The Eye of the Storm
February 16, 1998
By Mark Hoover
All is quiet, except for the sound of the surf upon the rocks of Isla Isabella.
It is midnight in the eye of El Niño, and the Southern Cross hangs low
in the sky, counterpoint to the rising moon. Hanging my feet in the water as I
write, I drink in the serenity of the darkened boat and the delicate breeze
coming off the water. All are asleep...except me. Yesterday I walked with
Mike McPhaden along a beach walked a century ago by another man looking for the
pieces to a puzzle, who came to the Galapagos during an El Niño year.
His name was Charles Darwin.
* * * * *
As we flew on Saturday from the cool mountains of Quito down into the thick hot
air of Guayaquil on the coast, I saw with each passing mile a land increasingly
inundated by the floodwaters of what locals call simply the "fenómenos,"
or "phenomenon." As we drew closer to the city, the land simply disappeared in
many places, covered by vast sheets of tea-brown water bearing a scum of foam,
sticks, pieces of houses, and other jetsam torn loose by El Niño's
rains. I could only imagine the misery of the inhabitants.
We changed planes in Guayaquil. Ominous clouds filled the sky, seething as they
headed inland, and a fine sticky rain hung in the air. Our flight to the
Galapagos would take an hour and a half, all of it flying through more clouds
Confounding my expectations, it was not raining when we touched down on the
crushed-lava tarmac of Galapagos' lone runway. Hot, yes, and humid, but
curiously still...and everywhere, green shoots and vines the color of August
apples crowded the cacti and scrub.
A rattletrap bus took us a couple of miles to the harbor where we joined the
crew of the Orca, our boat. We also met the naturalist and field guide who
would help us find the evidence of the changes El Niño brings to the
archipelago. After loading the considerable gear of the film crew, and pulling
up the anchor, we headed for the first stop: Isla Bartolomé, in search
of the Galapagos penguin.
Soon, we were threading between the tiny islands of Daphne Major and Daphne
Minor, both volcanic cone remnants protected by palisade walls cut by the
waves. Daphne Major looks like one of those squat round footrests people put
in front of an easy chair. The island sags deeply in the center, creating a
bowl or amphitheater, in which an interesting saga has played out.
Peter and Rosemary Grant of Princeton have conducted a unique study of finches
on Daphne Major for more than two decades; their work was the basis of Jonathan
Wiener's critically acclaimed book, The Beak of the Finch. This tiny island
has revealed, through the work of the Grants, that evolution can work on time
scales once considered ridiculously short. Indeed, the Grants have evidence
that the finches of Daphne Major somehow anticipate the changed environment of
El Niño years, and quickly produce numbers of variant individuals with
beaks and bodies more suited to the lusher foods and conditions El Niño
brings. These birds carry in their genes a program for adaptation to El
Niño that alters flesh and bone—scientists say the genes are
"expressed"—almost instantly, even in the space of one breeding season.
Obviously, to have created the genetic potential for such a response, El
Niño has to have been here many times before. The "fenómenos"
has left its fingerprint in the DNA of living creatures who have made a home
out of a collapsed cone of cinders. These are the same creatures responsible
for Darwin's first glimmer of the mechanisms of evolution. They are fittingly
called Darwin's finches, and El Niño is no longer cruel to them.
We moved on across the ocean toward Bartolomé, and the clouds parted. I
marveled at the weather. The heat and humidity were stifling, but there was no
rain, and only a light chop in the sea. Only later would it start to make
Ahead, sunlight illuminated an obelisk jutting from the water; its exotic,
blackened spire beckoned, and we marked a course to take us near. Slipping
past it, we saw Galapagos penguins standing and diving at its base. They
waddled to the edge of the lava, dove like Olympians into the warm sea, and
shimmied their tails as they climbed out of the water to repeat their happy
enterprise again. Yes, they were penguins all right: but penguins standing on
baked lava under an equatorial sun. They caught Darwin's fancy, too.
Galapagos marks the northernmost latitude in which one can find penguins, and
the population here is obviously a relict, or a group left behind when changing
climate altered the former range of the species, and left no avenue of retreat
(the Florida jaguar is a similar example). During the 1982 El Niño, a
lot—perhaps two thirds—of these penguins died, creating concerns over
their very survival. It has taken almost two decades for them to recover. Our
naturalist tells us that so far this year, the casualties have been mild. No
one knows quite why; El Niño seems to choose its victims with a roll of
Rounding the spire, we found a small bay, and set out in a motor launch for it.
Mike McPhaden jumps out of the boat, ahead even of the film crew as we approach
the beach. I know what motivates him; I feel it myself. Sirenlike, the
islands lure you toward them with a silent promise to reveal the answer to
questions you haven't yet put into words.
The abandoned nests of sea turtles ring the beach, cones of sand with the
middles scooped out. Fingers of black lava the thickness of my thigh lie
frozen on the sand, evidence of an eruption not many centuries ago, judging
from the lack of erosion in the bubbled rock. The beach is littered with the
rock fragments created when these sizzling columns exploded upon touching the
We hike inland. As we traverse the stony soil, armies of tiny lava lizards
spring from hiding places, like frogs jumping into a pond. Mike stoops at a
fount of clear water emerging from what seems solid rock—the porous rocks
have been filled with rainwater, more of El Niño's handiwork. The crew
sets up to film near the bay; Mike and I cross a sand ridge and in a few
minutes come to a cove on the other side of the island. Blue-footed boobies
lope and wheel through the air a hundred feet up. Without warning, one, then
another folds its wings, rolls, and dives straight down into the sea,
disappearing. Moments later, they arise in a spume of bubbles, sometimes with
a fish in their beak. Boobies, too, suffered mightily in 1982. This year, El
Niño's effect is more subtle. Mortality has been spotty, but the birds
roam endlessly, with a catch being the exception, not the rule. So far,
however, they have avoided disaster.
As we walk along the water's edge, taking it all in, Mike points to a pathetic
scene ahead. The limp body of a small sea lion rolls upon the beach, the waves
pushing it ashore, and then drawing it back into the surf. As it turns in the
waves, a flipper waves, Ahab-like, and we draw closer to see.
The still form is so perfect it seems an atrocity that the life has gone out of
it. With morbid curiosity, I look closely at its face...and fall backwards
into the water as the sea lion suddenly awakens from a reverie and barks joy at
his newfound playmates. He had been napping, apparently, or just enjoying the
feel of the surf. We wad out into the warm water, and the sea lion cavorts and
barks and swims between my legs with effortless speed. Without predators, the
Galapagos sea lion has never learned to fear. I say a silent prayer that no
humans will ever introduce the idea.
On our walkie-talkie, we learn that the film crew has chanced upon some
flightless cormorants, another species unique to these islands, and we leave
our idyll and head to the site. Another fish specialist, the flightless
cormorant is sensitive to any changes in its food supply wrought by El
Niño. Although the waters here are ten or more degrees warmer than
normal—according to Mike, about as warm as seawater can get—this year
just enough fish remain to maintain the cormorants and their Galapagos
brethren. Why? We do not know; fish populations crashed severely all along the
Peruvian coast. And there are months to go before the fenómenon takes
The sun is setting as we approach our boat and the dinner of Peruvian potatoes
and ceviche that awaits. Mike and I say little. Mike has spent his life
studying El Niño from an oceanographer's point of view, but this is the
first time he has actually been inside El Niño himself, rather than with
a scientific instrument. His data is no longer numbers; it is his own five
senses. I ask him what he is thinking. He pauses a long moment, as he
reorients himself to the realm of words.
"We are in the eye of the storm here, aren't we? What a paradox...where El
Niño is most intense, it is least visible....." He pauses. "There's a
lesson in what we saw today, a symmetry that reminds me of El Niño's
essential nature. That's the key word: nature. Life has adapted here to El
Niño, and that's the most compelling proof I can think of that it is
part of the natural give-and-take, one of the living rhythms of the Earth, its
oceans, and its atmosphere." He pauses again. "During El Niño, it's not
the Earth that's out of balance. It's us."
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