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  • Writer's pictureTom

All creatures great and small

Updated: Apr 20

It is said that first impressions last longest. If this were true then, for San Cristobal, our lasting memory will be of sealions. They were everywhere. Sunbathing on the cardinal buoys during our approach, around the boat as we dropped anchor and all over the pier where the water taxi brings you ashore. They are noisy, smelly (they like rolling in their partner's excrement) but so graceful in the water. A sugar scoop transom also makes an excellent sunbathing platform so barricades are important.
There are three ways to get around the island. There is one road from the port up to the highlands (where the first settlements were established and where there is now a popular tortoise breeding centre) and taxis ply this route. There are several walks from Puerto Moreno but the island is too big to be explored solely on foot. Therefore, to reach places not on the single road and too far from the port to reach on foot, there are boat trips around the island, stopping at the best beaches, rocks and interesting places. The best short to medium walks start at the Interpretation centre. There is a short hike to a vantage point above the harbour with nice views, and a further one hour hike to a secluded beach with good snorkelling. Alternatively, visit Punto Lido where you can go swimming with the sealions. Perhaps 'with' is an exaggeration. You swim in an area where there are sealions. The sealions do not try to interact but you can find yourself quite close to them.

Currently, my adult children are voicing more and more concern about social injustices, particularly in the UK. Sometimes, I feel revolution is in the air. Here, in the Galapagos, it is not revolution we are interested in exploring, rather evolution. Personally, we feel more comfortable with that, probably because we are not pirates (no aarghhh).
The beach where Darwin came ashore from HMS Beagle is known as El Jardin de Opuntias and is a two and a half hour walk from the port (each way). It is far enough that we had the trail entirely to ourselves save for an encounter with a team from California State University who were studying the evolution of finches. But wait. Was it not finches that Darwin used to illustrate evolution? Yes, it was. He recorded fourteen varieties where the main variant was the shape of their beak, the tool they use to get food. He hypothesised that the beak evolved to the optimum shape for the specific main food source in the area where the finches lived. Some could access cactus sap, crack nuts or find insects, etc.
So why are finches still being studied?
Darwin believed that evolution took a long time. Tiny incremental changes over multiple generations. However, the Galapagos are a perfect natural laboratory. With plentiful food sources and few native predators, reproduction cycles are shortened. So evolution can happen faster. In 2005 Peter and Rosemary Grant published a seminal paper, 'The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time' where they demonstrated evolution within a human lifetime. An 'El Nino event' could change the climate for a few years; affecting the food sources. They could measure changes in beak shape to match. They also showed that the natural selection was not just about ability to get food; but that the females preferentially mated with males with similar sized beaks. (I will refrain from the 'size matters' reference). Today, 'Natural selection in real time' is a hot topic with the California State team having joined the bandwagon.
In 'El jardin' we also saw a carpenter bee. It looks like and acts like bees we are used to seeing in Europe but with one difference: it is all black. I had not expected to find one like it before New Zealand!
Evolution is evident in that other animal synonymous with the Galapagos, the Giant tortoise. There were fourteen variants, now reduced to eleven thanks to the appetite of the whalers and other sailors who visited the islands.
Today it is a non-native species, the rat, which is their biggest threat. We visited the breeding centre which was established in the Highlands area. I considered renting bikes to get there but Annick was not so keen. She found a review from a group of fit young Scottish lads who tried this (they regretted their decision and were relieved when they found a truck to take them and their bikes back to the port). We took a taxi.
The same taxi tour takes in the volcano in the centre of the island. It is a one hour hike up to and around the rim

We bumped into many interesting creatures on our hikes to various beaches (we like snorkelling and hiking), including this lizard with a red underside.

But probably the highlight of the stay on San Cristobal has been the diving. We dived Whale rock to the east with an abundance of fish, rays (eagle, manta and stingrays), turtles and sharks. We even saw an octopus. (Refer also to pictures on our snorkelling and diving page). However, the best known location is Kicker Rock. It is, of course, a boat trip to get there. There was plenty of entertainment from Dolphins along the way

Dolphins with Kicker Rock in the background.

There is an underwater 'ridge' which extends from Kicker rock and is a magnet for fish, turtles and all kinds of sharks. On the way, our guide explained the hand signs he would use to point out what we might see. Two fists placed on the head: A hammerhead shark. Hands flat together, pivoting where they touch: an eagle or sting ray, etc. Then he mimed using a tin opener: tuna! The first dive was slightly disappointing. Yes, we encountered a number of white tip and black tip sharks and a solitary turtle.

Photo courtesy of Galapagos Diving (who filmed our dive)

We also struggled a bit achieving neutral buoyancy as the water temperature varied wildly over short distances. As a result we used our air inefficiently and the dive was over in half an hour. But the second dive made up for everything. We descended through a shoal of millions (literally) of tightly packed fish, all holding position along that nutrient rich ridge. Resting on the ridge, holding onto the rock we watched the predators glide by. Several 'ordinary' sharks. But then the moment everyone had been hoping for. Three hammerhead sharks appeared, probably less than twenty metres from us.

Photo courtesy of Galapagos Diving (who filmed our dive)

They disappeared, then two more appeared. The experience may only have been for a matter of seconds, but, as once-in-a-lifetime experiences go, it was pretty special.

So, our lasting memory of San Cristobal will not be based on first impressions. The presence and smell of sealions may be memorable, but it cannot compare to that instantly recognisable silhouette of such a magnificent, yet endangered creature.

We said goodbye to San Cristobal yesterday and sailed overnight to Isla Isabela, the largest of the islands. Apologies for so many posts in such a short time, but now we are up to date again.

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