North Seymour Island

 

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A gull flies over the coast on North Seymour Island

 

Our first stop on our Galapagos Cruise is North Seymour, a tiny island just north of our starting point on Baltra. We’ve only been on the cruise for a couple of hours, just enough time for a briefing from the head guide and a bit of rest, and now the loudspeaker requests that we don our life vests and come to the back of the ship in our tour groups, each named after a different animal. We’re the Dolphins. I’d make a football joke here, but that would imply I know a lot more about football than I actually do. When we reach the back of the ship, we check out by putting a magnetic red chip into two slots labeled with our room number. This helps the cruise keep track of everyone and ensures no one is left behind, which is comforting considering that there is little fresh water on the islands. Then our guide, Lorenzo, helps us into a zodiac. Once everyone is loaded, we’re off–speeding over the water toward a rocky outcrop.

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Our tour group gathers on the beach

While North Seymour looks untouched by man from a distance, drawing closer reveals a stone platform and stairs that serve as our landing point. We hop off the zodiac (again, with help from our guide), and put our life vests into a giant sack (I honestly thought we would have to carry them-this cruise thing is full of surprises). Then we’re off down the rust-colored path into the island, one of the few trails cut into North Seymour’s landscape where visitors are allowed to tread. The rest of the island is kept isolated from human contact, in an effort to keep the park close to its natural state.

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A mother seal and her pup rest on the beach

The first animal sighting of the trip is the Galapagos sea lion, one of the most ubiquitous animals on North Seymour. Sea lions live on the island year-round, diving off its shore for food and coming ashore to rest and bask in the brilliant equatorial sun. Though they’re graceful creatures in the water, their body shape does them no favors on land, and they waddle about unceremoniously. Even so, they can move quite fast when provoked. One sea lion decides s/he’s had enough of our pictures and noise, and scoots furiously toward our group while barking. The whole group scrambles to back up; park rules dictate that we’re supposed to stay six feet away from all of the animals, but they may choose not to stay six feet away from us.

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A territorial seal chases after our group

The sea lion pups that scatter the island are far more docile, and far less interested in us. We’re at the tail end of sea lion breeding season in the Galapagos, but there are pups scattered everywhere along the rocky shore. Though they will join their mothers in swimming only a couple of weeks after birth, for now they are stuck on the beach. They play with each other, lay resting in the sun, and wait for their mothers to return from fishing. When a female climbs the beach, several pups waddle toward her demanding a meal. But she’s only looking after her own pup and barks any other pup away; they’ll have to wait for their meal.

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Seal pups wriggle and play on North Seymour’s rocky shore while waiting for their mothers to return

The next animal we spot is so iconic it hardly needs an introduction: the blue-footed booby. While not unique to the Galapagos, the blue-footed booby is highly abundant here and has become an unofficial mascot on much of the islands’ tourist merchandise. There’s no mating occurring now, but the brilliant blue feet that bequeathed the animal its name are still highly visible. The birds can be seen resting on the beach or flying out to sea to hunt for fish, gracefully diving into the water. This diet of fresh fish is what helps the booby sustain its brilliantly blue feet, as carotenoids in fish stimulate the bird’s immune system, increasing the intensity of the blue color and signaling it is a fine choice to potential mates.

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A blue-footed booby rests on a rock

The other common avian inhabitants on North Seymour are the Magnificent Frigatebirds, a massive gliding bird common along the coast throughout Central and South America. While they cruise majestically and occasionally scoop squid or fish from the sea surface, the frigatebird are primarily kleptoparasites, meaning they steal food. When they spot a booby or gull with a fish, they harass the bird until it drops it’s catch and the frigatebird scoops it up, like an avian version of a purse snatcher. The male frigates sport bright red chest pouches that they inflate to impress females. I ask the guide what happens if it gets popped or deflates. “He’s out of luck,” Lorenzo says, “until next year, when it has healed over and he can inflate it again.”

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A juvenile frigatebird, too young to have a red chest pouch
Also present in the milieu of fauna is the Galapagos land iguana, ironically another sign of previous human intervention. Land iguanas aren’t native to the island, but several of them were moved here when the U.S. built a military installation on Baltra in World War II. There was concern that all of Baltra would become uninhabitable for the iguanas, so at the time North Seymour was the insurance plan to ensure their survival. As we saw when we flew in, it’s currently not needed, but it may be one day. For now, the lizards here live out their days wandering the island and munching on the sparse, low-lying succulents that cluster where the beach sand and island dust meet. They move with a luxuriously slow gait but with no predators here, there’s no need to move fast.
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The Galapagos land iguana, introduced to the island from Baltra
Amid the scenes of life on North Seymour, there are also scenes of death. Mostly unbothered by humans, the animals here live and die with nature, and carcasses of sea lions and seabirds alike are left to desiccate in the Galapagos sun. There are many things that kill animals here: thirst, starvation, disease, injury. In some cases human actions may have indirectly contributed to these deaths. As pollution emissions change global temperatures and climate, they alter water and wind currents around the islands. Historic times and places of plenty may now provide only a pittance of food and water for these animals. Many may die, and some may migrate or adapt. Otherwise, it’s extinction.
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The carcass of a juvenile frigatebird; cause of death unknown
The trail leaves the beach and threads inland through a seemingly lifeless landscape, a martian landscape of volcanic rocks, red dust, and twisted, leafless skeletons of the Palo Santo (‘Holy Wood’) trees. But leafless does not mean lifeless. Though they look dead, our guide Lorenzo tells us, they’re just waiting. Waiting for the rain, which comes this time of year. Though the air is dry now, there has been some rain in the past few weeks and if I look closely enough, I can see the signs of life returning. Here, at the end of a thin, dry branch, there’s a visible dab of green on this brown backdrop. On other trees, bright red-yellow blooms are bursting forth. Living may be difficult here, but life persists nonetheless.
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Enticed by rain, these leaves peek out from a branch of the Palo Santo tree
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