Friday, May 30, 2008
We've been advised ahead of time that there are two destinations that purport to be the equator. One is a monument erected by some French engineers around 1980, and it contains an ethnographic museum. There is a pathway leading up to it decorated with mounted busts of individuals I presume were the founding fathers of Ecuador (yet another instance where a little knowledge of Spanish would likely have enhanced the experience). And of course, the obligatory souvenir and t-shirt shops. The whole thing is known as Ciudad Mitad del Mundo.
And then there is what is locally known as the real equator, about 200 meters north of the official monument. Here, some of the indigenous people have put up their own museum called Intiñan Solar Museum, where they not only have some educational material about their culture, but also some demonstrations that purport to prove that they straddle the real equator.
I will leave it to others to debunk the demonstrations of things such as Coriolis force swirling water down the drain in opposite directions on either side of the line or balancing a raw egg on a nail. I find it somewhat more convincing that they say GPS devices indicate that it's really the equator. In any case, it was interesting. I've always wanted to know how they make shrunken heads or use blowguns, for example. The sundials and solar calendars were cool, too.
This was not our first flirtation with the equator, of course. Several days earlier, back in the Galapagos, we did a couple of dives at a location known as Cape Marshall on Isla Isabela, which is right about at the equator. Sitting at breakfast on the boat that morning, one of the other divers on the boat had his GPS-enabled cell phone out, and we watched as the boat swung on its anchor that the GPS indicated we were swinging across the equator.
The last adventure of our trip involved getting back to Quito to pick up our luggage and catch our flight home. Leaving Intiñan, we flagged down two cabs, but neither driver seemed very clear on how to get back to our hotel. And just as we got in the cabs, it started to rain. So we're driving back to Quito in the rain, trying to explain to the driver in halting Spanish where our hotel was. It seemed like our map should be helpful, but it turned out our cabbie didn't have his reading glasses. And apparently, the cab didn't have a defogger, either (other than the handy red rag he used periodically to wipe the windshield).
Needless to say, we were a bit concerned about making it back in time to catch our van to the airport. As luck would have it, the other driver stumbled onto a street we recognized, and we were only about 15 minutes late (and the van driver had waited for us!).
Thursday, May 29, 2008
We had a lovely time at the waterfront in Puerto Ayora yesterday, watching pelicans trying to steal fish from the fishermen, and fishermen cleaning their catch and tossing unwanted bits to aggressive sea lions and pelicans. We bought a few souvenirs here and there, and looked into a lot of the shops.
But after over a week of seeing mostly desolate islands and a few other dive boats, it's odd to see groups of tourists and the trappings that follow them everywhere. People dressed up for a night out. Internet cafes. Plastic shopping bags. Drinking straws. Fountains. Boardwalks. Buildings!
All these things that never catch my eye as I walk through my home town or the place where I work seem oddly foreign in this place. And I suppose the fact that the scavenging birds are pelicans, not pigeons, is quite stark. Or the fact that the sea lions just fit in, flopping for a rest on the dock, on the sidewalk, wherever. It's not like they've taken over a part of the town like San Francisco's Pier 39; they're just part of the town here.
The main focus of our stop in Puerto Ayora was a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station. The bits we could see were mostly the visitor center, but we did get to walk through some of the areas where they incubate Galapagos tortoises. These are perhaps the iconic creatures of the islands, but this is the only chance for us to see them. They tend to live quite high on the larger islands, and are not easily accessible in our limited time on land. So unlike the other creatures we've gotten to observe in their natural habitats, we see these only in pens.
The tortoise breeding program is terrific. They rescue eggs from the various islands when they are laid, because they are vulnerable to introduced predators such as rats and pigs. They take the eggs to the research station and raise them for about 5-6 years, then release them back on their native islands. This is key, because all the tortoises on all the islands (and often on different volcanoes on the same island) represent different, unique subspecies. They're adapted very well to their particular environments, so it is important to return them to the habitat that suits them.
Although it was nice to see lots of tortoises (and the young ones are quite cute!), seeing them in this way just wasn't all that satisfying. Maybe it's because I'm jaded by having grown up near a zoo that had a captive tortoise (that we could touch and climb on – yikes!). Or maybe it's just the realization that this is the only practical way to conserve these magnificent creatures. If they didn't raise them in protected pens, more or even all of the subspecies would be extinct or closer to being so.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
First, as we swam along one side of the rock, one young sea lion would swoop down and dance around me. She would pause right in front of me, make eye contact, and then swim over, around, and in front of me. Then she'd head back up to the surface for air, and come back and do some more. Must have happened about 8 times, and it was great fun to watch!
Then, as we came around to the other side, we stopped by a big boulder, and a whole group of six or seven sea lions of various sizes came by. There were large adults and several juveniles. A couple of them just came down to the bottom and scratched their backs and heads on the rocks, wiggling like very happy critters. Meanwhile others chased each other, danced in the water, and generally celebrated being sea lions. It was quite an extraordinary show, right there, just feet or less from us.
But even more remarkable was the scene at Cape Marshall, where we were nestled in some boulders as the current ran by, and a group of sharks swam through repeatedly. I didn't have the best angle, but my wife had a front-row seat, wedged behind a rock as the sharks swooped right in on the current. She said she counted at least nine white-tip reef sharks, and they were clearly doing something I'd never seen sharks do before. The would swim in from the side, then sort of slide sideways on the current toward the rocks, hang for a moment in the current, then swim off to do it again. Truly, these sharks were playing.
I've never seen anything like it, and I've swum with a lot of sharks in a lot of places. Everywhere else, they were either feeding, hunting, or resting. Sometimes they just swim by. But I've never seen them do anything frivolous before. It was wonderful. I had no idea that sharks had a capacity for play, but that was clearly what they were up to.
Chalk it up to one more incredible experience in the Galapagos. It's hard to go home after all that, but it makes me look forward to further diving this year. We haven't been doing nearly enough of it.
Sunday, May 25, 2008
One of the things that makes the Galapagos so incredible and full of life is that the archipelago sits at the convergence of three major ocean currents. The warm Panama current comes down from the north; the cold Humboldt current comes up from the south, and nutrient-rich deep water wells up along the equator from the west.
As a result, the underwater environment is highly changeable. As we were diving, we would often feel rapid changes in temperature as the current shifted direction, getting several degrees warmer or cooler all of a sudden, and often distorting the vision as the different currents mixed. It's a phenomenon we know well from all our diving in California, but very regular and very pronounced throughout the Galapagos.
It's a little unnerving to hear the dive guide saying that he's never seen dive conditions like this at Darwin Island. Apparently Darwin is consistently quite warm and clear, with easily 100 feet of visibility all the time, and currents running consistently and predictably. Yes, it's the change of seasons here, with the hot, wet season giving way to drier weather. But apparently that usually doesn't impact the diving at Darwin.
So one is left with the question, is this just an anomaly, or does is foretell of real, long-term changes driven by global climate change? It's the same question all of us are going to be asking for some time. Does this year's dry winter in California represent a normal, expected drought cycle, or does it portend a shift of climate? The answers to those questions are really important and probably not knowable with certainty for some time.
In any case, it is a thrill and a privilege to get to see this place, even if it's not at its best. If you want predictable conditions and animal sightings, you go to the aquarium. When you venture out into the real ocean, you are at the mercy of nature and the whims of the animals. And that's what makes it worth coming out here.
Saturday, May 24, 2008
Patricio, the dive leader, says he's never seen it like this here. Darwin's water is "always" clear, with predictable currents, he says. We're hoping for better tomorrow, before we head back down to Wolf Island in the afternoon.
It's amazing how the currents and conditions affect the life around the islands. The smaller bits of life on the reef go on. Poking around, we still see all the usual little fish going about their business, crabs, lobsters, morays, and so on. And there are still schools of fish in the water, especially creole fish. But the big critters are just not in evidence at all.
One of the striking things about diving here has been the abundance in the ocean. Big schools of fish, big schools of sharks, big creatures like the whale shark taking advantage of the rich plankton brought in by the currents. Indeed, one of the reasons we're here is to document that abundance. A group I work with, the Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research, and Education (COARE) is here shooting video to help educate people about what a healthy ocean should look like. We can then contrast it with overfished, overused areas elsewhere.
But with the currents calm, much of that life seems to have gone elsewhere. We speculate about the effects of global warming on currents. Maybe it's just the change of seasons. Only time will tell.
Friday, May 23, 2008
As part of the festivities, Fenton's had provided ice cream (naturally) and their mascot, Myrtle the cow. I had never seen this mascot costume, just pictures of Myrtle on the menu and such. Neither had our daughter. Late in the day, she saw Myrtle go by and pointed, indicating that she wanted to follow. We hadn't seen Myrtle pass, so wanted to know what she was so excited about. She couldn't come up with a word for the creature she had seen (truly, the upright-walking Myrtle doesn't look much like a cow), so all she could muster was “Very, very special...big...!” Finally, we followed her, and figured out that it was Myrtle she was trying to evoke. We explained that Myrtle was a cow, and all was right with the world.
I'm having some of the same issues with getting my head around the whale shark we saw today. It's almost impossible to express the grandeur of such a huge, living creature. It is tempting to compare it with another experience with animals of a similar magnitude, when we swam with humpback whales three years ago in Tonga. Unfortunately, the experiences are almost entirely different!
Swimming with a whale, even briefly, engenders a connection. You make eye contact, and you catch a flicker of the intelligence and interest there. The whale may not choose to interact with you and swim away, but you get the clear feeling that it made a choice. And its movements are supple, dexterous, and elegant, often surprisingly quick. With the whale shark, there is no sense of contact, virtually no indication of anything going on inside. The animal moves slowly, steadily, seemingly inexorably, almost like a machine. You don't feel any sense of acknowledgment, much less engagement. But for the fact that it moves at all, you could easily classify the whale shark as non-living. It could almost be a machine, like a Disney animatronic creation.
Yet it truly qualifies as the most incredible encounter I've ever had in the water, in part because with the whales, we spotted them, engaged, and then entered the water. With the whale shark, it was a more chance encounter where we were in the water, it swam by, and we joined it for a while.
All that said, the whale shark did slow or pause several times. Was it giving us a chance to catch up or checking us out? It's impossible to know. It came, it swam with us, and it departed, leaving each of us to impute our own interpretations on its Sphinx-like mien.
My final thought, drifting off to sleep, was of Arthur C. Clarke's novel, Rendezvous With Rama, in which an ancient alien object passes close to the Earth on one of its long orbits around the sun. In the brief time it is within reach, men land on it, explore it, and draw some conclusions before it heads off into deep space again. So it seemed with the whale shark. We intersected minutely with its passage, but seemingly affected it not at all, yet it left a lasting impression on all of us.
It was very, very special. And big. And I'm sure I'll be projecting all sorts of things onto the creature and the encounter for a very long time.
Today we saw one. The real thing. It's hard to put into words just how magnificent these creatures are. The one we saw was female, about 30-35 feet long, and mostly gray with the typical spots on it. And it was beautiful, graceful, and seemingly either unaware of or at least unconcerned by our presence.
It was the third dive of the day at Darwin's Arch, near Darwin Island in the northern Galapagos islands, right after lunch. We were all hanging at the edge of the reef, watching and waiting at around 50 feet. We'd seen a few sea turtles and maybe a shark, but no big show. Then suddenly behind me, I hear noise: human noise. Hooting and hollering and general excitement. Someone tugged on my fin to get my attention, and I see pointing and kicking, as everyone headed off to see this creature.
And there it came, out of the murk, swimming a bit above us. We kicked up to get a better view, then all started to kick alongside, trying to keep up. We kept bumping each other and the rocks in our excitement and effort. The whale shark was swimming into the current, so we had to kick hard and sometimes pull ourselves along the rocks. At some point I realized that I was between the rocks and a slowly moving tail that was considerably larger than I was. One good flick, and I would be a Chard pancake.
It was hardest for the divers with cameras, as they are generally less hydrodynamic, but it was quite an effort for all of us. Besides the adrenaline rush of seeing a creature of such magnitude, there is also the realization that this is unique; you may never have another chance like this, and time just ceases to mean anything. At least two of the guys shooting video got great shots, and several of us managed to keep up with the creature for about 10-15 minutes, until it dove to a depth we could not follow.
After kicking so hard for so long, I was exhausted, my head throbbing. We moved up to shallower water on the reef to catch our breath and try to enjoy the rest of the dive. And indeed, we were visited by a couple of hammerhead sharks and at least one very inquisitive sea turtle. But this will always be the whale shark dive.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Needless to say, we cut loose the buoy and disabled its antenna. It will be turned over to the park authorities. Interestingly, we were chasing and admiring a big pod of dolphins when we spotted the antenna. It seems possible that they were intentionally leading us to this device, but I try not to read too much into that. It could certainly be a coincidence. Or maybe the dolphins were attracted to the fish at the FAD.
But there are certainly signs that people are exploiting and damaging the resources here. The dive guides tell of sites where they used to see hundreds or thousands of sea horses, and now they have to poke carefully to locate any at all. In the book Plundering Paradise: The Hand of Man in the Galapagos Islands, we read about commercial fishing of sea cucumbers. Formerly abundant, now there are areas completely void of them. It's like strip mining, but for living creatures. The ironic part about the sea horses, in particular, is that they are easily bred in tanks; one doesn't need to harvest them from the sea at all, much less decimate the population.
I'm not suggesting that people should be here (That would be the height of hypocrisy, wouldn't it?). But it is unconscionable to come to a unique and pristine area like this and devastate even a part of it. One can at least make the case that early visitors who killed and ate tortoises, for example, had no idea what they were doing in the larger sense. But in modern times, to come to a place and systematically strip an entire population is criminally short-sighted.
Just a few notes on the diving here in the Galapagos. We started with our initial dives in the southern islands, close to our arrival point, then overnight motored north to Wolf Island, whence we will go further on to Darwin Island. The diving has been quite amazing already. In addition to frisky, inquisitive sea lions under the water, we have also seen other big animals: hammerhead sharks (a first for us), Galapagos sharks, yellowfin tuna, sea turtles, and perhaps most remarkably, dolphins.
My only previous dolphin sighting in the water came some years back in Hawaii, where we spotted some a great distance away (one benefit to the amazing water clarity there). Today, however, we had spotted some from the skiff before dropping in the water, and for the first fifteen minutes we heard lots of clicks and squeaks from the dolphins still in the area. That alone was very cool, but we also saw a fair-sized pod of dolphins go by, not very far away.
After that, the noise settled down to just a single, repeating sequence of squeaks, which sounded like a dolphin trying to express some message. We then saw a rather large dolphin swim by us very close, maybe ten feet away, after which the squeaks changed slightly, but kept repeating. Eventually, the squeaks stopped and we completed the dive. As we were ascending nearly an hour later, we again heard clicks and squeaks and saw dolphins quite close by as we broke the surface and rode back to the dive boat. It was quite a remarkable encounter of a sort I've never had before. I've seen lots of dolphins from boats, but none nearly that close in the water.Hammerhead sharks seem mildly interested in us, at least when they're traveling in small numbers. Schools of sharks just pass by; they have other things on their minds. But mostly, the sharks seem to come near, see that we're not food, and head off somewhere else. The Galapagos sharks seem indifferent to us. They go about their business pretty much as if we're not around.
Sea turtles, on the other hand, will often come to check us out. My wife and I have both had turtles come right up and look into our faces, and Josh, one of the trip leaders, seems to attract them with his yellow fins. He's had turtles nipping at his fins more than once!
The other animal we're seeing a lot of is moray eels. However, unlike most places where you just see their heads poking out of the reef, here they just seem to lay about, often with just their heads tucked under a rock, and the rest of the eel draped out in plain sight.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
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 presence. 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.
Monday, May 19, 2008
I'm about to start uploading the posts I wrote while we were in the Galapagos Islands. I will endeavor to tag them all properly with "Galapagos," but no guarantees. If I succeed, you should be able to find them all by clicking here, or on the Galapagos tag over in the margin.
I may not have mentioned this previously, but this Galapagos trip is really sort of the dream trip of a lifetime. Not only do I have the degree in Rhetoric mentioned elsewhere on this page, but I double-majored in Environmental Science. And it seems like for any environmental scientist, a trip to Galapagos is rather like a pilgrimage to Mecca, almost a duty, certainly a great desire.
The shadow of Charles Darwin certainly lies heavily over the islands (and not just the one named for him, shown in the attached image). But the islands truly are a wonderful laboratory of science: biology, geology, oceanography. Just fascinating.
I want to go back!
Sunday, May 18, 2008
We got up this morning and had breakfast at the hotel. I guess officially this would be a bed-and-breakfast, but it seems more like a small hotel. The staff are very friendly and helpful. After we ate, we got directions on some fun things to do. Since we couldn't do them all, we chose to walk around the center of Quito.
It was interesting walking through the neighborhood we'd seen the night before. On Sunday, most everything was closed down, and there was none of the club/bar/disco traffic, of course. We walked over to the park where they have a weekly art market, with artists displaying and selling their work.
The items that caught my eye the most were some stylized pictures of the local landscape (it looked vaguely like Quito to me) with a red train going through the sky above, with apples, fish, baskets of flowers, eggs, an balloons falling down into the city. We saw that several artists had portrayed the same general theme, so we figure it must be some local story. Unfortunately, our Spanish wasn't good enough to get the scoop.
My other favorite was a series of variations on da Vinci's "The Last Supper," where Jesus is still the central character, but is surrounded by a collection of modern figures. One had various political figures, from Hitler to Castro to Hugo Chavez to Nelson Mandela to Ghandi. I'm not quite sure what that meant. Another had some of those, plus Albert Einstein and some others. Another had Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Mick Jagger, and other figures from entertainment. I dunno, but I liked them.
We spent an hour or two at the cultural museum across from the park where the art market was. They had very interesting, very accessible displays with explanations in both Spanish and English.
Later, we went to lunch in the old part of the city. We ate at a nice little restaurant in what used to be the archbishop's residence on the Plaza Grande caled Hasta la Vuelta, Señor... The name comes from a local legend about a libidinous Franciscan monk who used to climb over the monastery wall by scaling a large crucifix until Jesus started asking him "Until when, Father Almeida?" It was a good story, fun to read while we waited for our food.
After a brief trip back to the hotel, we met up with the rest of the group we'll be diving with in Galapagos at a nice restaurant called Café Mosaico, which has an amazing, panoramic view of pretty much all of Quito. It's quite stunning, and the food was good. After dinner, we chatted with Alex, the owner. He's from New York City, but his mother is from Ecuador, and he's lived here most of his life.
We're looking forward to flying out to the Galapagos tomorrow morning, and really can't wait to get started diving.
Turns out our little hotel has free wifi, so I get to sneak in a post or two!
On our way back, we'll be stopping at a place that lets us literally straddle the equator, both the pace where some French scientists marked it andthe place where the indiginous Ecuadorans marked it, 200 meters away. Meanwhile, we got to go to a weekly Sunday art market, which was great and to the cultural museum.
We flew in fairly late last night, so when we went out to find dinner, most of the restasurants were closed or closing. We found a 24-hour cafe that had good food and drink, so that was fun.
Probably the last post for a while, but we shall see!
Friday, May 16, 2008
My wife and I are off on our first extended scuba trip in several years tomorrow. The rest of the family gets to stay home and go to school and such. Awwwww. My plan is to write up blog entries updating you on our activities, and upload them when we get back.
Destination this time: the Galapagos Islands!
Tuesday, May 06, 2008
This seems much cooler than one of those Bluetooth headsets!
It's about a 15-minute video clip, but you can also read a transcript if you prefer.
Or you can probably get a lot of it from this couple of sentences:
However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it's worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.How much better? You need to check out the rest to find out.
And I'm willing to raise that to a general principle. It's better to do something than to do nothing.
Monday, May 05, 2008
The loyalty oath was added to the state Constitution by voters in 1952 to root out communists in public jobs. Now, 16 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its main effect is to weed out religious believers, particularly Quakers and Jehovah's Witnesses.Oy. I had long forgotten this bit of McCarthy-era paranoia in the state constitution. I suppose I must have had to sign it myself, back when I was teaching classes while in college, but I must not have taken it all that seriously. And of course, those were different times, at the tail end of the Cold War.
As a Quaker from Pennsylvania and a lifelong pacifist, Gonaver objected to the California oath as an infringement of her rights of free speech and religious freedom.
Looks like it's time to agitate for an amendment. Although there has apparently been a move in that direction before, to no effect.
The good news is that the more onerous provisions of the original oath have apparently been removed. Ultimately, I don't really have an issue with having people affirm that they will uphold and defend the constitution, but not allowing personal variations is just wrong, as long as they don't negate the meaning of the agreement.
After a version of the oath was added to the state Constitution, courts eventually struck down its harshest elements but let stand the requirement of defending the constitutions. In one court test, personal statements accompanying the oath were deemed constitutional as long as they did not nullify the meaning of the oath.But I still think it's time to clear this up. Such regulation of beliefs is inherently unfair. As one dissenter put it,
Now, the University of California advises new employees who balk at signing the pledge that they can submit an addendum, as long as it does not negate the oath.
"The way it's laid out, a noncitizen member of Al Qaeda could work for the university, but not a citizen Quaker," she said.I'm sure that's what they had in mind when they created this mess.