Friday, June 25, 2010

Monday, June 14, 2010



Dolphins love to chase after fast boats and play in the wake or in the bow wave ahead of the boat. I saw them twice while we were in the Galapagos. The above dolphin was not close to the boat -- he was participating in a feeding frenzy that we saw from the Islander.

On an earlier day cruise on the very fast and smaller boat Luna Azul, I saw dolphins playing in the wake. I've seen them doing this in Florida, New Zealand, and Hawaii. Also, I've seen them indirectly in the Mediterranean: that is, depicted on Greek vases in museums. In Hawaii I've even been snorkeling with dolphins all around me. In most of these experiences, I've heard their squeaky voices calling to each other or maybe to us.

Dolphins even seem willing and amused when they are captives and made to act in dolphin shows such as the one at the Baltimore Aquarium we saw last winter. But I suspect they'd rather be free to choose their playmates and jump or spin as they like (depending on which kind of dolphins they are).

Imps of Darkness

Imps of darkness
I'm fascinated by the description of marine iguanas as "imps of darkness," a term first used in the Voyage of H. M. S. Blonde to the Sandwich Islands, in the years 1824-1825 by Captain the Right Hon. Lord Byron, Commander. During his voyage to Hawaii (the Sandwich Islands) he stopped in Galapagos, where he saw these unique creatures that are found only here.

The term was adopted by Darwin, who mentions having read it somewhere, and then uses it. We saw them on almost every beach, on rock, sand, and concrete jetties. I find the choice of words completely vivid, as they reminded me of medieval demons or the imps in Grimm's Fairy Tales or the imp shown, from Celtic fairy tales.

Here is the passage that describes these creatures and their environment:
Our party to Narborough Island landed among an innumberable host of sea-guanas, the ugliest living creatures we ever beheld.

They are like the alligator, but with a more hideous head, and of a dirty sooty black colour, and sat on the black lava rocks like so many imps of darkness. As far as the eye could reach we saw nothing but rough fields of lava, that seemed to have hardened while the force of the wind had been rippling its liquid surface. In some places we could fancy the fiery sea had been only gently agitated; in others, it seemed as if it had been swept into huge waves. Here and there it was rent into deep crevices coated with iron rust, and filled up with salt water. Far inland too, the pools are salt; and not a vegetable, but the cactus here and there, is seen to root in the rock. Seaward, however, the eye is relieved by a few patches of mangrove, which have begun to fringe the desolate place with green. [Reproduced here.]
Marine Iguana

I also found this interesting use of the term: "Trolls were always imps of darkness. They are descended from the Jotuns, or Frost-Giants of Northern paganism, and they correspond to the Panis, or night-demons of the Veda. In many Norse tales they are said to burst when they see the risen sun. They eat human flesh, are ignorant of the simplest arts, and live in the deepest recesses of the forest or in caverns on the hillside, where the sunlight never penetrates." [From Myths and Myth-Makers: Old Tales and Superstitions Interpreted by Comparative Mythology by John Fiske, 1872]

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Moby Dick

Whale bones
As we toured in the Galapagos, we often thought about whales. One day, we watched a small pod of whales as they were spouting and flipping their tails some distance from the ship. Another day we saw these bones.

After I came back, I decided for several reasons that I would read Moby Dick. One reason was that Melville, on one of his voyages, had been in the Galapagos. Another reason was that simply being in the Galapagos makes one think about what the world might have been like before human alteration of the environment -- seeing mile-long sand beaches inhabited only by sea lions, as I've said, is thought-provoking. (This despite the fact that the Galapagos have been altered substantially, and great effort is going into reversing the damage.)

The ocean used to be infinite -- but the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico brings home how vulnerable the vast seas now have become. Moby Dick is about the vastness of the sea -- yet another impetus that led me to read it.

I don't read Moby Dick as a simple ecological allegory (like Dr.Seuss's The Lorax). I enjoyed the opposition between the physical demands of whaling and the obsession of Ahab. I enjoyed the encyclopedic depiction of whales as whales, as illustrated in my yellowing Modern Library edition by Rockwell Kent. I think it flattens the complex novel to see it as making a political point.

Today's New York Times includes an article that explores what connections can be made between Moby Dick and the Gulf oil spill. The article states: "The novel has served over the years as a remarkably resilient metaphor for everything from atomic power to the invasion of Iraq to the decline of the white race ... . Now, 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, its themes of hubris, destructiveness and relentless pursuit are as telling as ever."

Randy Kennedy, author of the article, suggests how sometimes the connections are anachronistic or exaggerated. However, he elaborates quite a few of them. BP, suggests Kennedy, plays the role of Ahab. He notes an "analogy between the relentless hunt for whale oil in Melville’s day and for petroleum in ours." He also cites many past authors who have tried to use Melville's work to advance what they have to say about various environmental issues. It's an interesting article, but I think the application of Moby Dick diminishes Melville's accomplishment.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Enchanted Islands

Before modern mapmaking, the Galapagos Islands were also known as The Encantadas, or Enchanted Islands. In looking a little further for information and history of the islands, I read several sketches published by Herman Melville in 1854 and reprinted here.

Melville explained the enchantment in several ways:

Indeed, there are seasons when currents quite unaccountable prevail for a great distance round about the total group, and are so strong and irregular as to change a vessel's course against the helm, though sailing at the rate of four or five miles the hour. The difference in the reckonings of navigators produced by these causes, along with the light and variable winds, long nourished a persuasion that there existed two distinct clusters of isles in the parallel of the Encantadas, about a hundred leagues apart. Such was the idea of their earlier visitors, the Buccaneers; and as late as 1750 the charts of that part of the Pacific accorded with the strange delusion. And this apparent fleetingness and unreality of the locality of the isles was most probably one reason for the Spaniards calling them the Encantada, or Enchanted Group.

But ... the modern voyager will be inclined to fancy that the bestowal of this name might have in part originated in that air of spellbound desertness which so significantly invests the isles. Nothing can better suggest the aspect of once living things malignly crumbled from ruddiness into ashes. Apples of Sodom, after touching, seem these isles.

However wavering their place may seem by reason of the currents, they themselves, at least to one upon the shore, appear invariably the same: fixed, cast, glued into the very body of cadaverous death.

Nor would the appellation “enchanted” seem misapplied in still another sense. For concerning the peculiar reptile inhabitant of these wilds—whose presence gives the group its second Spanish name, Gallipagos—concerning the tortoises found here, most mariners have long cherished a superstition not more frightful than grotesque. They earnestly believe that all wicked sea officers, more especially commodores and captains, are at death (and in some cases before death) transformed into tortoises, thenceforth dwelling upon these hot aridities, sole solitary lords of Asphaltum.
Melville's sketches are fascinating. Above all, he conveys the highly negative view that the voyagers of his time mainly held. He refers to various islands with words like these: "woebegone landscape," "a dead desert rock," "grim cliffs," and "one of the most northerly of the group, so solitary, remote, and blank, it looks like No-Man's Land seen off our northern shore."

During our tours of the various islands, I was constantly attempting to grasp and imagine the vast difference in point of view between us modern tourists (on our luxury cruise boat) and the early mariners, often searching for fresh food and water, or a place to repair a storm-damaged ship. Melville creates vivid images for my poor imagination.

I plan to explore more of the words of early observers, attempting to comprehend the differences between their views and mine. I've found a website of reference material here, especially with a compilation of early texts (including Melville's).

Monday, June 07, 2010

Galapagos Wildlife: Above Water

Darwin’s finches are no doubt the most famous birds in the Galapagos, because of the role they played in his great book. Darwin finch
(Slightly off-topic: Len has found large numbers of bird photos in Flickr labeled Darwin's Finches that are in fact other species, such as mockingbirds, warblers, or flycatchers. Whatever.)

The giant tortoises -- different species on almost every island -- might be more famous than the finches. For centuries, whalers and pirates loaded them onto their ships where they survived, thanks to their adaptation to the unfavorable conditions of the islands. As a result they were a perfect way to carry fresh meat on a long sea voyage. The tortoise populations of some islands went extinct from this practice -- and the survivors were then threatened by introduced goats, rats, dogs, and cats. Most turtle breeding is now done at the Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz Island.

Giant tortoise

The most famous giant tortoise of all is named Lonesome George. He lives in the Darwin Center in a kind of leisurely retirement. George is the last member of the tortoise species that once inhabited Pinta Island. The tortoise above is similar, but the photo is not George.

Penguins are the most unexpected species: who would think of seeing a penguin in a mangrove swamp?
Penguin On more than one zodiac tour, penguins sat right next to the water’s edge as our boat came up for all of us photographers to snap a close-up.

Every day in the islands we saw new wildlife, often up very close. Many species that are normally not very approachable ignore human presence. A type of mockingbird that lives only on Espanola Island, for example, has learned that humans carry water in their packs.

Mockingbird looking for water If you leave your pack on the beach near where you are sitting -- a normal thing to do -- the mockingbird will light on your pack and peer inside or will sip a drop of water from the lid of your bottle. (Incidentally, Darwin observed the differences in Galapagos mockingbird species before he got onto the finches, but that’s a long story.)

Other birds throughout the islands are also very unafraid. The blue-footed booby does a mating dance or sits on a lava rock above the ocean as boats go close by.Blue footed boobies, mating dance

The male frigate bird inflates his neck into a huge red balloon hoping to impress the ladies; they often soar right overhead.

On a rocky area of a wide sandy beach at Espanola Island, an oystercatcher plunged his beak into the wet sand almost at our feet.

Swallow-tail gulls nest next to the trail at South Plaza Island: one chick was sitting on the base of a signpost.Baby Swallow-Tail Gull

Brown noddy terns, other gulls and terns, and stormy petrels are everywhere. The terns fly around the boat, perch on rocky outcroppings, and sometimes perch on ropes or rails of the boat. The petrels dance on the water, tilting their wings and dipping up the small bits of plankton.

Most amusing was a flightless cormorant on Isabella Island. He came up to our Zodiac to peck at the ropes: I looked him right in the eye, at a distance of around 8 inches. A few minutes earlier as we snorkeled, we had watched him diving down and catching an urchin. We didn't get a photo of this one, but here are some others:

Flightless cormorants

Brown pelicans beg fish at the fish market in Puerto Ayora every day, or perch right near other human activity. Finches, doves, flycatchers, and warblers flit through the trees and land near the trail, or flock onto the trail right in front of the hikers. At close range, we saw a hawk that had caught a rat. Only the flamingos kept a big distance between the trail and where they were feeding in the shallows, but they may have been driven by the tide, not by the sight of us. Herons, egrets and shore birds were also a bit shyer, though easier to see than similar birds at home.

Our last hike passed an entire field of albatross, along with some hidden in the undergrowth almost on the trail. Nesting and breeding albatross
Some were doing their mating dance, at least one was sitting on an egg, and others were soaring overhead. With their large wingspan, these may have been the most impressive birds we saw during our tour.

Other species besides birds are also bold and fearless. Male land iguanas puff up and shake their heads in a territory dispute a few feet from the marked trail, or sun themselves right on the trail. Small lizards lie on rocks or dart across the path. Sea lions line the shore and pay no attention when people walk among them. Fur sea-lions (once called Galapagos Seals) were a bit less tame, though we did watch from the Zodiac as a large group of babies were playing in a shallow rocky area. Only the rice rats are elusive – the only one we saw was dead, lying in a small crevasse between two lava rocks.Dead Rice Rat

Giant tortoises roaming in the highland areas are probably unable to notice a human until one comes right up in front of them: all they do is draw their heads into their shells. Tortoises in the corrals in the research areas are accustomed to people walking right up to them, and distance is maintained only by the admonishments of the naturalists.

Sea animals on shore are a bit more skittish. Colorful crabs scurry down the rocks when people come towards them, and ghost crabs tend to stay in their holes. Sally Lightfoot Crab
Sea turtles reenter the water if you catch them basking in the sand: odd, as they are less nervous on the beaches in Hawaii. We observed a small eel trapped in a tidepool right at our feet, but he was actually eager to get back into the sea.

In contrast, stinky marine iguanas totally ignore humans. Dozens of them pile up to warm themselves on sand or rocks and don’t move at all when humans walk nearby. Marine Iguanas All they do is snort salt out of the gland on their heads that allows them to drink seawater while munching on sea plants. Their scaly black and red skin, strange faces, long claws, and fringed ridge along the back make them look like the evil imps in a fairy tale. Actually, they are harmless vegetarians.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

The People of the National Geographic Islander

Some of the crew

I'm posting a large number of photos at Flickr now -- for more go HERE. Above is a photo of a few of the large crew and staff of our ship, the National Geographic Islander. The boat carried 47 passengers and around 31 crew and staff the week we traveled, and makes approximately the same itinerary each week.

Our expedition leader, Jason, organizes and leads the tours and makes presentations about activities and wildlife. Jason is an American who married an Ecuadorian woman from Quito. They moved to Galapagos 18 years ago to work in the tourist industry. He has been a dive master and a naturalist, and hosted other types of excursions. His staff includes three naturalists: Alexa, Gilda, and Graciella -- they are on the top of the pyramid in the photo, along with the wellness coordinator, Mirella. All Galapagos naturalists are Ecuadorians who have appropriate educational background, languages, and a 3-month naturalists’ course in the islands’ unique wild life and how to show tourists around.

Above all, Galapagos naturalists have a responsibility to insist on compliance with the rules that protect the environment from ignorant or thoughtless actions by their guests. They see that each guest stays on the trail, leaves all natural objects in place, and avoids disturbing the birds, iguanas, tortoises, and so on. They provide lots of gentle reminders that this is a national park and marine reserve and must be treated with respect. They also help with the onboard presentations about Galapagos human history and natural history.

The ship’s crew includes those who run the boat: the captain, his maintenance and navigation staff, and the chief engineer. Even these men interact with the tourists, as the bridge is always open.
One can go in and ask questions about the equipment, take photos, and check what’s on the radar, sonar, GPS, etc. One of our boat acquaintances noticed a dense spot on the radar, for example, that turned out to be a large mass of fish attracting flocks of diving birds, a school of dolphins, and even tuna; at his suggestion the navigator on the bridge steered the boat in that direction so that passengers could watch this feeding frenzy.

Four crew members drive the ship’s Zodiac boats, usually called pangas. These men are very skilled in maneuvering through ocean swell, into mangrove swamps, beside the towering lava cliffs, and among snorkelers who need to be picked up. They help the naturalists to identify interesting birds perching on the rocks or sea lions and turtles swimming under the water. They also help to winch the Zodiacs up to the top deck in the evening, making them ready for travel on the ship during its long overnight crossings between islands. They lower them in the morning for tours of the lava cliffs, trips into town, snorkeling trips, or accompanying kayakers.

Finally there’s the hotel staff. The chief of staff is Alexandra. The head chef reports to her, and she also oversees room cleaning, occasional sales of trinkets and tee shirts, and the general maintenance of public and private onboard accommodations.

The head chef is a pleasant man: he wears a tall pleated white hat. There’s also a pastry chef and chef for main courses. Kitchen workers cook, bake, prepare fruit and vegetables, wait tables at dinner, stock the buffet at lunch and breakfast, tend bar, clear tables, wash dishes, and generally keep up with the three big meals and two or three snacks served each day. On the last night we discovered that they also do cute skits and the pastry chef sings Latin American songs.

Hotel staff also includes a doctor who travels with the boat (he's second from left in the bottom of the pyramid in the photo), a masseuse who also leads a stretching class every morning before breakfast (see photo), and of course the maids who clean rooms, wash piles of towels and bed linen, and also sometimes work at kitchen tasks.

Some tasks are picked up by any staff member who happens to be nearby when needed. We’ve been helped up from the panga to the ship’s ladder by the captain, by the doctor, by the expedition leader, by a naturalist, or by a crew worker. Ask anyone how to get towels or a plastic bag and they’ll poke around until you are served. Also, the chief engineer, the expedition leader, and one of the naturalists have at various times joined our table for dinner, and they are always friendly and ready for interesting conversations. It’s an amazing level of service, and obviously the overall philosophy of the cruise ship is to make every passenger happy and well fed at all times.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Watching the Sun

On the equator, sunrise and sunset come and go very quickly, but often beautifully. Because the water was not perfectly smooth, and there was often mist or clouds, we had no hope of seeing the famous green flash -- despite many trips to the tropics, we have seen this phenomenon only once: in San Diego!

Above, when I got up to the deck around 7 AM, the sun was still behind the volcanic island on the horizon; then it appeared:

Sunset from the same deck:

Immediately after sunset, the full moon appeared from behind the island on the other side of the boat; however, I was unable to capture the moon in a photograph.

During the day, the sun could beat down quite strongly, but the temperatures we experienced on our various hikes were not as hot as we would have expected. Our cruise usually didn't plan hikes for the heat of the day, but earlier and later.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010