¡Hola a todos!
Well, today it is time for the third and final Galapagos entry concerning wildlife; I intend still to finish with one last entry of a more human nature – one that does not read like a script for a (very under par) BBC animal documentary. For the moment, however, let us focus on the sole remaining grouping, that of marine wildlife – my favourite of the three groups if ever I was to be forced to choose.
The vast majority of marine wildlife observation was conducted through near-daily snorkeling expeditions, mainly in quite isolated areas reached in the ‘pangas’, though once or twice from beaches. On every occasion, a ‘panga’ was never far away, in case anyone found him or herself in difficulties. The snorkeling adventures were a wonderful experience on every occasion. There was always a vast array of wildlife to be seen, ranging from colourful, tropical fish to larger ocean-dwellers. From the very first swim, I saw king angelfish, a flat, round being of deep blue with a fabulous, thin tip of orange encircling the extremity of its body. I saw razor surgeonfish in large numbers, a lighter blue body with yellow tails. Panamic sergeant-major fish, orange with stripes of royal blue, floated in close proximity to me, mingled with a blunt-head triggerfish, with its distinctive, bulbous forehead. Alas, I do not own a camera capable of taking pictures underwater but, some of my friends do and the French couple of Benjamin and Laurence certainly took an inordinate amount during each trip. These pictures they have shared with the rest of our group on the internet site Flickr and so I shall soon be able to include a selection in my Galapagos album. In the interim, anyone interested can Google search any of these fish for professional photographs. My favourite fish appeared in subsequent snorkeling sessions, including the Moorish idol, a beautiful fish with a long dorsal fin, tapering into a fine point, black with eye-catching yellow and white stripes down the side of its body; an elegant creature indeed. Finally, I observed a fascinating fish, the hieroglyphic hawk-fish, appropriately named due to its interesting pattern of markings all over its body.
It was later in that very first swim that I experienced my first true thrill in the water. Stroking the waves a little removed from my fellow swimmers, I caught sight of the unmistakable outline of a shark, ahead of and below me, obscured by the water’s murky aspect. As I drew closer, the outline took on a more definite shape: there was the elongated body, the short pectoral fins and very long tail fin, finally the classic pointed dorsal fin, seemingly aimed straight up towards me. The particularly long and narrow tail fin, with a splash of white at its tip confirmed this as an adult white-tipped reef shark, a relatively docile and harmless species. I followed it at a short distance until it rendezvoused with three other sharks, each lounging upon the sandy oceanic floor. The lazy yet threatening movement of the shark, as it progressed seemingly effortlessly through the water caused the hairs on my head to stand on end (although perhaps the cool water contributed to this effect). I had never seen a shark in the wild before, let alone swum with one: this was a thrilling experience indeed.
On the third day’s aquatic expedition at Cormorant Point and around Devil’s Crown, both off the coast of Floreana Island, I enjoyed my first swim with Pacific green sea turtles. This was a truly awesome experience, the turtles occasionally swimming very close, seemingly as interested at times in we humans as we were in them. Each swim with these noble, ponderous creatures, so reminiscent of the land tortoises, brought me a thrilling satisfaction, whether they were engrossed in consuming green algae growing upon the submerged rocks and lava coral or swimming idly yet swiftly alongside as I stove to match their speed while keeping a sensible distance. I thought back to the morning’s earlier inland walk, which had culminated at a beach that is used as a nesting area by these aged creatures. Monica had told us that a female sea turtle typically will lay approximately 800 eggs! The exorbitant number is due to the severe dangers inherent to a young turtle from the moment of birth through into adulthood. As soon as a baby turtle hatches, long since abandoned by its mother once the egg-laying process was complete, the little mite must burrow out of the sand in which its egg lay buried and make its way, instinctively, down the beach and into the surf. Most turtles hatch at night and so the cover of darkness can provide some aid in their plight but, even then there is an array of predators lurking, ready to snatch up the young turtle, mere minutes into its life. Galapagos hawks, sea-lions, rats and assorted other creatures might ambush the baby before it even reaches the water. Once in the water the turtle’s safety is far from assured, as still more sea-lions, joined by other marine predators can still snuff out the young one’s life. Out of the 800 or so turtles born from any one nest, perhaps one percent survives into adulthood, a sobering thought.
During our final ‘panga’ ride into the mangrove bay on Baltra Island, mere hours before our departure back to the air-strip and return flight to Quito, those hardy beings among us who had braved an early wake-up call and cool early morning temperatures were rewarded with a sight of two turtles engaged in mating beneath the mangrove trees, floating among the forbidding roots. A taxing process, for the female especially, a typical mating session between two turtles can last hours, the male awkwardly mounted upon the female’s shell. This female, bearing her partner’s weight, often has her head submerged, raising it above the water periodically to catch her breath. Even as these two labored, two more males lurked hopefully in the immediate vicinity, fellow voyeurs to the ongoing process. Once the first male had finished, it would be the turn of one of these two others to mount the exhausted female, whose only hope of escape would be to reach land and drag herself up and out of the water, as male turtles never set flipper upon dry land. Sadly, there did not appear to be any such saving feature among this bay and we motored on, leaving the poor female engaged in her plight.
It was also at the beach half-way through our walk on Floreana that we had seen a huge number of diamond stingrays wallowing in the shallows, occasionally becoming caught stranded – temporarily – on the sand before the next wave washed in to carry them back out into more familiar surroundings. Quite appropriately, these particular stingrays take their name from the shape of their body, which looks like a diamond or, equally plausible, a kite complete with “string” as a tail. Each sighting of a ray was tantalizingly brief but, my superb luck on this trip held as, two days later, I was able to swim with a fully-grown adult while snorkeling off Moreno Point on Isabela Island (indeed, this was perhaps the best single snorkeling experience… no; I cannot decide!). The ray emerged from some tall aquatic reeds, flapping towards me, more bird than water-based being. The view was ghostly; it seemed to unfold before me as if in slow-motion, stately and elegant. During this same slightly unsettling expedition, I was closely attended to by a very inquisitive bull’s-eye puffer fish, its name referring to the circles marking its back to potential hunters. This puffer would follow, floating just behind me, surprising me whenever I turned, engaged in a periodic sweep of the vicinity. This sweep was designed as much to reassure myself that there was no mammoth sea-creature about to attack me as to scout out further sights of interest. I find the experience of swimming in open water and particularly with my head submerged, as is the case when snorkeling, rather disconcerting. I move much slower in the water than out of it and noise is deadened below the waves: this vital sense weakened, often I feel strangely vulnerable and many times I have experienced the strong urge to look around into my blind-spots, convinced that it is I who is being observed. In this instance, the observer was no more than a harmless puffer, although I remained keen upon keeping the friendly chap at some distance: after all, I am not a frolicking sea-lion, a favourite pastime of whom would be to play with the poor mite until the fish became so aggravated as to puff up, a hilarious-sounding sight that I did not witness, alas.
This rich session also brought with it my first sighting of the Galapagos penguin, darting around speedily, little more than a scintillating blur. The second smallest of the five penguin species worldwide, these beings are drawn far north – to the equator no less – from their usual chilly climes by the cold currents arriving from the south (the Humboldt) and the west (the Cromwell). Nonetheless, these sensitive creatures are positioned precariously in Galapagos, possibly the animal most at threat throughout the archipelago. The threat comes not from humans, not from predators but, from the environment itself in which these penguins live. Changing climatic conditions are loosening the penguins’ grip upon the seas around the Islands. The phenomenon of ‘El Niño’ is particularly devastating, the last occurrence in 1992 killing eighty percent of the population.
‘El Niño’ arrives approximately every fifteen to twenty years and derives its name (“the Christ Child”) from the fact that it usually occurs during Christmas-time, at the time of Christ’s birth. In the eastern Pacific, off the coast of South America, strong trade winds generally blow from the east, forcing the Ocean’s surface water westwards, towards Australasia and Indonesia. This surface water is hotter than that below it due to the warming effects of its exposure to the sun’s rays. As this water is pushed to the west new, cooler water takes it place in the east, rising to the surface from a lower depth. This water is rich in nutrients, helping to support the abundant sea-life that can be found along the South American coastline. Incidentally, this natural process helps to explain the climate of the two regions, Indonesia and South America. The warmer surface water off the coast of Indonesia in turn warms the air above it, increasing this air’s buoyancy and thus heightening the chances of cloud formation and rain. In the east, meanwhile, the cooler surface water arriving from the depths contributes to a lower air temperature above, reducing the likelihood of clouds forming and rain falling. This is the normal climatic cycle.
In an ‘El Niño’ year, the trade winds from the east blow with less strength and sometimes even reverse direction. During this time the abundant heated water in the west begins to flow back east, towards the South American coast. The water temperature in this area increases and the nutrient-rich up-welling from the deep is limited by the arrival of so much water from the west. The sea-life in the area, and fish especially, cannot survive such a drop in their food-sources, the nutrients. Vast numbers of fish die and other creatures with them, including the Galapagos penguin, so unsuited to the increased water temperatures and drop in food supplies. The significant drop in fish can contribute to a severe weakening of the diets of those living along the South American coastline. Furthermore, the Earth’s climate is left deeply shaken. The hotter surface water temperature in the east fuels an increased air temperature, in turn heightening the likelihood of enormous tropical storms that devastate Pacific islands – and those people living upon them – normally considered sun-drenched paradises, such as Tahiti. The rain and thunderstorms associated with these warmer air temperatures also shifts east, falling over the deserts of Peru rather than the rainforests of Indonesia, leading to droughts in the west and floods in the west. Nor does the problem end there: finally, climates further afield are affected as well. The Earth responds to the effects of ‘El Niño’ by producing abnormal high and low pressures in other parts of the world: during an ‘El Niño’ year, the northern regions of America and Canada experience drier weather, the southern areas cooler (thus it is that in such a year, Florida does not experience hurricanes); Zimbabwe often experiences severe drought, with catastrophic consequences for its people.
One of my favourite experiences of the entire Galapagos trip was being able to swim with the good-natured, fun-loving sea-lions. These amiable creatures were present at many of the near-daily snorkeling sessions and were often at least as curious of us as we them. After first observing these animals upon land, where they laze around and move with ungainly, slovenly convulsions, I confess that I was not especially impressed. Witness these beings in the water, however, and this view soon alters drastically. Flexible, graceful, consummate water-beasts, the sea-lion is one of the marine world’s most arresting spectacles within Galapagos waters. They become lithesome, assured speedsters among we pedestrian folk. One of the absolute highlights came in a small cave: we were crowded together, flippers in particular suddenly cumbersome and painful when brought into accidental contact with flesh (I am not bitter, even though I scorned the use of these plastic performance enhancers for the whole trip). At perhaps the third instance of feeling something grazing my knee, I turned to discover, not some stray fin scratching me but, instead, an overly inquisitive sea-lion! It was a marvelous moment and I confess to feeling a certain burst of pride every time that the event was referred to for the rest of the day, Benjamin especially asserting that I was the friend of the animals. Certainly I seemed to enjoy a particularly close relationship with many of the friendly, fearless creatures I encountered during the week.
On the sixth day of the trip, we spent part of the afternoon walking the only accessible trail open to the public upon Fernandina Island. Here we encountered a sea-lion mother with her newborn pup and Monica regaled us with some fascinating information. Sea-lion mothers remain constantly at the side of their newborns for up to one week after giving birth. They do this so that they are able to memorize the particular sight, smell and cry of their offspring. Once they consider this to have been achieved and that they will therefore be able to identify their babe among a mass of others, they venture back out into the ocean to seek out food for both themselves and their young. The contrast between these two sea-lions could not have been starker. The mother, exhausted not only from the labours of giving birth but, also from not eating for at least the past few days, flopped wearily upon the sand. The newborn, instilled with the energy and curiosity of youth, capered (infuriatingly I am sure) around his poor parent.
The next day, we enjoyed our final two snorkeling experiences off the coast of Egas Point, Santiago Island and then off the shores of Bartolome Island. Conditions were clear and it was a brilliant final farewell to the water, on this trip at least. During the first session, we looked on in enraptured amazement as Ivo (“the fish”) dived with two young sea-lions, cavorting around them until one forced him to back off with a cautionary lunge towards his face! I attempted a pass under a submerged lava bridge – the first and last time I dived to any depth on this voyage: breaching the surface the other side of the bridge, my ears felt like they were about to bleed; the pressure was terrible. Sea-lions continued to gambol around us during the second session of the day and the event ended memorably when blue-footed boobies that were hunting fish div-bombed the surf around me, a special experience indeed.
The trip to Galapagos was a dream – which I had not previously imagined – that came true. We were incredibly fortunate to see and experience all that we did and the story does not quite end here… On the seventh evening, fresh from a shower after our final snorkeling expedition, I headed to the upper deck, outside, spurred on by reported sightings of some dolphins far off towards the horizon. Monica had handed me her binoculars mere moments before when, in the process of focusing them, my gaze came to rest upon a monstrous shape emerging briefly from the waves before sinking back down out of sight. The event occurred once more, giving me ample opportunity for a close inspection of my first viewing of a humpback whale (sorry Mum). The experience was eerily similar to that of my sole previous experience whale-watching, when I had no sooner taken the binoculars from Dad when a southern-right whale breached in full view! Just as then, the sight was spectacular and I was lucky indeed to enjoy such a fine perspective: wonderful!
There remains one final experience with Galapagos' marine wildlife that I must record in this entry. During the sixth day, as we motored up the Bolivar Channel between the islands of Isabela and Fernandina, we suddenly spotted a commotion off our port bow; hundreds of birds – predominantly frigates – were wheeling and diving over a stretch of water, so numerous as to appear like a burgeoning whirlwind, out over the waves. The reason for this congregation soon made itself known: two orca killer-whales were hunting in the vicinity, rising above the waves periodically to take a breath before continuing the chase. Their prey was sea-lions and judging by the copious number of birds it seemed that the whales were having the best of the hunt. We boarded the 'pangas' and headed out across the water for a better view. I have been fortunate enough to observe these marvelous creatures once before, during a crossing from Vancouver to Victoria, a city upon Vancouver Island in western Canada. Then we saw many, many orcas from three large pods but, only from a tall boat – this was still a magical sight. This time I was on the water, level with the unmistakable black-and-white visions whenever they rose from the deep. On one fabulous occasion, was we tracked one of the orcas, unsure of its exact path, it surfaced mere meters in front of us, taking everyone by surprise, before disappearing swiftly below once more. The oily smell of sea-lion blood hung upon the water as the birds fought over the entrails rising to the surface, discarded by the whales. While it was terrible to think of our playful friends being slaughtered below, I marveled nonetheless at the irrepressible circle of life and this fantastically close encounter with it.
Yet another jaw-dropping, life-affirming moment in a vast ocean of timeless treasures enjoyed on this trip thus-far. The Galapagos Islands proved to be everything and more. They served up fabulously rich sightings day after day during the trip and also a few surprise inclusions that no-one had expected. They did more than that, however: I arrived upon my first island sure that I had made the right decision in choosing to visit Galapagos but, unaware of quite how much I desired to see them, of quite how deeply the experiences would affect me, of quite how involved I would become in seeking out and seeking to learn more about these magical creatures. As I have had recourse to mention before, I am not here to judge; I do not intend to compile arbitrary lists of attractions, ranking all that I have seen and done. Nonetheless, it must be said that Galapagos is a very, very special place. I urge all who find the opportunity to go and to experience the magic of the Islands, to have one's senses challenged and, ultimately, revived and restored. I have already revisited these wondrous isles many times in my mind and hope to continue to do so in the years to come – who can tell: perhaps one day I shall be fortunate enough to return there physically but, even if this cannot come to pass, I have enjoyed incredible good fortune in being bestowed with this immeasurable experience once in my life-time.
¡Saludos a todos!