The Tortoise and The Hare (minus the hare)

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of briefly revisiting a trip I made to the Galapagos Islands more than a decade ago courtesy of the San Francisco Zoo. They sponsored a talk by the Galapagos Conservancy, a non-profit organization which promotes conservation of these unique islands.

Sitting 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos are a treasure trove of life thanks to the cold enriched waters of the Humboldt Current. It was these islands which inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. (If you enjoy non-fiction, Darwin’s travels are chronicled in “The Voyage of the Beagle.” And, if you like movies, be sure to catch Russell Crowe in “Master and Commander – the Far Side of the World” parts of which were filmed in Galapagos.)

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Many things have changed since I had the pleasure of visiting, like the increase in the resident human population. Despite its remoteness, Ecuadorians can earn a higher standard of living than in much of mainland Ecuador, largely due to tourism – which is another huge impactor. Ecuador is working to regulate both and keep them sustainable.

The animals have seen drastic change as well, both good and bad. The long term project to restore the populations of giant tortoises on each island is going well (each island is home to a genetically distinct sub-species of tortoise). The eradication of invasive (introduced) species, like goats – which destroy the vegetation the tortoises feed on – has been declared successful on Pinta, Espanola, Floreana, Santa Fe, Santiago, and most of Isabela (the largest island).

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On the other hand, a recent die-off of many marine iguanas has scientists worried. They are already investigating a decline in the Blue Footed Booby population. Though not endemic to the Galapagos – they are found elsewhere – this bird with its baby blue feet and comical mating dance is one of the islands many icons. And sadly, the most well-known icon, Lonesome George – the last surviving Pinta tortoise – was found dead on June 24, 2012, at the age of 100+. Read that line again. He was the LAST Pinta tortoise. They are now extinct.

I’m glad to have been able to see Lonesome George, yet sad others will not have the same pleasure. For safety reasons, George was kept at the research station (also for breeding with females of related sub-species, which was unsuccessful). It is sobering to stand at the edge of the tortoise pen and know that you are looking at the most unique creature you will likely ever encounter, the truest one of a kind to be found.

But not all is lost. Researchers continue their work to breed and release more tortoises to their native islands. And recently – and astonishingly – some hybrid tortoises have been discovered on Isabela’s Wolf Volcano who carry Pinta genes. So there is hope that Pinta can be re-populated with near relatives, although there will never again be another true Pinta tortoise. (If you’re wondering why one island’s tortoises would be found on another island, you can thank the sailors and whalers of yore. It’s well-known they captured and transported tortoises as a source of meat.)

Perhaps the next time I go, I’ll be able to see tortoises slowly lumbering through the scrubby brush on Pinta. And the marine iguanas, with their white salty snot coating their faces, will still be there.Image (They are the only lizard in the world which feeds underwater.)

Yes, of course I want to return. True, there are so many other places I want to visit as I’ve mentioned in other blogs. But the Galapagos are unique. And I have a thing for islands.

Friends: Old, New…and Lost

Traveling isn’t just about the local people you meet, the tour guides, the shop keepers, taxi drivers, the woman on the street corner selling you baskets, or the kind shop owner who serves you tea. If’s about your fellow countrymen whom you may encounter along the way or, if you’re traveling in a tour group, your fellow group members. It’s about the things you share: curiosity about the world, appreciation for learning new things, or excitement upon jointly experiencing a unique event.

From the small moments of “Hey – I’m from that city too!” when the girls behind me in line at the Heathrow airport overhear the Customs agent remark upon the birthplace listed on my passport, to the camaraderie which develops after many days of togetherness.

There were the palpable feelings of satisfaction and happiness emanating from every person standing on the deck of the National Geographic Endeavor as a wild polar bear trundled away after spending an hour studying us from the Norwegian ice floes surrounding our ship.  Or the admiration showered upon the lucky photographers who captured the moments of our only Orca encounter in Antarctica, and their willingness to share their photos and videos. And, speaking of photos, there are those thoughtful individuals who don’t miss the opportunity to snap some shots of others because they know that everyone appreciates pictures of themselves, especially ones they can use to re-create that experience back home for their friends and family.

Then there are the “it’s a small world moments” (like the Heathrow encounter): the time I walked into my veterinarian’s office two months after returning from the Galapagos Islands only to recognize the man standing next to me at the reception desk as a fellow passenger on that cruise. Or traveling all the way to the Seychelles Islands (in the Indian Ocean, 1400 miles off the coast of Tanzania) and learning that the woman I’m eating dinner with lives in my city, only a mile away.

But most importantly, it’s the aggregate of moments which make you realize how much you like the person trudging next to you across a glacier or lava field, how much you admire them, or simply how interesting you find them. Maybe they have a really cool job back home, maybe they’ve been to places you’ve only dreamed of going, maybe they’re really skilled at something you hope to learn yourself. Heck, maybe they not only surprise you, but put you to shame (though not a bad way), like Skip, who, at the age of 80, was the only group member walking up the stairs in the Dubai airport while the rest of us – all younger – were exhaustedly drooping over the railings of the escalator.

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Or maybe they’re just really nice, like Corrie, a warm, welcoming 70-year-old retired music teacher I met in Antarctica. I couldn’t help but like Corrie, who could? Despite being on crutches due to what she believed to be a sprained hip, and missing out on many ship activities, the smile never left her face and she never complained, even when she was obviously in pain. She was just happy to be there. She had an energy, an enthusiasm, which was contagious.

It was those qualities that Corrie exuded which made it so disappointing, so upsetting, despite having known her for only twenty days, to learn that it was not a sprain which plagued her, but a tumor in her hip joint, and myeloma eating away at her bone marrow.

The doctors said they could heal her. It would take time, of course, but they had confidence she would be back on her feet in a year or so, and able to continue her world travels. Until late summer, that is. The myeloma returned, much more aggressive than before, and a prognosis of complete recovery changed to six to nine months survival, to – heartbreakingly – six to nine days when she took a sudden turn for the worse. Corrie passed away on August 25th.

As sad as that made me, I’m glad I met her. I’m glad I took the opportunity to snap some “action” shots of Corrie in one of her rare outings on a zodiac ride to share with her and her sister (who had accompanied her on the trip) and, ultimately, with those who attended her memorial service. I was flattered to hear that one of the photos I had taken was chosen for the slideshow played for the attendees. She will remain one of my lasting memories of the Frozen Continent.

I hope that I will meet more people like her, whether it’s complete strangers I’m encountering for the first time, or friends and relatives I’m traveling with for the umpteenth time while learning new things about them, meeting them all over again.