In December 1997 the
Galapagos Islands were caught in the grip of a massive El Niño.
The cold Peru and Cromwell currents that bring extraordinary riches
to the waters of the Galapagos were pushed deeper. Surface waters
heated up, killing plankton and depleting the food chain.
These waters, usually so dark and rich, became exceedingly clear
and light blue. The temperatures rose from the mid 60°F range
well into the 80s. Beautiful but deadly.
seal and sea lions main food sources, oily rich lantern fish
and squid, were driven deep into layers of cooler waters. The warm
water killed the fields of algae that marine iguanas grazed upon.
Silvery bait fish, food for the imperiled Galapagos penguin, disappeared.
The usually clear skies were gray, ringed on the horizon by heavy
At Cousins Rock I watched a sea lion mother desperately trying to
wean her aggressive pup. The mother was thin, starving and without
milk. To eat, the sea lions began to chase Salemas, a silvery grunt
endemic to the Galapagos. They coursed through the huge schools.
It was a useless dancea silent waltz where the twisting gliding
animals could never get enough nourishment.
anchor off Plazas Island, the Galapagos Aggressor cast its shadow
on a white sandy bottom. A colony of 80 sea lions played around
the bow of the boat and occasionally dove to the bottom where they
appeared to laze about on the sand. It was hardly play. The sea
lions were actually feeding on one-inch-long white mantis shrimps.
Shifting light from the shadow of the moving boat produced a false
nightfall confusing the tiny shrimps. Taking advantage of this,
the sea lions furrowed the sand with their lower jaws, constantly
emitting sonar-like clicks that forced the mantis shrimps out of
the sand. Flicking their heads back and forth, the sea lions snapped
them up like popcorn. Again, this was a diet of desperation and
yet the scene looked so peaceful, like seals in a field of snow.
Within two weeks they finished the mantis shrimps.When the Galapagos
Aggressor returned from its appointed rounds, only a single sea
lion came to hunt in the shadow of the boat.
the northern islands I played with a baby Galapagos Fur Seal. It
moved in a maelstrom of breaking waves with shear joy. Galapagos
Fur Seals are the rarest of all pinnipeds. There are
considerably less than 1,000 remaining. The pup looked at me with
enormous luminous eyes. It would not survive this season of starvation.
The equatorial summer wore on; then, toward August 1998, the El
Niño faded away. The seas grew cold, calmer, richer. In the
delicate world of the Galapagos, the pulse of life returned.