Capitalizing on El Niño Rains
March 3, 1998
By Mark Hoover
Following is the last of the Galapagos dispatches to be disgorged from my
defunct computer. Tomorrow I'll report in near real-time, from California,
which has been pummelled over the last few weeks by heavy storms.
It took over 40 hours for the Orca to reach the Galapagos again, after leaving
the Ka'imimoana at approximately 95 degrees W, 2 degrees S. That's something
like 320 miles at about eight diesel-powered miles per hour, a jogger's pace.
40 hours on the Orca. If you've been following these dispatches, I needn't
As we approached the harbor at Puerto Ayoro, on the island of Santa Cruz, rain—El Niño rain—poured from the skies with near-Biblical vengeance,
as it had for the previous two days. Nonetheless, I stood on the foredeck,
drenched by warm rain, for the last half hour before we bid the Orca goodbye
for good. I could make out the buildings of the Darwin Research Institute on
the hillside above the harbor as we drew near. Despite the rain, the seas had
finally grown calmer.
Water cascaded off every tin roof and gushed down every stone street in Puerto
Ayoro, as we transferred our gear from the Orca to a launch for a short hop to
shore, and then to a waiting minibus. Our superannuated driver could not
recall a rainier wet season, and indeed the town looked lush, with flowers and
leaves poking out from every parcel of open ground—not at all like the town
I had seen in photographs, where cacti seemed to predominate. Barefoot
children ran along the bus, shouting "Hello!" and "Bye Bye!" as we passed.
Puerto Ayoro is the most populous of Galapagos' few settlements, perhaps 10,000
souls. Fernando said it was only a couple of months ago that electric power
became available in the evening. To be here without power in the evenings
wouldn't be such a bad thing once you got used to it, and if it helped keep the
Galapagos off condo developers' lists, all the better. The Galapagos are an
Ecuadorian national park, and the Ecuadorians seem serious about keeping the
islands as close to pristine as possible...but inevitably, there is economic
pressure from tourists.
The Darwin Institute's "campus," on a select spot overlooking the harbor,
consists of a half dozen or so low stone buildings, many of which were built by
a Swedish philanthropist in the 1970s. It serves as a field office for
visiting scholars, and a permanent base for a number of Galapagos scientists.
As far as I know, this was the first time it would also become a television
studio. The kind Institute librarian—a Chicagoan, it turned out—closed
the library early and turned it over to our film crew, so we could shoot an
interview with Mike McPhaden for the television show.
Our gear and bags were all soaked, and we dried things as best we could after
checking into our low-slung hotel, before travelling up the hill to the
Institute. Mike had saved a couple of polo shirts in a garbage bag, and
proudly produced them for the interview, as though he were King Edward
presenting the royal ermines to the court. The crew had kept the camera and
sound gear dry with...garbage bags...and I had fashioned a makeshift poncho
from a...garbage bag. When choosing an outfitter for an El Niño
adventure, forget Abercrombie's—you need the Man from Glad.
The interview came off without a hitch, and after not nearly enough sleep in a
bed that didn't move, we arose early for our last investigation of the islands
before boarding our plane in the afternoon and leaving Galapagos for good.
Absent the pitching of the boat, I also got my first good satellite fix in a
week, and called my slightly incredulous editor, who seemed to suspect I had
buzzed out early and was calling from a pay phone in Miami. Actually, I was
trying to figure out how to extend the trip an extra week. Once you're here,
it's hard to leave.
The airstrip—and our plane back to Ecuador—lay to the north of us, and we
would take a road over the middle of the island to reach it. This meant an
ascension into the highlands, perhaps 800 meters, where an entirely different
microclimate prevailed. Along the way we planned to stop at a massive pit in
the earth, hundreds of meters across and equally deep, flanked by the crests of
the surrounding volcanoes. Here, our naturalist advised, we would find birds,
especially the Santa Cruz variant of Darwin's finches, in superabundance.
As we tooled along the red crushed lava tarmac, I saw more evidence of El
Niño's transforming effects. An odd prickly-pear cactus tree
predominates in this environment, but all around us I saw these stately desert
centurions in distress. Vine-bearing, iridescent blue and coral-colored
flowers grew around many of the cacti, choking them and preventing the rays of
the sun from reaching their fleshy leaves. Many of the cacti were already
dying. The vine, it turns out, is an exotic, introduced by humans as ground
cover for agricultural areas. Now, like kudzu in the American south, it has
its own agenda, and is capitalizing on El Niño rains to wreak serious
Prickly-pear cacti, free from (left) and choked by (right) vines.
As we drove higher up the massive caldera of the volcano that is the core of
this island, mists appeared. Called garua, they are more than a fog but
less than a rain, and for a third of each year (called the garua season,
naturally), they moisten the highlands and encourage a lush microenvironment.
Epiphytic ferns and mosses hang from the trees, creating shady retreats for the
giant land tortoises that prefer to inhabit the highlands. During El
Niño years, there is too much moisture, and the tortoises are driven to
What's annoying to tortoises apparently doesn't affect the birds here. Nearing
the highest point of the island, we pulled off the road, and hiked down a
trail. Turning a bend, we came upon a vista that took my breath away. Before
us lay a vast crater, a lost Eden with sheer basaltic walls. A profusion of
birds populated its ramparts, its air, and the forest surrounding its rim. The
garua-shrouded peaks of neighboring volcanic mountains enclosed the area, and
the sunlight played dramatic tricks as it filtered between the crags and fell
into the void. It was, I learned, an empty magma chamber, a subterranean
vessel that had once been filled with liquid rock, and its roof had collapsed
after it had been emptied by volcanic eruption. The violence had gone out of
it a long time ago.
Magma chamber crater.
Finches landed on my feet, bathed in rain puddles lying in depressions in the
hardened lava, and called out their territories from every surrounding tree.
Spiders did a robust business, too, weaving stunning nets of exotic design in
many sheltered corners. The mists played up and down the surrounding moors,
and for a moment we all forgot we were in the Galapagos. I wish I could say
that this was a moment of epiphany, but that would imply that human recognition
was important here. It was not. An old script was being played out, one whose
meaning had little to do with our human need to see change in terms of
disaster, catastrophe, and aberration. To comprehend the immanent mystery of
El Niño, it helps to stop thinking of it as a news event.
El Niño gives with one hand as it takes with the other. In nature's
double-entry accounting system, for every debit, there is a credit, for every
check, a balance. A balance. Learned with my own senses, this is what I would
take from the islands.
And then it was time to leave for the plane.
I spoke with Mike McPhaden as we boarded the rickety ferry to cross the channel
to Baltra and our plane ride home. With characteristic simple modesty, he
still seemed a little awed that NOVA was making a television show in which his
life's work was featured. He said something again that he had said 10 days
before. "I wish I knew more. I've seen so much here, learned so much. But
I'm just an amateur." This from the man behind the world's most intense El
Niño detection and measurement effort. Yes, Mike's an amateur, like
another scientist who came here a hundred and fifty years ago during an El
Niño year, and took with him visions and impressions that would incubate
20 years before flowering forth in a book that changed the world. His name was
I hope that in your lifetime, if you find yourself on a scientific adventure—a journey to find answers to an old mystery, answers which will never be
revealed in a newspaper or on cable news—that you have the privilege of such
"amateur" company as Mike McPhaden. But even if you don't, take a lesson from
Mike; your senses, your curiosity, and your passion are all you need, if you
want to tackle the big questions.
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