We tourists skitter the shallow crust of the earth at a place where other humans – indigenous pre-Columbian people, pirates, buccaneers, conquistadors, eccentric colonists from Europe, and assorted other opportunists – have threatened but not yet entirely ravaged most life forms here. I believe the marine iguanas have the survivability of cockroaches but with more cool panache.
. . . oh, there was a long break in thought process here. My morning Dramamine for motion sickness has hit my system and you, dear reader, have become as hazy to me as the timelessness of this place.
[Insert photos here to avoid meaningless chatter about eons, blue-footed boobies, souls of reptiles,etc.]
We are on the equator, but it is not so very hot. I’ve been too busy looking rather that listening to understand the science of that even though the guides have explained it repeatedly.
There were 500,000+ sea turtles here, now down to a small but protected fraction of that number after the slaughter of pirates, traders, marauders, and opportunists. We are not to touch anything, flora or fauna, for fear of contaminating the recovering balance. We are to STAY ON THE PATH and to follow the guides, and I prefer Sammy as my guide as both knowledgeable and friendly, while Alex asks you later what you remember and Lenin is endearing but newer.
So, we swim with the sea turtles who glide by a few inches under our bellies and we try not to step on marine iguanas the slate grey color of the lava sand and that are lazy and fearless, and we do not disturb the naps of sea lions whose fur radiates in the sun.
[Insert more photos as examples of radiating fur and lazy camouflaged iguanas.]
I realize, dear reader, that I am not being concise about the real natures of these animals. They baffle me and I can see them only from a human perspective. Do they think? Do they dream? I am in a Galapagos-cradled haze and will let photos explain the benign disinterest of the animals in us. Now we are harmless, the slaughter is over.
Do you have any idea how these creatures got here thousands of miles from anywhere else? Some rode the cold Humboldt currents up from the Antarctic. Others would have flown from far astray and then evolved into species that exist no where else. Others arrived afloat downed trees or rafts of matted sea stuff.
The plants came by sea, or wind, or bird poop. A lot of things were helped by bird and animal poop. The poop of the sea lions contains an enzyme that allows the primitive but iron clad digestive system of the land turtles (behemoths that they are) to eat and digest cacti, branches, and other fibrous stuff. Their poop is in effect 80% twigs stripped of greenery, moisture, and sap. Poop is a major ecological catalyst here, as is mating.
[Insert photos of mating land tortoises and sea turtles.]
Male land tortoises are much larger than the females, and they live to be 150 years old, and they keep growing most of that time, and during mating season they are right in there with the lads of only 100. The male we watched catch and lose and catch again a female of maybe only 20 years could not have cared less that 10 or so people were up front and personal with them, while the female just wanted to get away.
Sea turtles are not so charming, either, once you have seen a male mounted on a female without care or concern that she may be drowning under his weight. There seems to be an evolutionary flaw here unless you count that weaker females end up as food for bottom feeders. To be specific, the smaller male rides her and if she is not strong enough to get her head out of the water for air at a minimum of once every eight minutes, the show is over. There is a reason females are larger than males. They have to be. Once the first male is finished, the next in line has his turn, thus 80 to 120 or so eggs from different fathers will be laid in deep holes dug and covered by the mother on raised sandy shores. (Note in photograph female is hardly visible as one male is on top and another close behind.)
This is a Herculean task. Once there, the eggs will mature and hatch after about 60 days. If the sand is below 86 degrees F the little nippers will be mostly males and above 86 degrees they will be mostly females, a potential disaster if global warming continues. The mother helps regulate sexual distribution by pissing into the lower layers of sand to make them more compact and, thus, cooler . . . returning again to the multi-utility of animal body “waste.”
Galapagos lizard males, fast little critters with some resemblance to road runners, sometimes eat the females while mating, another seeming design flaw unless you count that maybe the stronger females can fight back enough to live despite a few nips out of her hide.
[Insert photo of aggressive male with female trying to escape even though a still photo doesn’t show the speed and whip-arounds.]
And then, you have sea lion mothers who refuse to adopt orphan babies whose mothers disappeared for whatever reason and the little orphans slowly wither next to the fat, sleek healthy babies that never lost their mothers. And now you always look to see if the babies are fat and happy, or not.
And you see the marine iguanas that lounge over and on each other like one organism until the mature males get testy about who owns the territory and the females in it. Teeth are bared and they become miniature land dragons lacking only the ability to spew fire. Instead they hiss saliva. No one ever said evolution was pretty. Ruthlessly efficient maybe, elegant no.
[Photo of marine iguanas acting tough.]
Basically animal life here is about food, sleep, poop, and procreation. And getting from place to place in order to eat, sleep, poop, and procreate. Some fly, some swim, and some crawl, all on top of volcanos formed from the molten center of earth exploding upward as all things hot under pressure explode sooner or later to the surface.
Once something works, it works. Sea turtles don’t need to change, they’ve survived, baring humans and a couple other large predators. It is only necessity that is the mother of evolution. Or more aptly, it is advantage that creates change, without the awareness of the evolving species. Did a single cormorant note the moment when they traded the ability to fly for the ability to dive deeper into the sea for food? Did a penguin? Do they dream of flying? I doubt it, with all those little fishes digesting in their bellies.
Neither awareness nor curiosity enter into it. Understanding who I am and what my place is on planet Earth doesn’t enter the consciousness of a penguin or a shark. But it does for us. We wonder and ponder and strive for answers BECAUSE we have questions about what we don’t know. We know we don’t know. We are aware of distant past and distant future, of geography beyond what is in front of us, and that species evolve.
We have this deep need to record everything and make sense of it, and to turn it into permanent images and words and share it with others of our species. We have a need to say “I was here” if only for a moment.