Paradise for endemic wildlife

Published : Apr 15, 2013 16:41 IST

Sea lions on Ochoa beach in San Cristobal Island.

Sea lions on Ochoa beach in San Cristobal Island.

CHARLES DARWIN, all of 22 years old in 1832, stumbled upon Galapagos Islands, partly to escape his persistent seasickness while on a five-year voyage on HMS Beagle. At the end of just five weeks’ stay on the islands, he collected enough specimens of both flora and fauna to come up with a path-breaking theory that would turn upside down the worlds of science and religion. At that time, Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution ruffled many feathers, elicited many jeers and earned the wrath of the Church. But since then, evidence adduced by Darwin himself and other researchers who followed in his footsteps validated beyond doubt not only the theory of natural selection but also the revolutionary theory of evolution that rocked the very foundations of Christendom inasmuch as it questioned the theory of Creation.

I am on a quest to retrace Darwin’s footsteps, if only to gawk at all those weird and wonderful creatures that inspired Darwin. Most of them are found nowhere else on the planet except in the unique archipelago called Galapagos. Visiting Galapagos, straddled across the Equator some 950 kilometres off the west coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, entails effort, expense and time. The journey from New Delhi involves five flights and 23 hours of flying time, not including the many hours spent waiting at airports for flight connections. As if this was not daunting enough, one had to pick the right vessel that would tour a combination of islands that would offer the opportunity to see every species that inhabits this archipelago. The Galapagos administration does not allow visitors to stay on the islands. The only option is to stay on board a ship that sails to various islands. The sailing is usually at night, and the ship stops over during the day at different islands, mostly uninhabited, allowing visitors to explore the land.

The islands can only be visited in tour groups escorted by a certified guide. Picking the right season to visit the islands is crucial if one does not want to miss the captivating courtship dance of blue-footed boobies, or the clownish vanity of the male frigate bird that puffs up its bright red neck pouch to the size of a balloon to impress the female. Even the Galapagos penguin puts in an appearance only during certain months. So, some homework is required if one is to derive the maximum benefit from this trip. The government of Ecuador regulates tourist arrivals into Galapagos and allows no more than 140,000 visitors a year.

On a bright and sunny morning towards the end of January, my friend and I land in San Cristobal Island, which has a population of about 8,000. There are 10 major islands in Galapagos, of which five are inhabited. Santa Cruz is the biggest of them all, with a population of 20,000, while Floreana has just 150 people. Galapagos has two airports, the second one at Baltra which also doubles as a fuelling station for the 65 boats that are licensed to sail in these islands. We are greeted by our naturalist guides Ivan and Orlando, who briskly shepherd our tour group of 18 through immigration and quarantine and put us on the minibus that will take us to the boat jetty on the other side of the island. Two pangas (inflatable rafts with outboard motors) are waiting to take us to Econventura’s MV Letty, the vessel that will be our home for the next eight days. San Cristobal’s boat jetty is teeming with yachts and boats of various sizes as well as marine birds—pelicans, lapwings, coots, mallards, frigates.

Our adventure begins even before we board the pangas. There are sea lions snoozing on each step of the jetty leading to the panga. It is, after all, their territory, and they show no inclination to let us pass. Our cameras out, lenses poised, we begin clicking when something orange crawls into my viewfinder. It is the first of the many frisbee-sized sally crabs that we would encounter everywhere on the islands. The oarsmen make no move to shoo off the sea lions and we learn our first Galapagos lesson; wildlife has primacy and right of way on these islands; if they choose not to let you go, you do not go! After about 10 minutes of waiting, we move to another jetty where only two steps are occupied by sea lions. We take our chance, gingerly ease ourselves onto the far corner of the step, avoiding the flapping tail of the mermaid-like sea lion, and somehow make it to the panga with injury to neither.

A short panga ride brings us to Letty, a lovely little yacht with just 10 climate-controlled twin cabins, compact but comfortable. Our cabin on the foredeck has a large glass window that gives us a panoramic view of the deep blue ocean, decidedly an advantage when the view out of your window often presents leaping dolphins or soaring frigate birds. Ecoventura, which owns Letty, has long experience in sailing these islands and gets up-to-date information on wildlife sightings in various islands from its identical sister yachts—Eric and Flemingo. Captain Pablo keeps us informed of the latest sightings.

After a quick lunch while Letty sails away to Kicker Rock, a dramatic rock formation on the horizon, we are bundled off, wetsuits, flippers and all, into the pangas again for our first snorkel session. The sea is very rough and the panga pitches violently, especially when we near the dramatic split between the rocks. The receding tide reveals a row of barnacles clinging to the base of Kicker Rock and going all around it like a jewelled anklet. Barnacles are arthropods related to the crab and lobster family and are exclusively marine organisms. They stay permanently attached to rocks where they feed on plankton from tides washing in. Ivan informs us that Kicker Rock must have been a single rock formation, but the relentless onslaught of waves created a crack which eventually split it into two. Our panga sways in the rapids rushing through the gap, and we hang on for dear life. However, the blue-footed boobies perched on the slimy rock face above seem to have no problem dodging the powerful winds.

Our first snorkel session of the trip introduces me to the magic of the underwater world, one we have known only from the images beamed on our LED/plasma screens. It is a stunning world of colourful creatures in silent communion with their surroundings. Fish come in all hues and designs—painted, translucent, transparent, striped, embellished, bejewelled and decorated. Tiny salema swim companionably with much larger fish or sharks. Sting rays with their eyes set on the top of their flat faces eye us warily but make no effort to move away. Curious fish hide in the rock crevices and check us out. An occasional turtle passes by, flippers flapping lazily. From time to time, Ivan makes deep-throated sounds through the snorkel, guiding us towards a sea lion cub or a shoal of salema that swirl to an invisible choreography. Ivan tells us that 70 per cent of the fish found in this part of the Pacific are endemic to Galapagos. He reels out names like barber fish, butterfly fish, angel fish, yellowtail surgeon fish, amberjack, skipjack, rainbow runner and barracuda, all of which appear before our eyes for a moment and vanish. Sharks also swim around us, white-tipped black creatures, with not a hint of menace. Ivan assures us that Galapagos sharks do not harm humans. There are also hammerheads in these waters, although we do not sight any. As the sun’s slanting beams illuminate the seabed and light up the phosphorescent colours of the fish, I regret not having brought a good underwater camera before embarking on this trip.

Unbeknownst to Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, another British naturalist, explorer and anthropologist, had independently conceived an identical theory of natural selection and evolution of species almost contemporaneously. Yet, posterity today fetes and remembers Darwin as the author of the discovery. That Wallace was generous enough to let Darwin take credit for the discovery is perhaps less well known.

Darwin’s discovery of natural selection owes not a little to a very common bird, the Galapagos finch, which resembles the sparrow. Darwin had collected finches from various islands in Galapagos but had failed to tag them according to their island origins. But during the journey, he found that there were minor variations in the birds, primarily in the structure of their beaks and also in their colour, and so on. On his return to England, with the help of the ornithologist John Gould, Darwin was able to classify as many as 13 species. While one had a parrot-like beak ideal for crunching nuts, another had an elongated one suited for picking insects, and a third had a beak good for grinding grain. Darwin formed the hypothesis that the variations stemmed from adaptation to the resources available on the particular island from which the species had originated. He could postulate convincingly that natural selection played a major role in determining which species would survive and which would perish and that the successful evolution of species was based on natural selection.

It is hardly surprising that Galapagos Islands should have played so important a role in this spectacular discovery. Formed by volcanic eruption, and detached from the mainland, which precluded any biological contamination, the islands became a living laboratory in which Darwin’s theories were tested and validated. Crucially, the very isolation of these islands and the absence of human contact until 500 years ago provided an environment in which wildlife could flourish unmolested. The absence of predators has virtually rendered the islands a paradise for endemic wildlife.

Almost every island has at least one volcanic cone, while some have many. The soil is black and appears charred in some islands. There is an occasional smoking volcano too. While the islands today are somewhat removed from their original pristine state as Darwin would have seen them, the Ecuador government stops at nothing to ensure that they at least retain their unique character. Limiting and strictly regulating tourism, eliminating introduced species and restoring the local environment are part of the efforts launched by Ecuador to restore Galapagos to some measure of its former wilderness.

The volcanic lava that clothes the islands has given rise to unique flora that can thrive on very little fresh water. The islands get only 50 to 60 mm of rainfall in a year, and water is a scarce resource found only in a few of these islands, which explains why the other islands are uninhabited. On high islands like San Cristobal, Floreana and Santa Cruz, the vegetation changes from semi-arid to surprisingly verdant forest, whereas in low islands like Baltra and Espanola, the arid zone covers the entire island. Giant cactuses are common on some islands, while others have vegetation that thrives on saline soil. Santa Cruz has Scalesia forest whose trees can trap and store water and is a habitat for eight different varieties of finches. This forest hosts orchids too.

We wrap up our first day with a visit to one of the golden beaches occupied by several colonies of sea lions. They lie companionably in groups on the beach, their bodies glistening with the golden sand. Sea lions are sociable animals that usually live in assorted groups. Mothers, young adults and babies lie side by side, soaking in the sun. Mother sea lions swim out to sea only to fish, and after feeding spend the rest of the day lazing around in the beach, on the rocks and almost everywhere. Sea lions have no legs, but only four flippers which they use to move rather clumsily, but quite swiftly. In Galapagos, sea lions are ubiquitous and numerous and can be found on every island. Sometimes, when the mother sea lion has gone fishing, the babies are left alone on the shore. Hungry, confused and lonely, the babies make plaintive noises and try to suckle any female nearby only to be rudely rebuffed. Sea lions do not indulge in foster parenting, and any baby whose mother has been killed faces certain death due to starvation and rejection. But in one of nature’s great wonders, even in a colony of a few hundred, the mother sea lion unerringly recognises its offspring and vice versa. The sea lions in Galapagos are now used to human visitors and ignore them most of the time. However, if one of us gets close enough, the mother might rear up and bite, inflicting a serious bacteria-infested wound that may take months to heal.

On the next day, on Santa Cruz Island, walking through the same meadows that Darwin might have crossed 180 years ago, I come across the same primordial spectacle of giant tortoises lumbering up the slopes in search of water. Once ubiquitous, giant tortoises are now much fewer and even these are confined only to Santa Cruz where they number 1,500.

The name Galapagos, meaning saddleback in Spanish, derives from the profusion of saddleback tortoises in the island when the Bishop of Panama landed here, quite accidentally. On a journey from Panama to Peru in 1535, Bishop Tomas de Berlanga found himself shipwrecked on the islands which teemed with unique wildlife. His search for water on the island came to fruition when he followed the giant tortoises ambling up the slope towards a waterbody. But the poor tortoises that revealed the source of water to the early visitors to the island themselves went on to become the favourite menu on their diet. In fact, tortoise meat was considered a delicacy and was much sought after.

Soon, the island’s reputation for harbouring an apparently unlimited supply of giant tortoises spread and many buccaneers, whalers and pirates would stop by to pick up hundreds of tortoises and load them alive on their ships. Tortoises could live many days without food or water and provide fresh meat for the crew. No wonder then that Galapagos Islands became some sort of a free tortoise supermarket for every passing ship. Even scientists and researchers who thronged the island to carry back live tortoises for study and research ended up eating all of them, so much so that by the time they reached their destination, there was not a single specimen left! It is rumoured that Darwin himself was guilty of such gluttony, and it took many trips before a single uneaten giant tortoise reached its destination in Europe alive!

Today, tortoises are not only protected but also bred in captivity so that their population can be restored to the multitudes that they once were. In fact, at the Darwin Centre in Santa Cruz, there are many enclosures where tortoises are bred, each enclosure dedicated to a particular species. We see many enclosures with tortoises of different age groups, some just hatching. Lonesome George, believed to have been over 100 years old, died in 2012 and, by all indications, is sorely missed on this island. He has become the symbol of conservation in Galapagos. There are restaurants, shops, souvenirs of all kinds and posters bearing the name and photos of Lonesome George, raising him to iconic status. In fact, Lonesome George has been commercialised and immortalised at once. Conservationists hope that one day they can restore the islands to their former state where thousands of tortoises ambled everywhere and only the availability of resources would limit their numbers.

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