Unaware I’d slept through several hours of rather violent seas on the return from an incredible day of bird watching on Genovesa Island, I woke to beautiful calm seas as Diane and I prepared for the third day of our Galapagos Islands Cruise. Part of our annual Expat Destination Research Vacation in Ecuador, we planned to visit Cuenca and discover what made it so attractive to expats. For now, however, it was something completely different and our guide Javier briefed us on the day’s activities featuring close encounters with Marine Iguanas and a rare opportunity to kayak and swim with Galapagos Green Sea Toirtoises, the only species nesting anywhere in the islands. Allowing me to relive the experience, this is the third in a five-part series and I hope the post conveys some of the islands beauty.
Thinking early retirement was still years away and unaware I’d be laid off exactly one year later, we went first class on The Ocean Spray, a beautiful 16 passenger luxury catamaran. Fully satisfied so far, we learned about Santiago island, an island flanked with mangrove forests, pristine beaches and teeming with many creatures only found in The Galapagos Islands. Landing at Espulmilla Beach, the group headed inland for a short walk but before we did, scores of beautiful Galapagos crabs scampered across the beach making the morning’s first photo opportunity a bit tricky, but well worth it. Stunningly colorful. adult crabs are bright orange with pink and yellow spots and grow as large as 20 centimeters.
Commonly known as “Sally Lightfoot Crabs”, they have an incredible ability to walk on water, almost like Jesus Christ lizards, moving from rock to rock and climbing up vertical grades that seem too high for navigation. Also known for congregating with marine iguanas and sea lions, they scamper quickly and the closer you get the harder it is to photograph them. Eventually we figured out the best way is to remain motionless for awhile and surprisingly, they came very close allowing for some great close up shots
Enjoying serenity on the beach, the scenery soon changed as we began walking inland on a path that climbed a bit, allowing some beautiful views. Noticing birds overhead, our guide Javier explained how they introduced goats and pigs on the island many years earlier and caused great harm to the endemic species. Understanding a little more each day about the amazingly delicate sensitivity of the islands, it almost makes you think all tourism should simply be eradicated but sadly, it supports most of the research that goes towards preservation so a happy balance is the best compromise.
Looking like an odd combination of desert and moonscape with patches of lush vegetation, it didn’t take long to view some of the island’s beautiful bird life. First we saw a Galapagos hawk, endemic to the islands, and two yellow crowned night herons.
I’m told the herons are nocturnal which normally makes it difficult to spot in daylight but in The Galapagos Islands, many species are not threatened by others due to geographic isolation so these guys just sleep in full view of everything. Very cool.
Approaching the top of the trail, we saw Jed wandering off on his own again. As I mentioned on our Bartolome Island post from day One, Jed runs a professional photography business when he’s not fielding ground balls as shortstop for the Oakland A’s Major League Baseball Club. Spending most of the trip with his amazing camera, he always knew where the best photo ops would be. Wanting desperately to capture a yellow warbler, I finally had my opportunity as I walked closer to see what he was after. Naturally, my photos are nothing like his but even seeing the elusive and brightly colored bird made my morning. Realizing that the best was yet to come, I wasn’t too disappointed at my crappy little photos
Being crappy swimmers sometimes leads to missed opportunities for excellent water sport opportunities like scuba and sometime snorkeling in rough seas. Fortunately, the Ocean Spray provided two person kayaks sturdy enough to keep us afloat while curious green sea turtles swam right up to us. Well adapted to ocean life, these cold-blooded animals swim gracefully thanks to light shells and limbs that evolved into flippers which make them graceful swimmers. Mostly concerned with staying in the kayak, the experience was more thrilling than our pictures show but we did manage a few decent shots of them approaching us as if they wanted us to jump in for a swim (which good swimmers would enjoy).
While kayaking we also saw a Brown Pelican. Found throughout the Galapagos, their wingspan was larger than others we’ve seen in Florida and California, measuring as much as 90 inches and this species is yet another one endemic to the islands. Graceful fliers, they plunge down into the water clumsily with their beaks wide open when skimming for fish. Explaining the strange behavior, Javier told us they also take in gallons of water along with the fish and then sit there trying to remove the water, often losing the catch while expelling the water. Crazy.
Returning back to the boat for lunch, Diane and I joined the rest of the group who all opted for snorkeling and once again, choosing an alternative activity meant having the turtle all to ourselves. I’d recommend asking for second choice activities as a method of gaining a more private experience with the wildlife. Following lunch, the boat made a short journey to the Puerto Egas on the other side of the island for the afternoon’s wet landing on a beautiful black sand beach. Situated on the site of a small mining operation in the 1960’s, the long lava shoreline is a haven for marine iguanas. Interacting quite nicely with adorable fur sea lions, Galapagos Marine Iguanas are the world’s only marine lizards.
Stranger than anything we’d seen so far, please enjoy this short video below which shows a lizard slowly making his way out of the ocean and you’ll understand our reaction to this prehistoric looking bizarre creature.
Making our way to a path that led to the shoreline it looked like lizard rush hour as dozens of lizards scampered about as if they were on a mission. Grazing on seaweed, they posses flat tails to help with swimming and powerful limbs for climbing on rocks. Active mostly during the day, they’re quite fond of basking in the sun before feeding on marine algae. Losing heat quickly, the cold water temperature forces them to return to sunbathing and the smaller ones scrape algae off the surface of rocks, avoiding the midday water altogether. Activity slows during the afternoon hours making for peaceful and spectacular viewing.
Endemic to the islands like so many other species, I wondered how they arrived here since the islands are over 600 miles from the nearest land mass. Volcanic in nature, the Galapagos Islands were never attached to a land mass so scientists hypothesize that they somehow rafted over water from South America over 15 million years ago. Fascinating !!
Equally interesting albeit much smaller, Galapagos Lava Lizards are the most abundant reptile anywhere on the islands and we saw some of them as we hiked further inland. Unlike small urban fence lizards that we see all over our neighborhood in California, lava lizards lack a fear of humans, almost inviting you to come close and watch them. Often brightly colored, the male is larger and more attractive but unfortunately we must have seen only females. Helping to control insect populations, Javier told us they are predators of invertebrates but also resort to cannibalism if they’re really hungry so I guess they wouldn’t make ideal pets.
Deviating from reptile life for a bit, our group traversed a trail out to the edge of some rock formations searching for Blue Footed Boobies which we hadn’t seen anywhere yet. Strictly a marine bird, their only need for land is to breed and rear young and Javier told us we wee fortunate when we spotted a group sitting on the rocks.
Sadly, a recent article says that studies published in the Journal of Avian Conservation and Ecology show the birds have almost completely stopped breeding in The Galapagos Islands. Theories vary but many feel it’s due to a drop in fish populations probably attributed to climate change. Taking a rare political standpoint, I implore all supporters of hard-line right-wing conservatives that deny climate change in the name of lobbyist interests or just plain ignorance to read this article. Better yet, urge your élite politician with too much wealth to visit the islands and witness firsthand what the world will lose forever if immediate action is not taken to thwart the damage.
With the afternoon sun beginning to set it was time to say farewell to yet another spectacular island and head back to the ship. Unsure what day was the most interesting so far, Javier reminded us that we still hadn’t seen one of the most iconic creatures on the islands yet, the giant Galapagos Tortoises. Walking slower this time to admire the scenic beauty, we stopped at a view of the island’s large and beautiful volcanic lake.
With one last stop before reaching the zodiac, some playful little fur seal pups came into view and one of them seemed to be staring right at a crab with intense interest.
Almost on cue, one last marine iguana sat idly on the rocks only steps away from the zodiac and we almost had to step over two large fur seals to avoid disturbing them.
Completing three days of an amazing adventure, Diane and I returned to our cabin before dinner and reflected on all we’d seen and learned. Educational as well as entertaining, our trip to the Galapagos Islands enhanced and enriched our lives, making our wish to spend early retirement helping threatened animal species even greater. Saying goodbye to Santiago Island, the ship made its way to the waters by North Seymour Island where we’d spend the fourth morning visiting the other more colorful and seemingly friendlier species of iguana, the Galapagos Land Iguana.
Centered around the urban center of the islands, Santa Cruz Island is home to the island’s population of giant Galapagos tortoises as well as the park headquarters and the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora. Promising plenty of time with one of nature’s oldest living creatures, the afternoon of the fourth day included a tour of the center, visits to the tortoise’s stomping grounds and some free time in the local village observing daily life in the island’s only population center. Please join us for part four of the series next weekend. Here’s a preview:
Coming this week: Day 4 in the Galapagos Islands Series
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