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Galapagos, Days 3 and 4 (August 10-11)

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Day 3

Galapagos, Day 3

Day 3 was "bird day," and was consumed by the avian life of Genovesa Island. Not fifteen minutes after our early morning landing on a white sand beach, we were surrounded by countless boobies, frigates, pelicans, and finches. The path wandered through the avian version of suburban sprawl, and we had to be careful not to blunder onto a nest. (This isn't actually that difficult, as a parent will quite forcefully honk at you if you get closer than about two feet.) Some parents covered newly-hatched chicks with their underbellies, some fed more mature children, and some boobies and frigates circled the settlement looking for mates.

It was here that the frigate birds earned the nickname "evil bastards." Younger males will circle nests, seeking to quite literally snatch food from the mouths of baby boobies and younger frigates. For this reason, feeding is a complicated matter. A parent begins by looking about cautiously while its child complains with hunger, until the coast is clear. The the parent's jaw flares wide and half-swallows the child's head in order to make sure that the offspring, and not some raiding frigate, will be fed. This thievery culminated in the most disturbing "tooth and claw" view of nature that I had on the trip.

One baby frigate, no more than a few pounds and still covered in fluffy white feathers, had been left by its parents and must have had some form of food still in the nest. Three younger adults or adolescents, after circling the sky for a few moments, plunged down at the junior bird, lifted it fifteen feet into the air, and dropped it onto the ground, where it lay complaining, bones broken. Nature is, sadly, sometimes like that.

The morning ended with snorkeling, then back to the boat, where we sailed to another point on Genovesa Island. There, a dry trail through red gravel led to an ocean-facing cliff top with more birds than I am likely ever again to see in my life, veering and weaving like an aircraft-controller's nightmare. They swirled overhead for almost a kilometer, seeking insects and fish as prey. We were lucky to find several of the Galapagos owl, which possess fantastic camouflage. Frankly, I was surprised that our pictures came out as well as they did.

Day 4 - The Charles Darwin Research Station

Galapagos, Day 4

I have to admit that after three days on the boat, we were looking forward to the afternoon landing at Santa Cruz Island. For one thing, we'd run out of soap. But before beginning some much-needed shopping, we toured the Charles Darwin Research Station, dedicated to the preservation of the islands. The Station conducts a breeding program for tortoises of various species, and an eradication program to rid the island of animals introduced by earlier explorers, such as goats, horses, and rats. (If they manage to get rid of the rats, I want them hired by the New York City Metro.)

The fun started before we even got to the station, however, when we wandered past two small male lizards fighting for territory. What followed was perfectly natural: members of the tour group started cheering one or the other competitors, and I think a few friendly wagers were made. Linda McMahon, phone your office: this is much more entertaining that human wrestling, the competitors are actually more colorful (and somewhat more attractive), and I'm sure you don't have to pay them as much.

One thing that had never crossed my mind, but that I learned from our guide: seafarers appreciated tortoises because they were essentially refrigerators on legs. Pirates, privateers and military vessels could hop by the Galapagos, pop a dozen or so large tortoises in the hold, and be assured of fresh meet for quite a while. Tortoises don't eat or move much, and thus don't lose weight on the voyage. In the meantime, until they're slaughtered they don't need refrigeration or salting to keep from spoiling.

Lonesome George, the last tortoise of his kind, is the most famous of the Station's residents, but I was more interested in a small colony of other tortoises that we saw a little later. Because these creatures had been pets or otherwise become accustomed to humans, we could get quite close to them without them pulling into their shells. Tortoise interactions are fantastic, a human-like drama that moves at the same pace as congressional legislation. We watched a fight between two giant antagonists, which seemed to be spurred by the first wanting the other to move so that he could reach a tasty frond beneath the other's foot. This involved about forty seconds of standing up, another second of stretching out the neck, and then a minute or two of long-winded roaring at each other. Then the second tortoise backed down, moved about a foot down the path, and the fight was over.

After leaving the station, and after another fabulous lunch aboard the Encantada, we visited a beach and lagoon about thirty minutes from the port. By that point, Pallavi didn't want to get wet again, but I went ahead and tried a bit of kayaking. Unfortunately, the water was not clear enough that day to see anything, and given its cold temperature, I think Pallavi had the better idea. The rest of the afternoon was taken up resupplying in Santa Cruz and writing our one brief update from Galapagos while we could find wireless access.

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Love the tortoise pic. He looks like how I imagined Voldemort looks like in real life, not like Ralph Fiennes.

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