Imagine cruising into a tiny, protected bay, where the water laps gently on the rocks. Your vision is saturated with shades of blue, from the sky and the water, and shades of red, brown, grey and purple of volcanic cinder cone – you begin to feel like you’re on another planet. This is the small islet of Bartolomé in the Galapagos.
Our day trip from Isla Santa Cruz to Bartolomé made me nostaligic for other volcanic landscapes that I’ve walked on: The Big Island in Hawaii, Maui, Iceland – all islands in the middle of the ocean, where red and gray rocks pour into crystalline blue waters. Bartolomé is one of the iconic islands of the Galapagos. If you do a Google image search for ‘Galapagos’ a photo of Bartolomé will pop up in the first 10 images.
Bartolomé is a very tiny island about a 2 hour cruise north of Santa Cruz, right alongside the much larger Isla Santiago. We rode a zodiac from our boat to a dock cut right into black volcanic rocks stretching out into the water. There’s a short trail, a kilometer or so of wooden walkway, that takes you to to the top of the tiny island for a panoramic view of Pinnacle Rock and neighboring Santiago.
Isla Santiago has an interesting history in its own right. Apparently, it was nearly destroyed by goats (which are only recently under control), and it was the sight of a battle between US and British forces during the War of 1812. Bartolomé is one of the youngest volcanic islets near Santiago and is famous for it’s ‘Pinnacle Rock’ (used for target practice by US forces back in the 1940’s, when the US base on Baltra was fully operational). But you can’t really tell this place was used as a bombing site, and old battle scars are disguised by Bartolomé’s unique rock formations and colors, which keep people coming back.
Penguins are the other big attraction on Bartolomé. Usually, they are quite active in July, when the cold Humboldt current strengthens and the weather turns cooler. But the penguin population is seriously struggling right now with El Niño. Several of our guides said that the return of a very strong El Niño might just kill them all off. We were told that only one penguin had been spotted in the past month.
While the penguins may be struggling, there are other populations of birds still thriving – at least, for the time being. We took another day trip to the small island of North Seymour, just north of Isla Santa Cruz and the main airport. On this island are breeding colonies of frigate birds and blue-footed boobies, living side by side, nesting right on the ground next to the trail (why go anywhere else when you don’t have any predators?)
Blue-footed boobies have eyes in the front of their heads, to help with depth perception when their diving for fish. But it gives them quite a comical look when they stare at you. It’s also quite amusing to watch them waddle around. Or, maybe they think we’re quite comical, with our funny feet and useless wings.
The boobies don’t really have nests. They lay their eggs right on the ground and then the males and females take turns standing over the egg to provide shade until it hatches – and until the chicks are able to take care of themselves. Boobies are known for taking 50 ft nose dives into the water next to their bait, then swallowing the fish whole on the way back to the surface.
North Seymour also has a colony of Magnificent frigate birds (it really is called ‘magnificent’). The male frigate birds have these big, red inflatable pouches for display (and there were many displaying for our group).
The frigate birds are also the pirates of the Galapagos bird communities. They’ll wait for other birds to bring fish up to the surface, then sweep in and steal the booty. This is apparently why the boobies swallow their fish whole.
In addition to spectacular opportunities to ponder bird life, North Seymour is also a great place to contemplate natural selection. Like other islands in the Galapagos, it’s covered with prickly pear trees (Opuntia echios – for those of you keen on looking up the biology). But unlike on Isla Santa Cruz, where they grow 20 feet high, on North Seymour, they are low to the ground. Seymour also has a thriving population of land iguanas – but that’s a new thing.
The land iguanas ruled Isla Santa Cruz, along with the giant tortoises until a couple of hundred years ago, when a new, invasive species began taking over the island. Incidentally, this same invasive species thought it would be interesting to transplant the land iguana to North Seymour (where it never lived before).
Iguanas love those prickly pear cacti. Because North Seymour had never had land iguanas, the cactus trees never had any need to grow very tall. With the introduction of the land iguana, the low-lying cactus trees have suffered some, but have ultimately helped maintain a healthy land iguana population on the island. This is a really fortunate thing, as they have become extinct on their homeland of Isla Santa Cruz.
It’s a shear quirk of history that the land iguanas of Santa Cruz are still around for us to see. There are plans to reintroduce them from North Seymour back to their native land of Santa Cruz. But no one ever said going home was easy – no matter what species you are. And reverse culture shock is a very real thing.