This image, a juvenile frigatebird maneuvering itself deftly around the channel between the islands of Baltra and Santa Cruz, was among my first impressions of the Galapagos islands. I had the good fortune to spend eleven days on a few of the many islands in the archipelago, with a group of several other teachers from CEDEI. We barely scratched the surface.
Here pictured with a partially-molested Galapagos tortoise in the highlands of Santa Cruz are Coreen, Emily, Alena and Chris, a group of friends and teachers at CEDEI, all from the fine nation of Canada. Molestar, a perfectly innocent Spanish verb meaning “to bother,” is often seen written around the island, as advice for what not to do to the animals. Our literal English translation was quick to follow and insinuated itself into our casual conversations. Galapagos tortoises, as it turns out, are very easily molested.
Walk within a few feet and they draw all their extremities into the safety of their considerable shells, while making a deep hissing sound.
A few seconds later, though, they get over their nervous reaction and hesitantly begin to withdraw from the confines of their natural defenses.
Here you’ll see Jason illegally posing inside of an exhibit at the Charles Darwin Research Station. A few seconds after this picture he was caught by a volunteer and publicly chastised. This Research Station is beautifully situated on the beaches north of Puerto Ayora and has as its mission to protect the unique wildlife of the islands.
The Station takes its name, of course, from the man for whom the animals there served as an important inspiration for his theory of evolution during his 5 year voyage, and understandably so. A trip to the Galapagos is a walk back in time. There are very few mammals living there, and so reptiles and birds dominate the ecosystem, filling niches in the environment presently occupied by larger mammals in most other parts of the world. It’s no surprise, then, that such a one-of-a-kind place has attracted the curiosity of visitors from around the world.
The Galapagos was quietly claimed by the nation of Ecuador many decades ago, long before the concept of eco-tourism had flourished. Today, 90% of the 600,000 visitors to the Galapagos each year come from countries other than Ecuador, and from the looks of the many tourists we saw in Puerto Ayora, they almost all come from places outside of Latin America.
It’s an unfortunate irony that most Ecuadorians have never visited the incredible national treasure that these islands are. While the cost of entry is considerably less for Ecuadorian nationals, the cost of flight and expenses on the islands are prohibitive for the majority of the people here.
That said, the tourism business there is booming, perhaps too loudly for the peaceful animals and plants that belong there. Already Puerto Ayora. the largest city in the Galapagos, has grown to over 15,000 residents, all vying for a piece of the pie offered forth by the bloated masses of the northern continents. While this number may seem small, the pressure that such a human population places on an ecosystem like the one here in these islands is great enough to have warranted measures put in place by the government, which are viewed as draconian by some. For example, there is an effort to prohibit new immigration to the islands, as well as to remove those whose residence there date to after 1998.
Indeed, life on the Galapagos is an exercise in controlled socialism, with the intention of limiting the impact of human presence on the islands as much as possible, while enabling the profits of tourism to continue to flow. Fishing, for example, is limited to “artesanal” practices, that is, use of the old-fashioned line and hook. The area of ocean protected around the island has expanded and contracted – but mostly expanded – as a result of the constant push and pull of the government and the local population.
Even these measures fail to protect entirely. While talking to a Peace Corps volunteer living in Puerto Villamil, a smaller village on the island of Isabela, for example, he told me about a fishing trip he went on where they inadvertently caught a baby sea lion and were unable to remove the hook. The metal barb had driven itself deep inside its cheek and after struggling with the frightened creature for some time, they ultimately threw the baby back to the sea, where its fate was questionable.
All this in mind, our time there remained an amazing interaction with the wildlife who continue to go about their lives blissfully unalarmed by the presence of humans, a behavior shared by precious few of the wild species left on the planet. Among the most numerous of these animals are the marine iguanas, little dragons living on the ubiquitous black volcanic rock that built the islands.
My first experience with the iguanas was on the beach at Tortuga Bay, easily the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. White sand with grains nearly as soft and tiny as refined flour powders the shoreline amidst occasional outcroppings of porous black rock. Stretching as far as the eye can see, with a tableland above full of massive opuntia cacti with trunks the size and texture of a ponderosa pine’s, the beach is made better still by the fact that, due to the fact that most visitors to the Galapagos are confined largely to cruise ships, we were nearly the only ones there each time we visited it.
Seeing a proliferation of opuntia cactus – close relative to the nopal cactus with which I’m so familiar and have written about previously – so far from the mainland where it most likely originated was amazing as well. While the animals of the Galapagos have gotten most of the attention for their adaptations, the plants there are no different, having specialized noticeably from one island to another. For instance, on Santa Cruz island, the opuntias, with their characteristic paddle-shaped branches and big flowers, are distinct from many of those on the mainland for their large trunks:
There are, instead, on islands such as North Seymour, very similar opuntia cactus, whose outward appearance is virtually identical to those on the rest of the islands, with the exception of their lack of tall trunks, which would keep their juicy paddles separate from the ground by several meters:
Why would these two types of cactus have developed so differently on two different islands? The answer most likely lies with the iguanas, such as this one, basking in the sun on North Seymour Island. The iguanas on North Seymour eat the paddles of these cacti, able to reach them easily without a tall trunk keeping them out of reach. On the other islands, the opuntias with paddles low enough to be eaten by creatures like the iguanas were selected out, while those with tall, robust trunks unable to be chewed lived long enough to pass such an adaptation forward.
So why would the cacti on North Seymour be an exception? After all, there are iguanas like this one to be found all over the island. As it turns out, these iguanas were introduced to North Seymour by a scientist in the 1950’s, as an experiment. They started eating opuntias, which are more scarce on this island 50 years later as a result.
Those on the other islands, incidently, while safe from the likes of the reptiles by virtue of their height, can’t protect themselves from another introduced species, donkeys. The donkeys have figured out that they can use their hooves to knock down the tall opuntia cacti and then suck the juice from the insides of their trunks.
There have been many measures to limit the populations of invasive animal species such as donkeys, goats, rats, cats and dogs, some easier to implement than others. For now, despite the meddling of humans and their introduced animals, the opuntias are still plentiful. Another species, the famous Galapagos tortoises, from whom the islands take their name, are another story.
These giants, gentle and slow, count the Galapagos as one of the few places left on earth where they can survive. They have arguably been exploited more than any other Galapagos species, especially by pirates who used to use the Galapagos as a hideout before attacking vessels going to and from the pacific coast of the Americas. Seafarers learned that the tortoises could be stacked on board and survive for months without food or water, providing a handy source of meat for the crew. As such, several of the many subspecies of Galapagos tortoises were driven to brink of extinction by this practice.
One subspecies now has only one member left, an elderly male named Lonesome George. He now lives on the Charles Darwin Research Station, in a habitat with two females of a similar subspecies. He refuses to mate with them for unknown reasons; with him goes the fate of a species as close to the brink of extinction as it gets. George, for his part, spends his days relaxing in an easy retirement. Here he is from behind, in what is apparently a rare sighting, as he typically stays in hiding during visiting hours.
Tortoises seem to be one of the few Galapagos species to have a fear of humans. Get too close, and they hide in their shells, sometimes drawing their head, tail and feet inside so fast that their shells fall to the ground with a heavy thump. Their reactions are understandable considering their treatment in the past centuries, and they live long enough to perhaps bear as many mental scars as the rough shells they develop after 150 years or so. This reaction, sadly, is exactly why they were so easy to capture. Sea travelers needed only to step up to them, watch them retreat into their shells, and then haul them upside-down to their ships.
Today, it’s not seafarers that the tortoises ought to fear, but by another species introduced inadvertently by those sailors from long ago. All the species of tortoises on the islands are at great risk due to rats introduced by humans and their ships. The hungry rats find tortoise eggs buried in the sand and make short work of them, and the proliferation of these pests on the islands have made it virtually impossible for the tortoise eggs to hatch in the wild. Without human intervention, at this point tortoises would probably not be able to survive this infestation. As a result, young tortoises are hatched and reared at stations such as this one before being released into the wild once they’re of sufficient size.
In a habitat near George’s at the research station was a group of males, not nearly as old as George but still huge and formidable. The visitor’s walk through the station takes you right through their habitat, where it’s possible to get probably a bit closer to the animals than they’d prefer. This one, rather than being scared, seemed interested in this strange creature to have entered his presence:
Indeed, this group of males got a little riled up by us hanging around, and one started charging me. Of course, with his pace, by the time he got near me, I managed to take a few pictures, stand up, and walk away casually. Having succeeded in driving me off and ire still up, he then began intimidating one of his companions and a round of deep, reptilian hissing ensued. We decided it was time to go.
The next day we took a boat tour around the south shores of Santa Cruz and one of the outlying islets where we were able to do some snorkeling. Here, we swam with the sea lions, the largest native mammal to the islands. They spend a lot of their time laying around on the beach, warming themselves in the sun after a fishing trip. They also find themselves laying around on boats, harbors, docks, and pretty much anywhere in Puerto Ayora that people will let them.
This one, if you can’t tell by her grace, is a lady. The females of the species are sweet and playful, as are the young males. The older males, on the other hand, are blustery and belligerent, belching and growling and posturing at anyone who gets too close to their territory or their females. Even when by themselves, they tend to be more impatient than the females, as was evidenced when we passed one sleeping on a docked boat. As we motored around it, it raised its head grumpily and belched a loud protest at us for disturbing its rest, before flopping its head back to the floor.
There were plenty of sea lions the next day as well, as we took a longer excursion to North Seymour island, known for its extensive bird populations, and less so for the sea lions that greet you on the shore upon your arrival. One of the first sights we saw was a baby sea lion with barely enough energy to get out of our way as we climbed the rocks up to the trail carved out through the desert landscape of the island.
Some people may try to tell you that there are seals in the Galapagos, but as it turns out, seals don’t live anywhere near this far south. There’s not a lot of visible differences between seals and sea lions, at least not to the average onlooker, but this baby above can show you the one characteristic trait that distinguishes the sea lion: ears. Seals don’t have the little floppy lobes like the ones this sleepy little guy was relunctantly modeling for me.
The last and perhaps most entertaining of the animals I’ll mention here is the blue-footed boobie.
These odd-looking birds have some of the strangest behavior of any animals I’ve ever seen, and due to their lack of fear of humans we got to see them indulging in quite a bit of it. Not the least of which was their mating ritual:
This is a male, showing off his stuff to a nearby female. First the male selects a female, who does a good job of playing coy while he shows off his wings, his big, blue feet, and his ability to build a quality nest, as evidenced by how well he picks up little sticks and branches in his beak. All the while the female alternates between feigned lack of interest and a careful observation of his spectacle. The white stuff all over the place, by the way, is bird poop, a clear sign that these birds have been at home on this particular island for many, many years.
The mating ritual, as it turns out, lasts for several hours, and so we ran out of patience before witnessing the act itself, which was probably better for everyone involved. There are many other incredible animals and plants unique to the Galapagos which we had the good fortune to witness, but this has already been probably far more than enough for one story! Here’s where I bid a farewell to the islands, hopefully not for the last time.