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Saturday, May 20, 2017

GALAPAGOS PILGRIMAGE PART 4: Truth & the Unreliable Narrator

“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy." 
- Some old guy with all the best words
Male blue-footed booby assuming display posture.
Blue-footed-booby-doing-mating-display portion of photo (lower half) Credit: Dawn Cerrone. Diving-blue-footed-booby-portion of photo (upper half) Credit: Scott Dietz.
Human male assuming display posture 
(Picture posted on MadSci Network – not attributed)

That reminds me.

Sgt. Rock asked me about my trip to the Galapagos. 

With a perplexed forehead he said, “Why did you go to the Galapagos?” which to my ear included the subtext, “…when you could have laid back in St. Martin, sippin’ gin and juice?” (Editor’s note: After some reflection, it should be noted that the phrase, ‘sippin’ gin and juice’ would be more characteristic of something Kip might say.)

I suppose I could have explained how a tropical paradise holds reduced appeal for old fat men who haven’t come to terms with their diminished physicality (talk about existential angst) but instead I tried out my narrative about wanting to experience the truth of evolution. In the course of answering, I mentioned the marine iguanas unique to the Galapagos — evolved for life in the sea. 

Trying my best to parrot the information I gleaned from my guides, I told Sgt. Rock that only marine iguanas can swim. 

Sgt. Rock stopped me there, his formerly perplexed forehead resolving into a more confrontational furrowed-brow configuration. He told me about his recent seaside exploration of St. Martin and how its clumsy land iguanas, basking on high rocks at the shoreline, would occasionally misstep and plunge into the ocean. If I were to re-imagine how the conversation went from this point, it would go:

Sgt. Rock raised a single eyebrow, the hint of a smile emerging at the corner of his lips, coupled with that distinctive eye-sparkle which precedes devastating sarcastic wit. “Do you want to know how those LAND iguanas escaped their fates?” he asked in a purely rhetorical fashion. “They SWIM!” he boomed with the expected rhetorical flourish.

And instantly, my intellectual self- assuredness shriveled 2 - 3 inches.

I had to concede what I had said was wrong. Faced with Sgt. Rocks eyewitness account, I couldn’t dispute him. I tried to re-formulate my understanding. Perhaps marine iguanas are the only iguanas that ROUTINELY choose to go swimming — a decided advantage for an animal that subsists on intertidal and subtidal algae.

The teeth of the marine iguana, I was told, are specially adapted to scrape algae off rocks (they look like little forks — exaggerated tricuspids). I examined the skulls of mummified marine iguanas on two different islands and confirmed the presence of forked teeth — at least in the dead ones. Since then I’ve googled iguana teeth to find out what the teeth of land iguanas look like (though I have no reason to distrust my guides) and am satisfied that the teeth of land and marine iguanas differ.

Significantly, the comparison above is between Amblyrhynchus cristatus (the Galapagos marine iguana) with Iguana iguana and not Amblyrhynchus demarlii (the Galapagos land iguana). The specimens of land iguana I observed appeared to almost be gumming their food and I wasn’t able to see their teeth at all.
‘Knowing’ is not so easy. I can’t always go around dropping land iguanas into the ocean or prying open the mouths of marine iguanas to look at their teeth to verify all that I read and hear. I don’t have the necessary funds to follow marine iguanas into the sea to observe exactly what it is they do out there. So, I must often rely on the accounts of others. To rely on the accounts of others means the quality of my world-view is dependent on the quality of my sources. And because we live in a world so interdependent on disparate, specialized realms of technology, we have an implicit obligation to responsibly disseminate the bits we’ve managed to acquire.

I managed to track down my bad assumption about swimming iguanas to a beautiful scene from the movie Master and Commander. 

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World     20th Century Fox
In the scene, Dr. Maturin and Midshipman Blakeney (both in an excited state) are sharing a telescope while observing the shoreline (for the first time) as their ship, the Surprise, approaches Isla Bartolome.  

Blakeney: Ooh Look! There’s one going for a swim.

Dr. Maturin: (Surprised) Iguanas don’t swim. They’re land animals.

Blakeney: (Peering through telescope) These ones do.

Dr. Maturin: (taking telescope) Well, I’ll be damned….

The implication here is that my comprehension of reality is clearly infected by movies — the distinction between fact and fiction, evidently blurry. It’s something to keep in mind (So special thanks to Sgt. Rock for refining my knowledge).

How we determine what is true is a topic that seems forever to be in conflict with what we wish to be true. Because I recognize that I have an affinity for the theory of evolution, and because I want to share the excitement and wonder that goes with learning about it, I’ll take extra pains to be reliable and not overstate things. 

TOP: Land Iguana observed on Isla Santa Fe: Eats cactus and plants — Lies around like a log.
BOTTOM: Marine Iguana observed on Isla Espanola: Swims out to sea and presumably eats algae — Sneezes salty water out its nose — Drapes itself over black rocks under the hot sun.
In his journal, Darwin wrote of marine iguanas, “It is a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid, and sluggish in its movements… Their tails are flattened sideways, and all four feet partially webbed. They are occasionally seen some hundred yards from the shore, swimming about; and Captain Collnett, in his Voyage says, “They go to sea in herds a–fishing, and sun themselves on the rocks;…”

Though the toes of the marine iguana were elongated and pointy, I wasn’t able to verify that they were partially webbed. And elsewhere in his notes, Darwin discredits Captain Collnett's careless assertion that the iguanas go a-fishing. He knew from cutting open their algae-stuffed bellies, that they were vegetarians. (Generally, it is safe to say that the guides discouraged me from doing similar experiments.)

The crew optimized our time by performing their navigation duties during the night.

At some point while I slumbered, the catamaran’s throbbing twin diesel engines eventually cut off with a small flourish of cascading, chattering anchor chains. Then, tethered in the darkness — stepping in and out of dreams, I began to discern the relative quiet of gentle waves rhythmically slapping the windward hull. Much later the equatorial sun leapt up into the sky pouring light into the portholes and I ascended the cabin’s ladder and stepped out into the new day. 

We were parked offshore San Cristobal, or Chatham Island as it was known when Darwin set foot here.

Looking down the coast of San Cristobal from Isla Lobos, Kicker Rock is visible on the horizon to the left, and in the distance beyond (slightly to the right) Cerro Brujo.

Isla Lobos isn’t much different from a jetty. It shelters a channel that makes an ideal sea lion hangout, and the rocky islet itself is something of a booby rookery.

The sea lions aren’t at all shy.

In fact, the sea lions, able to proceed with impunity, have taken on characteristics that we recognize in privileged humans — that is, they can be real buttholes.

Actually, for this picture to be homologous, I would have had to scratch my neck with my feet. Interesting sidenote: Sea lions have all their leg bones, but only the feet and ankles stick outside the contours of the body.

Sea lions, according to evolution’s narrative, were land-mammal relatives that found themselves returning to the sea. Though their limbs are flippers and their streamlined insulated bodies are fit for life in the ocean, they still sport the bones that are characteristic of all mammals.

In the same way I’m inclined to anthropomorphize dogs, I felt powerfully inclined to do so for sea lions as well. In the water, they seem curious and fun loving, and I am almost certain they invited the more graceful snorkelers among us to join them in their joyful swim-dancing. Unfortunately for me, squeezing my streamlined shape into a wetsuit resulted in a vague characterization of something like a lethargic killer whale and so I played my usual role as a wallflower.

Walking among the boulders of Isla Lobos, I got a more in-depth opportunity to observe the behaviors of the blue-footed boobies.

A chronic anthropomorphizer, I like to imagine these courting birds bragging about the size and color of their…feet.

The presentation of the ‘twig’ (The male has the tiny pupils).

One bachelor makes his move on a booby MILF.

Evidently, booby courtship can be just as confusing as other species'.

To be continued…

Wednesday, April 5, 2017


“These people have learned not from books, but in the fields, in the wood, on the river bank. Their teachers have been the birds themselves, when they sang to them, the sun when it left a glow of crimson behind it at setting, the very trees, and wild herbs.”
  Anton Chekhov, “A Day in the Country”

“We are tossed about by external causes in many ways, and like waves driven by contrary winds, we waver and are unconscious of the issue and our fate.' We think we are most ourselves when we are most passionate, whereas it is then we are most passive, caught in some ancestral torrent of impulse or feeling, and swept on to a precipitate reaction which meets only part of the situation because without thought only part of a situation can be perceived.”
 ― Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy

“Thanks, Scott, for your comments. I am grateful.
Very simply, we can encounter God without even reading the Bible. Aquinas says if you want to know something about God, then begin with creation.


I'm having trouble finding attribution info for the Pee Wee picture - likely Warner Pictures
Who’s that sexy thang I see over there?
That’s me, standin’ in the mirror…
…If I was you, I’d want to be me too.
—Meghan Trainor

Elvis picture from very cool poster at

‘Cause I’m a model, you know what I mean
And I do my little turn on the catwalk
Yeah, on the catwalk
On the catwalk, yeah
I shake my little tush on the catwalk
Right Said Fred

Portland to Charlotte, to Miami, to Quito and finally to Baltra Island in the Galapagos archipelago (600 miles off the coast of Ecuador) - Map illustration derived from Google Earth
The Ecuadorian flight attendants were uncannily identical in appearance — from their red hats (faintly reminiscent of Hot Dog on a Stick Uniforms) to their tight bun hairdos to their matching lipstick — so that I was unsure whether I had slid into an alternate universe of 60’s stewardesses or a future populated by identical clones. In either case, they performed their jobs with military efficiency and no sooner had the plane landed, then all the doors were thrown open and we passengers spilled down the closest set of ramp- stairs to the sun baked tarmac.

Though I am handicapped by a severe case of monolingualism, the airport personnel were experienced enough, and our cruise guides attentive enough that I merely needed the skills of a cow to be herded to the transfer buses. Languid iguanas watched our little tourist parade with their impassive sidewise gaze, a gaze that because it only half meets our own, manages to seem indifferent…but probably really is indifferent. 

All the buses followed a curvy, dusty road down to what appeared to be the only destination on Baltra, a dock on the side of a small bay, where we were all deposited — a giant bolus of privileged humanity — into a staging area then sifted and spread onto our prospective boats.

While the fleet of excursion vessels prepared to disperse among the different islands, the passengers of the Nemo III were baptized into the equatorial waters of the bay through voluntary self-dunkings as we strove to demonstrate our capacities to regain entry into the kayaks we would soon be using (provided we mastered this skill). For me it perfectly accentuated the idea that I was suddenly immersed into a new environment.

Darwin spent 1 month in the Galapagos (Sept. 17th – Oct. 17th), though only 24 days actually spent on just 4 of the islands. Ultimately, I would set foot on 5 different islands and 4 islets over the course of 7 days, only two of which I’d have in common with Darwin. I mention this because when I figured it out, I was surprised at how little time he spent there on a voyage that lasted almost 5 years. Clearly, the ideas that were eventually triggered by observations in the Galapagos occurred only in the context of the rest of his observations on the South American Continent and other island chains spanning the globe — not to mention his academic training. I imagine he had to know very well how things were 'KNOWN' to be, in order to recognize the subtle importance of say, tortoises customized for each island.

The Galapagos Islands are volcanos that arise from the activity of a stationary hotspot underneath the Nazca tectonic plate. As the Nazca plate inches eastward over the hotspot on its way to subverting South America (causing frequent earthquakes in Ecuador) the resulting chain of islands poking above the ocean can be seen as a trace of the plate’s motion over geologic time, the islands to the West being the youngest and the Easternmost the oldest and most weathered. This idea of tectonic plates — drifting and colliding continental jigsaw pieces — would have been of keen interest to Darwin, who was looking for ways to explain why he was finding seashells embedded thousands of feet high in the South American mountains.

Not wasting any time, our nimble 75 foot catamaran sliced its way to North Seymour which would serve as my introduction to what the islands had to offer. “North Seymour — the island where you will ‘see more’” said Veronica the guide, seemingly embarrassed  before she even started saying it, but determined to share the dubious homophone regardless.

Our arrival at North Seymour was much like approaching a bird-shit stained jetty. I didn’t know if this was going to be a big island or a little island (I did research ahead of time, but my variable memory of 13 major islands with their alternate names didn’t include this one) and I didn’t really know enough to have a preference. In retrospect, I can imagine that this little flat shelf was a remnant of a Santa Cruz lava flow in a long past distant epoch. 

Long before we arrived I could see distinctive birds circling over the island vultures…or perhaps pterodactyls.

The crew took us to shore in what, by common consent, was referred to as a ‘panga’…but having grown up with Jacques Cousteau specials, I thought it resembled a ‘Zodiac’ (and began to wish I had a Steve Zissou style red watch-cap instead of my camouflaged boonie hat).

Nocturnal gull

Andres, our other guide (besides Veronica) soon explained that the circling birds were frigate birds. There were two kinds of frigate birds. Great frigate birds and Magnificent frigate birds. When Andres said it, it sounded like Mag-KNEE-fee-cent frigate birds, which to my mind, sounded somehow more spectacular. Turns out, these birds make a living by stealing from other birds which explains why they patrol the territory from high in the sky like opportunistic drones looking for a vulnerable target.  Andres explained how to distinguish magnificent frigate birds from great frigate birds (something about an ‘M’ on their chests?), but as I was often some distance away frantically searching my backpack for the wrong lens to use during our guide’s comprehensive explanations, I missed this subtle point.

A male frigate bird with red inflated I'm-ready-to-have-sex display

Like a peacock's ridiculous tail, this football sized red balloon shows how bad-assed its owner is since it can still perform all its alpha-bird functions while heavily disadvantaged.

Probably not a male frigate bird

The frigate bird's nest is not very elaborate.

The male frigate bird blows up his throat pouch display which essentially screams, "Pay attention to me! Pay attention to me!" Eventually he will stage a big production with his wings which will unfortunately remind me of Chinese Opera.

At this point, unexpectedly thrown (well, not entirely unexpectedly thrown) into a real life nature documentary, I began to imagine I could hear David Attenborough’s voice commenting about everything I happened to look at.  High above me, a dozen fork- tailed birds wheeled in a haphazard gyre while my audio hallucination whispered  “…frigate birds spend —months — continuously airborne at sea.” in that hushed way he has that makes it feel like you’re conspiring together not to have the T.V. animals over-hear.

Ecuadorians have come to treasure their Galapagos Islands and have grown serious about protecting them and the island’s unique species. To visit the islands, you need to be accompanied by a certified guide, stay on designated trails, refrain from bringing food, and keep a prescribed distance from the animals no matter how they try to interact with you.

Historically, the animals of the Galapagos (even many of the birds) exhibit no fear of humans. It’s as if they are consciously ignoring you. But when it comes to the sea lions, it seems they not only understand they are immune from human disturbance, they like to rub that fact in your face — how else to explain their propensity to nap in the middle of the designated trails? Because of this behavior, and others, it is easy for me to feel kinship with these fellow mammals who have abandoned life on land.

Sea lions are kind of perfect role models if you want to take a lazy vacation. But from what I’ve seen, they share my short-sightedness with regard to career goals.

In the distance, I noted Daphne Major’s abrupt shoreline and appreciated all the more the story of Peter and Rosemary Grant’s research as chronicled in The Beak of the Finch — a book I’d been reading previous to my trip — an amazing account that gives insight into the incredible discipline required to see evolution happen in real time ( 
In their unique island laboratory, they’ve been continuously studying generations of finches for 40 years.

August falls into the Galapagos’ garĂșa season, cooler weather marked by mist and clouds that shroud the highlands. The guides explained that the Humboldt current (cold water circulating up from the Antarctic) moderates the temperature here to the upper, middle seventies (Fahrenheit) while also infusing the water with a wealth of plankton and krill. Otherwise, there isn’t much precipitation, and the lower landscapes where the clouds cannot reach remain arid and appear desert-like. 

The shrub-like trees that grow here remind me of the krummholz back home that vie for existence at the upper limits of the timberline. Krummholz is the German word that means twisted wood and should never be used in the sentence, “I want to kiss you so please wipe that cheese away from your krummholz.”

Cacti will (unbeknownst to me at this point) greet us in many different forms as we hop from island to island, but for now, this one tempts the local land iguanas with fleshy pads of refreshment…almost out of reach.

(Yes I know. This iguana is not actually eating cactus. But at the evening photo review, it became evident that others had caught it in the act of propping itself on its hind legs to grasp at the lowest hanging cactus pads)

When I shared these pictures at the evening picture review, my serendipitous travel cohorts accused me of being a typical guy — focused primarily on butts and boobies (booby jokes never get old…right? I mean right?).

As I watched the booby set about laying out a poop nest, various questions occurred to me:
Is this a booby dream home?
Do prospective mates find this sexy?
How does one compare this to other poop nests (texture, smell, distance expelled, or symmetrical dispersal)?
Is there a booby vocational college that teaches poop-nests 101 — and if not, what the hell?
How many meals does this represent?
Is there an equivalent human behavior (for instance, in a material culture, do we tend to surround ourselves with a lot of shit?)
Is that anus blue?
…and did you just catch yourself looking?

By strictly evolutionary standards, I’m an abject failure. As an animal standing amidst all my cousin animals, I wonder if my failure is due to succumbing to bad instincts, or overruling good instincts with untested ideologies (free will, individuality, golden rules) springing from an experimental brain. Would I be happier if, in my late teens, I was seized by an overpowering urge to make a poop-nest?

Is my genetic makeup such that I would have better thrived as a Viking, utilizing my bulk to wield a broad-sword or battle axe —“… to crush my enemies, see them driven before me…” — only to be (upon return from raiding parties) forever confounded by smaller, quicker-thinking lawyers and accountants?

A well adjusted blue-footed booby making a living, diving recklessly into the ocean for fish among the rocks and surf.

Boobies doing what comes naturally.

To be continued...

see also:

Galapagos Pilgrimage Part 1

Galapagos Pilgrimage Part 2

Galapagos Pilgrimage Part 4


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