Sunday, March 18, 2007

Galapagos day 8 – Cruise day 3 – Floreana Island

Today was a comparatively slow day. After an eventful morning, we’ve pretty much had the rest of the day off. The focus today is more on the staff – who work 9 weeks in a row before receiving three weeks off. Today they were allowed to play soccer on a field on Floreana island and we spent the afternoon cruising back to our starting point in Puerto Ayora so that they could spend the evening and night with their families.

So I’ll insert some general information about the Galapagos here. The Galapagos islands attracted 146,000 tourists last year. It’s the most diverse marine ecosystem in the Pacific and is full of endemic species, meaning that the species are found only there. Half of the birds and most of the reptiles are endemic. It’s also unique in that there are few predators, meaning that the animals lack the fear they posses in other environments, where they have to worry more about their survival. This makes for easy wildlife watching by visitors.

Remarking on the tameness of the birds, Charles Darwin wrote: “There is not one which will not approach sufficiently near to be killed with a switch, and sometimes, as I have myself tried, with a cap or hat. A gun is here almost superfluous; for with the muzzle of one I pushed a hawk off the branch of a tree.”

He told the story of a boy on Floreana sitting by a well with a switch in his hand, which he used to kill doves and finches as they came to drink. He already had a small heap for dinner and said he was in the habit of constantly waiting there for the same purpose.

“We must conclude,” wrote Darwin, “that the birds, not having yet learnt that man is a more dangerous animal than the tortoise…disregard us, in the same manner as magpies in England do the cows and horses grazing in the fields…I have not not met with any account of the land birds being so tame, in any other quarter of the world, as at the Galapagos and Falkland Islands.”

The islands themselves were first hidden on the sea floor. As lava flows accumulated steadily, they eventually rose above the surface as volcanic cones. What used to be ocean became new islands, empty of life and ready to receive organisms. For Darwin, as well as subsequent naturalist-oriented visitors, it offered the opportunity to look at a new land and watch the development of naturalist history.

At 7 in the morning we took off in our dinghies for Punta Cormorant, Floreana, where we landed on a beautiful half-moon beach. The soil had a slightly greenish tint from the volcanic olivine. Unlike yesterday, where we were among hordes of tourists, only one other boat was at this island with us. And after they left, we were alone. While we saw less animals today, the feeling of being alone in this remote nature made up for it.

We followed a trail to a lagoon, where flamingoes waded in the water. About 50 flamingoes spread out across the large body of water. The adults were dark pink on the head and rear, light in the middle. The juveniles were a uniform light pink. They stirred up the mud with their legs, forcing crustaceans to come up to feed on. Each flamingo could eat over four pounds a day of aquatic insects. Elegant black neck stilts walked along the edge of the shore, looking for small crabs.

Although the wildlife was more limited than on Espanola, the island felt remote, quiet and peaceful. Only one other boat had been there that morning besides us. In the light breeze, and the melodic chirping of the warblers, I could see and feel the quiet tug of earth’s history.

A short distance away, we arrived at a remote and beautiful beach, where turtles lay their eggs. It’s now the season for laying eggs and turtle tracks, moving from the ocean to the high sand, covered the shore. At the top of the sand were several holes, where the turtles laid 80-120 eggs each. Less than one percent of them will make it to adulthood. At one end of the beach, a single fresh track stood out from the rest of the water-smoothed sand. Juan said it probably was made last night. It’s unfortunate that the park doesn’t allow nighttime visits because it would have been spectacular to stay up and watch the turtle come in.

The Green Pacific Sea Turtle is the only one that nests in the Galapagos. Of the 80-120 eggs laid by a female, less than one percent of them make it. The baby turtles come out of the sand holes at night, at the same time their mother left them three months earlier. Then they leave for 20 years, until they return to breed. During those 20 years, the turtles are lost and very little information exists on what happens during those first two decades of life.

We circled around to the other side of the lagoon, looking at birds and plant life along the way. I especially liked the pearlberry, a plant that produces berries looking like shiny, oval pearls.

As we left on our dinghy back to the boat, we passed a lone Galapagos penguin, fishing in the water. This type is the second smallest penguin in the world.

A little while later we went out to snorkel at a nearby spot, Devil’s Ground. While the water was a bit murkier than Juan said it was last week, we were still able to see several white-tipped reef sharks, a brightly colored azure parrotfish, lots of little angelfish and creole fish (which appeared grey, but are really red). Best of all were two Green Pacific Sea Turtles we found swimming underwater, looking prehistoric as they glided under the waves with their fins and massive round bodies.

In the afternoon we had a very short stop at a place called the post office. It’s been made into a tourist destination when I think it’s really an excuse to be at a place where the crew can play soccer. It’s an old wooden barrel where passengers put addressed postcards. Visitors rifle through them and if they find one from their country they take it and mail it free of charge.

The path continued on for 16 kilometers Puerto Velasco Ibarra but unfortunately we weren’t given time to follow it. I’d be very interested in visiting that community of 80, especially after reading the story of its founding.

We had several hours on the boat to spend reading or relaxing. While cruising to the island of Santa Cruz, with the blue waters of the ocean all around us, our guide spotted bottle-nosed dolphins jumping out of the water ahead. He called us all onto the deck and we watched as they swam toward our boat and rode in the wave caused by our bow. Standing on deck, we watched up to eight dolphins at a time swimming underneath and alongside our prow. Some of them were huge – grey and sleek and elegant. Occasionally, they’d come up for air and I could see the large, round blowhole, their version of a nostril, on top of their heads. That was a pretty magical and surreal moment. Juan said that they see dolphins on about one of every two trips across that stretch of water. I’m glad we lucked out.

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