Tortoises, Iguanas, and Finches, Oh My!

Today we weighed anchor and made our way to Santa Cruz Island. Puerto Ayora, the town here, is much larger, and wraps glittering along the shoreline, pastel buildings poking out through green vegetation. The harbor is larger as well, with less fishing boats and more cruise ships and fair-sized yachts bobbing at anchor in the sparkling aquamarine water.

I called these birds “water dancers,” for the way they barely skipped across the surface. They are called Elliot’s storm petrels (Oceanites gracilis galapagoensis)

After the morning’s interactions, we were given shore leave to explore the island. We scrambled to get gear together and sunscreen applied. Waiting for the water taxi that would take us ashore, I had the back deck to myself. A small flock of brown birds flew small laps on our starboard side, touching down for a step or two on the surface, snapping at it with their beaks before taking flight again. They were silent, not calling to each other, just flying, stepping, leaving tiny little rings shimmering on the water in their wake, feeding on something so small I could not see it. 

A bright yellow water taxi approached, and people eager to explore the island started spilling out of the ship. We scrambled aboard, an action that required some athleticism from some in the rolling water, and took the ten minute ride into town.

Puerto Ayora is bigger and cleaner and more modern than Puerto Baquerizo Moreno(on San Cristóbal Island), and much more populated, even in the heat of the day. Strolling up the walkway from the dock, I was struck by the large cement plaza immediately in front of us, painted to make up a sport court, with a large cement skateboard/bike ramp at one end and stage at the other. Dance music was pumping from the stage as two young men did something with a bunch of wooden pallets.

The group conferred as to who was headed where. Some of us were headed to a beach that hosted a population of marine iguanas, a mile and a half hike through a forest. I opted for tortoises; the Galápagos National Park and Darwin Research Station were a short walk in the opposite direction. Joined by three others from our party, I set off through the hot and sleepy streets of Puerto Ayora.

Walking through the town, you can feel the influence of tourism here. The shops are larger and have broad glass windows. Jewelry shops and art galleries are interspersed with the more traditional souvenir shops, and many more bars and restaurants are sprinkled throughout.
Lava lizard (Microlophus indefatigabilis)

Lizards lazed on the sidewalks, and only one sea lion stretched sleepily in the brick-paved fish market, a stark contrast to our welcoming party on San Cristóbal, in which mammals of the blubbery, furry variety far outnumbered those of the two-legged kind. Darting off onto a walkway winding through a mangrove forest, I was peering into the shallow water, looking for sharks or fish (mangroves, like other wetland communities I am familiar with back home, serve as nurseries for young animals), when a squawk drew my attention to the treetops. Two large pelicans roosted there, one fluttering its neck pouch and ruffling its feathers.

Galapagos painted grasshopper (Schistocerca melanocera)

Heading back to the street, we continued past the rows of gleaming shops shuttered for siesta, an interesting-looking ceramic sculpture garden (intent on our destination, we did not duck inside this one), and onward to the national park. Lizards scurried from beneath our feet, and bright yellow butterflies flirted with us as we entered the park. Dense vegetation surrounded us on both sides, vines and bushes with bright yellow flowers, plants with thorns two inches long (imagine Darwin trying to make his way through that!), cactus-like plants towering above us, and even one tree marked “Manzanillo – poison fruit – avoid contact!”

Small marine iguanas dozed on a launch ramp at the entrance to the park; the occasional park employee or registered naturalist guide buzzed by us on scooter or motorcycle, but other than that, the sound was that of the waves breaking, unseen through the tangle of green growth to our right, or the calls of the myriad of birds fluttering in the trees all around us.

When we arrived at the Darwin Research Station, we wound our way along crushed volcanic paths, and gasped when we came across our first tortoise. It turns out we had taken the loop backwards, and the first ones we saw were massive, clumsily lunging at a pile of leaves on the floor of their pen. Their enclosures were constructed of the native volcanic rock and plants, and except for the shallow cement water ponds and piles of cut vegetation for them to feed on, looked pretty natural.

We followed the path, marveling at tortoises and beautiful yellow-orange Land iguanas. Galapagos finchescalled to us from the trees, and hopped around on the path and in the enclosures. Beautiful huge grasshoppers  clung to branches or dozed in the sunlight, gleaming like jewels against the black lava. 

As we wound our way down the path, the tortoises got progressively smaller. We came across the old pen for Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta Islandtortoises, discovered as the last remaining tortoise there, and who inspired a frantic effort to sustain his species before he passed in 2012. I told my companions about a Radiolab segment a friend had sent me about the Galápagos Islands, and the story of Lonesome George: how he had finally attempted to mate with two females (of different species) held with him, but that the clutches of eggs were infertile. 
I particularly love this photo because you can see the Nautilus just above the iguana’s head.

The story went on to say that after he had died, scientists had found a population of tortoises on Isabela Island (near where Wolf Volcano is currently erupting) with a significant amount of Pinta genetic characteristics. Now those scientists were searching the population to see if a Pinta still existed there, and were engaged in an effort to bring back a population of Pinta-like tortoises through selective breeding. Scientists have also released a related population of them back on Pinta for now to browse and graze and maintain the vegetation there as tortoises have done for millions of years, to help restore the island’s ecology after the devastation wrought there by non-native goats

The prevailing hypothesis is that whalers from long ago captured some tortoises from Pinta, and stored them in their hold for eating later. Kept on their backs in a ship’s hold, the tortoises would languish for months while the men stalked their ocean-going mammalian prey. When the valuable cargo of slain whales started to strain the capacity of the ship’s hold, the whalers would then jettison the (fortunate) tortoises to the nearest island, not necessarily the one of their origin. And thus some genetic variation was unintentionally introduced.
(I also told them about the “Judas goats” I’d heard about in the same segment, but you will have to listen to the Radiolab segment to hear that story for yourself!)
Heading back to town, we took a brief detour to a small beach – I’d been wearing my bathing suit for two days, and had not had a chance to get in the water yet! Changing my large SLR for my waterproof point-and-shoot camera, I dashed out into the water, which was salty and warm, but still refreshing. I allowed myself to get tossed around in the waves for a bit, snapping some photos underwater and longing for a mask. I took some selfies in the water, towering cactus and volcanic jumble in the background. 

Making my way back through the small waves, the sand was really crushed coral and shells, rough on my feet, tender from walking so much in my sandals. I wandered the rocks along the shore, snapping photos of the Sally Lightfoot crabsskittering away as I approached. I gasped as I realized that the rock just in front of me was not all rock: a small marine iguana basked just in front of me, well-camouflaged against the black pockmarked surface. He opened one sleepy eye and posed obligingly as I attempted to grab photos of him, with the Nautilus lying at anchor far in the distance.

Walking back from the park, my heart sang with joy as I realized that we had stumbled across a parade. Small children and their parents dressed in multicolored costumes milled about the in street: clowns and balloons and native garb made up the confused and joyous gaggle. They were staging for the parade, and I wandered among them, smiling and snapping photos.

Two girls, about ten or eleven years old, noticed my camera and posed for me. Their English was as bad as my Spanish, but I gathered through our broken conversation that it was a celebration of their school, and something about 16 years. We wandered along the street, admiring the makeshift floats and costumes (one was a giant paper mache blue-footed booby!), and darting in and out of the souvenir shops.

Finding the rest of the group in town, we gathered on a street corner to determine next plans. The cement plaza and stage across the street was crowded with hundreds of people on bicycles, and music blasted. The young men had built a tower of pallets on the stage, and were demonstrating their prowess on mountain bikes, bunnyhopping to the top of the tower, and then breathtakingly plunging from the top of the tower, off the stage to the cement twelve feet below. The crowd roared its approval; to my left two old men chortled and shook their heads.

Some members of our group were wet and sandy, having made their way to a stunning beach littered with huge marine iguanas. They were parched from the hike, and ready to sit and swap stories. We found a streetside café and had some cold drinks, when an approaching din told us that the parade had started. Dashing out to the street, I smiled and took more photos and video as the beaming children danced and waved and celebrated the founding of their school 16 years ago (which was confirmed by a banner on the lead truck in the parade).

After the parade had passed, we found our way to another street a few blocks up the hill, which had been blocked off, and was strewn with tables and chairs crowded together in the street. Either side was lined with small restaurants, and out front of each were tables piled with fish and langostino (a large creature more like a prawn than a lobster), and smiling girls holding out menus and extolling the virtues of their respective restaurants, encouraging us to stop there. Finally, we settled on one, and I had a delicious dinner of shrimp in garlic and butter, with rice and fried plantains. By now, our group had shrunk to eight, and we talked and laughed and ate under the lights.

One last short walk through town: the small group fractured again into a smaller group and a couple of pairings, and Sandra and I found ourselves strolling back to catch a water taxi together. The pier was lit up with blue and green lights, very festive in the warm night air. Our taxi pilot spoke no English, and it was very dark once we had moved away from the lights of the city and the cluster of boats in the harbor. He turned on some music, laughing and chatting with the other women on the boat, and we kept calling, “No! Farther! Farther! Big ship!” gesturing and pointing to the Nautilus in the distance, the furthest points of lights in the harbor.

Getting back aboard the Nautiluswas a little tricky in the darkness, amidst the heaving sea, but we managed, the last of our group trickling in behind us in water taxis of their own. The lights of the town twinkled in the distance, and the stars twinkled overhead. We would have one more day at Santa Cruz, and perhaps more shore leave tomorrow.

Skip to the next blog post by Melissa: Into the wild

This is part of a multi-part series . Melissa Baffa, Vice President of Program and Volunteer Services for GSCCC, is part of the Corps of Exploration aboard the E/V Nautilus this year on the adventure of a lifetime. This blog series will chronicle her dive into the Unknown.
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