Saturday, May 19, 2007

Galapagos sharks

Cindy and I saw these white-tip reef sharks on a trip to the Galapagos Islands this month. We felt no need to jump in and join them. There must have beeen ten of them sliding back and forth past each other in this channel. Nick White, our guide, said this is how they rest. A little later we went for a hike on one of the gorgeous unspoiled beaches and saw black-tip reef sharks riding the waves in and feeding in the shallows. Nick told us these sharks were "babies" and nothing to worry about. For some reason, it seemed perfectly natural a few minutes later to run into the surf down the beach and splash around in the waves. What were we thinking?

We did a lot of snorkeling in eight days in the islands. Young sea lions like to dart at you and zip away at the last second, which is enough to give you a heart attack. We saw no sharks while we were in the water. We were looking the other way when some in our group saw a Galapagos shark at a place called Kicker Rock. But there was some consolation on that dive. Some 15 feet below us, eight eagle rays lined up tip to tip like a squadron of fighter planes as they lazed along on the current. (Here's another white-tip.)

The Galapagos Islands are a possession of Ecuador and lie about 600 miles off the coast. They are relatively young volcanic islands, only about 800,000 to 5 million years old. Many of the species of animals and plants are unique in the world because they developed in isolation. There were 14 species of giant land tortoises unique to the islands, of which three have gone extinct from hunting and competition with introduced species (pigs, dogs, cats, goats and rats).

There are 13 species of finches that have squeezed into tiny ecological niches where they each specialize in a particular kind of food, and their beaks are shaped according to their specialty. The marine iguanas are unique as are the two species of land iguanas.

In the picture below, we're on the rim of Sierra Negra, an active volcano whose crater is 6 miles across.

Our hike up to the rim and down to a smaller cone that erupted in 2005 took us through an eerie landscape of twisted volcanic rocks and smooth lava flows. Lava sometimes forms tunnels when it hardens on top and the molten rock continues to flow through. One tunnel we went into was big enough to accommodate a subway train.

There are about 20,000 representatives of the species homo sapiens living on five of the islands, and about 100,000 others visit in seasonal migrations.

A New Yorker cartoon shows two dolphins, and one says to the other, "My dream is to swim with a middle-aged couple from Connecticut." That describes about half of the tourist market for the islands. Then there is a mix of Europeans, a few Australians and Kiwis, and young backpackers. Not a lot of Latin Americans.

We spent eight days traveling with this group and had a lot of fun with them. Guides Enrique and Nick are in the back. Our group included coincidentally another couple from Baltimore, two med students from New York City, four Brits, a German, a Canadian and Lonesome Larry (not pictured), a pulmonologist from New York. We stayed on four of the islands. Many tourists stay on cruise ships that carry anywhere from a dozen to more than a hundred passengers.

Frigate birds patrol the sky above the harbor.

We liked the crabs.

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