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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

Arriving in the Galapagos: San Cristobal (Chatham) Island

August 20th, 2012 · 2 Comments

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We flew 835 miles from Quito via Guayaquil to the airport on San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos on the morning of July 29. All flights to the Galapagos originate in Ecuador, and flying is the only practical way to get to the islands, since no ships have scheduled service there. Like Quito, the Galapagos are right on the equator, but the islands are way out in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles west of mainland South America.

We went straight from the airport to the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of Galapagos Province. Our ship was waiting for us in the harbor there. Also waiting was this young Galapagos Sea Lion occupying a bench that it was not about to share with Joanna. But this gave us our first tangible proof how unafraid the wildlife of the Galapagos is of us.

Sorry, but this Bench is Occupied by a Young Galapagos Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus) (Canon 50D with 18-200mm lens at 28mm, f/8, 1/800, ISO 800)

Sorry, but this Bench is Occupied by a Young Galapagos Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus) (Canon 50D with 18-200mm lens at 28mm, f/8, 1/800, ISO 800)

Click on the picture above to enlarge

The Galapagos Islands have been a part of Ecuador since 1832 when the then newly independent country annexed them. Tomas de Berlanga, the bishop of Panama, had discovered the islands in 1535, when he was traveling from Panama to Peru and a storm blew his ship off course. The other key date in the history of the Galapagos was 1835 when Charles Darwin explored the islands as a young naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle. I had read his journal of The Voyage of the Beagle earlier and re-read Chapter XVII, “Galapagos Archipelago,” on my iPad aboard the ship that took me around the islands. The Galapagos played a crucial role in Darwin’s much later masterpiece, On the Origin of Species.

Our ship was the Xavier III, an 82 foot, 16 passenger yacht with eight cabins. In addition to the eight members of our tour group, seven or eight other passengers for half voyages occupied the four cabins on the lower deck. The crew was Captain Victor, six sailors, one chef, and a bilingual park ranger named Morris Garcia.

I had previously read about the ship in a guide book that I took with me on my iPad, Viva Travel Guides Galapagos by Christopher Minister (2011). “The Xavier is a small ship, but it somehow seems to have a spacious desk and the cabins aren’t too bad,” it says. “The food is particularly good for a ship in its class.” I found that this review was right on target.

Our ship was the Xavier III, an 82 foot, 16 passenger yacht with eight cabins. In addition to the eight members of our tour group, seven or eight other passengers for half voyages occupied the four cabins on the lower deck. The crew was Captain Victor, six sailors, one chef, and a bilingual park ranger named Morris Garcia.

A Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) flies in front of the Xavier III, Our Ship for Seven Nights around the Galapagos Islands and one of the two Dinghies We Took Every Time We Left It (Canon 7D with 100-400mm lens at 100mm, f/8, 1/1500, ISO 400)

Click on the picture above to enlarge

Touring the Galapagos Islands is a trip to explore and appreciate nature. For several reasons it was a trip of a lifetime. A big one for me is that the animals and birds have no fear of us. That means we can not only get close to them for better photographs but even more important, I think, is the the psychological release. It seems to bring back ancestral memories of a Garden of Eden where we are at one with the world.

Galapagos is not just a birding trip, although the birdlife is fantastic. It is rather one to explore all of nature — the birds, mammals, reptiles, flowers, and landscape of these isolated islands.

Still, birds are a huge draw for me and most visitors. People have seen 154 species of birds in Galapagos, which is actually fewer than half the number found in Colorado. Only 61 of these species live in the islands. But 29 of them are endemic — meaning that they are found nowhere else on earth. I especially wanted to see some of these endemic species and I saw many of them.

Among the reptiles native to the islands, people have seen 28 species there. A large proportion of this small number, 19 are endemic to the islands.

Among mammals, people have seen 32 species in the Galapagos, excluding domesticated species that have become feral. Six of the species of mammals there are endemic to the islands.

The first endemic species we saw was the Galapagos Sea Lion resting on a bench in the harbor. The next species we saw was also endemic to the islands, and it was a reptile that gave the Galapagos Islands their name. Galapago is an old Spanish word that means saddle. We went to the highlands of San Cristobal Island to see Galapagos (or Giant) Tortoises, which have either a dome-shelled or saddlebacked carapace or shell. This one was the San Cristobal Giant Tortoise subspecies and looked like it needed a bath, and in fact it made its way to a pond after finishing its lunch.

A San Cristobal Giant Tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus) Subspecies of the Galapagos Tortoise with a Saddleback Shell (Canon 7D with a 100-400mm lens at 250mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO 800)

A San Cristobal Giant Tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus) Subspecies of the Galapagos Tortoise with a Saddleback Shell (Canon 7D with a 100-400mm lens at 250mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO 800)

Click on the picture above to enlarge

Then we started seeing endemic species of birds. The first was this little Galapagos Flycatcher.

A Galapagos Flycatcher (Myiarchus magnirostris) Sits and Waits (Canon 7D with a 100-400mm lens at 400mm, f/8, 1/180, ISO 1600)

A Galapagos Flycatcher (Myiarchus magnirostris) Sits and Waits (Canon 7D with a 100-400mm lens at 400mm, f/8, 1/180, ISO 1600)

Click on the picture above to enlarge

Then, on this island we saw four of the 13 species that we now know as Galapagos or Darwin’s finches (later in the trip we saw seven more species of these finches). I had wanted to see them ever since reading The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner. I had bought this book about a year and one-half ago when I made a “Pilgrimage to Powell’s” bookstore in Portland, Oregon, my favorite bookstore in all the world. I was then just beginning to get serious about bird photography (and the other book I bought there was the huge “Audubon Society Baby Elephant Folio” of Audubon’s Birds of America). Weiner’s book about evolutionary biology is both well written and important, and deserved the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction that it won in 1995. It’s about the finches that we saw in the Galapagos. The book follows the work of two biologists, Peter and Rosemary Grant, who spent 20 years on one small Galapagos Island and proved that Darwin didn’t know the full strength of his theory. The Grants showed that among these finches, natural selection can take place so rapidly that we can watch it at work, while Darwin believed that we couldn’t see it in one lifetime. These finches had a big influence on Darwin’s thinking in producing his basic theory of evolution by natural selection. The most important difference among the finch species on the Galapagos are in the size and shape of their beaks, which are highly adapted to different food sources. Those sources change as weather conditions change.

A Woodpecker Finch (Camarhynhus pallidus) is a Messy Eater (Canon 7D with 100-400mm lens at 330mm, f/8, 1/180, ISO 3200)

A Woodpecker Finch (Camarhynhus pallidus) is a Messy Eater (Canon 7D with 100-400mm lens at 330mm, f/8, 1/180, ISO 3200)

Click on the picture above to enlarge

Another little bird that figures large in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is the mockingbird, which he called the “mocking-thrush.” He found one species of mockingbirds on what was then known as Chatham Island, now usually called San Cristobal, and different but rather similar species on Charles (Floreana). In fact, each of four of the Galapagos Islands have a mockingbird species, and we were lucky enough to see all four of them. The fact that different island have different species of mockingbirds made Darwin wonder about the stability of species.

A Chatham (San Cristobal) Mockingbird (Nesomimus melanotis) Mocks (Canon 7D with 100-400mm lens at 400mm, f/8, 1/250, ISO 800)

A Chatham (San Cristobal) Mockingbird (Nesomimus melanotis) Mocks (Canon 7D with 100-400mm lens at 400mm, f/8, 1/250, ISO 800)

Click on the picture above to enlarge

We also traveled to the San Cristobal Island highlands, which were covered in mist. This mist, known locally as garua, left big drops of water on these flowers.

Galapagos Miconia in Flower

Galapagos Miconia in Flower

Click on the picture above to enlarge

Where land meets sea on San Cristobal Island.

The End of Our First Day on the Galapagos (Canon 7D with 100-400mm lens at 250mm, f/13, 1/500, ISO 800)

The End of Our First Day on the Galapagos (Canon 7D with 100-400mm lens at 250mm, f/13, 1/500, ISO 800)

Click on the picture above to enlarge

Nineteen of the islands have a surface area of more than one square kilometer. In addition are 42 smaller islets and 26 emerging rocks. San Cristobal is the fifth largest island of the Galapagos, about 30 miles long and 10 miles at its widest point. It is one of five inhabited islands in the archipelago, and about 25,000 people live in the Galapagos now. But 97 percent of the land area of all these islands are within the Galapagos National Park. Visiting these islands is indeed a return to nature.

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Posted in: Galapagos

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Fran Stearns // Sep 2, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    Your photo of the giant Galapagos Tortoise has an excellent view of the structure of its leg, lacking in my collection. Adding it to my collection of prospective painting. Thanks!

  • 2 Oleg Saprykyn // May 18, 2014 at 11:44 am

    Interesting blog and beautiful photo of Galapagos Flycatcher.

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