Welcome to my tales of cookery school, food and travel

The first 30+ posts of this blog describe my experiences as I complete a nine month cooking course - the City and Guilds Diploma in Food Preparation and Culinary Art. I did this after I moved out of full time employment and it was purely selfish - I love food, cooking, eating and drinking. Subsequent posts are about, food, travel and adventures.

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Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Swimming with iguana

Darwin dubbed them a "disgusting clumsy lizard"  but I find them ugly-fascinating-amusing in equal measure: the Galapagos marine iguana. As their habitat is volcanic rock with no vegetation they have evolved to eat the seaweed and algae growing on the rocks under water, the only iguana to do so.  

After the excitement of seeing the first one it is then iguana for Africa, so to speak.  The first time we meet them they are lying about soaking up the early rays: they lie flat changing orientation as the sun moves. Unable to internally regulate temperature the iguana raises its body off the ground to let the breeze circulate when it needs to cool off. When warm enough to withstand some time in the cold waters of the Humboldt current it goes for a swim to feed, hanging onto the rocks with its sharp claws,  before returning to reheat enough to carry it through the night.  

You need to be careful where you walk as you are in danger of creating squashed iguana, which most certainly would be a breach of Park rules.  Yet it's often hard to see them as their sooty black skin is perfect camouflage against the lava rock, right down to the crusty white on their heads which mimics the lichen growth. This white mohican comes from their habit of sneezing salt when they emerge from the water.  A long spiny crest runs down the centre of their back from head to tail.  

When we snorkel with them I almost choke - laughing and breathing through a snorkel are not complementary activities. Iguana are comical to watch as they swim along beside you, heads proud above the water, propelled along by their muscular tails.  You can keep your swimming with whales or dolphins, I'll take swimming with iguana any day. 
Marine iguana swimming ashore after a day grazing on algae
Almost 1,000 kilometres from mainland Ecuador, we land in the Galapagos at Baltra, a desert landscape of tree cacti, scrubby bushes in sandy soil, and subject to a hot wind.  Within 40 minutes or so we are donning rain jackets to protect against misty rain as we traverse the topmost point of the island of Santa Cruz at 900 metres. It is as if space travel flings us across continents, but in reality the distance is only a few kilometres. One side of the island is hot, dry and inhospitable; the other wet, lush and luxuriant. The contrast in the landscapes of the islands we visit is part of the wonder of the Galapagos.

How big?
The south side of Santa Cruz is one place giant tortoises hang out: big shiny reptilian boulder-like creatures intent only on grazing.  If you have ever wondered just how giant a giant tortoise really is, the answer lies here - bigger than an average sized teenager. 
Bigger than a 13 year old
We spend some time watching these prehistoric beasts in action, slow action,  before travelling further south to the small settlement of Puerto Ayora to board our home for the next six days, the 16 berth Galaxy.  It isn't a luxury super-yacht but certainly not camping. We have eight crew including a Captain, first officer, engineers, sailors, and most importantly a chef. I am pleasantly surprised by the quality of our meals though I find it very easy to resist the desserts which are excessively sweet and generally lurid in their colours.  Roberto is our excellent bilingual guide moving effortlessly between Spanish and English all day every day.
The Galaxy at anchor
At night the ship motors and we wake up (those of us who sleep) in a new location where we spend the day snorkeling or walking or both.  

In keeping with the diverse geology, different species inhabit different islands.  Even when something lives on more than one island, it will be another species - for example there are ten species of Galapagos tortoise. 

sea turtle gliding along just under the surface

While I am on this trip the hunter-gatherer is on a dive trip around the Wolf and Darwin islands further north, and on his return regales with stories of dozens of hammerhead sharks, manta rays and whale sharks as big as the Hindenburg. I am happy with my iguanas and the graceful sea turtles. 

On our forays ashore we encounter more iguana - larger, more colourful and land based. They live in burrows and feed on vegetation. It is wonderful to be able to get so close and observe all the various reptiles without them skittering away. Unlike the rest of us, they have little to fear from human behaviour. 
Land iguana emerging from its burrow

Sea lion pup feeding

Crabs sizing each other up
Blue footed booby

And off course there are birds, birds and more birds: Galapagos hawks, blue footed boobies, flightless cormorants, pelicans, frigate birds, swallow-tailed gulls, flamingos, not to forget a few dozen varieties of Darwin's finches - it was his study of the finches, after all, that kicked off Darwin's theory of natural selection and evolution. 

It occurs to me only once I have returned home that aside from domestic animals near the couple of villages on the inhabited islands, everything is reptilian, avian, or lives in the water.  The trip is akin to visiting a massive natural zoo of unusual species, not surprising when you consider the location and habitats.  It's not a zoo I need to go back to, but it is one I am pleased and privileged, to have experienced - especially swimming with iguanas.
An iguana passed this way

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