Animal Shenanigans: Awkward Booby Says Hi

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The blue-footed boobies have it rough. After all, they’re called boobies, and they got that name from the Spanish for their ineptitude while on land. (So, uh, thanks Spain for a 100+ years of boobies jokes.)
But what if you’re not only a booby, but the awkward booby? Well, we found him and this what his* life is like.
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Ok, ok. These are the cool birds. I just gotta act real smooth and say hi. Then they’ll think I’m cool,  right?
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Ok, just turning my head slowly. Act cool, act cool…ok, ready?
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“HI GUYS!!!”
I give him points for trying, at least.
*In this case I CAN say with high confidence that this bird is a guy. Turns out you can tell a booby’s gender by the size of the bird’s pupils, so bring that to your next dinner party conversation.

Fifteen Photos: Life on the Galapagos

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!

Animals

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A blue-footed booby on North Seymour Island
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A curious mockingbird on Isabela Island
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A tortoise on Isabela Island
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A lava lizard on Santa Cruz Island
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A marine iguana on Fernandina Island
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A dead marine iguana mummified by the sun on Fernandina Island

Patterns

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The blue sky over Floreana Island
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The pink-orange waters in a salt flat on Santa Cruz Island
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Anemones partially buried in sand on Floreana Island
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The skeleton of an Opuntia Cactus ear on Santa Cruz Island
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Coral and a sandscape on North Seymour Island

People

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Swimmers at Las Grieats, Santa Cruz Island
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A lava cactus and a tour group at Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island
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We stumble on a local hangout spot, Santa Cruz Island
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A distiller demonstrates the purity (and flammability) of his alcohol, Santa Cruz Island

Be the Galapagos Postman

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A sea lion barks out good mornings
After four days on the cruise, we’ve grown used to the routine of waking, eating breakfast, and then hopping onto a boat bound for our next activity. The beach today at Post Office Bay is whiteboard and unassuming, resembling many other beaches in the Galapagos. Likewise, there isn’t much new flora and fauna here; marine iguanas lounge on the rocky seashore, while sea lions frolick in the surf and waddle about on land. After a brief walk, we’re greeted by an unassuming barrel perches on a pole in a small clearing. “Welcome to the first post office in the Galapagos,” says our guide.
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Sea lions on the beach, and yes, I did forget to take a picture of the actual post office barrel
Back before there was any kind of official government support on the Galapagos, homesick whalers and voyaging vessels (who were mostly British) set up a barrel here in the Galapagos where they could drop their mail. Homebound vessels would then stop by and pick up all of the accumulated mail, and individual captains and sailors would deliver it by hand once they arrived back in England. There were no postage fees, and delivery relied entirely on the kindness of strangers. The practice was so beloved that even today, the mail barrel still sits in Post Office Bay, now collecting the post cards of tourists and travelers who visit the island. And now it’s the tourists and travelers who deliver them. Post Office Bay makes you the guardian of mail bound all around the world.
Grinning, our guide begins pulling stacks of postcards out of the barrel, handing them to us and asking us to read the destination off of each postcard. We begin shouting off locations: “OSLO, NORWAY??” “Anyone going to MINNESOTA?” “How about WASHINGTON, D.C.?” “PERTH, AUSTRALIA or TAIPEI, TAIWAN?” There’s a postcard going to Auckland, New Zealand, so we grab that one to deliver when we arrive in January. There are also postcards that aren’t going anywhere: messages to lost lovers, deceased friends, and future children abound in the collection. Many messages say “This was for you,” or “Finally made it,” or “Hope you come here, one day.” So the Post Office barrel doesn’t just serve as a mailbox, but as a point of catharsis and conclusion for a lot of people. It’s a way to leave something here in the Galapagos, to say sorry, to give thanks, to express hope, on what is the trip of a lifetime for many.
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A postcard to the future
We also have a chance to leave our own postcards; because everything about this cruise is absolutely perfect, the guides have brought postcards and pens for everyone. I scrawl out a quick note to my lab at Yale, though I’m unsure any visitor would even be able to make it past the security gate with this story. “Who would you like to see here on West Campus?” “The Isaacs Lab. I’m here to deliver a postcard, from the Galapagos.” But who knows? Buoyed on the kindness of strangers, maybe it will get there.
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Today’s sky

Urbina Bay: Searching for the Galapagos Tortoise in the Wild

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The textures of Urbina Bay

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.

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A hibiscus flower, nearly identical to one found in ornamental gardening

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.

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The Galapagos hawk, from hundreds of feet away and a lot of camera zoom

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.

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A goat skull purches atop a sign warning visitors not to stray from the trail

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.

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At last, the 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.

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A toxic treat: the tortoise eats a poison apple with gusto

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.

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The texture of grass in the Galapagos
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And as usual, a perfect sunset

Tagus Cove on Isabela Island

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Ripples on the water of Tagus Cove
Our morning walk on the third day of our Galapagos cruise is at Isabela’s Tagus Cove, a quiet inlet that has offered refuge to travelling ships for centuries. The visitors of yore have included pirates, whalers, and travellers, most notably Darwin himself, who devoted a great deal of his writing on the Galapagos to this site. And these visitors have left their mark, quite literally, in the cliffs along the shore. Everywhere the rough sandstone is hewn or painted with the names of ships and dates. Though the formation of the National park technically put an end to this practice, there are inscriptions from as recently as the late 80’s. And if you look closely enough, you can find carvings from as far back as 1836.
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Inscriptions left on the rocks of Tagus Cove from ships past
Our trail leads uphill, away from the shore and into the dusty, dry terrain of Isabela. It’s steeper than our previous hikes, though after all of the walking on our travels I’m hardly winded, so I take the chance to enjoy the scenery. Unlike the terrain we saw on the first day’s hike (North Seymour Island), Tagus Cove is covered in dense shrubs and grass, although it’s still mostly dry and brown. The trees here are the same as those on Seymour, the palo santo, but they grow larger and taller, less stunted by the environment. Even so, at this time of year they are also gray, leafless skeletons of trunks and branches. The rain has not yet come to Isabela.
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Leafless palo santo trees brushed onto the landscape of Isabela island
Despite the sparse greenery, animal life continues. We spot a couple of land iguanas browsing through the grass, their dusty orange skin blending in with the surrounding landscape. They eye us warily and plod away into the underbrush, wanting nothing to do with our group. More curious is a Galapagos mockingbird that flits by, curious enough to eye us from a branch for several seconds. It’s enough time for me to get a decent picture, and then the bird is off, hunting for grubs under tree bark. A guide last night told us that these mockingbirds, and not finches, that Darwin actually studied and brought home to England to help develop his ideas of how evolution worked. Though I read On the Origin of Species in college, I cannot remember a mention of either bird. Evidence online suggests Darwin studied both, albeit somewhat haphazardly, which I take to be the actual truth because that’s how pretty much everyone starts any kind of research.
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A curious Galapagos mockingbird
We finish our upward climb at the top of a ridge overlooking Darwin Lake and further out toward sea. We can see our ship, the Santa Cruz II, drifting lazily in the current around her anchor. Below, the blue-green of the lake dazzles, but offers little relief to the life here–it’s brackish saltwater. The volcanic cone that comprises the lake’s basin is highly porous, so rainwater that collects here mixes with the ocean’s water, creating a brackish mix that sustains only algae and bacteria. I ask the guide if he’s ever seen fish in the lake, and he replies that he hasn’t.
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Darwin Lake and Tagus Cove, with the Santa Cruz II in the distance
After a lining up to photograph the lake and sea, our group turns around and heads back down the trail. We’re moving faster now, passing through areas we’ve already seen, but I spot a plant that looks surprisingly familiar: cotton. This is the Galapagos cotton, a smaller cousin of the mainland plant. It made its way to the island before human colonization, either in the feces of birds or borne by ocean currents. And while not harvested commercially, the birds here use the cotton puffs to line their nests, much like birds on the mainland use yarn, string, and mainland cotton.
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A tuft of Galapagos cotton
As we return to the boat, we’re treated to one last animal sighting: the Galapagos penguin!
This penguin is the only species to live north of the Equator and is the rarest penguin species in the world. Here in the Galapagos, they have a unique problem: they get far too hot, and require cold water to reduce their body temperature and avoid becoming roasted penguin. As such, most of the birds live in the western Galapagos, where the frigid Humboldt Current is strongest and provides an effective means of cooling down.
While land here might be a bit toasty for them, they seem to have few problems in the water. Our guest penguin torpedoes through the water near our boat, first in front of us, then gone in a second. He resurfaces again a moment later, off to the side. He’s gone for another moment, then he pops up in a new spot, this time with two friends. Then the three of them disappear for good.
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A penguin in the waters of Tagus Cove

Animal Shenanigans: Snake Goes Home

Compared to the iguanas, boobies, and sea lions, snakes aren’t as ubiquitous in the Galapagos. But they are still around. While touring Fernandina, we encounter one snake at the water’s edge, racing back to land across the lava flats before the tide comes in. She ignores our tour group and slithers her way over the rough lava flow.

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?

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Then, she does something amazing. She stretches out into the abyss, attempting to reach the other side.
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She goes slowly, so she doesn’t stretch past her center of balance; doing so would send her tumbling into the chasm.For a human, this is the functional equivalent of doing some seriously intense planking. In a couple of minutes, our snake is less than an inch from the other side.
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But it’s juuust too far for her to reach without toppling over. She withdraws, slithering away along the cliff edge. She’ll have to find another way across.
We spot our snake a few minutes later, slithering down the edge of the cliff in a small crevice to control her descent.
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She’s down and across in seconds, like it’s nobody’s business. Then it’s off across the sand, back to her home for the evening.
From a little bit of internet detective work, I’ve identified this snake as a Galapagos racer, probably Alsophis dorsalisIt’s one of three snake species native to the Galapagos, and recently got a lot of hate thanks to a clip that aired on BBC’s Planet Earth II. It’s easy to demonize snakes and our culture does it a lot, so hopefully the story above shows people that snakes are like any other animal. They go about their days trying to get food, get a mate, and get home.

Animal Shenanigans: Mom and Pup

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The adventures of mom and pup on Fernandina Island.

 

Part I: Mom gets defensive

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“Hey mom I think that sea lion over there wants to come say hi.”
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“Hello, is this your pu-” “I’LL BITE YOUR FACE OFF”
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“Wow, you sure scared him off…uh…thanks, mom.”*

Part II: Cuddle Time

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Zzzzz….
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*fwp* “Flipper deployed. Commence cuddle time.”
*Mom might seem overly defensive here, but given the huge amount of infanticide that occurs in animals, she’s in the right.

Isabela and Fernandina

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A tour group in a zodiac in the famous arch of Punta Vicente Roca
The north-west side of Isabela and the island of Fernandina are some of the most isolated places in the Galapagos. Because these locations are six hours from any port, they’re nearly impossible to visit unless you take a multi-day cruise. Outside of areas restricted to research only, these are the most isolated places in the Galapagos. This is the Galapagos, nearly untouched by human hands.
Our morning activities are a mix of zodiac boating & snorkeling off the coast of Punta Vicente Roca. We board a zodiac and with our guide from the Santa Cruz II and speed toward Isabela, cameras at the ready to spot today’s sights. While there’s still mist over the water, the equatorial sun is rapidly raising the temperature and animals are taking full advantage of it, sunning themselves while resting on the rocky cliffs. We spot Galapagos fur seals near the surf line, so far away that my camera cannot hope to render one visible–their brown fur blends in with the rocks perfectly, and they’re revealed to us only by their wriggling as they climb ashore. Unlike their cousins the Galapagos sea lions, the fur seals here are endangered, hunted to near extinction in the previous centuries for their fur. Although they’re now protected, low success at raising pups to adulthood weighs heavily on the population: in times of scarce food, up to 80% of pups born die within months. Since times of scarcity are often triggered by severe weather events like El Nino, it’s hard to tell whether this species will survive as the global climate changes.
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Gulls rest on the water’s surface
Punta Vicente Roca is also a birder’s heaven – there are several different species out this morning, nesting along the cliffs, preening themselves, and swooping down into the sea to catch fish. We spot blue-footed and Nazca boobies, brown noddies, lava gulls, and Galapagos petrels. They cluster in pairs or groups along the cliffs of Isabela, staining the rocks white with their poop. In fact, some parts of the cliff are less rocks and more bird poop than anything else. Though we might find this gross, wars have been fought over the control of bird poop as a resource. “What, why?!” you’re thinking. Because before we had chemical processes to produce fertilizer, bird poop was the stuff. Rich in nitrogen, phosphates, and potash, this was how the world improved crop yields and fed more people.
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Blue-footed boobies preen on a rock covered in guano
While the animals are the draw for most people, the rocks these creatures rest on are also fascinating. Geologically, Isabela is one of the youngest islands in the Galapagos, formed only a few million years ago when six volcanoes spewed forth enough lava and ash to fuse and form the island island. Our guide points to one cliffside, where a jagged edge of tan and black meet – this was was the edge of a lava flow, a place where lava stopped and ash and dirt compacted to continue the island’s length. This history is written in the cliffs, visible in consecutive layers of gray ash and black lava between dirt. And most of these volcanoes are still active, periodically oozing lava and exhaling ash that settles over the island and the sea, growing the island outward, ever outward.
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Where ash and lava flow meet
After returning from our boat ride, we get a few minutes of rest (and snacks and juice), then we’re preparing to snorkel. I’ve been warned the water is frigid, a feature of the same upwelling that causes California’s frigid water temperatures year round. And, being Californian, I decide I can handle it and won’t need the $25 wetsuit rental provided by the cruise. I have, however, purchased a disposable underwater camera from the cruise’s gift shop, because for some insane reason we left our GoPro at home for our trip around the world. Don’t ask, I don’t know what we were thinking.
We gather at the back of the ship, load into zodiacs again (this time free of life vests), and head back toward the shore. Because the park management does not allow landings at Punta Vicente Roca, we’re told to stay away from the rocks and then let loose into the ocean. I don my snorkel and fins and am the first over the edge in my boat, swinging my legs over and plunging into the water before I have a chance to think about how it will feel.
FU**, it’s COLD. I can feel my body shudder and my breathing increase to near hyperventilation. I force myself to relax and slow my breathing, but I still feel a vague sensation of arrhythmia in my heartbeat, probably thanks to the mammalian dive reflex all humans experience.  I’ll stay warm longer if I keep moving, so I force myself to swim. At the end of twenty minutes, I’m so cold that I have to climb into a zodiac boat and sun myself like a lizard. I’m painfully aware that I’ll burn in the sun as quickly as I’ll warm, so it’s out for only about five minutes before I jump in again. I can’t even imagine how good a hot shower will feel after this.
The marine life here is beautiful and reminds me of California. It’s not the traditional image of a thriving tropical reef, but is instead a rocky shoreline rich with schools of silver fish, swimming seals, and diving shorebirds intent on a meal. The one animal addition that stands out (and we definitely don’t see in California) is the green sea turtle. There are dozens of them, gliding through the water, browsing the selection of algae on the rocks, and coming to the surface to sun themselves. Some are small, less than two feet long. Others are massive, as large as I am. As we swim by, the turtles look up, but mostly ignore us. They’re interested in their lunch, and after snorkeling I find I’m looking forward to mine.
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A green sea turtle comes up to check us out
After lunch, our cruise makes its way to Fernandina island, and we are delivered onto Punta Espinoza. This is the sole place that tourists are allowed on Fernandina Island; the rest of the island exists solely as a nature reserve. The dominant life here at Punta Espinoza are the marine iguanas, which greet us by the scores as we step off the boat and onto a hardened lava flow. The iguanas lounge about, soaking in the sun and crawling along the shore to find their preferred food, marine algae. The larger males are skilled swimmers and also dive to graze algae from underwater rocks. It helps them gain a winning edge when food is scarce, and given the number of iguana skeletons lying around, food was scarce not too long ago.
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A marine iguana emerges from the water at Punta Espinoza
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An untimely end: the head of a marine iguana skeleton, likely dead from starvation
The other divers that make their home here are the flightless cormorants, found only here in the Galapagos. Unused, their wings have shrunk to scrawny stubs that sport only a few pinion feathers and resemble sparse palm fronds. These birds are ungainly on land, but can swim circles around nearly any living creatures underwater. Still, they need to return to land to rest and warm their bodies, as the cold ocean water can chill them to death. They also need land to nest, as we find one bird doing. She is sitting on two eggs in a nest composed of seaweed and guano, and doesn’t take kindly to a nearby marine iguana. I’m not sure if a marine iguana would pose a threat to the eggs, but given that most reptiles are opportunistic omnivores, I wouldn’t trust him either.
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A nesting flightless comorant eyes a marine iguana warily, occasionally hissing
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The flightless comorant preens, giving us a peek at the eggs in her nest
As we near the end of our hike, we encounter a lava flow dotted with odd brown clusters, which turn out to be, of all things, plants. These are the the lava cactus, another species found only in the Galapagos. Not much is known about the lava cactus, except that it’s one of the first living things to grow in lava fieldsWe know it has the ability to survive on little water and no soil, that it flowers briefly before dawn, and that it produces small, red berries. Where it gets nutrients to sustain itself from is unknown, but I would venture to guess that the cactus secretes a mild acid from its roots that slowly dissolves the volcanic rock, freeing up minerals for the plant to absorb. As it only exists on one of the most beautiful places on earth and isn’t mobile, I’d highly recommend it as a study subject for anyone looking to do research.
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The lava cactus grows directly on lava, no soil needed
We complete our hike with a brief walk through a mangrove forest, where I spot and photograph an island inhabitant that nobody else notices – a small spider hiding out in its web. Unlike most web-weaving spiders, this one seems to have built a small, bell-shaped house for itself. I’ve never seen a spider like this before and haven’t been able to match it to any spider in the Galapagos so far, so it’ll have to remain a mystery.
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A mystery spider that seems to have built itself a bell-shaped home in its web
We emerge at the end of the mangrove forest and I’m surprised to find that the water has risen by nearly a foot in the hour we’ve spent walking. Our landing point lays entirely submerged in the bay, as are the mangrove roots around us. A zodiac boat comes to pick us up, and as we speed back toward the ship we can see the sun setting behind Isabela, a halo of bright fire around one of her volcanoes. There’s no sign of any human activity anywhere on the island–no other ships, no dwellings, nothing. This is the Galapagos how it looked hundreds of years ago, and hopefully it will look this way for hundreds of years to come.
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The sun sets over Isabela island

Animal Shenanigans: Jerry, leave me alone

Lest you think we only think about serious things here, here are some animal shenanigans I captured in pictures while on the Galapagos. There are moments of animal grace and beauty captured by professional nature photographers, sold to magazines and websites for glossy ads or articles. Then there are the less majestic moments like these, where a sea lion demonstrates an effective way to get someone to leave you the hell alone.
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“Hey Bob, what’cha doin.”
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 “Blowing bubbles, Jerry. I’m blowing bubbles.”
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“Wanna go play?”
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“It’s too hot. I can’t move.”
“Aww, come on. Please? Please? Please?”
IMG_4544 “JERRY JUST LEAVE ME ALONE OR I’LL BITE YOUR FACE OFF”
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 And that’s how you defend your alone time when you’re sea lion.

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