World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

The Queen of Santa Cruz

It’s Friday night in Puerto Ayora, a town of some 15,000 people on the island of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos archipelago. Avenue Charles Darwin runs from the harbour, filled with tour boats, and past the public plaza where on most nights young men play pick-up games of volleyball. The north side of the street is lined with restaurants, bars, Internet cafes and souvenir shops. Tonight, the street and plaza are alive with lights, music and a throng of hundreds of Galapagueños and tourists. A parade of floats plows its way along the avenue and through the crowd like ships through the surf, toward the stage at one end of the plaza.

The floats are carrying the contestants in the Queen of Isla Santa Cruz beauty pageant, a highlight of the island’s week-long Fiestas celebration. The first is covered with balloons, as well as little Galapagueño girls who wave to the crowd. Standing at the back of the float in front of a ten-foot tall heart made of red balloons is one of the beauty queens. She is dressed in a silver and white, sequin-covered costume. The next float is commanded by a pale-skinned, disinterested, overweight Nemo, complete with trident and crown. But all the attention is on the young beauty queen hopeful, standing in a giant seashell behind him.

Silver queen_2639_1200px         As each float arrives at the end of the plaza, the girls step down and make their way onto the stage. After the final float has come and gone, there are nine young contestants smiling and waving to the crowd. Each represents a different neighbourhood of Puerto Ayora or region of Isla Santa Cruz: Miss Barrio Pelikan Bay, Miss Barrio Pampas Coloradas, and so on. Some represent local companies. There is even a Miss Charles Darwin Foundation.

The girls take their turns greeting the crowd. My Spanish isn’t good enough to know what they’re saying, but my guess is they’re giving their “I want to cure world hunger” speech, which down here might sound more like: “I want to preserve Galapagos as a home for the flightless cormorants and marine iguanas”. Wow. Beautiful, and committed to conservation.

It turns out this isn’t the actual pageant ceremony. So there’s no bathing suit or talent competition, no crowning of a winner, no tiara, flowers or tears. Instead, the winner will be crowned Saturday night. But I and my companions will be leaving Puerto Ayora on a ten-day scientific field trip to another Galapagos island, Isabela, at 5:30 Sunday morning. It’s an early start, so I’ll have to wait until we return to find out the name of the new Queen of Santa Cruz.

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Filed under: darwin, evolution, Galapagos, Long-form non-fiction, nature

A Gallery of Galapagos Hawks

This week, the Galapagos National Park resumed its efforts to eradicate from the islands one of the most harmful of invasive species: rats. Using poison bait, the GNP has already succeeded in ridding several islands of these pests. They have now begun releasing the bait on the island of Rabida.

While this approach works, it is not so simple a solution on islands inhabited by the endemic Galapagos hawk (Buteo galapagoensis). Rats make up part of the hawks’ diet and the predators could be critically harmed by the poison. So the GNP, in partnership with the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center and others, has begun a capture program. The birds will be held captive during the baiting period, then released back into their island homes when it is safe. (You can follow the progress of the program on the Raptor Center blog.)

During my last two visits to the islands, I enjoyed the company of Galapagos hawks on many occasions. As with the sea lions I encountered while snorkeling and scuba diving, it’s hard not to imagine that these creatures are enjoying your company in return. From this small gallery of photographs taken on Santiago and Isabela islands, you can see why I am particularly fond of them and hope the program goes well.

Hawk with Sugar Loaf Volcano in background - Santiago Island

An immature hawk with Sugar Loaf caldera, Isla Santiago

An immature hawk surveys the highlands, Isla Santiago

Just after sunset, Isla Santiago

On the rim of Alcedo volcano, Isla Isabela

Filed under: Galapagos

The Darwin Correspondence Project and other online Darwin resources

Just a post about some online archival resources I’ve found relating to Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species:

The first is the Darwin Correspondence Project, a fascinating website that lets you “read and search the full texts of more than 6000 of Darwin’s letters.” These include letters to and from his grandfather Eramus, Beagle captain Robert Fitzroy, Charles Lyell, T.H. Huxley, John Gould, Alfred Russell Wallace, and many others. Access to the letters is through a well-designed, interactive time-line that lets you browse through years of correspondence or search by name.

Darwin Correspondence ProjectFor example, in a letter to Charles Lyell, dated June 25, 1858, Darwin expresses his anguish at receiving Wallace’s manuscript describing the Welshman’s own thoughts on evolution. Can Darwin in all good conscience publish his “sketch” now that he has seen the other naturalist’s work? He writes, “I would far rather burn my whole book than that he or any man shd. think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit.”

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Filed under: darwin, evolution, Galapagos

The Galapagos Islands: Tragedy of the Uncommon

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee this week announced it was removing the Galapagos Islands from its List of World Heritage in Danger. The Galapagos Conservation Trust and the International Union for Conservation of Nature were critical of the move, saying tourism, invasive species and overfishing continue to threaten the archipelago.

In 2007, I visited the Galapagos and met with Graham Watkins, then Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation. Founded in 1959, the CDF’s mission is “to preserve the remarkable flora and fauna of the islands.” I spoke to Watkins about the dangers facing the islands and his hope for sustainable preservation.

A Guyanese-born British citizen with a Welsh background, Watkins was quick to begin our conversation by crediting Alfred Russell Wallace, the Welshman who developed a theory of evolution independent of Darwin and whose picture hung on Watkins’ office wall.

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Filed under: Galapagos,

About me

I am a Toronto-based writer, author and photographer who is inspired and fascinated by science. Science is our best way of understanding the natural world, but it is much more than that. Science is culture, and its pursuit ultimately leads to meaning, values and wonder.  My interests include evolution, Darwin, the Galapagos Islands, secular humanism, religion, skepticism, climate change, and science culture.  For many years, I wrote and produced astronomy programs for the McLaughlin Planetarium of the Royal Ontario Museum. I am author of many books for young readers (Sterling Publishing and Penguin Young Readers, N.Y.) and articles for children's magazines. I also write non-fiction related to the themes reflected in this blog. You can read some of my longer non-fiction and view my photographs at, and follow me at


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