The flight from Quito, Ecuador to San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos only takes a couple of hours in the kind of time you can read on a clock. But when you step on the plane, you’re taking a trip to another time altogether, a place where the present and the unimaginable past meet face to face — and so do the sea lions (see video at the bottom of this post).
The Galapagos is often called nature’s laboratory, and it’s no exaggeration. Millions of years ago, volcanic action thrust pieces of the sea bottom up through the ocean to form a scattering of barren outcroppings, black as the volcanic rock they were made of.
Then a few seeds arrived, blown by the wind or carried in the stomachs of birds, and a few animals, clinging to a piece of driftwood. For thousands upon thousands of years, they developed in isolation, creating species found nowhere else on earth, many even unknown on the other islands in the chain. Then Charles Darwin showed up, and the rest is history.
Driving down the streets of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the main town of San Cristobal, it’s hard to imagine how all this evolution resulted in this slightly haphazard place, somewhat reminiscent of a small Mexican town. That is, until you arrive at the main drag, with its row of dive shops, tour companies and restaurants, all facing the handsome, new-looking malecon.
They’re all here to help visitors like myself experience nature’s science experiment first-hand. And the first stop on that journey is the Interpretation Center, where I read the whole story, from the primeval eruptions to the islands’ abuse by sailors, whalers, pirates and industrialists. Foremost were the mariners and farmers who left rats and cats and goats loose on the islands to ravage the local environment and its wildlife.
But there’s also lots on the conservation efforts that have turned the islands into a national park, with strict protection for the plants and animals — so strict that some of them just make themselves at home wherever they choose.
After the Interpretation Centre, next up is a trip to La Loberia, a local beach known for its wildlife and for the amazing, curling waves that bring surfers from far and wide. Today the surf is rolling nicely, but the wind is strong, and few surfers are out. That makes things easy for the sea lions who have taken over the wooden board rack as a comfortable resting place.
Things don’t stay placid for long, though. As snorkelers explore the shallows and mothers with children walk the shoreline, the local alpha male sea lion – the beachmaster – takes offense to a rival male straying into his territory and charges. There is ferocious barking, a few lunges, and a mad chase across the lagoon before the beachmaster returns, triumphant.
My own wildlife search turns up lots of the islands’ famous iguanas, some so close to the colour of the earth beneath them that it’s hard not to step on them. And as I’m scanning the growth behind the beach for signs of life, there’s a flash of yellow and a brilliant little canario maria, the Galapagos version of a yellow warbler, dives into the bushes beside me and poses for a few pictures.
The nearby pond turns up some odd-looking gulls and a pair of white-cheeked pintail ducks, paddling around peacefully as the sun begins to set.
My first day is over too soon, but there’s a bit more excitement left. I head back to town for dinner and a stroll along the malecon, where I find that the sea lions have taken over wholesale, populating a whole section near a little wading pond.
As I stand watching, two males emerge from the pond and stage a spirited wrestling match right in front of me – so close that I have to retreat behind a small platform to keep them from running me down. I manage to take a little video before the action is over: here it is.
Meanwhile, I’ve had a good introduction to the Galapagos. I’m sure the week to come is going to reveal many more secrets of the islands that time forgot.