Carol Rist, July 20, 1989
Dear Marilyn, Phil, Carl, Lisa and Andy,
Marilyn and Phil, you must think I have stopped sending you my offspring letters. Actually there haven’t been any. Carl and Lisa have been en route from Yakima to Durham, and Andy has been in England and Norway and then moved, so I didn’t know where to contact him. But now I know that I can reach Andy at the old address, and that Carl and Lisa will probably be returning to Pittsburgh to gather together all of their junk, so all of you are now the happy recipients of my travel report.
At 6 AM on June 16, 1989, we departed from Miami on Ecuatoriana Airlines, bound for Quito, the capital of Ecuador. We enjoyed seeing this beautiful city, but were anxious to continue on to our ultimate destination, the Galapagos Islands, located in the Pacific ocean 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The Galapagos are volcanic islands and are relatively young when compared to other parts of the world. The ancestors of all of the living things on the island had to travel at least 600 miles through the air or by water in order to establish themselves on the island. And once on the islands, these species often became specially adapted to the environment around them. Studying the differences between animals on the Galapagos Islands and their relatives on the mainland – or even between animals on different islands of the Galapagos chain – helped lead Darwin to the theory of evolution.
From Quito we flew to the island of Baltra. The airfield at Baltra was built by the U.S. Government during World War II to defend the Panama Canal. Across a narrow channel from Baltra lies the island of Santa Cruz. We spent the next several days at Puerto Ayora, the major settlement on Santa Cruz. We had expected to see marine iguanas in the Galapagos, but were startled to find perhaps fifty marine iguanas piled all over each other just ten feet in front of our hotel. Slowly we became accustomed to being around animals who didn’t seem threatened by our presence. Karsten had trouble taking a picture of a yellow warbler. It kept getting too close for him to focus his camera.
Puerto Ayora is in the arid zone, where rain rarely falls. But higher up on the slopes of Santa Cruz the air cools off, causing precipitation. This is where the rain forest and the island’s farms are located. This is also where the giant tortoise is found. We saw about 25 giant tortoises on a farm belonging to our guide. He is not totally happy about sharing his pasture with these prodigious eaters, but he has very little choice. We learned that a barbed wire fence won’t stop a tortoise when we watched one push forward against a barbed wire fence until it gave way.
We said goodbye to Santa Cruz Island when we boarded the motor launch Beagle III, along with eight other passengers. In addition to the crew we had a national park guide on board. No one can visit the Galapagos National Park unless accompanied by a guide licensed by the park. There are forty-three visitor sites in the park, and visitors are not allowed to go anywhere else. At each visitor site there is a marked trail from which you must not stray, NOT EVEN TO TAKE A PHOTOGRAPH. The rules seem strict, but the result is a wonderfully natural environment, with no litter and with animals who have no fear of humans because they have never been molested.
On Floreana Island we watched flamingos feeding and napping and had our first experience snorkeling with sea lions. Sea lions seem to take great pleasure in showing humans how easily they can move about in the water. They swim straight at you and Just when you are sure there will be a horrendous collision, they pass right under you. We were happy while in the water that a friend had recommended that we get wet suits for our trip. The water was much cooler than in Florida, even though we were on the equator. This cool water is brought to the Galapagos by the Humboldt Current, which brings water up from Antarctica. The water cools the air, resulting in pleasantly cool days and nights. In 1982-83, the warm current coming from the northeast was stronger than the Humboldt Current. This caused a weather pattern called El Nino, which happens every now and then. But the El Nino of 1982-83 was the most dramatic ever recorded. It had an enormous impact on the Galapagos Islands. Not only was the weather much hotter than normal, but Santa Cruz got nine times its normal amount of rain. Some plants and animals benefited from the increased rainfall and hot temperatures, but most populations declined enormously. Most of the coral died during El Nino. While snorkeling off Floreana we saw some of that dead coral. Even without live coral, the reef fish were as colorful and as plentiful as in the Florida Keys. Lava rocks make as good places to feed and hide as coral rocks.
On Hood Island, the visitors’ trail winds through albatross and boobie nesting areas. Some boobies chose to nest on the trail, so we had to step around their nests. The rituals which boobies follow in selecting a mate and in bonding with their mate are fascinating.
Travel from island to island aboard the Beagle was normally accomplished at night, leaving the day free for snorkeling and hiking. The morning after visiting Hood, we awoke in a lagoon on Santa Fe Island and found the water teeming with sea lions. We looked at the white, sandy beach nearby and thought it was covered with rocks. Then one of the “rocks” moved, and we discovered that the beach was covered with sleeping sea lions. They seemed less interested in us when we were on the beach than when we were swimming with them, perhaps because on land they are the clumsy ones. Leaving the sea lions to sleep in peace, we climbed up to a bluff in search of land iguanas. Luckily some were hanging around near the trail waiting for Karsten to take their picture.
Our mooring place on Tower Island was inside the crater. The lava receeded long ago, and waves have washed away one side of the cone. Red-footed boobies nest on Tower, and we soon learned that the feet of the red-footed boobie are as astonishingly red as the feet of the blue-footed boobie are blue. Frigate birds compete with boobies for nesting sites on Tower. Male frigate birds were sitting on every available branch, with an enormous red pouch puffed up on their necks. This is supposed to attract females, and it must work, because we did see frigate birds sitting on eggs.
At Bartolome Island we climbed up on an inactive volcano and marveled at the moonscape created by volcanic activity. Then we crossed idylic Sullivan Bay and walked over an eighty year old lava flow on James Island. In eighty years, almost no erosion has taken place. Down at the beach we had the thrill of swimming not only with the ubiquitous sea lions, but also with precious two foot tall penguins.
We thought we had seen it all, but at Chinaman’s Hat Island, we came upon a sea lion who had just given birth to a pup. The pup wanted to nurse, but the mother seemed more concerned with expelling the afterbirth. Two Galapagos hawks came and perched within ten feet of the sea lion, waiting for their favorite feast, afterbirth. Last year’s pup came to get some attention from his mom and was told, in rather unpleasant terms, to bug off. Mother realized that the tide was coming in, and picked up her pup by the scruff of the neck, just like a cat, and placed it on the rock ledge about two feet up. She failed in her first attempt to pick up the pup and we were all concerned. Then her second try was successful and we cheered. We were really sorry to leave her when darkness was about to fall. I have a feeling she was happy to get her privacy back.
The Beagle delivered us back to the airport at Baltra the next day. It was about time. All of the passengers had run out of clean clothes, and all of the salty, damp clothes in our duffle bags were beginning to smell. Ten strangers had become ten friends, and we all agreed that we had been fortunate to be able to visit the closest thing to paradise that can be found on this earth.