Bonus post! While digging through the landscape photos that went up here, I also put together an album of life on the Galapagos, from animals, to people, to patterns in the nature here. Enjoy!
Our afternoon hike today is through the lowland scrub in Urbina Bay, and now we’re getting serious about our search for the Galapagos tortoise. There were signs of tortoises at Tagus Cove earlier in the day, but only trails through the grass. Our guide suggests we might have better luck here in the lowlands of Isabela, where many more tortoises can find food to sustain them between the dry and wet seasons. But nature is not beholden to a human schedule; we’ll have to wait and see.
The lowland scrub along the trail here is greener and denser than in the highlands, likely thanks to more abundant water sources. Some plants also look familiar. In the thickets of woody bushes and small trees, I spot a yellow hibiscus in flower, a native species of hibiscus that looks much like the ornamental plants in so many gardens. The trees give way to a large clearing, and the guide gives a shout, “Hawk!!” Far off in the field, a Galapagos Hawk stands nonchalantly on a log. It’s larger than the hawks I’m used to seeing back home.
The other interesting things in this field are skulls, horned and lining our path, on rocks, and perched atop signs. These are goat skulls, left from the extermination of the animals from the islands starting in 2001. Goats were introduced to many of the islands in the Galapagos in the early 1900’s, as this Nature article describes with deadpan anti-humor, “successfully”: they ate everything in sight, threatened rare native plants and denuded whole areas, which led to erosion and the starvation of many native species, including tortoises. With the situation dire, conservationists created an ambitious (and sordid) program to rid the islands of goats that was nearly 100% successful, as Radiolab details in good scientific drama. At the end of the program, only a few sterile goats were left on the islands, and the skulls of dead goats now adorn trails and landmarks in many places, a morbid reminder of what sometimes must be done to save a unique species, a singular ecosystem. They are the death of the few for the many, the unquantifiable price we put on the continued existence of a species.
It’s getting late and so far we haven’t spotted the fabled tortoise, though. We’ve seen depressions in the dust where they burrow down to rest, and tracks in the dry leaf litter in the underbrush, but neither shell nor scale of a tortoise. It looks like it’s going to be an unlucky day until our guide hears a crackle over the radio: one group has spotted a tortoise! We race to their location on the path and find a massive animal, a moving-hill-of-a-creature, something that looks like it could have cohabited the Earth with the dinosaurs. A Galapagos tortoise.
Like all the animals we’ve seen so far, the tortoise shows little interest in us and is intent on fulfilling his day’s chore: filling his belly. Given that this tortoise is the size of a small washing machine (but turned on its side, sprouting a head, legs, and a tail), that’s no small task. Galapagos tortoises subsist on nearly any green fare they can find, including grass, cacti, leaves, and fruit. This particular fellow has found himself a treat: a poison apple, or la manzanilla de muerte (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manchineel). While the fruit is toxic to humans and most animals, the tortoises here consume them with gusto and without ill effect. Like the rest of the harsh, dry, volcanic, windswept Galapagos environment, the tortoises have found a way around the problem. They’ve adapted.
And though harsh, I’m slowly realizing how beautiful and mesmerizing the environment of the Galapagos is. There are inexplicable patterns in the scenery that melt into one another, tapestry of landscape, sea, and sky, embellished with the creatures that have managed to survive here. The grass is windswept and dense, forming feather-textured, miniature hills and valleys in fields. Thin, pointed brushstrokes of trees jut into a storm-gray sky, framed by a smattering of green leaves and lowland underbrush. It all looks so uncurated, untouched, so natural. This is what makes the Galapagos so unique; it’s a rare place unchanged by human hands, sculpted only by the forces of nature.
As we watch, she encounters a ravine a couple of feet across and seems stymed. How will she cross it and get back to land?
Part I: Mom gets defensive
Part II: Cuddle Time
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”