24 Hours in the Galapagos (Hypothetical Monday)

Brendan Murtha
March 3, 2020

We’ve been here in the Galapagos for over three weeks now, and some could say a routine has been established. Weekdays have a methodical rhythm, soothed by the omnipresent crashing of tropical surf, and so for this post, I thought I’d try and capture that rhythm through a series of everyday anecdotes. Enjoy.

Let me set the scene. It's Monday in the sleepy town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal Island, Ecuador. The high will be 85 degrees (Fahrenheit) and humid. There is a chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon, but no one seems to pay any attention.

7:30. I wake up on top of my sheets, having thrown them off in the middle of the night. It’s a bit hot here. The ceiling fan in my bedroom is turned up in full, quaking in its holdfast, and the sounds of construction from next door mingle with the crying of a baby somewhere. No worries. I sleep like an absolute infant here– days and days of direct sun and frequent late nights really knock me out.

I go downstairs for breakfast and coffee, greeting my host mother in the kitchen. The windows are thrown wide open, and I can see the pacific over a clutter of unfinished rooftops and palm fronds. Cheese empanadas and a fried egg? Delicious. My family members drift in and out, the little kids already heading out to play.

8:30. Bucket hat and shades on. Sunscreen applied to the tip of my nose. My backpack has all the essentials: bathing suit, mask and snorkel, binoculars, camera, notebooks and reading material. I’ll likely be out all day, returning home only after dark, so I wave the family goodbye, high-five my little host sister, and thread my way down the several flights of tiled stairs to the street. Even at 8:30, the sun beats down with a kick. I pass my local tiendas, the skate park and satellite dishes, and get passed by the local kids whipping their motorized scooters. My flip-flops clip-clop as I walk down the hill towards the waterfront, only 10-or-so minutes from the house. I opt to walk along the boardwalk instead of through town to school, even if it adds a few extra minutes– I check some lagoons for migrating shorebirds and prefer the views regardless. 

9:30. The AC in class is heavenly. Everyone is tanner with each passing day, hair tousled by salt spray, and our professor is wearing flip flops too. We discuss the paper we were assigned to read the night before: what are the genetic underpinnings to the flightlessness of Phalacrocorax harrisi (Flightless Cormorant, a Galapagos endemic)? What selective pressures might have driven such evolution? How conserved is the evolution of flightlessness across different bird taxa? New terms appear on the whiteboard; we copy them down. It turns out that no one really knows, but this is a hot topic of research– cue some brainstorming. People get up from their chairs to sketch out ideas, and animated chatter ensues. At the end of class, we quickly run over the schedule for the rest of the week: we have to be at the dock early on Friday to catch our boat to Santa Cruz. Noted.

12:30. We get lunch at our usual spot, the small restaurant across from school on the beach. That’s right, yeah– school here faces the water. While you’re highly encouraged to wash the sand off your feet and put real clothes on before entering the building, not everyone does, and the USFQ San Cristobal campus often feels inseparable from Playa Mann next door. 

This little un-named restaurant serves a $5 lunch special and is a favorite of the students. We know the staff, they know us, and the deal includes fresh juice (unlimited refills), soup and an entree– usually something involving fish, although the vegetarians make do. I splurge and get a cafe helado, creamy and ice-cold, frothing on my mustache. The sun sparkles on the water, and now that it’s the afternoon the beach begins to fill up— tourists and locals alike laying out towels, goggling at the lounging sea lions, snorkeling around the lava rocks. A Blue-footed Booby flying over the moored fishing boats offshore suddenly banks, catching a piscine flash, and plummets like a harpoon several meters to the water’s surface. It disappears, wings tucked tight against its body, only to remerge with a ruffle of feathers a moment later and the fish wobbling defiantly in its bill. The little kids bobbing only meters away in the surf don’t seem to notice, or at least pay the bird no mind– boobies are common here (no, not like that— get your mind out of the gutter, sick bastard). 

2:30. I do homework in the library, with friends. Notebooks are splayed out, computer screens open, people coming and going. I keep checking my watch and then looking through the windows to stare longingly at the sand. If I get through this assignment, I can swim. We reassure each other. Evening plans are made. The WiFi crashes. Oh well. We head to the beach. My assignment was pretty much done anyway. 

3:30. Marcelo the ice cream man bikes up, pulling his Wonka-esque cart not far behind. The cohort that has assembled at the edge of the shade– allowing some people to sunbathe and others to curl up like cave creatures with a book or guitar– disperses in response. A line forms on the street, people getting out of the water and dripping their way up the beach. I’ll wait a few minutes before I make my pilgrimage, I decide, opting to wrap up the excellent conversation a few of us were having instead. We comment on the dismal state of U.S. politics and dare to dream of a brighter future while feeling markedly removed from it all— what to do with ourselves? A San Cristobal Mockingbird, endemic to this island (i.e., found nowhere else in the world) hops tentatively along the edge of our pack, checking for openings. We have no food to give; it chirps angrily and flights to perch on the edge of the bar. 

4:30. Basketball in the park. Sweat beads and pools and drips from our fingertips. We take a water break; someone volunteers to get cold Gatorade from the nearest store. Reggaeton blasts from an open window nearby, and the slightest suggestion of a breeze whispers through gaps in the tangled brush. We gasp for breath, shoes scuff baking asphalt, the sun beginning to sink lower in the sky.

5:30. With the heat, there’s no wonder the dock is so crowded today. Locals in all matter of undress backflip and somersault over the edge, splashing and whooping. We pile our stuff in a corner and join them, hopping from the lip to the flat top of an adjacent piling– where the pelicans usually sit– before launching out into the abyss. The water is a deep blue-green, soft peaks and valleys like a blanket, and it breaks in a nebula of foam and bubbles. Somehow it seems to get more perfect with each passing day, always the desired temperature. The sky takes on new color, the fringes of the clouds glowing like warm honey, and looking up from the water lithe silhouettes catapult overhead, dives and cannonballs, all matter of contortions. Someone shrieks as a curious Sea Lion hauls itself out on the lower platform, scattering kids who jump back into the water. The animal chortles and does the same, popping up a few meters away with whiskers shaking in amusement. Soon the sun is hanging low like a ripe fruit, falling fast, and in the brilliant glow, Frigatebirds chase each other like pterodons around the masts of sailboats. A shark-fin cuts the water a few hundred yards out, much too far for any concern, and we gather dripping wet on the dock’s tip to catch the day's end. I’ve only missed one sunset since I’ve been here, the product of a misplaced nap, and I intend on catching every subsequent sunset til the day we leave. One of my major goals for the semester is to finally catch the green flash. No pressure.

Local boys climb up the industrial crane used to load cargo onto boats and jump; their bodies arc gracefully through the sherbet sky. We definitely never, ever join them. No way. That would be dangerous. As the inky eyelid of a night sky begins to close overhead and color drains off the western horizon like paint running in a rainstorm, the mooring lights of the harbor’s boats– fore, aft, atop the mast like streetlamps– turn on. This is our cue. It’s time to head home for dinner. Laughing, loving, we break off in small groups, neighborhood gangs who now trace the route home with barely a glance from each other’s beaming faces. 

7:30. I eat dinner with the host family, who are excited to hear about my day. I summarize the usual, and they tease me for my perpetually sunburnt face. I don’t mind. I’m aware I look ridiculous. Dinner might be a fresh ceviche with lime and popcorn, or a plate of rice and chicken, or something resembling a taco bar. It’s all delicious. I refill my glass several times from the huge pitcher of cold juice on the table, a different juice each day. A movie I haven’t seen in 10 years is playing on the TV, dubbed badly in Spanish. The kids love it. They lay on the couch cushions and giggle.

8:30. Ok, now I really have to get that assignment done. I sit at the kitchen table, next to an open window, and listen to the sounds of the night. Dogs bark, people laugh from their porches, music and surf mingle in the distance. Geckos chirp (yes, chirp) from some nearby wall– masters of disguise. For the first time all day, the breeze is hearty and refreshing, and I soak it in. I review my notes and start writing

10:30. I know it’s late. I’m tired. But I’ve actually finished my work, and I’m going back to the beach. We’re gonna listen to some music, drink a couple of beers, watch the stars rotate overhead. The moon is a Cheshire-cat sliver in obsidian skies. I’ll sleep when I’m dead (or on the beach tomorrow afternoon). You never know what you might see out there.

Hope this took ya’ll places. See you again soon.

Brendan

Brendan Murtha

<p>Hi everyone! My name is Brendan, and I'm a junior at Bowdoin College (Brunswick, ME) studying Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology. I'm passionate and curious about all things natural history related, and although my main focus has always been birds, I am just as likely to be found photographing dragonflies or catching snakes as I am craning my neck to look at the skies. These interests have also led me down paths of human ecology, conservation, and all things political, and I enjoy exploring such topics in my writing, photography, and music. I'm super excited to be part of the GAIAS program this semester, and hope to capture some of the magic through my posts.</p>

Home university:
Bowdoin College
Hometown:
Norwalk, CT
Major:
Ecology
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