Monday, February 15, 2010

ROADTRIP: The Galapagos Islands, Santa Cruz edition

Over 2,600 miles away from North Carolina’s Triangle and nearly 700 miles away from the closest continent, the Galapagos Islands rise like uncut gems from the cerulean sea far to the west of Ecuador’s coastline. At first glance, each of the volcanic archipelago’s fifteen major islands seem rough and rocky, some lightly painted with a thin crust of vegetation. Upon closer inspection, the rugged, lapidarian landscape, largely isolated from the evolutionary pressures of the mainland, reveals radiant ecological splendor. The crown jewels of the Galapagos include ruby-red and sapphire-hued birdlife, preternaturally tame reptiles and mammals, and other-worldly vistas.

Situated in the center of the Pacific island cluster, Santa Cruz or Indefatigable Island, is the second largest landmass in the archipelago. Santa Cruz, named after the Holy Cross by the Spanish and for the HMS Indefatigable by the British, currently houses over 4,000 permanent human residents, making it the most populated of the Galapagos Islands. The island is also home to the Charles Darwin Research Station, best known for its research on the giant Galapagos tortoises.

The Galapagos giant tortoise, the world’s largest living tortoise, once consisted of up to fifteen different subspecies, eleven of which exist today. Each subspecies is adapted to the conditions of a particular island and the different volcanic slopes of that island. For example, the Hood Island subspecies (Geochelone nigra hoodensis), with its long neck and downward sloped carapace, is limited to scrubby Espanola (aka. Hood Island), while the Volcan Wolf subspecies (G. n. becki), looking like an old grandmother sunk low in her shawl, is limited to the northern and western slopes of the Wolf Volcano on lush Isabella Island. Nearly all of the giant tortoises face severe population pressure resulting from hunting that came with whaling vessels and the introduction of non-native species, like goats, which wreak havoc with tortoise food supplies by reducing areas to desert.

Indefatigable Island tortoises (Geochelone nigra porteri), Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, March 4, 2004 (© Nicolette L. Cagle)

In March 2004, my family (parents and husband) and I had the opportunity to meet the amazing tortoise endemic to Santa Cruz, the Indefatigable Island tortoise (Geochelone nigra porteri). This sub-species has a near perfectly domed shell and dark, deep soulful eyes. Walking up to one of these gigantic reptiles felt like sneak-peaking into pre-history. With slow, deliberate steps I moved closer and closer to one of the tortoises, whose attention was focused on steadily chomping viridescent grass shoots, a favorite food. My eyes perused the ancient anatomy: black, half-dollar sized scales covering heavy limbs; glistening, tar-like scutes of its massive shell; and a massive, brown-black beak closed over green grass hanging out like half eaten strands of spaghetti. The chelonian relic lifted his head, regarded me warily and turned slowly away.

A visit to Santa Cruz yields more than intimate encounters with antediluvian turtles. As you explore the misty island, the geologic remnants of Santa Cruz’s volcanic origins often steal the scene. Walking to the highest part of Santa Cruz, visitors find Los Gemelos, seemingly bottomless twin craters formed by the collapse of a magma chamber. The holes, nearly 100 feet deep, reveal the striated layers of the island’s dormant volcano. An additional geologic wonder is the 800-yard long Tunnel Endless of Love, one of Santa Cruz’s several lava tubes or large tunnels formed by ancient magma flows. If walking through tunnels of cooled primordial magma doesn’t dizzy your brain with thoughts about Earth’s creation, the of the planet and man’s minuteness, you can at least enjoy the some of the critters that have adapted to the primeval conditions of the volcanic archipelago, e.g., lava lizards, lava herons and lava gulls, to name a just a few.

Collapsed magma chamber, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, March 4, 2004 (© Nicolette L. Cagle)

Lava tunnel, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, March 4, 2004 (© Nicolette L. Cagle)

Santa Cruz is just the beginning. Come back next month for "The Galapagos Islands, Rabida edition" for an introduction to the sea lions and iguanas of the Archipiélago de Colón.

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