Galapagos Encounter

A journey through the volcanic archipelago

Friday, October 1, 2010


On a week’s journey to the Galapagos Islands, a remarkable thing happened: raw earth and fearless creatures brought home a vision of life without the scars from human encounters. Little wonder Charles Darwin’s understanding of evolution was ignited by what he saw in the Galapagos Islands.. I traveled aboard the National Geographic Islander, with 48 other passengers. We went ashore in rubber Zodiacs, 8 or 10 at a time. Here are some of the plant and animal wonders that contributed to the magic. 

Fierce and tender at once, the Galapagos archipelago is the creation of volcanoes. As an introduction, we climbed 368 steps to the top of an old volcano on Bartolome islet before breakfast to get a panoramic view of islands created by fire. The vista of turquoise water, golden beaches and distant volcanoes was very nearly paradisiacal.

Sally Lightfoot Crab

Lindblad Expedition naturalists were native to the Galapagos, and seemed to know every bush and bird. The exception was Lynn Fowler, the expedition leader who has worked in the islands for 32 years, armed with a master’s and PhD from the University of Florida.

The archipelago is 3 to 5 million years old, and lies 600 miles west of Ecuador over a hot spot of volcanic activity in the Pacific Ocean. Volcanic islands are born, and then a tectonic plate moves them to the east.  It’s at this juncture that the Cocos plate and the Nazca plate are rubbing elbows. Cocos is moving northeast, while the Nazca plate is moving east toward South American about 2 inches a year. Volcanoes on the western islands are active; those on the eastern side are older and weathered. Some of the oldest islands have sunk beneath the sea.  Most are shield volcanoes that spill lava in flows, not the pointy cone types given to wrathful explosions. 

Our trudge up Bartolome was a lava lesson: we looked at the kinds of volcanic flow that can occur: the hollow tunnels that are created as the top of a lava flow cools first but the flow keeps moving below; rocky splatters left by dollops of magma; erosion from wind, and beaches of tuff, yet another kind of lava.  The planet is moving and shaking here. A volcano erupted on Isabela in 2008 and another on Fernandina last year. In 1954, an area of coral was lifted instantaneously 15 feet from the sea to become part of Isabela. In 1968, a caldera on Fernandina dropped more than a thousand feet. Kerplunk.


Because lava can hold your interest only so long, our attention soon was diverted to the archipelago’s famous birds. Why are the feet of blue-footed boobies blue? Probably so their species can recognize each other, comes an Internet hypothesis from Stanford University’s Robb Gibson. Eggs are incubated on the parents feet on the ground, so from the time they hatch, nestlings learn to recognize the color of feet important to them. As a part of the courtship ritual, a male raises his feet to show them to a (also blue-footed) female. If she likes the color, he’s got a wife.

Blue-footed Boobies involved in courtship


About the size of geese, the boobies are heedless of us as we tromp by during courtship season. The males make their elaborate bows and wing displays, then show off their feet as if we were not clumped around them making our own peculiar digital camera noises.

Magnificent frigate birds shared the same courting and nesting areas with the blue-footed boobies on North Seymour.  The frigate male shows off a bold red gular sac that inflates to enormous size beneath his chin. It could be Date Night in the Magic City: the boys sit around and puff up whenever a girl comes into view. They shake their wings, and tilt back for the best display position. They’ve pulled together a few sticks, called them nests and sit there, showing off.  Female frigates with nestlings are scattered about, too. The fluffy nestlings with small hooked beaks looks like something imagined by DreamWorks.

A Magnificient Frigate bird in flight

Elegant flamingos and flightless cormorants are among the other birds we will see. The cormorants have huge feet and stubby wings that press against them when swimming. They seem to be half way down the road to becoming long-necked penguins.

Sea lions charm us immediately. Sea lions have external ears (seals do not) and Galapagos sea lions originally came from California, liked the climate and stayed. They are smaller now, and given to swimming around you as you snorkel. Sally lightfoot crabs are as intricately colored as fine cloisonné. Galapagos penguins are here but not in great numbers – it was an El Nino year and the ocean temperature was warmer. With the onset of the dry season, cold-water upwelling begins again, bringing an enriched supply of food. 

A sea lion pup with his mother

In our zodiacs, we cruise around Isabela and find not only playful sea lions but sea turtles and even a sunfish, called the Mola mola. Shaped like a large disk that swims vertically, it was a great sighting. 

The four kinds of mockingbirds that so influenced Darwin are on their appropriate islands. The Charles mockingbirds, however, now number fewer than 100, perhaps even as few as 50, and may well be the first of Darwin’s mockingbirds to become extinct unless funding can be found for a breeding program. They are on two islets off the coast of Floreana, one of which we approach in zodiacs because we are not allowed to go ashore. And yes, a pair appears on a large clump of prickly pear cactus. These Charles mockingbirds also are called Floreana mockingbirds, because they originally were present on that island. Floreana has a long history of settlement and the introduction of exotic plants and domestic animals, which have caused the birds to become extirpated from that island.

A Ground Finch

Finches, which Darwin came to appreciate for their adaptive radiation from island to island only after he returned to England, are really tough for tourists to tell apart. There are ground finches and tree finches, a cactus finch – all of which have differing beaks – as well as a warbler finch and a little woodpecker finch that uses little bits of wood or cactus spines to poke among branches for insects. Be still my heart.

Plants throughout these islands range from the scraggly little gray Tiquilia subshrubs on young lava to the orchids growing in the daisy trees on in the higher elevations (1,800 feet)  of Santa Cruz. There are about 500 plants native to the Galapagos, and 180 of them are endemic, or found nowhere else in the world. An army of invasive exotic plants threatens. Lantana, guava and hill blackberries are among the worst and on Santa Cruz, even the quinine tree consumed vast areas. During the siesta hour offered daily aboard the Islander, I holed up in the ship’s library, making notes and puzzling over asters and finches.

Daisy trees are, in fact, as famous as the finches for having evolved into many species in the archipelago.  There are three genera in the aster family here, including 15 Scalesia species and several subspecies, all thought to have adapted and evolved from a single forebear. The tallest of the group is high up on Santa Cruz Island. Here we hiked beneath their canopies, and found the green-flowering orchid, Epidendrum spicatum, and a medium-sized bromeliad,Tillandsia insularis, growing on the mossy branches. An endemic passion vine with white flowers is found here, too, with fruit about the size of kumquats, along with lycopodium and even mistletoe. Also on Santa Cruz, Cyathea weatherbuyana, a tree fern, is endemic.

Darwin’s daisy is Leocarpus darwinii and grows mostly on San Cristobal. We saw Lecocarpus pinnatifidus on Floreana, which is the cut-leaf daisy. At Punta Cormorant, where we walked on greenish sand, we passed many examples of this shrub on our way to a beach where dark rays play in the surf and yellow warblers venture onto the beach.

Lava cactus

Cactuses are either recumbent or tree-like. On islands where giant tortoises and land iguanas exist, the opuntias have evolved to have trunks with reddish, hard bark, the better to avoid being eaten.  Another kind of cactus, called the lava cactus, is one of the first plants to grow on new lava. These are Brachycereus nesioticus; they grow in clumps. The new growth is yellow on top, and cute, resembling something you might see in a Disney film. Candelabra cactus (Jasminocereus thouarsii) can soar more than 35 feet. It is decidedly not cute, but rather stately.

The Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz is active in rearing giant tortoises, keeping tabs on feral animals (goats, black rats, dogs, cats and cattle) and working with the Galapagos National Park to eradicate them. The scientists document the effects of introduced plants on endemic and indigenous plants, study the genetic diversity of native and endemic plants, and work at establishing baseline botanical information. It is at CDRS that we saw the young tortoises being reared and old, former-pet tortoises being fed. It is here that a tortoise named Diego has contributed to the breeding program, while Lonesome George, the last giant tortoise of his kind rescued from Pinta Island, who, at more than 100 years of age, has two female enclosure mates but has yet to produce any offspring.

Giant Tortise

There are giant tortoises roaming pastures at higher elevations on Santa Cruz, and just a week or so after we left, tortoises were reintroduced to Pinta Island for the first time in more than 30 years. Pinta’s feral goats led to the demise of food for the tortoises and ultimately the tortoises themselves. Once the goats were eradicated, native vegetation has come back, but needs the grazing power of tortoises (often called the engineers of the islands) to keep it under control. You can go to to keep up with the success of the tortoise release.

Iguanas, about which we have mixed feelings in South Florida, are indeed as prehistoric in their demeanor as the tortoises.  Yellow and black land iguanas have longer snouts and shorter claws than the marine iguanas. But the black/gray marine lizards have a grim expression, but when they sun in groups on rocks, often piling on top of each other, no one seems to mind. They graze on algae, swim, and make peculiar sneezing noises when periodically they blow salt water through their noses.

A genetically older iguana recently has been discovered and described as a new species on Wolf volcano on Isabela. It is pink with black stripes and its comb is not jagged, but smooth. Marine iguanas on Espanola are reddish. All of them, like the giant tortoises, seem to be slowly thinking inscrutable thoughts.

What are not inscrutable are the juvenile sea lions, which gave me perhaps the greatest thrill of the islands by swimming around me. They are a frisky as puppies and just as curious, and love showing off their sensuous water skills. Up and around you they swirl, lovely brown eyes large and beckoning play. Then they dive into a cliff-face cave and shoot up to the surface, only to surround you again. I watched them as they circled me and together we delighted in a singular experience of interspecies frolic. It was a moment that will remain with me forever.

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