Galapagos Islands 2015

 

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LANDING IN THE GALAPAGOS

After two flights, we made it from 10000 feet elevation in Quito to the Galapagos Islands. Two things were apparent quickly. First this is the land that time forgot. Some animal species have been developing in isolation for more than four million years. Second, there seems to be no fear of humans. The little sea lion made his way up to the loading area and made himself at home while we worked our way around him. That’s when I told Toto that we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

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LANDING ON SANTA CRUZ

We moored in the Galapagos’ main harbor on Santa Cruz island and walked to the Darwin Research Center. They have another tortoise rescue center, highlighted by the recent demise of “Lonesome George,” who was discovered after it had been feared that his particular species had been wiped out by sailors. The Center tried to mate George with other species females to no avail and George died of a heart attack. They have been more successful with other endangered breeds and have a release program in place. This afternoon, we are headed to the highlands to see tortoises in the wild.

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TORTOISE OBSERVATION

OK I admit it…I was skeptical. When we were told that we would be going to the Highlands to see tortoises in the wild at a privately owned ranch, I was thinking it really wasn’t in the wild. BUT it turned out that these big guys migrate through the Highlands on their way to lower elevations at this time of year. And the ranch is in a perfect spot for a seasonal observation business about three months of the year. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen “Tortoise Crossing”‘yield signs on a main road

The males stay in the high country longer, eat up, and then rush down the hill at 3km/day to catch the ladies for mating. The younger tortoises stay in the lower elevations until about 25 years to avoid this mating ritual.

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RABIDA ISLAND

We woke up this morning in a beautiful cove and landed on a red sand beach. Just inland from the beach was a lagoon, which is home to a flamingo colony. There used to be thousands, but now they estimate their number at 700 or so. The thinking is that their food source changed and most just flew off to Africa. We then walked up a lava trail to see the views from cliff outcroppings. I included the pic with the cacti growing on the edges of the cliffs. On the way back, Lela and I walked along the beach. All of a sudden, these small fish (at home, they’d be anchovies,) jumped out of the water. They were being pursued by the pelican on top, but the greater threat was the penguin below. We followed the flying fish all the way along the beach, then headed back aboard to get our snorkeling gear. It’s a tough vacation life here in the Galapagos unless you are an anchovy.

SULLIVAN BAY AT JAMES ISLAND

Ok. We visited Sullivan Bay for great snorkeling, penguins, and the evidence of a volcanic eruption. Everything is slow here. Part of the development is determined by how much rain is received. But I guess we can come back in, say, 50,000 years and really see what will happen.

No sea lions today but we saw a seven foot shark and the most beautiful sea turtle I have ever seen. Her shell could have been a Zulu war shield. Oh, and in the dinghies on the way to the ship, we came across a little penguin. Another surprising day in the Galapagos!

BARTOLOME ISLAND

After a difficult crossing southeast across the equator, we moored on Bartolome’ Island, which was named after one of the earlier charters of this island chain. While most activities have focused on wildlife, this AM’s discussion was about the formation of the islands. Bartolome’ is the most recent of the islands as it was formed about a half million years ago by volcanic eruptions. While the volcanoes around Quito had cones at near 14000 feet and thus required massive pressure to push out magma, these islands had cones much lower and needed much less pressure. However the lowered pressure wasn’t always enough to blast lava out a cone, so sometimes secondary cracks opened and lava made its way out almost sideways from the original cone. You can see one of these secondary eruption sites in the photo below. Erosion by the sea water has made it even more impressive. We climbed to a promontory point to look out over this formation. That is Pinnacle Rock in the distance on the first photo and closer in the third

Oh and as an after thought, we snorkeled with sharks and observed Galapagos Penguins afterwards. These penguins live here year-round and the only ones north of the equator.

SANTIAGO ISLAND

Santiago is at the far north of the Galápagos Islands. We crossed the equator to get here. The one thing that is the most difficult is the night crossings. We are cruising open ocean in a very small vessel so most of the night has been toss and turn. The catamaran handles it fine but I am sure that a few get sick each night. We have one more rough night before things soften up. Anyway Santiago is an inverted volcanic collapse so the lava is reddish and brittle. That makes it a perfect breeding area for birds and the only island that has red-footed boobies

This afternoon we went searching for the short-eared owl which is very elusive because it’s color blends into the rock. We found three, one flying.

Santiago is the home of the largest sea iguana population on the island. It was high tide so they couldn’t feed. So watch your step or schrunch. Their camouflage is so good that you really have to be careful. We took a walk along the lava fields along the shoreline. Although it looks like Hawaii, this lava couldn’t escape from Sugarloaf, the mountain in the picture, as the eruption started well under the sea. So the lava forced its way out in a secondary eruption near the coast which formed the lava tunnels you see in the photo. A beautiful coastline with no roads or hotels. Just sea lions, crabs, iguanas, and birds. This afternoon was very special and we still have another five days to go.

GENOVESA ISLAND

We are on Genovesa Island today, named after the home port of Christopher Columbus. It is one of the four human-inhabited islands but we have seen no one except for others coming off anchored vessels in the bay.

The big attraction here was the nesting grounds of many birds, and primarily the red-footed boobie. They were named by old sailors for their clumsiness on the ground but they are magnificent in the air. And the intrigue of natural selection: why do we have red footed here while other islands have blue footed, etc. I’ve included a close-up and photos aloft. We walked along lava outcroppings while always watching your step. You could lose your footing and rip your skin on the lava, or you can step on a sea lion, iguana, or boobie, since they are not concerned about us at all. The only animal I have found that is skitterish is the red crab. A sea lion pup came within a foot of one of our group. The woman shuddered and moved away, which then made the pup nervous and it hopped away.

I did have one misgiving. I keep hearing from our guide about the efforts in place to keep the Galapagos, well, the Galapagos. For example, they introduced a black bird specifically because it eats all the parasites of a particular plant. But the bird didn’t cooperate and travelled to areas of the island where this plant life is absent. Now they are concerned because the black bird is eating other seeds, etc. so they then talk about how to eradicate the bird. They talk about goats like this too because they eat the natural grasses. The only real threat to the Galapagos, no matter how careful, is Man and his arrogance. Maybe we should leave well enough alone and see what the Galapagos goat looks like in say, four million years???

 

SANTA CRUZ ISLAND NATURE WALK

We returned to Santa Cruz on our way south to the Darwin Institute and eventually our travel back to Quito. We once again landed on a red volcanic rock beach and hiked past a lagoon with an increasing number of flamingos. We saw the marine iguanas on the way but the focus of this hike was to find the land iguanas Out guide said we would be lucky to see three. We were one over limit including the one below who was traveling down the path. A great example of natural selection is the cacti. On other islands, their spines are very fine and hairy because they have no predators. Today the spines were incredibly sharp and start at ground level because the iguana and tortoise eat them.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE GALAPAGOS

I am sitting at 33,000 feet after a fog delay in Quito wondering if we’ll make our connection in Panama City. So I have some time to try and sum up all my thoughts about this adventure.

I have a list of places and objects that , if lucky enough to possess the time and resources, we should all visit. More of a personal education than a bucket list. And as I become more educated, my list expands. For example, everyone should have the opportunity to see a redwood tree, and take on the responsibility to protect them so others will have the same good fortune. The Galápagos Islands are certainly on this list. They combine an education about geology and evolution with the opportunity to visit a place where animals and plants are held in a higher esteem than humans. It is a place where the animals hold us in an equal esteem to themselves, by not showing a natural fear. In the Galapagos, humans are no longer predators. I say “no longer, ” because there were a few centuries when this was not true. The Ecuadorians have assumed a commendable role of conservationists. I shudder to think of what might have happened if they had given in to immediate economic needs and sold the islands to the USA. And they have some important decisions to make, because no matter how much anyone tries to preserve these islands, our presence makes that task impossible.  So, do you limit visitation???  Do you quit trying to remediate mistakes and let nature sort it all out???  Tough choices…

The locals appear to love the Galapagos. And they have put laws in motion to severely limit immigration. They also limit the number of vehicles in the islands. For example, it is impossible to buy a new car or motorcycle. You must replace an existing one or buy the license plate of someone else’s vehicle. I didn’t see any new cars or BMWs. It is a major transgression to veer off a path, get within six feet of an animal or startle it by using flash photography, step on a plant, or pick up anything to take with you when you leave. Despite all this, the local population is growing due to a problem with YOUNG people having babies and not completing educations. It will be interesting to see how the locals manage their professional needs while striving to maintain a steady population

The locals who made up our crew were very attentive, patient when I tried to fall out of transfer dinghies, and caring about sharing the gifts of these wonderful islands.

A trip here is not for the physically unfit or persons who expect constant catering. The night sailings between islands on small crafts can be very uncomfortable. Most of our group took nightly Dramamine and some hugged toilets.

But maybe even this, in time, will be considered part of the Galapagos charm.  It shouldn’t be easy to visit here.  Perhaps we should earn it a little…to break out of our consumer mentality and consider a trip to the Galapagos as a re-education in the skills of giving back and a learning of the moral responsibly humans have to the animal kingdoms that depend on us for their survival. Perhaps we’ll learn to extend our own survival in the process

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