Column: Darwin meets Google
GALAPAGOS ISLANDS -- Coming soon to a computer screen near you: the blue-footed booby, the giant tortoise and the flightless cormorant.
Writing "The Voyage of the Beagle," Charles Darwin described this remote archipelago as "a little world within itself," and that remains true. Now, as in Darwin's time, the Galapagos feature species known nowhere else in the world. Now, as in Darwin's time, species, such as Darwin's famous finches, differ from island to island, living testament to the power of evolution.
"Considering the small size of these islands, we feel the more astonished at the number of their aboriginal beings, and at their confined range," Darwin wrote. ... "Both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact -- that mystery of mysteries -- the first appearance of new beings on this earth."
But in Darwin's time, the ordinary person could only dream of witnessing such wonders, or study them through Darwin's careful drawings; it took five years, from, 1831 to 1836, for the Beagle to make its round- the-world voyage.
Now the islands are vastly more accessible, albeit several long flights away. And Google -- hence the computer screen near you -- is preparing to launch a Google Street View version of the Galapagos, working with the Charles Darwin Foundation, the Galapagos National Parks Directorate and the Catlin Seaview Survey. The same technology that lets you zoom in on your home address will let you watch the sea turtles swimming languidly through blue-green water, the prehistoric-looking iguanas sunning themselves on volcanic rocks, the petite Galápagos penguins toddling toward the water.
To visit the Galapagos is simultaneously to marvel at the progress of technology and to celebrate its absence. It is to know that the islands are more visited than ever yet remain tantalizingly, gratifyingly remote.
Darwin, I think, would have loved the notion of his islands on Google Street View. He was not simply an explorer and collector but an eager sharer of his discoveries. He would have appreciated the images' potential as a scientific tool from which to monitor change -- change both of the inevitable, evolutionary sort and change, as scientists warn, of a man-made type, as global warming affects the ocean currents surrounding the archipelago.
But Darwin would also have insisted, correctly, that there is an unbridgeable difference between watching from afar and seeing directly. On one island, we watched sea lion pups nursing, until an aggravated mother opened her mouth and barked a grumble when she had had enough. In our dinghy, we drew close enough to see the subtle color differences among the blue-footed boobies, from robin's-egg blue to paler aquamarine.
This morning, I heard the low hiss of a giant tortoise as he retracted his head when I ventured too close; this afternoon, I read Darwin's account of a similar encounter. You can't get that experience from Google.
Speaking of which, one of the most distinctive features of our shipboard life in the Galapagos was the near-complete absence of technology. The grown-ups couldn't compulsively check their email. The teenagers couldn't constantly text their friends.
We had our moments when we wanted -- we needed -- to look things up, and on this score I think, the grown-ups suffered more technology withdrawal than the kids. My husband, who couldn't take it any more, paid $20 for seven precious minutes of Internet time to learn who had won the NBA championship. On Monday, when the Supreme Court (as I eventually discovered) handed down the affirmative action ruling, I found myself staring forlornly at the "no service" message on my iPhone, willing it to show some bars of coverage.
But the unavailability of our customary technological distractions served, I believe, to enhance the trip. At night, unable to retreat behind the daily paper (adults) or update iguana photos to our Facebook accounts (teenagers), we would stand by the ship's railing, watching as fish skidded along the ocean's surface, desperately trying to outrun the chasing sea lions.
And, to the rocking motion of the ship, we read, including this, from Darwin: "It is the fate of most voyagers, no sooner to discover what is most interesting in any locality, than they are hurried from it."
True in Darwin's time, truer in ours.
Ruth Marcus' email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.