Galapagos Islands: wildlife galore, from sea to sky

Monday, October 1, 2018, to Friday, October 5, 2018 — Time to leave Quito, Ecuador, and our Alexander + Roberts guide, Maria, here competing against Sunday morning church bells in the main square. She has another group coming into Quito on Monday afternoon to do the same trip we have made in reverse – Ecuador first, then Peru.

We are leaving this land of volcanoes to a group of islands 645 miles off the coast of Ecuador, where we will spend the next five days. In 1959, Ecuador made the Galapagos Islands a national park, and it became a UNESCO site in 1996. The archipelago includes 19 islands; just five of them, where potable water was found, are inhabited by human beings. That’s about 3 percent of the land mass for humans and the rest national park, where about 95 percent of the natural wildlife is still intact.

BoatWe traveled around the islands aboard La Pinta, staffed with three naturalists, chefs who knew their way around the kitchen, a helpful crew to sail the boat and help us in and out of our wetsuits and the pangas (Zodiacs or small boats).

 

Five days of hiking, snorkeling and exploring the islands’ coastlines by boat. Hard to beat.

First stop was Santa Cruz Island, where we visited what seemed to me to be a tortoise farm. The tortugas, weighing as much as 500 pounds, are not in captivity and can leave through fences to seek food. But they come here for the guava fruit and grazing on grasses, leaves and bananas. Not carnivores.

Those that are hatched here are kept for five years until their shells are strong enough to be released by the park.

Turtle

Then from turtles to iguanas, seals and lots of birds. I’ve seen more variety in fish when snorkeling in Hawaii, but I’ve never swum with a seal before. Tried to get a picture with my underwater camera ($110 Nikon Cool Pix, highly recommended), but he took one look into my mask and took off while my finger was trying to find the shutter button.

Seal eyes open
Seals are much easier to photograph on land; it’s hard walking on flippers

The naturalists accompanied us on treks around the islands and also gave lectures each night, one on fishes, land iguanas (did not see) and my favorite, on penguins. There are about 17 kinds of penguins — more or less with some dispute on that — and all but one lives in the Southern Hemisphere. That one is the Galapagos penguin, which is close enough to the equator to drift into the Northern Hemisphere. The lecturer pointed out that the Galapagos Islands are the only place in the world with both penguins and flamingoes – except for Las Vegas, interjected Mimi, a witty member of our group.

Penguins
Galapagos penguins

Once Galapagos penguins numbered over 2,000 birds, but they are down to about 1,200. The biggest threat is El Nino, a weather condition where the ocean current pushes warm water east into the islands and the coast of South America. The penguins live on the west side of the islands because the underwater current churns up cold water with lots of food. The El Nino reverses that, causing the biggest drop in penguin population. Other threats include:

  • Pollution from lead and cadmium, which may come from underwater volcanic sources rather than human contamination;
  • Fishing when birds are tangled in nets or caught as by-catch (unintended);
  • Tourism, overpopulation by the 100,000 who visit each year;
  • Predators — feral dogs and rats are the worst. Goats used to pick the islands clean, but they have been mostly eliminated in a park eradication program;
  • Diseases brought by migratory birds.

Besides the island of Santa Cruz, we visited the islands of Bartolome, Santiago and Genovesa. We saw birds, birds, birds. And I’ll leave you with that on this last post from our trip to Peru and Ecuador, which was a buen viaje.

Lava heron
Lava heron
Magnificent frigate
Magnificent frigate bird
Galapgos dove
Galapagos dove
Yellow warbler
Yellow warbler
Juvenile red-footed booby
Juvenile red-footed booby
Swallow tailed gull
Swallow-tailed gull
Brown pelican
Brown pelican
Blue footed booby
Blue-footed booby
Great blue heron
Great blue heron
Galapagos mockingbird
Galapagos mockingbird on Sanders’ hat
Short-eared owl
Short eared owl
Iguana-blue footed
Marine iguana and blue-footed booby
Us with seal
Us and a seal of approval

Trump’s aid cut can add millions more to the caravan

Our guide in Quito identified this puppeteer as someone who had fled the bad conditions in Venezuela. He might have been a street vendor there until no one had money to give him. What if he played outside the White House all day long?

The United States should pay more attention to Central and South America – and not just as the source of people in caravans headed for the southern border. We need to pay attention in a way that will provide them a safe home in their own countries.

Stopping aid to Central American countries is no way to do that. The Greedy Old Peckers controlling our nation ought to take a good hard look at giving more aid to those countries or the few thousands in a caravan headed north will be a tiny village compared to what is on the move in South America.

I picked up a La Hora, a daily newspaper in Quito, for my weekly Spanish reading as we headed toward the Galapagos Islands. As one article said, the newspaper was “venezolanizaron,” completely taken over by talk about Venezuela and the millions of people fleeing the bad conditions there.

One article reported on how France had affirmed its support for investigating in international court “crimes committed in Venezuela,” saying they threatened the development of South American countries and areas outside the region because of “en particular el deterioro de la situacion economica que oblige a cientos de miles de cuidadanos venezolanos a exiliarse y buscar refugio” (in particular the deterioration of the economic situation that obliged hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan citizens to go into exile and seek refuge).

France joined Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Canada (what happened to the United States and Mexico?)

What if the caravan started in Venezuela and headed this way? Wait, the Darien Gap might stop them.

An opinion in the paper noted that the president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, had addressed the General Assembly of the United Nation the day before, speaking for 40 minutes before an almost empty hall and “no dijo nada” (said nothing). He talked of “la migracion” but mostly denied it, as he always does. Blamed it on the United States and other South American presidents and got support where it could be expected – Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia.

No need for humanitarian aid. Said the exodus of 2.3 million from his country was a “fabrication,” apparently the Spanish word for “fake news.”

He left the hall without answering uncomfortable questions from the press, including this one the editorial asked: “Why is his country’s economy on the edge of collapse, why is it that his nation with the largest oil reserves can’t provide food and medicine and pushes millions into exile?”

Another editorial ticked off the conditions of life in Venezuela: Basic services scare, health services “castrados,” insecurity equal to a state of war, corruption and crime institutionalized and public resources converted to the booty of pirates.

Maduro is a dictator, no doubt, with nothing to control his power, with judicial or financial means coopted. No free elections. The ability to confront his power abolished and guarantees of humanity and life annulled.

Yet the man responsible for all this can stand before the world stage and give an “outdated” talk on sovereignty, socialism, the equality of people, democracy, anti-imperialism and his state officials listen and applaud.

How can this happen? the editorial asks. And how can the diplomatic corps make space for him without degrading itself.

That’s a long way of saying that things could get a lot worse for the United States, if aid is cut to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

Trying to keep out desperate people with a wall or anything else goes against the history of humankind. We’re a migratory beast that flees from places where we can’t survive. One way or another, the caravan will arrive someday.

Which should not be taken as an argument for open borders. What we should do is something that will make Central America and Mexico better places to live. That doesn’t mean making them into states, as a Seattle Times printer once suggested to me (we tried that in 1855 to no avail). But cutting off aid right now is going in the wrong direction. More trade, work permits here to fill open jobs, help to eliminate gangs. Something that keeps the caravan of a few thousands from turning into millions.