Snorkeling with a Lizard

Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands

Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands

There is only one kind of lizard in this world who traverses both land and sea…and you’re lookin’ at it.  This is the loveable face of the marine iguana, Amblyrhynchus cirstatu.  They live only on the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean about 500 miles west of Ecuador. 


Without the need for shelter, shade, or fresh water, marine iguanas live solely by the cycles of the sun and moon.  They rely on the sun to heat their bodies and the moon’s tides to feed their bodies.  Their dark black skin is designed to fully absorb the sun’s rays, so you see large groups of them lying motionless, bunched up together in the chilly early morning light, while they gather heat for their daily adventure.  Living on the equator, the sun soon greets them and heats them, and then they can move.  The sight of dozens and dozens, sometimes hundreds of these 2-4 foot long iguanas basking on the rocks and lava is so surreal it is almost unbelievable. 


 Although the islands are equatorial, the overall climate is not necessarily tropical.  Located at the intersection of three main ocean currents, some of which originate in Antarctica, the islands’ surrounding water is cold.  But it’s nutrient-rich.  After they’ve warmed up, the marine iguanas saunter across the hot, rocky lava, their long reptilian tails dragging behind, and they gather along the shorelines to eat.  Their long spooky claws are handy for clinging to the rocky surface of the lava. 


Marine-Iguan-on-rockWith a diet of primarily marine algae and seaweed, some iguanas advance beyond the shore and into the water’s depths.  The bigger bodied iguanas, like the males, hurl themselves into the water to eat seaweed on the ocean floor and shallow reefs.  There is a risk to entering the cold water, for their body temperatures drop fairly quickly rendering them dangerously immobile if they get too cold.  Therefore, they’re only in the water for 5 or 10 minutes.  The smaller-bodied females and the young stay on land for this reason. 


The islands are so far off into the ocean that most of the animal inhabitants are unaccustomed to predators.  This is what makes the Galapagos a place of strange sights and unusual experiences.  You can get fairly close to these animals because they don’t know the danger of man.  But getting close to a marine iguana is not a cozy experience.  When they feed, they take in salty sea water; and special glands in their nostrils filter out the salt.  The result is water shooting out their nostrils.  Not the most charming creatures on this planet. 


Marine-Iguana,-GalapagosMarine iguanas don’t all look the same.  Some have algae on their short snouts, some have white crystallized sea salt that has accumulated there.  Sometimes their bodies temporarily shorten if there is a food hardship (like during El Nino weather patterns).  Also, during breeding season and in conjunction with a red pigment in seaweed that blooms in summer, some of the iguanas are bright red and green. 


Fortunately, marine iguanas are a protected species.  There are a few natural predators like hawks and owls that prey on the young.  More troublesome, however, is the growing population of feral cats and dogs.  Oil spills polluting their water can also be a problem.  At present their conservation status is rated as vulnerable.  Estimates of the total population vary and fluctuate, but the count seems to be about 200,000 to 300,000.  Marine-Iguana-in-Galapagos


One of my fondest memories in the Galapagos—and I have many—is the day we happened to snorkel with marine iguanas.  The water was cold and we were in shallow water, rocked about by the forceful waves, looking for fish.  At the ocean floor a few feet away we spotted one, then another marine iguana underwater with us.  I stared at that crazy sight as long as I could:  a large lizard completely submerged underwater, grazing away on the algae.  I knew I might never again be eye-to-eye with a lizard underwater…and I was right. 



The Crush is On

Wine grapes

Wine grapes

It is a very exciting time in California right now:  The Crush is on.  As the largest wine-producing state in the United States and accounting for nearly 90% of the country’s wine production, over 1,200 California wineries are working day and night to bring in the grapes. 


Many tourists have visited the Napa and Sonoma Wine Country and may fondly remember sitting at a table swilling wine, relaxing in the sun, and soaking up the gentle peace.  During this season, however, there is no relaxing.  Currently you would see the grueling hard work involving dedicated teams of workers harvesting tons of grapes.  Winemakers carefully and fretfully measure the Brix (sugar) levels of the grapes to determine the greatest moment of flavor and when to pick.  Fields are full of farm workers rapidly picking grapes at a cluster per second.  Wineries, warehouses, and fields are busy 24 hours a day in the unstoppable drive to harvest the grapes. 


Commercial wineries dominate the scene due to their large acreage and sophisticated equipment; but there are also plenty of smaller boutique wineries and independent winemakers as well.  Some cottage industry organizations specialize strictly in growing grapes, or selling or renting equipment or acreage; while other organizations are all about growing and producing their own grapes for their own wine label. 


Vineyard, September

Vineyard, September

Growing grapes starts in spring when the vines are planted and irrigation systems are installed.  Farm workers are bundled up in yellow rain slickers dotted across acres of hills and fields.  As the grapes begin to grow, the vines are carefully tended for pest patrol, pruning, watering, weeding, and frost prevention.  In the summer tiny grape pearls appear on the vines, smaller than a rice grain.  As the warm weather unfolds, the grapes gain their size and clumps begin to form.  As the grapes mature, professional wine makers focus on the grape size, skin, sugar content, acidity, moisture content, and many other aspects for producing their target taste.  There is constant laboratory testing, speculation, notes and discussions, weather worries. 


It is a huge community event.  The wine growers and their knowledgeable staff prepare for the harvest season with unrelenting schedules.  Families of these people know there will be no vacation, no relaxation, no nothing during The Crush.  There is no world outside of harvest time.  Roadways are jammed with the big trucks laboring slowly along with the year’s yield, and the pungent vinegary smell of the grapes being crushed permeates the air.  Winemakers, growers, and crews don’t get much sleep and their hands are stained purple. 


Grape Press with sides removed

Grape Press with sides removed

Commercial growers have large machines with conveyor belts moving, separating and distributing the grapes to other machines that de-stem and crush the grapes.  Smaller operations do some of the work by hand, pressing and crushing the grapes with smaller, rentable equipment.  For the large and the small growers and everyone in between, there is tension and pressure to surpass the quantities and qualities of previous years.  Extra crews are hired, extra facilities are used, and with each new day the harvest progresses until one day all the grapes are finally in. 

Crushed, pressed grapes

Crushed, pressed grapes


Crush parties and festivals in October are the celebrations after the work has been done, an acknowledgement of a long, hard season and success.  Then the liquid ferments in barrels and buckets; special recipes of yeast are added, juice blending and more testing occur until the grape juice turns into wine and bottling begins. 


Working the Crush

Working The Crush

Families and extended families proudly perfect their work throughout generations.  It’s a community project from start to finish, culminating in the harvest at this time of year.  If you enjoy a glass of wine or even if you don’t, anyone can appreciate the dedication and livelihood of this sacred California tradition dating back to the 18th century.  Cheers! 


Happy with Hippos



I experienced my first wild hippo at night in the dark.  I was lying on my cot inside the tent; our group was camped beside a river.  I heard a terrifying grunting sound outside, had no idea what it was.  I also heard a great deal of splashing in the water.  Although I hardly slept that night, I did survive; when I asked our guide at breakfast the next morning about the racket, he confirmed that it was a pod of hippos. 


Hippopotamus amphibius are found in sub-Saharan Africa, and live primarily in water.  Although they eat on land, they spend most of their time in the water, including mating and birthing.  Water is important to the hippo due to their thin, hairless skin.  To prevent overheating and dehydration, hippos wallow in water or mud for most of their lives.  Their ears, eyes and nostrils are high on their head for easy submersion.  In fact, they can sleep in the water and come up for air without ever waking.   


HippoAn aggressive and huge animal, they don’t have many predators.  Male hippos weigh 3,500-4,000 pounds, with older males sometimes reaching 6,000-7,000 pounds.  The only land mammals bigger than hippos are rhinoceros and elephants.  Occasionally crocodiles will snap up a baby hippo, but for the most part, the hippos rule the water.  They are, unfortunately, hunted by humans, their biggest predator, and their conservation status is listed as vulnerable. 


With their enormous weight supported on short stubby legs, you might think they are slow and lethargic.  But they’re not.  They are actually quite agile and easily outrun humans at 18 mph. 


I’ve been in motorless boats in the water with hippos, wondering if I was in danger.  (This seems to be the way a lot when on safari.)  We often see locals in the rivers fishing beside hippos, too.  There are conflicts, I’ve been told, between humans and hippos.  It’s not like living with rattlers, where if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.  Hippos will bother you.  If they don’t like you, they’ll come after you.  That’s why when I’m in that motorless boat, I try to keep a friendly smile at all times. 


Hippopotamus with sausage fruit

Hippopotamus with sausage fruit

Hippos are not especially good swimmers though, their speed is on land.  They come on land to eat, their diet consisting mostly of grass, but also aquatic plants and plant materials like this fruit from the “sausage” tree in Zambia.   


I know Americans who collect hippos.  They acquire hippopotamus figurines in all sizes, fill their shelves with cute little hippos.  This strikes me as hilarious, because hippos are so muddy and gargantuan and ill-tempered.  Moreover, if you saw what hippos do with their droppings, this hippo-collecting would strike you as funny too.  For territorial purposes, while defecating and/or urinating, they spin their tail and use it as a paddle and, in windshield wiper-fashion, slap and disperse their excrement in every direction. 


I guess my favorite thing about hippopotami are seeing them lazing about in shallow water.  They congregate in groups of a dozen or more, socializing in close proximity, sometimes even resting their head on their neighbor.  They grunt and bellow, splash water, and every few minutes one may turn its burly body over to get the other side wet.  Egrets stand on their backs, lift off when the hippo rolls. 


They’re muddy, poopy, aggressive and huge, but somehow I find them soothing…as long as I have a safe distance.