National Geographic : 1967 Apr
Having seen the great rafts of vegetation floating down the Guayas River at the port city of Guayaquil in mainland Ecuador, I understood how plants, insects, small mam mals, and reptiles could make the long journey to the Galapagos. A flood-borne jungle log could carry its small passengers out to sea and be swept westward by the Peru Current. Only one successful voyage and landing would be needed each 100,000 years or so to account for the present limited fauna of land mammals and reptiles in the Galapagos. For every successful invasion of the islands, un doubtedly there have been a thousand trag edies. A frog or a salamander, needing fresh water, would not stand a chance; no amphibi ans are known on the islands. Except for bats, the only native land mammals are ratlike rodents. Most waifs that survived the sea journey probably perished on the arid coast. Isles Became a Pirate Hide-out In like manner, most human settlers have been screened out until recent times. The first European to find the archipelago, Fray Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Pan ama, set sail from Panama for Peru in 1535. Caught in a calm, his ship was carried west ward by the strong equatorial currents until he made a landfall on one of the islands. Seek ing badly needed water, shore parties "found nothing but seals... and such big tortoises, that each could carry a man on top of itself, and many iguanas that are like serpents." The bishop went on to report "many birds like those of Spain, but so silly they do not know how to flee, and many were caught in the hand." This trait of tameness continues today. On the other hand, the animals that should be tame-the introduced goats, cattle, 572 pigs, dogs, and cats-are as wild as the wind. The islands later became a rat's nest of renegades and buccaneers. In the late 17th century, English buccaneers used the Gala pagos as a springboard from which to harass the Spaniards, capturing their ships and sack ing their towns in South America. Of all the islands, Santa Maria, or Charles, has the most bizarre, indeed the most evil, history. I hired a fishing boat to take me there to visit a small colony of flamingos, appar ently an outpost population of the rosy West Indian species. Flamingos are my specialty; I have filmed on four continents-each of the world's six species, and I was determined to add this colony to my "bag." The Galapagos flamingos, the only ones known in the Pacific, are un questionably the rarest and most endangered birds in the archipelago (page 570). I found the flamingos-three dozen of them. Six pairs had built mud nests on a lava ledge by a warm, silty lagoon. The others were engaged in display, fluffing their gorgeous plumes until they looked like gigantic pink chrysanthemums. Stiffly they spread their red wings and wagged their beaks from side to side; this was part of their ritual. Toward evening the mutual admiration society broke up and took wing, scattering to secluded, muddy bays where the feeding was good. For the next two nights I camped alone between the beach and the lagoon. Small fly catchers came to look me over at arm's length. So did yellow warblers and Darwin's finches, but the absence of mockingbirds seemed strange. I had seen them on all the other large islands. Perhaps cats long ago had eliminated these confiding, curious birds. Tracks of feral cats laced the coarse sand everywhere.