Friday, January 31, 2014

Galapagos Islands - Arrival

Our plane touched down on Baltra Island to begin our five day cruise in the Galapagos Islands. Baltra is really desolate with only the air field and a military base. Used by the US Air Force during World War II as part of the Panama Canal defense shield, the island has never been built up otherwise. The Galapagoans are quite serious about trying to prevent alien species from being introduced. As we entered the terminal, we had to step through a pool of disinfectant to kill any bacteria that may have been on our shoes. Every bag was x-rayed to assure that we were not bringing any food items and the dogs were busy sniffing for food, not drugs. We will go through a similar process when we leave to prevent the removal of anything natural from the islands.

Boobies, Noddies, and Pelicans in a fishing frenzy.
Over the next four days we would visit six of the fourteen islands on our cruise. The other islands will have to wait for another trip. Our ship, the Legend, is on a 14-day cycle. A few years ago the government decided that no cruise ship could visit a place twice within a 14 day period. This separates the tour groups and keeps the disruptions to a minimum. On one stop, our guide said that in the past there would be 5-10 tour boats at a stop. On our trip, we only saw other boats at a distance. We are admonished to follow the rules. The two most important of these are to stay at least six feet away from any animals and stay on the trails with your guide. No self-starting adventurers allowed. Linda is worried about me, but I'll be good.

These pangas will be our second home for the next few days.

The Galapagos are volcanic islands similar in origin to the Hawaiian Islands. However, because they are younger, they are not as lush and because they are not on the way to anywhere, they have not been settled or developed to the same extent as Hawaii. I was surprised to learn that the islands have only been a national park since 1960. It seemed like they must have always been a protected place. In my lifetime, I don’t remember them as anything else. I guess that is not surprising since I was only 11 in 1960. The reality is that the islands were not a conservation priority for Ecuador and there are still conflicts between those who want to preserve the islands as pristine as possible and those who want to make money from them. A few years ago fishermen who had their catch limit cut retaliated by killing 60 of the giant tortoises. That led to a compromise that still allows the fishermen to take too many sea cucumbers showing clearly the problems that they still have today in preserving the islands. Another controversy is over the number of tourists allowed each year. Currently there is a cruise boat limit that includes no boats over 100 passengers. Actually, the limit was supposed to be smaller than that, but a couple of entrepreneurs managed to buy multiple licenses and combine them to reach the 100 passenger size. Now there are efforts to allow even larger boats. After our trip, I see no good reason to allow larger ships than the one we were on. We were already close to interfering with each other as we visited the various islands.


A short drive through the cactus brought us to the harbor where we saw our first animal life. Several birds greeted us in the harbor, including the famous blue-footed booby and more familiar brown pelicans. After settling in an a good lunch, we listened to an orientation and were whisked onto the pangas for a ride to Black Turtle Bay on Santa Cruz Island where we learned about mangroves and watched two groups of turtles trying to mate. Our guide said this is an 8-hour process and the male will have to fight off other suitors to maintain his position.

Spotted Eagle Ray
Brown Pelican
Mating Turtles

Among the birds we saw this evening were the famous “Darwin finches”. It would take me a couple of days to discover that this is what they call any finch they can’t identify precisely and that there is no official Darwin finch. There are 14 different finches and telling them apart is difficult other than ground finches are found on the ground, cactus finches in the cactus, and tree finches in the trees. That doesn’t help a lot when there are at least two versions of each differentiated only by the size and shape of the bill.

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