Monday, January 15, 2007

Logbook: Galapagos I

Galapagosi1On Thursday morning -- after my brief, rained-out foray onto the island the day before -- I was eager to embark on my first “excursion” and to see what the Galapagos have to offer. Because I had signed up for this cruise only a few days before sailing, all of the “optional tours” -- the “good” tours -- were already booked up. Accordingly, I would only be able to do the two “included” half-day tours. As you will read later on, this turned out not to be much of a deprivation after all, but at the time I was a little disappointed and was looking forward to making the most of my limited opportunities. So, as my group gathered on board for our tender ride to shore, I was excited to explore the Galapagos. On shore, we were split up into smaller groups of about a dozen each and loaded onto a number of small shuttle vans where each was joined by its appointed “naturalist guide.” As soon as we began to drive, I knew we were doomed. The naturalist guide in my van spoke very, very little English and we could barely understand her as she reviewed -- again -- the strict rules and recited a brief history of the islands.

After a fifteen minute drive up into the hills of the island we pulled into the “Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado” which is home to one of the projects to repopulate the island’s giant tortoises. Arriving at a pretty fancy “visitor center” we got off the bus and made a short -- perhaps 200 meter -- walk into the reserve where we came upon a small man-made pond with a couple of tortoises in its vicinity. The pitch goes something like this: At one time there were 300,000 tortoises on the island, but this population was decimated by evil sailors and pirates who took the animals to use as food while at sea. You see, tortoises can go weeks or months without eating so these evil men would put them in the holds of their ships and butcher them for fresh meat as needed over the long duration of their sea voyages. Due to their thoughtless activities, the sailors and pirates depleted the population to only some few thousand or so. Oh, by the way, the poor hapless people who subsequently made their homes on the islands also introduced species like dogs and cats whose natural instinct to eat the baby tortoises also had an adverse effect on the tortoise population.

Galapagosi2The sailors and pirates are long gone -- though the dogs and cats remain -- and the National Park has established several reserves to support and foster the tortoises making a come-back -- with the intention of repopulating them to their original number of 300,000. At ponds such as the one we were visiting, naturalists put food -- laced with vitamins, etc. -- out for the animals twice a day. You can imagine my surprise at finding our visit coincided with meal time when we were “fortunate” to catch sight of a couple of tortoises. We all snapped photos and were asked for questions. Genuinely interested, I asked “How do you know there were 300,000 tortoises on the islands?” The answer: “That’s what the research shows.” Okay, let me try again: “What is the benefit of repopulating all 300,000 tortoises?” Answer: “That was the original number.” Me: “Won’t artificially repopulating that many tortoises have a very large adverse impact on other species that are part of the eco-balance as it stands now?” No answer. What was I thinking? We had been brought to the park, given our view of two tortoises and told the canned speech. What more did we want? A few of my companions asked what I thought were reasonable -- actually surprisingly good -- questions and received similarly useless responses. After a little more time hanging out at the tortoise pond, we were loaded back on the vans and driven another 15 minutes to a place where we were to climb a small hill and have a sweeping view of the island. Upon arrival, we were informed that the path was muddy due to the rain and were asked if we wanted to climb up anyway. Oh, by the way, it is foggy and you won’t see much. With democracy in action -- you know, when two wolves and a sheep sit around voting what to have for dinner -- the van voted not to climb and we drove right back out of the parking area. The good news is that the snack bar at the refreshment stop was open, so people were able to get their drinks, souvenirs and post cards. Color me happy.

When we got back to town and the tender dock, the general mood was disappointed -- even marginally depressed. Spirits were raised when someone pointed out that it was just about time for afternoon tea (“With those yummy desserts!”) back on board ship and most folks made a run for the tender. I stayed in town and communed with the local sea lions for a while, took a repeat walk through the town then hopped a tender back to the ship. With half of my Galapagos exploration now complete, I had seen two tortoises and learned nothing. Not an auspicious beginning. Surely my excursion the next day would be better...

No comments: