The author was the leader of the Swedish Deep-Sea Expedition, which on its circumnavigation spent some time in Galápagos. This page presents Chapter 7 of his Westward Ho with the Albatross.
Right on the Equator, in the middle of the tropical zone, where the sun at noon pours down a vertical torrent of flaming heat, one finds the Enchanted Isles. There, by a freak of nature, a spring-like coolness prevails, as on a sunny day in May in far-off Sweden. The cause of this mild temperature is the ocean, or rather the cool water which rises to the surface to the south of the Galapagos group, raised by the mighty sweep of the Humboldt Current. This upwelling water is rich in nutrient salts which give rise to an abundance of marine life, plankton organisms, fish, sea-birds and even sea lions, lavishly nourished by the bounties of the ocean. The giant tortoises, laying their eggs on the sandy beaches of the islands, are now almost exterminated. In bygone centuries they made the group a favorite resort of the desperadoes of the high seas, the wild buccaneers. These loyal pirates named the different islands after members or retainers of the Royal House of Stuart. From this base the terrible Morgan§ set out on his cruises, ravaging the prosperous city of old Panama and laying waste other harbors along the isthmus. Some centuries before him an intrepid seafarer among the Incas of Peru, called Yupangui, is believed to have reached the islands in a primitive ship. He described “mountains in flames” probably identical with the volcanoes of the Galapagos Islands, some of which have been active quite recently.
§ Morgan never visited Galápagos, and attacked Panama after hiking across the isthmus from the Caribbean side.
We of the Swedish Deep-Sea Expedition had been charged by our specialist on the Pacific islands flora, Professor Skottsberg of Goteborg, to send a landing party ashore on one of the islands. He would have preferred the largest of the whole group, Albemarle, where he wanted us to collect indigenous plants high up on the hills. Meanwhile the Albatross was to work to the south of the islands, investigating the upwelling water, its myriads of plankton and the deposits on the bottom.
Our first call was on the southwestern island, Chatham,§ where we had to report to the Ecuadorian authorities. They were represented by a pleasant and rather shy young officer, Teniente de Fragata, who had recently taken charge of the score of soldiers stationed there. He readily gave us permission to spend several days on the uninhabited James Island, but warned us not to make any landing on Albemarle. This island was then occupied by deported criminals, of which some were notorious desperadoes from the mainland. They were expected to cut each others' throats in the course of about two or three years; until then the island was not considered a healthy spot for peaceful visitors. The American naturalist and author, Ainslie Conway, whom we had the great luck to meet on Chatham, warned us in still more emphatic terms to leave Albemarle alone. With Mrs. Conway, he had spent several years in the Galapagos, beginning with James Island and then settling on Floreana. After World War II the Conways had returned to James Island, until they were evacuated to Chatham by order of the Ecuadorian authorities.§§ The official reason given was that they were in imminent danger of having their throats cut by visitors from Albemarle. Conway himself scoffed at the idea and strongly encouraged us to visit James Island, the peculiar charm of which had completely captivated him.
§ Chatham (now, Isla San Cristóbal) is the south-eastern island.
§§ The Conways were evacuated to Isla Floreana.
Besides excellent information and advice, the Conways presented us with oranges of rare fragrancy, grown on Chatham. Teniente de Fragata, who had evidently been flattered by the snapshots we had taken of him and his awe-inspiring guard, gave me a few delicious pineapples grown in the interior of the island. We also photographed him against a memorial bust of the great Charles Darwin. The Darwin Society of London had recently set it up in commemoration of the young Darwin's famous visit to the Galapagos group in the Beagle in 1835.§
§ The Darwin bust was set up in 1935 by the American Victor Wolfgang von Hagen, with support from the American Museum of Natural History.
The shores and the lower levels of the islands suffer from regular droughts, and are almost desert-like. On the hill tops and the hill slopes there is more rain, which supports a not-too-abundant vegetation. Our visit happened to coincide with the height of the dry season, when the cold, upwelling water has its greatest effect. The surface temperature is then reduced to 60 F., or even less, as compared with 80 F. or more prevailing in the surface of the equatorial seas. Consequently much of the vegetation was dormant, the rest being scantily supplied with moisture from wet nocturnal fogs, known as garua. From a botanical point of view our visit was, therefore, not fortunately timed. But this adverse circumstance did not prevent the leader of our landing party, Dr. Eriksson, from getting a fair collection of rare Galapagos plants.
Early on a September morning, five of us were put ashore from the Albatross motor-launch in the James Bight on the southern side of the island. Pitch-black lava rocks alternated with beaches of snow-white sand. Numerous scarlet spots scattered over the rocks turned out to be large crabs, Grapsus grapsus, which, at our approach, fled with incredible swiftness into crevasses and holes in the lava. Basking in the sun were lazy though formidable-looking sea lizards; they resembled dragons pictured in fairy tales. A sea lion, startled from his siesta, slid out of a cave and regarded us with astonished eyes.
We soon found the deserted site of Conway's former house. It took considerably more time to find our way to their freshwater spring, the only water supply on the island during the rainless season. Our walk there over sand and gravel, alternating with a natural pavement of hard volcanic tuff, and with the mighty “Sugarloaf” as a background, had an indescribable charm. Scattered trees with white twigs reminded us of a Swedish orchard in early spring, when lime is used to prevent ravages by the “frost butterfly.” Between the trees were green shrubs, miraculously in flower, and fine-leaved acacias in which small birds were singing jubilantly.
The fearlessness of the birds was remarkable. We had many occasions for surprises of this kind during our visit to James Island. The small finches Darwin described, with beaks of varying size and shape, with plumes of different shades from light gray to black, were among the boldest. Sometimes an inquisitive finch perched on one's shoulder and started a twittering conversation. Perfectly delightful were the small Galapagos doves with rose-colored breasts, coral-red feet and turquoise rings around their eyes. They crowded about us, especially on our visits to the spring, which we kept well covered, when not in use, with a sheet of corrugated iron as a protection against wild goats and asses. As soon as the birds saw us approach the water, they came in flocks for a drink and a bath. We obliged them as far as we considered compatible with the strict economy we had to observe in using the precious water.
Our five days on James Island were the thirstiest I have ever spent. Fetching our daily supply of water to our distant camp from Conway's spring was quite a strenuous undertaking.
Soon we were ready to march with our kit, including tents, hammocks, clothes, guns, cameras, cooking-gear, provisions and water, toward the foot of the northern hills, where our base camp was pitched. Conway had warned us against the intervening river of pahoehoe lava, which we had to traverse, and which he described as perfectly awful.
Our first encounter with this volcanic product was disheartening. It resembled a choppy sea suddenly transformed into black and very brittle stone with a curiously twisted and distorted surface. Where blocks had broken loose, or where a crevasse had opened, the color of the lower layers varied from soot-black through a dirty brownish yellow to a color reminding one unpleasantly of putrefying flesh. The worst of it was that the lava fragments, sharp-edged like crushed glass, cut into the soles of our sturdy boots and reduced our rate of progress to intolerable slowness. Add to this a vertical flood of pitiless sunlight, burning neck and shoulders, which were weighted down by our heavy marching-kit. As one of the party remarked, the ghastly lava river gave the impression that here the devil must have been making taffy for his offspring and had allowed the pot to boil over. Nearly exhausted, we finally reached the opposite shore of the lava stream. There we slung our hammocks from trees growing close to a miniature crater. Its jagged crests were crowned with giant Opuntias, the cacti characteristic of the Galapagos Islands. In a narrow cleft we discovered a dainty little owl. In spite of its protests, it was removed to the light of day and made to pose before the camera, after which it was set free. We considered the incident closed, but not so the owl. Later in the evening, as we were cooking our supper on an improvised grate built from lava rocks, the owl paid us a return visit. He flew away but soon returned with a second little owl, and both stayed quite close to us, obviously deeply interested in our culinary preparations. Three of us devoted the following day to collecting plants and taking photographs. Meanwhile the two young apprentices from the Albatross were sent back over the lava river to fetch more water from the spring. We who took the opposite direction toward the hills were at first delighted with the agreeable flatness of the ground. Numerous wild asses and goats fled at our approach and we almost stumbled over a great sow. Surrounded by her numerous offspring, she grunted her strong disapproval at being disturbed, and, with them, promptly disappeared into the thicket. Much less shy than these wild descendants of domestic animals were two large birds of prey. They were magnificent Galapagos buzzards, one of them very dark, the other a speckled brown. They followed us from tree to tree during our wanderings and cheerfully posed before the cameras. When I took the liberty of poking one of them in the chest with a long stick, he suffered it patiently; afterward he carefully rearranged his ruffled feathers without moving from his perch.
During our climb up the steep hillside we came on the roughest ground I have ever met: a very steep slope with scattered lava blocks, treacherously giving way under our feet, slippery stems of fallen trees and prickly shrubs, which made the climb strenuous in the extreme. Finally we reached the summit and were rewarded by a magnificent view of the nearest islands. Albemarle, shifting in color from rose to black and, further to the south, Indefatigable Island, just visible as a blue shade on the glittering sea. By contrast, the landscape immediately before us was decidedly sinister. The dark lava river in all its horror cut a broad streak across the surrounding brushwood and the scanty verdure. On its other side a grayish-red crater rose abruptly skyward. Afterward we found that it contained a small lake of salt brine surrounded by brilliantly green succulent herbs. The view before us made an unforgettable picture of blue sea, black volcanic wilderness and early spring charm.
The following day my son and I volunteered as water-carriers. I was imprudent enough to go around the “Sugarloaf” on the land side, grossly underestimating the distance we had to walk. Several hours later than I expected we arrived with parched throats at Conway's spring, drank our fill and replenished our water-bottles. In our absence our comrades collected botanical specimens and tried their luck at shooting wild pigs. They bagged a sow and two suckling pigs. One of the latter was roasted on a spit over the fire, and was consumed with relish.
Our last day on James Island we devoted to our friends the sea lions. They were enjoying their siesta on shelves of lava rocks overhanging the water. Deep clefts filled with emerald-green sea-water, spanned by natural bridges of lava, ran in from the shore. The ocean swell thundered in and out through subterranean channels. By friendly prodding we convinced the sleepy sea lions that the time had come for a dip. Once they had taken the plunge, they rose to the occasion and gave us a brilliant display of swimming and diving stunts. Sea lions are born actors and are eager for applause. The majority of our landing party soon followed their example and bathed, surrounded by the sea lions, who evidently considered the whole thing a great joke.
With pangs of real regret we saw on our return hike the stately hull and the four masts of the Albatross rise over the horizon on her way to fetch us from our island. We had had a rather strenuous time, and had suffered from a chronic thirst, but we were loath to reembark. Unshaven and unwashed—the scarcity of water had made our ablutions perfunctory—we were brought on board. There an excellent lunch and ice-cold beer consoled us for our Paradise Lost.