Brilliant sunsets and sunrises chased us around the Galapagos, with one of the best falling upon us on the gorgeous island of Fernandina. A great sunset on its own is one thing, but when combined with a truly stunning landscape, it becomes something else entirely.
I wasn't even sure where I should point my camera while the sun was going down. Behind me, pelicans fought over fish. To my left, sea lions danced in the surf. In front of me, visitors scampered over the lavascape. I made myself dizzy spinning in circles trying to capture everything.
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The Galapagos hawk is the master of the island skies and one of the most impressive birds of prey I have ever encountered—in part because these birds, like many other residents of the these islands, are not afraid of human beings. When one swoops in low a few feet from your head, you'll undoubtedly end up the one shaking in your boots.
I saw only a few of these birds while in the Galapagos, but each sighting was something of a thrilling event. You'll have to be quick and savvy with your camera to come away with something decent while they're in flight, but the effort is well worth it.
It's amazing how close you can get to the wildlife in the Galapagos. So long as you keep a respectful distance and don't do anything silly, the turtles, tortoises, iguanas, sea lions, sharks, and birds will often allow you ample time to take as many photos as you like, or simply chill in their rarefied space. I was sitting on a volcanic overflow when this sea turtle swam up below me, stopped, and poked his head out of the water to say hello (that's what I'm telling myself, at any rate).
These marine iguanas get up early and wander down to the sea, where they feed on kelp and algae. They spend the afternoon boosting their body temperature by laying prone on the rocks, virtually helpless against predators like hawks and certain invasive species. So long as visitors don't get too close, they don't move. But test their boundaries, and you're likely to have your ankle nibbled. Not a good way to start your vacation.
You'll find these guys on many of the Galapagos Islands, so have your camera handy.
Whaling was once popular throughout the Galapagos because sperm whales frequented the deep, cool waters while feeding and breeding. The waters surrounding the Galapagos were the world's busiest until more fertile hunting grounds were found near Japan in 1819; by then, whalers had wrought devastation on entire populations of whales.
Fur sealing was equally destructive on the Galapagos; by the late 19th century, the Galapagos fur seal was extinct. Over a hundred-year period starting in the late 18th century, whalers killed more than 100,000 giant tortoises for food and oil, introduced invasive species to nearly all of the islands, and would have wiped out the rest had Abraham Gesner not discovered a way to distill kerosene from petroleum (decreasing dependance on whale and tortoise oil).
Many of the whales that wash ashore today died of natural causes, but their scarcity underlies the severity of destruction that humankind has brought to the Galapagos. It's important that we recognize our impact on the biosphere, support organizations attempting to bolster wildlife populations, and do what we can to ensure the survival of all endemic species.
Invasive species have plagued the Galapagos since humans first visited the islands. Their impact cannot be overstated; goats, dogs, cats, donkeys, rats, and ants destroy native habitat, food sources, eggs, and endemic species throughout the islands.
As more humans move to the Galapagos (currently more than 30,000 people are spread throughout the islands), the risk of introducing more dangerous species increases. We can all get involved with Galapagos conservation projects to do our part to ensure the long-term survival of native flora and fauna.
According to the Galapagos Conservancy, current initiatives (of the Galapagos National Park Service and other organizations to combat the problems of invasive species) include the following:
-Strengthening the inspection capabilities of the Galapagos Inspection and Quarantine System through improved training and equipment
-Expanding community monitoring projects to achieve greater participation of the local population in identifying and responding to new invasive species
-Strengthening education programs in schools and environmental education centers
-Completing goat eradication on the few remaining goat-inhabited islands
-Completing eradication of the freshwater tilapia from El Junco Lake on San Cristóbal
-Continuing humane sterilization programs for cats and dogs on inhabited islands
-Continuing eradication attempts of fire ants on priority small islands and in smaller infestations on larger islands