Camp Galapagos

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9:24, 26-Apr 2012.
Puerto Chino, Isla Cristobal, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

It’s day three out here on the beach called Puerto Chino. Not sure why it’s called this, best answer I got from a taxi “guide” was that it’s arbitrarily named, as each discovered place needs a name! Needless to say there’s not much that’s Chinese about it except for my sandals.

I’ve been on a camping mission since I got to these islands.. for a place that’s so naturally intact, I can see both sides of allowing camping: it’s the best place possible, and there’s the most at risk. In my investigations, however, I found that, on the all the islands combined, there are three beaches and one “eco-turisic lodge” where camping is allowed. The beaches have no facilities (their bad?!) and require a permit from the parks office, and the lodge costs 3x more than any room I’ve rented, so Spencer and I provisioned-up (acquiring a big 5gal jug of water and enough food for three days) and we found our way to the beach.

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As it’s one of the only sites beyond the port accessible by car on this island (San Cristobal), it is visited by a handful of tourists daily. Throughout the afternoon I meet and greet the newcomers, and tell them what to look for: lobster and white-tip sharks in the morning (they’re vegetarian, so no worries!); frigates, pelicans and blue boobies in the afternoon; sea turtles and rays in the evening; and so far nobody else has been around for the scores of hermit crabs (which all come out to mate on the beach) and large glowing bioluminescent algae washed up in the surf. Throughout the day you can visit with the local sea lions (whom I’ve conversed with at length), hop along the rocks and dodge the crabs, whistle at the finches, and match push-ups with the lizards. It’s the kind of place you need to keep your eyes open, because it’s pulsating with life, at any moment you will see the miracle of nature in hyper-active celebration around you.

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The morning is the best time for snorkeling around the rocks. Thousands of large fish swim around you like you’re one of the school. I was disconcerted to find a fishing boat throwing nets just off these rocks yesterday… how can you snare these beautiful creatures? Reading over the national park bulletin which I grabbed when I got the permit, I read that last year there were 350 fishing permits issued and 684 of another license (PARMA) renewed (under the same heading)… and that 179 tons of white fish and 22 tons of lobster were monitored in commercial markets here. It’s a weird concept for me to grasp: an overwhelming 97% of Galapagos land and waters are designated as National Park and closely conserved, yet they allow “only” white fish to be hunted, and at such staggering amounts. Are all those fish I’ve been swimming with really white? Because to me they seemed neon blue and yellow, orange, red and some had the whole rainbow! (It’s kind of funny that the brown are sanctioned to hunt the white here… duh-du–dum!)

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Even funnier to me that while respect and awe of the species here is a ubiquitous theme, that the restaurant menus exclusively feature fish, and that fishing even exists. Why love one and eat another?

A few more statistics from this nifty pamphlet if I may: speaking of demographics, 55,000 (roughly 35%) of Galapagos visitors are Ecuadorians, and 101,000 come from abroad, the bulk (26%) from the USA, followed by UK (5%). Who knew it was such a popular destination?

To my pleasant surprise, the little hamlets and ports which I’ve come to know (12 days here already already!) are quite Ecuadorian, and not run at all by foreigners. And to their merit, the people here are so nice: easy to converse with, extra helpful and full of good will, super-relaxed and generous with information, and just plain sweet… I’m almost as awed by the local people as the wildlife. It must be good to grow-up with the forces of nature so powerful and accessible… I hypothesize it’s one of nature’s perfectly simple recipes for a good life.

While I’m at it, I’ll tell you briefly about some of my other encounters with the local species. There are GIANT turtles (and breeding centers) on every island. I’ve seen five different species of land turtles so far, most noticeably different by their shells, all BIG (and horny). On each visit I’ve seen them slowly working their way back from the brink of extinction, as they were nearly hunted-out by early explorers who took them aboard to eat (no food or water required on long passages, awww!) and who exported turtle oil to the mainland. Now there are 3,500 turtles monitored in the breeding centers and in the wild, with nearly 3,000 marine turtles living off the shores.

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Another population easily observed are the sea lions, who gravitate near the ports. This pamphlet says there are 900 sea lions monitored on these two islands, but I think there must be many more, as they’re everywhere! In the port at San Cris they cover the boardwalk, sleeping by the hundreds under the trees, on steps and park benches, and of course splashing around and honking at each other in the waters, completely integrated with human life in the most relaxed way. For example, a children’s playground at the water’s edge has a slide going right into an ocean pool where dozens of sea lions play. So awesome! Most beaches have sea lions that you can play with and approach, and the only restriction is no touching or going within 2 meters. (But in the water they nearly touch you!)

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My next favorite might be the marine iguanas, who of course are giant, but also are unique in their adaption to this place, with black skin (to blend with the volcanic rock and resist the sun), but more interestingly, they swim and eat marine algae! They’re so chill, freeze like statues when you approach, pile atop each other like little cuddly families, and look just like dinosaurs with smug, cute smiles. Don’t tell anybody, but they let you pet them too! (I only did it twice.) It’s soo freaky to be swimming along the shore among the mangroves, and see them snaking through the water alongside like sea serpents or crocodiles… incredible.

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The birds are amazing too. Over 4,000 albatross (biggest birds in the kingdom?) and scores of giant pelicans grace every beach, sometimes dive-bombing for some fish just in front of you. Blue boobies are cool as they have blue beaks and feet (and inspire so many silly tourist t-shirts like “I love boobies”) and unique to Galapagos, as well as the friget who are numerous here in Puerto Chino, the males having big, ballooning red necks for attracting mates (akin to turkey necks but way bigger when ‘excited’). I saw Galapagos penguins, another of the hundreds of endemic species here, doing it the other day, horny little things!

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I must say that in the wild, the main theme is sex. From the hermit crabs to the penguins, turtles and lizards, they’re all doing it all day, every day. It’s hilarious, and I wonder how much of this instinct is a guiding force of all living features. Naturally, evolution of species is on my mind here, and I wonder how similar we humans are in our lives.. certainly sex and reproduction are big themes, but to what extent can we decode our behaviors as manifestations of this principle of our species’ continuation?

Ok, snorkel time.

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