Friday, March 26, 2010

Sea Lions

The 'unofficial welcoming committee' of the Galapagos Islands is the sea lion. Their playful inquisitive nature, speed, agility on land, and bark quickly make them an island favorite. Sea lions live in large colonies. Adult males known as bulls are the head of the colony. Bulls grow to be up to 7 ft in length and 800 lbs. As males grow larger they fight to win dominance and for a territory including a harem of between 5 and 25 cows. Dominant bulls will fight off any intruders entering the territory.

We were welcomed by sea lions swimming around the boat and 3 or 4 adults taking up residence on our swim platform for the night. They grunted and barked and fought and made whoopee all night long. After viewing the mess and cleaning piles of poop up, we headed off to the ferreteria (hardware store) to see what we could do to discourage all this activity. $14 worth of green plastic netting was procured and installed and (other than being asked if we are now growing tomatoes) it seems to work well…no more sleepovers.

They are still visiting the boat daily and the following video of a baby sea lion swimming with the crew show that they don’t seem too upset that the Emily Grace is no longer accepting boarders.

Each cow in the harem has a single pup born a year after conception. The pups have a strong bond with their mother. The cow will nurture a pup for up to three years. In that time, the cow and the pup will recognize each others bark from the rest of the colony. The mother's will take the young pups with them into the water while nursing. When the pup is 2 - 3 weeks old the cow will mate again.

Within the colony sea lion pups live together in a rookery. Pups can be seen together napping, playing, and feeding. It is common to see one cow 'baby-sitting' a group of pups while the other cows go off to feed.

Sea lions can be seen all over the islands. We routinely see them sleeping on park benches and the local beaches as we walk around the town. Snorkeling with the playful pups has been a highlight of our visit to the Galapagos.

Seals are different from sea lions. They both belong to the scientific order Pinnipedia. The name literally means “fin-footed.” Seals are called earless because they lack the ear flaps that these Galapagos sea lions have. Seals only have tiny openings, which are called pinnae, that serve as ears. Seals hind flippers also angle toward the rear and cannot be rotated forward. This is a hindrance for seals. For a seal to move across dry land, it must balance its weight on to the fore flippers and crawl along using their bellies. Sea lion hind flippers, however, are extremely flexible, and can actually rotate forward and beneath the body. This enables sea lions to move around on land with ease and fairly rapidly when approached quickly. Don’t ask us how we know...


Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Story of Lonesome George

The small island of Pinta is located in the North of the Galapagos archipelago.  One of the 11 remaining races of the Galapagos Giant Tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus abingdoni) so important for the formation of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution comes from Pinta, but their history is a tragic one.  Whalers and sealers heavily depleted their numbers in the 19th century, some ships taking many tortoises at a time.  The tortoises were a good food source as they could live up to a year in the holds of the ships without food and water. Females were generally taken first as they are much smaller than the males and could be found in the more accessible lowland areas during the egg laying season.  Before Lonesome George was found, the last reported sighting of tortoises on Pinta was in 1906, when the island was visited by the Californian Academy of Sciences.  They collected three males, which were the last tortoises seen on Pinta for the next 60 years. 

Another issue for the Giant Tortoises of Pinta Island was the presence of goats, which were released by fishermen in the 1950's as an alternative food source.  These introduced mammals destroyed much of the vegetation and directly competed with any remaining tortoises for food.   The population of goats grew rapidly, devastating the vegetation and causing erosion. 

In 1971, National Park wardens hunting goats on Pinta came across a single male tortoise. He became known as "Lonesome George".  His name derived most certainly from being the only surviving example of his species and "George," after the U.S. actor George Goebel, who called himself "Lonesome George" in a television program.  George weighs 198 lbs, is aged between fifty and eighty years and measures about a 36 inches long. It was decided to bring the animal back to the Charles Darwin Research Station, where there was already a captive breeding program for the giant tortoises.  Many years later, "Lonesome George" was placed in a corral with female tortoises from Wolf Volcano, located on Isabela Island.   This is where the crew of Emily Grace saw him.

 The hope was that by placing these animals together, the Pinta race through "Lonesome George" would pass along at least some of his genes into future generations. The Wolf race were the closest morphologically to the Pinta race. The aim was to maintain George's sexual activity for the possibility that a Pinta female was found, or at least back crossing to create as close an offspring as possible to the Pinta characteristics.  Unfortunately, he has yet to succeed in breeding successfully with these females, and they do not yet fully understand the reasons.  

Scientist Edward Lewis has made DNA scans of tortoises all over the world without finding a match.  George's diet is being investigated to ensure there is no deficiency that could be causing his failure to reproduce.  They have considered the theoretical possibility of cloning lonesome George, manipulating the gender of the clone, and trying to produce a female. This is theoretically possible, but practically very difficult, and the technology for cloning of tortoises has not yet been developed.  Before they attempt cloning of Lonesome George, they will exhaust all other possibilities first. 

There is the possibility that other tortoises could exist on George's native island of Pinta.  Young tortoises are very small and secretive, and any young tortoises present when George was removed from Pinta would most likely have been overlooked.  These tortoises would now be adults and technically easier to find, except that the vegetation of Pinta has responded vigorously to the removal of goats (which were previously destroying this vegetation.)  The island is now very hard to get around, and a major campaign must be undertaken to systematically cover the island and definitively conclude that there are no remaining Pinta tortoises to use as a mate for Lonesome George. 

If their efforts are unsuccessful, when "Lonesome George" eventually dies, his race ends with him, and will join the other races of giant tortoise that have become extinct in the Galapagos.  Heavy depredation by humans was the problem in the past. Today, one of the biggest problems facing the endemic Giant Galapagos tortoise is that of introduced species. 

The National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Research Station have eradicated the troublesome goat from Pinta. Many of the native plant species have recovered.  There is hope for the recovery of Pinta as there is hope that one day they will find a mate for "Lonesome George" or another Pinta tortoise.  If they can find a mate for Lonesome George, it will go a long way towards restoring the ecology of one of the most fascinating Galapagos Islands.
The crew of Emily Grace feel blessed to have seen him.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Galapagos Marine and Land Iguanas

Marine Iguana (Amblyrhynchus Cristatus)

Growing to approximately 3 ft in length these sea-going Iguanas exist only in the Galapagos Islands. Living on the black lava shore rocks they have developed into efficient swimmers feeding off shore mostly on marine algae and seaweed.

We traveled by taxi to a lava beach where these marine iguanas could be seen in great numbers swimming in the waters and basking on the lava rocks.

The cold waters of the Galapagos provide both the necessary food for the Marine Iguanas and its most deadly threats. The cold temperatures can immobilize an iguana if it remains in the water too long.

The marine iguanas once in water uses their specially adapted tail to dive at least 40 feet below sea level, where they will stay up to 30 minutes eating seaweeds before resurfacing. Before they dive they need to take some sun so they can increase their body temperature up to 97º F.

Once they dive into the ocean they grapple themselves to the bottom with their toes and graze the seaweeds that cover the rocky bottom. Because of the Humboldt's Current that flows to the north along the pacific coast line of South America the sea is amazingly cold.

As a consequence to the cold marine currents the iguanas could lose as much as 54º F of their body temperature in long time dives, so they will need another tanning session when they are back to the surface.

The Galapagos marine iguanas have developed some special glands of excretion of the salt to allow them to get rid of the excess of salt while they fed themselves under the water. These glands are visible when they "sneeze" as a excrete that expel the salt as a spray.

Until the arrival of man, Marine Iguanas only threats were that of larger fish and sharks encountered while swimming.

When Marine Iguanas are not feeding they seek safety and warmth of the land. In the 19th century when Charles Darwin visited the islands he found thousands of Marine Iguanas living along the rocky shore. He picked one up and threw it into the ocean it instantly swam back to the shore. This was repeated several times and the Iguana continued to seek the safety of the shore when it could have easily swum off to escape Darwin.

The black rocks under the equatorial sun provide needed warmth for the iguanas. On a warm day these rocks can heat up to deadly temperatures. Yet, territorial male Marine Iguanas, remain in the sun during the day. Cooled by a circulatory heat shunt carrying heat from the back to their bellies where the sea breezes coming off the cool ocean waters can cool them by convection. At night the iguanas pile by the hundreds in order to provide heat for one another.

Galapagos Land Iguana (Conolophus Subcristatus)

In 1835, when the HMS Beagle brought Charles Darwin to the Galapagos, there were so many land iguanas that the crews found it hard to find an open spot where to start a camping place, this because of the many iguanas that lived around. The introduction of some domestic animals caused a dramatic reduction of their population. The land iguanas in Santa Cruz, for example, were almost completely wiped out in the 1970s by wild dogs.

Land Iguanas grow to a bulky girth and 3 ft  in length. Their yellowish-orange belly and brownish red back make them more colorful then their cousins the Marine Iguana. The Land Iguanas live in the arid portion of the islands.

Darwin was not much impressed with the land iguana:

"...they are ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath, and of a brownish-red colour above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance."

The mainstay of its diet is the Prickly Pear Cactus. They eat the pads and fruit including the spines. The cactus provides both food and water for the Land Iguanas can go without fresh water for a year. It is not unusual to see them sitting under a cactus, waiting for pieces to fall. They normally use their front feet to scrape the larger thorns from the pads, but they don't seem to mind the smaller thorns. Usually they will gulp down a cactus fruit in just a few swallows. Part of the adaptation to the drier environment includes a conservation of energy by slow movement. This makes the animals seem lazy or stupid. Land Iguanas burrow into the ground creating tunnels which provides a place for nesting, shade during the day and protection at night.

We saw these land Iguanas at the Charles Darwin Center that was on the island of Santa Cruz. We took a 2 hour speedboat/ferry from San Cristobal as a day trip and visited several interesting spots.


Galápagos tortoise evolution

There is so much in these small islands that is interesting, I will do several blogs to cover it all.  The free internet in the harbor (and therefore on my boat) is pretty good when someone remembers to turn it on.  It seems we see some new cool thing every day we go exploring and I take another 150 photos.  Today's topic, Dear Reader is tortoises and evolution.

Galápagos tortoises provide the Lawler Academy of the High Seas an amazingly clear example of evolutionary change -- evidence of descent with modification.

The Galapagos islands are, geologically, brand new -- they were formed by volcanic activity approximately 3-5 million years ago. Therefore, all plants, insects, birds, etc. on the island are species that must have arrived on the islands via rafting in the water (perhaps after a storm blew them off the coast of South America), or via wind currents or self-powered flight. Because tortoises cannot fly, it is most likely that several million years ago, some tortoises on the beach in South America were somehow blown out to sea during a storm, and then, after an undoubtedly unpleasant and long journey ("are we there yet?") bobbing around in shark-infested waters, deposited on the beach on one of Galápagos islands. Given the really, really small size of the islands, it is perhaps most likely that only a single individual arrived -- so envisioning a sole female that was carrying eggs is a likely scenario. Once she laid these eggs, the island was soon populated with little baby tortoises.

Over many, many generations, the tortoises dispersed (perhaps during storms) to other islands in the archipelago. Because the conditions on each island are slightly different, the types of tortoise that survived the best (and that had the greatest success rearing young) were also different.

Map of Galapagos Islands. Some of these islands are very, very dry, and there is not much vegetation to eat. On those islands, cactus "trees" are a good source of dinner for tortoises. 
On relatively dry islands, tortoises with long necks had a slight edge over the tortoises with slightly shorter necks -- long necks, and the notch in their shell that allows them to fully stretch it, allow an individual to reach the foliage on the cactus plants that grow on the island.
Tortoise stretching to reach foliage.
Shorter-necked individuals without the saddle shells might find enough foliage to survive, but they just would not grow as fast, and thus wouldn't produce as many progeny as would those tortoises with longer necks. (Longer necks might also be useful when competing for food on the ground with a neighbor.) This is, essentially, natural selection in action -- if there were 1000 tortoises on an island, and a couple had necks that were 1 mm longer than the rest, then these longer-necked individuals would leave a few more offspring than their competitors. And if (as is likely!) these longer-necked individuals happen to have babies with equally longer necks (i.e., due to DNA variations passed from parent to offspring), there would be a bit more long-necked tortoises in each generation, as a percentage of the total population.
Photograph showing neck extension of a saddleback Galapagos tortoise.

Over millions of years, the process has resulted in rather dramatic differences in neck and shell dimensions. Or at least that's what scientists hypothesize has happened, given the current shapes of tortoises on the different islands. Shown below is a sampling:
The three main types of Galapagos tortoises (there are lots of "in-between" types, too). The "saddle" types tend to occur on islands (or parts of islands) that are relatively dry, and the long neck is probably an adaptation for foraging on high stems of cactus. 

Lonesome George, the most famous tortoise alive today, is of the "saddle" type.  But poor George may get another Blog of his own.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Galapagos Trip - Land Ho!

Those words rang out aboard Emily Grace as land was sighted about 10AM this morning after 6 full days at sea. Moving at just 7 knots, we still didn't drop our anchor in Wreck Bay on the island of San Cristobal until 4 PM. Seeing land after almost a week sure was a grand feeling. All three crew members passed the scrutiny of King Neptune as we safely crossed the equator and he was satiated by the Champagne offered to him. Tom, Kim and Emily are now Shellbacks with full honors.

Some voyage statistics follow:
Total miles covered - 865 miles
Diesel fuel burned - 284
Freshwater made from seawater during passage - 400 gallons
Freshwater in tanks upon arrival at Galapagos - 350 gallons
Number of hourly ship log entries taken (including engine room checks) - 151
Home school lessons given in 6 days - 2
Number of days sea-sick - 0
Number of days we wished we had flown - 2
Number of flying fish landed on deck - 1
Number of squid landed on deck - 1
Number of movies watched - 4
Number of sailboats we left with that are behind us at sea - 6

Thanks for all your thoughts and prayers. We all need a good nights rest.

Posted Via SSB

Monday, March 15, 2010

Galapagos Trip - Preparing to cross the Equator

The crew of Emily Grace are well and still pushing southwest. Our current position is 1º 01.3' N, 86º 45.1' W and we moved about 130 more miles towards the Galapagos during the last 24 hours. We still have almost 208 miles more to go.

In less than a day, our little ship will cross the equator. Besides the latitude numbers switching from north to south, it has always been a significant event aboard ship. The ceremony of Crossing the Line is an initiation rite in the Royal Navy, U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Marine Corps, and other navies that commemorates a sailor's first crossing of the Equator. Originally, the tradition was created as a test for seasoned sailors to ensure their new shipmates were capable of handling long, rough times at sea. Sailors who have already crossed the Equator are nicknamed (Trusty) Shellbacks, often referred to as Sons of Neptune; those who have not are nicknamed (Slimy) Pollywogs.

Preparations are underway aboard Emily Grace. Rumor has it, there will be a visit from Neptune and libations are being chilled. Dear readers, you will have to keep checking the blog to find out if Neptune is pleased and three new Shellbacks are born.

Beyond that, the captain is looking at our progress and because of favorable currents, we will arrive just after sunset. Since we NEVER come into a strange anchorage in the dark, we have two choices. One choice is to keep going and if we arrive after dark, motor around (or drift) in circles until daybreak. The second option is to speed up. Since we have been carefully monitoring fuel burn, we are opting for this choice.

Posted Via SSB

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Galapagos Trip - Welcome to the ITCZ

The ITCZ is a band of water between the North and South Pacific waters where God has not decided which way he wants His waters to flow. Yesterday, we found it. If anybody is listening.It's right Damn HERE. We had about a knot of current slowing us down so that we could savor the experience. This band waffles north and south and the forecasters don't do a good job and predicting it. By the time they say where it is now, it may have moved 100 miles north or south. The weather GRIB files did not show any of the 20 knot winds that we had or the 8 foot seas that moved us around like we were all in a washing machine. The crew gave no quarter when the captain showed the forecasts for less than 10 knots of wind and seas less than 5 feet. No siree Bob! All I got was a peanut butter jar thrust at me with a spoon.enjoy your lunch; the galley is closed!
Things are a little better this morning. Winds have dropped to 13 knots and the washing machine is on the gentile cycle although still rocking us pretty good.

The crew of Emily Grace are well and still pushing southwest. Our current position is 2º 16.661' N, 84º 32.3' W and we moved about 130 more miles towards the Galapagos during the last 24 hours. We still have almost 363 miles more to go.

The ship is holding together. The engine is purring away and the stabilizers continue to work the hardest of all the crew. We heard that Imagine fixed their autopilot by replacing the drive motor. It sure helps to have the spare parts aboard. (and yes I do have a spare drive motor too).

The Pacific continues to reveal new treats. We passed a small island and the water was covered with Nazca (formerly masked) Booby birds feeding. It was funny seeing them try to take off from the water to avoid getting run over. They beat their wings like mad, and slap their webbed feet on the water trying to get airborne. Sometimes they don't make it and trip beak first into the water. In the sky, however, they are graceful and also effective as they dive on the water. Several of these birds stayed with us all through the night and hunted on the small fish that scurried away from our boat. They used our navigation lights to help see their quarry.

We also saw several areas where tuna were feeding. These 3 to 4 feet long bullet shaped fish would leap clear of the water by 5 or 6 feet while they were hunting. It wasn't until we were through the action that I discovered another of my lures had been bitten off. No sushi tonight!

We saw this sea bird far at sea.  It had a long streaming tail.  Anybody know what he is?

Posted Via SSB

Friday, March 12, 2010

Galapagos Trip - Day 2

The crew of Emily Grace are well and still pushing southwest. Our current position is 4º 30.7' N, 81º 25' W and we moved about 120 more miles towards the Galapagos during the last 24 hours. We still have almost 597 miles more to go so still no champagne yet.

We sat together after dinner last night and watched a documentary movie about whales that was given to us by Keith on Atalanta. Emily has been listening to Beatles albums on a small disk player to pass the time. Another generation learns about good music!

Each day the Pacific reveals a new treat. We were greeted at sunrise this morning by a pod of about 40 pilot whales. They are small (about 15 feet) and they move much slower than dolphins. We could see them exhale air as they swam across our bow and seemed indifferent to our little ship. About mid-morning we saw another marlin having his breakfast. This time he was jumping clear of the water multiple times and no where near my lure.

We are all well and already wishing we were in the Galapagos. Our friends on Imagine just reported that their autopilot died and they are hand steering about 80 miles behind us. Hand steering is very hard on the crew and particularly so at night when there is no horizon to focus on. We are excited to hear that we are closing on Australia 31 and are within about 40 miles of them. We speak several times a day on the SSB and may actually see another boat soon.

Posted Via SSB

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Galapagos Trip - Day 1

The crew of Emily Grace are well and still pushing southwest. Our current position is 6º 2.6' N, 80º 19.7' W and we moved 148 miles towards the Galapagos during the last 24 hours. We still have almost 715 miles more to go so no champagne yet.

We have seen a school (maybe 50) of rays leaping around the boat and several large dolphins jumping while daddy took a nap. The rays were comical to watch as they would clear the surface by 5 to 10 feet and frequently do back flips or spins before doing a belly flop. We are not really sure why they do it but it does look like fun.

We even hooked a marlin 15 minutes ago that looked to be about 8 feet long. We saw him jump and tail walk a few times before he stole my lure and swam away. It was amazing listening to the line pull off the reel despite the heavy drag I had set.

The ocean is calm with long period (widely spaced) swells that gently raise and lower the boat. The winds are light and our sailboat friends are falling behind. I'm careful not to be too cocky since with 10 knots more wind, we would be quickly left behind. They play a delicate game of using their engines to find the winds and saving fuel. They do not carry sufficient fuel to motor the whole way and I doubt that they would want to. There are about 5 boats out here with us for this passage to the Galapagos and we are all checking in on the SSB radio at noon to discuss our latest positions, weather conditions and fishing scorecards.

We got a partial school day in yesterday since it was rougher than today. We ate spaghetti for dinner last night and things are pretty normal aboard our little ship even though no land is in sight.

Posted Via SSB


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Las Perlas to Galapagos Plan

The Archipelago de Las Perlas is made up of more than 220 islands and islets, only 90 of which are named. These islands first gained notoriety in 1513 within days of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa's discovery of the "South Sea" or Pacific Ocean. It is said that he encountered a group of Indians resplendent in pearls paddling pearl encrusted boats who told him of the islands and their rich pearl beds. Although he never actually went to the islands, he named them "Islas de Las Perlas" (Pearl Islands) and claimed them for the King of Spain.
As a result of the notations in Balboa's log and his report to the king, the archipelago was soon replete with adventurers, pirates, and plunderers in search of measure. In the centuries that followed it became a well known pirate haven not only because of its great pearls, but also because of the many back bays and hidden coves which were covered pirate hideouts. The pearl industry itself endured until 1938 when a severe red tide devastated the beds.

It is quite common to see whales and other fantastic sea life here, and the area is considered one of the best spots in the hemisphere for fisherman and divers in search of big and rare fish. We caught two 2 foot long Mahi within 30 minutes on the way here and they are both beautiful and delicious. Kim made me stop fishing since the freezer and frig are both filled.

There were birds everywhere feasting on the fish and watching the pelicans dive in great numbers was a favorite pastime.

In 2003, the "Pearl Islands" were chosen for the popular United States reality TV show "Survivor" and "Survivor All-Stars", and the entire world was introduced to its beauty and rich history.  We drifted upstream on a small river with the incoming tide and saw small crabs and bird life with no signs of man anywhere.

We are now anchored in a calm bay on the east side of Isla San Jose and are just about ready to leave these secluded islands. We should be heading off tomorrow (March 10th 2010) for the Galapagos. It should take us 7 or 8 days at sea and we will try to send an update or two via the SSB radio as we move along. SSB propagation is always iffy so don't worry if you don't see any updates for the next week.

Keep us in your thoughts as we cross 865 miles of ocean and follow in Darwin's wake to another unique Archipelago.