On North Seymour Island, where the Pacific winds were blowing sand into the faces of the giant land tortoises, I was transfixed by an age-old story. Boy meets girl; boy asks girl to dance; boy suffers agonising insecurity while waiting for girl to answer. Would it be heartbreak or passion, or sexy moves or the old brush-off in the world of the blue-footed boobies?
Half of the world’s population of blue-footed boobies live on the Galapágos Islands, Darwin’s evolutionary Eden. It is believed that the bird gets its name from the Spanish word ‘bobo’, which means fool or stupid. The Spanish had obviously seen them dance.
In the booby world, attraction is all about blue feet, and booby dancing is all a question of footwork. I watched a male booby sidle up to a likely-looking female. He seemed a shy, ‘aw-shucks’ kind of guy… the booby equivalent of a prairie farmer, perhaps. Swaying back and forth to some old Hank Williams tune in his head, he stood hopefully in front of the female. Not quite brave enough to catch her eye, he would lift his bright blue feet, one and then the other: left, right, left. It was a slow motion line dance for one.
But what was she thinking? Did she think those feet were the booby equivalent of 100 acres and a brand-new pickup? Or of a six pack and buttocks you can bounce quarters on? Or maybe of a charming smile and big bedroom eyes? Or was she thinking those were the feet of a no-hoper, whose idea of an evening out was a guano-spattered rock and a shared mackerel?
On the Galapagos Islands it is easy to become obsessed with sexual selection, the Handmaiden to evolution. From Isla Darwin in the north to Española in the south, the islands are a case study in different strategies to cope with what Darwin’s successors call ‘the biological imperative’: the need to be selected. Even an Ibiza club at 3 am is not as focused on coupling.
“The natural history of these islands is eminently curious”, Darwin wrote, with Victorian understatement. Their isolation – 1,000 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador – has meant that many species have taken a unique evolutionary path on the Galapágos. 95 per cent of the reptiles, 50 per cent of the birds, 80 per cent of the insects and 20 per cent of the fish exist nowhere else in the world. With the further advantage of species differentiation between the islands of the group, you have an enclosed laboratory for the study of the origin of species.
The flight across the Pacific from the coast of Ecuador takes two hours. When the islands finally appear on the burnished surface of the ocean, there is a moment of disappointment. The Galapágos may have a Biblical resonance as an explanation of life on earth, but they are no Garden of Eden. From the air it was a forlorn, unpromising landscape. The volcanic rock looked as fertile as the moon.
Down at the harbour, I encountered the first of the Galapágos revelations. To get to my boat I had to pick my way over three sprawling sea lions snoozing on the dock in the mid-afternoon sun; they were as tame as family pets, opening a sleepy eye to check me out as I tiptoed past.
More than the strange diversity of creatures, this is the fascination of the Galapágos – the astonishing tameness of all its animals. For millennia, these islands have had no land predators. The result is its creatures exist in an Edenic innocence. “The pelicans and sea lions look in our faces as if we had no right to intrude on their solitude”, wrote Captain Byron in the 18th century. “The small birds are so tame that they hop upon our feet.” On every island, it is the same – wild animals carry on their daily chores while astonished visitors stare at them from a few feet away.
A week’s cruise in the Galapágos will offer scores of such close encounters. On Genovesa Island, I strolled through colonies of sea birds so numerous and so tame that I needed to be careful not to trod on them. Boobies, swallow tailed gulls, frigate birds, night herons, vampire finches (they drink the blood of the boobies), and red-billed tropic birds were nesting among the scrub bush in their thousands, oblivious to the close attentions of the paparazzi.
The star turns were the Magnificent Frigate Birds. On the wing, sailing on high thermals, they are one of the great sights of the Pacific. Among the bushes on Genovesa, where they were desperately trying to pull, they are more pathetic than elegant. Male frigates attract mates with their engorged neck pouches. It takes them about half an hour to get it up, and it lasts about an hour before they are flaccid again, time enough hopefully for the girls to get an eyeful. It is all about size, of course. The bigger the red inflated pouch, the better their chances.
On Fernandina, the black volcanic shore rock, was covered with a couple of hundred marine iguanas, bundled on top of one another like puppies. Darwin found them “disgusting”. On land they don’t do much; the chief sign of life is when they sneeze great goblets of salty snot on one another.
With their wrinkled hides, marine iguanas all seemed spectacularly old, until I caught sight of a giant land tortoise lumbering through the long grass like a refugee from the Jurassic ages. The species is 15 million years older than the islands themselves, and most individuals look at least half that age. Mating has always been a problem with these guys. Down at the Darwin Research Station, where they are trying to save various subspecies from oblivion, they have resorted to showing tortoise porn on plasma screens to the geriatric males… There has been no measurable rise in their libido.
But for all the fascination of the islands, it is the sea that offers the greatest enchantments. My cruise offered opportunities for snorkelling every day. In green, subaqueous light, sea turtles swam in elegant slow motion above a sandy bottom decorated with star fish. A torpedo-shaped penguin passed, a single flick of those stubby wings generating astonishing acceleration. Manta rays, 10 feet across, floated through shafts of watery sunlight. A couple of cormorants sped by, so intent on their mating rituals that they almost bowled me over. One afternoon, off San Cristobal, I acquired a sea lion stalker. He followed me round the bay, peering at me through my mask, his nose almost rubbing the glass.
Sea lions have an exhausting routine when it comes to mating. The ambition of every male is to become ‘Beach Master’, dominating an entire section of beach in order to mate with all the females. Male sea lions live fast and die young. Few guys manage more than a couple of weeks as Beach Master before they wear themselves out; their life spans are said to be almost 10 years shorter than the average female’s. At some point these guys will obviously evolve into Southern Californian surfers, ticking off their conquests on their waxed boards.
Beach master sea lions are the evolutionary counterpoint to the blue-footed booby, whose shy, gentle approach is a prelude to a lifetime of monogamous loyalty and shared child care. On North Seymour the male booby’s dance routine was hotting up. Struggling to shed his inhibitions, he was throwing his head back to point his beak and tail skyward, while remembering to keep his blue feet on prominent display. He looked like embarrassing Uncle Freddie at the family wedding after he had been at the punch bowl.
Finally, with all his best moves exhausted, the booby stood gazing at his blue feet, struggling for conversation. It was a heartbreaking sight. The female looked at him for a moment, then turned her back and waddled away, leaving our hero crestfallen, contemplating the long flight back to the lonely homestead.
We have all been there. Life is not fair. You have either got great blue feet, or you haven’t. In the lottery of natural selection, that is all that matters. The Galapágos may be a unique insight into the origin of the species, but it is no place for romantics.
Stanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.