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The Galapagos : The Day of the Iguana

"We're stepping through the Looking Glass now," my wife


said as we gawk out the window of our bus. She was so right.
The whole scene had a surreal Alice in Wonderland feel to it as
we bounced along a back road of Santa Cruz, an island of the
Galapagos, through a forest of white-barked leafless trees.
There was no doubt about it: we were tumbling down the rabbit
hole into an ecological time warp, a surface-of-the-moon
landscape where birds don't always fly and others drink blood,
where four-foot-long tortoises roam, dragon-like lizards graze on
algae on the bottom of the sea, and sea lions so tame and
numerous you have to watch your step to keep from tripping
over them. I was starting to look for the Walrus and the
Carpenter.

Not only were we falling into the Holy Grail of biology, we


were following in the footsteps of the Galapagos' most famous
visitor, a young man who in 1835 scribbled in his diary:

"The natural history of these islands is eminently curious,


and well deserves attention. Most of the organic productions are
aboriginal creations, found nowhere else on earth. The
archipelago is a world within itself, whence it has derived a few
stray colonists, and has received the general character of its
indigenous productions. Hence, both in space and time, we
seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact -- that
mystery of mysteries -- the first appearance of new beings on
this earth."

... so read the report of a 22-year-old English naturalist


traveling aboard the British fact-finding ship HMS Beagle. His
name was Charles Darwin.
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The Galapagos Islands, a province of Ecuador, consists of


13 (main) islands of volcanic origin straddling the equator 600
miles west of South America. All living things on the islands
originated from the mainland, but isolated, they evolved into
new species. Darwin's insightful observations of the 13 species
of finches on the islands and how they adapted to local
conditions led him to his seminal work, The Origin of the
Species.

My wife and I had just landed on the island of Baltra


aboard a TAME airlines flight from the Ecuadorian capital Quito
and were taking a ferry/bus ride to the town of Puerto Ayoro at
the southern tip of Santa Cruz Island, where we would board the
newly-renovated 40-passenger yacht Isabela II for a 3-day cruise
through the Galapagos archipelago. Our cabin aboard the
Isabela was a bit more cushy than Darwin's cabin on the
Beagle. According to logbooks Darwin's cabin consisted of one
corner of the chart table in the poop cabin, and his bed was a
hammock over the table.

Before boarding the Isabela we visited the Charles Darwin


Research Center, whose goal is to restore the Galapagos to a
time before humans upset the ecological applecart. The Center
has programs to breed and release giant tortoises, and to
eradicate animals not indigenous to the islands, such as dogs,
goats, pigs, and rats. On Isabela Island alone it is estimated
there are 100,000 goats that have devastated the vegetation on
which endemic animals feed. Wild dogs are also a problem,
killing iguanas and young tortoises.

"So much for a million years," my wife lamented as we


watched Lonesome George munching on a scrap of prickly pear
cactus. Lonesome George is the sole survivor of the subspecies
abingdoni of giant tortoises that have lived on earth for over a
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million years. Unless a female mate is found, which is unlikely,


it will be the end of the subspecies.

Early whalers discovered that these gentle giants could


be stacked upside down in the holds of ships for over a year
without food or water and still be turned into a decent soup.
Between 1810 and 1850 over 700 whaling ships plied the Pacific
and many of them stopped at the Galapagos to load up on
tortoises. It was probably only the collapse of the whaling
industry that saved the giant tortoises from extinction. Once as
many as 250,000 roamed the islands; it is now estimated that
15,000 remain.

Day 1: Bird Island.

The first day the Isabela cruised to Tower Island, where Captain
Jorge Fernandez inched the Isabela into a once active volcano
called Darwin Bay. The island was alive with birds. It was a
virtual Yugoslavia of bird life; boobies, frigates, pelicans, rare
lava gulls, night herons, yellow-eyed owls, Galapagos hawks,
ground finches, and other endemic species known only to avid
birders. Dozens of giant fork-tailed frigate birds kept vigil
overhead, while red- and blue-footed boobies dove straight
down into the sea, coming up with an unlucky squid in its beak,
only to have it dislodged by a harassing frigate, who then caught
the prize in midair and whisked it off to its young.

Stepping ashore from our rubber dingys, we were greeted


by more birds, who treated us as objects of curiosity rather than
fear. Our hiking trail was "boobies city" as hundreds of red-
footed boobies nested so close to the trail that when we took
their picture, it was almost beak to lens. A few times we felt like
voyeurs when we came upon booby pairs in intimate embrace.
Boobies always have a dumbfounded look on their face and
when their picture is taken you half expect them to say, "DUH."
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But as ungainly as they are on land, they are magnificent flyers.


They can swoop down like an arrow and catch a flying fish in
midair.

We watched as a juvenile booby stood motionless on the


ground, flapping its wings like a propeller hoping to become
airborne. It flapped furiously for a few seconds, and then
stopped. A few moments later it repeated the entire process.
Our naturalist guide told us it would eventually muster enough
strength to take off. These wacky land-born antics are what
gave the boobies their name.

Later that day we snorkeled in Darwin Bay where we


were accompanied by teasing sea lions. Underwater we saw
brightly-colored tropical fish and an occasional stingray.

Although the equator runs right through the Galapagos,


the islands are washed by the cold Humboldt Current welling up
from Antarctica causing an odd mixture of hot- and cold-weather
species. It is strange to see penguins living on the equator.
When we were there in November the temperature never rose
above 85 degrees.

The next day we headed west to the island of Fernandina.

"Pilot whales!" someone yelled from the bridge. My wife


and I were busy with lunch on the hind deck, but we raced to the
front of the ship where we saw a pod of whales heading directly
our way. Captain Fernandez ordered the dingys lowered and
everyone raced to get aboard. Within a few minutes we're all
smack in the middle of the pod. I don't how many there were
but I stopped counting at 50.

The passengers aboard the Isabela were as diverse as the


wildlife on the islands. Among them were an American DEA
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agent stationed in Columbia, two honeymooners from Colorado


taking a year off to travel, a member of the Army Rangers' Hall
of Fame and his wife, a New York public relations executive, a
travel editor from Chicago, and two young beauty queen
winners from Puerto Ayora, the main town of the Galapagos.

Day 2: Sea Lions

"Watch your step,” our guide Maricarmen advised us the


next day on the island of Fernandina. I wasn't sure if she was
talking about sea lions that were lounging about or about the
sea-lion guano. Occasionally a mother lion would emit a bark
as her nursing baby got over anxious.

"Oh oh,” my wife said as a huge male sea lion came


charging and barking over a sand dune to challenge another lion
who was jealously guarding his harem of females. It was mano
a mano between the two as they unconsciously battled for the
survival of their DNA, and consciously for the right to mate with
the harem. Finally, the smaller of the two turned tail and
scooted, flipper-by-flipper over the dune. But, no sooner had the
loser departed when an even larger bull came barking out of the
surf and challenged the winner. Well, one look at this guy and
the old champion knew his reign was short-lived and he too
turned tail and disappeared over the dune.

Most visitors to the Galapagos put it as a "once-in-a-


lifetime" trip. The magic is apparent from the time you set foot
on any island. On Bartolome we see red and yellow Sally
Lightfoot crabs on every rock. Then there is a rock that moves;
no it's a marine iguana (the only seagoing iguanas in the world
are here) sunning itself. A pelican with a three-foot wingspan
lands a few feet from us, preens itself and waddles off.

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Before cruising the Galapagos, our Ecuadorian adventure


started in Quito, the northern stronghold of the Inca Empire and
today, due to its rich tapestry of church architecture and
decorative arts, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It lies in a
lush valley nestled between the snowcapped peaks of the
eastern and western ranges of the high Andes. Although it sits
almost directly on the equator (which is 10 miles north) it has
springtime weather all year round due to its 9,300-foot altitude.

After spending the first day touring the colonial sites of


Quito, we headed south on the former Royal Road of the Incas,
through what the early explorer Alexander von Humboldt
evocatively coined Avenue of the Volcanoes. The air was clear
and fresh and the breathtaking scenery included Cotopaxi, the
world's highest active volcano at 19,347 feet, and Chimborazo,
the world's highest volcano at 20,702 feet.

A few miles south of Cotopaxi we arrive at the small town


of Saquisili, where local Indians were coming from miles around
to buy, sell, eat and socialize with friends. For us, it was an
opportunity to participate in a different culture by bargaining for
crafts, talking with the artisans, and simply people watching.

"I hope you know how you're going to get all those
home," my wife asked wryly after I'd just bought no less than
ten Alpaca sweaters from a young Indian woman. The woman,
attired in traditional Andean dress of long multicolored skirt,
shawl and fedora, had asked $15 apiece, but bargaining in
Ecuador is an act of friendship, so I offered her $12. She looked
at me and after a moment, smiled and said OK. I almost fell
over since lesser quality Alpaca sweaters would cost over $100
in the U.S.
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Actually, getting the coats home was easy. I just bought


a hand-woven duffle bag for $5 and put them in there. I figure I
have my Christmas shopping done for the next ten years.

Last Day: The Day of the Iguana

The last day of our Galapagos adventure was spent on


James Island, the island where Darwin spent most of his time
while on the Galapagos.

"We're back in the Cenozoic era,” my wife says trying to


impress me with her knowledge of Geology 101. Actually, we
were back further than that. We were standing in the midst of a
colony of marine iguanas, which geologists say are related to
lizards that lived over 100 million years ago.

But everything is beautiful in its own way, although in the


case of the marine iguana some people might make an
exception. Their prehistoric appearance and black-and-white
coloration provide perfect camouflage against the guano-stained
black volcanic rock.

One of the less endearing traits of these creatures, even


to a serious biologist, is its constant cleaning of its nostrils,
which sends eruptions of a salt-water mucus several feet in all
directions. The marine iguana has the rather unusual talent of
being able to graze on algae underwater. The periodic expulsion
of mucus is simply its way to excrete excess salt.

"Sharks!" the wife of the former Army Ranger yelled


when she saw her husband wading in the surf the last day on
Bartolome Island. He and I had waded out a few feet to get a
better view of a few dozen white-tipped reef sharks that were
milling about. They promptly complied by swimming all around
us. White tip sharks are not dangerous but it was an
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exhilarating experience nevertheless. The only causality was


the man's wife who wasn't told about the passive nature of the
sharks.

The last night aboard the Isabela my wife and I sat on the
hind deck and watched the sun set over the western Pacific.
The next day we flew back to Quito where we spent our last day
visiting more Andean markets. I bought ten more Alpaca
sweaters.

"What?" my wife gasped as she saw me loaded down like


an Andean llama. "Oh I forgot,” she said, "Christmas is
coming."

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As our Continental Boeing 757 circled over Quito and


headed to North America, I looked east towards the snowcapped
volcanoes of the high Andes. I started to think about what lay
on the other side. The Amazon jungle. I was thinking we might
be back.

- the end -

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