Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Galapagos day 10 – Cruise day 5 – Western Isabela Island

I asked Juan today about his impressions of how the protest went. He estimated there were 200 people in attendance – tourist guides, employees of the National Park, their families, and average citizens. He said the mayor spoke at the demonstration and is on their side.

He explained that the Ecuadorian air force controls both the Baltra airport on the Galapagos, and they control the gas station, where international and local ships refuel. He says the air force sells gas at the set price to the local ships. But when international ships come in, they sell gas at a higher price. According to Juan, none of this hits the books. Effectively, they are stealing gas and making money from it.

He said that tomorrow, a commission will be going to the Baltra airport and turning over control of the airport and the gas station (la capitania) to the local government. The air force (about 100 members) will remain only for military functions.

“Our constitution doesn’t allow for the military to control anything like an airport or a gas station. All other airports in Ecuador are under local government control. It is only here because Baltra started out as a military base. They got used to controlling it and they have interests tied in with local politicians that has made it hard to take the control away.”

“Will this be a peaceful transfer?” one of our shipmates asked.

“Of course,” Juan said. “There are 15,000 residents of Puerto Ayora and only 100 of them. For their sake, it must be a peaceful transfer.” He of course forgot that those 100 are probably better armed than the 15,000. The members of the commission are courageous people.

But that’s what I like about Juan – his passion for the environment, for the park, and for education of the young. I like his confidence that something can be done and his commitment to playing a role in the changes.

Last night we sailed all night, for over 9 hours, to get to the western side of Isabela Island, the largest island in the archipelago. No more than 30% of the cruise ships reach this region, due to the long cruise. And so we are much more alone in nature here.

Of course, I appreciate the scenery and the ability to see animals. But the newness of seeing the most common species – the sea lions, the crabs, the turtles, the iguanas, the blue-footed boobies, the frigate birds – has worn off. I appreciate greatly the knowledge we receive from the guide. But rather than walking slowly over a short distance, I find myself aching for some kind of a goal, for something a little more strenuous, a little more challenging. While the schedule is relatively busy, I think it’s the lack of initiative and creativity required from me that’s beginning to bore me. I think I would have been better off with a five day, rather than an eight day tour.

What we did see today was marvelous though. We started off at Punta Moreno, walking across a black lava field – one of the most barren environments I’d ever come across. We could see two volcanoes – Sierra Negra, which we’d summitted last week, and Cerro Azul, both contributors to the ropy knots of solidified basalt we were stepping over. The silica in the basalt (40%) gave it a crunchy, glassy sound as we stepped over it.

This was a place to see how life developed from the beginning. There we were, in a most inhospitable environment – lava rock, ocean, and burning equatorial sun. Yet, in the less than 1,000 years since the last major lava flow, life was developing. This was especially evident around the brackish lagoons, green oases amidst a desert of black.

To me, this was a visual lesson, an analogy, of how things could have evolved after a big bang. For the first time, I understood the baby steps that led to an environment of verdant vegetation and abundant wildlife.

Only a few plants are capable of colonizing in such an environment – Galapagos sedge, candelabra cactus, grasses, and mangroves. These pioneer plants survive and create the soil for secondary plants, more complicated growths. Some plants, such as mangroves, attract insects, which then brings small invertebraes that feed on the insects. The lava cactus is another pioneer plant that uses the strategy of use its parts to generate itself. As parts fall off, they become part of the soil. I found it a fascinating and amazing process, so slow, but the effects, when looking at the islands of different ages, are so strong over millions of years.

We paused at a pond of brackish water, green around the edges, where life was concentrated. Another sinkhole, carpeted in green, stood out brilliantly against the harsh pahoehoe and aa lava. There were a few flamingoes in the water. A feral cat, which feeds on fish and lives on the brackish water, darted through the brush. There were flyless cormorant, the Galapagos martin, a more hen, and blue wing teals. In another little pond, we saw a yellow tail mullet. He’d been trapped in there as larvae, when the waves washed up through rock cracks. And now he had outgrown the pond, but had nowhere to go. And the Park policy of non-interference with the natural process (except when doing things like repopulating tortoises and shooting goats, rats and feral cats) means that tourists will pass by and watch as he eventually expires.

This island was fascinating not for the quantity of life, but rather for its scarcity, and the amazing conditions under which that life appeared.

We motored a bit further north during lunch, to Elizabeth Bay. There, we took out the dinghies for a three-hour ride through the mangroves. In the dark, quiet, mangroves, we found a “tree lion,” (a sea lion lying on a mangrove tree), many Great Pacific sea turtles swimming gracefully underwater, several rays, and penguins. Along with the gentle swish of the paddes, we heard the singing of yellow finches, warblers and great blue herons.

One fun scene was watching a group of blue-footed boobies diving together for fish. As soon as one made the move, all the others followed suit. By cooperating in this way, they gave the fish less time to disperse. And they figure that the waves produced from the first bird diving would bring other things to the surface. They nose dive from a substantial height and it was quite remarkable to see the splashes like bangs of a repeatedly fired gun, then the birds skidding across the water as though they were on waterskis. Above, the pirates of the sky, the large, black frigate birds, loomed ominously, looking for someone to intimidate or steal from.

A little ways out into the ocean stood three red rocks, made of terracotta tuff cone. These rock faces, covered with a thick layer of white guano, were teeming with animal life – penguins (the second smallest penguin in the world and the only one to live in a tropical environment), sea lions, iguanas, blue-footed boobies, flyless cormorants. Out in their own remote corner of the world, it was nice to know that once we leave, they will go on with their existence and their role in promulgating the Galapagos ecosystem.

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