PGS Dialogue: Thalia Grant & Greg Estes, co-authors of Darwin in Galapagos #darwinday

To celebrate Darwin Day, we are interviewing our Darwinian authors. Earlier I posted a Q&A with David Reznick focused more on Darwin as author. Here we speak with Thalia Grant and Greg Estes, authors of Darwin in Galápagos: Footsteps to a New World about Darwin as an explorer. Thalia and Greg are in the unique position of having retraced, step-by-step, Darwin’s expedition to the Galapagos. Here they speak about the challenges they faced in following in Darwin’s footsteps and also the insights they gained from the experience. Hover over the images to read descriptive captions.

You might also enjoy reading this excerpt from their book.

PGS: Your book Darwin in Galápagos: Footsteps to a New World takes readers step by step along Darwin’s travels. How did you reconstruct his expedition to write the book?

Our first discovery: Darwin’s first landing spot in Galapagos.Thalia Grant & Greg Estes: Greg and I came up with the idea to retrace Darwin’s footsteps through Galápagos after discovering that although it was known which 4 islands Darwin visited in Galápagos; it was not clear where on these islands he explored. In order to determine Darwin’s movements through the archipelago, we needed to examine his written works.

We traveled to England to immerse ourselves in archival research; to examine Darwin’s writings, and most importantly his original notes and manuscripts. Today all of Darwin’s works can be found on Darwin Online, but at that time his notes and manuscripts were buried deep within the Darwin archive of Cambridge University Library. There we unearthed, among other gems, a full volume of untranscribed geological notes that contained important clues to where Darwin had explored in Galápagos. At other repositories in England we found the log of HMS Beagle, and Captain FitzRoy’s charts of the archipelago, which showed the Beagle’s routes and bearings.

On Darwin’s trail into the highlands of Santiago Island.We then returned to Galápagos with all we had learned and embarked on our expedition. Some of the places Darwin explored were easy to pinpoint, others challenging. Some were found by trial and error, by going to places that sounded right in terms of the ship’s general anchorage, and when not finding the formations Darwin described, having to re-examine the clues and the coast line repeatedly until we got it right. It helped that both of us knew the Galápagos intimately from having spent years conducting ecological research on various islands and, in Greg’s case, leading natural history tours through the archipelago.

PGS: What are some of the challenges you faced in tracing Darwin’s footsteps?

TG & GE: Many of the places that Darwin led us to were off the beaten track, and new even to us. There were times when the terrain was “perilous”, the vegetation impenetrably thick, the seas and landing conditions unforgiving, and the heat withering, but the biggest challenges (and frustrations) we faced were where Darwin had left scant, vague, or even contradictory clues as to his movements. Nonetheless it was all very thrilling …like a treasure hunt …and a successful one at that.

PGS: Which areas of the Islands have changed the most/least since Darwin’s visit?

Greg collecting a sample of fresh water from the seep where Darwin got his drinking water while camped out on Santiago Island.TG & GE: The 5 inhabited islands have changed the most: Baltra, Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Floreana and Isabela. Darwin visited three of these islands (San Cristobal, Floreana and Isabela), only one of which (Floreana) was inhabited at the time. The fourth island he explored (Santiago) has also undergone significant changes. The changes are a result of human activities within the islands and the exotic organisms that people have brought to the islands, both on purpose and by accident. We discuss many of the changes in our book. The islands that have remained most intact ecologically are the smaller, drier, uninhabited islands that lie at a distance from the more disturbed, larger islands.

PGS: Is there a single place in the Galápagos that most influenced Darwin’s theories of evolution?

TG & GE: It was the fact that Darwin visited not just one, but several islands in the Galápagos, that was important. It was the geographical distribution of the Galápagos organisms Darwin observed and collected, and his recognition of their affinity to organisms found on the South American continent and their representation as similar but distinct species on the different islands of Galápagos, that convinced him of the mutability of species. So in this sense, all the islands he visited were equally important.

Duplicating Darwin’s measurements of streams of basalt in a scoriaceous cliff, at Buccaneer Cove on Santiago Island.However if we were forced to pick just one place that was pivotal to his thinking, it would be Floreana. It was on Floreana that Darwin met Nicholas Lawson, the acting governor of the island, who told him the all-important fact that the tortoises of Galápagos differ in size and carapace shape between islands. It was on Floreana that Darwin first recognized that the mockingbirds differ between islands. The Floreana mockingbird looked distinct from the mockingbird he had just seen and collected on San Cristobal, and this inspired him to pay particular attention to their collection on the next two islands he visited.

PGS: What is your favorite anecdote or story about Darwin?

TG & GE: Darwin’s diary is full of wonderful anecdotes from various places he visited throughout the voyage, and several passages written in and about Galápagos vie for attention. He writes briefly about riding a tortoise, pushing a hawk off a branch with the muzzle of his gun, catching birds in a hat, and feeding land iguanas pieces of cactus, over which they fought like dogs with a bone. But my favorite story is when Darwin explored Beagle Crater on Isabela Island.

Dismanting camp and are “throwing” our gear down the cliff, on to the landing beach, where it can be loaded onto the boat. The green plastic containers are 5 gallon jugs that contained our drinking water for the duration of our stay.Beagle Crater is the grandest tuff crater in the archipelago, and Darwin, being primarily a geologist at the time, was clearly eager to explore it. However the conditions were less than favorable. The sun was burning, the day baking hot, and because the ship was low on drinking water, Darwin and the rest of the Beagle men were on half rations. It is an arduous climb to the top of Beagle Crater, from where he started. You can imagine Darwin’s reaction when, parched and panting he reached the summit, to be rewarded with a magnificent view of an immense glistening lake in the centre of the crater. He rushed and tumbled down the inner slope in his hurry for a drink, only to find the water as “salt as brine”. His disappointment was twofold; he was unable to quench his thirst and it meant that the Beagle would not linger to take on water, and he would not have the opportunity to climb to the top of one of the island’s immense shield volcanoes.

PGS: How would you recommend people celebrate Darwin Day?

TG & GE: Other than by buying our book? I would say, go for a walk outside. Go to the woods, or an open field, or down to the beach, and observe. Contemplate, as Darwin did, “an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth,” and reflect that it was the contemplation of the natural world that resulted in an idea that revolutionized the world. As we become increasingly alienated from the natural world, I can’t think of a better antidote, nor a better way to celebrate Darwin’s life.