had made a kind of nursery for herself and her two little cubs in a green arbor formed by the low-growing branches of a tree a few yards from the beach. Though they looked at us with inquiring wonder, they were perfectly unconcerned at our approach; allowed us to sit down close by them, and pat them, and they would even smell of the bread and crackers with which we tried to tempt them to feed from our hands. It was amusing to watch them in their home; the little ones cuddling up to the mother, quarrelling for the nearest, warmest place with that selfish instinct of dependence and affection which startles us in animals as something strangely human. The “happy family,” so often represented in menageries, was to be seen here in nature. Small lizards crawled over the mother seal and ate flies from her back, and little birds hopped close over her head and between her and her little ones, without the slightest fear.

At the farther end of this beach was a very lofty, picturesque cliff of dark-red rock and soil. Half crumbling, it was full of rifts and broken ledges, which made superb shadows on the rich background of color. I passed a pleasant hour sitting alone under its shade in the soft summer afternoon, and watching the seals at their play in the surf. This was my last experience in the Galapagos Islands. We stopped the next day for a few hours under shelter of Indefatigable Island to mend our engine, but I did not go on shore.

These islands are exceedingly interesting to the naturalist, from their recent volcanic origin, and from the fact that they have a singular and characteristic fauna and flora. Darwin gave the first specific and detailed account of their zoölogy, more than thirty years ago. He first named the large marine and terrestrial lizards which haunt the shores and the interior of some of them. Here some of the best work of his youth was done; and now, at the close of his life, these very islands connect themselves, by an odd coincidence, with his theory of the origin of species.

These volcanic islands, of so late a formation that their lava fields still lie black and bare, suggesting the idea that the old fires may break out again at any moment, are inhabited by a fauna specifically distinct from that of the mainland. Whence does this fauna come, so peculiar and so circumscribed? Either it originated where it is found, or else those changes, by whose subtle, imperceptible alchemy it is argued that all differences of species have been brought about, are much more rapid in their action than has been supposed. If the latter be true, then the transition types should not elude the patient student or the alert and watchful spirit of the age.

E. C. Agassiz