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Frigate bird, Galapagos, EcuadorThe Galapagos (September -- October 2006)

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These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.

 

<Larry: Again in this page, there is no hardcore sailing content. Our loyal sailing audience may want to wait for our Panama edition..>

 

Galapagos: Tourist Options

 

We had much discussion about whether to go to the Galapagos, and if so, how. In our trip down the Pacific Coast we have seen almost all of the reptiles, fish and birds—or at least their close relatives—that make the Islands famous, and the Galapagos are expensive in contrast to the rest of Ecuador. However, many folks urged us to go, including Reid Pitts. Thank you Reid! We were so glad we listened to all these good folks. These are indeed “enchanted islands.”

 

Taking our own boat would be a great deal of work: it’s 550 miles, say five or six days, by 24 hours, each way, and current and wind do not necessarily cooperate during the journey. <Larry: One sailboat that arrived while we were there took 31 days on passage from Panama, which is only about 50% further away than we would have to have traveled. If we had been planning to head for the Marquesas next, rather than Panama, going to the Galapagos “on our own bottom” would have made a lot more sense, the Galapagos then being on the way, rather than a major detour.> Further, if one arrives on one’s own boat, one must anchor in one of the four officially-designated harbors where one is permitted to stay. If you wish to take your own boat to any anchorage other than the official four, you must pay $200 per day per person on board, plus $100 per day for a qualified guide, who must sleep on board for the duration.

 

Most tourists fly to the Islands and then get on a cruise ship for 3, 5, or 7 nights. There are many boats available, of different types, sizes, and degrees of luxury. At one extreme, your every whim is catered for, with a price to match. At the other extreme, fresh water is rationed. Knowing small boats as we do (a hundred-foot boat is considered very big on the Islands), we did not expect to find much privacy. <Larry: And if one doesn’t like the food, one can’t walk down the street to Iguana, Galapagos, Ecuadoranother restaurant. Besides, we already live on a boat, so why pay for the privilege? The argument for the cruise-ship option is that one spends all of each day actually seeing an island, since the cruise ship moves from island to island during the evenings. In contrast, we spent 3-6 hours of each day in a trawler-class boat getting to the island we were going to visit. Some passengers were seasick. If one was determined to visit more of the islands than we did, the cruise-ship option would look better.>

 

We decided to fly back and forth to the Galapagos, stay in a hotel, and take day tours from there. This was the right decision for us because I suspect that no boat but our own would have satisfied me. Had the Queen Mary II been available—well, who knows?

 

The airport is the only set of structures on little Baltra Island. From the airport, one takes a bus across Baltra, a ferry across a narrow channel from Baltra to Santa Cruz Island, and then a bus across Santa Cruz to Puerto Ayora. Our hotel saved us the bus ride across Santa Cruz by sending a taxi for us. We stayed at the Red Mangrove Adventure Inn in Puerto Ayora, the main port on Isla Santa Cruz, the most populated island. From the hotel we took five day-tours, and spent some additional time exploring Academy Bay, which was visible from our hotel room. <Larry: This was an “ocean view” room, but there was a walkway immediately outside of our window, so if we wanted to watch the ocean, we had to let other people watch us.> We enjoyed the fine sushi restaurant that is part of the hotel. We stayed for seven nights, which was just about the right amount of time. In the week we saw four islands thoroughly and all the major touristic species of wildlife except the albatross.

 

Galapagos: The Group

 

Tortise, Galapagos, EcuadorThe Galapagos are volcanic: a collection of 13 large islands, 6 minor islands, and more than 40 islets. From the plane, these dark greenish shapes suddenly rise out of the empty ocean as the pilot is announcing that he “will be landing soon.” Over the next millions of years, some of these islands will disappear and new ones will be born.

 

Two of the younger, more western, islands have active volcanoes. We did not visit the younger islands but we were told that they remind many people of the Big Island of Hawai’i, though Hawai’i is greener, hotter and today much more commercialized. These islands must resemble the Hawai’ian Islands of about 1950. Black and red lava rock is visible everywhere. Big boulders spit out of a volcano 100 million years ago litter the plains.

 

<Larry: The mechanism of island-formation is the same as for the Hawai’ian chain. Tectonic plates migrate over a volcano-creating hot spot; new volcanoes pierce the sea floor surface of the plate; some of the volcanoes grow to the surface, creating islands; then the plates move on, carrying the islands with them. The westernmost Galapagos Islands are now over the hot spot and have active volcanoes. Islands to the east  are no longer over the hot spot, and don’t. Some former islands further east have sunk beneath the waves to become seamounts.>

 

We started our visit with the Charles Darwin Foundation Headquarters (locally called “the Station”), which acts as a “think tank” for the Ecuadorian Park Service. The Foundation runs a tortoise breeding center that hatches tortoises from every island and shelters them until they are mature enough to survive on their own. Once they reach a certain size they are reinserted on the appropriate island. The tortoises are no longer considered endangered on the Islands. Issues of balancing preservation, development, and tourism keep the Foundation busy. Overall a good balance seems to have been reached. The Ecuadorian government is beginning to consider ways of keeping the tourist population under 100,000 visits per year.

 

The Galapagos Marine Reserve is distinct from the Park, and was declared in 1994. The Marine Reserve is composed of the interior waters of the islands plus waters within 40 nautical miles around the islands. With the designation in place, the bureaucracy has started to prohibit residents of the islands from fishing. I suspect it will straighten out eventually, but to fish, a license is necessary, and the existing commercial fishermen get all the licenses. There is talk of the islands beginning a catch-and-release sport-fishing industry.

 

Galapagos: Charles Darwin

<Larry: It is worth remembering that the title of Darwin’s thesis was Origin of the Species. The concept of extinction through natural selection was beginning to be accepted by his time. It was his proposal that species originated through random mutation rather than divine creation that Seal pup, Galapagos, Ecuadorgot him in trouble with the Bible-thumpers. Some extracts:

·        “Natural selection can act only by the preservation and accumulation of infinitesimally small inherited modifications, each profitable to the preserved being…Natural selection, if it be a true principle, [will] banish the belief of the continued creation of new organic beings, or of any great and sudden modification in their structure.”

·        “Mere chance, as we may call it, might cause one variety to differ in some character from its parents, and the offspring of this variety again to differ from its parent in the very same character and in a greater degree.…”

·        “We have reason to believe…that a change in the conditions of life, by specially acting on the reproductive system, causes or increases variability; and in the foregoing case [a hypothetical example “of a country undergoing some physical change, for instance, of climate”] the conditions of life are supposed to have undergone a change, and this would manifestly be favourable to natural selection, by giving a better chance of profitable variations occurring; and unless profitable variations do occur, natural selection can do nothing.”

“Survival of the fittest,” a popular phrase, is circular, a tautology. How does one objectively measure “survival” of a trait? By counting offspring with that trait that survive. How does one objectively measure “fitness to survive?” By counting offspring with that trait that survive. In Origin of the Species, Darwin never uses the phrase, and never uses the word “fittest.” His use of “fit” is almost invariably in the phrases “fit for” some activity, or “fitted to” a place. For example, he writes “Generally, the most vigorous males, those which are best fitted for their places in nature, will leave most progeny.”

It seems that the most painful ecological issues on the Galapagos arise from exotic (introduced) species. Dogs, cats, rats, fire ants, etc., find prey-species that have no defenses against them. Exotic plants displace native plants, to the detriment of the native animal species that depend on them. Darwin: “Moreover, when by sudden immigration or by unusually rapid development, many species of a new group have taken possession of a new area, they will have exterminated in a correspondingly rapid manner many of the old inhabitants….” >

Galapagos: Santa Cruz Island and Puerto Ayora

 

When we arrived, the airport side of Santa Cruz Island was sunny and bright. As we neared the highlands in the center of the island misty rain started, which did not end until we reached the edge of Puerto Ayora forty minutes later, a weather pattern which persisted during our stay. The weather was warm and humid. Not uncomfortable, but definitely “shorts weather.”

 

We were there in the low season, the Galapagos high season being the northern summer months of June to September. As a result, we often had restaurants nearly to ourselves. <Larry: That was also the result of our propensity to dine much earlier than any self-respecting Latin. We are typically the first dinner customers in nearly every restaurant we visit.>

 

We were fortunate to get to know some of the locals while on the island. Our guide at the hotel is married to the owner’s daughter. They met each other in the Hawai’ian Islands. She was raised as a child in the Galapagos but was taken to Connecticut at the age of 9 or 10 and did not leave the US until she was 21. After they got married, they returned to the Galapagos to live. Her mother’s uncle was one of four Angermeyer brothers who fled Germany in 1933 and who petitioned Blue-footed boobie, Galapagos, Ecuadorthe Ecuadorian government for permission to colonize the then-uninhabited Galapagos island of Santa Cruz. As a result, the Angermeyer family still owns much of the island and some of the boats that charter many around the islands. An interesting account of all of this has been written by one of the Angermeyer granddaughters:  “My Father’s Island.”

 

One day our guide, his wife, and five year old son took us for a boat ride and snorkeling expedition around Academy Bay. While he drove the boat, our hostess spiced the trip with tales of growing up on the islands. We snorkeled within touching distance of 30 frolicking sea lions off of Tortuga Island in beautiful clear water. Our 5 year old captain-in-training assured us, with absolute confidence and much to his mother’s disgust, that “Mommies don’t steer boats!” <Larry: They bring ‘em up right down here>.  But the boy could give the tour of the bay as well as his father.

 

The Galapagians are legally a special class of resident within Ecuador. They benefit from an airfare to the mainland that is 1/3 of the price paid by other Ecuadorians. They are proud of their islands, which are perhaps the most prosperous area of Ecuador, and take good care of them. We saw almost no trash, and we did see a rarity: recycling stations! Water is scarce and very expensive. Most houses have water collection systems to gather and use rain water. Car ownership is allowed only to island property-owners. There are many bicycles and motorbikes running around on Santa Cruz Island.

 

We spent the better part of a day exploring the mountains of Santa Cruz island, roaming through mile-long lava tube caves and walking around many hundred-year-old tortoises. While we did not see baby tortoises in the fields, adult tortoises coexist peacefully with horses, several of whom had their foals close by. <Larry: Tortoises roam and feed freely across the lush lowlands of Santa Cruz. Farmers have learned to raise the height of the bottom strand of barbed wire fences to a level above the backs of the tortoises. Otherwise, a passing tortoise will snag the wire and bulldoze ahead, bringing down the entire fence row.>

 

Galapagos: Other Islands

 

Bartholomé Island was my favorite. It is a small volcanic island, and a contrast of colors with black volcanic rock, creamy white beaches, turquoise waters and occasional small areas of mangroves. The stark landscape with stunning beaches emphasized an ecology driven by Darwinian water conservation. A few off-white bushes grow against the black volcanic rock. The island’s volcanic foundation was obvious, with the summit of central cone of the island 500 to 800 feet above the sea surface. The sides of the central cone are studded with small parasitic volcanoes or vents which had operated as escape values for the heat, steam and lava of Frigate bird (male) in mating display, Galapagos, Ecuadorthe main volcano. There were striking pitons on the edge of the island. One lobe of the island formed two bays: one for swimming by tourists; the other for sharks hunting sea lions. While we were on the island, we saw sea lions, tropical penguins, blue-footed boobies, sharks, and large turtles swimming in the bay. While we were snorkeling, small, brilliantly-colored and translucent fish swam around us in the bright, clear water. An occasional sea lion mother and pups went by in a hurry to some other place. Iguanas, both marine and terrestrial, were prolific on these islands. While moving from shore to the boat by dinghy we saw a large black mother marine iguana with several babies swim by.

 

We also visited Plaza and Seymour Islands. The time of year we visited gave us the opportunity to see the nursing of recently-born sea lion pups, and recently-hatched chicks of the frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, and swallow-tail gulls. The long, black frigate birds with their scissor like tails were magnificent. The males have an expandable red chest-pouch which they inflate with air to attract females during mating. The boobies with their astounding blue feet are amazing (though on two islands the feet are red). The lovely tropic birds with their long white tails are stunning.

 

The male sea lion has the toughest job on the islands. His job is to keep his harem happy, to protect the young by swimming up and down his area of the beach singing loudly, and to keep the sharks away from the whole group. His term of office as head sea lion is usually several months. Then, having lost a fight with another, stronger sea lion, he retreats to the “bachelor pad” zone of the island to rest and recuperate until he is strong enough the take on the challenge of dispossessing some other male.

 

These islands are a delight. For my friends who dive…there are many opportunities to dive with sharks and manta rays. We were told that the sharks leave divers alone because the sharks are not hungry because the islands have so much food. I was delighted to see no sharks in my snorkeling expeditions. The guides say that shark sightings by snorkelers were not unusual. The guides kept watch each time from the dinghy but all you divers enjoy yourselves!

 

Each island tour involved a 45-minute bus ride from Puerto Ayora to the harbor on the north side of Santa Cruz, followed by a boat ride of one to three hours. The return trip usually offered sightings of dolphins, whales, large (12 feet wingspan) leaping manta rays, and some rough seas. Once back to Puerto Ayora, we had a pleasant hotel and dinner on shore as our reward.

 

Additional photos from this trip can be found in our Photo Gallery and Moira’s Ship’s Store.

 

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