Yikes! I cannot believe I did this twice in a row. The previous book I read was one I had looked forward to
reading for quite a while:
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
by Jules Verne, whose books I usually love. I was appalled to find that the
travelers in the submarine, the Nautilus had no qualms against slaughtering all the beautiful creatures they encountered. But, it was just a
This one isn't. As the previous one, it is a book I had for a while, and was excited to finally begin it. I love the Galápagos Islands. I find them absolutely fascinating—all these wonderful, unique creatures who have no fear of humans. I am not fond of traveling. I hate it, actually and never do it, but if I had to choose one place on the planet I would truly like to visit, it would be there. This is about an expedition which took place in 1923, which included William Beebe, who was quite well-known in his day, along with other scientists, artists and regular people. They had a limited time allotted to spend on shore—less than one hundred hours, so they really had to hustle, especially since they visited many of the individual islands. Of course, the point I am getting at is that they carried guns. Even though the Wikipedia article linked above says that Beebe was a conservationist, and condemned killing except when absolutely necessary to obtain specimens, there was an awful lot of killing in this book, which is even more heart-breaking since the animals on these islands are so tame and fearless around humans because people did not inhabit them at the time. Now they do, in limited numbers, and the entire archipelago is protected. It is a territory of Ecuador. For more information on the current state of the islands, here is the Wikipedia article. This expedition was sponsored by Harrison Williams for the New York Zoological Society.
Even in spite of the killing of animals, there was much in this book I liked. I certainly learned a great deal by reading it, and I am glad I did. I am sure there are modern books written about these islands that do not require killing specimens, since there are research centers set up there now. Hopefully the only shooting done is with cameras. I took pages of notes, more than I will include in this review. In addition, Beebe was an excellent writer. He should have tried his hand at fiction, because his writing is never dry or boring, and is infused with his great sense of humor. With all his expeditions, he probably had material for numerous novels!
The steam yacht, Noma, containing Beebe, various scientists, artists and other interested people left Brooklyn on March 1, 1923. Their first stop was Panama, but I won't say much about that in this review. The first of the Galápagos Islands upon which they landed was Indefatigable. He says, "The beach was exactly what I always expected a buccaneers' and shipwrecked mariners' beach was like. Henty and Kingston, Stevenson and Conrad had pictured it in words, Howard Pyle had made it live in two dimensions." Ah, there's some of my favorite authors. Late in the book, he also mentions Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and one questionable character they met called himself Mr. Nemo. There is a similarity between the books! I also want to point out that the islands were named by a number of different people, but are best known now by their Spanish names. The Wikipedia article linked above supplies both the Spanish and English names. This book uses the English names only.
One of the aspects of these islands that made early exploration so treacherous is the harsh and brutal landscape, lack of water, (well, it's often there, but one cannot get to it), and the aggressive plant life. (These are volcanic islands, remember.) Here is a quote from Beebe's first attempt to climb Indefatigable:
Every step must be tested, else a four-foot sheet of sliding clinker, clanging like solid metal, would precipitate one into a cactus or other equally thorny plant. A careless scrape of a shoe and the sharp lava edges cut through the leather like razors. Here and there a semblance of a meadow offered a temporary haven. The rich, red, pasty earth supported a rather dense growth of coarse grass, Cenchrus platyacanthus, but after a dozen steps I shifted back, in preference, to the terrible piles of shifting lava disks, for each clump of pseudo-grass gave off at a touch a host of seeds, barbed and rebarbed, and the effect on clothes and skin was like a hundred fishhooks. When one of these seeds had worked inside the clothing, it meant blood from fingers and body to pull it clear, while one or more spines usually broke off, to work their vengeance at some later time. Never have I known a worse country for forced marches.
And here is a story of romantic tragedy and unrequited love between two Tropidurus lizards:
While waiting for it to turn sideways, a big male crawled between my feet and nodded frantically to a scarlet-throated female sunning herself on a bit of lava. He crept a little nearer, nodded again, whereupon the lady lizard rose as high as possible on all four legs, making them look like straight little sticks, arched her body, blew herself up with air until she lost all semblance to a lizard, and turning her head slowly, spat upon her admirer. He turned, nonchalantly caught a fly, and sadly made his way elsewhere. Never have I seen such a sudden transformation or a more unmistakable indication of disposition.
After Indefatigable, the group visits the islands of Eden and Guy Fawkes, very nearby. Here Beebe rescues a swallow fledgling having a very bad day, then gets stalked by two crabs. And he has a rather insulting incident with a couple sea-lions:
Suddenly I got a tremendous shock as I felt a soft, warm, rubber-like substance press against my hands. I leaped back and at that instant a baby seal rose directly in front of me, treading water with his hind flippers, while his front mittened fingers were folded funnily across his breast. He looked at me with all his soul, and forthwith broke into a loud, raucous wail. A deep roar sounded from the other side of a barrier of huge boulders, and instantly there appeared, swiftly swimming and banking sharply on the turn, a mother sea-lion and two more infants. She saw me at once and her fear died so instantly that it was not wholly complimentary. She might have explained it, "That thing, whatever it is, is not a shark, so it's all right!"
The group returned to Indefatigable and studied the water life. You notice that all forms of life, both plant and animal were of interest to Beebe. Here he describes the tiny copepod, Sapphirina. See image below:
Later we saw many more,—beautiful drifting globes of most marvelous shades of blue. In this group of copepods the eyes of the female are unusually well developed, and correlated with this, the males show all sorts of strange decorations,—brilliant colours, and elaborate plumes radiating from the various appendages. It gave an added wonder to the drifting specks of turquoise to realize that even in their small life there might be competition, rivalry, courtship and choice.
It doesn't take long for the group to realize they have a problem and that is lack of water. They were in
possession of lots of charts which supposedly pointed them toward the islands guaranteed to quench their thirst, all to no avail. (They ended up stopping at
the one island inhabited by a penal colony, called Chatham.)
And it wasn't only their thirst, but the thirst of their steamer, in need of both coal and water. In the course of "Rainbow Chasing," as the chapter is entitled, they also made unique discoveries on the islands they visited. Here Beebe describes a serious spider on Albemarle, the largest of all the islands:
Here were the same zigzag-backed spiders as elsewhere, but of the largest size and webs as thick and strong as elastic cord. With arms full of apparatus, and every pore dripping, lame and sore from our frightful climb, it was no added pleasure to have hundreds of sticky weblines across eyes and ears and face, with the spiders themselves crawling everywhere from cap to knees. I sometimes stopped, seized a single great strand, lifted it and snapped it back of my head without even nearly breaking it.
Several of the chapters were written by other members of the group. This is from one entitled The Last Raid by Ruth Rose.
We were forced to combine the roles of collectors and nature-lovers, for while our impulse was to leave such primitive perfection exactly as we found it, we had a purpose to fulfill and a commission to execute, and an overdose of sentiment would have made us fail in both.
I want to point out that numerous species were taken back quite alive and well for the Zoological Park, and many
lived long and healthy lives there.
Without a doubt, the worst and most painful chapter was the one on the Giant Tortoises, which was mostly about shipwrecked people and how they slaughtered them by the hundreds for food. I have four pet turtles, so this quite made me sick.
It is interesting how each of these islands has their own unique flora and fauna, and their own variety of landscape. The island of Seymour, was like the African Veldt:
It was South African veldt and nothing else; a great stretch of Bursera trees and cactus, grassy between, with occasional out-cropping lava. I thought to myself, it would be perfect if only an antelope were here, and at second glance there were the antelope! Seven forms were bounding swiftly along, tails up, stopping now and then to glance at me, and then on again in single file. My glasses spoiled it all, and showed of course the forms of wild goats, but even then the illusion was hard to overcome, the wide-spreading horns, at least head on, looking exactly like the horns of Grant's gazelle.
The Galápagos Islands, at least today, are quite known for their reptiles, especially the huge iguanas. Being reptiles, though, they're not noted for their superior intelligence. Here's one about a Conolophus on Seymour:
Occasionally an instance of remarkable stupidity was evident. Several times when we were busy collecting insects or preparing for lunch, a giant Conolophus would appear from somewhere, rush through our midst, and come to a sudden stop in the shade of an absurdly small bush, flopping down, and gasping and wheezing like a fat old gentleman out of breath. Here he would remain throughout all our subsequent activities, apparently assured that his huge yellow, red, black and white form was wholly concealed by the slight shadow of a few leaves.
I believe my favorite chapter was Daphne—A Crater Nursery. Here, Beebe and Co. discovered an enormous nesting ground for blue-footed boobies inside the huge central crater. Amazingly, this one was easy to descend, so Beebe got to study the boobies and other species that lived in this secret place. One of these, a particularly wily gecko, Phyllodactylus daphnensis, was able to shed its tale if it got caught.
With all the speed of which I was capable I grasped at it, but a fraction of a second after my hand reached the little creature, it had vanished, while its tail leaped and twisted and danced madly about on the lava. Carefully reversing the slab again, I espied the gecko, self-possessed, quiet, calmly watching my next move, just as if one half of himself were not twisting and curling nearby, lost to him forever, dying its own death. Never will I become accustomed to the strange detached frenzy which inspires the dying of this lizardless tail—a frenzy of motion which must so often attract and hold the attention of an enemy while the owner escapes. Already the eight little muscles had drawn together, without the loss of even a single drop of blood, and Phyllodactylus daphnensis would soon sprout and develop a new tail, ready in its turn to foil any attacking scientist or hawk—I can imagine no other enemy on this isolated crater.
The other chapter I really enjoyed was Tower—An Island Sanctuary, and all the entertaining stories. The most
amusing was the tale of a twig, which is too long to quote, but is about a tiny twig that is stolen, fought over and lost by a series of numerous birds.
The book also includes the true story of a shipwrecked New York taxi-driver, and a long chapter, written by Ruth Rose of the amazing history of explorers who landed on the Galápagos Islands, mostly by accident, with varying degrees of success or horror. The last, very short chapter explores some theories on the origin of the islands.
In all, if you can bear the animal killing, most of the book is very entertaining and educational. I have already downloaded the other books by Beebe available from Project Gutenberg as free eBooks. Below are some of the plants and animals found on the island. Here is a website that provides a good listing of the species found on these islands called A Guide To The Galapagos Islands Animals.
Galápagos Land Iguana, Isabela Island
Flora of the Galápagos Islands
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