Magazine article International Wildlife

The Day the Earth Blew

Magazine article International Wildlife

The Day the Earth Blew

Article excerpt

Our roving editor joins the exotic creatures of the Galapagos Islands as a volcano re-forms their landscapes

Like enraged demons, blobs of molten rock plunge into the sea just 15 meters (50 ft.) from where I perch on the edge of a cliff. Sparks pop and purplish steam rises from a fiery river of lava in front of me. The volcanic spirits of Fernandina Island in the Galapagos group have unleashed their wrath with exceptional fury. I am a witness at the gates of Hell.

As I move back, unable to stand the heat, I realize that a scattering of meter-long marine iguanas sits motionless along the same cliff edge. A few hours earlier I had watched several stray into the path of the lava, where they'd instantly burst into flames. Now, though night is falling, the survivors try in vain to cool off, standing with heads and bodies raised as they would at the height of noon during a breeze.

Like Galapagos penguins, which nest in caves of old lava, and Galapagos fur seals, which hunt squid at night, the iguanas are among a handful of species found nowhere but on these islands off the coast of Ecuador. They have adapted to life in a volcanic world, and now I am lucky enough to observe their ancient struggle as their restless home reshapes itself yet again.

I grew up in the Galapagos some 75 nautical miles from Fernandina, and as a photographer, I have worked to document and understand the convulsions that periodically rock that island. On five previous occasions I had tried to reach Fernandina as soon as I heard news of an eruption. Always I was too late. This time, on February 8 of this year, I arrived in a small charter boat to encounter one of the most otherworldly natural spectacles imaginable: I was almost dead center in what was perhaps the largest outpouring of lava there this century, an eruption that was to last two and a half months.

Fernandina, the westernmost and youngest island of the Galapagos archipelago, is uninhabited. One of the most active volcanoes in the world, it teeters on the edge of a submarine plateau - the Galapagos Platform - astride what volcanologists call a "hot spot," fed by a deep mantle plume of intense heat rising through the Earth's crust.

The center of Fernandina towers nearly 1,500 meters (5,000 ft.). A huge caldera, almost 1,000 meters deep, pits this bleak and clinkered expanse of cooled lava and ash. On much of the island, not a spark of life is visible. In contrast, the coastal fringe supports a variety of unique wildlife fed by ocean currents that rise from the depths and bathe the shoreline with rich nutrients.

I explore for eight days, trying to understand the ecological implications. Jagged black fingers claw the shoreline as red-hot lava cascades past me. Cracks and hisses, dull pops and heavy thuds, hold me spellbound as two elements battle in perpetual motion: liquid rock spewed from the depths of the Earth and angry swells of the ocean, which meet at land's end in an explosion of steam.

At low tide, marine iguanas scramble in droves down the cliff, as they would every day, flinging themselves into the waves for a seaweed feed. A few venture too close to the advancing lava flow. They thrash about madly in the near-boiling waters. Some make it to safety. Others sink from sight. …

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