Galapagos update

By Phil Plait | August 13, 2008 1:00 pm

Galapagos Blue Footed Booby

Middle of the world to everyone!

And I do mean that literally. I am mere kilometers from the Equator, aboard the Celebrity Xpedition cruise ship, touring the Galapagos islands. Mrs. BA, The Little Astronomer, and I are here as part of the James Randi Educational Foundation’s "Amazing Adventure", a chance for nearly 100 critical thinkers, skeptics, and other reality-based folks to get together and see the world. We arrived in Quito, Ecuador on Friday, and spent the next day seeing the city and taking a look around the area. We saw some elaborate churches, visited the incredible countryside (average elevation = 3000 meters), ate lunch near a volcanic crater, and generally had a fantastic time.

The next day we flew to the Galapagos! As I write this, we’re on our third day, and I hardly know how to talk about everything that’s happened. We’ve seen fantastic wildlife — sea lions, tortoises, boobies (like the one pictured above; I got that picture the first day), frigates, albatrosses, iguanas, incredibly brightly colored crabs, and last night we saw several sharks circling the boat, attracted by our lights. We also saw a sea lion chase down and eat a trumpet fish, which was awesome.

And the skies! The other night, I saw Alpha Centauri for the first time. That was moving beyond words. It was far brighter than I expected, and obvious even to a northern-biased star gazer like myself. Just below it is Hadar, or Beta Centauri, and below that is the Southern Cross. The Cross is not quite as amazing as made out in legend due to its compact size (you can easily block it with your outstretched hand) but it’s cool to see so many bright stars so tightly configured. Also, it helps to know that the three brighter stars in the cross are all massive, and will one day blow up in titanic supernova explosions. That seriously increases the coolness factor.

I’m hoping to get up early one morning over the next few days to see the Magellanic Clouds, two companion galaxies to the Milky Way. I saw them in Australia back in 2003, and I would dearly love to see them again.

The landscape is equally fantastic. The archipelago is volcanos, similar to the Hawaiian Islands or the Canaries in the Atlantic. There are hills made from extinct volcanos everywhere; some made of tuff (compressed ash), others of cinders, and a third kind called a splatter cone, where lava sputters out of the vent and forms extremely rough but apparently fragile structures (they are the most eroded). The ecosystem has built up over the past few million years, and is now a very intricate and delicate model of evolution.

Speaking of which, I am very pleased to see how seriously the cruise line and the Ecuadoran government has taken the Galapagos as a national park of incredible importance. The impact of the tour is minimal, with well-marked paths we must take, and very well-transmitted instructions on what we can and cannot do. Not too surprisingly, the skeptics on the cruise also take these instructions seriously, and I have been pleased and proud to see how everyone has done when on the islands. As a group, skeptics know how delicate the world really is, and we want to see it in all its fantastic detail and complexity. Best of all, a portion of the money raised from the tour by Celebrity Cruises goes toward the island– educating the tourists, of course, but also maintaining the system, hiring naturalists, and funding more scientific investigation so we can understand this phenomenal place even better.

As a skeptic, I hesitate to use some words when describing such things, but it’s hard to avoid the use of the word "magical". Of course it isn’t really magical: it’s the natural world at work, with millions of years of time and many of the more vicious red-in-tooth-and-claw aspects invisible to us. But "magic" seems appropriate (especially with Randi on board). The water, the rugged land, the beautiful and awe-inspiring wildlife… this is a special place, and I’m glad that we are not only learning about it ourselves, but helping others to understand it better.


Comments (42)

  1. Thomas Siefert

    Wish I was there :-(, I was so close to signing up me and the missus, but we have (yet another) cross global relocation coming up later this year.

  2. Charles

    Phil it sounds like you are having quite the eye-opening experience. For some reason, the lyric by Crosby, Stills and Nash’s song “Southern Cross” comes to mind:

    When you see the Southern Cross for the first time,
    You understand now why you came this way,
    ‘Cause the truth you might be runnin’ from is so small,
    But it’s as big as the promise, the promise of a coming day.

    Now then, I really doubt any of you and your entourage are ‘runnin’ from the truth’ — in fact, chasing it, but the song does a wonderful job of capturing the wonder of seeing the southern sky for the first time.

    I hope you’ve made it to Española Island by now — it’s definitely one of the most unique spots on the Earth.

    Enjoy the trip!

  3. Too bad those Amazing Adventures are so expensive! Sounds like a good vacation! I’ll have to do one of these sometime.

  4. Greg in Austin

    Nice Booby! 😉

  5. Cheyenne

    Phil – Just thought you might be interested to know that the NYT’s published an Op/Ed today supporting the teaching of Evolution. While you are down on the islands that kick started it all with Darwin it should be good to know that the main stream media is still fighting the good fight.

  6. Mark

    … and that is why I don’t like NTSC video – look at the feet! The grass! The color is waaay off. Could someone turn the grass back to green and the bird’s feet back to orange? 😉

  7. Hello Phil

    I was in your footsteps exactly a year ago. Visiting Galapagos is clearly one of the highlights of my life so far. It’s nice to see a pic of a blue footed booby!

    Be sure to wear a lot of sunscreen, and I mean a lot. I burned severely when I was there, so severely that I couldn’t walk for a few days due to the pain.

    Also, be sure to see the Big Dipper upside down in the northern part of the sky, just above the horizon in the evening. It’s really strange to see the “handle” more like a bowl.

  8. Kirk

    Thanks for painting that picture for us all, Phil. Wish I was there!

  9. kuhnigget

    Also, it helps to know that the three brighter stars in the cross are all massive, and will one day blow up in titanic supernova explosions. That seriously increases the coolness factor.

    If memory serves, aren’t the brightest stars in Crux only a few hundred or so light years away? If one of them happened to go supernova a couple hundred years ago, wouldn’t we be about ready to be bathed in some pretty serious radiation round about now?

    Seriously, can someone tell me (I’m Google challenged today) what sort of dosage we’d get if, say, Hadar were to go boom?

  10. kuhnigget

    Addendum to above:

    …realizing, of course, that it would only be those filthy antipodeans that would get fried. :)

  11. Boobies!? You saw boobies!?

    *Sad that out of that brilliant description of your trip, that was the most important thing I picked up.

  12. Crux Australis

    Welcome to my world!

  13. Crux Australis

    @ kuhnigget: Hey! I just read your second post! :-p

  14. Thomas Siefert

    @ Michael L:
    You’re not alone, at first my thoughts went towards: “Zee painting of zee Fallen Madonna with Zee Big Boobies”

  15. kuhnigget

    @Crux Australis
    Err, um, I meant “filthy rich in, uh, culture and, ah, astronomical wonders, er, antipodeans. Of course.

    No worries!

  16. I’m glad you’re having such a fantastic time. I do hope that someday I’ll be able to make that trek.

  17. Davidlpf

    So how is your evolving in JREF, sounds like a great time.

  18. Phil:
    I hope you brought your green laser with you so you can point out constellations to TLA!
    If you didn’t bring binocs you can go up to the bridge and borrow a pair of theirs.
    Have a good time!

  19. OMG is that a blue-footed boobie? Did you see any blue-footed boobie babies? Hopefully not getting their brains pecked out…

    /tips hat to Julia Sweeney

  20. Keydetpiper

    What flavor of albatross did you see?

  21. kuhnigget

    Bloody seabird flavor!

  22. Davidlpf

    You said you saw a booby, so George W was there.

  23. Rachel

    My grandfather served his time there during WWII. He built a surfboard and a sailboat. He loved it. I jsut found this out when he is a wee bit too old to relate all the stories with gusto. He just laughs about it now. But man. To be there is sweetness. To be there 60 odd years ago would of been heaven.
    Very jealous you got some dark skies. Lucky is not quite the right word but you know what I mean!
    And like the others..nice booby…

  24. Peter B

    Ah, that photo brings back memories of Julia Sweeney talking about blue-footed Booby babies in her “Letting Go og God” monologue at TAM 2…

  25. MachineElf

    Phil wrote:

    “As a skeptic, I hesitate to use some words when describing such things, but it’s hard to avoid the use of the word “magical”. Of course it isn’t really magical: it’s the natural world at work, with millions of years of time and many of the more vicious red-in-tooth-and-claw aspects invisible to us.”

    Chill dude. You are allowed to say the word magic, without fearing a skeptical intervention. At least, I hope so.

  26. Came here for the bad boobie jokes, was not disappointed-

    Mmmm, booby!

  27. Bigfoot

    Wow. Not president for two weeks and you’re off on a tropical island romp oggling boobies!

    We expect great things from you Phil, but you might want to tone it down a bit for the first three months …

  28. I am so jealous of you on so many levels. I have been to Quito and Guayaquil in Ecuador, and enjoyed myself immensely, but it was on business so some activities were curtailed. And to be on a cruise populated by skeptics! Now that blows my mind. Yep, jealous!

  29. Ahh, you beheld my dear home stars… I would be homesick if I had to gaze upon them every night. The very reason I live in the northern hemisphere… *tear*

  30. John

    Don’t forget that Omega Centauri, the most awesome globular cluster in our skies, is a naked-eye object on a dark night. As is the Coal Sack, a dust cloud just off the “bottom” of the Southern Cross.

  31. Naomi

    Thanks heaps, Phil, I’ve just spent the last twenty minutes reading about boobies XD

    And ahh, Crux and the Pointers. I can see those every night just by looking up at my window ^_^ Alpha Centauri is probably my favourite star system, and it was the first star(s) I was taught how to identify.

    (Incidentally – awesome sky outside right now! The nearly-full moon AND Jupiter almost directly overhead, Centaurus and Crux in the South-ish, and Vega in the North! Which is fun, as I’m currently rereading Contact for the ten millionth time XD)

  32. Well, the Big Bang was pretty magical (unexplained, possibly unexplainable, transcending all known natural laws, etc.) so I guess you can call its effects magical, too.

  33. BigBob

    Now, how can I make enough dosh to get to the Kennedy Space Centre and do a Galapagos cruise and replace my kitchen all in 2009?

    Here’s another non-skeptic word – lucky! Cruising around the Galapagos Islands with Wife and Little, under a sky like that! Is there a telescope on board?
    You lucky, lucky, lucky man!
    Bob (Big)

  34. Don Snow

    Hi, Phil and all…

    Glad you’re enjoying your trip.

    My one time at sea was from San Diego to the Samoan Sea. I was not an amatuer astronomer, then. But, my interest was the moon. We were sent to recover the Apollo 17. I remember the flying fish, too. I’d go up on the starboard signal bridge, where there was a 50x binocular. I’d look at the moon, trying to picture the astronauts, up there. Never mind, that was my trip. Now, I wish I’d found the Southern Cross.

    This is about your trip. I would enjoy all that wildlife, fauna and flora.
    Ya’ll be nice to the crew members, now. Grin.


  35. madge

    C’mon you guys. First it was the astrologer chick in an earthquake and now the mere mention of boobies and you all go to pieces. SHEESH! :)

  36. Thomas Siefert

    @ madge:
    We could have gone overboard with talking about other birds like Parus caeruleus. 😀

  37. MDF

    @Thomas Siefert:

    You made me look it up! Good job! :)

  38. madge

    @ Thomas Siefert
    I was right you guys are obsessed! And NO I didn’t need to “look it up” I am a long term “Twitcher” and NO that isn’t a anything to with pron 😉

  39. Jealousy. I haz it. I had an opportunity to go on that cruise, but couldn’t foot the bill. :(

  40. The Ill Tempered Klavier

    I had similar feelings when I got to visit OZ and Kiwi land a couple of years ago. Once I got to go outside at night and look up, there was Alpha Centauri and the cross and Orion was upside down and the clouds were over there and I could see all the parts of the ship and … and… and with mine own glazzies oh my brothers. I got shivers like I haven’t felt since (CENSORED).

  41. A pity you do not visit Chimborazo in mainland Ecuador, because at top of that mountain you are at the farthest point of Earth surface from the planetary mass center. And farthest from the center of Earth means closest to the stars 😉


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