Monday, 9 July (Part II)
You never know what you’re going to see when you go out to view wildlife in their natural habitat.
In August 2010, we were bear watching on the Katmai Peninsula of Alaska when we witnessed a sow kill the cub of another sow, and then proceed to eat it! (Post here.) The event was unusual — primarily because it was a sow doing the killing and not a boar. To our knowledge, our small group of four was the only witness to the events from its first moment to its last. It was high drama, and as sad as it was to see, we accepted it as part of the natural cycle of things.
The characters in the drama at Geographic Bay were these two sows and their cubs.
What we witnessed this morning is nowhere near as dramatic as the cub kill, but it did involve wildlife, death, and survival instincts.
When we first came upon the Galápagos sea lion resting on the rocks, we didn’t think much of it. After all, it was another sea lion doing what it does best on land — sleep. Then we started noticing little details. Like the marine iguana in the foreground, which blended in so well with the dark, volcanic rock that it didn’t stand out initially. Like the other marine iguanas that were likewise near-invisible until they moved slightly. Like the pink fetus of a sea lion pup. Wait, what was that again? You read that right. Lying there on the ground, not far from the cow, was a recently birthed fetus.
Sadness immediately washed over us, especially when the cow rose up and waddled over to sniff at the pink flesh of its dead pup. It kept nudging at the lifeless body as though it was trying to get it to move, or trying to understand what had happened. (Hard not to anthropomorphize in such situations.) How sad that the sea lion had miscarried, if that’s what had happened, or given birth to a stillborn.
We took our photos and theorized amongst us as to what might have happened. Then our attention was captured by the majestic Galápagos hawk that was perched on a rock nearby and we turned to take pictures of it. I don’t think anyone really gave thought to why the hawk happened to be there. I know I didn’t; I was just glad that we were seeing the only endemic predator on the islands so early in our trip. And if the naturalist said anything, we didn’t hear that either; like several other photography buffs, we had already fallen behind and were out of earshot.
Anyway, not that we forgot about the sea lion, but our time on land was short and the next group was coming up behind us. So, we hurried along to join Fatima a short ways down the trail.
We were photographing another species endemic to the islands when a commotion behind us caught our attention. We whirled around to see the sea lion waddling as fast as it could towards a ledge, the dead pup clutched in its mouth. Not far behind came the hawk. It looked like the hawk was running on the ground, but it had probably just come in for a landing and was trying to get closer after it had made an attempt to make off with what it saw as easy food. Harsh? Yes? Reality of the cycle of life? Again, yes.
Like some weird sequence in a dream, the drama had another set of audience — marine iguanas had perked up during the commotion to raise their heads and watch the action. They’ve been reported to eat grasshoppers and crustaceans in addition to their regular diet of algae, so perhaps they were hoping for some scraps to feed on.
The sea lion won this standoff, managing to get off the rock ledge and onto the beach. At that point, we had to move on. Our thoughts, however, kept returning to what we had witnessed, wondering about the eventual outcome.
As might be expected, this drama was a topic of conversation after we returned to the ship. Curious about what might have happened after we left, we spoke to the groups that were behind us. Some reported seeing the sea lion placing the body under the ledge, while others reported that they saw the sea lion dipping the body into the water lapping at the edge of the small patch of sand. The hawk was still waiting around for its chance to abscond with the carcass, and at least one Sally lightfoot crab had taken up position for its share.
Scenes that we did not witness.
[Images courtesy of the Xpedition naturalists.]
Life is filled with dramas, big and small, and you never know when you might witness one.
UPDATE: From a blog entry my friend MBZ shared …
Since the beginning of the 2011 breeding season, scientists from the University of San Francisco de Quito have observed mass mortality of newborn pups, miscarriages and stillbirths on and near San Cristobal Island in the eastern region of the Galapagos Islands.
Mortality rates for pups have reached almost 60% compared with an average of 5 – 15% in a normal year. … To read more, click here.
Hopefully, whatever is causing the demises on San Cristobal has not jumped to Santiago and the other islands.