Touring the Galapagos with Doug Peacock and Rick Bass
By Jacob Osborne
On the back deck of a stately luxury vessel, under a rust-colored moon, I sat with five others during an evening navigation through the Galapagos Archipelago, lurching along as the boat parted swells of dark water.
To pass the minutes before dinner, we sipped Pisco sours and listened as Montana writer and naturalist Doug Peacock reflected on our week in the islands.
“This is by far the most indulgent trip I’ve ever been on,” Peacock said, his thick growl competing with the engine beneath the floorboards. He swirled a glass of foam-coated ice cubes, working over the thought. “I think that’s worth considering.”
For seven nights, I traveled with a group including Peacock and renowned Western author Rick Bass through the Galapagos Islands on a 78-foot yacht named the Samba. Though it retained its masts and rigging from years as a sailing ship, the Samba’s interior was retrofitted with carpeting and cedar woodwork, and had air conditioning in every sleeping cabin.
Peacock’s reflections have a way of quieting people. They are charged, and honest. Whether discoursing on the fate of the grizzly bear or recounting the final hours of his dear friend Edward Abbey, he speaks with a harsh wit that’s magnetic and impossible to combat. (He provided the inspiration for Abbey’s George Hayduke in The Monkey Wrench Gang, and after five minutes in his presence, one can see why.)
Bass is discerning and eccentric in his own right, but when his longtime friend Peacock began musing, Bass held his comments and gazed calmly through small, round eyeglasses.
The Galapagos cast the two writers in different directions. Bass immersed himself. He never missed an activity, paddling off in a kayak under the midday sun while others napped through the heat. He noticed the minutiae amidst the archipelago’s grandeur, scouring for details our naturalist guide had overlooked.
On the island of Genovesa, Bass held a slender mangrove seed as the rest of the group moved down the path. He peered at it under the bill of his cap. “It’s torpedo-weighted,” he said.
And so it was. Bass converted findings like this into lines of chicken-scratch on scraps of folded, loose-leaf paper. Back on the Samba, he transferred his exhaustive field notes to a lined notebook, and then once more to his computer. The labor helped him internalize the writing, he said, but it also made him vulnerable: One afternoon, he lost an entire page of notes off the side of the boat. He let out a wail as the wind carried his thoughts away, and afterward he transcribed indoors.
For Peacock, the intimacy of human-animal interactions in the Galapagos was unnerving. As a wildlife activist, he is wary of human predation, but the fur seals, sea lions, turtles, tortoises, penguins, iguanas and sea birds of these islands have never learned to fear it.
Our group could swim alongside a whale shark for almost a half hour. For most on board, drifting near the 30-foot-long shark was an experience that would define the trip forever. Peacock watched us from the front deck, seeing only a cluster of snorkel tubes encircling a glimmering dorsal fin.
That evening on the Samba’s stern, foamy ice still clinking against the sides of his glass, he wrestled aloud with the concept of wildlife watching for leisure. He directed his words at Bass, as if no one else was around.
“It’s the same reason I didn’t want to swim with the whale shark today,” he said. “It’s about the dignity of the animal.”
Bass nodded slightly and smiled, his cheeks and neck covered in stubble. Tucked inside his breast pocket was a folded stack of chicken-scratch notes about the whale shark, the mangrove, and every other secret the Galapagos had given him.
Jacob Osborne grew up in Vermont and is now a rising junior at Yale University. His father and stepmother arranged this Galapagos trip with family friends Brooke and Terry Tempest Williams, who then invited Peacock and Bass along for the ride.
This story was first published in the summer 2014 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.