Friday, 4 December 2009

Welcome to Paradise!

Imagine soft morning light filtering through the curtains, dancing across your face. Imagine your bed gently swaying back and forth, rocking you lightly, and soothing your transition from sleep to the waking world. Imagine the dulcet tones of Robbie Williams' “Angels” whispering in your ear. And then a soft Spanish voice encourages you to.......

“Open your your eyes ......... Welcome ..... to ........ another day ........ in Paradise .............. the Galapagos ...........Islands.”

And so you pry your eyes open, you pull back the curtain and gaze across the shimmering blue sea, twinkling and winking, reflecting the gentle rays of the early morning sun. Then your eyes shift and come to rest on the nearest land and you wonder:

“What on earth is that man going on about? That looks more like hell than paradise to me!”

The land is parched and dry. The vegetation is sparse and struggling to survive in the harsh landscape that greets you. Waves crash down on the black tortured rock that lumbers up from the never ending pounding of the sea. The land rising from the sea is buckled and rippled, ribbons of rock that once flowed down the side of a mountain, now frozen in place, hard, brittle and sharp. There is no lush green vegetation here. No waterfalls with water playfully leaping and splashing down into turquoise pools of crystal clear water. There are no clouds of graceful butterflies flapping lazily through the air or birds of paradise displaying their feathered coats of endless colour. Oh no. The wind is whipping sand and grit over the rocky lunar landscape. Cacti are clinging on for dear life and the rocks are covered in repulsive reptiles that spit and sneeze. And the smell .............. well, that could have emanated from the bottom of Beelzebub himself. Now where is the paradise in that?

As with many things, perhaps the beauty of this place is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps one has to scratch the surface and look for the beauty beneath its cracked and tortured skin.

Some beauty is immediately obvious. Just look at these gorgeous creatures. Your heart will just melt when you see their cute button noses, their soft, endearing faces with deep brown eyes into whose depths you could fall and drown. Don’t you just want to hug them, kiss them, squeeze them, stroke their silky smooth fur and then take one home to keep? My only advice is to make sure that you never, ever inhale through your nose too deeply while in the near vicinity of these guys because, despite their adorable, loveable looks, they stink to high heaven and have the foulest breath imaginable. And another word of warning, the males are rather territorial and like to sneak up on you when you are not looking. I might look all relaxed and happy in this photo (trust me, I do, even though my face is just a blur to you), but let’s just say that a couple of seconds later, there was a very large honk behind me and I was out of there in the wink of a sea lion's eye.

So, I think that we can all agree that the sea lions are very beautiful, if a little smelly. But is beauty so very important? This is just one of those many things in life that bugs me. Just the other day, Prince Charles was visiting Canada, with his wife Camilla. Now, how many times have you heard someone state that they don’t like her because she is ugly? How shallow is that? Since when should you judge someone based on how they look? How many of these people have ever actually met her, spoken to her or know anything about her? For all I know, she could be a thoroughly unpleasant person who eats kittens for breakfast and practices her golf swing using hamsters. On the other hand, she might be a genuinely lovely person. There is no way you can tell, based on her looks. I suppose the reason that judging people in this way bugs me so much is that I am not exactly one of the world’s beautiful people. I find it hard to believe that anyone is so vain and so shallow that they would ever contemplate joining (or attempting to join) this group, but then again, that might just be because I can’t.

Anyway, the whole point of this mini rant is to introduce one of my favourite animals found on the Galapagos. They are not exactly easy on the eye and there is no way that they would ever be accepted by www. (don’t bother going there, I just made it up). Even Darwin was struck by their ugliness:

“The black lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large, most disgusting, clumsy Lizards. They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl … I call them 'imps of darkness’. They assuredly well become the land they inhabit.”

He also said that they were “hideous-looking creatures, of a dirty black colour, stupid and sluggish in their movements."

A little bit harsh, perhaps, but, I am not going to dispute the fact that the marine iguanas have not been graced with good looks. However, they really are the most wonderfully fascinating creatures. OK, so they do lie around a lot in very large numbers and they do spit and sneeze and snort a lot, which appears to be quite disgusting, but there are very good reasons for these behaviours. The marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) of the Galapagos are the world’s only sea faring lizards. These amazing creatures feed on the green seaweed that coats the surface of the rocks that surround the islands. The smaller, younger lizards graze on the rocks closest to the surface, while the older, larger lizards forage further out and deeper down. Their blunt, flattened faces allow them to crop the green algae close to the rock’s surface and they can dive for up to thirty minutes. Actually, there is some evidence that they can stay submerged for even longer than this. Apparently a crew member of The Beagle submerged an iguana for an hour and when he pulled it out it was still alive. I am not sure such an experiment would meet standard operating procedures for animal care these days!

Marine iguanas are ectotherms (I could use the less technical term of cold blooded, but I am a biologist and I didn’t spend years of my life learning all this jargon to then not use it. Besides, cold blooded would imply that these lizards have cold blood, which is not necessarily true. What it really means is that their body temperature is dependent on external sources of heat, such as the sun). We can now see why they spend so much time lolling around cluttering up the beaches and rocks of the coastline. They are sunbathing, soaking up the sun’s heat in order to increase their internal body temperature. It also explains why they tend to huddle in large groups, since this helps them maintain their heat and it explains why they are often black, since this helps them absorb more of the sun’s thermal energy. Once they reach a certain temperature, off they trundle to take a quick dip in the salty brine and have a bite to eat. They cannot stay in the sea too long, since the water is cold and it soon sucks the heat from their bodies. Once back on shore, the basking lizards can often be seen snorting water from their nostrils over quite large distances. While this is not the most attractive feature of these creatures, it is their way of getting rid of the excess salt that builds up in their bodies.

As you can see from these photos, the marine iguanas can be quite variable in size and colour. The males tend to be more colourful during the breeding period and size will depend on which island the lizards are found and the availability of food. One island in particular, EspaƱola Island (formerly known as Hood Island), has lizards that are bright green and red. Quite conveniently for me, given the time of year that I am writing this, they are often called the Christmas iguanas. So, enjoy the photos and I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas! And please, don’t hold their looks against them, for the marine iguanas of the Galapagos are the most delightful of creatures whose biggest flaw is the fact that they are a definite tripping hazard as you wander around these fascinating and captivating islands.


Cortes said...

What a great post! I feel so much in common with these lizards (not the snorting and spitting part, but the lying around and sunning part), and I find them quite fascinating. So many diverse shapes, sizes and colors, but all quite nasty looking.

The little guy in the last picture has always been my favorite. Did he meet any of his relatives?

jabblog said...

This is a most interesting and informative post. Marine iguanas certainly aren't beautiful in the heart-melting manner of the sea lions but they are fascinating creatures. The colour variations are interesting - do they indicate sub-species? They remind me of an actor but I can't quite summon up his name - it's something about the mouth . . .
Great stuff - thank you for sharing and Happy Christmas to you too :-)

Sistertex said...

I do believe the inguana's of the world will be extending their highest award to you....probably in the mail now. ;)

Seriously, if I had another award to give, I'd give it to you.

You are an excellent writer and obviously *very* through and through to be able to share your inner beauty so artistically. There is absolutely nothing about your post I did not find *very* enjoyable. Beautifully written and photographed.

Sistertex said...

Books, you must write some if you have not! I really do think you are terrific!

Happy and Safe Holidays.

Don't Bug Me! said...

Cortes: Unfortunately for poor Wallace, he did not meet any of his relatives. I suspect that moisture-dependent amphibians cannot survive the trip by raft from the mainland to the islands, and for this reason the islands have never been colonized by them.

Jabblog: Good question, but I believe that they are all still considered the same species, with no subspecies.

Sistertex: I do love your comments! You are just so kind. As for the book, well, I do think about one. I might just start by using my blog and photos as the basis for a South America book and see how that goes.

Suldog said...

There's actually something noble about being so ugly as those lizards.

(I use the term "ugly" because it's readily understood, even though I don't think they are necessarily so.)

Really, they have a bearing to them that is absent in some of the more normally beautiful species.

jay said...

That one of the red and black iguana peeping over the rock with his 'hand' over the front is priceless! LOL! Bless him, he doesn't think he's ugly, so he's not. ;)

Beautiful People? I don't even want to browse as a guest. Ye gods ... *insert eye roll here*.

Great post, as usual! :D

Baino said...

Gorgeous. I've just been watching a rerun of David Attenborough's Life of Reptiles and he did a huge segment on the iguanas using thermal photography showing how they need to warm up before they dive and then have to re-surface all blue and frigid after about 30 minutes because they're so cold. Brilliant things. Trust me, I'm no oil painting so people in glass houses . . .

Kate said...

Brilliant - as usual... I have just come back from Gran Canaria where one evening there was a reptile show (which I normally detest because they don't care for their animals much out there) with a difference! There I met Bobby the Iguana - he was huge and obviously loved by his owner - even travelled on the passenger seat of the car!!
More importantly he was introduced to anyone who wanted to get up close and he was absolutely beautiful!!!! He sat with us all evening and definitely changed my mind about these guys!!!

Don't Bug Me! said...

Suldog: I quite agree!

Jay: Thanks - and I was not even tempted to look at the beautiful people webpage. i only went there to get the URL. I did try looking for www.uglypeople and there is such a site. I wouldn't recommend going there though, since it does not just show faces........eeeuuw.

Baino: Ooooh, I just saw that too. I miss a lot of his series here in Canada, so I just buy the DVDs when they come out and I just finished watching Life in Cold Blood - excellent, as usual. Now I am waiting for Life to be released here in North America. Although, it is actually showing here at the moment - next week Insects!

Kate: I once knew a guy who had a pet iguana. He had a rather large scar down the side of his face where the iguana had scratched him one day. It was huuuuuge (the iguana) and they do have very large claws. It is definitely not a good pet for most people! Still, I am glad that you got to meet Bobby to see just how beautiful these animals are, in their own special way.

Anya said...

This is a AMAZING post :-)
And so the truth !!!
You can write very well,
my compliments
I am also a GREAT nature lover :-)