Friday, 4 July 2008, Otavalo
On Sunday we arrived back in Quito after a week cruising the Galapagos Islands. Normally the word 'cruising' would evoke sun-filled days relaxing on the deck of a boat with not a care in the world except what time is the next meal served! But cruising the Galapagos left us both exhausted and exhilarated. Exhausted because in 7 days we travelled over 600 kilometres to visit 11 islands, 2 of which were so far that we had to travel overnight to reach them and overnight again to return. The open sea was at times a little rough and one night it was so choppy that we were sure we would be thrown from our bunks! Our days were full with usually 2 island walks of at least 2 hours and 1 or 2 snorkelling sessions.
But don't get me wrong - this journey was exhilarating, fascinating and very definitely worthwhile. The Galapagos is one of the unique places on the planet. One reason for this is that the fauna in almost all cases have no predators and have never been threatened by man, so it is possible to come extremely close to the birds and reptiles that inhabit the islands. A group of 17 people, including our guide, can stand within 2 metres of a nesting blue-footed booby and take photos without disturbing the bird at all. Another reason is that there are animals on the Galapagos which are found nowhere else in the world. It is definitely exhilarating to stand on a small island watching an iguana and to realise that it is the only place it is possible to see this particular animal.
On our very first day we were greeted at the wharf - where we waited for the dinghy to take us to the Angelito 1 - by a sea lion, and also saw the red Sally Lightfoot crabs on the rocks and a marine iguana swimming in the ocean below. Not a bad start. We arrived on the boat and were very quickly underway, followed by frigatebirds, to our first island - Seymour - where we saw more crabs, sea lions, frigatebirds, and marine iguanas as well as land iguanas, blue-footed boobies, lava lizards, lots of grasshoppers and one lava gull. It was almost overwhelming for the first day!
The Galapagos National Park was formed in 1959 and has very strict guidelines to preserve this unique area. It is compulsory to visit the islands with a guide and the ratio is set at 1 guide for 16 people. Itineraries are controlled so that a limited number of people visit a particular island on any given day. Some parts are closed to tourists for a period of time to allow for regeneration. There are well marked paths that you must not leave - a quick reminder from the guide if you do - and they have been formed by only removing the foliage, so whatever is under the foliage to the sides of the path is what the path is made of, and that is often some sort of rocks, usually of volcanic origin. It made it hard going at times but the rewards were always worth it. You must never touch or feed the animals. Sometimes it is very tempting, especially when viewing a particularly cute baby sea lion.
The islands are all different, in their landscape, and the variety of flora and fauna. They have been formed by volcanic activity and so the evidence of this is all-pervasive. A lot of lava rock is present, which is sometimes difficult to walk over, but it is very interesting to see the structures formed by it, particularly the lava tubes. There are also sandy beaches varying in colour from white to black to red. Most islands have some cactus, but the varieties differ from one island to the next. Some of the islands are almost barren in appearance while others are covered in foliage of green, yellow and red - this actually evoked the beautiful hues of the arctic tundra which we experienced almost 2 years ago.
We saw many more of the beautiful red sally lightfoot crabs on our island visits. One day we found a complete shell that one had grown out of - it is difficult to imagine that the animal can leave the shell so totally intact. On Genovesa we saw tiny little waving crabs - can't remember their correct name, but they have one large claw which they wave around to attract the females. A third crab advertised it's presence by all the tiny balls of sand around its hole - we never saw one, so no wonder they are aptly named ghost crab.
Almost every island has sea lions, and after a few days it was tempting to become a bit blasé about them. Then you might see a mother suckling her young for the first time, or a particularly cute young one looking like it was just posing for the camera, and the interest would be stirred again. Although the smell around large groups of sea lions didn't really heighten one's interest! A couple of times we came upon a very emaciated young sea lion, which had obviously lost its mother and was in the process of starving to death. It was quite sad to watch but we were reminded by Maja, our guide, that the Park never interferes with the natural processes on these islands. There is no rescue for sick and injured animals. Survival of the fittest was noted by Darwin here and it still continues this way. There are also fur seals - or sea bears as they are also called - on a couple of the islands. They seem to be much shyer than the sea lions and are therefore more difficult to spot. But they are very cute animals as well.
The Galapagos are famous for their unique reptiles. Almost everyone will immediately think of the giant Galapagos tortoises. Although they exist on a number of the islands in the wild, we only saw them at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz. Most of them were collected from locals who used to keep one or two at home to kill for meat when the need arose. Since the forming of the national park this is not allowed and the tortoises at the Research Station are used for breeding and regenerating populations on the islands where they are diminished. (There is also a breeding programme at the Research Station for iguanas, as they have also been threatened on some of the more settled islands, but it is on a much smaller scale.) We saw Lonesome George, who is the last Pinta tortoise. They are extinct on that island and, although an intensive search has been carried out, a mate for him has not been found anywhere in the world. There was some hope of this for a while because a lot of the giant tortoises had been removed from the Galapagos Islands, for both private collections and zoos, prior to the formation of the national park. Since the tortoises are known to live a very long time, it was possible a Pinta tortoise could have been found somewhere. We only spotted the watery cousins of the giant tortoise, the marine turtle, on our last morning in the mangroves of Black Turtle Cove, even though some of our group had seen them when snorkelling.
There are two types of iguanas on the Galapagos - land iguanas and marine iguanas. The marine iguanas, the only sea-going lizard in the world, spend their time between the lava rocks, where they warm up in the sun, and underwater, where they feed on seaweed. I was lucky enough to see one in the process of feeding during one of our snorkelling excursions. They are black in colour (some with a reddish tinge), which certainly helps in the warming-up process after spending extended periods of time in the water feeding. Land iguanas come in a variety of colours depending on which island one sees them on. They are predominantly herbivores, although they were spotted eating insects on odd occasions, and mostly they seem to feed on cactus. The males have a territory and they spend their time moving from cactus to cactus in that area to see if anything has fallen to the ground for them to feed on. On South Plaza there was a feast happening because a couple of cactus trees had fallen over.
The other reptile we saw a lot of was the lava lizard. These are small lizards, compared to the iguanas, but quite prolific. The female has distinctive red stripes on her head, but the male is much less colourful and blends in with his surroundings, except on Española where they both have more distinctive red colouring. There are some snakes but they seem to be very shy, because we didn't see any.
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