The Galapagos Islands: An Eden in Peril
“I want to come back in my next life as a sea lion,” stated the proper English lady Rowina Tophen, “and spend my days frolicking in the surf.”
“No, no, no,” said her distinguished husband, John, “I want to come back as a blue footed booby and dance my days away.”
Thus was my introduction to the archipelago known as the Galapagos Islands. They are an animal playground where humans are welcomed with open wings and flippers, to the detriment and possible extinction of the animal inhabitants. The two Brits were regaling their newly arrived fellow passengers with tales of their recent adventures by the Galapagos Explorer’s pool.
Pirates and buccaneers first visited the Galapagos Islands in the 15th century in search of fresh water and supplies. What they found were giant tortoises for whom the Spanish named the islands. They discovered the giant tortoises could live for months at a time in their ships hulls without food or water and thereby provide fresh meat for the crews. More than 200,000 of the slow-moving, 600-pound (and, unfortunately, quite delicious) tortoises became meals. But it is modern man who has done the most damage to the endemic animals of the Galapagos.
Man has driven to extinction three subspecies of the giant tortoises, and countless other animals to the brink, when his domesticated animals went feral: goats, dogs, cats and rats that feasted upon the animals themselves or their food source. It is such a major problem that today, the Charles Darwin Foundation spends most of its precious budget trying to resettle the animals and hopefully stop the destruction that man has caused. But it is a race against time.
As Charles Darwin would note in “The Origin of Species” after his visit to the islands, the extreme isolation of the islands has magnified the incredible adaptations of their resident inhabitants. Each of them – the tortoises, iguanas, blue footed boobies, penguins and finches – have adapted to the unique availability and sources of food from island to island in such a way that many of them are now considered unique and separate subspecies.
The best way to see the animals of the Galapagos Islands is by boat, from which there are many different sizes and shapes to choose. There are the small, intimate sailing boats with eight to 10 passengers all the way up in size to the 100-passenger, Galapagos Explorer II, that also has a crew of 70, including naturalist guides and a doctor.
Our seven-day exploration of the Galapagos Islands began with breakfast at 6 a.m. each day. We ate heartily for there is no snacking on the islands. This is one of those places where we are only allowed to leave footprints in the sand and take away only memories and photos.
Each morning at 8 a.m., groups of 16 would disembark with a naturalist guide into a zodiac. Our guide was quite knowledgeable about each species, subspecies and endemic creature that we encountered and possessed an amazing enthusiasm and excitement for the animals.
Our hikes sometimes lasted for more than two hours, during which we walked over rope-like pahoe-hoe lava and climbed over aa lava and were cautioned in the strongest of terms to watch where we stepped. This advice was not only to keep from stepping on a sunning marine iguana or a nesting albatross, but also to keep from slipping on the rocks, which, unfortunately, two of our fellow passengers did, one breaking an arm and the other a wrist. Equally challenging for many was boarding and disembarking from the zodiac, with many passengers, cameras and binoculars getting dunked in the surf.
On one island we visited, the blue footed boobies were in the middle of their mating season. Their dance reminded me of children with new shoes, how they try to show them off by raising first one foot, moving their shoe around, and then the other. The blue footed boobies also raise their wings and do an adorable version of the chicken dance.
One afternoon, after arriving at the national park, the guide spotted a 20-foot-tall wild orange tree laden with ripe fruit. Without missing a beat, he shimmied up the tree to the highest branches and tossed each of us an orange. In no time flat, we were devouring wild Galapagos oranges. We went on to find and taste many wild fruits of the islands. The fruit abounded in this area so much that much of it was rotting on the ground.
As we were savoring the epicurean moment, we heard a noise. To our delight, it was the elusive giant tortoise munching away on a passion fruit. The guide said that because of its size it must be 125 to 150 years old. We took its picture as it dined, one big chomp at a time, and fell in love with it.
One of my favorite tales from this trip happened when our group was making its way back to the ship, and the guide noticed a protected cove that he called a sea lion nursery. As the zodiac slowed, we coasted by a group of 10 to 15 adolescent sea lions sunning themselves along with one “big old man,” their protector.
The guide told us that if we dove to the bottom of the lagoon and spiraled on our way down, the sea lions might join us. He cautioned us again that we were not allowed to touch them – but they were allowed to touch us. He put on his snorkeling gear and dove in. The sea lions hobbled off their perch and joined him, even the “big old man.”
Playful is not quite the word to use to describe these underwater ballerinas. I was swimming to the bottom, spinning like a corkscrew, and sure enough, several sea lions came after me, spiraling along as if in a race to the bottom. One came right up to me, going just as fast as he could.
As with all of the adventures in the Galapagos Islands, this was truly an otherworldly experience that I look forward to experiencing again and again. H