Child Of Nature

The Galapagos: The islands that inspired Darwin continue to evolve as more humans make the voyage. But even to a naturalized citizen, they remain fascinating and beautiful.

November 14, 1999|By Tui De Roy | Tui De Roy,Special to the Sun

I was only 2 years old when my parents left war-ravaged Belgium in 1955 to seek a new life. They arrived in the Galapagos Islands when almost no one knew the islands even existed and raised they their two children in the midst of nature.

My earliest memories are of sunshine and endless beaches marked only by the footprints of turtles and seabirds, of diving among sea lions in search of abundant lobsters, of climbing volcanoes and helping my father hunt wild goats for the dinner table.

I wore no shoes and few clothes, knew no electricity or running water, saw my first automobile when I was 10. But life was rich beyond measure. The Galapagos Islands were my classroom throughout my learning years.

At first the family just lived under a tent, then in a tiny lava-rock house built just in time for the birth of my brother. A small sailboat was added later, in which we made long forays around the islands.

When they settled in the Galapagos, my parents were part of a slowly growing group of hard-working, peace-loving pioneers who painstakingly cleared the land and planted crops of coffee, bananas, avocados and vegetables, hunted feral goats and cattle, or fished the abundant grouper and lobsters.

My father, like others, fished and salted his catch to export on the occasional ship that came from the mainland of Ecuador. Two, three, six months might pass before one of these small freighters would appear on the horizon, the only contact with the outside world. With it came letters from families far away, and vital supplies such as candles, flour and sugar. When it left a few days later, it took away the dried fish, dried coffee and live cattle that were the inhabitants' only source of cash. Life was hard, simple and beautiful back then.

By 1968, change was in the air. Our largest volcano, Fernandina, erupted spectacularly. The next year, I acquired my first professional camera. Planes began to reach the islands, occasional charters at first, then regular tourist flights. A new era had begun.

In the three decades that followed, the islands were propelled from utter isolation, during which the last of a string of penal colonies was finally abolished, to quasi-modern living, with daily flights, schools, supermarket, politicians, roads and traffic, and all the hum-drum of a miniaturized contemporary society. But this face of Galapagos is only skin-deep, with 98 percent of the total land area under National Park status, where the wildlife remains as captivating as it was when young Charles Darwin stopped here in 1835.

Darwin's finches

From the very first time man set eyes on the Galapagos (the first written accounts date to 1535) to the present day, what has impressed everyone is the strangeness of the animals that abound on the virgin shores, from the prehistoric giant tortoises to the little finches that now bear Darwin's name. The isolation of the islands, and time for life to evolve and adapt in an environment where no continental predators ever existed, culminated in species that were as bizarre as they were unafraid when the first people arrived.

The highlight of scientific investigation today is the group of 13 closely related species of Darwin's finches. Even from a nonscientific point of view, the little Darwin's finches are a source of much fascination.

When I was 7 years old, I tamed a young cactus finch by offering breadcrumbs in my hand. This finch, a female, later brought her mate and her babies, year after year, to feed from our fingers. She learned that the bread was kept inside the house, and would sit by the door, rattling the insect screens and making as much noise as possible to attract attention to be allowed to come in. Or she would sit on our heads, flying back and forth to the door, either to come in or to leave again when she had finished feeding inside. In years of drought, she was the only bird in the vicinity who was able to raise a family, thanks to her private food supply. For 18 years she returned, establishing a longevity record for her species at the time.

In the wild, Darwin's finches are equally clever. On some isolated northern islands one species has even learned to peck at the flight feathers of nesting seabirds to drink from the resulting trickle of blood during times of severe drought, earning them the name "vampire finch." The cool, dry season is when most of the boobies nest, which is handy for the vampire finches.

On the other hand, our warmest months, March and April, are when frigates are in the full flurry of mate selection, a process centered on the males' astounding air-filled scarlet balloons, or gular sacks, which they develop for the occasion.

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