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Galapagos Memories

September 4, 2009

Back in 2006, only a few months after I’d gotten married, I was the recipient of an incredible wedding gift from my new in-laws. We would all travel to the Galapagos Islands, that famous archipelago whose wonders inspired the life’s work of at least one famous scientist and likely invigorated a love of nature in thousands more. It was a trip that I had a hard time getting my head around, so unlikely were the circumstances surrounding it. The Galapagos Islands are one of those once in a lifetime destinations, all the more so because of the evolutionary and historical baggage that goes along with it. For any sort of naturalist, amateur, professional, or unaware, this is one of those dream places. It exists both physically as a fascinating group of islands, and as the naturalist’s ideal, the place where great ideas are incubated though.

Not necessarily by me or anything, however, I was just some lucky dude on a week-long trip around a few of the islands. From the moment we stepped of the plane onto the boiling tarmac of the old US Air Force field on Baltra island, though, it was clear we were someplace different. For all the talk about the life forms Darwin studied there, the first thing you really notice about the Galapagos is how barren it is. We’re not talking about a tropical paradise, and though we could see the ocean from the airfield, the area around us was mostly dry, cactus ridden and hot.

Our days took on a comfortable routine. Our boat, the M/V Santa Cruz, would travel between islands overnight and early the nest morning we’d have breakfast in the common area then we were split into our groups to take a panga out to the landing site. We’d return after a few hours for lunch, the boat typically moving off to another site while we ate to repeat the process at an afternoon spot. These were often my favorite times, offering not only a look at the islands from the sea as we cruised by, but the opportunity to look out for seabirds. I’d often find Galapagos Petrels arching over the water and Tropicbirds sitting further out, just beyond the range of naked eyes.

And for me, it’s the birds that make the trip. The Galapagos doesn’t really have much in the way of land birds beyond the famous finches and a handful of others; a flycatcher, a dove, a hawk (that I didn’t see). Those are cool and all, but it’s the seabirds that make the place incredibly special.

Frigatebirds following the ship, three species of Boobies, Storm-petrels and Shearwaters around an anchored boat, honest to god Penguins (even if just for a second) and the beautiful, nocturnal Swallow-tailed Gull.

It’s been too long for me to remember exactly the islands we visited and the order we visited them. They sort of flow together, a series of spanish names ticked off of a map even I, a legitimately proud geography buff, had trouble keeping straight. Not just Baltra, but San Salvador, Genovesa, Bartolome. The only one I can remember distinctly is Isabel, home of the Flightless Cormorants, but only because we didn’t visit that one. The boat we were on circles the islands every two weeks, our one week trip took in only half of the regular route missing the far western half of the archipelago. Ideally you see it all, but the vagaries of schedules and finances can limit things. Even so, we saw a lot and missed little. Including, of course, a trip to see the wild Tortoises, something you certainly can’t leave the Galapagos without.

I could go on and on the general experience of being in the Galapagos, as it’s overwhelming, and over the years the trip has kind of blurred together for me. Considering that it was only about 3 and half years ago that may be a disturbing precedent for my later years. But a particular morning stands out.

On one day the ship offered a voluntary very early morning outing to the island of Santa Fe to make up for the lack of a regular morning walk due to a long afternoon haul to far northern Genovesa island. I jumped on it, even if the rest of my party, and indeed most of the rest of the boat, enjoyed a morning to sleep in a bit. I figured that I could sleep when I got home, after all, how many mornings in the Galapagos do you get in one lifetime?

The quiet beach landing, amongst a small group of Sea Lions, was just the ticket. The sun was low, and the heat had not yet reached the broiler so the walk was pleasant, with little in the way of the highly scheduled to and fro-ing of all of the others. Our eyes were peeled for the endemic Santa Fe Land Iguana, and we found a few of the lizards, larger and pinker than the regular Land Iguanas, lounging underneath cactus trees.

I hesitate to describe the wildlife on the Galapagos as “tame”, which implies some sort of training or that their behavior is somehow divorced from their natural state.  A better word is naive, because these are undoubtedly wild animals, only those so unaccustomed to associating humans with danger that they simply go on with their lives as if we aren’t there.  That was how I found this endemic Lava Heron foraging on the beach, so preoccupied with the tiny fish that the waves brought in that it completely ignored me squatting next to it to take a few pictures.

That’s a big part of what makes the Galapagos so incredible.  It’s why people keep coming.  And it’s why my trip there was such a warm memory.

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