Thursday, April 21, 2022

Just hold still

Holding still has benefits here on Isla Isabela, the largest of the Galápagos Islands. It has the smallest population of people, but the greatest feel of expansive space. One's sense of scale is tweaked by the many volcanic cones scattered about the landscape, the largest of which extend into cloud cover every day so we've yet to see their crests. Same as the other isles here about, opportunities to see and even interact with the wildlife are plentiful. Birds, lizards, insects, tortoises, penguins and sea lions let you approach considerably closer than normal.

Birds, if you hold still, light on branches 3 or 4ft. away and study you. The local orange legged grasshoppers remain still nearly until you touch them before buzzing and clacking away. Sea lions need to be prevented by makeshift barriers from jumping/crawling right onto your boat to rest, and then bellow and balk with wildly waving heads when you try to shoo them away. You can literally sit down two feet away and they protest a bit but don't give up their resting place. I've taken to clapping loudly while yelling a bit, and eventually the ruckus causes them to reluctantly seek quieter digs. I'd prefer to sit and watch them wiggling about the cockpit benches if it weren't for the copious hair and smell they leave behind.

Yesterday while on a hike with Sarah I was waiting for her to follow one more path that rose to a viewpoint, while I sought out shade from the usual baking equatorial heat. I found one of the many benches provided along the trails thoughtfully placed in a group of small coastal scrub trees, and as is my usual MO, used my day pack as a headrest and laid down for a short respite from the brightness all around with my hat over my eyes. I had noticed a few of the local tortoises feeding on the green leaves of nearby ground cover as I first came to the thicket, but they are generally about the bush and thought little of it.

No sooner had I gotten fully still and the different sounds of the branches rubbing in the wind mixed with birdsong became louder and clearer. Holding still to listen and watch has a real added value here. In the first minute I recognized the calls of local mockingbirds and Darwin's famous finches in the canopy just above me, and so close so soon. Then I picked up the slow crackling, crunching rhythms of a tortoise working it's way through the undergrowth maybe 30 or 40 ft. away. The hat over my face with eyes closed caused me to focus on these sounds and before long it seemed the tortoise wasn't just passing by, but headed right towards me. I remained still, and over the next few minutes was treated to an unusual experience.

The sound of my own breathing was soon joined by the quiet but labored rasping of the large tortoise as it moved out of the nearby brush and came right at me. Careful to remain calm and even in my breathing while sneaking quick glimpses from under the brim, onward crawled the tortoise right up next to me, and I began to wonder if I was unknowingly resting in a mature male's territory. Was I about to get a rude nip on the thigh telling me to go elsewhere or what? Slowly easing my hand over to lift my hat brim a few inches I lifted my head a bit and was eye to eye with wildlife from 2 ft. away.

The tortoises on all these islands normally hiss loudly when you approach too closely as a warning and then withdraw all appendages into their shell as needed. This one gave me a short cursory hiss and waited til I had settled back down before, lowering its long neck and crawling, twisting, and grunting a bit, it wedged itself right under the bench I was lying on. I could feel the top of the shell moving against the folds of my shirt which fell between the bench slats. And there we were, just birdsong and breathing. My breath amplified under the hat, and the tortoise's slower, lower, raspier breaths just underneath me.

I'm trying to make sense of why this particular wild creature has come so close, seemingly seeking me out from some distance away only to hang out under me. I began to wonder if this had happened before with this tortoise. Was it raised in one of the local sanctuaries and thus familiar with humans to the point of friendliness? Its size indicated it wasn't a young individual and must have been in the wild for decades at least. Maybe this was a favorite spot in the shade, and I was trespassing. Maybe it could of cared less about me, but that didn't seem likely based on their usual 'get away from me' warnings. Or maybe I was just additional shade over the bench and it was cooling off below in a now improved place.

After another 5 minutes or so I very slowly sat up and carefully set my feet just next to the back of its shell. Putting my arm slowly on the back of the bench I leaned back and was again eye to eye with the tortoise. It twisted its head just a small bit to gaze directly at me assessing my intents. After another few moments staring at each other I quietly mentioned that I needed to get up and stretch, but didn't mean to disturb.

I crossed to facing bench about 6 ft. away and put one foot up to begin loosening up and a Prairie Wren flew to a small branch no more than 3 ft. in front of me and sat eyeing me carefully for about 5 seconds before hopping even closer to snatch a tiny green worm from the next branch. It hopped back to finish its snack and then flew off a little before returning just as close to snag another worm a few feet higher up. The mockingbirds were loud again, and a soft but welcome breeze off the nearby bay freshened the cooler air under the trees as I laid back down over my siesta buddy, and that is how Sarah found us when she came back down the trail. 

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