Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Turtle Recall

After coming down from the high that was the Galapagos Islands, and reviewing our 500 pictures of turtles, it's time to reflect upon the honeymoon.

Up until a few months ago, all I knew about the Galapagos Islands was that Chuck Darwin hung out there for awhile, studied some wildlife, and subsequently developed the theory of evolution. It never occurred to me that the islands were a place that people could actually go visit until we started researching Ecuador and realized that a trip to this exotic location was actually in the realm of possibility. We're considering this entire Ecuadorian/South American adventure an extended honeymoon, but since it's not everyday that we have the opportunity to prove to ourselves that something called a blue-footed booby actually exists, we decided to treat ourselves to a honeymoon within a honeymoon and booked an 8 day Galapagos cruise.

Booking the trip was a little bit stressful as there are a lot of different cruise options, and even the cheapest ones are pretty pricey. Luckily, since September is considered the off season, we were booking very last minute, and we were already in Ecuador, we were able to book a cruise on a beautiful 16 person motor yacht for nearly half price. Don't get me wrong, the amount we paid was still high enough to cause beads of sweat to accumulate on my ever-growing brow, but somewhere between snorkeling with playful sea lion pups and witnessing a Magnificent Frigatebird inflate it's red throat pouch to the size of a birthday balloon in the hopes of attracting a mate (I'll spare you the intimate details, but he succeeded), I decided that the price tag was more than justified.

A trip to the Galapagos is essentially a journey back in time to when your elementary science classes had you telling your parents that you wanted to be a marine biologist, geologist, or veterinarian when you grew up. It's impossible not to be excited by what you see and learn in this magical place. I'll get into the science of it all in a moment, but the main selling points of the trip include wildlife that is literally unfazed by your presence meaning you can get closer than you would ever imagine, exotic and downright weird species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, and other-worldly volcanic landscapes that give you a pretty good idea of what it would be like to walk on Mars.

The Galapagos Islands are located in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador and are situated on a hot spot of volcanic activity. The islands are actually the tips of numerous volcanoes that are constantly being created and shifted slightly east towards the South American coast. Therefore, the eastern islands are the oldest, and the western islands are relatively new in geological terms. The word "new" has a slightly skewed meaning in a place where the maximum lifespan of the tortoises cannot be exactly pinned down due to the fact that whoever decides to start keeping track will inevitably die well before the tortoise. The islands were essentially created by magma bubbling out of the earth's crust underwater, hardening into solid land and gradually forming these gigantic volcanoes. Since the islands essentially just appeared on their own and didn't break off from the mainland, it is expected that the distant evolutionary cousins of the native wildlife somehow got blown off course to these islands and adapted into an entirely new species in order to survive in this strange, volcanic landscape. 

Basically, a really long time ago, a distant ancestor of the Marine Iguana was sleeping on his favorite beach-side log and woke up to realize that the log had drifted out to sea and he was now floating in the middle of the ocean without the evolutionary ability to swim. After convincing himself this was not a nightmare, he sucked it up, slowed down his metabolism, and survived the 600 mile impromptu raft ride to the Galapagos. Upon finding himself on a relatively desolate island largely covered in solidified lava rather than soil, he learned to eat cactus despite the uncomfortable sensation on the roof of his mouth (I learned a similar lesson with Captain Crunch cereal as a child), and taught himself to swim so he could eat algae off of the ocean floor. Each of the endemic species has a similar story. The Galapagos Penguin figured out how to keep himself cool enough to maintain his status as the only penguin living north of the equator. The Flightless Cormorant devolved in a way, losing the ability to fly in favor of the ability to dive deep into the nutrient rich waters for his meals. The Galapagos Blog Reader evolved to skip to the next paragraph once he started reading too many tedious details about animals that he had never heard of.

For any animal that could not fly or swim, the only way to get to the island was to hitch a ride on a piece of floating debris and stick out the 600 mile journey. Since mammals don't really have the ability to slow down their metabolism long enough to survive the journey, herbivorous reptiles are the largest land based species resulting in a lack of natural predators on the islands. The reason I'm still going on about all of this scientific mumbo jumbo is to provide an explanation for the fact that most animals in the Galapagos have no reason to be afraid of any other animal. There is no risk of being eaten. This ability to get up close and personal without activating any evolutionary alarm systems is what made the trip so incredible. We were able to watch the Marine Iguana and Flightless Cormorant eat algae off the ocean floor while we snorkeled only a couple of feet away. A curious adolescent sea lion found a way to board our boat and playfully posed for pictures before we had to shoo him away after he tried to enter the cabin.

Close encounters with animal species that we never even knew existed became part of the daily routine. Each morning and/or afternoon there was an excursion to a rocky, hardened lava landscape where we would get within feet of rare birds, 600 pound tortoises, or Marine Iguanas huddled in piles to keep themselves warm while periodically launching salt water out of their nostrils to cleanse themselves from their last underwater foraging excursion. The islands are also a hotbed of sea life due to a unique combination of ocean currents that brings nutrient rich deep ocean water to the surface. So when we weren't exploring the geological features and land-based wildlife, we were snorkeling so close to sea lions, giant sea turtles, sting rays, sharks, and penguins that we practically had to dodge them. 

All in all, for two nature-loving newlyweds, the Galapagos was an absolutely ideal honeymoon. In the interest of brevity I won't go into the details of our guide, crew, and fellow passengers, but they also played a huge role in making our honeymoon absolutely perfect. I will say that there was one family on board the cruise that made a lasting impression on us. They had decided to take a year off work and home-school their children (ages 8 and 10) for a year so that they could travel around the world. This reassured us that there is always a way to make room for adventure in our lives. And judging by how intelligent, funny, and outgoing their children's probably best for everybody to veer off the beaten path every once in awhile.

- Brian

1 comment:

  1. National Geographic just ran a special on the islands. They look like something from another world - absolutely beautiful! Glad you were able to experience something so awesome!