Top: Me and a drawstring bag signed by all my students in Classroom IV, presented for this trip. I'm on the deck of the National Geographic Endeavour, with Fernandina in the background.
Bottom: A plethora of marine iguanas litter the rocks on Fernandina, soaking up the warmth of the sun. (photo by Janet Shedd)
Monday, Day 3 - Fernandina Island. Yesterday, Monday, was our day of crossing the Equator! In all, we will have crossed this invisible line separating the northern and southern hemispheres six times as we sail around the islands. There is, of course, no way to know precisely when we cross it unless the ship’s crew announces it. Nonetheless, it was a high point for me. It is so powerful, after reading and teaching about the Equator, to actually experience know that you are there -- right there -- at that imaginary line that encircles our Earth! Our guides said there is also a small square painted on the coastline of Isabela Island that marks the spot of the Equator. Because of its proximity to the Equator, sunrise and sunset only vary by about 22 minutes throughout the year and there are only two seasons in the Galapagos. Sunrise is at about 6 a.m., and at 6:05 p.m. the sun drops below the horizon. When sunset happens, it’s fast!
I woke up early and headed to the deck as we rounded the top of Isabela Island and headed to Fernandina Island. Wolf Volcano on Isabela, which had erupted in May and has had some activity since then, was quiet (I think Lucas predicted that). But in the channel between the islands we could see spouts of migrating whales in the distance. Fernandina, the youngest island in the archipelago, was shrouded with clouds on my right. On my left, you could see the volcanoes of Isabela and small cinder cones dotting the island. And here I digress – I officially love maps! Our class spent a lot of time studying the map of the Galapagos, so it felt very familiar to me when I actually saw the islands, like coming home in a strange sort of way.
Our major hike was on Fernandina. It is a harsh landscape, with little soil and like most of the islands no fresh water. Fernandina is a shield volcano (sloping sides) and the last eruption was in 2010. The coastline is made up of ropy volcanic flows called pahoe-hoe. Not many creatures can survive here, but somehow life always seems to grab hold. Mangroves line parts of the coast. Small, finger-shaped cacti grow tenaciously in the crevices of the lava. The coastline is covered with huge colonies of thousands of marine iguanas that blend in so beautifully with the lava that numerous times I almost stepped on one. They are reptiles and use the rocks to heat up their bodies. The big males have to spend a lot of time in the sun, and you see them piled on top of each other (the guide called this an aggregation) to better soak up heat. They are totally impassive – just sitting stone-faced like baby dragons. Sometimes they will sneeze out a stream of sea water. They have short snouts which enable them to scrape algae off undersea rocks more easily and long claws to anchor them underwater while they feed. After they have warmed up, they lumber to the water, jump in, and use their long tail to propel them to their underwater feeding grounds.
This was our first glimpse of the flightless cormorant, a species that is endemic to the Galapagos. Like their relatives, they are fishing birds, but they cannot fly. In the Galapagos there are very few predators so the cormorants did not need the protection that the ability to fly provides. Over time, their wings shrank to stunted appendages. I've seen cormorants in Florida with full-size wings. For me, it was an vivid example of evolution by natural selection. I talked about it to my class before I left for this trip, but it made a huge impression on me to see it.
Sea lions also call the islands home, and we were lucky enough to see an hours-old sea lion baby. One of the groups before us came upon the mother and baby sea lion just after the birth, and saw the mother expelling the placenta. I wish I could have seen that too, but it's hard to be disappointed when wherever you look, you see something amazing.
The absence of predators means that when animals die here, the bodies simply decay and the skeletons remain untouched. The Galapagos hawk is on the top of the island food chain, because no large mammals could survive the two-week journey from the mainland on vegetation rafts when the islands first became populated. All the larger animals on the islands, such as goats, dogs or cats, have been brought by humans.
In the afternoon, we snorkeled off Isabela, and got our first glimpse of the Galapagos penguin. They are small, but so fast in the water! They zip by you like a speeding car, and in fact, one of the naturalists told us they have been clocked at 32 mph. We saw many sea turtles, floating lazily by or resting on the sandy bottom, and a young sea lion checked us out. The water is very cloudy, in part because of the nutrients brought by the deep-water Cromwell Current, a deep-water current, and in part because the whole area is volcanic and the waves carve off pieces of the volcanic tuff. More penguins to come as we explore Isabela tomorrow.