Panama to the Galapagos 2011

S 00° 45' W 90° 17'

The last of a species

March 22, 2011

Even though we had much to accomplish to prepare ourselves for our long passages, our week in Puerto Ayora with Ocean’s Dream was not all work and no play.  We thoroughly enjoyed spending much of the time in the company of Jackie and Adrian and I especially cherished their British perspective on things.  Adrian left us with Tony Blair’s (long) autobiography which was perfect reading material for the long passage and added to my nostalgia for my homeland.

Our cruising guide had recommended several activities around Isla Santa Cruz but with limited time we selected just a couple that were easily accessible and were not things that we had already seen on the other islands (e.g., seabird colonies, lava tubes, tortoise colonies, or trails over coastal volcanic rocks).  So on Sunday afternoon (March 20th) we set off to the west of town to walk to Bahia Tortuga where there were a couple of beaches at the end of a long, paved path.  The area is managed by the National Park so you have to check in and out at an office at the beginning of the path.  This office is at the top of a large rock fracture that has created an interesting abrupt wall of rock at the west end of the harbor.  There is a steep path and steps up to the office which has an impressive view back over the town and bay.  The rest of the undulating path is very well built with a high curb on either side.  As it disappears into the distance it gives you an impression of being confined in a rather shallow bobsled run.

It was a hot, sunny day and the path was busy with visitors like us, locals out for a relaxing afternoon at the beach, and surfers anxious to get out to the waves.  At the office we had been firmly instructed not to swim at the first beach which was only suitable for surfing and had strong rip currents.  We were to walk the length of that beach and after crossing a short headland would come to the quiet and safe swimming beach.  It was at least a couple of miles (3 km) along the path and across the first beach, which indeed had some small but pounding waves.  There were some rather subdued American oystercatchers (an endemic subspecies) and a few other shore birds there but by the time we walked back the tide was in and there was hardly any beach left to walk along. 

Quite frankly the second beach was a disappointment for us.  It was protected from the open sea by mangroves so the water was still, murky, and warm.  Several families were enjoying the shade of the shoreline trees and the still water but we had hoped for some interesting snorkeling and there was none of that.  In retrospect I wish that we had splashed about in the waves on the first beach but the dire warnings had been so emphatic that we did not want to risk it.  There were a mass of marine iguanas on the narrow headland separating the beaches but, in truth, their novelty had slightly worn off on us.

In the end, it was the path itself and the arid rockland that it crossed that were the highlights of the excursion.  Endemic Galapagos mockingbirds protected territories at regular intervals along the path with bold individuals singing loudly overhead or busily hopping about on the path almost regardless of the stream of humans passing by.  We were also treated to a close-up view of an endemic Galapagos dove such that I got a much better look at its bright blue eye-rings and red legs than I had managed on my previous fleeting view of one on Isla San Cristóbal.

The most impressive features of the vegetation were the giant Opuntia cacti.  There are six endemic species of Opuntia in the Galapagos Islands with some that can grow to 33 ft (10 m) tall and which may live for over 200 years.  It can be 50 years before such species start to produce the bright yellow flowers which each only last for one day.  They are the only Opuntia cacti in the world to grow like trees and mature trunks had reddish plates of flaking bark that were reminiscent of ponderosa pines.  While we undoubtedly saw some cactus finches which nest in the Opuntias, feed on the nectar and fruit, and pollinate the flowers, it turns out that some of the other finches also inhabit the cacti so we were never quite certain of our finch identification.

We saw more of these cactus-trees the next day when we finally got to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station.  It was a case of “third time lucky” for this expedition having tried on both Friday and Saturday afternoons.  The station is by the waterfront at the east end of town which is a pleasant but not insignificant walk from the water taxi docks.  On Friday we had arrived during the two hours when it is closed for lunch and had to meet Irene at the time it reopened.  Foolishly we failed to notice on this first visit that in addition to being closed at lunchtime the facilities were closed at the weekends (a little surprising in such a tourist dominated area), hence the second abortive trip.  Still, as we repeatedly made this trek, we enjoyed looking at the shops and galleries, and we were intrigued to see some of the signs of clean-up after the tsunami. 

If, as we had heard, there had been damage to the busy passenger docks, it appeared that most of it had been fixed by the time we arrived.  There may well have been some flooding in the Port Captain’s Office which was right down by the water but the only evidence we saw of flood damage was at one waterside hotel and at a bank.  At the latter, piles of papers were laid out in the sun each day on chairs and benches by the front door.  A security guard was keeping an eye on them but it somehow seemed a bit casual to have all these documents held down by rock paperweights.

The Charles Darwin Foundation is an international body that was established in 1959, the same time that the Ecuadorian National Park was created.  The legal home of the Foundation is in Belgium but in 1964 the Research Station was established as the operational center.  There is a pleasant trail for visitors, away from the research buildings and offices, which takes you to modest display rooms, the tortoise and land iguana pens, and the small gift shop.  Compared to the newer Interpretive Center on Isla San Cristóbal, the displays here were a little more dated and general but in compensation, there were well designed paths that allowed you to go into the tortoise pens and informative signs.

The first giant tortoise that you meet is the most famous, Lonesome George.  It is amazing to think that he has been at the Station since 1972 when he was removed from Isla Pinta where he was the last remaining individual of his species, the rest having been hunted or out-competed by goats to extinction.  He was already old, perhaps 75, when rescued.  In the 1970-80’s he was rather spoiled by his caretakers so that he became overweight and had to go on a diet in the early 1990’s.  Despite being kept in the company of two female tortoises from Wolf Volcano on Isabela, the closest tortoise population to Isla Pinta, he showed no signs of reproducing.  Genetic analyses in 1999 surprisingly showed that the species of tortoise from the distant Isla Española (SE Galapagos) was most closely related to George.  Although that species was once endangered, a successful restoration program has resulted in more than 1000 tortoises being bred and released on Española.  Then in 2007 an individual tortoise on Wolf Volcano was found that had half Pinta genes suggesting that it was a first generation hybrid and increasing the possibility of selecting for an almost fully Pinta genotype, if only George would reproduce.  There will be a search for more hybrids at Wolf Volcano.  Finally, after 16 years of co-habitation, the two females with George nested and laid eggs in 2008.  Although these eggs were ultimately infertile, hopes of saving Lonesome George’s genes and his species have been raised. There is a full captive breeding program at the Station and there are other tortoises from different islands among whom one can walk in their pens but none of them capture the imagination quite like old George.

 When we were on Isla San Cristóbal and saw brown iguanas away from the shore we wondered if they were land iguanas.  Well, they were not.  One subspecies is only found on Isla Santa Fe (small, uninhabited island between San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz) and the other, Galapagos land iguana, occurs on several western isles but not San Cristóbal.  Individuals of the latter species are on display in pens at the Research Station and they are large and beautifully orange and yellow colored creatures.  The largest population of these iguanas are on the relatively pristine (no introduced predators) Isla Fernandia. Amazingly during the July nesting season females from all over the island migrate to the top of the volcano at an altitude of 4,900 ft (1500 m).  As if this multi-day trek were not enough, many will scramble down into the vegetation-less caldera which is up to 2,950 ft (900 m) deep.  Having laid their eggs in the volcanic ash not only do the females have to climb out again but the hatchlings will have to survive the grueling ascent before they can find cover and food on the vegetated outer slopes.  Incredible!

Although they did not have any on display, a third species, the pink iguana, was first discovered on Wolf Volcano in 1986 and only recently has this new species been formally recognized.  It is a fairly rare creature that could be susceptible to the introduced predators on Isla Isabela so it is uncertain whether the species will survive for much longer.  It is amazing to think that such a large (2 – 3 ft, 1m long) vertebrate could have evaded discovery until so recently.

Overall, we were extremely satisfied with all the wildlife that we had seen during our Galapagos visit, both in captivity and, especially, in the wild.  The notable omissions would have required going with guides to more remote areas so we did not feel that we had been unlucky to miss them (with the exception of the vermillion flycatcher).  There are fewer than 1,400 flightless cormorants on northern Isabela and while we debated about sailing towards Hawaii around that coast we decided that the likelihood of seeing any from the boat was very slim.  The waved albatross (the only tropical albatross of 22 species worldwide) with its 8 ft (2.4 m) wingspan, only breeds on Isla Española to which we would have had to take a multi-day tour.  The small Galapagos fur seal has a limited population after nearly being hunted to extinction and they tend to occur only along the inaccessible, rugged coastlines of the western islands.

There are three native raptors in the Galapagos but we did not see any of them.  The endemic Galapagos hawk (thought to have evolved from Swainson’s hawk) is the dominant land predator on the islands.  They are fearless of people, frequently landing on the heads of researchers, and survive on eight of the less inhabited islands.  The endemic subspecies of barn owl is a nocturnal feeder of native and introduced rodents while the endemic subspecies of short-eared owl is a day-time hunter of smaller birds.

Our trip to the Charles Darwin Research Station inevitably ended with an investment at the gift shop which was much smaller than expected but stocked with high-quality items.  Our remaining day and a half in Puerto Ayora were focused on: last-minute provisions; getting the boat ready (e.g., packing dinghy and outboard below); internet use; and enjoying, ice-creams, restaurant meals, and the company of Jackie and Adrian (things to be missed for the next 40 days). 

Randall and I (at his insistence) took a ride through town after dark on a “bug-train” which for a dollar each was surprisingly extensive and fun, watching all the little children enjoying the novelty ride through the streets.  Predictably (but of course she still surprised us), Irene showed up at 7:30 am on Tuesday with our zarpes from the Port Captain and an unpredictably modest fee for them.  So all in all our preparations for the “big” passage went smoothly and as sad as we were to say Good-bye to Ocean’s Dream and to the Galapagos Islands, by Tuesday evening we felt ready to go.

It is hard to express how much our six-week Galapagos visit had exceeded our expectations and how incredibly pleased and privileged we felt to have spent so much time there and seen so much.  Our overall impressions of the status of wildlife and habitat conservation on these unique islands were very good.  Given the abuses of various periods of their history (excess tortoise exploitation, whaling, agricultural disturbance, introduction of exotics, etc.), we felt that the Ecuadorian and international efforts at protection and restoration were generally very encouraging.  There were clearly some dramatic success stories such as the restoration of captive-bred tortoise populations, removal of exotic mammals from certain islands, etc.  There are certainly continued and unacceptable population and species losses due to poaching and harm from introduced species. The potential effects of climate change on a system that is so characterized by adaptations to local micro-climates and to the unique influences of ocean currents, upwelling, and El Niño/La Niña events hardly bears thinking about.  But even given these potentially drastic disruptions, we still felt a certain optimism and thankfulness that most humans in the area seem to “get it” and realize the value and specialness of the place.

Analyses of the future of the islands seem to concentrate on two important aspects that our own observations tended to support.  The biology is unique because of the isolation of the islands and increasing numbers of residents and visitors and all the supplies that must be imported for them had rapidly diminished that isolation.  Steps have been taken in the right direction (all flights must originate from Ecuador, all planes are fumigated on arrival, importation of plants and animals are restricted, boats must be inspected or fumigated, etc.) but the sheer volume of people and cargo is overwhelming for any truly thorough program of inspections and pest removal. 

The second, related factor is the simple increase in the human population in response to the massive increase in tourism.  While the Park can limit the geographical expansion of housing and other infrastructure, water supply, garbage and sewage disposal, oil importations, and all the myriad consequences of population growth will have to be closely managed if the influence of the few places of habitation and visitation are not to ruin the rest of the ecosystems.

Effective planning for sustainable economic growth, including limits on immigration and ensuring that a greater percentage of the tourist income actually stays in the islands to protect them, is crucial.  It is not sexy and not visible to ecotourism like saving a species of giant tortoise but in the long run it will be even more important.  While Ecuadorians undoubtedly feel a particular responsibility for the custody of these islands, continued international assistance will be vital to preserve this extraordinary World Heritage Site.

It would be easy to visit this place and at a superficial level of observation only be impressed and optimistic.  It would also be easy to become overwhelmed, pessimistic, and depressed by the realization of what has been and still could be lost due to human greed and carelessness.  Visiting the islands whether in one’s own boat, as a casual traveler, or on an organized tour is bound to engender ambiguous feelings about whether the ecotourism is economically helping fund protection or whether yours are just another pair of feet too many.  We would love to spend more time in the Galapagos but I think that we would have to find some concrete method to help to justify impacts from an additional presence.  Since we have been so fortunate, we would surely recommend a visit by anyone interested in natural history or geology but we are conflicted by the knowledge of what unrestrained tourism could do.  There is nothing attractive about the hypocrisy of calling for restrictions on visitors and human impacts after we have enjoyed our own privileged opportunity.

Our own professional experiences made our visit particularly special but also have taught us that none of the development issues are easy to resolve either at the society or individual level. As we sail away, we can only hope that motivated organizations and people continue to face and resolve these difficult challenges. While there is potentially much to worry about, it is good to learn of causes for optimism.   This final thought is quoted from the De Roy book and is cited from the Galapagos Conservation Trust.  “Following a referendum to approve a new constitution in 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to enshrine the inalienable Rights of Nature in law.” (I will try to find a URL to link to the five articles that acknowledge the rights possessed by nature).  Well done, Ecuador; this can only be a good sign.

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