The absence of major predators has rendered the exotic creatures of Galapagos fearless, so much so that they are quite at ease with humans clicking away at touching distance. Text and photographs by SUDHA MAHALINGAM
AS Letty crosses and recrosses the Equator several times during the voyage, calling at a new island each day, we are treated to a variety of fauna and flora, none as dazzling as the marine iguana, the mascot of the archipelago. While iguanas, like sea lions, are found on all the islands, Espanola, 42 nautical miles from San Cristobal, is teeming with these creatures. They are on the beach, all over the rocks, behind the shrubs and in the water. There are baby iguanas galore, most sprawled on the rocks, watching adults swim while some youngsters take their first tentative plunge into the sea. The adults, usually four feet long from nose to tail, sport rainbow colours—pink, yellow, blue, green, red, black, brown and even purple. The colour comes from the rich algae that constitute their main diet. Ivan, our naturalist guide, tells us that iguanas are generally black or dull in colour but, this being the mating season, they have put on their best vests to impress their females. We do not know whether their females are impressed, but we certainly are.
Primordial and fearsome-looking, these creatures evoke mixed reactions. Darwin found them “hideous”. He says, “The black Lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large (2-3 ft), disgusting clumsy Lizards. They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl and seek their prey from the sea. I call them ‘imps of darkness’. They assuredly well become the land they inhabit.” Most visitors might not agree with Darwin’s description. In fact, the marine iguanas, unique to Galapagos, are fascinating animals. Clumsy on land, these creatures are agile and graceful in water. Despite their forbidding appearance, these are gentle and shy creatures. Being cold-blooded, they are slow of movement and need to warm up to find the energy to move. That explains why so many of them are stretched out on rocks sunbathing. Iguanas share a symbiotic relationship with mocking birds and finches which pick out parasites from their backs.
Land iguanas are fewer in number than the ubiquitous marine iguanas; they are much bigger and at this time of the year they are moulting. They are found mostly in Plazas and North Seymour. The two species of iguanas do not compete for food. Land iguanas eat cactuses, while marine iguanas prefer squid and algae. There is also a hybrid species, products of cross-mating between marine and land iguanas, but these do not reproduce.
The absence of major predators, other than the Galapagos hawk that eats baby iguanas, has rendered these lizards fearless, so much so that they are quite at ease with humans clicking away at touching distance. Of course, visitors are forbidden to touch any creature in the Galapagos National Park. My lens is only inches away from the colourful male’s nose and all he does is to look askance at me! The only time they get excited is when a rival male approaches, with apparent designs on the females. Then the male puts on his most vibrant hues and bobs his head up and down, in what he believes is a menacing gesture, but which to us appears rather comical. It usually does the trick: the wise rival takes the cue and backs off.
While shards of ceramic pottery found on these islands suggest that seafarers may have settled here long ago, by the time Darwin arrived the islands were unsullied by human habitation and, therefore, a paradise for wildlife. In fact, one of the first ever dispatches from the island, sent to the King of Spain by Bishop Fray Tomas de Berlanga, goes thus: “On the tenth of March (1935), we saw an island; and since the ship had enough water only for two days, it was agreed to lower a boat and go ashore for water and grass for the horses; once ashore, nothing more was found but sea lions and turtles and tortoise so large that each could carry a man on top of itself, and many iguanas that are like serpents… on the second island, there were the same conditions as on the first; many sea lions, turtles, iguanas, tortoises, many birds like those from Spain but so silly that they didn’t know how to flee and many were caught by hand.”
From all indications, sea lions and iguanas seem to be aplenty, not requiring assisted breeding. It is not surprising that the Darwin Research Centre at Santa Cruz now focusses mainly on tortoises, in an effort to restore them to healthy numbers. But in the not-too-distant past, even the iguanas were dwindling in numbers, thanks to the thoughtless actions of humans who settled on these islands. Floreana was first established as a penal colony in 1932 when Ecuador claimed suzerainty over Galapagos. But, a few years later, owing to lack of sufficient fresh water on Floreana, the colony was moved to San Cristobal where an enterprising convict established a sugar factory to crush sugarcane, which was then cultivated on the islands. Subsequently, a German dentist who settled down in Floreana began to grow corn as well.
When agriculture is introduced, can animal husbandry be far behind? The settlers soon made themselves comfortable with all the familiar domesticated animals such as pigs, cows, donkeys, goats, chicken, dogs and cats. Cowhide was used as currency. Ships frequenting the islands from the mainland brought in their own cargo of rats, mice and insects. Naturally, these introduced species played havoc with local flora and fauna. While the domesticated animals were not exactly predators, they competed for the limited resources on the islands with the natives. The goats brought into San Cristobal just disappeared into the wilderness, turned feral and grazed the natural pastures to baldness, so much so that the tortoise population dependent on grass began to dwindle alarmingly. Fresh water being scarce on these islands, the goats ate up all succulent vegetation, and giant tortoises died of thirst and starvation. The rats and other species ensured that no vegetation was spared for the poor vegetarian iguanas, so their population took a nosedive.
Eradication of introduced species
In the late 1960s, the Ecuador government began an eradication programme to get rid of all introduced species. While pigs were easy enough to tackle, goats proved to be a huge challenge. On Santiago Island alone, nearly 80,000 goats were culled, using multiple strategies to capture them. Helicopters would identify goat concentrations and then these were herded using sheep dogs and shot dead. Seeking out the feral goats from far corners of the island proved to be far more challenging than had been envisaged. In Isabella, 85,000 more goats were shot from helicopters. Some female goats were neutered. Today, the goat population of Galapagos has been successfully eradicated—not a mean task, considering the size and dispersal of these islands.
Eliminating rats proved to be an even greater challenge. On islands where rat poison was used, iguanas had to be shifted to safer locations so that they did not consume the poison. Once the rats were eradicated, iguanas were brought back to their native locations. Even introduced flora, which was edging out native vegetation, was eradicated. Quinine, guavas, blackberries and lantanas, which were being grown in Santa Cruz, have now been eradicated. Even so, in Santa Cruz we saw plantations of coffee, paddy and cocoa and kitchen gardens apart from cattle and poultry. In fact, Galapagos has now built up a reputation for producing gourmet coffee appreciated by connoisseurs around the world.
Man has long ceased to be a predator, thanks to expanding knowledge and awareness of the need to protect and conserve native ecosystems and fauna. That Darwin should have expressed apprehensions about the deleterious effects of introducing new species to the island seems almost clairvoyant in retrospect. He wrote: “What the introduction of any new beast of prey must cause in a country before the instincts of the indigenous inhabitants have become adapted to the stranger’s craft or power….” While the early seafarers wantonly killed quite a few animals, now the Galapagos National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For the government of Ecuador, Galapagos is a money-spinner, not only because of tourists, whose numbers are regulated, but also because of many scientists who have established research stations here to study the unique flora and fauna. Visitors are forbidden to take away even a shell from the islands and all the endemic species are zealously protected.
On Floreana, there is a village called Velasquez Evora with a population of 150, which lives on rationed water. Margaret Wittmer, who came as a young girl to this island in 1935 along with her husband and stepson, still lives here. Of course, the village is miles away in the interior of the island, and we cannot visit it. The villagers get periodic supplies from the mainland and make do with fishing for subsistence. Floreana also has the distinction of having a unique post office which operates very differently from those elsewhere in the world. Visitors would drop letters into a wooden barrel left by 18th century whalers to be delivered to their destinations mostly in Europe or the United States by ships that would dock on the islands en route to other destinations.
Today, this practice still continues, and we are encouraged to use this facility. In fact, there is a stack of picture postcards, available free of charge for anyone wanting to mail a letter from here. The letters in the post box are then sifted through by subsequent visitors who take away letters addressed to people nearer their own homes, affix stamps and post them through their national postal system. Ivan assures us that many letters reach their destinations although some could take as long as a year or so. We sift through several bundles of letters in the hope of finding some destined for India, but no such luck. But we leave our own letters hoping that one day these will be picked up and delivered to addressees in India.
Tortoises and mocking birds are extinct on Floreana. Only lava lizards dart here and there, showing off their red tails. Though small, these creatures match the iguanas in the vibrancy of their colours. But they have to ensure that they stay out of sight of the hawks. Although the hawks usually eat locusts and insects, occasionally they would pounce on a lava lizard or even a Galapagos constrictor. Like all other animals on the islands, the hawks are unafraid of humans, and one makes no attempt to fly away even as I point my lens at its nose.
In recent times, flamingos have started to visit Floreana, which has a brackish lake. Flamingos are not native to these islands but are attracted by the brine shrimp. Poison apple, passion fruit and waiyabeo are three fruiting trees, apart from the incense tree which is native to Floreana. It is in Floreana that we spot sea turtles. They wash ashore looking for nesting sites. During the nesting season, they invade the islands in their thousands, dig into the sand with their flippers, lay their eggs, and without a second glance the mothers go back to the ocean, leaving the young ones to fend for themselves when they hatch.
Bartolome, although almost bereft of wildlife, is possibly the most scenic island in Galapagos, with Pinnacle Rock adding a touch of drama to the landscape. The soil of this island is jet black and there are smoking cones, this being a recent island to have been thrown up by volcanic activity. From the top of this island, accessed by steps specially erected for the purpose, one gets a panoramic view of many islands in the archipelago.
Despite the prolific sightings of varied wildlife, the Galapagos penguin, the only penguin that has forayed into the equatorial region, seems to elude us. Captain Pablo phones Letty’s sister ships Eric and Flamingo and rapidly turns course towards Chinese Hat, another island, so named because of its hat-like shape. Here we sight a single pair, moulting in preparation for the breeding season. Smallest among South American penguins, these birds now number around 2,000 pairs. Galapagos penguins marry for life, and if they lay two eggs and both chicks hatch, will feed and nurture only one, in order to give it the best chance. We are lucky to glimpse the pair from our panga and click away furiously. But later in the day, when we go snorkelling, they swim playfully around us.
In fact, one of the highlights of the Galapagos trip is the daily snorkel which reveals to us a kaleidoscope of underwater marine organisms. More often than not, playful turtles, sea lions and penguins swim with us while reef sharks circle around us out of curiosity. Getting into and out of tight snorkelling wet suits requires enormous will power, but with such a colourful panorama on offer, we do not mind at all. The water in these parts is never too cold and one is reluctant to climb out of these magical waters. But we are coaxed out of the water with an array of delicacies rustled up by assistant chef Roberto Urgiles and chef Xavier Moncayo, who go out of their way to indulge the few vegetarians on board. After dinner, every night is spent on the deck under a starry sky.