175 years and a few months ago a landing party rowed into this little bay. Their ship, a small, storm-weathered British sloop was anchored in the distance. As they approached the shore, a lanky, suntanned, salt-encrusted 26-year-old stepped out with a splash and clambered up onto a jumble of broken basalt. Charles Darwin had arrived in Galápagos.

I can’t quite believe I took this picture. It was just a few months ago—October 23rd, 2010—and I was accompanying, as a science guide of sorts, a group of British teenagers whose reward for winning the Wellcome Trust’s Survival Rivals competition was a trip to Galápagos.

We had arrived, like most visitors to Ecuador’s ‘Enchanted Islands’, not by boat but by airplane, landing on a slender airstrip—once part of a U.S. military base—on the island of Baltra, just north of Santa Cruz, the principal inhabited island in the archipelago and our first base of activities there.

Darwin didn’t visit Santa Cruz. So, as wonderful as it was (and it was) to finally see the plants and animals of Galápagos, so many of which are found nowhere else on Earth, to visit the famous Charles Darwin Research Station, and to explore the volcanic highlands and coastlines, I felt the trip wouldn’t be complete until I had visited some of the places Darwin had been.

Darwin set foot on just four of the 18 main Galápagos islands: San Cristobal (then Chatham), Floreana (then Charles), Isabela (then Albemarle) and Santiago (then James). Other members of the Beagle’s crew visited some of the other islands on their trips aboard the Beagle’s yawl, which was often sent out for days or weeks at a time, doubling the crew’s surveying capacity. Surveying, after all, was the reason for the voyage, not, as it is so easy to imagine, to carry a young Charles Darwin on a trip that would somehow inevitably lead to his world-changing work, On the Origin of Species.

Labeled satellite photo of the Galápagos archipelago. Source: Wikimedia Commons

During our week based on Santa Cruz, we took day trips by boat to two of the four islands Darwin explored—Floreana and San Cristobal—and then moved our base to a third—Isabela—for the last four days of our trip.

Using marked-up photocopies of the Galápagos section of Charles Darwin’s notebooks from the voyage of the Beagle, I made every effort to follow in Darwin’s footsteps where possible, and to keep my eyes and mind wide open when I did.

I’m not sure what I expected to happen, but when we visited those sites—Black Beach and the cave-pocked highlands of Floreana:

...the cove under Frigatebird Hill on San Cristobal (where I took the photo at the top of this post), and the enomrous caldera of Sierra Negra, on Isabela, which Darwin saw from the Beagle but didn’t climb:

—and when I saw those remarkable plants and animals:

...I finally internalized something I thought I already knew. Galápagos does not hold any eureka moments for the prepared mind of the scientist-traveler, neither in its highland mists, nor amid its cactus forests nor beneath its unexpectedly cold waves. Though the mockingbirds are tame, they do not wave little flags that say, "Look at me! I’m different from those ones on that island over there!" Though the tortoises are enormous, and the differences between the species noticeable, the concept of natural selection is not written out in neat script on their carapaces for the reading.

No, it turns out you have to work at it. Even in a place like this, where evolution is made plain like nowhere else on Earth, and even when you have the benefit of 175 years of hindsight and a copy of On the Origin of Species in your backpack, it’s still not immediately obvious. There’s just so much to look at, so many sensations to absorb, so much that’s new to your experience, you just don’t stumble over evolution the way you think you might.

And yet somehow a young Darwin sat on the deck of the Beagle as she sailed away from Galápagos bound for Tahiti, looked closely at the mockingbirds he had collected, reflected on what he’d learned of tortoise shells from the governor on Floreana, and saw something important. Something that would change our understanding of the world, and our place in it, forever.



Gordon Chancellor and John van Wyhe eds. with the assistance of Kees Rookmaaker. Charles Darwin's notebooks from the voyage of the Beagle.[Foreword by Richard Darwin Keynes]. Cambridge: University Press, 2009.

Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter and David Hosking. Wildlife of Galápagos, 2nd Edition. HarperCollins, 2007.

K. Thalia Grant and Gregory B. Estes. Darwin in Galápagos: Footsteps to a new world. Princeton University Press, 2009. (This book is an indispensable companion for anyone planning to visit Galápagos with an interest Darwin’s travels there.—KJ)

Photo credit: All photos except the map by Karen James, 2010, and licensed under the Creative Commons.

About the Author: Dr Karen James recently repatriated to the USA from the UK where she was a postdoctoral research scientist at London’s Natural History Museum. During 2008/9, she mobilized a portfolio of science projects for the Museum’s Darwin200 campaign. In March, she will begin a fellowship at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Maine, where she will engage visitors to Acadia National Park in an international campaign to amass a library of DNA sequences from plant and animal species for use in DNA-based specimen identification (‘DNA barcoding’). She will continue to serve as Director of Science for The HMS Beagle Trust, a UK charity that aims to rebuild HMS Beagle and retrace the Voyage of the Beagle. She tweets in profusion (you’ve been warned) and is determined to blow the cobwebs off of her blogging, starting with this guest post.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.