Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Seals! Sea Lions! Giant Tortoises!

11 November 2015

We're in the Galápagos Islands!!!

The Galápagos are an archipelago roughly 600 miles (1000 km) west of Ecuador, but are part of Ecuador, which claimed the islands in 1832.

The islands were "discovered" in 1535, when Spanish explorers drifted off course.  The indigenous peoples of Central and South America may have known of the islands, but they were uninhabited by humans at that time, and were labelled "islands of the tortoises" because of the huge tortoises that still are famous.

This is the part of the world that Charles Darwin visited in the 1800s, and where he developed his theories of evolution, natural selection, survival of the fittest, all that.  There are several kinds of animals here that are the same genus but varying species, having rapidly mutated and evolved into different species with very specific adaptations.  For example, all the finches share similar DNA, pointing to one pair of the same ancestors.  Yet they have different coloring, are of different sizes, have different shapes and beaks - each specially adapted for eating different foods and thus not competing with each other - natural selection, adaptive radiation (quickly adapting as needed and radiating out into subspecies).  Darwin based his theories on these observations, which have been supported by modern DNA testing.  Same with the iguanas here, which are either the dark grey/black sea iguanas, or the yellow land iguanas - unique to this group of islands, and indicative of adaptation to the environment.

Anyway, this is one of those fascinating and different parts of the world, isolated and now protected by both the government of Ecuador as well as being one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The whole archipelago is basically part of the national parks of Ecuador.  When leaving the mainland, our bags were x-rayed to ensure no animal or plant matter is brought in that might affect the delicate balance of the environment here.  We also had to pay for a special permit to enter, and then pay again for the ticket to the national park ($100, an unexpected cost).  Ah well, we're here, we're enjoying the place, and it really is a marvel to behold.

There are all kinds of options for travellers, from posh resorts to backpacker hostels, as well as a variety of cruises to see the islands.  Not all the islands of the archipelago are inhabited.

Most people arrive by plane, since it would be a long ocean crossing.  The airport is on the island of Baltra.  Buses take visitors across this island to the ferry dock, where passengers and luggage are crammed onto a small flat boat.  Then we slowly cross the aqua channel over to Santa Cruz island.  We were met by an escort from our hotel, who then drove us from the north end of the island to the south, some 45 km or so.

We opted for a small hotel on the busiest island of Santa Cruz, staying in the town of Puerto Ayora.  The island is roughly 1000 sq km, with maybe 5000 permanent residents.  (Contrast that with St. Thomas, which is about 100 sq km, or 32 sq miles, with 50,000 residents!)

We're checking into short cruises around, because that's the best way to see islands that are further apart.  But we're also looking into day tours.  Some scuba diving.  And there are things to do right here on Santa Cruz.

The town itself is similar to many of the small Ecuadorean towns:  a school or two, a library, maybe a government building, a scattering of hotels in different prices ranges, cafés and restaurants, and shops featuring brightly colored local crafts and clothing.

Puerto Ayora also has a fish market.  I wandered on down to check it out.

The fish market is THE happening spot, at least from morning to about noon or so!!!

There are the people selling the fish, which are cleaned and filleted for the purchasers.  There are the people buying the fish, or the gorgeous huge lobsters.  There are the curious travellers and tourists who are just there to see what might look interesting, or to pose with a lobster.  (That wasn't me, that was someone else.)

And then there are the fish market groupies:  the pelicans, frigate birds, seals, and sea lions who enjoy the free handouts.

It was such fun to watch the whole thing!  I had a great time, and probably spent a good hour watching the action!

A customer would buy a fish.  The fish would be cleaned at one area of the counter, then filleted by the vendor.  The customer had the option of keeping the head and skeleton, probably for soup.  But the innards and the skin, fins, and tail were not kept by the humans.  No, the insides were washed to the ground and gobbled up the the birds or the seals/sea lions, who were all waiting and fighting for the free meal.  The fish seller would take the skin, or fins, or whatever and either toss it to the waiting birds, or feed it to the seal or sea lion closest by.

Which meant the great big seal stayed next to whichever fish vendor seemed to be busiest!  Really, he looked like he was the assistant!  He tried stealing a fish or two, but was shooed off by the vendor.  So he'd waddle over to someone else, who'd give him some fish skin.  I asked one seller if the seal was his friend, he laughed and agreed, "si, mi amigo!"

Then a younger and smaller sea lion appeared (there are stairs down to the water, and the animals climb up that), and got in on the action.  Another sea lion showed up, and started having some fishy breakfast as well.  The two young sea lions argued periodically, but no one hurt each other.  (Though as a former teacher, I did feel as if I should get in there and break up the argument, especially when they showed their teeth at each other!)

Pretty soon we had a crowd of tourists, everyone fascinated by the animals who seemed to treat the humans as friends.  Or at least as an easy source for food.  There was one policeman, whose job seemed to be reminding people not to get too close to the animals.  (It really is tempting to pet them, but of course that's a really big taboo.  These are wild animals, however friendly they seem.)

I met two young Israeli men, a Norwegian woman, and an older couple from central Europe - I forgot to ask them.  But it just seems natural to chat with people when everyone is gathered around watching the antics of the sea creatures who are being so friendly and photogenic.

I finally tore myself away, I was heading to the Charles Darwin center.  I knew it was about a kilometer away, and so I didn't want to get there after noon, it was a hot though overcast day.

Along my walk, I found a wonderful ceramic garden, with a fabulous mosaic arch, a wall covered in decorative tile, a gorgeous mosaic mermaid, and almost a little village or castle, all covered in tile!  It was a magical moment, a sort of ceramicist gone wild playground, with lovely little details.  Everything hinted at either the history of the islands, or the nature and environment to be found here.  Of course, I had to take photos of my favorite parts, but eventually walked on.

As part of what seems to be a natural inclination toward public art, there was a huge arch dedicated to Charles Darwin, featuring his likeness in the center and then some of the noted animals of the Galápagos along the sides of the arch.

I finally made it to the Darwin center, which is absolutely a must-do if you get to the Galápagos.  The center has several breeding programs, most notably for the saddle-back tortoise, one of the giant tortoises native only to these islands.  The population was greatly impacted by early sailors, who would stack the tortoises in the ships for food; since the animals could live for a year without eating, the sailors had a ready supply of fresh meat.  (Gruesome, I know.)  Then invasive mammals arrived with settlers, and began eating tortoise and turtle eggs, or attacking the baby tortoises (as well as the sea turtles).  The Darwin center is trying to renew to population of tortoises, who not only spread plant seeds in their dung, but also modify the landscape since they're so huge.

So I came here to visit the saddle-back tortoises.  They were pretty sleepy, since it was a fairly hot day.  And it isn't easy to move around with that huge heavy shell on your back.  I talked to one tortoise who seemed to be more awake than the others.  I wasn't sure if he was hoping for lunch, or was laughing at something I said, or was bored and yawning.  But he stretched his neck and opened his mouth as if he was saying, well, something.  He was pretty friendly.  (He, or she, was one of the bigger tortoises in the enclosure.  But friendly.)

I walked back to town, where a few young sea lions were still amusing tourists as they waited for a bit more free food.  When nothing appeared for them to eat, they both dove back into the water and swam away.

I'm amazed at how unafraid the animals are of humans.  Even the birds allow people to get very close, which is wonderful for those of us who like to get photos of everything.  I don't know if the animals are unafraid because they haven't been hunted, or if they see humans as an easy source of food, such as at the fish market.  But one of the park rules is don't feed the animals - along with try to stay 2 meters away, don't pet the animals, don't interfere with their normal animal behavior.

And then there was a mother and baby sea lion sleeping snuggled up on the dock.  So cute, so sweet, so tempting to snuggle with them!

A wonderful first 36 or so hours!!!!




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