Monday, April 30, 2012

Pollywogs No More

April 30-Galapagos Passage-Day 22

Patrick and I are no longer pollywogs. We have ascended into Neptune's rank of shellbacks. At 1347 local time, 1847 UTC, we crossed the Equator!

I had never heard of this nomenclature before going cruising this year. My knowledge of the rituals performed when crossing the Equator was limited to people shaving their heads when they crossed that invisible line of latitude. I was balking at the choice of the term "pollywogs" because pollywogs are freshwater creatures, and Patrick explained that these terms were invented long ago by sailors who weren't really focusing on the natural history. I understood that the term was chosen because a pollywog is a juvenile life form, representing the uninitiated; while shellbacks represent if not a revered elder, at least a more knowledgeable specimen. (I interpret the term "shellback" as an elder---thinking of a ancient reptilian sea turtle---like a silverback in a mountain gorilla family group. Patrick interprets the term as literally a "shell back"---someone who has earned their "crustiness," their salt, like a crustacean. Clearly, the origins of these terms bear further research.)

We entered the Galapagos Islands (Archipelago de Colon) early in the morning on April 29. We made landfall with our first view of Isla Pinta, which we spotted from a distance at about 9:55 a.m. We spent the remainder of the day sailing toward and past that island, and we were just passing it as the burning scarlet-orange globe of the sun dropped below the edge of the island at sunset. Pinta reminded me of some of the islands I've seen up in the Aleutians, such as Seguam Island, with its conical sides covered in black volcanic soils dusted with emerald green vegetation.

A couple of boobies joined us and for the first time in a couple of weeks, settled in on the bow pulpit: a fitting escort to our arrival in the Galapagos.

At dusk, Isla Marchena became visible, and this morning, we had Islas Marchena and Genovesa to port and Islas San Salvador and Santa Cruz to starboard.

The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago formed by large islands and small islets, spread out over an area of approximately 2,966 square miles. Depending on your reference source, the archipelago is considered to be made up of six to thirteen major islands, and the rest are considered islets. (Most charts show fourteen islands but differ in which of the islets is shown as the fourteenth island.) All of the islands are volcanic. The most well known island is Santa Cruz, which contains the Darwin Research Center; Isabela, San Cristobal, San Salvador, and Fernandina are the other large land masses in the archipelago.

Isla Santa Maria (Floreana Island) has a famous post office, consisting of oil barrels which have been in use since whaling times (Landfalls of Paradise, p.363.) Apparently, whalers and explorers left letters and packages in the oil barrels on Floreana. Incoming or outbound ships picked up the mail for delivery in an informal sort of postal system as they passed through or from the islands. Think of the romance of receiving one of those letters---that had been written months before by a loved one and left in a barrel on some remote outpost, to be finally delivered through the generosity of strangers' hands. Think of the letters that fell to misfortune at sea---storms, shipwrecks, pirates---and were never delivered, and of the heartbreak, needless worry, or miscommunication such a delay might have caused. Can today's internet generation fathom the fidelity and patience necessary for such a form of communication?

Many people know that Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands as a naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle in 1835. It was there that he developed his ideas on variation and natural selection (part of the Theory of Evolution) based on the observations of birds, reptiles, and other wildlife that he made there. Due to their volcanic origin and geologic isolation from other continents, species are found on the Galapagos Islands that are found nowhere else on earth. I am looking forward to fleshing out my knowledge on this topic in the coming weeks.

Our progress has been slow. We are still beating to weather and are now battling inter-island currents as well. But we are still sailing! At our current rate of progress, we now expect to make our first port in the Galapagos sometime early tomorrow morning.

Posted at sea via HAM radio.


  1. We're looking forward to the photos.

    1. Me too...The Internet connection here in the harbor is very slow (but amazingly, there is one to access---even here in the Galapagos!), so we will probably have to go to an internet cafe to upload our passage photos. We'll do that after we recover from the passage and get a little exploring under our belts!

  2. been reading your wonderful log with great interest! have you been seeing any palagic birds? not to mention the incredible colonies of life living aboard teh flotsam & jetsam....i was mesmerized by the crab colonies thriving a thousand miles from the nearest land!


    1. Gordon,

      We've seen a lot of pelagic birds, but it's been too hard to identify them on the wing. I think we've been seeing mostly shearwaters and storm petrels. We've seen more boobies than anything though, because we're not that far west yet (we actually had to travel east from Mexico to get to the Galapagos!) We haven't gotten close enough to any flotsam and jetsam to see the colonies of life growing on them, sounds interesting!

  3. As a shellback I can attest to the how lowly the polywogs are looked upon when crossing the Equator. I survived a thrashing by the shellbacks aboard the U.S.S America, by staying in the middle of the pack as we crawled through the maze on the flight deck. Most of us were beaten by firehoses and were made to rub our faces into some fat Master Chief Cook who had smeared axle grease on his fat belly. I think you probably fared a lot better Kirsten. Happy that you have arrived.

    1. I did! Luckily, Patrick wasn't already a shellback, so he couldn't haze me! He (also ex-Navy and being familiar with their practices) described the very ritual you mentioned of having to rub your face on some grease-smeared belly--ugh!--to me. All we did was give the traditional offerings (in our case, rum) over the side to Neptune.