No, I’m not going to tell you how I met a handsome Ecuadorian skipper, sorry to disappoint you. I’m going to tell you about the mating ritual of the blue-footed booby.
The blue-footed booby (its name unfortunately giving rise to a regrettable number of “I love boobies” t-shirts available to buy on the Galapagos Islands) develops its eponymous blue feet when it reaches sexual maturity, in order to attract a mate. The male will ‘dance’ (I would argue it’s more of a waddle) and whistle to attract its chosen female, who will join in the dance and honk loudly if she returns his affections. As romantic as this sounds, the act itself is over in just a few seconds, and the next mating season the male will find a new partner to try on his moves. At least they only have one dance partner at a time.
For tortoises, on the other hand, the sexual act can last as long as two hours. Thank goodness for that, as the females can sometimes travel inland for several days in order to mate with the male of their species. The famous Lonesome George, who unfortunately died last year, was introduced to two females, Georgina and Georgette, towards the latter part of his life. He refused to mate, probably because he was too old and had lived alone for too long. Another tortoise, Diego (so named because he was brought across from the San Diego Zoo where he spent his early life), proved rather more ‘active’, fathering at least 1,600 offspring with various females. Unsurprisingly, given such a high number of offspring, these tortoises are rather negligent when it comes to child care. The female’s duties end once she has laid the eggs – she has no further responsibilities to look after or educate her children, who must fend for themselves as soon as they are hatched.
The sea lion is also polygamous, and the male can have a harem of as many as 20 females on its territory. Although the male is sexually mature already at four, he can only start mating once he is strong enough to take care of his women and his territory, and to protect the pups from predators such as sharks. Actually, the females are free to leave to find a new guardian – they will stay only as long as they feel sufficiently protected by the strength of the alpha male. And as the bull must remain on round-the-clock patrol duty, going without food or sleep for several weeks, he will eventually tire and be beaten by a new challenger who will take his place. The males die younger than the females, with high levels of testosterone making for an aggressive and stressful life. The females, on the other hand, must pay for the protection they receive in sexual favours: they can mate already 15 days after giving birth in order to satisfy the male, with delayed implantation meaning that the embryo lies dormant for another three months, by which time she is ready to be pregnant again.
In a very different dynamic, the female Galapagos hawk is larger and stronger than the male and chooses to take two or more lovers at a time. She sits on her nest and orders them about, and when she lays her two eggs, she doesn’t know who the father is. Not a model to aspire to, in my opinion. Look, instead, to the monogamous albatross, with perhaps the most human approach to mating of all the animals on the Galapagos Islands. Once it finds its soul mate, it stays with that one partner for life. The male and female also share parental duties in an exemplary way, taking it in turns to incubate the egg. A system the Swedes would be proud of.
Finally, then, Homo sapiens: on the third night on board the Nemo II, Claude from Switzerland proposed to his girlfriend Rahel with a bottle of champagne and cake for dessert with “Casate conmigo. Te amo” written in icing, to the tune of ‘Somos novios’. The ring he gave her had been made by the children in the foundation where they are both doing voluntary work. She said yes. We celebrated with two bottles of white wine that Claude had generously bought for the rest of the passengers and crew.
*DISCLAIMER: I bear no responsibility for incorrect information provided here. It’s all hearsay. Well, at least, it comes from what I remember of what our naturalist guide Diego told us.*