September & October 1835
The fields of evolution and natural selection will always be associated to Charles Darwin, and more so when we say that the Galapagos Islands are a living laboratory of evolution. However, there's a fascinating field of analysis happening between the Galapagos and Charles Darwin: the power of observation.
Although the intensity of this power varies from person to person, it is that same power that enabled Darwin to observe things beyond the "normal" retina. It is the depth of his observations, more than any other scientific assessment, that invites us to question ourselves the appearance of new living creatures on Earth.
How could this apparently static nature, give us so much varieties and variability within life forms? How could we have such dynamic energy in our Planet and still believe that it hasn't changed over time? How was it possible that in the middle of the tropics and exactly right at the equatorial line these “strange” life forms from much cooler weather were striving under the scorching sun and finding cooler water at Latitude 0° 00’ 00’’? How was it possible that these anti-diluvium reptiles with a giant heavy carapace could stretch their necks to reach the succulent branches of goliath cacti? Would it be possible to admit, for just a few moments, that in fact life on Earth wasn’t that static and not as young as we were told?
These were the same profound questions that Charles Darwin had in mind and these concepts turned into the development of the theory of natural selection…it was the struggle for survival in front of changing conditions that determined who made it and who didn’t. This process was the fabric for developing new species too; if niches were left empty, new comers could take them. These motivators were witnessed by Charles Darwin while exploring the always-fascinating Galapagos Islands, particularly its geology, and its indefatigable wildlife.
The HMS Beagle and its perfectionist leader, Captain Robert Fitzroy, sailed through the Galapagos as part of a very extensive cartographic voyage around the world. Originally scheduled to have a duration of just 3 years, it actually lasted 5. All routes and incidents were of monumental value for humankind.
Exactly 179 years ago, Charles Darwin arrived in the Galapagos Islands as the official Naturalist and Captain’s companion on board of the HMS Beagle. The date was September 15 and the location was Stephen's Bay, San Cristobal Island. The relatively short 5-week stay in the islands gave Charles Darwin a chance to explore only four islands of the archipelago: San Cristóbal (Chatham), Floreana (Charles), San Salvador (James), and Isabela (Albemarle).
Floreana Island was the only location where he spoke to an Ecuadorian settlement, which settled only about 3 years before Darwin’s visit (1832). Darwin receives a bizarre explanation about the physical anatomy of giant tortoises and how you could identify if a certain individual came from a dry low-height island or from a very dense forest found at higher elevations. In fact, it was all connected to the shape of the carapace and the length of both neck and fore limbs. He didn’t pay much attention to this at the time, but took note of it. Once again, it was his keen power of observation that enabled him to reason beyond everyone's vision. Giant tortoises are one of the few examples from the Galapagos that he uses in his masterpiece “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”.
He also mentions the three species of mockingbirds he saw. There is no association of the famous Darwin’s Finches as a direct example, although later scientists arrive to the same conclusions from Darwin’s observations on these finches.
On October 20th, 1835, the HMS Beagle concludes its Galapagos stop and proceeds southwest towards the Society Islands (Tahiti). It will take him almost a month to reach his next destination and this is the longest period of time that Darwin goes without inputting anything on his diary.
Maybe he was too busy classifying his Galapagos’ collections and arriving to its first basic conclusions. We will never know. But, what we do know is that Galapagos is an invitation to the senses; it is the most influential location in Charles Darwin's observations, and it invites us to continue exploring in ourselves that same power of observation he had.
This World Wonder, declared a Natural Heritage of Humanity by the UNESCO back in 1978, is part of one of the most bio diverse countries on Planet Earth. Ecuador contributes to rescue in all of us the high respect biodiversity and conservation of natural resources deserve.
Visiting the Galápagos Islands allows us to unfold the "Little Darwin" we all carry inside. It is time to enhance and refine that power of observation; and what a better time than right now, September and October, as we celebrate one more year of Darwin’s incredible visit to the Galápagos back in 1835. The World is only reserved for those true explorers at heart.
By: Francisco Dousdebés, Expert in Galapagos