Stories from the Galapagos Islands

  • penguins resting on the rocks
    A Galapagos penguin suns itself on a rock (left).
    A Galapagos penguin surveying its surroundings (right).

    Swimming with Rare Penguins a Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity

    Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a black shape moving quickly past me in the clear water. A few minutes later it dashed by again and my suspicions were confirmed. It was a Galapagos penguin.

    I was excited; it's not every day one gets the opportunity to swim with penguins. Especially not this kind. It is the rarest penguin species in the world.

    The Galapagos penguins are the only penguins that live north of the equator. It's just over the line of the equator along the northern coast of Isabela Island. But still, they are the only penguin species that can lay claim to living in both hemispheres.

    A couple of cold water currents cross paths with the Galapagos Islands, making it possible for the penguins to live there because of the food supply brought by the currents and the cooling effects of the water.

    They like to dine on sardines and sometimes crustaceans.

    Underwater, the penguins looked large as they zoomed by me. Looking at things underwater magnifies the view, which is related to the science of light and the field of physics. Later, when I saw them on the surface, I realized how small these penguins truly are. They are the second smallest penguins in the world, averaging 20 inches in height and weighing 5½ pounds.

    Under the water they moved gracefully; on the surface they are charming. To spend time with them in either location was a thrill.

    Every day while on the Samba, our sailing yacht, we were offered the opportunity to go snorkeling in the rich waters that surround the Galapagos Islands. One of the things that makes this location so special is the access to nature on land and in the sea. And even though my swimming skills are limited, I do not allow my fear to stop me from getting in the water.

    On another snorkeling trip, we floated along the coastline of one of the small islands. Within arm's reach was a female Galapagos green turtle; it was eating vegetation that covered some of the boulders.

    "Don't touch and scare her,"Juan Salcedo said, our naturalist guide and owner of the Samba. "If you can minimize your movements, she will allow you to move along with her."

    For 10 minutes, I floated along with this beautiful turtle. Occasionally, I got a glance from one of its large dark eyes as it extended its neck to pull vegetation off the rocks with its mouth. Unlike other turtles, the green sea turtles cannot retract their heads.

    They get their name from the green-colored skin that covers their neck. It was breeding season for the turtles and several time Salcedo pointed to turtles bobbing in the water that were mating.

    "The females will come to shore up to eight times over two weeks and lay eggs in the sand. They dig a hole with their flippers and deposit 50-80 eggs at a time,"Salcedo explained.

    Once the eggs are covered, they hatch in 60 days.

    "If they hatch in the night, they stand a better chance to make it to the water. But, it's a brutal dash across the beach as they are eaten by ghost crabs and Frigate birds,"Salcedo continued.

    One interesting expression of nature is how the sex is determined for the turtles.

    Salcedo explained:"The temperature within the nest determines the sex of the hatchling. If the temperature averages above 86 degrees Fahrenheit, they tend to be females. Below 86 degrees, they are more likely to be males."

    Good thing it applies only to turtles. The winters in Nebraska tend to be long and cold.

    Fremont Tribune

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