The terrestrial guide to Santa Isabela Island (Report #56 - 2012)
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Day three Villamil, Santa Isabela Island, Galapagos. This article will be called "The Terrestrial Guide to Santa Isabela Island". [abridged version]. It will contrast conditions here with Santa Cruz in the following areas. [people][geology][flora-plants][fauna-animals] and [development]. Be cautioned however that this will be subjective based on direct observations and discussions with a variety of local residents. It is NOT meant to be definitive, but simply to give our readers a taste of our experiences. Any and all inaccuracies need to be forgiven!

Saturday morning and crew has been divided into work parties. Seta leads the group of Jim, Kele, Tuks, Iva and Bob as they change booms and put up the Bermuda sails. Salome, her usual busy self, is cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom including an immaculate scrubbing of the stove while Ben goes on shore to collect the last minute stores primarily meat, fresh vegies and fruits [we found tavioka!]. Kim and Filo are representing the Uto ni Yalo at a coconut tree planting [2 reps from each drua]. Mausio and Seru are filling water continers on shore. This leg of 23 plus days requires almost monk-like use of water. We have 40 containers on board plus 5 reserve and 4 additional "emergency" containers that we never touch. With strict fresh water rationing we can consume nearly two containers each day almost solely used for cooking and drinking purposes. All baths, clothes washing and tooth brushing will be done in sea water. Mausio has devised a checkout system for water containers so that every one used is accurately accounted for.

Skipper conducted an informal class in course planning as we ready for our 1500 hours embarking. We are heading SW to Faite Island, Tuamotus in French Polynesia 3350 nm away! We are hoping for sailing winds to accompany favourable westerly currents that will enable us to maintain speeds of 6 knots. Will those conditions bring with it the edible fish we missed on our southerly heading along the coast of Baha, Central and South America? We have the enthusiastic fishermen and they have the lines and lures to attract even the most finnicky finned fish!

All those born in the Galapagos are Ecuadorean citizens. Those intending to visit, seek employment, reside or study here are required to apply to the central government for the appropriate visa. Tourists find no difficulty in visiting the islands, but are restricted to a prescribed number of days. Tourism is the single most significant source of income on the islands with coffee and sugar cane a far distant second. Most things grown here are either eaten by the grower or sold in a local market. Fishing is controlled and all fish are sold locally. Most species eaten are deep water and the inshore-reef varieties are not fished for.

Is there illegal fishing going on? That depends upon who you talk to. Rumour has it that sharks are still fished for around certain islands. We have NO way of confirming this speculation. Shark fins and other products derived from the shark will fetch a good deal of money from wholesalers who have no conscience about shark fisheries and what is currently happening to shark populations worldwide.

The population on Santa Cruz exceeds 20,000 while Santa Isabela is less than 3000. Isabela has a larger land mass, but much of it is five volcanic "mountains" rising up to nearly 5000 feet each! Those living on Isabela call Puerta Ayora of Santa Cruz a big city. By relative terms it would be compared to Villamil here on Isabela.There are no paved roads except for an open stretch that leads to the base of Sierra Negra, an active volcano in the vicinity. The town consists of a series of houses that parallel the beach that double for restaurants, bars, guest houses [no hotels], shops [a few] and government buildings including a hospital and school.

Ayora is well developed with a proper landing area for water taxis, many shops, supermarket, post office, large hospital, a variety of restaurants, bars and night clubs. In other words it lacks nothing to support the tourist industry. It extends away from the water and has paved roads leading away from the city. Isabela offers a different tourist environment with a more rustic approach to the tourist industry. The people are friendly on both islands with those on Isabela perhaps more attuned to a rural lifestyle. As we shared with you in another article Isabela has its origins as a penal colony for mainland Ecuador. The descendants of those early criminals are fiercely proud of their heritage and point to that fact whenever you talk to them.    

Perhaps that's the reason that there are so many introduced and invasive species of plants here among the many indigenous marine and terrestrial animals. The people here have been focussed on eking out a living more than maintaining a pristine environment. Today however they have grown aware that tourists are seeking what Charles Darwin saw both from a botanical and zoological perspective. There has been an attempt at restoring former habitats, especially in the area surrounding the volcanoes where they have eradicated a very large population of goats and pigs. Both animals, introduced many years ago as food sources, were responsible for destroying Giant tortoise habitat and the pigs also ate the young tortoises. We saw no evidence of these invasive species during our six hour walk up to the crater's rim or into Volcan Chico.

The countryside, before getting to the volcanoes, has been colonised and many small farms are evident along the road. Many plant species found introduced in Fiji are also introduced here. Ornamental crotons, hydrangeas, impatiens, sunflowers, daturas, lilies are but a few of the many plants seen. Subsistence farming is not easy in this rocky and hilly terrain. Farmers grow papaya, mangos, several varieties of bananas, cassava,taro, chillies, local fruits, and the usual vegetables. Coconut trees are abundant.

Vulcanism is the prime reason these islands are developing as they are. As with the Hawaiian Islands, the Galapagos are "growing" from west to east with the older islands to the east and the younger ones to the west. Santa Isabela, we were told, is a little over two million years old, while Cruz and the other eastern islands are much less seismically and volcanically active and older.

We could imagine the barrenness of this place as it was just after the set of eruptions that first brought the submarine islands to the surfce. We saw one of the world's largest active volcanic craters at Sierra Negra [Black Mountain] aptly named for its very dark lava fields. Negra's crater is 10 kilometres in diameter from all points. It last erupted in 2005, but fumes are very noticeable in many areas in this multi-hued landscape. Fumeroles, volcanic vents abound. The youngest flow, reddish in colour,is responsible for creating large lava tubes that are said to extend all the way to and into the ocean!

The crater is so large that approximately one half has been colonised by vegetation hardy enough to survive on solidified lava and ash. You might be wondering if the Galapagos began as extensions of underwater volcanic mountains that grew as new lava emerged a few million years ago where did all this biodiversity come from? It certainly wasn't here when the islands first emerged. This is where the term "ecological succession" becomes important in helping us understand the processes that brought about those changes. You might also ask "If you weren't there all those years ago, who can you be sure that it happened that way?"

That's where a second interesting concept becomes important in this discussion. It's called "uniformitarianism" and it actually was identified and coined by a contemporary of Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell a British geologist. Basically what he recognised and explained was that the processes that shaped the earlier earth are the same as those occurring today thus there is a consistency in the mechanisms that cause earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, weathering of rock etc - thus uniform - itarianism. Now if this was true and most scientists accept it, then if we could find a volcanic area that has recently erupted and in some way contributed to island building then we could study those processes and relate them back in time to the Galapagos, Hawaii and other archipelagos that owe their origin to undersea vulcanism.

One was found in Indonesia, the island of Krakatoa near Java. In this case the actual island of Kraktoa was a volcano, but it had not been very active for eons and a thriving set of ecosystems was present. In one gigantic explosion that threw pyroclastic material from the volcano hundreds of meters into the air and spewed so much ash that it formed a ring around the earth and brilliant sunsets were experienced as far away as Great Britain the entire island was laid barren and all life obliterated. The landscape was similar to areas we observed at Sierra Negra! Nothing alive only hot molten material at first, then cooled lava into rock and volcanic ash covering vast areas of the now barren environment.

Now we can look more closely at ecological succession. Scientists were quick to grasp the opportunity to study how long it would take organisms to re-establish themselves on Krakatoa. Their initial hypotheses suggested it would take many years for life to reappear. They were wrong! Even before all areas had cooled "pioneer" species were arriving and establishing themselves. What could get to an island that quickly and possess the right set of traits to survive and multiply? You guessed it, certin varieties of plants whose seeds or spores could be carried by the winds, followed by those that could float there followed by those that could be carried by animals [undigested seeds that birds have in their droppings]. Thus the word succession. One species after another established themselves. As they grow they begin to change the physical environment around them. Roots break or even dissolve rocks. Dead leaves add minerals to help form soil. In fact some plants are adapted to thrive in volcanic ash! In the case of Sierra Negra we saw ferns growing in places where nothing could survive. A critical abiotic factor? You guessed it - fresh water from frequent rainfall. That's why astro-biologists are keen to find evidence of water on Mars - for where the water is there are possibilities of life. As the landscape was gradually altered additional plant varieties could establish themselves.

What other organisms could also get a foothold now? Think logically. What species can fly or swim? Insects followed, feeding on the plants, finding niches, breeding sites and expanding their populations. Birds followed feeding on both the insects and the plants and finding shelter and nesting sites there. Succession was in full swing and it wasn't going to stop at that. As organisms died or defecated the newly formed soils became richer. Strong swimmers now made their way there as the island populations were establishing food chains and webs. In the case of Krakatoa large monitor lizards and snakes arrived as did some mammals. The weaker swimmers found their way there on natural rafts of wood and vegetation. Before too long the island of Krakatoa was reborn!

In the case of the Galapagos this process took longer as the newly emerged islands were relatively isolated from the mainland sources of supply of organisms. Other scientists suggest that isolation tends to produce gigantism among many of the species that migrate there. Thus "giant" tortoises and giant cacti both evolved from mainland species that are significantly smaller than their island cousins! In the case of Indonesia we find the Komodo Dragon, a giant monitor lizard living isolated on one or two islands there. There are still many questions to be answered. Read Quateman's "The Song of the Dodo" for a greater insight into island evolution.

Having walked the primal rock and ash that would have formed the substrate for such succession and seeing it in action today while treking Sierra Negra and Volcan Chico gives us a clearer picture and greater understanding of how this all happened so long ago. In passing you might wonder why Hawaii has different plants and animals from Fiji and from the Galapagos. Ah that's for another article. Apologies if all this "science" has borerd you, but to we fortunate few that are getting to "live" it, it's beginning to make sense!

tabu soro Viti........it's now Sunday March 25 0600 and we are readying for our first sunrise service. More to come as we voyage to Faite, Tuamotus, French Polynesia.

P.S. Congratulations to the Fiji Sevens players, coaches and management for a wonderful Hong Kong Sevens performance. We of the Uto ni Yalo re indeed proud of your accomplishments there. Tabu soro never fails...............nor will we.