"" Writer's Wanderings: Galapagos Journal - Isabela Island, Urbina Bay

Monday, May 27, 2013

Galapagos Journal - Isabela Island, Urbina Bay

The afternoon on Isabela Island is spent at Urbina Bay. It is a wet landing this time where we take off shoes and sandals and slip over the side of the zodiac into the waters and onto the soft sand. We leave our snorkel equipment and wetsuits on the beach and follow our guide away from the beach to see what wildlife we can find on our short walk which should be about an hour to be followed by a snorkel in the waters off the beach.

Alexis points out the trails left in the tall grass and undergrowth by the large tortoises or land turtles. While we stand to listen, a flock of finches lands nearby. When Darwin explored the Galapagos, he found somewhere between 13-15 different kinds of finches which he studied from samples he collected. It was his opinion and part of his Origin of the Species work that the finches had adapted to the area and the change in the beaks of the finches were the proof. I prefer to think that a Creator made the beaks that way so that they would survive in the environment in which he placed them.

A few steps more and we find our first land turtle. It is sheltering under some bushes but sticks its head out to see what the commotion is on the trail. This one is apparently a female judging by the smaller size. The giant tortoises are probably the most famous of the inhabitants of the Galapagos. There are eleven subspecies that exist among the islands. They can live well past 100 years and weigh up to 500 pounds. 

We stop by a tree to learn that it is a dangerous botanical specimen—a poison apple tree. Alexis warns us that its leaves can cause us a great deal of irritation should we brush by it and for some people who might be allergic, it can be more serious. There are little fruit on it that appear to be small apples but they are toxic to humans. I avoid it as I do poison ivy.

Suddenly someone shouts out and points to the path ahead. In the middle of it sits a large colorful land iguana. Its orange and yellow markings almost blend into the color of the sandy path. We approach slowly trying not to intimidate it not because it is dangerous but because all of the photographers in the group want a chance to get their pictures before it moves off.

Their are two species of land iguanas on the islands. They can grow to around 3 feet in length. The land iguanas live in the drier areas of the islands getting the needed moisture to survive from eating succulent plants such as cactus. They have a peculiar interaction with Darwin finches. Apparently they raise their bodies off the ground and let the finches pick off the ticks on their bodies.

The land iguana reaches maturity at 8-15 years and the female lays between 2-25 eggs in a burrowed nest in sandy soil. The eggs take 3-4 months to hatch at which time the little ones are responsible for digging themselves out. If they survive being exposed to the harsh dry environment and the predators, they can live up to 50 years. 

The male iguana we see is very accommodating. He sits long enough on the path and then along the side of the walk in the foliage for all of us to get some good shots. 

Further on, we find another female turtle nestled into a comfy hole she’s made. They often do this at night to conserve body heat. The females will travel long distances (in tortoise miles) to find a nesting spot in sandy soil when it is time to lay eggs. She lays between 2-16 eggs the size of tennis balls (ouch!). As with the iguana, the finches are also a means to rid the tortoises of insects.

The tortoises were pillaged during the 1600s by pirates and later whalers as a food source. They could take them on board the ship and they would survive for a long time without food and water making them a fresh source of food for the mariners. It greatly reduced their number as did the eventual settlers of the islands who unwittingly brought predators to the islands. Dogs, cats, etc. fed on the tortoise eggs or ruined nests. That's why there are so many restrictions now in the national park--to conserve these magnificent and unusual creatures.

A large meadow area contains several land turtles and orange land iguanas both. While we watch them moving about, I notice that the large bush next to me is busy with the wasps we’ve been warned about. For several planned landings we have been asked not to wear anything brightly colored as it tends to attract the wasps. One man in our group was stung—not a bad sting, painful but unless you are allergic, harmless. The naturalists all carry epi pens just in case.

We find several painted locusts which look like large colorful grasshoppers. They belong to the same group as locusts, katydids, and grasshoppers. There are 21 different kinds in the Galapagos.

More tortoises are sighted along the way back to the beach and another land iguana close enough to make the photographers’ hearts pitter patter. While Alexis explains how important poop is in tracking the iguanas and knowing where they are migrating or living, I snap this friendly guy as he’s enjoying his afternoon snack. Or perhaps it’s an early dinner?

Our short walk has been so fascinating that we have stayed too long to feel comfortable getting into wetsuits for such a short snorkel in waters that are already being shaded from the sun as it lowers into the horizon. We opt to get on the next zodiac and enjoy our stateroom’s shower instead and our own slide show of the day’s pictures.

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