Top: me and marine iguana on Santa Cruz Island (photo by Valerie Raymond.
Second from top: A different marine iguana surveying the sand. (Photo by Janet Shedd)
Third from top: A flamingo searches for food in a pond on Santa Cruz. (Photo by Janet Shedd)
Fourth from top: At the dock on Baltra, preparing to take a Zodiac to the ship, a sea lion relaxed on the edge of the pier. (Photo by Janet Shedd)
Bottom: Adult Sally Lightfoot crabs scramble across the rocky shoreline on Santa Cruz.. (Photo by Janet Shedd)
Day 1, Saturday -- Santa Cruz Island.
After a long day traveling Friday, we reached Guayaquil, Ecuador, about 11 p.m., headed to bed and sprang up the next morning for the flight to Baltra Island in the Galapagos. The flight is only an hour and a half, but it’s like coming upon a new world. After nothing but ocean, suddenly there is land! The first island we flew over was San Cristobal, volcanic craters clearly visible. If anyone from Classroom IV is reading this, I recognized it because of the big Galapagos map we have in our class! It looks just like the map from the air. Flying over the miles of empty ocean really brought it home to me the kind of journey life (plants and animals) had to go through to reach the Galapagos -- not an easy trip. We had discussed this in class, but actually seeing it for myself made me understand it at a much deeper level.
After landing and going through customs, we headed to the harbor where our ship, the National Geographic Endeavour, awaited us.
There, we settled in, had a lifeboat drill and our trip leader, Paula Tagle, told us some of the basics of life on the Galapagos.
There is a lot of care taken on the Galapagos not to introduce other forms of life – seeds and insects, for example. Our hand luggage was sprayed to decontaminate it before we landed and all travelers fill out a form stating that they have not brought unwrapped foods such as fruit or nuts. When we hike on the islands, we can only bring water – no food. There are also precautions taken to keep individual islands pristine – everything we bring onto the islands must be brought back to the Endeavour, and the ship has insect zappers to prevent insects from spreading between islands. Just as we cannot bring anything to the islands, we also cannot take anything away: “Seeds, roots and shells all have important roles” in the ecosystem, Paula told us, so it’s vital to leave everything intact. Permits are needed to visit the islands, and a trained naturalist must always accompany visitors.
These precautions are very necessary -- anything introduced can upset the delicate balance of the islands' ecosystem. A parasitic fly that was likely brought in on a cargo ship is wreaking havoc on the endemic finch population, for example.
Galagagos is far from any mainland (the closest mainland, Ecuador, is 600 miles away) and the islands themselves have little fresh water and not enough resources to feed the 30,000 or so people who live here. Island life is very expensive – three times the cost of the mainland. Cargo ships bring food and water in. Solar and wind energy is starting to take hold as a way to produce power – Baltra, where we landed, has wind turbines and solar panels as do some of the other islands. Garbage is brought back to the mainland for disposal. It can be a tough place to live but a lot of thought is put into meeting the needs of inhabitants in a way that preserves the integrity of the islands.
Then, we headed to shore on Santa Cruz Island. The dark volcanic shoreline is covered with gorgeous red Sally Lightfoot crabs and dark gray marine iguanas bask in the sun (see pictures). Blue-footed boobies, frigate birds and pelicans patrol the skies. The magical part: the wildlife has no fear of humans, so you can get relatively close to the animals (we are required to stay six feet away) and just observe them. We spent a long time watching salmon-pink flamingos troll a brackish pond for food, their long elegant legs skating through the water. We also had a chance to swim in the Pacific, and saw a sea turtle poking its head above the waves and a manta ray gliding by in the shallows. Pelicans dive-bombed for fish all around us.
One of the naturalists, Celso, put it very beautifully after we spent many minutes watching the flamingos. “Now,” he said, “you have a sense of coexistence” between humans and the natural world.
This simple statement, and the experience he invited us to have of just observing and opening and our eyes and hearts to what was around us, was life-changing and was the highlight of the day for me in a day composed totally of highlights.