Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Land Excursions in the Galapagos

One of the great parts of this vacation is that we get to both dive in the Galapagos and also venture onto some of the islands to explore on foot. Today we got to do that twice. First thing in the morning we dove next to a small island called Isla Mosquera, near Baltra and North Seymour islands. Afterward, we got to go onshore, where we got face-to-face with some of the Galapagos unique creatures. Mosquera, by the way, is quite tiny; we could easily walk around it all in less than an hour, even stopping to take pictures. It's mostly just sand, although there are rocky bits, especially along one side. It's a fine haul-out for sea lions as well as a nesting spot for some birds.

The first animals to greet us, before we even landed, were sea lions. In fact, the skiff drivers had to navigate very slowly and carefully to avoid hitting any. Although they are related to the California sea lions we see near home, they are different in some ways. For one thing, they seem a bit smaller, although that may just be because we saw mostly juveniles. At home we see a lot of bulls and adolescent males, but here we had lots of very curious youngsters. Also, they seemed inquisitive, but not territorial. We encountered only one bull on the island, and he objected (slightly) when we got a little too near for his taste. But all the others, including the females who seemed to be babysitting the youngsters, seemed largely indifferent to our presen
ce. I realize this isn't a great picture, but you get an idea of how many pups there were (you can see parts of 8 or 9 in this shot), and how close I got with my puny point-and-shoot Nikon Coolpix L5.

I should note that nearly all of the animals we have encountered are largely
unconcerned with the presence of people. Some call them “tame,” but that's not the right word. They are unafraid of people because they have no reason to fear. They are protected from hunting or physical contact, so they have no reason to consider people a threat.

So we had all these young sea lions approaching curiously and playing within mere feet of us. Similarly, we were able to approach the marine iguanas on the island. The only ones that seemed to really notice us at all were a few that I startled when I stepped on a nearby rock. Otherwise, they just continued to sun themselves, even when I crept up close to take pictures.

It was really quite remarkable to be able to walk right up to and among these wild animals and photograph them in very natural aspects. The whole relationship with nature is very different here. I have experienced similar things in marine preserves, such as Point Lobos in California. The fish there are very approachable, largely because they feel safe. It's a wonderful experience to be able to relate to animals on that kind of level, rather than one of fear and mistrust.

The second land stop of the day was on North Seymour Island
, where we saw frigate birds (both magnificent frigates and great frigates) nesting as well as blue-footed boobies, lava lizards, and the wonderful land iguanas. Again, none of them really seemed to pay us any mind at all.

Most of the frigate birds were nesting in trees that seemed to be almost dead sticks. Our naturalist guide explained that these were palo santo (“holy stick”) trees that bloom in the rainy season, but in the dry drop all their leaves and appear almost dead. On the mainland, they burn palo santo as an incense. We found a little piece, and you could easily understand that use: It's quite pleasantly aromatic, reminding me somewhat of tea tree oil. The frigate bird pictured here is a juvenile (with the white head), but it shows the palo santo pretty well.

Quick photo note: these are not my best pictures, by far, but they illustrate my points and I'm willing to put them out on the blog. Better pictures are available via other means.

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