Where the Wild Things Are: Cruising the Galapagos|
by Karen Misuraca
I imaged the Galapagos to be a pile of rocks in the middle of the ocean
where prehistoric creatures walked around--turtles as big as
Volkswagens, lethargic lizards and birds with blue feet doing mating
dances in a National Geographic TV special. It is one of those places
that you vow to see once in your life, like the Grand Canyon and the
Expecting a tranquil zoo without cages, I found instead a stark and
sometimes fearsome landscape as magnetic as the animals I came to see.
The Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, are primarily
shallow lumps of lava with no fresh water, little soil and few plants,
save cactuses and bare trees tolerant of saltwater and equatorial heat.
Charles Darwin found the place inhospitable, saying, "Nothing could be
less inviting than the first appearance (of the Galapagos)."
Nevertheless, the moment he landed here in 1835 on a mapping expedition,
he was hooked. Sailing a mere five weeks in the islands, he discovered a
living laboratory of fantastic animals and birds suspended in time, and
from these he developed a theory of biological evolution.
On my way to a week's island cruise on the Albatros, an 80-foot dive
yacht, I queued up in the airport in Quito. Khaki-clad travelers in
hiking boots and floppy-brimmed hats inched toward the ticket counters
with mountains of camera cases, tripods, dive bags, and backpacks. We
flew to the island of San Cristobal, a simmering bit of earth precisely
astride the equator, and within an hour, eleven passengers and I, and
nine Ecuadorian crewmen of the Albatros, were anchored in a quiet bay
fifty yards offshore of a rocky strip called Isla Lobos.
The divers roared off in a Zodiac with the dive master to be "checked
out." I put on a bathing suit and snorkeling gear and jumped off the
back of the boat into about twenty feet of clear, warm water. A hubbub
of dark shapes flashed around me--a party of sea lions ignored my
frantic thrashes and nosed my fins. Scary flutterings in the white sand
below turned out to be a school of mustard-colored rays.
Later, with our naturalist guide Mathias Espinoza, we took a sunset
stroll on the islet. Beside the trail were lava lizards, red-headed
yellow warblers, Darwin finches, and Sally Lightfoot crabs in
fluorescent red, orange and blue, brilliant against the black lava
rocks. An encampment of a dozen or so blue-footed boobies peered calmly
at us as we took photos in the fading light. Acrobatic frigate birds and
a leaping gaggle of sea lions chased our Zodiacs back to the boat. The
surprise of this day was that we encountered so many creatures, so soon,
and they didn't seem to mind.
Cruising all night in a rollercoaster, September sea, we reached the
island of Espanola in the early morning under overcast skies. We
scrambled off the Zodiacs in a "wet landing" that had us clutching our
cameras. Our bright jackets were the only colors in a bleak field of
gray and black lava washed with snowy guano. Faint honking and clicking
sounds drew us along the trail into a swirling mist.
Espanola's rocky fields are the nesting site for virtually all of the
world's waved albatrosses, about 12,000 pairs (except for a few pairs
that nest on tiny Isla de la Plata near the coast of Ecuador). With
seven-foot wingspans that take them far out to sea for literally months
at a time, the birds have bulky, streamlined dark bodies and graceful,
ivory-colored necks and heads with powerful, long yellow bills. Of all
the birds we saw in the islands, the waved albatrosses were the shyest.
At the sight of us, they lumbered up off their nests like 747s, leaving
eggs and fuzzy chicks below.
Unruffled by tourism, the blue-footed boobies determinedly crammed small
fish down the throats of their young as we walked near their nests, each
shaded by chalky salt bush branches. The boobies whistle and click,
waddle, rock from side to side, bow, tip their heads back and stretch
their pure white necks to the sky like slow-moving clowns. Their big,
beautiful, webbed feet are neon-bright, light blue or turquoise, baby
blue, gray-blue, sky-blue, every blue imaginable.
In a half-day of wandering on the island, our sightings included legions
of fat red and black marine iguanas. Subspecies endemic to the island,
the black, yellow and green Espanola lava lizard and the Espanola
mockingbird exist only on the twenty-four-square-mile remnant of a
volcano. An aggressive mockingbird made his presence known by pecking at
our daypacks and hopping around our feet, even sitting on our heads.
The Galapagos Islands, a scattering of nineteen small islands and scores
of islets, were formed five to ten million years ago by underwater
volcanoes erupting above the surface of the ocean. At the junction of
two continental playes over a stationary "hot spot" in the earth's core,
several of the volcanoes are still active. Eruptions have occurred as
recently as 1991.
Great rivers of lava rolled across the island of Santiago just a century
ago, melting into Sullivan Bay where buccaneers in masted ships watched
in terror as the sea boiled and the sky burned. The vast, cracked lava
sheets host little obvious wildlife except a few sea lions, crabs and
penguins at the water's edge. An occasional fist of cactus sticks up,
and wispy, orange mollugo plants cling here and there. We hiked into the
silent inner island under a relentless yellow sky. Black and rust cinder
cones and the tongues of new land seemed as young as the day the island
was born. Walking gingerly across a ropy, silvery-black surface dodging
bubbles and fissures that looked as if steam might hiss out, I could
almost feel the heat melting the soles of my boots and could hardly wait
for the promised afternoon of snorkeling in the coral gardens off Isla
More than half of the National Park of the Galapagos is under water.
Tourists who dive or snorkel have double the wildlife sightings and a
very different experience than on the arid islands. At the confluence of
both equatorial and coastal oceanic currents, the seas here are actually
rivers of widely differing temperatures, ranging from about 55 to 85
degrees, resulting in a marine environment inhabited by a high
proportion of endemic species. December through June brings warm
currents from Panama, when the weather is very hot and very wet. July
through November is called the "mist season", when cooler currents from
the south make for heavier seas and lower visibility, although diving is
good every month of the year.
Snorkeling around a coral tower a few yards from Bartolome beach, I swam
through schools of yellow and black surgeonfish, electric-blue parrot
fish and angelfish. Sea lions were everywhere, almost elbowing me out of
the way in their enthusiasm. Having snorkeled with the lions for a few
days, I no longer panicked when one of the sleek fellows bared his teeth
and stared into my mask.
Floating peacefully, watching a gang of sea horses propel themselves
delicately along, I looked up to see a gray wall, then white flashes,
then an eye. White-tipped reef sharks may be harmless in these waters,
but this was my first shark. I swam backwards at high speed and
scrambled out of the water onto a rock. Starting to breathe again, I
realized that two penguins, each about eighteen inches tall, were
standing beside me in their "tuxedos". They turned their black backs and
faced the black lava, believing themselves to be invisible.
Returning to the safe cocoon of the Albatros, we snorkelers were greeted
by Walter, the barman, in his black tie and starched white shirt, with a
tray of hot hors d'oeuvres.
That evening, after I recounted my little shark encounter, Mathias told
us stories of some of his 3,000 dives in the Galapagos. He said it is
common to see huge schools of hammerhead sharks, bottle-nose dolphins
and manta rays twenty feet across.
Until a few years ago, tourists often fed reef fish and rays, stroked
the sea lions and even sat on the big land tortoises. Now, with annual
visitors topping 50,000 a year, licensed guides police their tour
groups, educating them about the cumulative effects of touching, feeding
and even taking flash photos and smoking. Trails are clearly marked and
are frequently moved to avoid habitat destruction and interruption of
breeding and nesting.
A relaxing respite from days of hiking, snorkeling and diving was a late
afternoon Zodiac ride into Black Turtle Cove, a maze of narrow channels
bordered by mangrove thickets, a watery nursery for newborns away from
the hungry predators of the open sea and a honeymoon resort for marine
turtles. Shushed into silence by Mathias, who cut the outboard motor, we
paddled on a green mirror beneath overhanging branches. Weak shafts of
sunlight lit the sandy floor of the swamp and we looked down to see a
mass of golden mustard rays, each about a foot across. A school of tiny
gray sharks glided by, then rivulets of spotted eagle rays. A mating
turtle couple locked in embrace rolled over and over at the surface of
the water. About three feet long, these marine turtles are smaller by
half than the most famous denizens of the Galapagos, the giant tortoises
who live in moist, green highlands on Santa Cruz and a few other islands.
On the last day of the cruise, we anchored off Santa Cruz in the harbor
of Puerto Ayora, the main town in the islands, and boarded taxis. The
red dirt road to the tortoise preserve winds through the small town of
T-shirt shops, open-air cafes and whitewashed block homes drenched in
brilliant magenta waves of bougainvillea and hibiscus. Banana, guava and
papaya trees stand in every yard.
At an elevation of about 1,800 feet in a fern-bordered, knee-deep grassy
meadow, we found the tortoises. At the frist sight of one of the huge
gray boulders, we all crowded around it, only to be warned off to a
reasonable distance by Mathias. With a great whooshing sound, the
boulder dropped, pulling his or her head and feet inside. A few yards
away, another boulder moved, then another. Five hundred pounds of
tortoise move slowly and they do eventually re-emerge to have their
The 3,000 tortoises on Santa Cruz are a subspecies existing only on this
island. Three of the fourteen subspecies of Galapagos tortoises, once
numbering hundreds of thousands, are extinct. The remaining total
population of 15,000 is gradually increasing due to the reintroduction
of animals raised at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto
Arroyo. Some of the larger tortoises were born in the 1800s when whalers
dragged the huge animals down to the ships to store alive for months of
fresh meat. Now, they are simply gawked at by tourists and serenaded by
flocks of vermilion flycatchers and yellow warblers.
On our last evening onboard, a band of musicians came aboard with
guitars and banjos, and along with the crew, crowded into the lounge
with us and we sang into the night.