Sani Lodge Lagoon at sunset in the Amazon basin.
The Galapagos Islands and its animal inhabitants are like no place elsewhere on the planet. It was these strange differences that enabled Darwin to do his research into the evolution of the species there. We were introduced to Darwin through an island that bears his name and some 13 varieties of Darwin Finches that show differences wherever they are found. Our guide told us that only G-d, Darwin and a Canadian expert can identify and distinguish one of these species of birds from another. In visiting eight of the islands which are located 1000 km off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, we did get to see many animals and the most incredible thing is their lack of fear of humans.
Our introduction to these unique islands was at the pier in the Galapagos, waiting for the dinghy or zodiac that would take us to our larger ship. There we saw three female sea lions resting on the benches that are supposed to be for humans. Most of the people waiting in the area didn't notice the animals until I started taking photos of them.
Our group of fifteen all had name tags with the name of the ship that would be our home for the next eight days. We met our guides and boarded the zodiac that would be our main mode of travel between the islands and the ship. We had been that there would be both dry and wet landings. A wet landing involves landing on a beach and getting wet up to your thighs depending on how low the crew could hold the zodiac as the small craft bobbed in the surf. Getting back on the zodiac was another story. The boats are rubber pontoons that are air filled and are about three-quarters of a meter in height. The only sensible way to enter them in the moving surf is to first put your rear end on the pontoon and then swing your legs and body around and into boat. Much easier said than done. I found myself thrusting my body into the boat at almost every wet landing and Marlene, who has short legs, had to be physically lifted like a child and put into the boat by one of the strong boat crew. Each wet landing gave us lots of laughs.
Dry landings meant there was a dock where the boat could be tied up and a crew member would first take our cameras and gear and then grab the inside of our forearm while we did the same with him and he hauled us onto the dock. They called this the Galapagos grip and it is more effective than grabbing someone's hand. I don't recommend this adventure to anyone who is handicapped or has difficulty walking, both because of the difficulty of getting in and out of the zodiacs and also because of the volcanic rock which at times proved treacherous to walk on.
Every landing was an incredible adventure. The variety of animals was disappointing because you do get to see the same animals on many of the islands and altogether we saw 30 or 35 different species of animal life. However each island is unique unto itself, with the newer islands being even more remote and barren of life.
We never did get tired of seeing either the red-footed or blue-footed boobies, which were Marlene's personal favorites. It was amazing to see birds with light colored blue and red webbed feet. It looked as though an artist had painted the colors on with lovely pastel shades. Walking among the sea lions on the shores of most of the islands and having to be careful of where you step so you don't touch them is also a new experience. Even the small birds on the Galapagos didn't disappoint and stood posing for us while we took photos.
All the animals pose for the tourists. We were warned not to get closer than three meters but in some cases you couldn't help yourself and would have to avoid stepping on an animal that either suddenly appeared in front of you or would hop on a tree branch close to where you were standing. The iguanas especially would often blend in with the volcanic rock so that you couldn't tell where the animal was and where to step. The iguanas in the Galapagos are the only lizards in the world that swim.
We got up as close to small yellow warblers, mocking birds and Darwin finches as we did to the large boobies and even larger albatrosses. We took turns posing next to the giant turtles to show how large they are compared to humans. The turtles didn't mind at all, neither did any of the other animals except for an occasional angry male sea lion. The male sea lions are very territorial and patrol both the sea and land where they may have females in tow. On land they can move quickly but really aren't very fast. However, I was once sent running for my life when a 300 kg male sea lion thought I was a threat to his harem and came after me with bared teeth when I was standing in the water shallows minding my own business. This gave our group quite a laugh, most of whom were surprised I could move so fast, but it did scare the hell out of me and I ran some 15 meters onto the shore before I stopped and was sure he was no longer after me. Several weeks earlier an unsuspecting woman tourist was attacked by a male sea lion who gave the poor woman a nasty seven inch cut on her leg that required stitches.
Most of the islands are quite barren. The island of Bartolome is a favorite choice of the boat captains because of its barrenness and similarity to photos of the moon. The islands are all formed from volcanic rock and with little rainfall there is not much greenery. There is a heavy mist that may suddenly come up and is unpleasant. The name given to this phenomenon is "garuah" which surprised everyone when I told them the word means "awful" in Hebrew. Most of the animals do nicely in this environment and only the giant turtles are considered an endangered species.
The penguins we saw are the most northerly species of this animal. We saw penguins sitting with blue-footed boobies and not bothering one another. The only occasion I saw aggression between the species was when a flightless cormorant picked up a sea iguana that was in its way by the tail and tossed it aside. I thought it might try to eat the lizard, but it was too fast and managed to scamper away.
97% of the islands are nature reserves and only four are inhabited by humans, some 5,000 people. Altogether there are more than a hundred of these volcanic islands; tourists usually only visit six or eight of them. When you arrive at the islands, which can only be done through an organized group, you pay an entrance fee of $100 per person and this goes towards upkeep of the islands and its environmental health. With some 150,000 tourists visiting the Galapagos this past year that's a lot of money for preservation, but I'm afraid that with this many humans it's just a matter of time before the islands will be facing the same problems encountered everywhere where humans have forced animal life out of its natural habitat.
For now though, the animals do rule and nowhere did we see this more clearly than at the airport on San Cristobol when we saw two large land iguanas walking on the runway with planes landing behind them and tourists pouring out of the doors. I only hope this freedom for the animals will continue and they will continue to determine where they walk and when.
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