By Amelia Tarallo
Hometown Weekly Staff
There are few places in the world that carry the mysterious reputation that has been earned by the Galápagos Islands. Filled with unique species, climates, and geography, the islands have attracted scientists and curiosity-seekers alike since Charles Darwin and the HMS Beagle first stopped there in 1835. On Thursday, March 11, photojournalist Barry Pell joined patrons of the Walpole Public Library for a talk about these diverse islands.
Pell began with a quick introduction to the islands, before launching into a discussion about the ecology of the Galápagos, including notes from Darwin’s expedition of the islands. The Galápagos Islands have always stood out due to the diversity of the unique flora and fauna living there - a byproduct of how the islands were initially formed. “The Galápagos Islands were never part of South America. They were formed from the tops of submerged volcanoes that rose directly out of the sea,” explained Pell, “because of that separation, they were able to develop such distinct and unique species, different from anything found in South America - or the rest of the world for that matter.”
Included in Pell's talk were pictures of some of the different plants and animals typically encountered by visitors to the islands, as well as their imprints on the island. For example, the giant tortoises that inhabit the islands live long lives; some alive today were roaming the islands in the 1830s when Darwin was on his exploration. “The giant tortoises travel much of this area using well-worn paths, which scientists and biologists refer to as tortoise highways,” explained Pell, while showing the audience a picture of the grooved terrain. “Signs are posted for us humans to stay out of the tortoise highways.”
Other species discussed during his talk include a variety of birds, including Darwin’s finches, blue and red-footed boobies, Galápagos mockingbirds, and herons. “30 percent of the marine life of the surrounding seas is endemic, meaning that it is found nowhere else on the planet,” explained Pell. Animals like the marine iguana and the several species of lava lizard only inhabit this tiny collections of islands. Darwin saw some of these lava lizards during the expedition. “He referred to them as 'ugly animals with a singularly stupid appearance,’” quoted Pell.
The audience was captivated by the stories of the animals and the landscape. What they weren’t expecting was a story about people who had settled on the islands. Unlike most places, the Galápagos remained untouched by humans for the majority of their existence. In recent decades, people have made the islands their homes, leading to some surprising incidents. Following World War I, two German families relocated to the islands. “One of these couples was eccentric to the extreme. Knowing that dental care on the island would be impossible, they prudently removed all their teeth when they left Europe and made a single set of stainless steel dentures to share between them,” said Pell. It didn’t stop with the teeth. “What followed was a series of dramatic events that culminated in several deaths and disappearances, leaving only one survivor,” described Pell.
The secrets of the Galápagos were largely unknown until a young Charles Darwin, circumnavigating the globe in a wind-powered vessel, began shining a spotlight on them. Nearly 200 years later and with the aid of a camera and Zoom, Barry Pell brought the same wonders to Walpole.