Fearless in the Galapagos:
In the Galapagos Ecuadorean eco-cops and the jagged lava rocks themselves never let you forget that the land is the animals’ — we the visitors. We tread gingerly at prescribed times, on prescribed trails. The group I’m with doesn’t look as much as photograph. How odd we are with massive black cameras protruding from our bellies. But the red-footed boobies with their turquoise encircled eyes and the crusty Christmas iguanas and splashy bright crabs clinging to black lava do not even acknowledge us, do not look in our direction, see no reason to move, no cause to give way. It’s humbling.
I think of the island the Dutch found four hundred years ago, Manhattan, my home of 1.6 million people, formerly home to wildcats and elk, wolves and beavers, eagles, bitterns, swans, cranes and foot long oysters. How quickly Europeans put all that to use, draining and dyking wetlands to create farmland, killing bear and wolves considered a threat to the livestock and colonists, decimating the beaver population for a particular fashion of felt hat. In 1625 P. Schaghen documented the cargo of a ship returning to Amsterdam from New Netherland: 7246 beaver skins, 178 1/2 otter skins, 675 otter skins, 48 mink skins, 36 wildcat skins, 33 minks, 34 rat skins. It is this letter that also reported the purchase of “the Island Manhattes from the Indians for the value of 60 guilders.”
Ownership leading to exploitation was centuries underway in America and elsewhere when Darwin arrived on the Galapagos in 1835. As he explored the islands, he raised a rifle at a hawk and gradually approached. The hawk stared blankly back. Darwin found himself next to the hawk and nudged it along a branch with the barrel of his gun, whereupon even before his revelations about finch beaks and evolution, he knew he’d found a different world, a world without fear.
Here I wander among sea lions and iguanas and blue-footed boobies, taking photos of beaks and eyes and whiskers with no need for a zoom. Hundreds of sea lions, flank to flank, soak up the sun along stretches of fine sand. Abundance is thrilling not threatening. I hold a tete a tete with a sleek one that barks–a sound like a long throaty belch—and watch a female roll on her back in the sun as her baby bumps up against her and finds a teat. I could touch the purple black feathers of male frigates sitting in bushes with bloated red gular sacs whirring eerily and opening their enormous wings to attract the females who fly overhead, checking them out. I swim with white-tipped sharks and hammerheads, which have plenty of food and don’t need to eat me. One early morning we come across a weighty sea turtle nesting in the sand, her shell more than three feet long. She has just laid her eggs and will leave them behind, maybe a hundred buried in the sand. They’ll hatch and live off a yolk sack for a month, exposed and vulnerable without her. Only one in a thousand baby sea turtles survives. This female gets up, her hard jaw smudged with sand. Her round, bland eyes show no sign of registering our presence, as if the ring of onlookers, some kneeling for close-ups, were flotsam on her beach. She waddles steadily, her flippers workable but the motion laborious, left, right, twenty feet straight down the beach to the water without a backward glance, leaving regular ridges in the sand like tire tracks of an SUV.
When I was a kid the closest I got to nature was a hemlock forest in the Pocono Mountains where we spent a few weeks each summer. As we turned off the main road and grumbled onto a dirt one, my brother and I would hop out of the car, pull down the tailgate and ride the rest of the way sitting back there, chucking rocks and dragging our Keds in the mud. We’d stare into the forest, breathe the heady smell of ferns, and scan for bear and fox and coyotes among wild rhododendrons and naked branches in the dark under story. Once we caught sight of a coyote, which paused for a moment to stare back at us before catching the scent of danger and trotting nimbly down a bank, out of view. Hints of bear were limited to overturned trash barrels and mauled bits of tin foil. For the most part, fear kept wildlife out of sight.
In the Galapagos I kneel to watch a twelve-day-old Nazca booby sitting in the shade of its mother’s breast; I witness an older chick all white fluff and aggression, plunging its head into its mother’s throat to grab digested fish. I see a male swallow tailed gull alight on the back of a female and mate in a matter of sixty seconds; she crouches there, his red feet on her shoulders, wings spread high, her head down till she turns it upward with a high pitched weee, weee weee; he pays no attention, beats his wings, takes off. Because we can see these acts, they matter and matter now. That frail, featherless chick killed its sibling, one always does, always two eggs, one survivor. The elder pushes the younger from the nest where it starves or dies of thirst and the parents do nothing. If the elder never hatches or dies for some reason, the younger serves as backup. These life and death incidents, this feeding and preying and surviving, assume enormous importance. We watch reverently or take photos to display our reverence upon returning to New York, where April bulbs underground are beginning to nudge the soil, earthworms slink across sidewalks in the rain, geese return and litter riverside parks. Little is seen, and little matters.
Galapago iguanas came from South America on floating rafts of vegetation. Marine iguanas, like this one, are the only lizards in the world to venture into the sea for food. Its feet are not webbed, but the huge tail acts as a propeller as the iguana feeds on seaweed and algae, eliminating excess salt by spurting water from its nostrils. Predators include herons and hawks, but populations are strong, and some individuals live to age 60. This male Espanola iguana, nicknamed “Christmas iguana” for obvious reasons, has especially bright colors to attract females during breeding season.
The female Pacific Green Sea Turtle plods laboriously back to the water, only venturing on land to lay her eggs. Larger than the males, females weigh about 300 pounds with shells over three feet long.
Bartolome Islet, named after Darwin’s naturalist friend Sir Bartholomew James Sullivan, is one of 18 volcanic islands in the archipelago. The tall arrow-head structure, called Pinnacle Rock, derived its shape from erosion and the U.S. Air Force, which during World War II used the island as target practice, dropping bombs filled with sand. The island was also the site for the filming of Master and Commander.
Saw-toothed black lava shores are not conducive to human landing, farming, even walking.
Author conducting a tete a tete with a male sea lion. He suggested the territory belongs to him.
Sea lions can regulate their temperature by merely raising a flipper out of the water to warm in the sun since capillaries are close to the surface. Resting and conserving energy on warm sand, this sea lion absorbs some extra heat.
Although sea lions waddle awkwardly on land, their back flippers affording only aquatic agility, they assume a regal presence, statuesque at times.
With few feathers to protect it from the sun, this 12-day old Nazca booby takes shelter under its mother’s breast.
Small and stream-lined, the red-footed booby can fly for 90 miles in search of food and plunge deep into the water, wings wrapped tight around the body, to spear fish with its narrow bill.
Frigatebirds build nests in bushes, often from sticks stolen from other birds. In a similar vein, they sometimes steal food right out of the mouths of boobies and tropicbirds while in flight.
Caroline Sutton’s essay, “Brushing By,” appeared in Wild River Reviewin July 2011. Her work has also been published in North American Review, Cimarron Review, and Tampa Review, among others. Southern Humanities Review>nominated her essay, “Eclipsed,” for this year’s Pushcart Prize and selected that essay to receive the Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award for best essay to appear in SHR in 2012. Formerly an editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons and Hilltown Press, Sutton currently teaches high school English in New York.