MS Blazer Buzz 16 April

This week's highlight: Ecuador and Galápagos Islands Spring Break 2012

While Charles Darwin may be the most famous visitor to the Galápagos Islands, a group of Woodlawn students had the opportunity to follow in his footsteps as they explored the islands over spring break.

In 1835, Darwin dropped anchor in a cove at San Cristóbal and observed the following:

As I was walking along I met two large tortoises, each of which must have weighed at least two hundred pounds; one was eating a piece of cactus, and as I approached, it stared at me and slowly walked away; the other gave a deep hiss, and drew in its head. These huge reptiles, surrounded by black lava, the leafless shrubs, and large cacti, seemed to my fancy as some antediluvian animals.

We were also in awe of the giant tortoises we first encountered on Floreana Island. But they were gentle giants when we met them. They seemed completely oblivious to our presence and just continued to munch on the local vegetation, yawn, and slowly crawl around us as we were trying to pose with them in numerous photographs.

We learned about the history of the giant tortoises and the other unique flora and fauna of the Galápagos Islands from a naturalist at the Charles Darwin Research Center on San Cristóbal Islands. The giant tortoises are believed to have reached the Galápagos Islands by floating from South America, which seems unbelievable. No one knows exactly what size they were when they first inhabited the islands. Because they had no natural predators before humans reached they islands they were able to grow quite old and quite large. In the past, the population of tortoises was estimated to be at around 250,000. But thousands were killed for food by buccaneers and whalers in the 18th and 19th centuries and now only an estimated 15,000 remain. Currently the greatest threat to the tortoises and other native flora and fauna are animals introduced by man that have turned feral and are devastating the natural ecology of the islands. Everything from goats, to pigs, rats, dogs and cats compete for the native animals’ food, devour turtle eggs, and baby land iguanas, erode the soil, and destroy plants. Fortunately a conservation program of breeding and hatching turtle eggs in captivity and then releasing them to their native islands seems to be successful.

While the giant tortoises may be the most famous of the Galápagos reptiles, we also saw many endemic marine black iguanas sunning themselves on the rocky volcanic shorelines of Isabela Island. These reptiles have adapted to the ocean and are able to dive up to 40 feet deep to feed on seaweed. We also spotted a few land iguanas, distinguishable from their marine relatives by their larger size and yellowish coloring, and we came across many smaller lava lizards.

We spent our afternoons on the islands snorkeling alongside playful sea lions, penguins, and many colorful schools of fish, while blue-footed boobies observed us from the rocky coast. The penguins that live on the islands are the most northerly penguin species, probably coming from the south on the icy Humboldt Current. The blue-footed booby got its name from the Spanish word bobo (dunce) by early sailors, who were amazed that the birds would not fly away when approached by humans. We also observed many more Galápagos birds, including a variety of Darwin’s finches, the magnificent frigate, and the greater flamingo.

Back in Quito, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, we gained an appreciation for the people, culture and history of Ecuador. We strolled through the historic district, visited several beautiful churches, tasted the native foods and fruits, and shopped at the local markets. We also visited Monasterio del Carmen Alto. The nuns who join this monastery devote their life to their faith and never leave the building. They do, however, produce a range of beauty products including shampoos, hand creams, rose water and natural remedies. We were quite intrigued by their products and purchased a few for us by means of a revolving door to preserve the nuns’ isolation. Another highlight of our time in Quito was a taxi ride to the Museo Guayasamín perched high up on a hillside overlooking the city. Oswaldo Guayasamín is the country’s best-known artist. His work is considered both provocative and political, representing the struggles and sufferings of indigenous people. Our excursions outside of Quito included a tour of a historic hacienda, a hike to the base of Volcán Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s 2nd highest peak at 19,347 feet and one of the world’s highest active volcanoes, and a walk on the equator at the quirky Museo Solar Inti Ñan.

From sea level to the highest peaks, it was quite a wondrous and adventurous trip. We hope that you will join us for another great adventure spring break 2013!
Pictures can be viewed here.
Contributed by Kim Lysne