April 25, 2003 to May 5, 2003
Escorted Trip: Lindblad Expedition
Author: Lois Olive Gray Photos: Kay Ellen Gilmour
Contents INTRODUCTION ................................................................................................................................................ 3 VENECIA ISLET .................................................................................................................................................. 5 ESPANOLA ISLAND ............................................................................................................................................ 7 GARDNER BAY................................................................................................................................................. 13 FLOREANA ISLAND.......................................................................................................................................... 17 LA LOBERIA ................................................................................................................................................. 19 ISABELA ISLAND.............................................................................................................................................. 28 FERNANDINA ISLAND ................................................................................................................................. 34 SANTA CRUZ ISLAND....................................................................................................................................... 41 DARWIN RESEARCH CENTER ...................................................................................................................... 42 RANCHO PRIMICA ........................................................................................................................................ 48 DOS GAMELOS ............................................................................................................................................. 49 GENOVESA (TOWER) ISLAND .......................................................................................................................... 50 SANTIAGO ISLAND .......................................................................................................................................... 65 DAPHNE ISLAND ............................................................................................................................................. 69 CAPITAL CITY—QUITO..................................................................................................................................... 70 OTAVALO......................................................................................................................................................... 72
INTRODUCTION After spending the first night in the quite nice Hilton Colon Guayaquil, we made the hour & a half flight to Baltra, Galapagos on Saturday, April 26. The islands are in a different time zone from mainland Ecuador so it was only about 10 a.m. there as we went through the many (employment providing) checkpoints at this military airport: national park entry fee & ticketing, passport control, customs, and baggage check. However, waiting was not a frustration since we saw our very first wildlife - a wonderful red-headed lizard (about the same size as our anoles and geckoes) with the most extraordinarily “fine” fingers on his four feet. We promptly named this fellow “Darwin” and later learned that he was really called Darwin’s Lava Lizard! We also learned that he is present on all the islands we visited though he may have different colorations and sizes, just like the famous finches and mockingbirds that Darwin himself observed. Baltra is just about the only flat place in the islands large enough for an airport and, sure enough, we discovered that the good ole USA had built the facility during WWII to defend the Panama Canal. Ecuador has not made many improvements either - they have neither lights nor running water in the barracks for the soldiers. The island was also quite dry and desert-like with cactus plants and dried up grasses about the only vegetation around. However, the dock from which we were to catch the Zodiacs to the M/S Polaris was surrounded with all kinds of sea and birdlife: a sea lion, jumping fish, great frigate birds, pelicans and cormorants. What a welcoming committee to get us started on this much anticipated discovery adventure! Getting into the Zodiacs seemed quite familiar (almost like coming home) but our first driver was quite cautious and seemed most nervous about possibly alarming us or, heavens forefend, getting sea spray on any of his passengers. Therefore, we proceeded to the ship at a “Cleopatra on her barge-like,” dignified pace. The cruise ship is smaller than we had expected, holding about 80 passengers and 35 crew. It was not plush but quite comfortable and had all the expected amenities: lounges, library, observation deck, small exercise room, dining area, and gift shop. The ship was clean and comfortable throughout and the crew was friendly, helpful and, though ubiquitous, usually invisible. The cruise started off for us in the lounge where we were acquainted with the ship’s routines (including lifeboat drill) and facilities. Then we were ushered into the dining room for our buffet lunch. This meal was the harbinger of all the delicious meals we enjoyed throughout the voyage. The topper for today was an
Ecuadorian potato soup with fresh avocadoes. Ecuadorian specialties would greet us at every meal along with fresh fruits and vegetables, some of which were new to us—but almost all were delicious and became great favorites. Our own Cabin 200 was right behind the gift shop on the main floor, so it was quite convenient to everything including the exit doors to the Zodiac launch stations. Though small, the room was comfortable and had adequate storage space for clothes, shoes, and luggage. There was no TV that we could spot though there was a remote control device mounted on the wall above the nightstand. It turned out that this little “puzzler” controlled a fan on the wall opposite the beds. We also now knew that we were 73 passengers in all so we have a little extra room aboard ship “to bustle in.” Not good for Lindblad, but more comfy for us passengers. We have met with Lynn Fowler, our Expedition Leader, as well as the naturalists who are employed by the National Park Service: Lucho, Carlos, Paul, Carmen, Elisabeth, and Rikki and Jack Swenson, our photography guides and experts. And we have been promised a Zodiac ride later on today after all the gear is stowed away. This trip will take us to Venecia Islet, just offshore of the much larger Santa Cruz Island.
VENECIA ISLET What a marvelous first look at the Galapagos! What a weird and primordial panorama! Black lava rocks looking new and knife-blade sharp. No one could doubt the volcanic origins of this archipelago! Colors rioting & competing all around the dark lava background: red mangroves, pale green candelabra cactus, clear shallow blue-green waters teeming with surprisingly colorful “golden mantas” and silvery fish, perfect blue sky overhead, red-orange Sally Lightfoot crabs clinging to the shiny black wet lava as well as intrepidly and incredibly climbing up into the mangrove trees, matte-finish black marine iguanas feeding on the green-black algae covering the lava at the waterline. Magnificent frigate birds adding yet another shade of black to the scene as they patrolled the skies above the dull black Zodiacs floating in a sea of green, the amazing, improbable but delightful blue-footed boobies on their webbed feet standing on the slick sparkling black lava as if to insure that we saw just how blue and yet how subtly different each set of these feet are. It would be hard to imagine how a more endearing seabird could be designed! Zodiacs are called “pangas” in the Galapagos (much easier for Spanish tongues to curl around) and we quickly fell into this terminology ourselves. Our first panga ride was a total success and left us hungry for more. The EL, Lynn, assured us that we had seen “nothing yet” when she gave us some background about these islands and her experiences here. She has lived in the Galapagos for 25 years, staying after she completed her Ph.D. research on Isabela Island... She is a Tallahassee native and so her alma mater is FSU. (Small interesting factoid is that her uncle is Jim Fowler who starred with Marlin Perkins on the Mutual of Omaha animal shows!) She related a few things we needed to know about the Galapagos and their uniqueness in all the world. Their very existence is due to plate tectonics and ocean currents like the Humboldt coming off the coast of South America. Most astonishing, 97% of the species that Darwin saw when he so briefly visited the “Islas Encantadas” remain here today! Ecuador & her people are husbanding their national treasure as vigorously as possible. In 1998, the federal legislature adopted a law forbidding any further immigration to the Island, even by Ecuadorians. In addition, the government actively encourages people already residing in Galapagos to return to the mainland to live. Not only that, the government sought and achieved World Heritage Site and Biosphere designations from the United Nations which also brings more protection to this unique world. The birds, animals and plants found
here are endemic (meaning they are found here ONLY) and their differences from each other from island to island as well as from the mainland are what cemented in Darwin’s mind the mechanism of evolution and how it worked: Natural Selection. Galapagos covers 53,300 square miles of the Pacific and consists of 13 major islands, 6 smaller ones, and scores of tiny islets and skerries. Total land mass is 3,125 square miles (about the size of Arkansas). The Islands bestride the equator and lie 1000 miles south of Guatemala and 1000 miles north of Easter Island and are about 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador.
ESPANOLA ISLAND Our first landing here was quite early so we had the perfect photographic light— that golden transparent but vividly limning light so critical to clear and focused pictures. We had clear skies though the sun did play “peek-a-boo” with us through the clouds. Our path was boulder-strewn and made us proceed slowly along the coast, for which we were grateful since it gave us plenty of time to look at all the stunning sights around us.
Punta Suarez was our very best blue-footed booby landing spot. We walked among the charming birds on their courting and nesting grounds. They are so hilarious with their “duh” stares combined with their stately courting rituals. The way they lift their beautiful blue feet in a slow dance-like step and then carefully & deliberately put them back down on the ground with such pride and dignity is just too amusing! We learned that the females have a larger pupil and utter a honking cry while the males with their tiny pupils produce a thin but loud whistle. After exhibiting their beautiful feet to one another, they point their bills skyward and raise their wings to full display. But it is definitely those surprising blue feet that “make the bird” and insure a good “catch” in the dating game. However, those feet (which come in a painter’s assortment of blues) are not the only
beauty marks these creatures possess. Their heads are also decorated in high fashion with “punky” feathers on top with bright frosting highlighting the gray. Of course, the first thing we all noticed about all the creatures here in the Galapagos is their utter fearlessness—their appealing vulnerability because of their innocence regarding the menace of humankind. Unfortunately, many of them are not afraid of the feral animals humans have introduced onto the Islands: cats, dogs, pigs, goats, rats & burros. Because the creatures are so trusting here, photography is amazingly simple. One doesn’t need long lenses or camouflage. If you see a good subject, you can practically walk right up to it and put the camera in its face. Of course, the very strict rules of the National Park, which the naturalists conscientiously enforce, do not permit quite that much freedom of human movement. Nonetheless, photo ops are many, easy and quite close by. So we weren’t too surprised when we were able to observe easily the evolving skins of the marine iguanas on this island—adding more turquoise to their basic flat black scaly textures. Science isn’t too sure why this island group is adding the color to its repertoire of individual traits, but it probably has to do with attracting the most healthy and fertile mates Again, color seems to be so important here. The Sally Lightfoot crabs are like neon signs against the black lava rocks.
Their red-orange “costume” is so vivid that it would seem to attract predators rather than help conceal the crabs. However, the brilliant coloration apparently does them no harm as a species because they were incredibly abundant wherever we went. Maybe, they taste yucky and the bright color warns would be diners that they won’t enjoy this meal? Further along on this 2-mile hike, we came upon the Nazca (earlier called “masked) booby. This fellow is much whiter than his blue-footed cousin and wears a black, raccoon-like mask around his eyes.
Just to show that birds like to confuse their admirers wherever they live, the Nazca booby young look like the blue-footed boobies except that their feet are black. The Nazcas already had fuzzy adolescent chicks in their rookery— ungainly and ugly except for their appealing youth and wonder at the world around them. Midway in the walk, we crossed a sort of plateau where we had to stop or fall over the 100 ft cliffs above the ocean. Below us we could see playful sea lions enjoying the waves and honking happily. The iguanas and crabs were everywhere around us as we waited for the “blow hole” formation to “do its thing.”
When the right wave comes in, it fills the small opening in the rocks and spews up like a spouting whale with a great “Old Faithful” type of spray and mist and roar. Quite impressive when the conditions were just right.
After watching this phenomenon, we walked (or stumbled) on over the boulders to the “waved albatross airport.” This area is flat & relatively bare of vegetation, giving the albatrosses a runway to use as a launching pad for flight as well as a landing field. Otherwise, they could not nest here at all. They also nest right on the airstrip which makes for some interesting dodging and feinting during take- offs and landings.
Waved albatross (so-called because of a curious waving in their neck feathers) are only half as big as wandering albatross but they have similar sweet faces. They clack beaks at each other often, but do not have the same elaborate courting rituals as their more Southern relatives (South Georgia Island in the sub Antarctic). As a matter of fact, mating often occurred with no obvious courting whatever. Curiously, after eggs are laid, the female rolls them about to determine their toughness (the amount of calcium carbonate determines the thickness and resilience of the shells). If the egg breaks during this testing and it’s early enough in the season, she mates again and lays more eggs. If it is too late in the season, she abandons the effort for that year. There are 20,000 mating pairs in the Islands.
LOVE BIRDS Among all these larger seabirds we were constantly seeing the smaller songbirds so well studied over the years since Darwin—the finches, warblers, and mockingbirds. Each island has its own variety of these birds as well. No wonder dedicated birders consider the Galapagos a must-visit spot on the planet. And here they were—the Espanola varieties flitting all around us. They were a bit harder to photograph because of their fast flight and constant bobbing about, but they were not really fearful of us either.
GARDNER BAY Our afternoon outing was a visit to the opposite of Espanola Island, the above- named beach. Most folks planned to snorkel here and walk the sugar sand beach with sea lions strewn all over it.
We were issued half wetsuits because the waters here in the Islands are quite chilly (ranging from the mid 60s to mid 70s. The mockingbirds were evidently not repelled by the figures we cut in these corsets because they flew about and landed on all of us—seeking water, according to the naturalists. Of course, these tiny-feathered “flitters” reminded us of the intrepid South Island robin who delighted us on the Milford Track in New Zealand. It didn’t require much swimming in the surf to remind us that we were not really snorkeling fans and definitely not cold-water swimmers. We did greatly enjoy this beach anyway—because of the performance of a “beach master” sea lion.
Beside the tranquil emerald green waters he slept apparently dead to the world— until suddenly the huge creature roused himself and gave chase to two young sea lions whose activities (making amateurish and feeble attempts to mate) outraged him. His surprisingly rapid run up the beach scattered tourists, mockingbirds, younger pups and females.
He could haul himself along very well for short distances (bringing his hindquarters under him for greater mobility) but he would just as suddenly flop in mid stride and rest a bit, obviously winded. The rest period was short and then the chase was on again. The young & foolish sea lions he pursued quite clearly did not wish to be caught, so they made tracks even faster when he dropped down to the sand. Though he had to stop often, he was quite determined to teach the upstarts a lesson so he always got back into action as soon as he had his breath back.
He finally chased them into the sea and kept after them there where his awkward movements disappeared and he became a sinuous racing torpedo under the water. He had been displaying fearsome teeth in a huge red mouth and he barked constantly except when he was catching his breath. We thought we saw him nip one of the miscreants while they were all in the ocean waters, and soon afterwards, the proud beach master lumbered back on shore, confident that he has reasserted his dominance! We all applauded him enthusiastically before taking leave of his beach.
T HE P OST O FFICE This morning (April 28) we participated in a bit of the culture and history of the Galapagos. A short panga ride took us from the ship to Post Office Bay on Floreana where we learned about a centuries-old tradition wherein mail was received and delivered entirely free but with long delivery delays.
Since most of the early whaling and sealing ships stopped in the Galapagos to take on fresh water and tortoises for provisions, it was a perfect place for a “mail box.” Ship crews on the way out for their 3-5 year voyages would leave messages for loved ones in a big barrel. Crews on their way back would pick up the letters to deliver them when they got back home. That way folks at home would get at least one message from their long-absent sailors.
The tradition is continued today by having us tourists leave cards and letters in the barrel for other visitors to pick up and deliver when they get back home. The idea now is to choose items addressed to people near you so you can actually deliver the mail in person. So we chose a couple of cards--one to Buffalo, NY, and the other to Sitka, AK--because we knew that Suzanne and Marie would be visiting us soon and could insure delivery of the mail. We also sent a note to our three friends at home & are curious how long it will take that postcard to reach them there.
After leaving the post office barrel, we took a panga ride to La Loberia, a sea lion colony on the other side of Floreana.
L A L OBERIA The colony was well populated with sea lions of all ages and degrees of playfulness so they were a delight to watch. Swimming about in the cove were several green sea turtles which are not a threatened species in the Galapagos.
Wonder of wonders, though, we did see two Galapagos penguins flashing among the turtles and sea lions. This is the 2nd smallest penguin in the world and the most endangered.
These 1000 penguins are found only here and are very much at risk from changes in seawater temperature which come with El Nino and La Nina oceanic effects.
These dapper little fellows are marked very like the Magallanic penguins we saw in Argentina. The two were fishing and playing right around the Zodiac so we had really good viewing. They are such efficient swimmers that they can outrun the fish they are chasing. 1000 individuals is not a reassuring number for overall species survival!
We saw another phenomenon peculiar to the Galapagos today—the guarua mist. It covered all the hills and mountains we saw today. Because it carries so much moisture, this strange “fog” allows the high places in the Galapagos to be mini- cloud forests with bromeliads growing atop cacti! Its appearance imparted to our explorations today an eerie quality as well as a “wet” one because the mist condensed as soon as it touched our skin, the boats, or our clothing. At times it was heavy enough to seem like rain with droplets forming on our binos and cameras. The oddest fact about the guarua, however, is that it makes July & August the coolest months here (you might need a sweater at noon) rather than the hottest as one would anticipate based on the equatorial location of the islands. Because of this mist, many small birds and animals can survive on these desert places.
Back on board, we ran forward to the front of the Polaris, because the captain announced that a pod of dolphins was “bow-riding.” They are magnificent animals - racing at the prow of the ship, porpoising and peeling off the side, but always effortlessly keeping up with the ship’s speed so as not to be run over. These creatures seem to enjoy this game as much the human watchers delight in seeing it.
G LASS B OTTOM B OATS Our afternoon activity was either snorkeling, which we rejected, or riding the glass bottom boat—so we took the latter. The ride was going well at first and we had fun seeing the fish and coral and plants under the boat in the clear water. We even saw 4 sleeping sharks below us. However, it soon became obvious that our boat pilot was having a great deal of trouble with the engine that kept cutting off. Then it was very reluctant to be restarted. All this provided some excitement since we were bobbing along without power very near to the rocky shores of the Champion Island (a small islet close to Floreana). The Pacific waves kept shoving and butting the boat closer and closer to the rocks and we began to realize that this was not a particularly happy place to be.
Finally the driver and our naturalist decided to call for help and a panga appeared suddenly to take us off the boat. However, to our great surprise, the panga was filled with the next group of folks who were scheduled for the glass bottom boat ride. Here, we thought we were being rescued in the nick of time and they were just refilling the boat! However, we were all relieved to be off the boat with its coughing and sputtering engine. After this high adventure, we took another ride to a smaller island off Floreana for a chance to see the most endangered bird in the world—the Floreana mockingbird. Only 150 of this little guy are believed left alive on the planet and they are all on this little islet! Of course, this is a bird for any serious birder’s life list.
The islet was rocky and very dry with only cactus appearing to thrive here. However, there were two beautiful coves where we saw the “day care” center for the 1-year-old baby sea lion pups. These irrepressible youngsters put on an unforgettable show for us—diving, fighting, and playing tag with a snorkel tube they had discovered.
They raced around under the Zodiac and all over the cove chasing after whoever had the tube in his mouth. It was a fluorescent green so we could easily follow the “progress of the ball” around the “court.” But the naturalist and panga driver were most anxious to interrupt the game and retrieve the tube because if the pups chewed & swallowed pieces of the hard plastic they could cause injury to their digestive systems. After a terrific game of “keep-away” which the pups were definitely winning, Carlos was able to get the tube from a pup who made the mistake of going up on the sand instead staying in the water where Carlos could probably not have gotten it ever. Everyone was relieved since we didn’t want the darling creatures to be hurt by their game.
The high reddish cliffs around the 2 nd cove we visited revealed our greatest prize—good looks at the Floreana mockingbirds. In the cacti that topped the cliffs, we saw 3 individual birds. They are prettily marked, much more colorful than our mockingbirds, and also much smaller. It is hard to believe that this little band of creatures can survive indefinitely because of the small space they inhabit and because of the unpredictable Galapagos droughts and temperature changes through time. However, they have lasted since Darwin saw & studied them. So maybe Mother Nature provides for the unique creatures she has placed on these
Islas Encantadas. P UNTA C ORMORANT
Later on in the afternoon, we were taken to Punta Cormorant, a strangely misnamed spot on Floreana—odd because there really is not “point” of land here nor have there ever ben cormorants.
We visited this place because Galapagos flamingoes live here in the shallow freshwater lakes and ponds. Our landing site was a green beach, technically described as “olivine” due to the particles of lavatic minerals which take 10,000 years to come up from the earth’s core, turning a translucent olive green in the process.
The beach was covered in this material as well as feldspar and quartz. As we started up the beach, the sand was quite fine but the farther upland we got the more like scoria the sand became—much coarser.
When we reached the highest point, we went down on the side of the peninsula where there was a white sand beach called “Flour Beach”, because its sand is as fine and white as milled flour.
In the surf we saw rays and sharks amazingly close to the shoreline. On the beach was a lone sea lion who paid us absolutely no attention. The beach was really quite pretty and the sand “squeaked” at us as we crossed and recrossed it, taking pictures of the Sally Lightfoots, the sea lion, and the sharks and rays.
However, getting a picture of the comical but very quick little ghost crabs proved the biggest challenge. They creep out of their holes on their tippy toes and skitter back underground at the slightest movement they detect, so there is no chance of sneaking up on them for a shot. Obviously these critters do have natural predators because they are very skittish. They are a paler orange than the Sallys and their little eyes are on stalks atop their round bodies and those eyes are sharp indeed! We laughed at each other also as we tried to figure out ways to outsmart the “ghosts” by lying on the sand, trying to approach from the rear of their escape holes, or sitting patiently waiting for one to re-surface after a safety dive below.
When everyone was willing to give up on that effort, we crossed the peninsula to reach the shallow freshwater lakes where brilliant pink flamingoes had nests, babies, and their own private dining room. Never had any of us seen flamingoes of such vivid pinkness, sharply outlined by the black on the underside of their wings. Really quite beautiful birds. Carlos told us that they are reputed to be the pinkest species in the entire world.
We were lucky to see about 30 adults and a couple of juveniles and even one very young chick, standing forlornly and crying piteously and querulously to its mother begging for food. Scattered among the flamingo flock were some Galapagos pintail ducks and some black-necked stilts. Little warblers and finches flitted everywhere too. The evening light was luminescent and lovely and it was easy to get shots of birds and plants with dramatic backlighting and great detail. A truly wonderful photo op here at Point Cormorant!
ISABELA ISLAND The following morning’s adventure involved sailing around the “nose and chin” of the seahorse that is Isabela Island with its five volcanoes, all still active. We started off in dense fog but it lifted magically and unveiled the high cliffs that were actually the caldera walls of a collapsed volcano. Intruded into the pale ochre cliffs were dykes of dark & harder lava resembling exposed dinosaur skeletons. The cliff rocks were quite unsuitable for rock climbing since they were quite crumbly and subsided into gravel fans. Some of the dykes had caused separations (gaps) in the cliff faces of up to 12 or more inches.
Our panga ride was quite special and stunning due to the awesome, yet austere, beauty of these cliff formations. Because of the friability of the stone, there are many holes and ledges that make perfect nesting spots for Blue-Footed Boobies and Noddy Terns. The rough surface also makes for perfect “climbing and clinging” for the Marine Iguanas and Sally Lightfoots. As we floated along the cliffs, we began to see the surprising variations in the rock colors—ranging from the first perceived ochre to Grand Canyon reds with purples, greens, and iron- stained browns. They are all splashed with a whitewash provided courtesy of the seabirds which points up all the other colors. Seen against today’s brilliant blue skies, the cliff faces of the Isabela are most beautiful.
Along the way, we got an enormous surprise and treat—we saw a Mola Mola, a very rare sighting indeed. And what is that, you ask? Luckily we had just seen a captive one in February when we visited the Monterey Aquarium. It is one of the strangest fish in all the oceans of the world and is usually known as a sunfish. Known to grow to incredible sizes (11 ft. in diameter), it is also the largest bony fish in the seven seas. However, the most peculiar thing about the Mola Mola is its shape. It looks like a huge floating head whose body has been left off in the planning. Its fins are also positioned most strangely: a tall dorsal fin and directly below a long ventral fin with two tiny lateral fins up near the eyes.
The Mola Mola eats gelatinous plankton and jellyfish. One way to know that you are seeing a Mola Mola is by watching the behavior of that dorsal fin in the water: it looks like it belongs to a tipsy shark since it twists and turns this way and that in a rather plastic movement unlike the shark fin which cuts directly through the water. Our specimen was about 6 ft. in diameter. But we were impressed anyhow. Here is a URL of a swimming Mola Mola filmed by Valentin Ryzman in 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTW07isHpsI Shortened URL: https://goo.gl/jQCSLZ And the fun had only begun. When we left the Mola Mola to make its drunken way out into deeper waters, we returned closer to the cliffs and there we bobbed among the glistening, silky fur sea lion pups and adults. Though called the Galapagos fur seal, the creature is actually a fur sea lion and is a close relative of the much larger fur seals we saw in Antarctic waters. Perhaps it is their diminutive size that accounts for their non-aggressive behavior; indeed, an almost puppy dog playfulness prevailed. Remember that the Antarctic version is very aggressive, even the pups, but perhaps that’s because they were hunted almost to extinction and the Galapagos variety did not suffer that fate. In contrast with the sea lions which have doglike faces and are therefore appealing to most human beings, the fur seals have faces that are more bear-like (however, that is endearing to many of us as well). Their fur is incredibly thick and lustrous, ranging in color from light tans to rich sables. The water courses through the fur leaving patterns and waves as the animals dive and surface. The sun glints off the water droplets and dazzles the eye while the animals bob up and look at us curiously and questioningly: “when are you coming into the water to play with us?” While we laughed and pointed at the teasing pups, suddenly a lone tiny penguin appeared among them and splashed and frolicked in the little private wave pool they had created. The little fellow could swim as rapidly as they did but not as sinuously; his little body is more rigid in the water than the squirmy and undulant seals.
Flightless cormorants were also at work in this same part of the ocean, swimming, diving, floating, but never taking wing. These are the only flightless cormorants in the world, but they look very like our anhingas and cormorants in head and neck. However, their pitiable little wings are mere remnants of the long slender wings of their global cousins.
Blue Boobies were courting and nesting on the cliff tops and in the ledges below and we actually saw one fuzzy chick in its oh so precarious nest above the waves. Waved albatross and brown pelicans were flying overhead and the Noddy Terns were busy on land and in the air. Occasionally, a magnificent frigate bird appeared overhead as well. The scenery, the animals and the blue-green seas seemed made to order for the perfect advertisement for a visit to the Galapagos. The sea was even colder here off Isabela and when we got perilously close to the rocks standing guard below the cliff faces, we could see the Green Sea Turtles and Puffer Fish very clearly. The Equatorial Current is responsible for both the colder waters and for the rich nutrient content of the sea here. We learned that male turtles have long tails (you can tell they’re the long ones even without seeing a short female tale for contrast) so it’s easy to identify the sexes when they’re swimming. This was a wondrous morning for animal watching and we say, “All praise to the lovely Isabela Island!”
F ERNANDINA ISLAND The afternoon brought us to magical Fernandina Island, the youngest in the archipelago. As our naturalist Carmen told us, this island is considered the “jewel in the crown” of the Galapagos because it is the most pristine: there are no feral species on this island! Not only that, the young lava on the island is wonderful to behold because of the many patterns it has formed. There are “lava ropes,” “lava “pillows,” lava tubes, pavement lava, jagged blades of lava “decking” and ledges, and syrupy lava so fresh that it appears to be flowing as you view it.
In addition to the intricate and lovely lava patterns so wonderfully outlined by the afternoon golden sunlight, another curious and fascinating experience on this hike was seeing the “hordes” of marine iguana in action. On this island, they are flat black in color with beaded, leathery-looking skins, with small, white cone- shaped eruptions crowning their heads. They lie about in tangled piles sharing their bodily warmth and soaking up the sunshine. They are also generous in “sharing” the explosive snorts of salt-laden spray that each one periodically expels from his wide nostrils over all the others. No one seems to mind the cooling shower and, of course, it is a necessary function to rid their bodies of the salt accumulated in their underwater feeding (one of the amazing evolutionary adaptations these creatures have made).
Yet another thrill awaited us as we walked along the cliffside on this fabulous island: a most patient and completely nerveless Galapagos hawk. He was perched atop a theatrically positioned dead tree quite a bit in the distance when we first spotted him. Of course, we all began to hurry (at our various paces) towards that end of the little cape we were traversing, everyone hoping that he would still be there when we arrived to take our pictures. To our complete amazement, he lingered there for at least ¾ of an hour, insuring that even the slowest hiker reached him in plenty of time. When Kay and I arrived, we looked for jesses to see if he had been tethered there but he was quite free! He was indeed a splendid looking hawk with deeply curved beak, sharp and pitiless talons, a piercing yellow eye (we were certainly close enough to see that without binos), and intricately beautiful brown and golden feathers. What a picture he made alone!
But nature here is prodigal in her gifts to us mere humans. When we took in the whole scene, we realized that we were seeing a really special and unforgettable picture. There was the regal hawk, all tense life atop the dead, leafless, and white-barked tree. In the background was a perfectly conical volcano and just above the horizon line, blue-footed boobies were stitching flight patterns in the sky, while resting on the sand directly below the hawk were two entwined baby sea lions fast asleep in their innocence and confidence of safety. Even the flightless cormorants holding out their vestigial wings to dry in the fading sunlight added to the primordial picture. And then the last golden rays of the sun shot through the low-lying clouds and caused the yellow & green mosses on a tiny islet just offshore to become molten gold and flashing emeralds. In the face of such a scene, one can only thank Mother Nature for the gift of sight!
Even the ride away from the island back to the Polaris was enchanted. We saw many green sea turtles swimming around the Zodiac, penguins resting among the tiny islets and skerries we skirted on our homeward course, sea lions and fur seals draped comfortably on the sharp rocks. The blue-green waters turned from 39
silvery to black as the sun sank behind us. We felt reluctant to leave this perfect island Eden, the most unspoiled island in the world but we were truly grateful to have visited her—here are no pesky exotic plants, no destructive immigrant animals or insects, no manmade additions or subtractions. Paradise preserved!
SANTA CRUZ ISLAND
Today was our “big city” or civilization day—we would visit the capital city of the 4 th state of Ecuador (The Galapagos), Puerto Ayora. This is a city of about 12,000 – 15,000 people, most of whom who are employed by the government or work in support of those folks. However, the federal government would like to reduce the number residents there. Restrictions against owning pets of any kind or bringing any flowers or other plants from the mainland are already in place.
DARWIN RESEARCH CENTER The first place to visit in this little town is the Darwin Research Center—an optimistic organization if there ever was one!
The main focus of the Center at present is to perpetuate the 4 remaining tortoise species in the Islands and to bring the land iguana back to viable numbers. To that end, they maintain breeding “herds” of all these animals and nurture the hatchlings until they can be returned to the islands of their parents’ origins. The biggest threat to the tortoises is no longer man, thank you very much, but to his fellow-travelers: cats, rats, dogs, pigs, goats, and burros. The vegetarians among these animals compete with the endemic creatures by eating (and decimating) the plants needed by the natives. The young of all the endemics are eaten by the meat eaters among the domesticated animals gone feral. Rats can chew through tortoise shells until the young reach from 3-5 years and their carapaces become thick & hard enough so that the rats can no longer penetrate
them. So the hatchlings are cared for and protected at the Darwin Center until they can be returned home. The naturalists told us an interesting story about how they discovered that the tortoises were still in danger even though human beings no longer threatened them. Taking surveys through the years on all the islands supporting the tortoises, the researchers were always relieved to see that the numbers remained constant. Then one particularly bright young fellow said, “You know, when we do the next count we should also age the creatures to have that data on record as well!” Well, they were quite shocked to learn during that subsequent survey that one island supported no tortoise under 50 years of age! Of course that meant there had been no successful rearing of young for many, many years. After that disastrous finding, the researchers discovered that the rats were killing all the baby tortoises. That’s when the Darwin Research Center began to breed the tortoises in captivity (& gather wild-laid eggs as well) to protect the hatchlings until they were capable of survival despite the predators.
This labor-intensive and very expensive restoration project has seen great success over the 20+ years it has been ongoing. As a matter of fact, one “race” of tortoises has come back from 15 individuals to 1200! However, none of the populations are considered self-sustaining yet, even though some babies have been hatched in the wild and are surviving there (due to a successful rat eradication on one island). So the project continues and will do so until the scientists are sure the tortoises no longer need this protection and help. During our visit we saw this year’s hatchlings as well as others ranging from 2 to 5 years, almost ready for “repatriation”. The little tortoises are adorable with such delicate little legs. They are like elephants in that the babies look like exact, except diminutive, copies of their parents. They are oddly more appealing in this small edition. We saw a demonstration of how the staff teaches the tortoises to expose their necks to check for parasites.
The same sort of project is being supported for the land iguanas as well. This one too has been successful but it is actually even more expensive than the tortoise restoration. Each land iguana released into the wilds costs about $2600. So this wonderful Research Center depends heavily on contributions and support from institutions and individuals. We saw two breeding females, examples of their race. They are very large and quite yellowy-gold in color. Their skins are scaly and very wrinkly and they do not have the conical projections on their head that their marine cousins sport. Their dorsal fringes are more pronounced as well, from head to tail.
Residing at the Darwin Center is a very sad fellow indeed—Lonesome George— a Pinta Island tortoise who is, as far as has been determined, the last of his breed. Except for this hardy specimen, all other tortoises have died off due to the utter devastation of their food source (vegetation) by feral goats. Although it was already a little late, a concerted effort to rid the island of goats was undertaken and was successful! At the last visit by researchers some 5 years ago, it was determined that the goats had indeed been eradicated and then the amazing discovery of George was made. He was brought to the Center where he now resides in a fine corral area with females of a closely related race of tortoises, but he has not shown them any particular attention or interest yet. In the meantime, there is a standing $10,000 reward to any person or facility who can produce a female Pinta tortoise to become George’s close friend. There have been no claims for the money yet.
Another lonely fellow is Diego who was returned to the Center by the San Diego Zoo in hopes that he would find a mate in Galapagos. At present he is the only male of his race who is mature enough to breed and the San Diego Zoo had no appropriate brides for him. The Zoo had captured him several years before (probably saving him from becoming a rat’s meal) and they now thought it appropriate to send him back “home.” So now he has a special home as well with females of his own race and the researchers are eagerly hoping that he will take a fancy to one of his corral mates and begin to reproduce. We also saw several breeding females from other islands who are kept separated from their male brethren, except for breeding purposes. The researchers are desirous of having exact genetic records of the offspring of these tortoises so careful records are kept regarding which new turtles came from which pairs. This helps them to preserve genetic “races” but also to vary the gene pool of their captive-bred tortoises.
conducive to each plant’s health and growth. They then apply that knowledge to restocking ruined ecosystems with plants grown at the Center and also in nurturing the remaining plants. They (the humans) discovered quickly that it was no use trying they bring back the native animals to the islands if their habitat had been virtually destroyed. So the restoration projects must include both plants and animals. The single town in Galapagos was our next destination—Puerto Ayora. What a quaint and “exotic” place it is. Of all introduced animals we have been told about, this little town is one of the most “foreign” to the islands. It would really be better for the health & well being of Galapagos if the town did not exist at all. But exist it certainly does and even has a certain charm. They call its main street “T-shirt Mile” because of all the T-shirt shops lining the pavement. Some of these enterprises were pretty basic looking huts and sheds, but others were much more prosperous and modern looking. Interspersed among the ubiquitous tourist traps were little eateries and Internet cafes. There was a 7 th Day Adventist Elementary School in the town center as well as a government building. Puerto Ayora is a clean little city with masses of tropical flowers blooming everywhere, hiding much of the substandard housing and commercial buildings. The port is filled with confiscated boats of all sizes which were seized in Galapagos waters (within the 200 mile boundary set for the marine reserve). These boats are never returned to their owners who have broken the law by being in those protected waters, but can be auctioned off to provide funds for the National Park and the Darwin Research Center. The folks living here cannot be making “big bucks” but at least there is work in Galapagos which is not true of much of mainland Ecuador. A bus ride took us from Puerto Ayora up into the highlands of Santa Cruz Island to about 650 meters where we were to have our lunch at a restaurant called “Altaire.” For those who wanted a little exercise before eating, the bus stopped at about 1½ miles below the restaurant so we could walk the rest of the way. We enjoyed the chance to be on our feet, walking along a dusty road through banana orchards, farmlands and pastures with cows, horses and pigs in evidence. Also interesting were the enormous stands of bamboo that must have grown so fast that folks could watch it.
R ANCHO P RIMICA Following a very good Ecuadorian lunch, we next visited Rancho Primica through which the wild tortoises crawled on their migration down from the highlands to the lower reaches of the island as the weather changed and different plants became their principal food for that season. We were lucky and saw 4 in all on the Rancho’s grounds.
The first one we saw was enormous and the naturalists with us said he must weigh in at 600 lbs.; however, he was resting in a very tight little thicket and it was not possible to photograph him well. We then encountered a smaller one but she was in very tall grasses and again very camera shy. When the 3 rd one was finally discovered, we had hit the photo jackpot. It was midway between the first two in size and was clambering out of a small pond when we happened upon it. So we got to observe its slow and rather arduous climb up the slick banks surrounding the pond and we could see the grasses and algae it had lunched on hanging messily out of its mouth. The last we saw was another really big fellow, but he had his head practically jammed against a large tree trunk so we could not see his ET-like face. You certainly can see where Spielberg got his inspiration for his ET’s face when you gaze into the sleepy, weak eyes of these big critters. 48
Passion fruits of three different varieties were hanging from vines and branches all over this rancho and these fruits are favorites of the tortoises—which explains the attraction for using trails through its property to reach the lower levels of the island. Elizabeth, our naturalist on this walk, told us that the guavas would soon be fruiting as well and the tortoises like them very much too. So the rancho is very friendly territory for the tortoises and the owners like the fact that Lindblad brings visitors and pays them to protect the wildlife and to guide tourists like us to see them. So it’s a win-win for everyone involved. D OS G AMELOS The Dos Gamelos turned out to be two enormous sinkholes, each about 60 yards wide and 100 yards long and 200 ft. deep. Scientists think they formed about 2 ½ million years ago when a volcanic cone, or maybe even two, collapsed. Now they are surrounded by the rare scalesia forests of Galapagos—a strange, gangly, sparsely leaved tree which grows only in this site. We searched here for a woodpecker finch but never saw one; however, we did see another vermilion flycatcher on our way out of the park area.
GENOVESA (TOWER) ISLAND We had a wet landing today (May 1 st ) on Coral Beach, an inviting sandy shore in Darwin Bay. This island is really the walls of an ancient caldera and the entry way is quite tricky for the ship. There are high masts erected on the cliffs for the ship’s navigator to use in pointing the ship. It reminded us of Deception Bay in the SubAntarctic. However, there is some scrubby brush and dried grasses here that you wouldn’t see in Deception Bay. The island is pristine with no introduced predators but it is very dry with many dead-appearing trees atop the basaltic cliffs. Only the cactus with their surprising soft spines seemed to be thriving in the plant world.
As we walked only a little away from the beach, we found the “clinkery” lava that is the home of the courting frigate birds. The air and the lava beds were full of the “red balloon” breasted male frigates who were strutting their stuff trying to captivate the ladies.
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