Brown University biology professor KENNETH MILLER is renowned as an eloquent advocate for the theory of evolution, but he didn’t have an opportunity to visit the Galápagos Islands—where Charles Darwin made his seminal studies of the endemic species—until 2014, on a trip with a small group of fellow Brown alumni.
“On the first day, we flew to the island of Baltra, boarded the ship, sailed out to a cove, and put the anchor down. A crew member said, ‘Anybody who would like to go out for a swim, we have snorkeling gear here and swim fins.’ Swimming is a natural for me. I was a varsity swimmer in college.
“Here’s what happened to me in 20 minutes in the water:
“I started swimming away from the boat, and right under me I saw a giant sea turtle swimming 3 or 4 feet below the surface. I swam directly above this guy and just sort of followed him. Then I realized I was probably 200 or 300 meters from the boat. I wasn’t worried, but I thought the crew might wonder where I had gone. I pulled away from the turtle, took a breath of air, and put the snorkel back in. When I put my face back in the water, there was a little flock of Galápagos penguins, about five of them, zipping right past me. They’re small and cute, and underwater they swim as if they are flying, using their flippers like wings.
“Some coral formations near the shore caught my eye, and I paddled over to take a look. As I dove down, there was a splash. It was a flightless cormorant. He took off under the water with the grace and speed of Michael Phelps. At that point I turned back toward the boat, and I saw a large black object coming toward me. It was a full-grown sea lion. To my astonishment, it swam right up to me—stopping maybe a foot away from my mask—and stared at me for a second or so. Then he turned and swam away.
“That was 20 minutes.
“What blew me away was the prevalence of all of these wonderful species that I had read about or seen pictures of but had never really encountered in the natural world, and here they were. It gave me an enormous appreciation for the uniqueness of this ecosystem, and for how well preserved it is. I wouldn’t say it was a religious experience, but, boy, it was an enlightening experience.”
Do It Yourself
The company that arranged Miller’s 2014 trip was Odysseys Unlimited of Newton, Mass. (odysseys-unlimited.com). It has since changed its Galápagos itinerary to a land-based tour of the islands. Prices for a 15-day trip that includes a visit to Machu Picchu start at about $7,300 per person. Among the companies offering yacht-oriented itineraries is Galapagosislands.com. Prices range from $2,940 for a four-day voyage aboard the 16-passenger catamaran Cormorant to $93,140 for a private eight-day charter of the vessel.