Evolution of a Scientist in the Galapagos Islands
by Lisa Cadigan
Left: Watercolor portrait of Charles Darwin by G. Richmond. This painting was done after Darwin’s return from his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle. Right: Dr. Michael Hutchins observes a Galapagos sea lion in the Galapagos Islands, 1979. Click here to view a slideshow of Dr. Hutchins’ photos from his 1979 trip to the Galapagos Islands.
One hundred forty-eight years after Charles Darwin journeyed to the Galapagos Islands on the H.M.S. Beagle, another young, curious naturalist set out with hopes of rediscovering the great scientist. Michael Hutchins’ 1979 trip to the Galapagos Islands sparked in him an unquenchable thirst for travel and adventure. Over a series of conversations, Michael nostalgically recounted the tales that brought him closer to Darwin’s own earth-shaking, intellectual journey; a journey that has since changed the way humans look at nature and themselves.
But the story does not really begin here. Finding the “beginning” of any story is a challenge. As Darwin’s theory of evolution explains that species don’t spontaneously generate — that they evolve by adapting to their environment — events in a person’s life don’t exist in a vacuum, either. Every story is somehow connected to the events preceding it. Seeds for Michael’s scientific journey were thus sown much earlier than 1979. The Galapagos trip was simply the water and sunshine that allowed those seeds to germinate.
Michael credits his love of wildlife conservation and science to time spent with his dad, who took him fishing and encouraged him to collect natural objects, including rocks, fossils and “pets,” such as insects, turtles, frogs, lizards and snakes. Growing up in a small town in Northern Iowa, Michael enjoyed seining the local creeks, and raised a pair of tiger salamanders from mud puppies to adult. He collected moths and butterflies, and hatched a Luna moth from a cocoon. He spent summers in North Dakota and Canada searching for fossils and poring over back issues of National Geographic that his aunt and uncle, charter members of the National Geographic Society, had saved over the years. Immersed in a pile of magazines in a North Dakota closet, he entered the worlds of Jane Goodall and Louis and Mary Leaky, and the seeds for adventure and discovery were planted.
By 1979, Michael had already evolved from an Iowa farm boy who enjoyed exploring nature to a PhD student at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he was studying the behavioral ecology of a free-ranging, introduced population of Rocky Mountain goats in Olympic National Park. He decided to take the trip to Galapagos to spend some time with fellow conservation science student and friend, Mike Konecny, who was studying at the University of Florida, and who was doing research on the ecology and ecological impact of feral domestic cats in the Galapagos Archipelago. In twenty-something-spontaneous-fashion, Michael rounded up another friend, Jeff Foster (a professional diver and marine mammal researcher, who was later responsible for trying to reintegrate Keiko—of Free Willy fame—into a free-ranging killer whale pod in Iceland), and the two headed to South America without much of a plan other than to find their friend, Mike K., and assist him with his work. And so their adventure began.
First, they had to find their way there. Mike K. had contacted Darwin Station to let officials know that his friends were coming; however, there was no way for Michael and Jeff to contact him directly after he had gone to his field site at Tagus Cove on the north end of Isabela Island, a 1,790 square-mile landmass situated in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.
Despite the fact that neither spoke much Spanish, Michael and Jeff made their way to the port city of Guayaquil in Ecuador. Doing their best “networking” with a travel agent friend of Mike K.’s at the airport, they paid cash for tickets to fly from Guayaquil to Baltra, a small island immediately adjacent to Santa Cruz, where Darwin Station is located. As they prepared to board the small plane, they overheard bits of an angry conversation: “What do you mean we don’t have a ticket?” Opportunities to observe the “survival of the fittest” were already becoming evident at the airport. Michael and Jeff were successfully adapting to their new environment.
Once the plane landed, it was a windowless bus drive and rope-pulled-ferry-ride to Santa Cruz and Darwin Station, an active research facility operated by the Charles Darwin Foundation that houses scientists studying the extraordinary ecology and flora and fauna of the region. At the Station, they were able to see land iguanas and tortoises, including the famous Lonesome George, presumably the last Pinta Island tortoise of his sub-species, who sadly died in June of 2012 at an estimated 100 years of age. From Darwin Station, it would be another three-day sailing trip to reach Isabela Island — and hopefully find Mike K.
The folks at Darwin Station didn’t know how Michael and Jeff would find passage to Isabela Island. Deciding it was best to attack this problem on a full stomach, the pair headed to a local restaurant. The food itself did not prove helpful. Jeff was barely able to hold down his noodle soup when after glancing into the bowl, he looked up at Michael and said, “These noodles have heads on them,” (they were actually maggots). But this seemingly bad-luck stop at a cheap restaurant actually put the two young men in the right place at the right time. In the restaurant, Michael and Jeff met a motley trio of wayward travelers who had stopped en route to the Marchesas Islands. The three men, one Canadian, one British and one Australian, had met weeks earlier in the Panama Canal, where the older gentleman, a former Canadian diplomat who frequently popped nitro pills for his weak heart, had picked up the other two as part of an around-the-world trip in his 30+ foot trimaran, perhaps his last adventure on the vessel. They invited Michael and Jeff to hitch a ride to Tagus Cove, after which the other three would continue their expedition.
Obstacles continued to block the path of their journey when Michael and Jeff attempted to acquire the appropriate travel permits from the Ecuadorian Navy, which maintains a small garrison on the islands. Apparently, the commander was not keen on being responsible for two gringos interested in island hopping. But another lucky turn of events cleared the way when the folks at Darwin Station graciously gave them a fancy “Darwin-Station-document,” making it clear that someone important had given them permission to travel throughout the area.
And so they set sail.
It was a three-and-a-half day voyage. Michael and Jeff quickly learned that the honeymoon had long since worn off for their new companions, who were having some personality conflicts. The first day at sea was also particularly rocky for Michael, thanks to a raging three-day hangover from a previous night’s festivities drinking rum and beer with the locals, and a strong smell of fish cooking in the galley. However, the mere presence of our adventurers, along with a well-worn Jimmy Buffet tape, helped to alleviate tensions between the other three.
Unfortunately, even Cheeseburgers in Paradise couldn’t guarantee that this leg of the trip would be a picnic. On the second night at sea, frantic yelling from the deck awakened Michael and Jeff. The captain had made some critical navigational errors, and the travellers found themselves sailing at high speed through rocky shoals. Michael and Jeff shined lights at the front of the vessel, as the captain and crew did their best to avoid the rocks. It was great fortune that they were able to navigate the treacherous waters. Had they run aground, they would have found themselves stranded on an island with no fresh water, and surrounded by sharks.
Serendipity struck yet again as the boat approached Tagus Cove. Michael and Jeff simply started calling out, “MIKE!” and thankfully and quickly heard a, “YEAH!” in response. It was approaching dusk, and had they not once again found themselves in precisely the right place at the right time, the two would have had to continue on to Marchesas with the rest of the crew. Mike K. arrived shortly thereafter in a small rowboat (called a “panga”) and brought them to his camp.
The End? No, The Beginning…
Is this the end of the story? Perhaps it is the happy ending to the story of “The Search for Mike Kocnecy,” but it also marks the beginning of the next story; the one where Michael explores the Galapagos Islands.
A registered Galapagos guide, Mike K. thought they were perfectly within the rules to explore the highly protected islands, so on the following day, the adventurers sailed the trimaran to nearby Fernandina Island to view the Galapagos penguin colonies, fur seals, and land iguanas. However, as they neared the shores and dropped anchor, a national park patrol boat approached, and officials demanded to see credentials. Mike K. and his field assistant, John, had the appropriate documentation, as did Jeff and Michael, whose fancy Darwin Station letter proved its worth. Unfortunately, the patrol officers determined that the other three travelers could not leave the vessel. The trimaran returned to Tagus Cove, where Michael, Jeff, Mike K. and John disembarked, and the other three continued on to the Marchesas Islands. Before they left, Jeff presented their three new friends with the overplayed Jimmy Buffet tape as a much-appreciated parting gift.
Over the next few weeks, Michael, Jeff, Mike K. and John experienced the wonder of a wide range of remarkable species that exist only in this very special place: land iguanas, marine iguanas, Galapagos fur seals, Galapagos tortoises, a variety of birds, including the flightless cormorant, brown pelicans, blue-footed boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, tropic birds, frigate birds and the highly adapted Darwin’s finches.
They hiked to the top of Darwin Volcano; possibly the first Americans to make this three-day round trip. Around the rim, they saw many endemic land iguanas. They dropped down into the caldera and walked along its base, an area that resembled a moonscape, but where they found plants growing in the cracks of cooled lava; evidence that life always finds a way.
Hiking down the volcano, our protagonists sadly realized that the seven-and-a-half gallons of water they had carried with them was not enough for four people over three days, especially in hot weather. They began their return to camp with only a quart of water each. Leaving before daybreak to take advantage of cooler temperatures, they used all of the water by noon, with several hours of hiking still ahead of them. Michael could not work up a drop of spit in his mouth for several hours. He became disoriented and fell on the sharp lava, cutting his knee. Images of an ice cold Coke taunted his imagination. It was a state of dehydration he had never experienced before or since. The four thankfully made it back to camp around dinnertime, where they settled down to a meal of their regular fare: lobster, rice and beans; a welcome and significant improvement from the chocolate and British tea biscuits they had survived on for the previous three days.
Each day presented a new adventure. On one day, Jeff took Michael snorkeling near Tagus Cove. Michael had never snorkeled before, and was not very comfortable in the ocean. Jaws 2 had been released the previous year, and vivid memories of the Jaws movies provoked understandable anxiety. The will to face his fears paid off, however, when Jeff dove down 10 meters to grab a large green sea turtle. He brought it up to the surface and showed Michael how to hold it by the shell. Michael spent several minutes of his first snorkeling experience riding a sea turtle through a huge school of barracuda.
Eventually, Michael and Jeff had to hatch a plan to return to Quito in time to catch their flight home. Good fortune once again presented itself when a small tourist boat called the Sulidae pulled into Tagus Cove. Mike K. knew the captain, and introduced him to Michael and Jeff. The captain graciously agreed to give them a lift back to Santa Cruz. During their journey back to Santa Cruz, they saw many of the other islands, including Fernandina, Santiago and Bartolome. They spent their days assisting the crew and snorkeling with the tourists, marine iguanas, Galapagos fur seals and penguins. They spent their nights on the deck, falling asleep under a lightshow of stars.
Once back at Darwin Station, it was time to figure out the final leg of their adventure. With no plan in place to get back to the mainland, environmental factors aligned again in their favor when the folks at Darwin Station offered them a flight to Quito with Darwin Station staff.
At the airport, the pair discovered that their mode of transportation would be a refurbished World War II-era, two-propeller plane. When the pilot tried to start the engines, only one fired. He asked all of the passengers to disembark, and then took off, running on a single engine. A few minutes later, he returned with both engines running and had everyone hop back on the plane. Michael looked at Jeff and said, “Should we get on?” Taking the precaution to retrieve Jeff’s mask and fins from his luggage before taking off, the answer was “yes,” and the jump-started plane made it back to Quito in one piece. Michael and Jeff spent the next couple of days shopping and touring the ancient city before finally heading home.
The end of a story can be as hard to pinpoint as the beginning, and in fact, within this story, there are countless others we unfortunately don’t have time or space to tell here. The connections between each story and the people in it are infinite. The late Charles Darwin’s story continues with each person who dares to trace his footsteps; with each person whose fascination is peaked through his incredible discoveries; and now with you, the reader, who has traced Michael Hutchins’ experiences in this telling of his story. In this way, evolution permeates our journey as human beings.
When Michael returned to complete his PhD at the University of Washington, he was different than when he left – he reflects on this experience as not just a trip, but as a pilgrimage. Through happenstance and a seemingly random series of events, he evolved as a scientist and as a person. Physically experiencing the place and species that led Darwin to his concept of natural selection was personal and powerful — solid and irrefutable evidence that all things are interconnected.
As we each walk our life-paths, our understanding of the world evolves. We gain clarity in terms of how we connect with the world around us – past, present, and future. Every experience is another seed planted. What we know is that through this process, we are inspired to ask more questions. And with each answer, we find a little more peace and understanding of our place in the world and our role in caring for it.
Nope. Just another beginning…
Stay tuned as the adventures continue.
Dr. Michael Hutchins currently serves as Partner/Director of Conservation and Science for World Safaris/Safari Professionals, two of the world’s best wildlife tourism companies, taking travelers into Africa and beyond. He has traveled to over 30 countries and six continents to pursue his passion for wildlife and nature conservation.
Dr. Hutchins is the author of over 220 articles and books, covering various topics in wildlife science, management and conservation. He is consulting editor for Zoo Biology and International Zoo Yearbook, former primary editor of Smithsonian Institution Press’ book series titled “Studies in Zoo and Aquarium Biology and Conservation” and editor emeritus for Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia, a popular 18-volume compendium covering the entire animal kingdom. He has an impressive record of service with several membership-based non-profit organizations, including Curatorial Intern in Mammalogy, Conservation Biologist and Coordinator of Research at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo (1985-1990), Director/William Conway Endowed Chair, Department of Conservation and Science at the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (1990-2005), and Executive Director of The Wildlife Society (2005-2012).