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Galapagos!

by Clare Coppa

The image of vulnerable baby sea turtles struggling to reach the waves is evoked by the word “Galapagos.” Translated, it is Spanish for “tortoise,” named for the giant creature of stealth and longevity whose distant turtle cousins were one-time drinking buddies with pterodactyl and T-rex.

The Galapagos Islands are the main home of the giant tortoise. Six months ago, Cyrus P. Henry, Jr., Ph.D., journeyed to this wildlife refuge in the Pacific off the coast of Ecuador. Henry is a developer of ASTM standards for aviation fuels, a chemistry research fellow for Octel, America, Inc., the husband of Joan, and father of seven.

He likes to travel to distant lands to catch native species offguard with his camera, such as roadrunners in Arizona and brown bears in Alaska. “I came back with about 800 bear pictures,” he laughed, delighted at his getaway scheme. A relatively new interest, he’s mapped out several photography trips over the past 10 years, voyaging solo with camera and tripod like Homer leaving Greece. His main objective is a photo he can exhibit with pride; some are on display at Octel.

On Galapagos, Henry employed a Nikon N90S with an 80-200 zoom and 2X-teleconverter. “The neat thing about Galapagos is that the animals are very tame,” he offered. “That’s because for centuries there were no predators. So there’ll be blue-footed boobies nesting right on the trail, and you just kind of walk around them a little bit and it’s not a problem. The wildlife in general is not shy and that lets you get a good approach for photographs.”

A tour group flew to the islands from Quito, Ecuador, and transferred to a boat that became their home for 11 days. “About seven in the morning, we’d go out for a few hours, have a landing, come back, usually snorkel for a while and then the boat would move and we’d have an afternoon landing,” he said. They dined on gourmet meals of freshly caught fish. “The boat was a converted trawler, about 104 ft. long. There were 16 passengers, a naturalist guide, tour leader, captain, and five or six crew.” One night during rough seas, the boat pitched and rolled so badly, he had to brace himself to stay in his bunk.

As well as the recent oil spill, pirates, whalers, and soldiers have affected the region. “A big problem they have is ‘introduced species,’” Henry described. “For example, 100 years or so ago, people released goats on the big island, Isabella, and they prospered. There are about 100,000 goats living on this island. Goats eat the vegetation and it’s very hard on the tortoises because the food’s gone.

“There are also many rats. That’s why the main mission of the Charles Darwin Foundation Research Station is to raise tortoises. They found their reproduction rate in the wild was zero, because of the rats, dogs, and cats that were introduced. So what they’ll do is harvest the eggs before the rats do, incubate them, and raise the turtles for three or four years ’til they are released.”

From alterations in tortoise shells to iguanas that resemble lava rock, the secluded islands are a study in evolution. “Because the tortoises and iguanas tend to eat the cactus on Galapagos, it grows on trunks, like trees. If you look at prickly pear cactus anywhere else, they’re on the ground. It’s an adaptation to keep from being eaten.”

Henry is planning a trip to the everglades to photograph great blue herons and alligators. “I kind of think of it as my art,” he laughed, with definitive satisfaction.

Copyright, 2001 ASTM