Feathery Island Days
Along the challenging rocky coastal trail of Santiago Island a sea lion bull, master of that particular stretch of shore, snorted acknowledgment. He grunted what sounded like a precautionary warning to the six oncoming bipeds and then turned his back. His harem ladies basked in the cloudy sunlight paying little heed. Clusters of small blackish marine iguanas piled together on the rocks and a green sea turtle was diving to eat just offshore. Brilliant orange Sally light-foot crabs daubed the dark rocks profusely.
Suddenly a dreadful roar rattled through every being in sight. A fully grown bachelor sea lion had hoisted ashore and approached one of the lounging harem ladies. There is nothing like the voluminous bellow of a sea lion bull greeting an interloper. Our guide advised us to stand still and remain quiet to experience this opportunity. Less than two yards in front of us the bull confronted the intruder and whacked him full-strength on the chest with the power of his mighty weight.
Again and again the infuriated bull sounded off and thumped the challenger frontally, their massive bodies colliding from hefty neck to flippers. The bachelor roared some responses but backed away several feet with each collision. A good stretch down the rocky beach the bull stopped at some invisible line demarcating his turf coincidentally and amusingly just beside the man-made post marking our trail. He spread his large self out possessively and did not even blink as the string of bipeds tiptoed quietly by and away.
Having grown familiar with small spiny black iguanas clustered along volcanic shore rocks, the first sighting of a land iguana was startling. Off the narrow trail a large male land iguana slid slow-motion through wild low bramble on Santa Cruz Island. Over a yard long, his ochre body and limbs were plump and slow moving. Nearby cactus pads showed bite marks from his feasting. Another large male I spotted with binoculars had a slashed tail, a scar marking the edge where half had been torn away. We watched several females digging industriously, showers of dry earth spraying past their rear feet from the mouths of burrows where they will lay their eggs.
On Santiago Island, goat and donkey droppings trail across the dry path, signs of mankind's lasting negative impact on the Galapagos. Feral survivors of domesticated animals abandoned there by men generations ago, wild goats, pigs, dogs, cats and donkeys, even horses and some cattle, are wary and careful not to be seen. One often has the uneasy feeling that their hidden eyes are on guard, watching from the untamed tangles of low foreground and distant volcanic rises. Along with rats and mice, these creatures have multiplied, wreaking serious damage on native flora and fauna on several islands. Sometimes they compete for available plants; others prey directly on the slower docile native populations. Every scatological heap is a sign of the imbalance and scourge of unseen animals introduced by men.
The contrast on the southern side of Santa Cruz Island is dramatic. The Charles Darwin Research Station and Galapagos National Park headquarters are located in the town of Puerto Ayora. A joint conservation effort is eliminating alien predatory animals and saving threatened native species.
The tortoise, whose population was decimated by pirates, colonizers, fishermen and other seafarers for centuries, is now the target of research, breeding and conservation. A haunting image is the life-size model of a wooden ship's hold crammed full of giant tortoises that were once used as live food storage, unfed and unwatered for six to eight months at sea. The realistic bloodied stump of a meaty front leg on the topmost tortoise greets the viewer who peers down into the dim interior. The archipelago's name, "galapagos" means giant tortoises. But only 10 of the 14 races remain, few living in the wild. Famous century-old Lonesome George, the last of his kind, resides in a walled sector at the station with two related female companions he does not appear to be interested in. Down the path protective shelters house a variety of young tortoises and incubating tortoise eggs in a long-term restoration effort.
Reptiles are the preponderant four-legged animals native to the islands, and they are related to South American creatures. Two-thirds of these reptiles, 17 of the 27 species found, are endemic to the Galapagos: giant tortoises, iguanas, lava lizards, and geckos (small lizards). Giant tortoises live on only two island groups of our globe: these Galapagos and the Seychelles located in the Indian Ocean. Marine iguanas are descendants of South American and Galapagos land iguanas. In addition, seven species of lava lizards and six species of geckos are endemic to the archipelago.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication