Galapagos Wrapup

By Phil Plait | August 26, 2008 8:30 am

I am finally getting my act back together after 11 days away from home, visiting the astonishing and wondrous Galapagos Islands. I wasn’t sure how to tackle writing about it, since there is so much to say: the trip itself, the islands, the time we spent in Quito, the friends renewed and newly made, the incredible, incredible scenery, animals, plants, and, of course, the southern skies. Maybe it’ll help to point you to my best 187 pictures (!) I posted on Flickr (and you should check out Scott Hurst’s pictures there, too; he’s very good).

Happily for me, others have covered the basics. PZ wrote about a typical day on the cruise, and not to disappoint anyone, but I agree with what he says there. Skeptics, like any other group, are not a homogeneous mix; we have talkers, partiers, shy retirees, young folks, old folks, and everything in between. But what we all shared was a love for nature, science, and reality, and that is a very refreshing and solid atmosphere in which to travel. Several times I announced I’d be on the top deck to point out the few stars we could see between the clouds (and with the Moon washing out a lot of the sky), and each time — every single time — a crowd of people showed up, even when it meant postponing a meal.

That’s a good group to hang out with.

One highlight of the trip was being at the Equator. We had about an hour to play around, and that was fun. I took videos of toilets flushing (that’ll be a while before I can put it up, patience please!) which raised some eyebrows — in those cases, the language barrier worked to my advantage, since I could just stare down anyone staring at me — and I’ll spoil the results by saying the way the toilets flushed had nothing to do with the Equator. That’s good, since I wrote a whole chapter in my first book (Bad Astronomy) making that case. Anyway, yes, that’s me and the awesomeness that is George Hrab lying on the Equator itself in the picture above. I was posing like that and didn’t even know that he had laid down behind me, so that picture makes me laugh even more.

Being there with James Randi was of course a special treat as well. He turned 80 while on the cruise, but you’d never know it. He went on a lot of land excursions, hiking over volcanic rocks, iguanas, sand, and cacti, all the while apparently never getting his pants or shoes wet. I know he’s a stage magician and conjourer, but it’s difficult to know how he pulled that off; I and everyone else got soaked. Does he walk on water? Well, I’m a skeptic, so I doubt it. But I wonder.

I am very, very glad the James Randi Educational Foundation set this expedition up; it really is a moving and astonishing experience. I can safely say the other passengers agreed; you can read their exploits all over the place, like here, and here, and of course on the JREF forum. I also highly recommend reading PZ’s transcription of a short speech he made on the cruise about Darwin. It made me appreciate what Darwin did a lot more. I plan on reading On the Origin of Species very soon, in fact, now that I’ve seen from where these ideas came.

I know that the Galapagos islands will have a profound affect on me for years to come. They tend to do that. A lot of our understanding and appreciation for nature and biology — and yes, evolution — stems from the Galapagos, but even without that they are a place that stimulate the mind and excite us to a deep, profound level. But then, that’s what science is all about. Understanding and appreciation.

And I wonder: just how deeply was I affected? I think the Galapagos are a part of me now… and being a good scientist, I have proof.

Comments (38)

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  1. Viewer3

    “…hiking over volcanic rocks, iguanas, sand, and cacti, all the while apparently never getting his pants or shoes wet.”

    …You hiked over iguanas??? So there were they like, giant iguanas that you had to trek across?

  2. Like I keep saying in all my posts about your trip; I AM ENVIOUS! I wish I had the finances available to do this exact same cruise with my family (or the vocation that would allow me to do this).

    Thank you for sharing though. It’s fun to see you “at play” as it were.

  3. Dave Hall

    Wow! It looks like you folks had a great time.
    Love the pic of the equator. “If you took all the sceptics in the world and leid them end to end” . . .well here is a start.
    I know what you mean by Randi and his appearance. I have never met the man, but I have seen him perform on stage and watched his TV appearances and he always is the image of perfection. But I am shocked! Here you have photographic proof that at least his hair can get mussed . . . not much, but some.
    Oh and about that last pic–isn’t evolution supposed to go the other way??

    Welcome back, glad you and yours had a great time.

  4. Taking “On the Origin of Species” is quite a task — took me a year and a few “palette-cleansing” books to get through it. (And I have a biology degree!)

    But it’s well worth it — especially if you’ve actually been to the places Darwin references (e.g. the Galapagos).

    Much jealousy about this trip of yours, I have :)

  5. madge

    FANTASTIC photos. Looks like you all had such a WILD time. I am so jealous. There are lots of documentaries celebrating Darwin’s achievements at the moment( most notably Richard Dawkins wonderful “The Genius of Charles Darwin”) to mark the 200th year since his birth and the 150th since the publication of “On the Origin of Species”. I would love to visit The Galapalos. One day, maybe, if husband gets miraculously cured and we win the lottery (and Neptune is in the seventh house, or whatever it is supposed to do to bode well for travel) etc etc :)

  6. Bigfoot

    Your last photograph is clear evidence that the reptiles have learned well the evolutionary advantage of posing for pictures! A possible theme for my doctoral thesis?

  7. Skorp

    Phil- You rock. What a neat trip. And again, congratulations on the JREF post. I don’t mind the losers that think astrology is real (but I’m glad you take them on) but I really, really mind the Anti-vaxxers and their ilk. They put society in danger and I’m glad you are one of the people that are responding to it with clear science (your last post got something like over 250 comments! Shhhhhhhweeeeeet….people are paying attention).

    My tiny, tiny complaint is your linking to PZ. But not for the reasons you may think. He’s right- science is science, Evolution is proved by Biology, and it should be taught that way in schools (absolutely).

    But his recent statement and actions with what he did with that communion wafer though…..it’s a bit deranged. Science classes should be about science. There is absolutely no reason that a teacher should be hoisting his religious and political beliefs on his classes. They should be graded on their answers to biology questions (in this case)- not intimidated to conformity of the professor’s opinions. And for other bloggers that shout this is a right-wing complaint- the link below is from Salon.

    http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2008/07/31/religion_science/

    I like your blog because it rocks, it’s funny, and it’s respectful. I think when you call out others you are more effective in so doing because we know where you stand. PZ may claim that his blog has no effect on his students and it’s unrelated- but you would have to be an egghead of a student to actually believe that.

    So, now you have just posted a picture with you on the beach with what I think is a descendant of a Kimono Dragon. A real dragon…on the beach….with Phil….again – Schhhhhwwwweeeet!

  8. Chip

    Wow – really cool. Great pictures! The Galapagos is one of our planet’s amazing locations, and you got to go there with the Amazing Randy!

    BTW – I think the reptiles learned picture posing from the Grand Canyon squirrels, but I have no direct proof – other than the pictures.

  9. DrFlimmer

    OMG! Those pictures ARE amazing, awesome… well, I don’t really know what to say. I’d loved to come with you on that trip. I must see this all myself once…

  10. Joe Meils

    Phil, I love the photo of you and the reptile… looks like you are auditioning for a part in the remake of “Journey to the Center of the Earth”… would you mind if the FX crew glued some fins on your back, to make you look more “dimetrodon-ish?”

  11. Maltodextrin

    So, did you meet Lonesome George?

  12. Skorp

    “Comment Held in Moderation”.. for hours and hours. Sorry if I wrote something that was a very mild critique of one very inconsequential aspect of your blog. Should we just write only completely positive things from now on and not try to, you know, have an adult discussion about things (that might involve constructive criticism)?

    My future posts will look like this (because I know they’ll get through like the others)-

    “Yeah BA! YEAH! oh, oh, more YEAH! H’Awesomeness! Wooooooo-hooo T’eh to the shizzle on the embiggen pic! Woot! WOOOT!”

    Now come on- That is a comment you could actually allow to be posted on your blog! WOOT!!!

  13. madge

    @ Maltodextrin
    I bet Lonesome George is sick to the scales at being gawped at by tourists. All he wants is to be left alone! :D

  14. I think most divorcees would claim to have drawers full of pictures of them posing with a reptile.

    OK, just pretend I didn’t say that. ;-)

    Phil,
    Looks like a really fun trip. I am now officially über-jealous!

  15. Kyle

    Wow Phil someone with legs whiter than mine!! Like the screwy perspective on the equator photo with Hrab. Glad you enjoyed the trip and look forward to looking at more of the pictures.

  16. Jozef

    I’m a bit disappointed to find out that a skeptics meeting is organized at Galapagos Islands. Some critical thinker should realize that the Galapagos Islands should be restricted area only for scientists doing research. His nature risks to be destroyed by the many tourists going over there.

  17. Andy

    Great pictures and thanks for the info. I am waiting for the wordsmiths to come up with the descriptions on the podcasts. I would love to see what your daughter puts down in the enviable school question “of what did you do this summer.”

  18. Peter

    You didn’t get the basin demonstration at the equator? The demonstrator takes a basin around 10 feet north of the equator, and pours water in. It swirls down clockwise. He then takes the basin 10 feet south of the equator. The water swirls down counterclockwise. Then, when somebody asks him to do it on the equator, the water doesn’t swirl at all.

    I leave you to judge the scientific merit of this demonstration (which my sister saw in Africa), but I’m very surprised that it’s not being offered in South America as well.

  19. Gary Ansorge

    An ordinary mind looks at an unknown species and says ” Wow!. I bet I can eat that,,,”
    A better than ordinary mind sees the same thing and says ” Wow! So many pretty animals,,,”
    An extraordinary mind might say ” WoW! I wonder how they got that way???”

    It is the extraordinary mind that draws us onward. Go Darwin and Phil and Randi and,,,

    Wish I’d been there,,,well, maybe next time.

    GAry 7

  20. Dan

    This is the post I was waiting for ever since you got back for your trip. I wanted to hear about your Galapagos adventure. Thanks for sharing.

  21. Jess Tauber

    Phil- when you read Darwin, please don’t forget that it took him some time, even as a genius, to escape from the bonds of his upbringing in a Great Britain with a very narrow worldview.

    His early comments on the Yahgans (Fuegians) were certainly not consistent with his feelings late in his life, after these people were ‘civilized’ by British missionaries. Unfortunately for the Yahgans, who took up the modern 19th c. mode of life with a passion, civilization only brought them hunger, dispossession, sickness, death, and cultural annihilation. But hey, at least they got ‘saved’….and Darwin contributed moneys to the missions to make sure of that. Within a few months of his death, though, so were most of them. Maybe they still keep him company in Watauineiwanchi ucan akainix wagun.

    Jess Tauber

  22. WX Bill

    Phil,
    Now you are no longer a pollywog! Congrats!

  23. Skorp

    You actually did post my rant after being held in moderation…and I look a fool for crying about it….

    There are many reasons that you have the best sci blog out there- but that is another one. I really respect the fact that you take on people that disagree with you. And you seem able to handle it better than anybody else.

  24. Autumn

    The picture of Mr. Randi looking at the inhospitible shore of one of the Galapagos Islands is one that will hopefully appear in many future books by future Goulds and Sagans as an example of an ordinary man whose need to find out what Probably Is supercedes the comfort of what Might Be. And as a bonus, he brought the ability to question the universe to as many people as any one man since Bacon.

  25. Should anyone hope to see even more pics from The Amazing Adventure 3, I posted a set of keepers here. Enjoy!

    I was laden with a Canon 40D and three lenses: 10-22mm wide zoom, 24-105mm mid zoom, and 100-400mm tele zoom (and whose size leads me to calling it “The Saturn V”). Add the supporting staff of filters and other gear, and you get a 20-lb shooting vest. Hey, I wasn’t there to look cool, I was there, in part, to try to catch a few nice compositions to hang on to after the trip was over. And I lucked out a couple of times.

    What a trip!

  26. Dave Hall

    I know this is as off topic, but You Jamie and Adam (buddies that you are!) are in the news–http://news.yahoo.com/s/space/20080826/sc_space/tvsmythbusterstacklemoonlandinghoaxclaims;_ylt=ArO79LjtAUvebnUA4kfPFn8PLBIF

    Check it out.

  27. Peter, I saw the water demo on the equator in Uganda. They pour water down a funnel and on one side of the equator it goes down clockwise and on the other it goes down anti-clockwise. I’d forgotten the bit about where it it goes straight down on the equator itself. Hilarious demonstration and if you’re ever on the equator somewhere and a local asks, it is worth a couple of bucks for the show.

    Skorp, about PZ’s antics recently. It’s his blog and he can do what he likes. Freedom of expression and all that. The blog isn’t his science classroom either. PZ says he doesn’t bring up politics or religion in his classes and I take him at face value on that.

    Jozef, why restrict areas like the Galapagos to just scientists? Sounds a bit elitist. ;-) I’m all for restricting numbers of tourists to limit environmental impact but cutting off entire areas of the planet to tourism smacks of one of those anti-human gaia-would-be-better-off-without-us things. For example there are some activists that want to stop all tourist access to the Mountain Gorillas in the Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo. Tourism is probably the one thing that is keeping the last 600 or so gorillas alive. Really seeing these places changes you. You then come back and spread the message. That is a good thing. How many people read dry old scientific journals. How many people read blogs and travelogues?

  28. Overstroming

    I came here for pictures of boobies but have been grievously misled.

    You got some great photos of the local wildlife and of those weird primates that were wandering around.

  29. As expected, President Plait – I just call him Phil – has expressed himself eloquently in this report. He was everywhere, on board ship and on land, explaining and pointing out features of this Enchanted Land which the Republic of Ecuador has so well preserved and guarded.

    In reply to a comment by “Jozef,” I will say that I was very, very, happy with the extreme care extended by the naturalists who guided and informed us, and the diligence shown by the Celebrity Cruise Line to protect the ecology of the Islands. I watched a 5 a.m. unloading of garbage and sewage from the ship, in sealed, labeled, sorted, and safe containers – all being transported to the mainland to be incinerated and properly disposed of. Not a scrap of trash went overboard or was left behind. Ecuador really cares, and fulfills its obligations to the world…

    Read the upcoming SWIFT for an item about “Jaime,” one of our guides, and you’ll see what I mean.

    I thank “Autumn” – and others – for their kind comments.

    Our Amaz!ng Adventure was just that, and I’m still glowing…

  30. Don Snow

    I enjoyed reading all the posts, and learned from most.

    I’m glad ya’ll enjoyed your adventure.

    Thanks, for sharing.

  31. aleph1=c

    Skorp: Peter answered your protest about PZ, but I have a question: What the hell is a Kimono Dragon?

  32. aleph1=c

    I meant Shane, not Peter.

  33. You may want to read The Voyage of the Beagle, especially chapter 18.

  34. Gary Ansorge

    Kimono Dragon: What you have when your Kimono is to dang long,,,

    President Phil: Could also be P^2,,,

    Gary 7

  35. Ken

    RE: “I also highly recommend reading PZ’s transcription of a short speech he made on the cruise about Darwin. It made me appreciate what Darwin did a lot more. I plan on reading On the Origin of Species very soon, in fact, now that I’ve seen from where these ideas came.”

    COMMENT: Darwin’s ideas about evolution were hardly new by the time he got to writing about them — PZ’s remarks (provided by a link above) elude to this. Decades earlier others made essentially the same observations & drew comparable conclusions, though they lacked the data to conclusively determine how changes in species occurred. Notable [but not exclusive] in this regard was the Surgeon/Anatomist John Hunter who as early as 1767 made similar observations regarding a discovered Mastodon tooth/teeth and by 1793, with a huge reference collection of human & animal anatomy (still preserved), when he died, was in the process of writing similar [heretical, for the time] views about evolution. In his portrait he purposefully selected as one of the background items a notepage portraying the evolutionary progression of skulls (for example), that was some 50 years before Darwin developed, much less published, his culmination effort. (John Hunter & his home, incidentally, is believed to be the model from which Robert Louis Stevenson patterned his Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde character)

    Some people (e.g. Owen) recognized the patterns Hunter & others (including Darwin, decades later) documented, but could not shake their religious handicap & objected to ‘evolutionary’ explanations by insisting this was evidence of a Divine plan; even such academic-theological resistance highlighted the fundamental issues & inspired further study.

    Thus, the development of the theory of evolution/natural selection was, in a sense, a “team effort” as is typical of major developments in most professions/fields.

    This is not meant to demean Darwin so much as put his contribution in proper perspective — he built on the work of many others and his contribution wasn’t so much innovative as was the culmination of much work by many before him (and unlike many of his predecessor who were heroically outspoken regarding such a heretical conpet as ‘evolution’ [or whatever they referred to it as], Darwin withheld from publication his findings for a decade). Disregarding them is analogous to [the non-historical scenario, I hope] in which S. Hawking were credited in the not too distant future for the theory of relativity, black holes, etc. because his publications remained widely published & known while others like Einstein, etc. were ignored/overlooked.

    Unfortunately, this pattern of disregarding those that incrementally established the foundation & idolizing those that reached some “finish line” is very common. Who can name the engineers that made the Wright Brother’s aircraft succeed; or, name the engineers that invented & made Henry Ford’s modern assembly line work; or, name the physicists & engineers that made Von Braun’s rocket visions a reality, etc????

    Let’s be sure to give Darwin his due recognition–but only his due and no more. If for no other [selfish] reason that doing otherwise distorts & undermines our understanding of & appreciation for the history we admire. Historical reality is far more interesting than [inadvertently] invented myths.

  36. Freddy

    Phil, I hope you realize that the painted line on the ground is not the “real equator”. The actual equator is some 2 miles north of where you were.

    Great picture of the marine iguana, a species unique to the Galapagos. I don’t think they’re related to the “kimono” dragons…

  37. Joe Bob Hankey

    Mmmm…Iguana…My favorite…*gurgle gurgle gurgle*

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