PZ’s Galápagos Adventure

Here follows a brief account of my sojourn in the Galápagos Islands, just to give you all a rough idea of what I was up to all this time. I’ve tossed in just a few pictures to illustrate what we experienced; I’m planning to dole out the rest a little bit at a time, each week. I took a lot of pictures, and I was a real piker compared to a few other people on the trip — I’m thinking that if I use mine and some of the other photographs people took, if I post one a week, I’ll be able to keep the blog going for about 3800 years.

This cruise was organized by the James Randi Educational Foundation, which made it especially good — our fellow travelers were all reality-based skeptics, so there wasn’t any petty annoyances from blithering creationists on the trip, and we could all focus on the real world evidence in front of our eyes. It was a great group of people, and I recommend keeping your eyes on the JREF for more travel opportunities in the future. It really adds something to have a smart, convivial group with a deficiency of looneys.

And, of course, we got to travel with James Randi, who is an awesome raconteur. Even if you never make it to one of their cruises, do try to attend one of the Amaz!ng Meetings sometime, just so you can sit at a table with Randi for a little while. You will be entertained.


Nice beard, too.

Our cruise ship was the M/V Xpedition. This isn’t one of your standard mega-cruise liner that carts along a whole city, it was a 50-passenger-cabin, 300-foot long ship, large enough to be stable and carry the whole suite of luxurious amenities, but small enough to be cozy and let you know everyone aboard. Just for comparison, though, the HMS Beagle was a third the length and half the width of this beauty, and Charles Darwin spent 5 years aboard her…we spent one week.


This ship had everything. In addition to the 50 cabins (which were more spacious than I expected), she had a restaurant big enough for all of us, a couple of bars, the usual decks with lounge chairs, and a roomy lounge. We took a tour belowdecks, and were very impressed: it has a desalinization plant to provide fresh water, and a full sewage treatment plant. Everything was designed so that our visits would have no significant ecological impact on the islands.

So here’s a typical day on the cruise.

7am: The restaurant opens for a buffet breakfast. It was great food. You could have everything from the traditional American scrambled eggs and bacon, to a light continental breakfast, to bagels and lox, to a plate full of tropical fruits.

8am: Everyone puts on life jackets and climbs into a zodiac for an excursion to the nearby island.


Excursions were ranked from low to medium to high intensity, depending on the amount of physical effort required. A low intensity excursion might be just a zodiac ride along the shore; high intensity would involve a hike of a few miles over rough terrain. The high intensity walks were not at all daunting, since not only weren’t they particularly long, but they were punctuated by very frequent stops while we took photographs or just stood in awe.

We were always accompanied by an Ecuadorian naturalist who made sure we followed the rules and also was able to identify anything we saw. These people really knew their stuff.

There were very few developed trails and no facilities available anywhere on the excursions (if you had to go, you had to walk back to the pickup spot and take a zodiac back to the ship — you weren’t allowed to leave anything on the islands, not even a little nitrogen-rich moisture). Most of the ‘trails’ were lines of black and white painted stakes marking a route through rugged fields of lava boulders or sheets of black igneous rock.

Another rule was that we could not touch the animals. This was not easy. I expected it would be easy to get close to them, but sometimes it was ridiculous — they’d be piled up right there on the trail, giving you a cool eye, and we’d be looking for routes to step through without disturbing anyone. The animals didn’t care, this was their island.


11am: We’d get back into the zodiacs and zip back to the ship for lunch at noon. Yet again, it was another full buffet with an excess of choices.

1pm: Siesta! Naps were a good idea, but if you were so inclined, the bar was open and you could get a beer or a pina colada or a vodka martini, and sit at a table and talk while the ship sailed to another nearby point.

3pm: Another excursion — zodiacs, hiking about, clicking cameras, snorkeling, etc.

6pm: Back to the ship. I was usually feeling like it had been a long full day by this point, so it felt very civilized to step aboard and get handed a pina colada. I don’t think Charles Darwin was quite this coddled, though.

7pm: Briefing. The cruise director would excitedly tell us about the plans for the next day, which never failed to get us enthused.

7:30-8pm: We’d go to the restaurant for a full 5-course formal dinner. This was real slow food, you’d just take your time over a well-prepared meal for an hour to hour and a half.

Night: The ship would make a longer cruise to the next island on our itinerary while we were sleeping. We’d usually wake to the sounds of the winches as the zodiacs were lowered for the next day’s excursions.

There were other events. Sandwiched in between the briefing and dinner, we had a couple of talks; I already mentioned mine, but we also had a Q&A with James Randi, and one evening Phil Plait, the new JREF president, told us a bit about his plans. I was pleasantly surprised. He breathed fire, put a cutlass between his teeth, raised the black flag, and declared war on pseudoscience. Randi, the former president, was no slouch at battling fools, but Phil promises to redouble their efforts. Rah!

After dinner, we had George Hrab aboard and got a couple of musical entertainments. Phil Plait purports to be an astronomer, so he tried to show us the southern stars, but most nights it was cloudy and we also had a waxing moon, so there wasn’t much he could do but wave his big green laser at the sky (which was very impressive, actually). I did get to see the Southern Cross and Alpha Centauri, at least.

So what did we see on shore? I’m just going to tease you a bit with a few photos, but there will be more appearing here regularly.

The rocky shores were covered with spectacularly colored Sally Lightfoot crabs.


The blue footed boobies were ubiquitous, too. I’ve got some video of a pair in a courtship dance I’ll put up later.


You couldn’t escape the sea lions. When you smelled wet dog and rotting fish, you knew they were nearby, usually just lolling about on the beach. On several occasions we encountered newborn pups, with mom hanging about nearby entirely unconcerned.


Further inland, we found the big land iguanas. They were also unconcerned, and would just give us a slow regal stare as we walked by.


Of course we met the tortoises. They were huge, and they weren’t to be distracted from the important job of chowing down on all the plants in sight. These we saw in the much more lush highlands.


For some amazing science, a fellow voyager, Joseph Albietz, sent this photo of a transitional form: the incredible goat-toise. You will notice the fragments of shell and plastron, and the unmistakable skull of a goat at one end. Boy, this one will shake up all of Science!


Actually, one of the activities the park is quite proud of is their campaign of extermination of all introduced species. Goats were one of the worst, since they actually thrived on the more arid islands and competed with the larger native species, but they’ve been getting pursued and exterminated. In addition to the living, and to the dead introduced species, we saw quite a few dead endemics everywhere. These islands are harsh places where the detritus of natural selection is scattered about in plain view.


  1. James F says

    Great blog travelogue, PZ! This makes me look forward even more to seeing James Randi, Phil Plait, and George Hrab at Dragon*Con. There will be much bashing of pseudoscience.

  2. Richard Harris says

    I’ve just recently read Darwin’s account of his visit to the Galápagos Islands. When he visited, it’d only recently been settled, although bucaneers & whalers had been taking tortoises & birds. It seems that human habitation hasn’t yet been long enough to spread the genes for shyness of humans.

    I look forward to reading PZ’s posts on this interesting place. What a wonderful experience that must’ve been for all on the ship – well, all of the passengers, at least.

  3. Tim H says

    I wouldn’t be so sure that Darwin missed out on an evening nightcap while on Beagle. It was a Royal Navy ship, correct? The Royal Navy had its very own special cocktail it served as one of the many generous perks it offered its crews. It was , as strange as it might seem, also a rum drink- a delightfully spartan mix of rum and water known as “Grog”. (By leaving out all that overly sweet and flavorful fruit juice, the rockgut harshness of the fourth-rate rum was allowed to really shine through.)

  4. octopod says

    Rum, water, and lemon or lime juice. Know your obscure and unpalatable drinks! Avoid scurvy!

  5. Carlie says

    How fabulous. I’m glad it was such a good time!

    Every time I see “blue-footed booby”, I can’t help but hear it in my head in the voice of David Attenborough.

  6. Scott D. says

    Tim H,

    I’m fairly certain that “Grog” had lemon or lime juice in it to prevent scurvy. Not to say that it would taste any better. Though the gallon of beer per day they received couldn’t have been too bad.

  7. azqaz says

    Oh, no. PZ put up pictures of boobies. Woot is gonna be jealous. ;)

    I really, really, need to talk my wife into something like a trip to the Galápagos.

  8. says

    The pictures are nice, but how come when I click them they don’t embiggen? I want to embiggen them. Don’t make me go over to Phil’s blog!

  9. Penguin_Factory says

    I want to go to the Galapogas Islands now :0

    Did you get any photos of your cabin?

  10. says

    We have drab crabs. :(

    Me too, but then I dyed my hair for contrast.

    (Sigh. If there ever was a line, I think I crossed it years ago.)

    By the way, how did you ever get on with your arch-nemesis? I can only imagine the irritation of having an astronomer tag along with a bunch of biophiles:

    PZ: “Hey everyone, look at that beautiful crab–”
    Phil: “–Nebula!”
    PZ: “Erm, yeah. Ooh! Is than an owl–”
    Phil: “–Nebula?”
    PZ: “Ha-ha, Phil. Careful, everybody. That looks like a member of the Conidae, otherwise known as Cone–”
    Phil: “–Nebula!”
    PZ: “Look Phil: I like a good joke now and then, but so help me Cthulhu, if you say ‘nebula’ one more time, I’m going to dump you in that lagoon–”
    Phil: “–Nebula!”
    [Agonised scream, followed by loud splash.]
    PZ: “Sorry about that, folks. [Looks up] Wow! With us so far from any anthropogenic light sources, the stars are amazing. From here I can even make out the Orion Neb–“

  11. JoJo says

    it has a desalinization plant to provide fresh water, and a full sewage treatment plant.

    These amenities are usual for ocean going ships.

    Desalinization has been used on ships for over 100 years because potable water does not stay fresh for very long. BTW, you do not want to go into a shipboard potable water tank. Trust me, you don’t.

    Sewage plants are common for two reasons. Most countries require passenger carrying ships registered in their country to have sewage treatment plants. The alternative is discharging sewage overboard. The Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) allows countries to regulate pollution in the 200 nautical mile (370 km) exclusive economic zones contiguous to their shores. Pretty well everyone prohibits sewage discharge, so some type of sewage treatment is mandatory.

  12. JoJo says

    Rum, water, and lemon or lime juice. Know your obscure and unpalatable drinks! Avoid scurvy!

    The lime juice was served separately from the grog.

    Incidentally, grog was issued rather than neat (straight) rum for a simple reason. Rum cut with the water from water casks went rancid quite quickly, so sailors couldn’t save their rum ration for a massive bender. As noted above, it wasn’t very good rum either. If you want to get some idea of how bad it was, Royal Navy issue type rum is available as Pusser’s Rum. It’s an acquired taste that I’ve never acquired, and I like rum, good rum, that is.

  13. Helioprogenus says

    Considering that I’m in an archipelago as well, we don’t nearly have the same sort of interesting native vertebrates that you find out there on the Galapagos. I guess I can go to Kauai and enjoy finding the carnivorous caterpillars.

    Still, awesome pictures PZ. I’m sure it’s one of those trips that makes a biologist feel proud of his choice of professions. It would be like Phil Plait landing on the moon I suppose.

  14. tom says

    Tim H #9

    What perks? As the old saw goes; The Royal Navy was powered by rum, buggery and the lash.

  15. says

    That’s right. But I’m pretty sure I killed Phil before he killed me.

    We also did it with our bare hands in a brutal one-on-one brawl that horrified all the spectators.

  16. MAJeff, OM says

    What perks? As the old saw goes; The Royal Navy was powered by rum, buggery and the lash.

    The first two sound perky.

  17. Matt Penfold says

    What perks? As the old saw goes; The Royal Navy was powered by rum, buggery and the lash.

    That inspired the title of a Pogues album, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash.

    Strangely the Royal Navy has probably been the most accepting of the Government’s decision to allow gays to serve openly in the forces. It was the the first to allow its personnel to march in uniform at gay pride events, and the first to have recruiting stands at such events. A friend of mine who was in the Army, and comes from a family with a history of service in the Army suggest it was because they had had more practice.

    What is even stranger is that the homophobes in the US do not seen have notices the armed forces of their closest ally are now manned entirely by ass bandits and still seem to be pretty effective.

  18. says

    Phil and PZ both killed? Not surprising; Phil certainly killed the last time I heard him speak. Course he showed the film of Bart Sibrel getting cold-cocked by Buzz Aldrin. Man, that never gets old!

  19. says

    I might be able to go down there in January. I have to know: can I touch anything? If a land iguana pauses at my feet, can I reach down and stroke its leathery hide, or will I be arrested for doing so?

  20. Roger Scott says

    Nice post. And I will bear JREF in mind for future tours. Randi looks a little frail. I guess he is allowed to be at his age. Someone should pass a law making him immortal.

  21. LisaJ says

    Oh PZ, your trip sounds amazing. Awesome pictures. I can’t wait to see more. This sounds like a trip of a lifetime, especially with the fantastic company you had. I am super jealous!

  22. says

    Sounds like a fabulous trip! I would love to do that sometime. Would it make sense to bring my copy of “The Origin of Species” along?

    Green laser pointer FTW!! Just don’t let it get in your eye…. eep.

  23. Anon says

    Was there any seasickness? (I have very good reason for asking, but would rather not get into it)

  24. says

    Glorious islands, aren’t they? The stars sure are bright on the ocean at night, the ocean dazzling by day, the animals simply fabulous (and the food ain’t so bad, either). So, when are we going back? We’re going to have a Pharyngulite cruise there someday, right? ;-)

    I would love to meet James Randi! A total hero of mine.

  25. SC says

    We have drab crabs. :(

    After I wrote that, I was thinking about how much I really do love our horseshoe crabs – so ancient and cool – so I looked ’em up. Wikipedia informs me that “[d]espite its name, it is more closely related to spiders, ticks, and scorpions than to crabs.” Learned something new today.

    Not really related to the post, I know, but you wanted more comments.

  26. Bee says

    I am green with envy.

    Those crabs are amazing, and the boobies are Awwwww-some (‘specially the baby boobie).

  27. SC says

    @ #38: But did you know that horseshoe crabs have blue blood that is used by the pharmaceutical companies?

    Not till I just read it on Wikipedia. Even better to see it in action, though. Thanks!

    Fascinating animals.

  28. Danio says

    Wow! Fabulous photos. The ‘Carnival’ etc. style of cruise vacation has never appealed to me, but something like this naturalistic adventure on the high seas sounds infinitely more enjoyable.

    Thank you for rising from your sick bed to share these images with your minions :)

    And, it must be said, your trophy wife looks adorable in all the pics you’ve posted.

  29. Silmarillion says

    Fabulous post, PZ. You make me want to go to a travel agent and say “Book this! Now!” Can’t wait to see more photos and stories from the trip.

  30. foxfire says

    PZ, thank you so much for sharing your adventure! I’ve never had the urge to go on a cruise and this one appears to break the mold. I WANNA GO TOO!

    Some of the things you mention bring back old memories (so crystal-clear in my mind still): rafting the Salmon River in Idaho where *everything* was also carted out and visiting India in 1995 when the country was “emerging” (my husband was with a telcom bidding on the wireless contracts – not your standard “tour”).

    It’s wonderful that you are sharing this with us (including photos of your beautiful lady) and I hope you soon recover from the inevitable difference of opinion between one’s body and foreign buggies (the Indian E.coli didn’t agree with me either and the experience far exceeded the annoyance – besides, after reading Zimmer’s new book I’ve become rather fond of the little “devils”.)

    On another note, may your new “probing opportunity” soon be over. I had my first one several years ago and the preparation was far worse than the procedure (then again, as someone pointed out in that thread, the drugs help a lot). But why do they give you those pictures? What is one supposed to do? Frame them?

    Anyway, to end (pun intended) on a more pleasant note: Thanks again for sharing your wonderful trip. More please?

  31. Patricia says

    Ha! There’s no way Phil gave you an ass whuppin’. You wrapped all eight tentacles around his scrawny neck, ripped out his eyeballs and ear drums with your suckers and then – inked him.
    Which was selfish PZ. You could have thrown him to your Ilk.

    On the other hand, you warm lovable fuzzball – what a cute picture of Mrs. Woot & Woot Jr.

  32. JenWolf says

    Points to fourth photo down: See the blonde chick kneeling among the iguanas? I know her! She’s a good friend of mine, and I was incredibly jealous of her for being able to go on this trip. She always gets to do the cool stuff.
    By the way, what’s with the guy in the strait jacket and striped knee-highs?

  33. DLC says

    Great photos,Wish I’d have been able to go.
    As I like Biology and Astronomy I couldn’t pick a side in the PZ vs Phil Plait war. Ahh well, It’s on the bucket list, some of which include:
    Go to the Galapogos, punch a UFO-Loon in the moosh, shake hands with James Randi. . .

    About the navy grog thing:
    the Royal Navy would serve out a tot of rum or rum diluted with water. As lime juice would be served out at around the same time, it is not unlikely to have seen men mixing their lime juice ration.
    In the United States, the grog issue would have been
    whiskey diluted with water and with sugar and possibly lemon or lime juice added.

    an interesting side note that the Daquiri and Old Fashioned are both based on these concoctions, although I can find no historical connection.

  34. bastion says

    If Randi grew his beard just a little longer, he’d look like Darwin on PZ’s t-shirt.

    I’m envious of your trip, PZ. I wish I had the time and the money to take a similar trip myself.

  35. travc says

    I’m so envious. I’m actually going to go back to work now, finish my damn dissertation, and make a name for myself so I can get invited to stuff like this too! Well, it’s a plan at least ;)

    BTW: You should have taken a pee bottle with you… the benefits of being male (or a very talented female).

  36. Karen says

    I, too, am jealous; of that fascinating cruise, of the cool critter photos, of the happy look on both PZ’s and Trophy Wife’s faces. That’s a vacation. Fresh air, fun hikes, interesting science, cool critters, and good food. But the real proof is in the smiles. Both of you look like you’ve been hanging out in paradise.

    Tomorrow Husband & I close escrow on a small piece of rural high-desert heaven east of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the U.S. Someday we’ll build a little house on it. Meanwhile we’ll visit it occasionally (about a 6 hour drive, nontrivial with today’s fuel prices) and enjoy any glimpses of the local critters that we can get. But this transaction has REALLY depleted the vacation budget for a few years.

    I can’t afford to go on a Galapagos Cruise! WWWWAAAAAAAAHHHH! Clearly this means I’ll have to build a blind on my newly acquired property and hang out looking for photogenic deer, black bears, and capital-K Kitties (aka mountain lions). I think I’d rather be nibbled by an iguana than a Kitty, but we landlocked people must take what we can get… and maybe Husband can distract Kitty with kibble long enough for me to escape. We do feed an absurd number of domestic felines, what’s another one? :-)

  37. davem says

    Ah, the Galapagos.. the only place where I’ve been annoyed at the sealions, because they were in my face all the time, and they wouldn’t let me see the fish :0) As to touching, no you can’t, but if you lie on a beach, and the sealion cubs come up and lick your toes, you just can’t help it…

  38. Colugo says

    “These islands are harsh places where the detritus of natural selection is scattered about in plain view.”

    Jeremy Rifkin’s (I know; Rifkin’s a loon) view of Darwin’s impression of the Galapagos, Algeny, 1983:

    “It was a savage, primeval scene, menacing in every detail. Everywhere there was bloodletting, and the ferocious, unremittent battle for survival. The air was dank and foul, and the thick stench of volcanic ash veiled the islands with a kind of ghoulish drape.”

    Wicked pissa! Like a great setting for a first person shooter game.

    SJ Gould once quoted the above to slam Rifkin. Accurate or not, it does sound inviting.

  39. Nan McIntyre says

    Gratitude post.
    As a person whose horizons are both income and ethically limited to her own state, the prospect of a biology professor with PZ’s net gifts presenting any nature study, let alone Las Islas Galápagos, is anticipated as much as a kid’s pagan Midwinter holiday.
    All best wishes, Prof, for a quick recovery from what sounds to be giardiasis* on steroids.
    Only because I want more of your Galápagos very soon, natch.

    *If it is giardiasis, then a colon-invasion-by-medicos will seem in comparison like a walk in the proverbial.

  40. Sleeping at the Console says

    Fascinating to read this and watch the photos. Wish I could go there myself.

  41. Not my usual 'nym says

    oo oo oo oo oo oo oo ooo!
    I’m going in January–taking a class, so all expenses paid*–and I’m, like, giddy when I think about it. These pix make me want to dance around with excitement. I don’t know how I’m going to get through a whole semester without busting wide open.
    *Finally–finally–a perq that promises to make the many years of frustration and penury worthwhile. If only I could take my daughter–but no, not without the $4500.

  42. RichK says

    Just a warning for all future Galápagos visitors. On my visit I became good friends with the naturalists we had on board and they taught me a trick the use for securing large tips. If a passenger is ticking off each species they see from a list the guides will try and peek that list and will be sure to identify unmarked species on the next outing.

  43. RichK says

    Just a warning for all future Galápagos visitors. On my visit I became good friends with the naturalists we had on board and they taught me a trick the use for securing large tips. If a passenger is ticking off each species they see from a list the guides will try and peek that list and will be sure to identify unmarked species on the next outing.

  44. GirBoBytons says

    Wow that seems like a great place to explore…perhaps one day before I die I will go check it out. I cant wait to hear more about it. Ps. Hope you are feeling better PZ!

  45. David Grow says

    What a great trip. Thank you for sharing, PZ. Colugo @ 54 – One of my favorite early impressions of the Galapagos comes from Herman Melville who visited the islands as a young man – “Another feature of these isles is their emphatic uninhbitaleness. It is deemed a fit type of all-forsaken overthrow, that the jackal should den in the weedy wastes of Babylon; but the Encantadas refuse to harbor even the outcasts of the beasts. Man and wolf alike disown them. Little but reptile life is here found. No voice, no low, no howl is heard; the chief sound of life here is a hiss.” Well, for an old zoo curator of amphibians and reptiles , a hiss is not such a bad thing. Curators were occasionally called upon to lead zoological society eco-trips (fortunately “Zoos of European Capitals” tours usually went to the zoo director). One of my trips was the Galapagos. It was a life event for me. While the Origin or even Voyage of the Beagle would be good reading for anyone contemplating a trip to the Galapagos, I heartily recommend “Song of the Dodo” by David Quammen. It’s a superbly written account of island biology, evolution and extinction. There’s a lot of historical background on Darwin and Wallace. Your experience will be enriched having read it. PZ, did your guides talk about the fire ants? How are they doing with that problem? David

  46. Sili says

    What perks? As the old saw goes; The Royal Navy was powered by rum, buggery and the lash.

    The first two sound perky.

    I gather the last one’s an acquired taste, too.

    Well jealous.