Galapagos: Face to Face

The Galapagos Islands are living proof of Nature’s endurance, despite natural harshness and man’s destruction. Giant tortoises, enormous symbol of survival, traverse their annual migration route…a journey they have made for millions of years in the Galapagos.

The Galapagos are a cluster of twenty islands in the Pacific, 600 miles west of South America, right on the equator. The islands, volcanic in substance, are new in the evolution of earth’s geology. Espanola, (Hood Island), for instance, was ‘born’ only 5 million years ago. Galapagos’ claim to fame came in 1835 from a brief visit by Charles Darwin. Darwin spent only three weeks on these islands (and this was due, in part, to his need for a land-respite from intense bouts of sea-sickness aboard The HMS Beagle). His detailed observations, nearly two hundred years ago, made a major impact on the evolution of science…and it is still debated today.

The Galapagos Islands were first discovered by sea-travelers in 1535. That’s less than 500 years ago. For nearly its entire existence the Galapagos evolved undisturbed, undisrupted, by the presence and/or contamination of man.

When the first known human encountered this place he was overwhelmed by the giant tortoises, which, ultimately, contributed to its name. Galapagos means giant tortoise. The Bewitched Islands, Encantadas, is other name the islands were called, due to difficult navigation caused by surrounding conflicting currents.

The Galapagos Islands is a distinct and separate land formation from the continent of South America. It did not break off and drift out to sea with South American flora and fauna aboard.

It rose from beneath the ocean floor, from the bowels of the earth, from volcanic hot spots and the moving action of tectonic plates (the Nazca, the Pacific and the Cocos). All this geologic activity created an underwater range of mountains and craters, which are an amazing topography, albeit underwater. Just because they appear to be separate islands today does not mean that was always the case. There were times in the history of the earth that water receded.

During these times land bridges between the islands became visible connections that allowed creatures to island hop. When the water level rose creatures, once more, became unable to travel beyond their current location. Identical creatures were separated, isolated from their family members, and left to develop independently of each other in different environments. Darwin saw that what we eat and where we live impact on our physical development.

To illustrate how creatures were able to travel from one island to the other when the water level was low, I have borrowed this excerpt from a Guardian, How sea level influenced evolution in the Galapagos. To read article in its entirety, click on this link: https://www.theguardian.com/science/animal-magic/2014/apr/24/sea-level-evolution-galapagos

It should come as no surprise that the sea level is in a state of constant flux. Indeed, it’s thought that over the course of the past 700,000 years, the sea level has undergone a significant drop every 100,000 years or so, falling to between 90 and 130m below the present level and staying that way for several thousand years. These events are likely to have had a major influence on the evolution of the creatures of Galapagos, say researchers.

“Recent shifts in sea level, particularly the lows, modified dramatically the geography of the Galapagos, and this may in turn have had important consequences for the biology,” write Jason Ali and Jonathan Aitchison in the Journal of Biogeography.

Considering several factors that are likely to have influenced sea level, they estimate that at the most recent low-point (around 20,000 years ago), the sea would have been 144m below its current level. Because the waters are relatively shallow in the centre of the archipelago, the island we now call Santa Cruz would have been much, much larger and completely enveloped smaller islands like Baltra and Santa Fe. I wonder if I could have walked from Isabela in the east (the large seahorse-shaped island) to the central island of Santa Cruz. With sea level at -150m, this would have been possible, says Ali. At -145m, “if you couldn’t exactly walk between all of the ‘core’ islands, you could just about skip or jump between them,” he says.

The Galapagos as it would have looked around 20,000 years ago. Look, I could have skipped across from Isabela to Santa Cruz. Photograph: Reproduced from Journal of Biogeography, John Wiley & Sons.

Darwin hit upon this relationship between living things and their environment.

One of the amazing things about the Galapagos is that, similar creatures, developed differently due to their environment variables. This is one of the gifts of this special place. It’s earth’s laboratory of evolution. It must be protected to keep undisturbed.

Fabricio Valverde was my tour guide when I first visited the Galapagos in the early 1990’s. Returning several years later, I saw that the laboratory in the Galapagos National Park was named in his memory as he had been killed in a plane crash while on park service business.

On my second trip to the Galapagos I had the pleasure of meeting and traveling with Michael H. Jackson, award-winning author of many times reprinted acclaimed classic, Galápagos-A Natural History Guide.

Michael is still visiting the Galapagos regularly and helped me find the Guardian article. When Michael saw my Iguana wish you card for the holidays he asked if he could use it too….and I was delighted.

I believe that respect and love for nature must be introduced and nurtured in the young to put balance into their technology-generated lives.

Galapagos: face to face brings this extraordinary place home in an intimate and personal way. It is a chance to see Nature’s reality that, indeed, looks like fantasy. May it inspire in you, a determination to be more respectful and caring of our environment. I am so pleased that my Galapagos: face to face portfolio has been uploaded to my website: http://www.hollygordonphotographer.com/portfolio/galapagos/

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