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  • 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.

    The seal and sea lion’s 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 dark clouds.


    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 dance—a silent waltz where the twisting gliding animals could never get enough nourishment.

    At 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.

     

    In 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.