South America Part 4: The Galapagos

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 South America

Part 4 – The Galapagos – Giant Tortoise Country

 

March 8, 2009

Dateline: Guayaquil, Ecuador

Latitude at Guayaquil  2.10 South, Longitude 79.54  West

Today we flew from Lima to Guayaquil, Ecuador, which is our departure point for the Galapagos Islands. Our friends Bill and Mara headed home to Virginia, while Stu, Sharon, Gary and I will go on to explore the Galapagos and the mountainous regions of mainland Ecuador. Ecuador actually means equator in Spanish and most of our travel in this country doesn’t stray much from zero degrees latitude.  We didn’t have an organized tour, just a pick up from the airport and a delivery to the hotel, but we decided to hire our escort, Carolina. Our perception was that she did mostly pickup and delivery, since she was a little sketchy on historical details of the city, but we managed to see the main sights according to the guide book I read after the fact, and we found she didn’t make too much stuff up. And since the sights of Guayaquil weren’t all that numerous, and it was almost as hot as the Amazon, one afternoon here would be just fine. We checked into the Oro Verde Hotel (translation is Green Gold) which was a blissfully air-conditioned business hotel. Carolina and our driver met us for a tour an hour later. From there we headed to the usual South American tourist attraction, the cathedral and town square.

Tame Iguanas in Guayaquil

Tame Iguanas in Guayaquil

Guayaquil isn’t really much of a tourist town, but it does have its own brand of charming weirdness. For example, there were hordes of huge iguanas in the park at our first stop, the local cathedral. They were draped over branches up in the trees, sprawled all over the grounds and even sunning themselves on the park benches next to locals reading the newspaper. You had to watch where you sat and or stepped, since of course there was iguana poop everywhere. They are either very tame or just extremely slow moving (the iguanas I mean), and so we got the opportunity to touch them, but they seemed to not even notice. Their skin is like very coarse sandpaper, dry and cool. We concluded they are the slower, bulkier, poopier equivalent of squirrels at home and no one but tourists find them exotic. We are sure the locals got a chuckle out of our pointing fingers and clicking cameras.

From the cathedral  went to the waterfront. Guayaquil is not actually on the ocean, but rather on a broad estuary of the Rio Guayas, which provides the major deepwater port for the country of Ecuador. The city of Guayaquil was officially founded by a Spaniard named Francisco de Orellana , although the area was inhabited by indigenous people for thousands of years. Orellana is also credited with “discovering” the Amazon River, despite the fact that the people living here knew right where it was all along. There was apparently a lot of “discovering” of things not actually lost, missing or unknown to mankind in those days. The name of the city comes from the indigenous Huancavilcas tribe, whose chieftain (Guayas) engaged in the time honored tradition of killing his wife (Quil), supposedly to prevent her capture by the Spanish. He then drowned himself in the river which now bears his name.

They did have a big drug smuggling scandal here on the Guayas a few years ago, now termed “The Great Chocolate Cocaine Caper on the Rio Guayas”.  Apparently some would-be drug runners attempted to ship 3 tons of cocaine to the US in boxes labeled “Ecuadorian Cocoa”, but it was so clumsily disguised, the shipment never got through Customs. Ecuador, it seems, was not really ready for prime time drug moving, and this bungled deal apparently convinced the drug lords that more competent help could be found elsewhere. Today the Port of Guayaquil handles 90% of the  imports and 50% of the exports for Ecuador. Their main exports, flowers and produce, have to be flown out, but just about everything else comes through here.  There is a big rivalry between Guayaquile and Quito, the capital city. Guayaquilenos say Guayaquil makes the country’s money and Quito spends it. The average worker here trends toward tattooed sailors and hourly wage laborers, whereas Quito is populated by more clergy and business-suited politicians and bankers.

Our walk led us to the Malecon,  which is a very nice area built along the waterfront with parks, restaurants, gardens, markets, and  museums. There was a good breeze coming off the water,  it was shady and we could sit and watch the ships come and go. However, Carolina had other plans for us so we kept walking. We saw a picturesque lighthouse in the distance atop a rather steep hill. As we kept walking toward it, I kept snapping pictures. Little did I know we were going to ascend said steep hill on foot via the historic Las Penas district – a little community with San Francisco (CA) like streets, minus the street cars. If you want to go up, you have to hoof it.

Las Penas - Guyaquil

Las Penas – Guyaquil

The small wooden houses line the narrow winding streets and share town-house style common walls. It was reportedly the scene for the bawdy and raucous activities associated with sailors back in its heyday. The houses are painted in more colors than in the 64 count Crayola box and are quaint beyond description. There was a big fire here in 1896 which destroyed many of Guyaquil’s wooden houses, but Las Penas has been mostly restored. Unlike San Francisco it is quite warm and humid here (flashbacks to the Amazon), particularly as we climb up and up, the cobblestone streets. Carolina did not tell us we were going to the lighthouse (she probably knew we would bolt). And once there, we assumed our driver would meet us there – but that would prove to be a wrong assumption too. The steps are numbered, and there are 444 of them. People who live on these streets use the step numbers to identify their addresses. We expect those living beyond, say, the 200’s are very skinny people.  There was a big soccer match that day as we trudged by open doorways and past balconies with TV’s on, people dressed in their team’s jerseys, drinking beer and cheering their favorites. Barcelona is a big team here, but it is a local team, not the one from Spain.  Soccer has been known to cause  riots here in South America so we hope we aren’t wearing the wrong team’s colors by sheer accident. And speaking of this neighborhood, Las Penas, we later learned that the translation of the phrase can be “the penalties”, “the difficulties”, “the suffering” – all of which we felt we experienced on our roundtrip 888 steps in 90 degree heat and 90% humidity. And we were paying for the privilege. What were we thinking?

Lighthouse at Las Penas - Guayaquil

Lighthouse at Las Penas – Guayaquil

We did find a bar at the top of the hill, but all the outdoor tables were taken and it was not air conditioned inside, and so we stood and drank quickly because we were advised that we were not supposed to have drinks outside. But it was so hot, an Ecuadorian jail was probably cooler, so we decided we would risk arrest and continued with our law-breaking ways. And besides, the cops would most likely be watching the soccer game too. We were trying to decide whether it is hotter in Guayaquil or in the Amazon – it was a toss up – steaming jungle or scorching cobblestones – hot is hot.

We had the evening free and so we retired to the hotel bar to decide on dinner plans. After a few cocktails, we decided to go to a restaurant called the Caracol Azul (Blue Snail) which Gary and Stu had heard about from the hotel bartender, and which was within walking distance.  However the directions were a little fuzzy (and so were we after several pisco sours) and we set off in the wrong direction. It quickly became apparent that we were in the wrong neighborhood. One of our first clues was a soccer fan lying in the street with his head propped up on the curb, apparently sleeping off the post-game celebration. We stopped a couple of young fans, who may or may not have known what we were saying, but we showed them the rather blurry note on the bar napkin which the bartender gave us, and they pointed us back to the direction from which we had come. About that time a car pulled up alongside us, but instead of the anticipated thugs and gangsters ready to relieve us of our wallets, it was a family of four, and the two teenage daughters spoke English and said their dad was concerned for us idiot tourists (my terminology not theirs) out wandering around in this poor neighborhood and would like to take us to our hotel or at least to a more respectable part of town. It was not a large car, but the 4 of us piled in, and the father drove us about 3 blocks to the Caracol Azul, which was only 2 blocks from our hotel. We piled out, sort of unfolding ourselves like circus clowns in a Volkswagen Beetle, and thanked them profusely, only to find the restaurant closed. We walked toward the hotel thinking surely some of the bright lights we saw between the Caracol Azul and the hotel would be those of a charming local restaurant. Well, we found the local part, but it was a little light on charm. It was apparently a Chinese-Ecuadorian restaurant whose name was Hoja Dorada (which literally translates as the Golden Sheet or Golden Piece – but I am thinking it is probably some colloquial expression meaning really bad faux-Chinese food. No one seemed to speak English, but they did have pictures, and so we managed to point to what we wanted. We all ordered different things in case any of us got food poisoning, we wouldn’t all perish, but everyone seemed to survive with just a minimum number of Rolaids.

March 9, 2009

Dateline: Baltra, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Latitude at Baltra 00.14 South, 90.51 West

Today we had an elaborate buffet breakfast at the Oro Verde that included at least a dozen kinds of bread, cake, pie, cookies and popcorn, just to name a few of the big carb offerings, as well as every fruit imaginable, so we were able to offset any poor diet choices from the Hoja Dorada. Carolina and our driver picked us up to go to the airport. She presented us with hand woven bracelets she had made from yarn using the colors of the Ecuadorian flag (red, yellow and blue), probably to make amends for nearly killing us with heat exhaustion the day before. She said that we were to wear them until they became frayed and fell of their own accord for good luck. So far, so good.

The Lunar Landscape of the Galapagos

The Lunar Landscape of the Galapagos

From Guyaquil to the Galapagos, it is a two-hour flight on a local airline called Tame, maybe an odd name, but a choice much more soothing to the passengers  than something like “Wild and Woolly”.  We landed on the island of Baltra around noon. All of the islands in the Galapagos have two names, one bestowed by the Spanish and one by the British, but I will stick with the Spanish names since they got there first. There are 13 major islands, 6 small islands and 42 islets, many of which are just rocky outcroppings, straddling the equator, and stretching over 30,000 square miles. We will stay in the Southern Hemisphere while in the Galapagos, but not even a whole degree away from the Equator. The Ecuadorian Government is very restrictive on what can be brought into the islands to make sure no foreign species (flora or fauna) are accidentally introduced into the ecosystem, and so we had a thorough search of our bags upon arrival after a little Customs beagle displayed a great deal interest in them. He might have been after my stash of M&M’s, but his handler didn’t let him have any. We never found out what caught his interest, but we were finally allowed in, glad at least that we had not inadvertently brought any insects from the Amazon here in our undergarments.

Giant Tortoise Up Close

Giant Tortoise Up Close

The name of the islands, Galapagos, comes from an old Spanish word for a type of saddle since the first Europeans encountered huge tortoises which they thought looked as if their shells were the shape of a saddle. The islands are 570 miles west of mainland Ecuador and are all volcanic in origin. They were created by shield volcanoes where lava has built up over the millennia, rising from the ocean floor as much as 30,000 feet. Shield volcanoes (named for the resemblance to a Roman warriors shield), ooze rather than violently erupt,  as is the case with cinder cone volcanoes, which have a single vent and hurl lava and rock into the air. There are also composite volcanoes which do both. The oldest islands are 5 to 6 million years old, but the youngest are only 1 million years old. An 1825 volcanic eruption reportedly heated the surrounding seawater to 149 degrees. Volcan Cerro Azul (Blue Hill Volcano) on the island of Isabella erupted several times in the 1990’s. The most recent eruptions were both from Le Cumbre on the island of Fernandina which erupted in 2005 and then a few weeks after we left in April of 2009. The tallest peak is 5,600 feet on the island of Isabella.

A Sea Lion Ignoring the Fawning Tourists

A Sea Lion Ignoring the Fawning Tourists

The first Europeans to see the islands were Spaniards, whose ship was becalmed and taken there on the currents. They saw bleak sun parched islands rising up out of the sea mist, populated with astonishing animals, a natural zoo and biosphere. The Spaniards called these islands Las Encantadas (The Enchanted Ones).  The animals showed no fear of humans, having had little or no experience with them. The animals here still have no fear of predators, whether human or introduced species, which is why they must be protected if they are to survive. Many introduced animals (goats, pigs, cats, dogs, rats) have bred furiously and have become feral, eating eggs, babies, and small adult animals, wiping out many species on some islands. There are 875 plant species, many found only here.. They range from salt and dry tolerant on the coastlines to rain forest orchids and ferns in higher elevations. There are 58 bird species, again many found only here, including the worlds entire population of yellow billed albatross. The preservation organizations are trying to eradicate all introduced species and they also restrict human residents (you must be a native of Galapagos to live or work here). The current population is 18 thousand and it is not intended to expand. Tourists must be accompanied by trained and licensed guides,  their number is limited and there are very strict rules on where they may go. The goal is to restore the environment to its pre-human arrival state, which if taken literally would mean no more tourists, but tourism funds conservation efforts, so it is likely to continue.

There are two seasons here – hot and wet, January through May where average highs are around 82 degrees, and cool and dry, May-December where highs are around 64 degrees. However we have learned that wet does not mean all islands get rain– it tends to rain on the mountainous islands, leaving the flat ones parched. They also have a garua like Peru where it is cloudy and gloomy for weeks at a time. However all the islands do get the hot part of the hot and wet season. Two major currents create the environment and the weather. The Humboldt  Current which comes up from the Antarctic and Chile, cools this otherwise equatorial wasteland enough to allow it to sustain life. The other current is El Nino (translation boy child) which comes around Christmas time and warms the water and brings rain and floods. Both carry a veritable feast of nutrients in their waters, providing for the plentiful sea life. The flora and fauna of these islands got here in 3 ways: (1) flying, and thus the preponderance of birds, (2) swimming, thus the abundant marine life or (3)floating (seeds, roots that are able to get a foothold and multiply and small reptiles that floated here clinging to debris and evolved to big reptiles over the centuries).

The MV Santa Cruz

The MV Santa Cruz

We had a short van ride to the dock where our ship, the MV Santa Cruz is anchored. (M/V stands for motor vessel) We were sort of greeted, but mostly ignored by some sea lions who were dozing on and around wooden benches intended for ships passengers, but both the size and the smell of the squatters tended to discourage our lounging around there. We saw a large yacht called the Laurel, which our guides told us was currently the ship hosting Prince Charles and Camilla, who were visiting the islands on the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. We didn’t see anyone on board, although we were eagerly looking for the famous royal wave with the twisty wrist. At the dock we boarded “pangas”, small inflatable open boats, along with other Santa Cruz guests and were taken with our luggage to the ship. The driver of the panga is the “panguaero” if male, or “panguaera” if female.

Our rooms were surprisingly spacious and the ship was deliciously cool. We have grown very fond our air conditioning ever since the deprivation of same in the Amazon. We had the typical life boat drill with the atypical experience of frigate birds circling over head (more on these strange creatures later).  We were assigned to a group of about 12 people and guide for the duration named Diego.

The Santa Cruz is approximately 426 feet long with a beam of 36 feet. It carries a maximum of 90 passengers, 7 guides and 60 crew, so we were very well taken care of.  The emphasis at meals is on local cuisine, featuring lots of fresh fish, including delicious ceviche, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Everything is brought from the mainland, including the seafood since these waters are a marine sanctuary.

A Dry Landing

A Dry Landing

We had a shore expedition at 3:30 on the northern part of Santa Cruz Island,  just across a narrow channel from Baltra. We would visit the south end of this island later in the week.  Diego explained to us that we will take the pangas ashore for all our trips and that we would have wet and dry landings (the wet meaning you get out in knee to ankle deep water, the dry meaning there is a dock.) This was a dry landing. The land here is scorching hot and somewhat barren, except for mesquite-like scrub brush, seemingly wishing it were growing someplace else. However there is a very refreshing and cooling ocean breeze that keeps us visitors from wilting like the scrub brush.

Land Iguanas Giving Tourist the "Stink Eye"

Land Iguanas Giving Tourist the “Stink Eye”

We took a short walk and saw our first land and marine iguanas (a bit more about the marine iguanas later). The land iguanas were yellowish brown and quite large for a lizard (medium alligator size) and so lethargic you had to step around them since they sprawled across the path and showed no sign of moving anywhere any time soon. They had heavy lidded, hooded eyes that seem to stare disdainfully right through you– sort of the reptilian version of a dirty look. Or as they say in the South, they were giving us the “stink eye”. Land iguanas were among the hardest hit by introduced species The first Spaniards apparently thought they were miniature dragons and thus named a small mountain nearby Cerro Dragon (dragon hill). We also saw the small Galapagos lava lizards, which true to their name, live on the lava where they stake out their territory by performing a series of little lava lizard push-ups (flexing their little lava lizard muscles one would suppose) to let all other lizard know this is their turf. Of course if an iguana comes along, all bets are off.  We also saw and were serenaded by the Galapagos Mockingbirds. They are similar to the ones at home, but larger,  and they seem to sing from the same song book.  Returning to the ship we had dinner on board and motored  to the island of  Bartoleme.

March 10, 2009

Dateline: Bartolome Island  and Santiago Island, Galapagos                                      

Pinnacle Rock - Bartolome

Pinnacle Rock – Bartolome

Today we explored Bartolome Island – a lunar landscape if there ever was one. It has the much photographed Pinnacle Rock and was one of the filming locations of the movie Master and Commander. It is a tiny island, just off the coast of the much bigger Santiago in the very scenic Sullivan Bay. Bartolome is only one-half of a square miles, more of a rock than an island, while Santiago has approximately 226 square miles. Santiago once had a salt mining operation, but it is now uninhabited, as is Bartolome. Santiago has a very rugged shoreline and is quite mountainous. It is home to the most diverse shore bird populations in the islands and also is home to many seals and sea lions. We have seen so many marine mammals, we actually stopped taking pictures after the first hundred or so, but they just seemed to get cuter and closer around every turn.

One of the interesting things we learned about the islands is how different each one is from the other. Each island has its own topography, vegetation and wildlife and no two are exactly alike. Bartolome has golden sand beaches, while Santiago’s are mainly black , and tomorrow we will visit Rabida Island  which has red Georgia-clay colored beaches. The lava now pulverized over the centuries into reddened gritty sand, gets its color from the high content of oxidized iron. The different islands also have different species and variations on the same species. For example, within the Galapagos Islands, finches have evolved to take advantage of whatever sparse fauna is available and this subspecies diversity, led to Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory. He noticed that finches here have very specific adaptations to the islands they live on. For example, finches with little pointed curved bills can eat a certain type of spiny cactus on a certain island – so they survived. On other islands where the cactus has soft spines, the finches have evolved with shorter, higher volume bills. A note on the fauna here in the Galapagos – the majority of flowers here are yellow or white. Scientists believe that not as much water, nutrients and plant energy are required to produce these colors, versus the more vibrant shades such as red or orange, and of course water and nutrients here are in very short supply.

A Large Marine Iguana Contemplating Taking the Plunge

A Large Marine Iguana Contemplating Taking the Plunge

We took a boat ride ashore and saw a few Galapagos penguins, but weren’t really close enough to see them well. We also saw a beach where Pacific Green Sea Turtles have laid their eggs, as evidenced by the tracks visible on the beach. We took a nature hike and encountered large numbers of marine iguanas who are black when wet, changing to dark brown with dark red highlights when dry (the better to blend in with the lava), just as the land version of the iguana is yellowish brown with shades of green, allowing them to blend with their environment. The difference between the two types of iguana again offers an evolution lesson – the marine iguanas took to the ocean to find food so they could

 

Clumps of Marine Iguanas Warming Themselves

Clumps of Marine Iguanas Warming Themselves

eat algae and sea weed and thus thrive. When they return to shore, they bask in the sun on the sun-warmed lava and their dark colors  help them absorb heat. They are sort of armadillo sized, but with much bigger tails and instead of an armored shell, they have a row of needle sharp spines running down their backs, the better to discourage predators one would suppose. They also have big froggy feet that enable them  to swim and climb the rocks, but they apparently don’t jump like frogs. Like their land based cousins they are not the least bit concerned with humans. The males get brighter colors during mating season (orange red blue). Once ashore, the marine iguanas clump together in a big tangle of bodies, which not only warms them, but also keeps parasites to a minimum, since there is less exposed flesh for them to invade. The marine iguanas actually sneeze to get rid of saltwater taken in while eating (we’re talking projectile sneezing here so the tourists are advised to keep their distance) which is really quite an unusual, if not pretty, sight.

Flamingos on Santa Cruz Island

Flamingos on Santa Cruz Island

We also saw flamingoes who flourish here in an inland alkali pond, one of several in the Galapagos. They eat tiny crustaceans that thrive in these ponds which make their feathers pink.  There is no fresh water in these islands from ground sources. All moisture comes from the atmosphere and is gleaned in small quantities, from flora and fauna alike.

We returned to the ship for lunch and afterward went ashore to take a boardwalk and wooden staircase to the top of the extinct cinder cone of a volcano and enjoyed some great panoramic

 

Pioneer Species on Bartolome

Pioneer Species on Bartolome

views. This is one of the newer islands, relatively speaking so only the pioneer species are found growing here. (Pioneer meaning the first things to grow once the lava cools and newer meaning having occurred in the last million years.)

Much of the Galapagos needs to be explored underwater, which we will have to save for a future trip. There are seven species of whales in these waters and thousands of dolphins and pelagic creatures such as sharks and manta rays. March is the warmest month for the sea and we found the water is cool, but not cold. Galapagos waters are chillier than many dive destinations, so this will be heavy wetsuit diving. We did have a nice snorkel in the afternoon, giving us a taste of what is in the water here. We saw several King Angel fish and other species of fish which are new to us since they are found only here. The water is not crystal clear due to all the nutrients brought by the ocean currents, but it attracts so many wonderful sea creatures it’s not that much of a drawback.

Sea Lion Pups at Play

Sea Lion Pups at Play

We cruised to the island of Santiago and had another shore trek. Here we found a large number of sea lions which paid us no attention whatsoever as we sauntered along the beaches. If you got too close to the little ones, the mamma sea lions might bark at you, but it had to be a really serious offense for them to rouse themselves to make a move at you. Their coats were gleaming, as they cast occasional desultory looks our way with big brown liquid eyes fringed with long thick lashes. Their heads are small and sleek heads with little teensy ears, which is the primary way to tell sea lions from seals. When they do move, they are often

Nursing Sea Lion Pup Has Lunch

Nursing Sea Lion Pup Has Lunch

comical, slouching toward the water with blubber  rippling, impervious to sharp rocks.  Sea lions actually have nursery/ day care duties which they share. One mother stays with several pups while the other moms are out fishing. Then the “sitter mom” goes out and one of the other moms take over. The joyous reunions are really fun to watch when the babies recognize their moms coming back through the surf. We also saw fur seals, but they are more reclusive and one of the few species that seem to keep their distance from humans. There is some speculation that this is a learned behavior since fur sealers almost wiped out the whole species in the 19th Century.

A Heron Enjoys a Dip at the Hotel Pool

A Heron Enjoys a Dip at the Hotel Pool

We also saw Galapagos striated herons, which like many species are larger than their North American counterparts (must be all the readily available food). These herons actually have a unique method of catching their food. They first catch bait fish in tidal pools and kill them. But rather than eating them, they take them out to deeper water and drop them to float on surface to lure bigger fish. Then once the bigger fish show up, they swoop in for the kill.

One bird we did not see is the Peregrine Falcon, but since these birds can fly close to 200 miles per hour, perhaps they did a fly-by and we missed them. We did see the very majestic Galapagos Hawk, only found in these islands, circling high overhead. In this species, the males are monogamous, but females mate with up to 8 males just to make sure her eggs get fertilized, so we figured he may just be hanging around waiting for his turn for a conjugal visit.

Darwin's Toilet

Darwin’s Toilet

Since the islands in the Galapagos are formed by lava, it creates a very unusual landscape. There are numerous lava tubes formed as lava once flowed and cooled on the outside and remained molten and flowing on the inside, leaving a hollow center. When these lava tubes extend into the ocean, blow holes are created like the one on Santiago called Darwin’s Toilet, which is a collapsed lava tube where breaking surf sprays up jets of water through a round hole in the lava. Ocean spume makes it look like suds, so it gives it sort of a Tidy Bowl effect.

Volcanoes originate from a hot spot under the earth’s crust which moves ever so slowly, only inches a year. The superheated rock erupts through the crust as a volcano and new islands are created. Eventually the hot spot moves on to next eruption site, sometimes only a few miles away before another volcano comes to life and the island forming process starts again. The hot spot that formed the Galapagos is moving from the southeast to the northwest. Geologists predict that the oldest island, Floreana, will eventually sink and become a seamount (several millennia from now). The newest island is Fernandina which, as I mentioned, has had a number of major eruptions in the last two years.

There are two types of  lava, both with Hawaiian names:  pahoehoe (pronounced Pa hoy hoy) which is rope like and aa (pronounced ah ah) which is sharp and spiky.  The breezes here are cool and the air dry with temperatures in the low 80’. It is cool in shade, but shade is at a premium once ashore and so visitors are well advised to bring their own with a hat or umbrella since the volcanic rock and sand can get very hot, with temperatures on the lava reaching 120 degrees.  Santiago Island today is totally pristine, with no sign of mankind except for footprints and they work hard to keep it that way. We had a fabulous full moon tonight as we motored to our next destination, the island of Rabida, just south of Santiago. Despite the full moon, the stars we did see were dazzling.

 

March 11, 2009

Dateline: Rabida Island, Seymour Island, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

A Ghost Crab - Rabida Island

A Ghost Crab – Rabida Island

Today we awoke anchored off Rabida Island, one of the smaller ones with only 1.9 square miles, but packed with critters. The beaches here are orange-red , with big granules the size of bb’s. We took a walk and saw a number of sea lions sunning themselves with many pups and a single male on patrol barking at intruders (us) in case any of us were inclined to mate with his harem. The male sea lions are about twice the size of females and when they are around, there is a lot of bellowing going on to make sure no one tries to move in on his territory.

The dominant male is called the Beach Master (or as the locals call him, Big Daddy) He can only stay on guard for about 20 days in which he neither sleeps nor eats. He has about 20 females in his group, but once he leaves to eat, other males will make a move and hit on his “women”.  In the meantime they hang out on a “bachelor beach” (sort of a lonely guy hangout) just waiting for Big Daddy to head to sea or to nod off. They also go to the bachelor beach to heal up if they happen to be on the losing end of a battle for dominance with Big Daddy. This beach is also a training center where young male Rocky Balboas with mating aspirations spar with each other to ready themselves to defeat the reigning Big Daddy in battle.

The Coastline of Rabida Island

The Coastline of Rabida Island

Our walk took us to cliffs overlooking gorgeous clear Caribbean blue water with breaking surf. We saw a large school of mullet with pelicans and other sea birds going to town – finding a big school like this one in shallow water is sort of like winning the lottery for these birds– really easy pickings. The water was so clear, we could also see a school of black tip reef sharks which were below the mullet and herding them into what is termed a “bait ball” The fish will circle and school up, hoping to confuse predators and blend with the group and that thus some other unlucky fish gets singled out by the predators.  Once the ball is formed,  sharks and pelicans alike, one attacking  from the bottom, and one attacking from the top are able to scoop up big mouthfuls very easily.  We then walked to another beach to go snorkeling with hopes of seeing sea lions or marine iguanas in the water, but they were busy sunning themselves on shore and didn’t go in. Still it was a delightful snorkel.

A Male Frigate Bird

A Male Frigate Bird

While having lunch on board we motored north to Seymour Island and took another trek, this time to see the huge colonies of frigate birds and blue footed boobies. The frigate bird is a large black sea gull looking creature The males have a scarlet red gular pouch which hangs on their throats and which they inflate to attract females. Once inflated they look like red balloons and the birds become very conspicuous in this landscape where primary colors are rare. Young ones frequently try to imitate mature males, but they get turned down a lot. In the world of gular pouch flaunting, apparently size matters. While frigate birds constantly fly over water, they do not land on water. They can swoop down and pluck fish from the water eagle-style, but their favorite way to get food is to steal eggs – even from other frigate birds.

Blue Footed Boobies In Love

Blue Footed Boobies In Love

We also saw a large colony of blue footed boobies with their turquoise blue feet and quite comical mannerisms. Their name comes from the Spanish word “bobo” which means clown or dunce. The first visitors were amazed that the birds did not run or fly off when approached by humans. Of course the locals do a huge trade in T shirts and hats with the declaration “I Love Boobies” on them – usually displayed with two blue booby feet,  just to ensure you get the joke. Their foot color is actually created by air pockets in the feet that reflect blue of sky or water, versus being created by a pigment of the feet, so when the sun is not out – the blue feet are not so blue.

They do a funny mating ritual which includes a dance that looks like their feet are getting scorched lifting one foot and then the other in rapid succession.  The way they put their feet down in a rolling motion gives the impression they could be pedaling a bicycle. They also do mock dueling, clacking their bills together and “skypointing” with their wings. If that isn’t romance enough, they bring each other gifts of twigs. The boobies are sea birds and use their tails as a rudder to steer themselves during water landings. The females are larger than males and their eyes are distinctive, with the females having  large black pupils and the males having  much smaller ones. There are Red Footed Boobies in other parts of the Galapagos, but not on this island.

We also saw two of the rare Galapagos lava gulls, one of the only 200 nesting pairs left in the world, all now living on Seymour Island.  There were also a few Galapagos penguins waddling about , but the really large colonies are on Isabella, which we only saw in the distance on this trip. We also saw the rather sad looking flightless cormorant. The flightless cormorants are especially endangered by introduced species since they cannot fly and conservation efforts are focused on eliminating their unnatural predators. This bird is believed to have evolved from ancestors who could fly and had nice big wings with lots of feathers to flap. The flightless cormorants have shrunken wings with just a few tattered feathers on each one, but this does not seem to cramp their lifestyle.  The cormorants here have taken the evolutionary path of the penguins and they dive for food off the ledges and rocks. They use their wings more for steering than propulsion, which is accomplished with their powerful feet.  Fish are so plentiful here, they can just jump right into the middle of a feast. On land they do flap their pitiful little wings, but it’s only to dry them out. We did see them do this, although we missed the first part where they are supposed to scamper over rocks and plunge in the sea and pop up with a fish in their mouths. They also do their mating dances in the water, a courtship ritual which can last up to 40 days, so they don’t exactly rush into romance. We didn’t see this either, but some things I guess are meant to be private. The boobies could take a lesson here since they were shamelessly courting right under our noses.

 A Sally Lightfoot Crab

A Sally Lightfoot Crab

We saw the colorful Sally Lightfoot Crabs everywhere along the shoreline. They are a bright red and are quite plentiful on the seaside lava rocks. Aside from the frigate birds’ gular sacks, crabs are the only red things on the island. They get their name because they are so light on their feet, (or perhaps I should say light on their claws). We also saw the more elusive Ghost Crab, which tends to pop into its hidey-hole when anyone approaches.

Back on board, we attended a lecture on Charles Darwin. In 1832 he set out from England on a ship called the Beagle as a companion to another traveler. He went around Cape Horn and eventually landed in the Galapagos. He published Origin of Species in 1859 in which he explained his ideas of evolution based on natural selection (i.e. survival of the fittest). He did not start out as a naturalist, but rather as a medical student. However, he reportedly gagged uncontrollably during surgery and amputations, and so he decided it was time for a career change. He collected a lot of insects and rocks as a child and apparently found that more to his liking and he continued to do so as he traveled up the coast of South America. He only visited 4 islands in the Galapagos, spending a total of 21 days, but his observations here had worldwide impact. He later published 2 books which were banned by churches who found his theories heretical and there is still controversy surrounding his findings today.

March 12, 2009

Dateline: Santa Cruz Island and San Cristobal Island, Galapagos

The Harbor at Puerto Ayora

The Harbor at Puerto Ayora

Today we awoke off Santa Cruz Island, anchored in Academy Bay. It is one of the larger islands with 380 square miles. We are now on the south part of the island, having visited the Cerro Dragon area in the north on our first day. This morning we motored by panga to the small fishing village of Puerto Ayora , whose tiny harbor, with an even tinier entrance, was bustling with commerce and we disembarked at the town dock. There was all sorts of local color here –fishermen repairing nets, marine iguanas on the front porch of some of the local porches, workmen (I couldn’t call them longshoremen because their dock is not even a hundred feet long), unloading barges which had to be towed in from ships anchored off shore due to the size of the harbor.  From town we took a bus up into the mountains to a Tortoise Sanctuary (note turtles are in the sea, tortoises are on land. There is very different terrain here  quite jungle-like with lush foliage all around us.

There were originally 14 sub- species of giant tortoises here, but 3 are now extinct. The mature ones can weigh up to 550 pounds and can live well beyond 100 years. Here there are two species of tortoise – the saddle back and the domed. The domed species live where vegetation is low and plentiful. The saddlebacks have longer necks and legs and live where vegetation is not so easy to get at. They are more agile than the domed tortoises, but, of course, with a 500 pound tortoise, that’s not saying much.

Crawl A Mile in My Shell

Crawl A Mile in My Shell

We took a walk and saw several  wild tortoises, a few sauntering, but most just basking in the sun or nibbling at the jungle foliage.  We also had the opportunity to try on some empty tortoise shells (well I did anyway – as giant as they are, there weren’t any that Gary could manage to slip into). It certainly does give you a different perspective on life with your head only inches from the ground.  We then visited Las Gemolas (the twins, a.k.a. Gemini which are giant sinkholes. This was sort of a yawner, but then we’re easy to entertain. From there we went to the Lava Tube Tunnel which was huge, big enough to drive a truck through

Giant Lava Tube Santa Cruz

Giant Lava Tube Santa Cruz

and close to a quarter mile long,  Then it was back to Puerto Ayora for lunch at the Finch Bay Hotel. They had a nice swimming pool, which looked very inviting, but then a local heron flew in and started paddling around we decided to rethink that swim, just in case that bird flu thing was still a thing.

After lunch we went to the Darwin Research Center, which has an active tortoise breeding program to where they raise and release tortoises into the wild to try to preserve the species. They also had Lonesome George there (since deceased), who was the last surviving saddle back tortoise from Pinta Island and thus the “lonesome” moniker. They had tried to fix him up with girlfriend saddlebacks from other islands, but he wasn’t  having anything to do with these “foreigners”.  They had several huge tortoises

Tortoises Hanging Out at the Darwin Center

Tortoises Hanging Out at the Darwin Center

that allowed us to get close and mingle with them, but they don’t want them to get used to being too much around humans, and they also encourage them to go out and forage on their own for food.  There are an estimated 10,000 Giant Tortoises in the wild on several different islands, which seems impressive, but when Darwin came here there was an estimated 100,000. The population was decimated by pirates and whalers who found they could store the tortoises live on board for months at a time without their requiring food or water and then slaughter them for their meat as needed to feed their crews. Tortoise populations were thus wiped out on several islands.  The Darwin Center will release tortoises in their program when they reach 4 to 5 years old. From there, we walked into town, shopped a little and had some refreshments at a local bar before taking the panga back to the ship for our last night in the Galapagos.  We would travel overnight on the Santa Cruz to San Cristobal to catch our flight to Quito tomorrow.

March 13

Dateline: Quito, Ecuador

Latitude at Quito 0.13 degrees South, Longitude 78.30 degrees West

We awoke anchored off the village of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, named for an Ecuadorian President in the 1920’s, on the island of San Cristobal. It is also the provincial capital. The islands have two airports – the one on Baltra where we arrived, built by the Allies in WWII in case the Japanese kept on coming west, and one on San Cristobal, from which we will depart.  The island of San Cristobal is about 215 square miles. It is very rocky with lots of coral heads. Sunsets here are famous and since they are within one degree of the Equator, they are in same spot every day all year round where the sun drops behind Kicker Rock, silhouetted to the west. We will miss this since we will be long gone by the time the sun sets.

Baltra as Seen from Bartolome

Baltra as Seen from Bartolome

We took a bus to the Interpretative Center, where we learned about how islands were settled. We found that not only does the Galapagos have weird creatures, but they seem to attract really a steady procession of really weird people , most coming to the island of Floreana. This island also has Post Office Bay where people passing through can leave mail for people in distant countries and other people passing through will take mail if they are traveling to the country it is addressed to and post it there. Apparently it is still in use. But let me get back to the real weirdness of Floreana. Here are a few examples:

An Ecuadorian army officer was given land on the island in 1832 as a reward for bravery. He brought in 80 people, whom he enslaved and kept in line with some extremely large vicious dogs, thus earning the name the Dog King of Charles Island (the British name for Floreana Island). He later fled when they revolted.

In 1928 a German dentist named Ritter moved to the islands with another man’s wife and set up housekeeping under a tin roof, saying that houses with walls were unsanitary. When he left Berlin, he had all of his teeth pulled (maybe anticipating good dental work would be hard to find in the islands) and had them replaced with stainless steel dentures. He claimed to be a vegetarian, and practicing nudist,  but it was reported that he would tear into beef and any other meat whenever the opportunity presented itself. There seemed to be no counter-evidence on the nudism claim. Yachts people reportedly liked to visit him for the novelty of it, and often brought food. He later died of food poisoning and his lover was questioned but nothing ever came of it.

Baroness Wehrborn of Vienna and Paris came to the islands in the 1930’s. She intended to start a carnal paradise and to get things going brought two lovers with her from Europe and she picked up a spare in Guyaquil. Like Ritter, she had her own tin roof shelter and dubbed it Hacienda Paradise and herself the Pirate Queen of the Galapagos. She was also her own PR person and placed all sorts of outlandish stories about herself in news outlets around the world. The yachts people eventually migrated to her and Ritter’s “salon” languished. She one day “disappeared” as reported by one of her two original lovers with the other original lover on a yacht no one had ever heard of going to an undisclosed location and was never heard from again. The reporting lover then rapidly decamped from the islands. He had hired another European to take him to the mainland, but both were later found murdered on another island a hundred miles away. The boat and a boy who was with the European were never seen again. This sounds like a good story for Dateline NBC to me. By the way – the total human population on Floreana at this time was 9, including the Baroness’s household, so you’d have to say that the weirdness per capita statistics are pretty impressive.

A Giant Tortoise and Some Medium Sized Tourists

A Giant Tortoise and Some Medium Sized Tourists

In leaving we regret the many islands not visited which we’ll have to save for next time, primarily Isabella, Fernandina, and also Floreana and Post Office Bay, site of the aforementioned weirdness. Plus we want to do a live-aboard dive trip here to see the islands from an underwater perspective.

In the afternoon we flew to Quito where our tour operator provided transportation to our hotel, the Dann Carlton in the newer section of Quito. We were on our own for dinner and were hoping for the Ecuadorian branch of Norky’s that we had seen in Lima where we could get Pollo Brasa – Rotisserie Chicken after a week of mostly seafood. We ended up walking to a fast food place called Pollo Gus where a kindly Chinese Ecuadorian (wait a minute – did we see him at Hoja Dorado in Guyaquil?) helped us translate our order into comprehensible Spanish. Tomorrow we will start our tour of mainland Ecuador, but tonight we sleep in a luxury hotel in a cool climate on dry land. We once again were back at high elevation, approximately 10,000 feet. And if the altitude doesn’t leave you breathless, the scenery certainly will, but more on that later.