Galapagos Islands, Ecuador (Nov - Dec 2002)

"Hey, look at what WLIW has on its Auction site".

That's how the trip began. WLIW, a local Public Television Station (UHF 21 out of Long Island, NY), doesn't do the "beg-a-thon" like so many other modern PBS stations. Instead, it auctions off various donations, and our England/Switzerland trip with BCT in 1999 was a previous example. It's a good way to support your local PBS station, as well as a chance to save some money.

  The landscape of the Galapagos is an archipelago of small to medium sized islands, of volcanic origin, with the five volcano's of Isabella Island being the largest individual landmass.

By the time that you've counted down in size the first dozen or so islands, you're pretty much down to islands that are just a few dozen or so acres in size. Many have a pleasant name such as Daphne or Seymour, but many are far more accurately named: Gordon's Rock.

  Map of the Galapagos Islands Archipeligo  

The first thing that strikes you is that the islands are not lush jungles. Everything is very dry and dusty - a virtual desert next to the sea.

Only the largest islands have the size and elevation that's necessary to generate its own climate - it would appear that 1500ft to 2000ft is the rule of thumb. After all, there's an 8 month dry season (May-Dec) otherwise, so the lack of a lot of greenery in the lowlands and the presence of cactus and other succulents make sense...

  Santa Cruz, Galapagos landscape  Huntzinger
A view from the west side of Santa Cruz
  The flora of each island tends to be subtly different, although they do follow certain trends: they're all quite arid and desert-like along the sea coast, with either cactus, "holy tree", or mangrove being the most common large plants.

Reportedly, a good biologist can look at the plants on an island and tell you if certain species live there or not - - afterall, why grow spines, if there's no one around to eat you?

 

The location of the Galapagos Islands is roughly 600 miles due west of Ecuador, in the equatorial waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean. This biological isolation away from the mainland created the opportunity for the animals that made it here to evolve into some unusual niches, particularly your normal land-based animals who can't fly or swim across great distances.

The Galapagos Islands are famous in part because of Charles Darwin. He visited here on the voyage of the HMS Beagle, and his studies of the endemic wildlife here later became the foundation for his Theory of Evolution.

  Galapagos Islands - Land Iguana   Huntzinger
Click the photo for a close-up of this Land Iguana
  The Galapagos Land Iguana's diet includes cactus and other succulents. Their habitat is in the arid lowlands, which are hot and dry for most of the year.

Because of the biological isolation so away from the mainland, the Land Iguana is the apex land predator in the lowlands ... and an herbivore. The harsh (as in no fresh water) climate is a challenge, but a lack of competition from other species gives what originally was a normal lizard the opportunity to find a niche to live in.

 

Today, the Land Iguana is having a rough time, due to invasive species introduced by man: their eggs get eaten by rats and fire ants, and stepped on by goats and mules, who also eat some of the more tender browse when its seasonally available. Man is now giving them a helping hand with captive breeding, and is also eradicating the invadors to restore habitat.


  The location of the Galapagos Islands is at the intersection of the warm Panama Current, the cool Humboldt Current and the upwelling cold Japanese Current, which together creates a rich Mixing Bowl of sea life.

There are many islands that have marine mammals present, either an endemic Galapagos version of the California Sea Lion...

  Galapagos Islands - Sea Lion   Huntzinger  

  Galapagos Islands - Fur Sea Lion   Huntzinger
Click the photo to see this Fur Sea Lion's home on the rocks
 

... or the physically smaller and less numerous Fur Sea Lion (not "Fur Seal").

Both are found along many beaches stretches and rocky haul-out's, and it is sometimes amazing to see the tiny rock niches that they've climbed up to, over rugged rocks and ledges, and out of rough deep water drop-off's.

Both the Sea Lion and Fur Sea Lion have thick fur coats on them. Despite straddling the equator, the waters in the Galapagos are cool: the surface waters run from 72°F in the south, to as warm as 78°F in the far north, with thermoclines as much as 20°F degrees colder. Brrrrrr! Their normal daily routine is to go in for a snack, come out to warm up, go have another snack, warm up again, snack, warm ... you get the idea.

 

Seabirds frequent here too, and nest profusely. All over the world, it is common for seabirds to nest on islands, as these locations are generally more safe from most ground predators.

  What's less common is for there to be such a great abundence of nesting habitat with plenty of food nearby.

It turns out that the seabirds of the Galapagos avoid competing directly with each other by feeding at different times of day, as well as at different distances offshore.

  Galapagos Islands - Masked Booby   Huntzinger   Each seabird also has its own preferred place that it likes to nest. Not only do they specialize by island, but the Blue-footed Booby and the Masked Booby prefer to nest directly on the ground, and only clear a small stony circle before laying two eggs. The Red-footed Booby and the Frigate birds nest in bushes and trees. Its another strategy to share limited habitat.  

While the seabirds that the Galapagos are probably best known for their Boobies, present in smaller numbers are many other fascinating endemic species. There's several Herons, a truly flightless cormorant, the Galapagos penguin, which is the world's second smallest and also the northernmost penguin species, and the Waved albatross, the world's second largest seabird.

  Galapagos Islands - Waved Albatross  Huntzinger   The Waved albatross is quite a large bird. It weighs more than your average Thanksgiving turkey and its wingspan is up to eight feet.  

  The Waved Albatross is native only to Española Island, and nests on the windward cliffs, to make getting back into the air easier. Like all Albatrosses, is known for its elaborate courtship dances.   Galapagos Islands - Waved Albatross Courtship  Huntzinger  

  Galapagos Islands - Galapagos Penguin  Huntzinger  

The Galapagos Penguin is perhaps a foot or so tall, and only resides in a few spots in the entire archipeligo. Their population crashed by ~80% from the 1997-98 El Niño, and currently only number around a thousand.

Penguins are amazingly fast swimmers in the water - they've been known to hit speeds of 25mph, which is faster than you or I can run on dry land.

 

There really seems to be almost no end to the unusual things that you'll see:
  Galapagos Islands - Sally LIghtfoot Crab  Huntzinger   I don't know how unique the "Sally Lightfoot" crab is, but it is unusual for any crab to be fearless because it has virtually no predators. In this regards, this crab was no different than all of the endemic birds and the rest: completely fearless.  

  On the Peter Hughes Scuba Diving Liveaboard, we had a colony of juvenile boobies who would roost each day on our stern deck's canopy. UK Dive Magazine Editor Simon R. gets in really close with a Nikkor 16mm super-wide angle lens. His subject obliges.   Galapagos Islands - Simon Rogerson and Friend  Huntzinger  

  Galapagos Islands - A one pound seagull  Huntzinger  

Stowaway!

 

  Far to the North of the main Galapagos islands lie Wolf and Darwin Islands. Since they're over 200 miles distant, they're frequented only by scuba diving liveaboards. Neither island has any real place where you can safely land and explore, but Wolf does has a cave that can be entered by rubber boat during low tide.   Galapagos Islands - Littoral Cave at Wolf Island  Huntzinger  

  Galapagos Islands - Galapagos Tortoise Lonesome from Pinta Island  Huntzinger   Finally, the Galapagos is also known for their giant Tortoises. Each island generally had its own subspecies because of the isolation between the islands. Whalers and pirates used the Galapagos tortoises for many years as a form of portable living food supply. Unfortunately, they generally took the smaller turtles that didn't live as far up in the highlands, which were the females. Between this and habitat destruction, we end up with Lonesome George, the absolute last of his kind. There's hope that George can eventually be cloned, as the long search for a mate for George has continued to turn up empty.  

While the search for George has not gone well, the Darwin Research Station has been successful in captive breeding of several of the Islands' tortoise species, and after a few years in captivity, the young are large enough to be released into the wild. There's still a lot that they don't know - - such as how long a tortoise lives: best guess is 150-200 years - - but they are dedicated to do the research and provide the resources that will forstall the extinction of these endemic species due to their habitat destruction, mostly from goats.
 

  Galapagos Islands - Galapagos Tortoise (Male) at Darwin Research Station  Huntzinger  

Well, that's all for now. Hope you've enjoyed the pictures.

-hh