Engine noise in some cabins near the engines on some boats can be loud; since the longest passages are traveled at night, the noise could interfere with your sleep. Because of this possibility, you might consider bringing ear plugs. You can buy lightweight foam ear plugs for very little money at gun shops, if you can’t find them anywhere else. We brought them along but didn’t need them. The Tip Top II had been recently refurbished, in part with extra soundproofing in mind. Even the people in the cabins closest to the engines reported no problems. For light sleepers out there, you might note that engine noise is not the only sleep interrupter. Since the long passages are traveled at night, the destinations are reached in the middle of the night and the anchor drops in the middle of the night. The anchor’s dropping is noisy–no getting around it. I rarely got a good night’s sleep, which is something that irritates me at home. But on this trip, the anticipation, excitement, and adrenaline (and a cup of coffee in the morning) kept me going just fine. Since the sun sets at 6 p.m. every day and you have to be off the islands by then, the day’s exertions ended early. And what the heck–you can always sleep when you get home.
You might want to bring along some business cards, if you have them. On other trips we’ve done with groups, we’ve passed around a sheet of paper that everyone wrote their names and contact info on. Someone would then photocopy the sheet for everyone and we’d have everyone’s info. That doesn’t work very well on boats, though—no easy access to photocopiers. But if you have a business card (and I have hundreds more than I’ll ever use at the office), you can just hand people your card, with your whatever contact information you want people to have.
You might be wondering about using small electrical appliances. Ecuador uses the same style of plugs as the U.S. does (typically called Type A and Type B). (Here’s a nifty Web site that has this information for many countries of the world.) So if you can plug it in in the U.S., you can plug it in in Ecuador. The same is true for the boat. In addition, our boat (and probably most of the major boats) had a large generator to produce electricity on the boat. An inverter changed the generator’s DC current to AC current. So again, if you can use it in the U.S., you can use it on the boat.
I brought 2 notebooks along, because I knew I wanted to write up this blog when we got back. One was very small and utilitarian; the other, much fancier. I had envisioned taking the smaller one along on the outings, making notes as we went. I expected to spend the long evenings writing lyrical and profound thoughts in the fancy log by the dimmed cabin lights in the lounge on the boat, perhaps nursing a glass of wine as we floated calmly. Ha on all counts! The outings were so filled with wildlife and plants and interesting geology and fascinating stories that I never took a single note on the walks. Instead, I was so tired from the day’s outings and education that all I could do was scribble down some thoughts back on the boat at the end of the day, in the cabin as we went through the day’s photos to delete the really bad ones. I focused on the various nuggets of knowledge we’d learned from Carlos, the species we’d seen, whatever thoughts I had about practicalities from the day. I never even opened the fancy journal. Who knew…
I searched long and hard for a wildlife field guide I liked. Since our local bookstores didn’t have anything on the Galápagos (although some guide books on Ecuador had small sections on Galápagos wildlife), I turned to our local public library. I requested every book I could find in that catalog and learned what felt best for me. Many of them had a lot of text and not so many photos; I realized that I wanted a book that emphasized photos, with less focus on text (although obviously, some text is important). I settled on a small book entitled Wildlife of the Galápagos (2000), by Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter, and David Hosking (left; click on the image to connect with a description on Amazon.com). At 256 pages and about 4” x 7”, it fit easily into a pocket or a daypack. It covered birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, insects, plants—lots of info with lots of photos. The book appears to have been updated in 2007, although it is currently selling on Amazon.com for twice the price ($27 vs. $13). Since it has the same number of pages, I’m not sure what they might have updated. And, since the wildlife probably look pretty much the same now as they did a decade ago, the cheaper 2000 edition should probably be just fine for most. Also, the boat had several field guides in its library; I preferred this guide to theirs for birds, but the field guide they had for fish was purported to be pretty good (according to the retired marine biologist in our group).
(Note, 3/24/2013: I just learned about an iPhone app for Galápagos wildlife; you can check it out here. I can’t vouch for anything about it—just tell you it’s there. If you decide to use it, be sure to download whatever files you might need, since Wi-fi is available only in the 3 inhabited towns of the archipelago.)
It was, comparatively, easy to find a book covering the birds of the Galápagos. With only about 60 avian species that breed there (13 —20%!—of which are finches), most books covered those species well. However, we were also going spend a couple of days in Quito, so I started thinking about a field guide for birds on the mainland. I again began with the public library, requesting several books to check them out. Oh, my. One book noted that, while the planet has approximately 9,500 different species of birds, Ecuador alone has more than 1,500 species (estimates vary). Yikes. (The U.S. has a mere 900 or so.) I checked out 2 books specifically on Ecuador birds—Birds of northern South America: An identification guide (Restall, Rodner, & Lentino; 656 pages, 3 pounds) and Birds of Ecuador (Vol. 2, Field Guide) (Ridgely, Greenfield, & Gill; 772 pages, 3.5 pounds). Definitely not field guides as I think of them—a book you stuff into your pocket while you grabbed your binos to check out a disappearing bird. Birds of Peru (Schulenberg, Stotz, Lane, & O’Neill; 653 pages, 3 pounds) was laid out nicely and was slightly smaller in size but still much too big and heavy to lug around—and for just one day of birding at the cloud forest. I considered a slightly more manageably sized book (Field guide to the birds of Peru; Clements, Shany, Gardner, & Barnes; 304 pages, 2.4 pounds). But reviews of that book weren’t all that great. Plus, Peru has nearly 1,800 species—even more than Ecuador. Again, it seemed like overkill for what was likely to be less than 1 day of looking at birds somewhere that wasn’t the Galápagos Islands. So I decided not buy any book at this time. From the Bellavista Web site, I downloaded a list of 57 species most likely to be seen there (plus the 14 most common hummingbird species). I made color copies of the pages with these non-passerine species from Birds of South America: Non-passerines (Erize & Rumboll, 2006); I liked that format better, and it had clearer written descriptions. I made color copies of the pages with the likely passerines from Birds of Ecuador, Vol. 2. It took some time, but I liked having at least something in hand. Luckily, I found out that Bellavista had a small pamphlet with drawings of its most likely birds, which I happily purchased at the office once we got there. That was pretty much all I needed, except for a couple of birds we saw in Parque la Carolina.
I had thought I’d read some books about the archipelago before we left, but I just couldn’t get into them. (Perhaps that was because we had signed up pretty late—only about 10 weeks in advance—and so many other things were on my mind.) For example, I tried to read the relevant parts in Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, but he’s not the most engaging author. Once we got back from the trip, though, I found 2 books that I thoroughly enjoyed. The first, The beak of the finch (author, Jonathan Weiner; 1995) is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning presentation of the modern-day landmark research conducted by the Grants documenting the surprisingly rapid evolution of differences in the beaks of “Darwin’s finches.” It sounds rather like a snoozer, but Weiner spins an engaging tale—and the book didn’t win a Pulitzer for nothin’. After having seen several of the islands they were working on (although we didn’t visit them since they are off-limits to mere mortals), I could much better wrap my brain around the struggles and triumphs they experienced. Another, more recent book that I thoroughly enjoyed dealt with the strains and tensions in the current-day Galápagos: Galápagos at the crossroads: Pirates, biologists, tourists, and creationists battle for Darwin’s cradle of evolution, by Carol Ann Bassett (2009). I’m not sure I would have appreciated this book as much if I had read it prior to any exposure to the islands. But I could really understand the issues and all of the complexities therein that she was raising once we had spent a bit of time there. Her style is very informal and engaging and I highly recommend the book.
Although not specifically about the Galápagos, I very highly recommend The song of the dodo, by David Quammen. Who would have thought that a 704-page book on island biogeography would be so entertaining, informative, and relevant to the Galápagos? I bought the Kindle version of the book and read it on our 2nd trip. Such a disappointment when I had finished it! The author deals with principles of habitat destruction and extinction on a variety of different islands in the world (including the Galápagos) and really explains the roots of conservation biology in a way that is amazingly clear. And the author has an extremely wry sense of humor—always a bonus for me! Click on the image and you’ll link to its page on Amazon.com; it should be available from any Internet bookstore.
And let me make a pitch for learning at least a tiny bit of Spanish and using it while you’re there. Before leaving, I bought a little phrase book that I liked for figuring out the occasional word: Latin-American Spanish phrase book, published by Dorling Kindersley Ltd. With fewer than 150 pages and only about 5″ x 7″, it was easy to slip into a pocket or a backpack, just in case. If you click on the image on the right, you can read more about it on Amazon.com.) I found the people of Quito and of the archipelago to be very responsive to even the most meager attempt to say something in the local language. There’s no reason anyone can’t say “Gracias” (thank you), “Por favor” (please), and “Buenas días” (good morning) whenever appropriate. Don’t worry about your accent—just give it a go! Mumble the phrases, if you have to, until you build up your courage. If you have more Spanish experience lurking in your background—for instance, I had 2 years of Spanish in college, but it was about 40 years ago—blow the dust off it and try a bit more. Odds are, the crew on the boat won’t speak much English. I felt good when I noticed a few of the fellows’ eyes lit up when I stumbled through a rough “¿Como se llama, por favor?” when I had forgotten their names. When I asked the captain what kind of training he had to go through to become a captain, he started off in rough English. But as his enthusiasm grew, he slipped into simple Spanish—and I was amazed that I was able to actually get the gist of what he was telling us and translate the story for my fellow passengers. (Indeed, his English was far superior to my kindergarten-level Spanish.) And at the end of the week on the boat, one of our group asked me if I would make a brief toast to the crew at the farewell cocktail our last evening. With the help of the phrase book, I was able to cobble together a couple of sentences in Spanish to express our gratitude to the crew (which I then translated for our group).
“Los corazones y las almas son llegos y muy contentos. Gracias a todos.”
(Our hearts and our souls are full and very happy. Thanks to everyone.)
Short and sweet. The crew didn’t laugh at my tiny speech and seemed appreciative of my attempt. I was nervous, but I also felt really good for having tried.