Galapagos Islands (Part 1)

Galapagos 21 Another Sunrise           Sunrise on the Equator, Pacific Ocean

The Galapagos Islands are a chain, or archipelago, formed by volcanic action over the past 5 million years.  Located on the equator about 600 miles west of Ecuador. But what makes them special is the unique array of wildlife that is found there.  Many of the species are found nowhere else on earth and, because they lack natural predators, most have no fear of the thousands of tourists (even photographers) who come to see them every year.

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Galapagos Land Iguana, Feeding on Succulents

The Galapagos Land Iguana is primarily an herbivore, feeding mostly on cacti and other succulents and thus can go for long periods without drinking water.  This species can weigh up to 13 pounds and they can live for as long as 50 to 60 years. The female lays up to 20 eggs in burrows they have excavated.

Galapagos 07 Frigate Red Chest

 

There are two kinds of frigatebirds on the islands, but the males of both variants possess the distinctive red throat pouch which inflates into enormous heart-shaped balloons. It can take up to 30 minutes for the pouch to completely fill as the male hopes to enthrall a passing  female.

Galapagos 03 Frigate Bird with Nest MaterialFrigatebird Carrying Nesting Material

 

Nesting occurs in colonies that may include members of both variants.  The nests are constructed mostly by the female with materials brought in by the male.  The birds can have wing spans of 7 feet.

CGalapagos 04 Frigate ChickYoung Frigatebird Chick on Nest

The female lays only one egg and it may take 40-50 days to hatch.  Both parents share in the nesting and feeding after hatching.  It will take another 20-24 weeks before the juvenile fledges but they continue to be fed for another 20 weeks or more before they fend for themselves.   Because of the length of this cycle, the female can reproduce only once a year at the most.

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Galapagos Flightless Cormorant Drying “Wings”

The Flightless Cormorant is unique to the Galapagos and is found on only two of the islands.  Only 1,000 breeding pairs exist.  Having no land-based predators, natural selection favored those birds that were better built for swimming and diving.  Their wings are about 1/3rd the size needed to fly.

Galapagos 17 ComorantFlightless Cormorant with a Catch

Their courtship is unusual because it is the female that aggressively seeks out the male, and subsequently will depart her partner and offspring to re-mate serially with different males while males raise the young by themselves.

Galapagos 08 CrabSally Lightfoot Crab (Yes, really!)

Winner of my award for the creature with the best name (barely edging out the blue footed booby), the colorful  Sally Lightfoot Crab is a common sight in the Galapagos Islands.  According to one source, this little beastie is named after a famous Caribbean dancer because of its incredible agility.  I don’t know about the namesake, but these guys are quick.

Galapagos 01 SurfWave Breaking in Late Afternoon Light

 

Next:  Galapagos Islands (Part 2)

 

 

Northwest Passage (Final)

After departing Jessie Harbor on Banks Island, we headed south for yet another bizarre Arctic scene, the “Smoking Hills,” a 25-mile stretch of shoreline named by John Franklin in 1826 on his third expedition searching for the Northwest Passage.

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The Smoking Hills, Franklin Bay, Northwest Territories

The phenomenon of these burning cliffs is neither geothermal nor volcanic in origin.  Deposits of low-grade, sulfur rich coal spontaneously ignite when exposed to oxygen.  As the hills erode, the coal is exposed to the air and starts burning.

 

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Onsite View of the Smoke

We boarded the Zodiacs and headed for the shore, wondering whether the opportunity to breathe sulfuric acid was a good idea.  The climb up the muddy slopes was difficult, but soon we were looking into a ghastly scene evoking Dante’s Vestibule of Hell and the inscribed words: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

Deciding that the noxious fumes were begining to foster hyperbolic literary allusions, I returned to the shoreline to inspect what turned out to be, at least in geological terms, a psychedelic experience.

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Multi-hued Rock Formation, Franklin Bay

 

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Large Stone (Football size) with Unexplained Markings

arctic-chapter-11-d-16-09-01-3764 Multi-hued Cliffside, Franklin Bay

 

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Basalt Boulder with Folded Seams of Sulphur

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Shoreline of Franklin Bay, Northwest Territories

Before heading to the Bering Strait and our final stop in Nome, our captain deviated once again from the normal route in the hope of one last encounter with sea ice.  We headed northwest from Point Barrow, Alaska into the Arctic Ocean and a heavy fog where a batch of sea ice had been reported.  After a few hours we began to see individual chunks of ice on either side of the ship.  As the numbers increased, we could easily see dark spots on the ice just under the water—it was ice algae which is the base of the Arctic food chain. Krill shrimp feed on these algae, and krill are a key part of the diet of whales, seals, fish, and some birds.

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Ice algae–Small Dark Spots in Center Section

Sea ice also serves as resting spots for seals and walruses and we passed examples of both as the ship moved through the water.

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Bearded Seal, Arctic Ocean

 

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Walruses Abanding Ice Floe, Arctic Ocean

Finally, late in the afternoon, we turned back to the south.  Soon we would pass below the Arctic Circle into the Bering Strait and within a few days end our journey in Nome, Alaska.

Some final thoughts—

The Arctic at first glance appears to be a desolate, hostile environment.  But if one looks more closely they will see spots of brilliant colors in the tundra: reds, oranges, yellows.  The deep silence and broad landscapes suggest an emptiness but then you come upon a massive pod of hundreds of narwhals slicing through the water alongside you.  A grey leaden sky turns brilliantly red as the sun shoots through a narrow opening low on the horizon.   You stoop to inspect a tidal pool and see dozens of tiny transparent sea butterflies and sea angels, the size of your thumbnail, carried back and forth by the motion of the water.   We began our journey exploring a 25-mile long channel choked with towering icebergs and a few weeks later we came across a 25-mile stretch of hills that were on fire.  It’s an amazing place and I hope to return.

 

 

 

Northwest Passage–A Short Video

For a change of pace, I thought I would offer up something a little different in this post.  The previous ten posts about this Northwest Passage journey have consisted of words and still photographs.  This time it will be a video report with a musical background.

The Northwest Passage: Into the Arctic Circle

This was my first experiment with video and it was clearly a learning experience.  Perhaps the most important lesson is that, at least for me, a video production is a team effort.  Above all, it requires a talented editor and I had the good fortune to have an excellent partner in this effort.  Her name is Samantha Politis and she took a batch of video files shot with my Nikon D810, a few seconds of drone footage captured by Fredieric Michel, the ship’s videographer, during the visit to the Ilulissat Icefjord (used with his permission), a musical score that she and I selected (license fee paid) and weaved them into a 3 minute video.

I hope you will take a look and let us know what you think.

Next Post (This time for real)–Smoke and Fire)

Northwest Passage (9)

We were heading into the area where one of Franklin’s two ships was found in 2014 and where an active search was underway in the hopes of finding the second ship.  So far, no results had been reported and the summer window for underwater surveys would soon be ending.  Finding the HMS Erebus two years ago was a huge news story in Canada, with the initial announcement coming from the Prime Minister’s office.

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Sunrise, James Ross Strait

As the rising sun painted the morning clouds with gold and pink, we moved through James Ross Strait with King William Island on our starboard side. We then entered Rae Strait (see map below) which is named after Dr. John Rae, one of the great Arctic explorers of the 19th Century.  During a trek in 1854 searching for Franklin, Rae traveled north along the coast of Boothia Peninsula and discovered that King William Land was actually an island with a strait separating it from the North American mainland.  That fact made it a key piece of the Northwest Passage.   Fifty years later, Roald Amundsen would use Rae’s discovery by taking a route through the strait—now known as Rae Strait—and becoming the first to navigate the entire passage.

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Lord Franklin’s Fatal Expedition

King William Island also was the key to the mystery of Lord Franklin’s fate.  During that 1854 search, Rae turned up a number of artifacts from the ships and stories from the Inuit told of white men trekking south, starving, and dying.  His reports back to Britain included this rather delicate phrasing:

“…from the mutilated state of many of the bodies, and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life.” 

The report horrified England’s Victorian society and especially Lady Franklin who refused to believe the reports of cannibalism.  The full story of Rae and his exploits can be found in Kevin McGoogan’s book, “Fatal Passage.”

We stopped for an afternoon at Gjoa Haven, a small settlement on the southern tip of King William Island.  It is also a historic location in the saga of the Northwest Passage.  Roald Amundsen overwintered here during his successful first-ever transit of the Northwest Passage.  He was hemmed in by ice for 22 months but finally completed the voyage 3 years after his start in 1903.

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The Bell of HMS Erebus, Submerged to Prevent Oxidation (photo from Parks Canada)

The village has an excellent museum that now hosts the ship’s bell from the Erebus which was found in September 2014, 30 feet below the surface.    And that evening, in fact, we would pass even closer to the Erebus (red arrow on map above) after departing Gjoa Haven.  We wondered how the search for Franklin’s other ship, the Terror, was going at its undisclosed location nearby.

The next day the ship’s captain altered our route to find a pack of sea ice that reportedly had pieces large enough to hold small groups of people who might want to walk on it.  The irony was escapable: Just over one hundred years ago, Amundsen was stuck here for 22 consecutive months because the sea ice was so thick.  On the same route today,  it was necessary to go out of your way to find some.

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Coming Upon a Field of Sea Ice

As we first approached the icee zone, an impressive cloud formation was building overhead.  But two hours later we were enveloped by a heavy fog.  Nevertheless, the landing was still on and we eagerly boarded the zodiac.  Surprisingly, the ice was not at all slippery.  The rough surface provided sufficient traction to walk about without any difficulty.  The thick fog added a mystical quality to the surroundings.

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View of the Ship from Platform of Sea Ice

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Zodiac Maneuvers through the Fog

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Sea Ice Sculpture

Just five days later, the research team looking for the HMS Terror anounced that it had been found in a King William Island bay which, amazingly, is already named Terror Bay!  We had been no more than 10-15 miles away from that spot as we headed west from Gjoa Haven.  (An interesting historical footnote.  Among its various exploits, the HMS Terror had been with the British fleet in 1814 that bombarded Fort McHenry in Baltimore, an event that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics for the “Star Spangled Banner.”)

Hidden Gem: Mexico’s Monarch Preserves

Well, the Google Doodle beat me to the punch yesterday, marking the 41st anniversary of the discovery of the overwintering site of the Monarch butterfly.  But that’s OK, I’m going ahead with this anyway.

D-11-01-18-0271 (Keynote)Monarchs Overwintering in Mexico (2011)

By the mid-20th century the existence of the monarch migration had been well known for many years, but not its full route.  Every August and September, millions of monarchs in the eastern United States and Canada would start flying south toward Mexico and disappear.   Then, around March, they would reappear on a northward journey. The location where they spent those intervening months was unknown.  It was one of nature’s great mysteries.

Until January 9, 1975.

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In that year, a group of scientists following clues left by tagged butterflies that had fallen on the journey south were led to a place high in the mountains of Mexico’s eastern Sierra Madre Mountains. There they found millions of butterflies clinging to the branches of the oyamel trees that grow at altitudes as high as 11,000-12,000 feet.

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The fact that these small creatures can actually make the trip of several thousand miles is not the most amazing part of the story.  What is most incredible is that none of them had ever been there before. Yet each year a new torrent of monarchs, separated by three or four generations from those that flew there the previous year, finds its way to those same oyamel trees.

I became entranced with this story in 2001, after reading “Four Wings and a Prayer” by Sue Halpern who traveled to Mexico in a truck with legendary monarch tracker Bill Calvert and experienced first-hand the spectacle of the monarch migration.

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My own journey started shortly afterwards with a trip to Cape May, New Jersey,  a key crossing point for the southbound monarchs over Delaware Bay.  Butterfly researchers at the Cape May Bird Observatory demonstrated the technique of tagging the monarchs and how the tracking depends on anonymous individuals who find a tagged butterfly and report the information of where and when to research centers.

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Tagged Monarch Before Release (2001)

A few days later, I caught up with a researcher in Lorton, Virginia who was tagging southbound monarchs in a field of yellow wildflowers (image below).   He had almost

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Migrating Monarch, Lorton VA (2001)

reached his annual goal of 500 taggings, but was despondent over the fact that this waystation for the monarchs was about to become a shopping center.

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Lorton, Virginia (2001)

Seven years later, I was at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, on the south shore of Lake Superior, when I spotted a few flashes of orange.  It was a pair of migrating monarchs just arriving from their 100-mile-plus flight across the great lake from Canada.  They still were over 2,500 miles from their destination.

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Migrating Monarch, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, MI (2008)

In the fall of 2010, a friend called asking if I would like to join her on a trip to see the overwintering sites in Mexico. My answer was quick and the following January, we found ourselves on a long bus ride from Mexico City to the mountain village of Angangueo. But this was just the first of many transportation modes we would use in the coming days such as the back of pick-up trucks, riding horses, and finally hiking on our own at lung-busting (to us at least) altitudes of 11,000 feet and higher.

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Getting Closer, but a Tough Hike Awaits (2011)

But it was all worth it.  Photographs really can’t communicate the scale of the scenes we witnessed.  There are so many butterflies clustered on the trees that the branches bend downward from the weight, occasionally even breaking.The image below shows a small section of a stand of trees in one of the preserves.  Imagine that no matter where you look from this position, all the trees surrounding you are covered from top to bottom with what seem like orange leaves but really are butterflies.

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Monarch Clusters on Oyamel Trees, Mexico (2011)

Mexico does try to protect the sanctuaries, although illegal logging is one of many serious threats.  But on the positive side they enforce strict (5 mph) speed limits on a highway that occasionally is also used by the monarchs when searching for water outside the preserves.

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Monarch Crossing, Mexico  (2011)

An equally serious threat is the loss of habitat in the United States.  Remember that shopping center in Lorton, Virginia? There has been a steady decline in the numbers of monarchs reaching the preserves over the past decade, but there was a slight uptick last

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Chart of Monarch Counts in Mexico (1994-2014)

year.  Preliminary estimates for this winter are cautiously optimistic, with hopes that they might reach the levels of 2011, when I was there.  Keep your fingers crossed and….

 

Keep Shooting….