Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Amazing Galapagos

This is a little bit late, but life has taken over for the last month and a half and I haven't had a chance to write. So finally, here it is: my amazing trip to the Galapagos. 

First, some background and history on the Galapagos. The Galapagos Islands are a chain of volcanic islands about 1000 km off the coast of Ecuador, in the Pacific Ocean. The islands are part of Ecuador, and were made famous when Charles Darwin, the English naturalist travelled there. In 1831-1832, he joined a voyage on the HMS Beagle, which brought him to the Galapagos Islands, where his studies of the plants and animals, and especially the finches, led to his theory of natural selection in his 1859 book "On the Origin of Species".

Now, our amazing trip. The majority of the islands are uninhabited, and protected. This means that there are no cars, hotels, or anything on most of the islands; just nature. Each day, the cruise ship we were on was anchored at sea, and we took boats of 16 to the island we were seeing. We had a morning island visit, then back to the ship for lunch, then another excursion in the afternoon.
Map of the Galapagos Islands
Highlights: Espanola Island
What a cutie! Sleeping Galapagos sea lion (Image by Liz Martin)
Our first day on the islands was a truly amazing experience. We started at Gardner Bay, on Espanola Island, which is a very calm bay, with hundreds of sea lions. As there are no natural land predators on the islands, and the animals are well protected, they have little reason to fear people. As such, they are often very curious, especially the sea lions. When you get on the islands, you're supposed to stay far away from the animals, but this can be hard with the sea lions, especially the young ones, as they are extremely friendly and curious. They will walk right up to you, and chase you around, and as long as they aren't the bull males, they are relatively harmless. The Galapagos sea lion (Zalophus wollebaeki) breeds almost exclusively on the Galapagos Islands, but also on another single Ecuadorian island, and they are found throughout the Galapagos. We wandered around the bay for an hour or so, watching the sea lions, and also got our first view of marine iguanas. After walking, we got to go snorkelling for the first time, which was absolutely amazing. If I thought sea lions were friendly on land, I was in for a surprise for what happened in the water. The sea lions will swim right up to you, even at your face, and at the last minute they turn and swim underneath you. They have so much fun with people in the water, it was absolutely amazing. Definitely one of my favourite experiences on the trip.

The afternoon excursion was also a big highlight for me. We went on a long hike, and saw numerous animals. First, there were hundreds of marine iguanas, which I will talk about later. The main highlight of the afternoon for me was Punta Suarez, where many bird species nest. We saw the amazing blue-footed boobies (which are common throughout the Galapagos), Nazca boobies, Galapagos hawks, and my favourite, waved albatrosses. This was the only time we saw albatrosses, and they truly were magnificent. The waved albatross (Phoebastria irrorata) are basically endemic to the Galapagos, although there are a few pairs that nest on the Ecuadorian Island of Isla de la Plata. We were fortunate enough to witness their courtship behaviours, which consists of a bizarre dance where they repeat their movements over and over while they rock back and forth, stick their heads down to the ground, open their beaks wide, and more. When they finally choose a mate, waved albatrosses mate for life. We also got to see one albatross take off, which was a bit awkward, as these animals are fairly large, with a wingspan of about 2.3 m, and they do a kind of waddling/running take off. I sat for as long as I could watching them soar over the cliff. I spent a lot of time imagining them as pterosaurs (of course), and they were absolutely majestic. It was very hard to leave this place
Part of a waved albatross mating dance. Image by Liz Martin
Highlights: Floreana Island
A frigatebird with a baby turtle in its mouth. Photo by Liz Martin
The morning of Floreana Island started out with a walk to a bay. When we looked into the water, we realised that this bay was full of stingrays. We could stand at the end of the water and the waves would bring them towards us, as many as 10, just sitting in the water. The other interesting thing on this bay was that there was a green sea turtle nest. We weren't able to go up to the nesting site as it is off limits, but we could see the tracks from where the females had gone up and laid the eggs. Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) are known from both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and they lay clutches of 70-100 eggs. This nest had apparently recently hatched, as we knew there were many baby sea turtles, trying to get out of this nest. How did we know this if we couldn't see them? Well, we had the very fortunate/unfortunate (depending on who you ask) sight of a frigatebird swooping down and trying to eat these baby turtles. We watched several attempts, as it would swoop down, miss, and go back up, circling until it would try again. Finally, we watched as it managed to pick up one baby turtle, and fly away. As sad as it was for the turtle, it was a perfect example of "the circle of life", and just shows why they lay so many eggs. We were told that of 100 eggs, only 10 would successfully make it to the water, and of those 10, only 2-3 would survive until maturity. After that, we got to go snorkelling again, where we swam with a sea turtle!

Highlights: Isabela Island
Note the small vestigial wings on the flightless cormorant.
 Photo by Liz Martin
Isabela Island is the largest island in the Galapagos. It is formed from five separate volcanoes, all but one still active, and much of our walk was over old lava flows. Here we saw flamingoes, more blue-footed boobies, flightless cormorants, marine iguanas, and sea lions. No one really knows how the flamingoes on the Galapagos got there, as they are not strong flyers, and the islands are 1000 km from the mainland. There are only about  500 nesting pairs here. In a small in-land lagoon, we also saw some white-tipped reef sharks, which had come in through an underground system of cracks through the lava. The main highlight for me was the flightless cormorants, the only truly aquatic, flightless bird other than penguins. While penguins have evolved flipper-like wings to "fly" underwater, the flightless cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi) has extremely reduced wings and extensively webbed and powerful feet. These vestigial wings are used only to assist in balancing while they hop around rocks, while they propel through the water with their feet. This species is found only on the Galapagos Islands. We also got our first view of the Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus), the northernmost species of penguin.
Galapagos penguin. Photo by Josh Silverstone
In the afternoon, we got to see our first glimpse of both the land iguanas, and giant tortoises. While marine iguanas are black, land iguanas (Conolophus subcristatus) are brightly coloured. Different islands have different subspecies with different sizes and colours, but they are primarily yellow, red, and orange.
A land iguana. Photo by Liz Martin
Highlights: Fernandina and Isabela Islands
One of the many "piles" of marine iguanas we encountered.
Photo by Liz Martin.
At Fernandina, we saw another large colony of marine iguanas. Marine iguanas are very interesting. The marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) is endemic to the Galapagos, and is the only truly marine lizard in the world. They are black, in order to better take in the sunlight to allow them to warm up. They feed solely in the water on algae, and spend about half an hour a day diving into the water to feed, and the rest of the day basking in the sun to warm up from the cold water. To help with warming up, they are normally found in large clusters, sometimes with hundreds of iguanas in one place. We also stumbled upon several bones: a reconstructed whale skeleton with a dolphin skull, and some sea lion skulls, which of course I had great fun inspecting. After the walk, I got to partake in a deep water snorkel, where we saw some more sea turtles, fish, and numerous invertebrates along the coast.

Off the cost of Isabela for the first and only time, we saw a fur seal! Unfortunately, I don't have a great picture of it, but we watched a mother and young fur seal playing with the zodiac. The Galapagos fur seal (Arctocephalus galapagoensis) is endemic to the Galapagos, and is the smallest of the fur seals. They are currently endangered, as they were nearly hunted to extinction in the past.

Highlights: Santa Cruz Island
A dome-shaped giant tortoise in the wild. Photo by Liz Martin
On our last day, we spent time on the populated island of Santa Cruz. First, we went to the Charles Darwin Research Station, where they focus on breeding tortoises, and numerous other research projects to help protect the life in the Galapagos. We also got to go to the highlands, where we were able to see giant tortoises in the wild. The giant tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus) is found on a few tropical islands in the world, and as many as 11 subspecies exist in the Galapagos, with different subspecies on different islands or regions of islands. These subspecies and populations have little to no interaction with each other, and are morphologically distinct, with many people believing they are on their way to becoming separate species. Already, there are two distinct morphotypes: saddle-back, and dome-shaped shells. Unfortunately, many of the subspecies are in decline or have become extinct, which is why the Charles Darwin Research Station is focusing much of their efforts on tortoise conservation.
Lava lizard from Espanola island. Photo by Liz Martin

Other highlights
Being on the Galapagos in general was absolutely amazing, and there were a few things that I can't pick as being a specific highlight of a day or island. Mainly, these include some great examples of evolution and adaptation. There are seven species of endemic lava lizards in the Galapagos, with one species present on 10 islands, and the other 6 being restricted to single islands. They are generally very colourful, with females being more colourful than males, and differ morphologically from island to island.
Some of Darwin's finches. Photo by Liz Martin

Of course as a biologist, seeing Darwin's finches was always amazing. Unfortunately, I'm not able to identify them at all, but was able to see the slight differences in beaks that lead Darwin to his theory of natural selection. They are spread throughout the islands, with 13 species in total.

Swimming blue-footed booby. Photo by Liz Martin
And finally, although I won't talk about them in detail because there are discussed quite heavily in many aspects of biology, seeing blue-footed boobies was of course great. We were fortunate enough to see one of their famous mating dances, watch them fly, dive into the water to feed, and swim along the surface. These birds are truly magnificent, and their feet really are bright blue!

Blue-footed booby. Photo by Liz Martin
The biggest highlight of all was just being on these islands, barely touched and disturbed by humans, and seeing the nature first hand. Seeing the different populations of animals on different islands, and how these animals differ and adapt from island to island was amazing. Even the plants have adapted to different pressures, responding to birds that feed on their leaves. I would highly recommend to anyone, especially anyone interested in evolutionary biology to take advantage if they ever get a chance to go there. I hope you've enjoyed my account of my trip, and more importantly, that you've learned something you didn't know before!

Background info:
While some of the information in this post came from the book Galapagos Wildlife by David Horwell and Pete Oxford, most of it actually came from the brilliant guides we had along the way. The naturalists really know what they're talking about, and they were a never-ending source of information about the islands, the wildlife, and more! Thanks to them for teaching me what they knew.