January 17, 2013

Bounty of the Galapagos

We arrived from Quito in the afternoon of the 15th and went snorkeling in a small cove in part of the National Park in the Galapagos on San Cristobal. There was a trio of sea lions on the stairs and rocks entering the water, a male laying on the stairs, and a female with her pup on the rocks. Being the first one of the group ready to get into the water I headed down the stairs, past the male sea lion who gave me a small growl of acknowledgement as I wandered past, giving as wide a berth as I could in doing so. The female was having none of it as her pup nursed and, behind me, another girl in the class was kept from descending by the growling male.

Our guide, Fabian, instructed me to stay where I was as the group was instructed on how to proceed. Sea lions, apparently, can be coerced into moving by loud affronting noise; in this case, it was a slow clap by the advancing group. As the group advanced, I found myself trapped between a disgruntled male and a mother with her pup. I was forced to skip past a nipping mother sea lion onto the rocks by the water as the sea lions were eventually forced off the platform into the water. The group proceeded to enter water, getting the opportunity to observe frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, sea urchins, various fish, and curious sea lions. Swimming with the sea lions was an exciting experience; they are agile, sliding through the water past our clumsy transect across the cove. We got out just in time to watch the bloody orange sunset over San Cristobal.

A male Galapagos Iguana on our day off.

The 16th we were given a free day to explore the Galapagos. I ventured back to a beach in the National Park area with a few classmates for a morning of snorkeling. Once at the beach we once again found ourselves face to face with sea lions. In fact, it has almost become routine to see sea lions; they line the shores along the boardwalk, even sleep through the day on the boardwalk itself, perched on benches and in gazebos. The beach was everything one would expect and more from a tropical island. There was white sand, basalt rocks, crabs, urchins, sea lions, and iguanas. We found ourselves climbing an old lighthouse to eventually look over the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, a wonder in itself. The day was capped off with meals, mostly fish, and sunset on the beach.

Wesley with a Spotted Eagle Ray

Today, the 17th, we spent the day all across the island of San Cristobal. We first took a bus into the highlands to a place called the “Galapaguero”, which is home to a large population of tortoises and a breeding center for them. Our professors and guides talked to us about the endemic plants, the native plants, the species introduced by humans, their origins, and coexistence.

One of the most interesting plants to me is the cactus tree. It grows as a traditional, prickly cactus for much of its life, but into maturity, the trunk will lose its spines and assume the appearance of pine tree bark although the inside is still a pulpy flesh. The top branches have spiny bulbs instead of the green leaves we’re used to seeing on our trees; however, without a second glance, one almost wouldn’t know the difference.

We also learned about the geologic evolution of the islands themselves, through hotspot volcanism, which is the reason these evolutionary phenomena have been able to take place. The current Galapagos Islands have not been around long enough for the divergence that has resulted in the many varieties of a single organism to originate. Instead, this alludes to times when the currently submerged seamounts, constructed of material sourced from deep within the Earth’s mantle, resembled the island on which we stand. They must have supported these, and previous species of their kind, in the past. With rates of molecular (genetic) divergence of some fauna being calculated at almost 15 million years, while the oldest island is only 5 million years old, 2 or 3 generations of volcanic islands must have existed for the variation of fauna to occur.

Next, we traveled to Junco Lagoon, located atop a tephra cone, which serves to represent the physical processes through which the islands were formed. The inland lagoon offered sharp contrast from the arid areas of the Galapaguera, which is surprising on a landmass so small.

Finally, after a light lunch, we again went snorkeling on the southern coast of San Cristobal. This time, for over an hour we wandered around a small cove observing the life it contained. In this time we saw tropical fish, multiple varieties of parrotfish, sergeant fish, Conus snails, and pipefish. More exciting were the multiple sea turtles, a small pod of spotted eagle rays, sting rays, and, again, curious sea lions.

The night ended with a short lecture on the life and work of Charles Darwin, the father of modern evolutionary theory. Seeing what he must have seen first landing here, it is already easy to see how the Galapagos Archipelago served as his muse for evolution.

Tomorrow, we go to Isla Lobos, a favorite mating ground for sea lions, and also to Kicker Rock, where hammerhead sharks have often been sighted, offering excitement and new experiences with every day.

Wesley von Dassow

Geology Major, Class of 2014

posted in Ecuador and Galapagos Islands

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you, Wesley! That was a wonderful account of some of your adventures in the islands. Very informative and interesting! So glad you are all enjoying this rare opportunity.

    says Peggy
    January 18, 2013 at 11:56 am
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