Boobies Delight and a Sea Lion in Distress

Today we saw Darwin?

By | June 12, 2005

Today we saw Darwin?s classroom, finally exploring San Cristobal island after days of teasing from the sea lions we pass on the way to the conference center. Early in the morning we packed into open air trucks that took us to a tortoise preserve, along the way seeing some of the 300 or so plant species that have invaded the island over the past two centuries. Each island has its own species of tortoise, and it is rumored that one robust specimen, named Harriet, is still alive somewhere in Australia after having had a personal encounter with Charles Darwin himself. The animals typically live more than a century. A few decades ago, the San Cristobal tortoises were thought to be extinct. Then people discovered a group of about 50, then 100 more, and eventually 300 tortoises were collected, moved, and nurtured into the 2,000-strong population of today. We chanced upon tortoise # 1141 on the pathway at the preserve. With a high number painted onto his carapace, he was young, about 30. Others off the trail were much larger, as was their excrement. The afternoon trip took us to a narrow outcropping of volcanic rocks, upon which an assemblage of animals displayed themselves as if doing a photo shoot for a travelogue. No sooner did we traverse the first set of rocks when, standing there preening, were two blue-footed boobies. Off to the left was a group of black iguanas, and as we walked on, we soon saw a frigate bird, and then another pair of boobies, nuzzling each other for our cameras. The absolute lack of fear of humans was surrealistic. I got so close to them all that I had to back away to fit them into the image field. After getting our fill of boobies, we came to a more open area where dozens of sea lions lolled about, frolicking and fighting, nursing and copulating, and letting out a continuous cacophony of belch-like bleats, shrieks, and rumbles. They went about their business oblivious to the 50+ biologists snapping photographs. Like the boobies, the sea lions seemed to be posing for us. The scene almost seemed staged or scripted. And then the unexpected happened. A guide suddenly yelled, ?Does anyone have a knife?? Since we had all come through airports, of course none of us did, but another guide had one. A sea lion had a rubber ring caught around its neck, sadly dispelling my belief that the tale of soda can plastic rings crippling seals was an urban legend. The two guides tackled the terrified animal, one holding its hindquarters with a towel, the other approaching with the knife. But the one with the knife had his back to another, quite large sea lion, moving in to aid his buddy. We yelled to warn the guide, and the hurt sea lion bolted, leaving us all to wonder what would happen to it. Some of the meeting attendees who?d taken a cruise earlier in the week had seen a beached sea lion choking from a similar noose. I?ll never throw out an intact six-pack holder again. Darwin noticed the passivity and seeming friendliness of the Galapagos species, the same lack of fear that we saw today. And he predicted what, to a limited extent, has happened, writing in the Voyage of the Beagle, ?We may infer from these facts, what havoc the introduction of any new beast of prey must cause in a country, before instincts of the indigenous inhabitants have become adapted to the stranger?s craft or power.? Native species have suffered some from introduced species, such as tortoise eggs eaten by rats, and several plant species eaten to near extinction by goats. The biggest threat to the unique spectrum of species on the Galapagos is, of course, ourselves. Tourism has grown from 2,000 to 3,000 visitors a year in 1970 to 100,000 today. But to me, this does not seem at all the sort of place that anyone and everyone visits. This isn?t Disney World, Vegas, or the Baseball Hall of Fame. I think that this special place exerts a certain selection of its own that only draws those with a deep love of nature, and would not try to change it. Every biologist should come here. It is every bit as awe-inspiring as I had imagined.

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