The year my husband Bryan and I spent on an uninhabited Galapagos island studying the booby bird was not part of an official expedition. There were no other members, and no medic, either.
For medical emergencies we had only the do-it-yourself instructions scribbled by a doctor friend, in case of appendicitis: ‘Try, in this order: Fasting, Penicillin, Prayer. If these fail, stick a knife into the tenderest spot as far as it will go.’
Thankfully we never had to put those into practice. But by the time our year was almost over we had given up wearing clothes and our food was down to the weevil-infested bare minimum.
We were left on the beach with our tent, nine large chests filled with dried and tinned food, Primus stoves, twine, canvas, rope, a shotgun — and a sieve. Nearly 60 years on, I am still astonished by my strange foresight. I have a reputation for packing the kitchen sink, but what made me bring a sieve to a desert island?
So when Roger Perry, the then brand-new director of the Charles Darwin Research Station, made contact to tell us Prince Philip was making an unofficial visit to see and photograph the wildlife of the Galapagos, we were delighted — but in something of a dilemma.
What would we wear?
Bryan had no option. His patched shorts — streaked with seabird vomit, a stinking mix of oil and decaying fish — would have to do.
My shorts seemed not quite as disgusting as his, but suddenly looked so short and not at all suitable.
I scrabbled in the bottom of one of our chests and, by some magic, surfaced with smart green ski pants and a black sweater. I had last worn them in November, en route to the Galapagos, when the Queen Elizabeth hove to in the mid-Atlantic in a Force 11 gale.
Our first sight of Tower, one of the most northerly Galapagos islands, was from The Lucent, a beautifully-converted Cornish fishing boat used by the Charles Darwin Research Station.
Dried scrub silvered the tops of the cliffs. At the head of the bay lay a dazzling little coral beach, backed by dense green shrubs. This beach, no more than 60 yards long, was to be our home for the duration.
The year my husband Bryan and I spent on an uninhabited Galapagos island studying the booby bird was not part of an official expedition. There were no other members, and no medic, either
Watching the Lucent pull away, just after Christmas 1963, was a moment of strongly contrasting emotions; that dwindling speck was our last link with human beings.
There would be no boat for months. We were on our own.
But I knew that we could live on an uninhabited desert island. We’d just spent three years practising — studying the behaviour of gannets on Scotland’s Bass Rock.
Day after day, we’d crouched in fish-stinking mud, doing battle with indignant birds — weighing, measuring and fitting rings on their legs to enable them to be tracked. The experience had made its mark: I had neat claw holes in my skull where a gannet had thrust away in alarm.
After that cold and windy rock, we eagerly anticipated a year of tropical warmth in the Galapagos, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, gathering research into the booby, the gannet’s smaller cousin, for Bryan’s zoology PhD.
We were left on the beach with our tent, nine large chests filled with dried and tinned food, Primus stoves, twine, canvas, rope, a shotgun — and a sieve.
Nearly 60 years on, I am still astonished by my strange foresight. I have a reputation for packing the kitchen sink, but what made me bring a sieve to a desert island?
Whatever the reason, I blessed it later on. I used it for extracting beetles and maggots when our flour for baking bread became infested.
I used it to strain paraffin for cooking. And I discovered that mushrooms and onions sieved out of a dried soup produced quite a reasonable spaghetti sauce.
To capture and mark our first booby, we wandered just a few yards from the tent, barefoot, in shorts and sun hats, lifted the mildly surprised bird from its bushy nest, clamped on the rings and replaced it
Luckily, I had also packed knitting needles and wool, which allowed me to reknit Bryan’s holey sweater sleeves for that unexpected (and rather splendiferous) royal visit from Prince Philip, more of which later.
The Galapagos, made famous by a visit from Charles Darwin in 1835, have an aura of unreality. The volcanic outcrops were known for centuries as Las Islas Encantadas, the Enchanted Islands.
The name Galapagos actually refers to the giant tortoise that lives on the islands, but to most people it means a weird, fire-seared landscape like the moon, where crested dragons (marine and Galapagos land iguanas) festoon the tortured black outcrops and millions of red crabs scuttle over the algae-slimed, wave-beaten shores.
Tower Island is a mere 700,000 years old, with shoe-shredding lava. It has since been renamed Genovesa — but I still think of it by its English name.
I was a typical 1960s housewife, but there wasn’t much housework to do — although when the tent’s groundsheet became indistinguishable from the sandy beach, I swept it with an old toothbrush.
More importantly, I also shared Bryan’s work, helping with observations then typing up data in the evenings.
Looking back, I contributed an enormous amount without receiving much kudos. Bryan’s examiners said he had written the equivalent of two theses, so perhaps I could have had one.
Our home was a 12 ft by 8 ft ridge tent, made of heavy tropical canvas, with a flysheet and veranda. It stood up magnificently to the bleaching and weakening effect of the fierce sun, but our store tent of ordinary canvas became so fragile after a few months that even the small Galapagos doves put their feet through the roof.
When it became too hot we could open the flaps, encouraging a through breeze.
We could stroll to the lagoon for a warm loll and, for something slightly more bracing, a few steps took us to the sea.
We had a paraffin fridge — mainly for Bryan’s film — and a paraffin oven which sat on a metal box. Before we had hammered in our first guy rope, doves pottered into our tent. Mockingbirds ran out from the bush behind it. A small black finch we later named Poppet inspected our boxes of food.
When Roger Perry, the then brand-new director of the Charles Darwin Research Station, made contact to tell us Prince Philip was making an unofficial visit to see and photograph the wildlife of the Galapagos, we were delighted — but in something of a dilemma. What would we wear?
Extreme trustingness is characteristic of Galapagos creatures, living as they do on remote islands with few predators.
To capture and mark our first booby, we wandered just a few yards from the tent, barefoot, in shorts and sun hats, lifted the mildly surprised bird from its bushy nest, clamped on the rings and replaced it.
Our personal appearance soon depended on the weather and the state of the wash. We were not fussy about our looks. If we ran out of shorts and shirts, we went without — a natural state to which, even as inhibited north Britons, we quickly became accustomed.
Bryan drew the line at wearing only boots. His firm principle was nothing — or shoes and at least shorts. I often wore just a straw hat, sunglasses, tennis shoes and a neck scarf (the scarf was not for elegance, merely to stop sunburn on the collarbone).
There was no fresh water and the stuff in our water containers tasted strange and eventually turned green. So we had to make a solar still, which would manufacture drinking water from the Pacific Ocean. Its base was a rectangular pit in the sand, lined with black polythene and filled with seawater. The sun’s heat, absorbed by the black polythene, produced water vapour which condensed on the underside of its roof and ran down into troughs.
Being the smaller, I was deputed to wriggle into the hot water for final adjustments. Bryan took a photo to prove that he kept a naked woman in a cage.
The still’s first day collected a tenth of a cup of fresh water, the second two and a half pints: a lot depended on the weather, and leakage through pinholes caused by crabs.
I tried new recipes, but it was hard work. Dried vegetables never seemed really tender — other than onion rings — but at last I conquered dried peas. Soup would have worked but it was too hot. We had lousy meat, bought as we left the coast of Ecuador: Spam, luncheon meat, a little tongue and some noxious corned beef hash.
Nothing edible would grow on the island, though we had optimistically taken a few seeds, particularly cress. One day I noticed cress had started to grow on an old blouse and I watered it with tea dregs, but each time it shrivelled before reaching the eating stage.
Fresh fish we loved, but Bryan’s first fishing trip ended with both bait and hook taken; we lost six precious hooks in no time. We watched in frustration as shoals of mackerel-like fish leapt in the bay.
We did catch parrotfish, but found their appearance so garish and their flesh so minimal that we ate one and no more. And anyway, wrote Bryan, ‘they rather disgusted us by scavenging for faeces in our sea-washed latrine’.
Eventually, we learned to catch giant crayfish or langosta. We cooked them in seawater over a beach fire, then danced on the sand to Radio Belize.
Most days we were jiggered by dusk. All we wanted was a long soak in the lagoon, then to bed, which meant some seawater for teeth-cleaning and a lick with seawater soap, then the rigmarole of putting up the beds.
With darkness came silence, the prelude to stealthy scrapings and scratchings on the canvas as land crabs began their foraging. They were welcome, but not the giant centipedes, which were a foot long. Their powerful claws scraped particularly menacingly in the total blackness.
THE boobies demanded much of our time, with groups at different stages of their breeding cycle.
The first chore was to mark our birds and their nests. Lacking paint, we improvised markers with strips of different materials, hence obscure references in our field notebooks to ‘red pyjama’, ‘June’s pants’ and ‘old sock’.
Bryan described Tower as ‘energy-sapping’ but it’s no surprise he never felt well. He slept badly and he pushed himself, checking over 150 nests before breakfast.
We did two more attendance checks at midday and evening and maybe some more leg ringing. There was photography every day, fishing attempts, exploring the island to find new seabird colonies, equipment maintenance, writing up results, writing papers.
The day would be hot, we would be pecked and scratched — yet we were good friends and we never fought. We usually managed to find energy and time for things we both enjoyed.
Poppet, our finch, delighted us. He was no bigger than a sparrow but with a huge thick beak, and a stumpy, black body. He learnt amazingly quickly, gently pecking our fingers for a reward.
Almonds were his passion: once he realised he’d had his ration, Poppet would fly to the open-sided store cupboard, select a length of spaghetti, his second-favourite food, and methodically work his way down, breaking off small pieces.
I wish I had a film of him leaping up and down on the typewriter as I worked.
Tower was kind to us. Day after day the sun shone and the waters of Darwin Bay sparkled. When we returned, jaded after a long, hot day’s work, our modest camp — white coral beach and green tent — beckoned hospitably.
A small colony of Galapagos fur seals flourished in one corner of the bay and a magnificent colony of white-vented storm-petrels inhabited the eastern horn — both rarities.
Giant manta rays flapped and glided just a few yards from the tent. They are a quite astonishing size; a manta once swam beneath our boat and its fins stuck out on either side. One afternoon a pod of dolphins moved regally across the bay in a series of graceful, curving dives.
Bryan battled with tension headaches and cold sores or mouth ulcers constantly erupted, along with leg sores, swellings, rashes and itches.
Boils on his bum meant that he couldn’t sit. It must have irked him that, apart from the occasional stomach ache, I seemed to be a healthy peasant.
Our store tent eventually disintegrated, so we had no option but to keep the fridge at the back of the main tent.
This was a hazardous solution. Despite our concerted efforts we could not keep birds out, and they regularly rocketed round, extinguishing the flame of the paraffin fridge or provoking it to noxious fumes.
Our flour now had around 50 maggots or beetles per pound. Sieving with a spoon squashed the maggots and blocked the sieve. Dried beans had three or four beetles per bean, which left no bean.
In spaghetti a black shadow meant beetle, a grey one, maggot. It took a long time, breaking out each shadow, to make a meal. Both macaroni and rice had beetles — and tasted of sacking.
And then came the news of Prince Philip’s visit.
At exactly 8am on the appointed morning, the Royal Yacht Britannia arrived. The Duke of Edinburgh, justly admired for his realistic attitudes and genuine charm, quickly dispelled any awkwardness we felt about our attire.
We spent four hours watching albatrosses and boobies and taking photographs under a grilling sun; the albatrosses came out from the shade and performed their courtship dance as if at a Royal Command Performance. Prince Philip got the works, including whoops, grunts, rattles and mad laughter.
Approaching 12.30 the party turned towards the Britannia and Prince Philip invited us on board. Fortunately, it was lunch, so at least our sartorial elegance would not be competing with the party’s evening dress.
I was already noticing that my outfit looked totally ridiculous beside the smart tropical kit of the Prince’s entourage and the uniforms of the crew. We were both barefoot as lava had shredded our island footwear. And we smelt fusty.
I went first up the long ladder — and there stood the captain, telescope under his arm, saluting us, flanked by two sailors.
We were taken to a guest suite for a wash, then another steward took us up to the cocktail lounge for drinks.
The Britannia was beautiful inside — discreet elegance with soft grey carpet, beautiful wide stairs, fresh flowers on the grand piano, huge windows and soft chairs everywhere.
The contrast with Galapagos camping was extreme.
We were inured to washing in seawater, eating weevily spaghetti and using a sea-washed gully for a latrine, and now we were ensconced within the magnificence of the Britannia’s suites.
Prince Philip sat at the head of the table, with me on his right and Bryan on his left. Bryan surely presented the footman with the most ragged posterior ever guided to a Britannia chair. Queues of stewards waited on us.
I was served first for everything — beginning with goulash, noodles, potatoes and broccoli in sauce. Stewards offered us salad on the side.
We talked for weeks afterwards about the apple millefeuille and fresh cream. The cheese, biscuits and coffee almost sank us, but provided a superb ending to the finest of dining.
We’d forgotten the taste of beautifully cooked, fresh produce, the sensations of delicate flavours, the textures of real food.
Prince Philip was splendid. He talked to me in a thoroughly informal way, joking about how crazy we were spending a year in such remote conditions.
But there was a downside to having most of the Prince’s attention. Eating gracefully whilst composing answers to his interested questions needed deep concentration — which prevented me from savouring each delicious mouthful.
He even offered to take us to Panama if that would be any help in getting home. It would have almost been worth going in the exact opposite direction to spend two days on the Britannia.
Years later, when he wrote the foreword for our Galapagos book, he remarked of Bryan: ‘If his descriptions of life sound almost idyllic, I would strongly advise anyone who has ideas about rushing off to live on a desert island to think three and preferably four times about it — and then to consult June Nelson.’
Adapted from Galapagos Crusoes: A Year Alone With The Birds by Bryan Nelson and June Nelson, published by Bradt Travel Guides at £11.99. © Bryan Nelson & June Nelson 2022.
To order a copy for £10.79 (offer valid to 7/5/22; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
June Nelson will be in a livestreamed conversation with Hilary Bradt on May 4 at 7pm. Details and tickets on the publisher’s website: bit.ly/3vbTrPD