Galapagos 1

We crossed the equator twice last night. Didn’t feel anything either time. Circling the northerly coast of Isabela, woke at 4AM to the boisterous clanging of the dropping of the anchor and the grinding chain that passes about 8 feet from our bed. About jumped overboard (again) as I was jarred from an otherwise deep sleep cradled in the gentle rolling of the boat. Except for the anchor chain, I haven’t slept like this in years.

We are on the pointy end. It is the most private and probably the largest of the 9 passenger cabins. Happy to have it even with a somewhat excessively loud alarm clock. We are 15 passengers, one guide, and 10 crew. Good proportions for extraordinary service all around. We cruise every day (mostly at night) at a quiet gentle pace of about 9 miles per hour (8.1 knots for those of you who need to know).

First impressions were that it is not such an unusual place. Semi-arid isolated island group. Single land dirt roads. Sparsely populated. Well organized on arrival with the immigration, customs, and shakedown ($100 per head entry fee) functions efficient and friendly. Baggage handling circa 1950s but everything present and in good stead.

A mass of people and buses generally sorted people quickly and easily. In a matter of minutes (once clearing the shakedown station), our little bus of 13 people (2 people missed the flight and had to catch up later) was bouncing alone down the rutted road.

Stopping at an utterly undistinguished shack, we spilled out and wandered unaware down a barely detectible path in grassland and scrub. Then, one at a time emerging from the grass we saw lumps, large lumps, of prehistoric masses slowly grinding their way along their own pathways—at 450 pounds each the land tortoises could have gone where they wanted, and did. And it was toward us, sort of.

They never gave us any notice as they focused on either eating or searching for mates (we are fortunate enough to be here during mating season for all of the things that we had not yet seen but have by the time I am writing this). Couldn’t tell you how many of these behemoths crossed our path. It was an almost overwhelming introduction of tortoises, birds, lizards, sounds, smells, and sites. Welcome to the Galapagos. You have just stepped back a million years.

Today at Puerto Egas, Santiago Island, after the chain was quiet again and after dozing back to a wonderful snooze for about an hour and a half, we had a sumptuous, well prepared and presented breakfast. After organizing ourselves we started a typical day by taking two Pangas (Zodiac rubber rafts) to shore for a 2 hour or so hike followed by snorkeling from the beach for about another 1 ½ hours. So far, a typical day.

The hike presented battling male lava lizards within 5 minutes, giant marine lizards 5 minutes later, the largest Galapagos predator, the Galapagos Buzzard (actually a hawk) munching on its kill about 30 feet from us, Golden Rays literally flying vertically out of the water, herons, sea lions, the Galapagos Fur Seal (endangered, we saw three on an impossible-to-reach lava sill about 10 feet above the water), magnificent 10-inch diameter crabs of an indescribable mottle of yellows, oranges, blues, and reds (laying eggs, molting, and generally disinterested in us), Galapogian Mockingbirds, Flycatchers, and more. When the hawk was finished its munching and flew about 50 feet in the direction of a heron (which became visibly agitated but did not fly away), we walked closer to find about 10 feathers of breakfast. The hawk had consumed everything else—bones, head, feathers, meat, etc.

Watched two hawks mating with a great fuss in the crown of a tree about 50 feet away. Our presence was not going to interfere with the moment. As our guide, Jose, has said every day: “Love is in the air.” And we have seen it multiple times every day with crabs, caterpillars, birds, lizards, and of course the giant land tortoises.

I stopped to take a picture of a green Flycatcher with yellow spots on its cheeks about 8 feet away in a bush. To my surprise, I wasn’t close enough for the Flycatcher. It flew and landed inside the front of the lens on my camera. It then hopped onto my arm, walked to my hand, then my shoulder, and the top of my head. It flew back to the bush and then repeated its visits three more times to me and twice to Bunny. We don’t know what prompted this incredible behavior but we marveled at the beauty. Eventually we were the ones to leave. I believe the Flycatcher would have continued to search for whatever it was looking for well into the afternoon.

People say, the experts say, that the animals in the Galapagos are the way that they are because they have no predators, or have no enemies, or have no reason to fear humans. I observe that is not true. There are predators all around (e.g., the hawks, the herons, and of course the introduced ones: rats, pigs, etc.). The present and past human populations (legally and illegally) give them plenty of reason to fear humans. We have killed all of them for one reason or another at one time or another—sometimes in very grizzly ways (e.g., old sailing vessels took the giant tortoise on their ships for fresh meat and cut off the pieces they wanted each day from the still living tortoises until they were dead). That explanation is not sufficient.

Even if true, it is not a sufficient reason because it does not explain the seemingly unending curiosity these animals have about our presence. Even as they have reason to fear us (poaching still exists here), they are not zoo animals standing still because they have nowhere to go. They come TO US. Like the Flycatcher, the tortoises come to us. Snorkeling the other day, Bunny and I almost went vertical when three torpedoes shot at us to within a foot before veering away—not once, not by accident, but repeatedly playing with us as if we too were sea lions that walk on their fins, circling above, below, around us with no apparent interest except curiosity and a desire to play.

We’re not new to them. They have this kind of human presence every day from mysterious boats that they are also drawn to every day. Yesterday morning we were in two Pangas exploring the inlets and coves of a huge mangrove swamp full of (and I mean full of) giant sea turtles, penguins, herons and other birds, and no other humans (at the time). The penguins were curious. The sea lions seemingly always so. One sea lion swam up to the Panga, pushed at it with its nose, and then playfully (I think) nipped at it a few times, mouth open, teeth exposed, but never really grabbing it with serious intent (otherwise I am confident the raft would have sunk on the spot).

Its just not enough to say that they are not afraid. There is a spirit and a curiosity present that draws them out and toward these strange human creatures in their presence. And, again unlike the zoo, it cannot be explained that we have modified their behavior by having humans feed them. That does not happen here. This is seriously a place of “take only photos, leave only footprints”.

Ok, so lack of fear doesn’t explain it. Would “acceptance” explain it—that they accept our presence? Well, still only sort of, in my opinion. Like farm or zoo animals, they could accept their lot and our presence without any attraction to come closer—or even touch us (several of the folks on our boat have said that the sea lions did more than rocket past them but actually bumped (touched?) them) like the Flycatcher. The marine iguanas (tens of thousands) could safely lay wherever they want to on the many, many, lava fields. Why do they choose to lay on or next to the human footpaths? It doesn’t matter whether the footpath or the marine iguana came first. Every day, emerging from the sea, the iguanas choose to lay on and next to the footpaths. Every day, they lie there and watch motionless while we hover, hang over, crouch down next to, and click away with our toys. Perhaps we are just the road show entertainment.

What, if anything, does this say about what the world COULD be like?

Our own entertainment comes in many forms. Two nights ago on the top deck of the Galaxy (the name of our boat and the top deck is a completely open area) we saw as much of the Galaxy as I believe the naked eye can see at one time and more brightly than we ordinarily can hope for. Almost as if providing an overhead view of the equator, the Milky Way spread out in a vast band from horizon to horizon, east to west (I think). The Southern Cross. The Big Dipper. All the usuals were present and millions of others unknown to us lay-people. It was quiet, still, bright, and just there in all of its inspiring panorama. No wonder it has moved (once the background of urban lights is removed) all cultures through all times with all kinds of explanations for why it is important to us feeble humans. Of course, as humans, the cosmos exists for human-centric reasons.