By Jennie Lay
Extinction is a pandemic. It’s not just species we’re losing every day. We’re also abandoning quiet spaces and undisturbed places. Perhaps saddest of all, as we surrender these finite treasures, we are losing our attention span for deep appreciation of nature.
The Galapagos Islands might be the single best love-at-first-sight solution for what I call “complacent nature deficit disorder.” These are islands of instant gratification, where you’re almost guaranteed to encounter the cerulean foot of a blue-footed booby, the Godzillalike gaze of a marine iguana and the lumbering girth of a giant tortoise.
Plunked on a remote string of volcanoes in the middle of the Humboldt Current and surrounded by some of the planet’s most animated and eye-catching animals, it’s hard not to reassess your relationship with nature. Underwater and 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, blowing bubbles with a sea lion is the best possible way to fall in love with the earth.
Many compelling conversations transpired on the deck of the Nemo III catamaran during my live-aboard hiking and kayaking adventure in the Galapagos. Pondering the existential nature of technology, our Nat Hab expedition leader, Roberto Plaza, made a poignant observation: technology is changing people and how they engage with nature. During his long career as a naturalist, he has noticed a trend: the more we make digital photos, the less we truly see.
Are we surrendering curiosity to get the shot?
In the wilderness, full sensory engagement is what connects the dots. This is what Darwin did in the Galapagos. He played witness to the tiniest details that differentiated finches from island to island. And in those little brown birds he untangled the origin of species.
Do we have too many tools? Too many pressures to connect? What are we scared of missing?
There is always a sacrifice. We opt to miss natural wonders when we fiddle with a camera, Instagram an image or Facebook an experience. By contrast, it’s only virtual “likes” surrendered when we stop documenting and start listening to the clacking of waved albatross beaks, as they fence for their mates, the rustle of a blue-footed booby turning its egg, and the tinkle of Sally Lightfoot crab claws on lava rock.
Advice for the intrepid: don’t miss the enchantment. Some of my most memorable Galapagos wildlife encounters happened while I wasn’t taking photos. These images dwell in my mind:
A circus of leaping baby sea lions greets me in Floreana’s shallows. While the water laps my toes on that white sand beach, a sassy black-tip reef shark slinks back and forth with its fin above water like it’s auditioning for Jaws IV. Tropicbirds swoop in and out of lava cliffs to gain just the right angle for entry, and then settle in with long tail feathers waving in the wind. Cathedral and prickly pear cacti create sweeping skylines at sunset. As I ride the Zodiac bow at sunrise off Santiago, a manta ray flies from the sea just a few feet before my eyes.
I float around with more moss-covered sea turtles than I can count in Post Office Bay, and then paddle through the break with green sea turtles and spotted eagle rays riding the current near a red mangrove. On Santa Cruz, lap-swimming marine iguanas intersect our kayak route across a placid inlet.
Underwater, the sea lions twirl, flip and flash their toothy grins in my mask daily—and I am smitten with the puppies of the sea. During a thrilling moment off Bartolome, I’m torn between the Galapagos penguin ahead, the sea lion approaching stage left and a sleek 7-foot shark cruising past my fin.
Everywhere, I am mesmerized by sea stars that are leggy and blue or flaming orange-and-red.
During a mystical night at Natural Habitat’s Tortoise Camp, my posse is serenaded by two guitars and a cheese grater, then embraced by warm conversation around a crackling fire. The only greater elation than walking past moonlit 500-pound tortoises en route to my dreamy tree house? Discovering an abandoned Galapagos tortoise egg the next morning—and inspecting this wild treasure up close.
In many ways, Google makes our world big. But if wild places are only experienced virtually—from your city, your office, your phone—the world is, in fact, small. To connect nature’s big dots, you have to step unplugged into authentic wilderness in magical places like the Galapagos.
Author and activist Terry Tempest Williams is keen to remind us, “Beauty is a resource.”
Nature is the pure essence of that beauty. Use it wisely and engage with it wildly. Protect it with ferocity and admire it intimately. Opt for reality over virtual reality. Smell the salt and taste the garúa mist. Watch opportunistic frigatebirds ride the breeze and nesting Nazca boobies dominate a cliff. Immerse in the silvery bait ball.
Curiosity sustains us. If we pay attention, nature will nurture our connection. And if binge watching is your game, nothing puts on a more irresistible show than the Galapagos.
All photos © Jennie Lay