You might think that once you’ve landed in Ecuador, you’re within spitting distance of the Galapagos. But you would be wrong. The islands are over 600 miles from the mainland. From Quito we flew again for a couple of hours before landing at the small, informal airport on San Cristóbal Island. (Note the emphasis! I had to work hard to break the habit of stressing the first syllable.)
Our first ordeal was to learn the elaborate procedure required for embarking and disembarking the cruise ship which would be our home for the next three days. On the last day of our journey some passengers were still stymied by the cat’s cradle of straps that connect people to life vests. In an elaborate ritual that involves first passing all handbags, cameras, and backpacks to the guides, groups of about a dozen guests board “panga” boats which resemble large rubber rafts. The pangas chug through the waves to the ship which is anchored about a mile from land. Then the transfer ritual is reversed. Passengers wobble carefully to the edge of the panga and reach for the waiting arms of the crew standing on the landing of a ladder at the side of the ship. For anyone with mobility issues, this transfer is a thrilling carnival ride, the boat and ship dancing devilishly on the waves.
The thirteen islands, five of which are occupied, are managed by the Galapagos National Park. The ocean from which the islands thrust their heads is a protected marine reserve. The number and size of ships permitted to cruise through the archipelago is restricted. Tourists must be accompanied by certified naturalists in groups of about 10 – 12 per guide. Tourism brings precious money to the Islands and to Ecuador. But economic benefits weigh against damage to the delicately balanced ecosystem. The nature of these islands, so far from the mainland but not too far, bred a complex of plant, animal, and marine life that is recognizable, yet distinct from anywhere else in the world. It was these puzzling differences that bedeviled the young Charles Darwin when he visited the islands and collected specimens in 1835. It took a lifetime for Darwin to recognize, understand, and come to terms with the relevance of animal specialization—what we now understand (some of us, anyway) as evolution.
Human impacts on the islands have been many—some downright disgusting. For example, Giant Tortoises, like Lonesome George who is the last of his subspecies in the world, were captured by sailors and pirates during the 17th and 18th century. The animals were thrown live into the hold of the ships where they could survive for months at a time without food or fresh water. They were carved a piece at a time and served to the hungry sailors; fresh meat sans refrigeration. Those who escaped this ordeal found themselves competing for forage with domesticated goats gone wild, which were imported by early settlers. Farming and cattle production further changed the environment, as did human sewage and oil spills. It is a wonder that any indigenous animals have survived and that they haven’t risen up against the human race in protest.
Quite the contrary. The wildlife of the Galapagos are so tame, so unafraid of predators, that one really must be careful not to inadvertently walk on them. The sea lions are a particular temptation to animal lovers. They loll about on sandy beaches and in established pathways. The youngsters, looking for playmates, are prone to flirt and follow tourists. I could more easily have resisted fondling diamonds and pearls than these saucer-eyed sea kittens.
One morning we hiked across Espanola Island on a path that took us over lava rocks that varied from beach ball-size to bean bag chair-size. Marine lizards hunkered over the lava fields like students basking on beaches during spring break. Only it was much harder to see the lizards, camoflauged on the rocks as they were. The lizards lay in heaps and piles, spread out and intertwined like a collection of Russian nesting dolls.
The highlight of the hike was the courting and nesting sites of boobies and albatross. The Blue-footed Boobies stole my heart. Their courting ritual involves a series of mimicked foot stomping followed by head posturing. The albatross ritual is a noisy series of parrying beaks. These birds were as unconcerned by our human presence as the sea lions were.
I would have proclaimed the snorkeling a bust but for my extended float with a large sea turtle. The waters near the equator are dark and murky, at least where I snorkeled. It was totally different from snorkeling in Hawaii. Nevertheless, my turtle charmed me. It was my last opportunity for snorkeling and I was about to return to the boat when suddenly there she was. (I don’t know…maybe she was a he, but she seemed like a she.) She was contentedly nibbling algae from underwater volcanic rock. I hovered above her while she dropped and rose in the water like the bubbles in a lava lamp. At one point she cocked her head at me, made eye contact, and decided I was just another one of those strange critters with the extraordinarily long flippers. She continued to graze while I continued to float above her, transfixed, my circulatory system congealing from inactivity.
As our time on the ship drew to a close, our charming activities director—Ramiro II—bid us adieu with a surprise slide show of photos the guides had snapped of each of us in various adventures and awkward positions. We all felt the last-days-of-vacation let down. But our group of BSU-ers were only mid-way through our trip. It was time to gear up for double-digit elevations in Peru.
Please forgive me for now deluging you with images of this most wonderful place on earth.
|Baby Nazca Booby|
|Nazca Boobies building their nest|
|Trail of tears – for some anyway.|
|Red Marine Iguana|