Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Galapagos Goodbye

Now that I am in continental Ecuador, I am left to reflect on my time in the Galapagos. All together, I had nearly a month on this miraculous archipelago. Before I start to forget the little details, I want to share some of the small things that make the Galapagos unique. 

One of my favorite things about the islands was the sand. I don't know what it is about putting your feet into fine sand, but it feels amazing, doesn't it?

Yes, I know, you saw a similar picture from Mexico.  So what makes the sand in Galapagos unique?  Well, because there are different kinds of sand on the Galapagos.

The first photo, (and the tube furthest to the right) is organic sand.  It's the kind usually found in tropical areas, created by coral-feeding fish like Parrotfish.  They bite the coral, digest the living organisms inside, and pass out the broken down calcium skeleton as sand. 

But given the volcanic origin of the Galapagos Islands, there are different metals and minerals that give the different beaches color, depending on the make up of the island.  Each photo is from a different island.

This sand is a mixture of organic sand like above, and volcanic rock, giving it those small black flecks.
This was the finest sand I have ever seen.  It was hard-packed, but soft enough that your feet sink in.

This sand is olivine, having a green-brownish color, and lots of reflective flecks that sparkle as they catch the light.
This sand was my favorite.  Almost entirely volcanic, it's a very scratchy sand, with the white flecks being broken down shells.

Another kind of sand, that I sadly didn't get to see, is bright red, due to the iron rich rock that makes up the island.  You can get the idea from this photo of the soil on San Cristobal.  The soil there is incredibly hard, and much more like clay than soil.

For some reason, I never took a picture of the Galapagos taxis.  Taxis on the islands are incredibly common, affordable, and a main means of transportation for many.  Few people own cars since the islands are small and they are a very expensive investment.  Only a few of the Galapagos Islands are inhabited, and the population is usually concentrated in a few towns, so most people don't need to travel long distances.  But, because many people need to transport large objects, all the taxis are white pickup trucks.

Just as common are water taxis.  Access to ports is restricted to small boats, so water taxis shuttle people back and forth from ferries, cruise ships, and other boats.  The ride is quick, and usually costs about 50 cents.

Ecuavolley is a very popular past time on the islands.  They call it ecuavolley because it's played a little different from what we know to be volleyball (played with a soccer ball, usually 3-4 people (usually men) per side, with a higher net, and you can essentially catch and throw the ball rather than hit it).  Every town that I've seen has at least one court, and most weekday evenings, they are packed with people (usually men).  Part of the draw for the crowd is that it is a competitive game.  Each team puts down money, all the money going to the winning team.

I know I've already written a lot about the marine iguanas, but here is a chance to see marine and land iguanas side by side. 

Fragility of Life

On many occasions on this trip, I have been overcome with a sense of wonder.  I marvel at the things nature has created, their grandeur, their beauty, and the way species adapt to survive.  It has been humbling and inspiring.  It causes me to think deeply about our relationship to the natural world, and our need to adjust our approach to the earth from use, to protection and conservation.  I hope that if I have children, they will have the chance to see the same marvels as I have, but with time, this becomes less and less likely.

While I was impressed with nature's vitality, persistence and adaptability as a whole, many times on this trip was I reminded about the fragility of each creation on it's own.  Given the stringent protection of the islands, nature is left to it's own devices with little or no intervention from humans.  We encountered many reminders of the reality of life, with both a beginning, and an end.

Two different male sea lion remains.  According to our guide, these remains are about 3 years old, as  he saw when they were fresh, and watched them decay to their current state over the years.

Since sea lions are polygamous (one bull mates with many cows), they are highly competitive, fighting to vie for dominance. In this process, the losing male can at times be mortally wounded, where he then returns to the land to die.

This is a female, (you can tell by the smaller skull), and it's obviously fresher.  All of the brown on the sand is the fur.

 A lava lizard, only about 5 inches long.

Two different whales, left for visitors to marvel at.

I haven't written much about the plants I saw on the islands.  Admittedly, I was so enamored with the animals, that I all but missed the plants.  I did, however, find two interesting plants on San Cristobal island. 

I don't know the name of the first one, but I loved it because the flowers begin as the round, red buds, eventually popping open to reveal the gorgeous yellow of the bloom.  You can see both stages in this picture.  Each bloom is about the size of a pencil eraser.

This beauty is called Hojas del Aire, or Leaves of Air.  Each blossom is the size of a green grape, and, true to it's name, is a thin pouch of air.

The cactuses on the islands are really interesting.  My tour guide explained how there are 14 species of cactus in the archipelago, each kind having adapted according to the kinds of predators on the island.  Land Iguanas and Land Tortoises are predators of both the flesh and the fruit, while smaller birds like finches and mockingbirds prefer the fruit only.

On islands where there were tortoises and iguanas, cactuses grew taller and developed thicker and longer spines to repel them.  On islands with only birds, cactuses are shorter, with short spines, and are usually less hard.

You can tell easily that this Prickly Pear cactus inhabits an island with land predators.

A Candelabra Cactus

Our fine, feathered friends have been the stars of more than one post on this trip, and deservedly so.  While this is not as comprehensive as I would have liked, here are many of the species of birds found in the archipelago.
Swallow-tailed gull

Great Blue Heron

Storm Petrels (I received conflicting identifications 2 people said Petrel and 1 said Shearwater)
These little guys were really fun to watch because they literally hop around on the water catching insects.
Lava Heron

Frigates soaring above our boat on the updraft

Blue-footed Boobies
Yellow-Crowned Night Heron

Red-footed Boobies

Galapagos Dove


Black-necked Stilt

Galapagos Hawk
Flightless Cormorant

Volcanic Landscape
In my post about Fernandina Island, I know I already showed a "younger" volcanic island, and the kind of pioneer plants that can be found there.  I had the chance to visit a very young volcanic part of Santiago Island, called Sullivan Bay, where the most recent activitiy was 100 years ago.  There was little life there.  Later that week, we visited part of Isabella Island, where we saw raw volcanic rock, after hundreds of years.  It's easy to see side-by-side how the vegetation grows and changes the landscape.

Ever since the Galapagos were declared a UNESCO Monument, great strides have been taken in the archipelago to preserve the natural wonders found there.  Restrictions have been placed on tourism, fishing, waste disposal, and more.  I found that pretty much everyone who resides on the islands took great pride in their land, and felt a sense of responsibility to protect it. 

One of my favotire things was the waste disposal system.  Nearly every few blocks, you would see something like this.  Waste is divided into organic, recyclable, and garbage, each bin having a detailed list of contents.  It was rare that I saw any kind of liter.

Most museums also took great care to outline the sort of dangers facing the sustainability of the islands, and all of which are human in origin.  Wild farm animals like donkeys, cows, goats, chickens and pigs threaten the lives or reprocution of many animals on the islands, though a few islands have succesfully completed irradication programs to restore the natural balance.

Introduced fruit plants, especially Blackberry and Guava, spread rapidly, and overgrow natural vegetation and impede nesting of land birds.  (This was the problem I was helping with in San Cristobal my first week on the islands.  Swining machetes and weilding shovels.)

The interpretation center on San Cristobal left visitors with this final message:
"You can make a difference in Galapagos."  They invite us to be responsible eco-tourists: touch nothing, take nothing, use as little as possible, and to not transport plants or seeds to the islands.  I appreciated the sense of responsibility that we all have to protect our natural wonders.

Overall, there is clearly a lot to see and experience in this one-of-a-kind place.  I have seen things that I had only ever hoped to see, and feel blessed to have had that chance.  It was hard to leave such an amazing place, but I know that I will always be able to return.  I truly hope that this inspires you, if only a little, and that you consider making the trip, because I promise it will be well worth it.