Hot Turtle Action!
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Dec. 20 2002 5:25 PM

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Today's slide show: Images from Tagus Cove.

Today's 360-degree view: Puerto Egas, Santiago Island.

And I thought I had problems spotting birds. My trusty technowizard, Steven VanRoekel, can't draw a bead on either of the two geosynchronous satellites that allegedly serve Galápagos. We had grand plans for sending sound montages, digital video, and 3-D 8.1 Surroundvision with Stinkorama ® through the relatively fast connection of Inmarsat's big birds. But we're in the crease of Inmarsat's zone. Every time Steven connects, he gets knocked off before he can complete an uplink. Our fallback technology is the Iridium telephone in modem mode, which is like revisiting the 2,400 bps throughput of the late '80s. Again, words will sometimes trump photos by default.

A stern warning to the non-native, introduced goats
A stern warning to the non-native, introduced goats

This is my last dispatch, and I shall devote it to the Darwinistic themes of sex, death, and natural selection. Each year, the Ecuadorian government whacks tens of thousands of the hundreds of thousands of wild goats that infest the Galápagos. (Note to PETA: The goats are winning.) Trained hunters armed with silencer-modified rifles stalk the evil ruminants, aiming for the gut so the beasts won't fall immediately and panic the herd after being hit. At Isabela Island's Urbina Bay, we eye goats before we do the giant tortoise, the symbol of everything that is Galápagos.

The rapacious goats are destroying the giant tortoise habitat by turning the Galápagos' woodlands into savannahs. Our guide, Luis Die, shows us where goats have knocked over small trees to reach the high leaves. He says goats have been known to climb small trees and use the giant tortoises as tiny steps to graze the upper reaches. The hardy goats even breached a supposedly unpassable stretch of rugged lava at the neck of Isabela to invade the top two-thirds of the island. Death to the fascist goat that preys upon the life of Galápagos!

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The complete criminal lineup includes egg-sucking feral pigs, which will consume tortoise eggs as they're hatched, if you let them; feral dogs, which menace iguanas; feral cats, which specialize in birds; and feral cattle, horses, and burros, whose incessant grazing turn indigenous habitat into grassland. Of course, Galápagos has a rat problem, too. The good news: The shootists have driven the 25,000-strong feral-pig civilization off Santiago Island.

After Luis' feral lectures, I want to make like a wildlife Dirty Harry, spraying a ribbon of lead death at goats and pigs while hissing through clenched teeth, "Well I'm all upset about the feral goat's innate sovereignty as a part of the animal kingdom, Ms. Newkirk. But what about the giant tortoise's right to live?"

You've heard of pop-up videos? Urbina Bay is a pop-up land form. In 1954, subsurface magma thrust a 370-acre section of the bay up by 12 feet in some places in the space of just a few hours, stranding fish, sea turtles, and other sea life. A similar uplift in Punta Espinoza beached a small, anchored fish boat in the '20s.

The skeletons of limpets and tube worms decorate the raised lava as proof of the uplift. A dense stand of Galápagos cotton, flowering waltheria, manzanillo (poison apple), spiky espino, and muyuyo with yellow flowers and green berrylike fruits thrive here, the most verdant place we've seen yet. Pumice beneath the topsoil holds the precious cloud-borne moisture in Urbina Bay, making a desert garden of the area. The volcanic pumice is so light it can float well enough to transport life to other islands when the opportunity arises.

Large black Darwin bees pollinate the bushes in leisurely fashion. Walking down the trail, a cloud of curious finches approaches and Luis, like some modern day St. Francis, calls them closer by making a "phish-phish" sound, birdspeak for "warning, warning, check this out!" [Correction: Actually, birders attract birds by making a "pish-pish" sound.] Birders do this all over the world to attract small passerines, but I've never seen it work so effectively. Later, I phish finches with no success.

Luis' birdcall gives us a closer look at the birds that helped Darwin devise his theory of natural section. The 13 finches found on Galápagos are believed to have descended from a pair blown to the islands from the mainland, and each has evolved a specialized beak for feeding on Galápagos.

The giant tortoise grazes like a cow
The giant tortoise grazes like a cow

Luck brings us a couple of giant tortoises, plodding antediluvian beasts that can reach 500 pounds. I'll leave the rest of the description to Steven's fine photos and The Best of the Discovery Channel. In the distance, whinnying goats appear and I reach for my revolver. The lamb may lie down with the lion on Galápagos, but you've got to keep your eye on the introduced species, otherwise you'll Hawaii-ize the place and knock off the creatures and plants that make the place so extraordinary. As a budding ecologist, I'm all for natural selection and resolutely against unnatural selection.

A couple of hours later, we make a pilgrimage to Tagus Cove, an old whaling hangout where Charles Darwin annotated species in 1835. While kayaking, I interrupt a pair of mating sea turtles, gasping for air and floating just above the surface, and I compose impromptu sea turtle porn: "The 200-pound stud mounted her aggressively from behind, satisfying her with every thrust of his reptilian dagger. 'Gaaaasspppp!' she hissed as he caressed her leatherneck with his salty beak. He had secret things to teach her, and he had composed a lesson that could go on for hours. What he didn't know was that she was an insatiable tramp and would grind insanely with another male as soon as they finished."

We conclude the day, if not this dispatch, with a 450-foot hike from Tagus Cove landing. The scent of sea-lion piss here rivals any skid row alley for rankness. We gain ground steadily and spy Darwin Lake, a brackish crater lake that tormented the parched whalers who mistook it for fresh water. White-cheeked pintail ducks paddle the emerald surface of Darwin Lake, feeding on algae. Luis sates my bird jones by pointing out a Galápagos flycatcher on our return trip from the volcanic heights, where a vista reveals lava plains stretching to the ocean.

Slate's Web page builders don't labor on weekends and will be too preoccupied with the Christmas industry on Monday and Tuesday to post another communiqué after this one. So I can't tell you about snorkeling with sea turtles and tiger moray eels, racing bottlenose dolphins with the Parranda, or our upcoming visit to the Charles Darwin Station, where a giant tortoise hatchery incubates and hatches tortoise eggs and then rears them to the age of 3, when most are big enough to defend themselves from cats, dogs, and rats. Likewise our trip to the lush highlands of Santa Cruz and the volcanic splatter cone desolation of Bartolomé Island, where pioneer plants like tiquilia and lava cactus live on nothing. And if we're lucky, the 6-foot-wingspanned waved albatross will still be nesting on Española Island when we get there.

But I've bored you too much already with my avian interest, a psychiatric affliction straight out of the DMS-IV, so I'll end here. From bad times come good stories, preaches the writer Michael Dolan. His maxim doesn't bode well from my Galápagos account because I've enjoyed this easy vacation too much. Perhaps I should pitch my "Well-Traveled" editor, Richard Bangs, with a sequel: A bird-loving editor returns to Galápagos for revenge against the goat for despoiling paradise but gets gored while wrasslin' a wounded male in the scalesia forest. He declines to be Medivaced to Guayaquil and vows to fight the wicked horned creature in a spectacular death match ...

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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