Animal Noises

Text by Franco La Cecla

Hide and seek. When I can’t see it, it sneaks up to my right, its fur brushing against me. I automatically flinch to the left. It dives down, twists around, shows me its smooth tummy and then, as I look at it, it aims for me, its whiskers ending up just inches from my face. At immense speed, it somersaults, calls its brother, they playfully weave in and out of each other, their backs arching up out of the water, they dive back down, torpedoes in the blue darkness. As I swim, I leave them behind, but the game’s not over. They want to surprise me, they dart alongside me, golden and shining, wrapped up in a cloud of bubbles, their hairy, yellow faces, their flippers held by their sides. When I get out of the water, they jump up disappointed, insist, climb on top of each other, stir up the blueness, measure the distance between the zodiac and the rock like arrows.  

What does it mean for me, city dweller, crowded out by stories of people, distracted by routine even on this trip, what does it mean to have been in contact for five long days with the iguanas that graze on the tasty seaweed on the coast, in the cold waters of the Galápagos, on Isabela’s sandy seabed, among the coral of Española? What? They explain to me that these sea lions are different from other ones, here they’re less suspicious of we humans. They get up close, play, because of course we’re something, someone whom they think might play with them. Can they really grasp this from us complex beings? How might they have guessed it? From our arms, our legs, our rubber masks, the wetsuits that vaguely look like a rough version of their coat? Are we children like them? Are we always up for a game? To them the very fact that we swim, we move means that we want to play. The experts tell us that by playing they’re continuously training, to hunt, escape predators, learn all of the sea’s nooks and crannies. Yes, it’s serious play, just like all children’s games, but it’s still a game. It’s the game, the one that counts on all the players understanding: THIS IS A GAME! There are no ifs and buts about it. The sea lion pups want to play and they want to play with us. It’s a game! There are dozens of signs that give it away.  Hide and seek, first of all. If we follow them with our gaze, they do all they can to escape our view to then surprise us from behind. They’re children, they’re not like their father, who instead barks when he can, makes us understand that if we get between him and the coast, he’ll let us know that this is his ground. But they don’t, they’re kids, and so they don’t even need to mark their territory. Instead they open it up as if it were a playing field, their swimming pool, the cubic feet where they go to swim. Maybe the secret behind their thinking that they’re talking to us is in the swimming. Maybe for them our flippers, our swooping arms and legs are the verb and the adjective, and above all the affirmative, our acceptance of the invitation to come and play. 

It’ll be hard to forget all this. It was fantastic to discover, to experience. There’s more than one game that can be played in the world, there’s something that goes beyond the silent swirling of the water, the third eyelids, the thick layer of fat, the seabeds where they’ll dive down, among killers and friends, while we drive miles on roads, stop at traffic lights, thinking that everything is so serious. And every so often we’ll think back, amazed that we were invited to play and that we were able to play with them.  

Hermann Melville arrived in the Galápagos six years after Darwin, in 1841. He set sail on a whaler, the Acushnet. As was customary for whalers, they stopped off to pick up water from one of the few springs on the islands and to stock up on giant tortoises. They’re enormous animals, a supply of living meat that resists for months without needing food or water. Melville was 26 years old, he spent the night observing the tortoises on the deck, unrelentingly slow and stubborn as they encountered and overcame, got around obstacles. A metaphysical young man, Melville thought of the nature of the time. On the islands that he visited (he would write about them decades later when Moby Dick had almost led to his failure as a writer), the dark, volcanic, gothic, bewitched Galápagos, he would say that the only real sound you could hear all the time was a hissing noise. All the animals he saw hissed, the forktailed frigatebirds, the blue-footed boobies, the immobile iguanas and above all the enormous tortoises. When they feel threatened, they withdraw their heads into their shells and to do so they have to expel all the air they have in their lungs. A long, impatient hiss.  

Animal noises. The sea lion pups whine as they look for the mammary glands of mothers who are too exhausted to guide them, they complain a bit, but when they’re a bit bigger and they start to play, they make different sounds, clicking, in exclamation, like seals. In the water, the strict fathers growl, claiming their territory. The finches that gave Darwin so much chirp, the thrushes that were his passion whistle, the albatrosses scream, the boobies hit each other on their beaks to duel and mate. In the midst of these sounds, I feel like a European on the Tokyo metro. I’m by myself in the middle of them and I don’t understand their language. I’m a stranger in a world of deep conversations. On the island of Española, a jewel of ecological restoration, I feel like I’m in the middle of a crowd. And the sounds definitely make me feel Melville’s unease, that thrill of the limit, the abyss that separates me from these beings, an abyss that makes me dizzy because it constantly tempts me to believe that I’m almost understanding, that I could almost chirp, growl, whistle, squeak or hiss. I imagine that the Grants, who revolutionized biology through their studies on Darwin’s finches on the island of Daphne Mayor from the 1970s to 90s, really did start to understand the language at a certain point. They frequented and made meticulous, detailed records of the families, generations and changes at every transition, from parents, to children, to grandchildren. They gave personal, affectionate names to all of them. When they came back after a decade, they recognized the single mature adults, the infants. Peter and Rosemary Grant showed that Darwin was right, and their story also became a magnificent book that won the Pulitzer Prize. Instead Darwin, who was not really a metaphysician at all, had fun. He grabbed the iguanas by the tail and threw them in the sea to watch, amazed, that as they came back to him. These animals had had practically no contact with humans and so they trusted them. To collect the specimens that he needed, all he had to do was whack them over the head and then he could dissect and embalm them. Above all, he was happy that they’d left him on the shore and that his surly fellow scientist Fitzroy had gone off to get supplies with the Beagle. All in all, the 25-year-old Charles’ experience was one of amazement, exploration and riding on the immense tortoises. Melville, on the other hand, observed them, noting that they were quick animals, covering miles to get water and returning to lay and dig a nest for their eggs. Much more active and quicker animals than the iguanas, above all they were fortunate to be inhabitants of a place that enabled them to grow as large as possible and live for hundreds of years. Charles brought one home and it only passed away on 23 June 2006 (Darwin died in 1882). Who knows what reflection on time Hermann Melville would have deduced from that.

Beauty. There are moments, when the dinghy sets you down on the beach, that you feel blessed. The fact that someone has thought of somehow protecting the natural isolation of these islands means that these places really are an exception to our usual experience of this world. They say that even now a large part, half of the biological diversity on the planet, is found on islands. And these ones, the recent result of volcanic eruptions and way off route for centuries, are among the richest. Pirates, whalers, colonists, goats, invasive species, mosquitos and bird flus have threatened them. And today, with the thousands of inhabitants on the large islands and the tourism, there’s definitely a risk that all of this will be lost. However, at the same time there’s a lot of interest, not only for it to remain, but for its ecology to be restored. The goats have been completely eradicated and large international investments have reintroduced species that were almost extinct, like tortoises and albatrosses. These islands are still an incredibly important laboratory for a large part of researchers and for the most advanced biology, genetics, ethology and natural sciences laboratories in the world. It’s important to understand that they’re not just some oddity in a world full of problems, but a place where solutions can be sought. Here, a lot of the situations that are endangered in the rest of the globe can find a way to recover, to understand that beyond the devastation we can build and rebuild with the currents, dynamics and variations provided by nature itself. If there’s something important in the theory of evolution, it’s the idea that when it finds obstacles, nature seeks other routes. There’s a way for populations threatened with extinction to look for alternatives or to transform themselves to find them, like the cormorants that lost the ability to fly because they had to fish and swim to hunt their food.  From a certain point of view, the Galápagos are schools of adaptation. As such, they can teach us something. Having to survive in a complex and devastated world means that we are also part of the history of evolution and that we can adapt and transform too. For a time, it’ll carry on being a hopeful challenge, but only if, by coming here, we realize that what we call “nature” is a continuous action. It’s a work of continuous, incredible dynamism. It’s turning around, changing course, reacting, transforming. On these terms, just like Darwin’s tortoise, “nature” will definitely outlive us and we’ll only have a chance if we can translate what nature is saying to us into our own language. 

Lastly, as the great Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso (the one who wrote the shortest story in the history of literature When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there) wrote about evolution: “Last, I have to warn you that I have no interest in genealogy. Along the British line, we all descend from Darwin”.

Other Stories from