Hooray for Boobies!
05/24/2007 - 06/04/2007
Maybe it was when we were hovering three feet above a dozen white-tipped reef sharks, parked on the shallow seafloor like race cars at a drive-in. Or surveying the odd mating rituals of blue-footed boobies who were so close we could tell their sex from the size of their pupils. Or trailing a Pacific green sea turtle seemingly flying through a crystal-clear bay, or snorkeling with playful Galapagos penguins or witnessing the melodramatic reunion of a mother Galapagos sea lion with her frantic pup.
It's so hard to pick one defining image from our week in the Galapagos Islands, because we were surrounded every day by brand new scenes of mating, courtship, territorial disputes, hunting, death and just about every facet of life mere feet in front of us. Flightless cormorants protecting their eggs from water-starved mockingbirds, known to steal tourists' water bottles. A bright orange Sally lightfoot crab scavenging a dead marine iguana while a spotted Eage ray glides by in a shallow cove. A blue-footed booby diving at top speed amid the boats in a harbor to hunt for fish. Wave albatrosses jousting with their beaks like a re-enactment of a Shakespearean sword fight. Even Bryde's whales - mother and calf - breaching so close to the boat that we could see her twist in the water so her calf could suckle.
For the most part, the wildlife treated us as harmless curiosities - or in the case of the sea lions and the penguins, as potential playmates (this lack of fear of humans, unfortunately, has contributed to the extinctions or near-extinctions of several over-hunted species). Remarkably, though, we also saw new species at every stop, a testiment to the unique flora and fauna not only of the entire island chain but also of specific islands within the archipelago.
I've included a bunch of photos that will hopefully give a glimpse at the amazing wildlife we were lucky enough to observe during our week-long voyage on the Letty (part of the fleet of Ecoventura; ironically, our cabin was on the booby deck). During our trip, we were also continually reminded of Darwin's keen observations from his chapter on the Galapagos in "The Voyage of the Beagle" (for anyone who's interested, you can read the chapter here.)
We were particularly struck by the following passage, which ends the chapter:
In regard to the wildness of birds towards man, there is no way of accounting for it, except as an inherited habit: comparatively few young birds, in any one year, have been injured by man in England, yet almost all, even nestlings, are afraid of him; many individuals, on the other hand, both at the Galapagos and at the Falklands, have been pursued and injured by man, yet have not learned a salutary dread of him. We may infer from these facts, what havoc the introduction of any new beast of prey must cause in a country, before the instincts of the indigenous inhabitants have become adapted to the stranger's craft or power.
Despite the prescient warning, the Galapagos archipelago really is a dream-like place, full of life and wonder and the kind of inspiration that would fuel Darwin's landmark theory of evolution. But enough rhapsodizing. Here's a sampling of what we actually saw.
A male frigatebird also does his best to impress the ladies by puffing out his enormous red airsac. We saw so many of these across Genovesa Island it was like a scene from Nena's "99 Luftballoons" video.
The Galapagos Islands aren't just about wildlife. Here's a view from the beautiful but nearly desolate island of Bartolome looking toward Santiago Island. Recognize the view? It figures prominently in the movie "Master and Commander."
Not to be left out, here's one of the island chain's famous icons, a Galapagos tortoise, posing in a Santa Cruz pond with a white-cheeked pintail duck. Of the tortoises we saw, all were either in breeding facilities or in semi-wild conditions, where maintained pools of water would lure them within easy viewing distance of tourists.
We did see Lonesome George, by the way, though he is notoriously anti-social and hasn't been persuaded to father any progeny or even to donate some tortoise sperm, despite the best efforts of a Scandinavian woman who valiantly tried to get him to do just that, even going so far as to cover herself in female tortoise feces while massaging his tail. Can you imagine what her resume says?
Seriously, though, the extinction of several tortoise subspecies on specific islands due to overhunting and to introduced species such as goats is heartbreaking, though we heard about several success stories in rescuing some tortoises from the brink. Here's hoping that trend continues.
On the island of Espanola, where a breeding program founded in the 60's has prompted a remarkable tortoise comeback, blue-footed boobies often steal the show, such as this potential couple. The male, on the right, is "sky pointing" with his wings. He whistles, she honks, he presents her with twigs. It's all very endearing.
The island chain also features some dramatic rock formations, like this one known as Leon Dormido, or "Sleeping Lion." It's also referred to as the name of a popular brand of shoes, which is perhaps more fitting. Either way, we saw a pod of Bryde's whales surface right in front of the formation, then took a thrilling inflatable boat ride around the rocks and through an opening between them, spying sea birds, Sally lightfoot crabs, fur seals and Spotted Eagle rays.
Some fellow tourists on our boat complained that we really hadn't seen a land iguana in the wild (only some in a breeding facility). On cue, we spotted one slowly ambling across the airport runway just moments before we took off.
Our week in the Galapagos was bookended by brief stays in two of Ecuador's major cities: Quito, high in the Andes, and Guayaquil, a lowland riverside metropolis. Each city is vastly different, but we really liked both of them and were impressed by recent revitalizations of funky neighborhoods and Guayaquil's fantastic riverside promenade. Here's a view of Quito's Plaza de la Independencia in the city's up-and-coming Old Town, looking toward the Cathedral.
Sadly, our Ecuadorian adventure capped our 97-day-long odyssey through Central and South America. Perhaps I'll recap some highlights, lowlights, and helpful suggestions tomorrow. But for now, this picture perhaps sums up our feelings about three amazing months coming to an end.
Yes, we're both a bit crabby. But we'll get over it - eventually.