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The adventures of the Mel

The amazing Galapagos Islands

ECUADOR | Tuesday, 10 June 2008 | Views [2523] | Comments [6]

Good morning my favourite readers,

I write to you from the HMAS Darwin, affectionately known as the Darwin Yatch (see photos). I decided that I would write on each day as they happen so that I don’t have a big FO post to write when I get back.

Only a half day today, which is a nice ease into the sea life. After getting off our flight we were bussed to our yacht, where we were surprisingly met by sea lions lounging on benches and iguanas joltedly crawling on the floor. I know that Galapagos is rife with wildlife, but I must admit I wasn’t expecting it in such a busy place as a dock. One sea lion was even curious enough to jump up to where we were boarding our dinghy and look at us sideways as if to say, I’m here, you can take a photo now. Although the Galapagos is famous for its fearless wildlife, I would have thought that with the hundreds of thousands of tourists that flock to its islands, the wildlife would have tired of the omnipresence and just ignored us. Then again, they’re probably thinking the same thing.

After getting onto our yacht we ate lunch then sailed to a part of Santa Cruz called Los Bachas, a fairly isolated strip of beach. Even on this tiny strip there was wildlife galore. I took far too many photos of the beautifully flamboyant Sally Lightfoot crabs, I was just taken with them. The oranges, the reds, the blues on the inside of their joints…stunning. They ambled along mechanically, threatening each other for their share of volcanic rock, throwing around their pinchers and leaping away in an almost comical fashion from their would-be assailants. They only mildly scuttled away if we approached too closely; one crab took quite some time and several legs on mine to realise that I was indeed alive and not a pale rock, and added some pace to his scamper. I watched these crustaceans move, feed, fight, jump and meander for quite some time.

I walked a little further along the beach and watched the huge frigate birds fly to and fro, their tail feathers like cast-away legs and the males’ red expandable throats flapping limply in the wind. They started circling and assailing upon a point – they had found a sea turtle nest and much to our dismay they were gobbling up all the hatchlings. It was hard to not intervene.

A little further took us to the mangrove end of the beach, more birds, crabs and not much more. We were fortunate to see a sting-ray, a tiny shark and a much bigger one (around 2m) that could have been a Galapagos shark. There was also a lagoon which had two pink flamingos which were pretty, but we had seen many more in Bolivia. At the other end of the beach pelicans and iguanas sat atop black igneous rock, ignoring the clumsy tourists with their happy-snapping and surprisingly, ignoring the crabs clambering over the rocks as well. Admittedly some were dark and small and much more difficult to see, but there were plenty of bright orange ones that contrasted wonderfully with the black rock.

We then went for a snorkel for half an hour, which wasn’t too shabby. Dozens of fish species, including one big ugly one that scared the crap out of me as it emerged through a large shimmering shoal of tiny fish, a plethora of drab but in my eyes beautiful sea cucumbers, and quite a few sea urchins which were purple in colour with green spikes. And to top it off I got to see one of Darwin’s finches on the first day. So I’m feeling pretty damn happy!

**************************

So, what have you been up to today? I’ve swam with sea turtles, lounged with sea lions, perved on boobies and gazed at iguanas. Do I need to go on? Probably not, but I will anyway!

We started off the day by going to a small island on the east coast of Santa Cruz, called South Plaza. Upon disembarking we were immediately confronted with two types of iguanas – the smaller, darker marine iguana (the only one in the world) and the larger and more colourful land iguana. We were even fortunate enough to see a few who had retained their vivid matings colours – yellow and orange hued scales that in some were in the process of shedding to reveal the duller, darker non-mating scales beneath. They lazed about the cactuses, crawling in the only dysfunctional way their anatomy will allow.

We got to see a one-sided mating ritual – the male lazily trying to court and mount a female who was giving him NOTHING. Except her dust.

We wandered around the cactus-covered island, looking at the rocks glimmering in the sun from the years and years of seals sliding up and down them, polishing them to a sparkle. We came across an old lava flow path cutting its way down to the ocean and a handful of sea lions lazing about in the sun before coming to thte cliff face. Here normally a bachelor colony of sea lions would be nesting, but as it as daytime they were all (bar two) out fishing. I felt like I was smack bang in the middle of an Attenborough documentary – the waves crashing against the volcanic rock below, frigate birds flying high above the deep blue water in the distance, iguanas crawling from one rock to another, the swallow-tail gulls roosting with their chicks and catching thermal upwinds to float very casually down to these nests, their red-ringed eyes givng the passer-bys the occasional glance, and even a handful of the wonderfully awkward looking blue footed boobies. We also spotted a juvenile marine iguana which I’m told is a rare thing.

Back to the boat for a nap, then after a full lunch we went snorkelling for an hour. We firstly dove into a pack of sea lions, playfully dodging between us , whipping in and out in a dance-like tease. One sea lion had unfortunately had his tail fins decimated (most likely by an older male sea lion) and essentially just floated there, though I think he looked more pitiful for our sake than his own. We played around for a while, then headed off to another section where there were a few sea turtles. We couldn’t get as close as we did to the sea lions, but they were just majestic to watch. Slowly and gracefully they meandered along near the bottom of the sea floor as we watched from above in awe.

We also saw a few sting-rays and loads of fish, but soon it was time to get back to the boat to cruise on to Santa Fe, our next stop.

Santa Fe is home to the biggest sea lion colony in the Galapagos, about 10 000 call it home. Our first stop was one of the sections where they hang out, though only about 50 or so were here. No matter how much you read about the fearlessness of these creatures, it doesn’t quite sink in until you are sitting or lying next to a bunch of sea lions varying in size, completely apathetic to your existence unless you stick a camera right in their face or touch them. Since we’re not stupid enough to do either, it was just a case of wandering between the breathing corpses and marvelling at how close we were to these creatures. It’s not entirely true to say that are completely apathetic though – many of the younger ones are quite curious, and as a consequence I had TWO pups essentially chase me a few metres – they kept approaching, I backed away. They must have thought it was a very fun game. We spent quite a while with the colony, giggling, taking pictures, having a good ol time admiring the somewhat smelly and very noisy creatures. Apart from the resident male, who patrols his bay and barks accordingly to let everybody know that it is HIS bay, the pups are the noisiest. They bark in a way that is very reminiscent of someone with a husky cough, making a god-awful racket even if their mothers are right next to them.

We then walked inland for a bit and 20 minutes later we ended up on a cliff, with a wonderful view of the cliff face moving in and out, peppered with cactuses and birds. A single blue-footed booby was hanging out just beneath us, so I sat and watched him for a while. All too soon, it was time to go. Back past another small sea lion colony and off to the boat. Another early night for me I’m afraid, we’re sailing tonight and I want to try to get to sleep before we start – although I’m not hanging over the edge of the boat, I wouldn’t say that I enjoy sea travel all that much, ah well, the sacrifices I must make I suppose!

*******************

We had a relaxing start today, which was a blessing because I don’t think anybody got much sleep last night. The rocking of yacht invaded my dreams and eventually prevented me from sleeping. Thankfully the tablets I had taken stopped me from getting sick, but after about 4am when they wore off I couldn’t really sleep much. Didn’t help that it was really hot either. The first couple of hours we just lazed on the beach of Garner Bay on Isla Espanola with some more sea lions. There were a few Galapagos mockingbirds, one of the many endemic (found ONLY here) species on the Galapagos. They are very curious and not shy birds. Sit still enough and they eventually sit on you. One bird in particular found Andrew reading his book absolutely fascinating, and I just missed a photo of it peering into the book he was reading. Well, the picture’s in my head at least. We did go for a brief walk and found some much larger marine iguanas than yesterday, and these ones were splashed with muted rusted red in addition to the charcoal grey they normally are.

Next up we sailed across to Garner Island to do an hour or so of snorkelling. Visibility was again not fantastic, but at least this time I got to see a shark! Okay, so it wasn’t very big (maybe a metre long) but that’s me officially swimming with a shark dammit!! Hopefully we’ll get to see bigger ones and a bit closer up to. Saw quite a few schools of fish, including an absolutely enormous one that went down further than visibility would allow us to see, fading into a dark mass beneath. The ball of fish would have covered at least 100m² on the surface, without knowing how far down it stretched. Occasionally a fish would turn and the sunlight would catch its scales, shimmering back up at us a lucid silver, giving an illusion of random strobe-lighting. Most schools were much smaller than this and travelled at the mercy of the currents, scores of fish grazing at a rock, then swept by the tide along until they reached another where they frantically chomped to get a hold to graze until the next inevitable wave came along.

Some fish were iridescent oranges, purples, blues, yellows that shone through despite the average visibility. Sea urchins were slathered across the rocky ocean floor, covered with handfuls of small snails feeding on the detritus gathered between the urchins’ spines. We floated around for nearly an hour before the cold of the water started seeping into our bones.

After lunch we sailed across to a different part of Espanola, and on our way a couple of pelicans tagged a ride on the towed dinghy, just sitting their majestically with their apparently all seeing eyes, watching us and the waves go by. Onto the island via a dry landing (one where you can wear shoes, not strolling in on the beach) and we went to yet another sea lion colony, but THIS one you could really get up close and personal. Most of them were just lazing around on the beach, though from time to time when the male got near, barking and claiming his territory, quite a few got up and moved further inshore. Not quite as funny as the other colony who would move every time the water touched them “oh, I was just dry!” Seemed quite sensible considering the size and temper of the male.

As I saw them spread-eagled across the beach, I knew that we had to copy Rosscopeakotrain and lie down on the beach with them. Initially you are a bit apprehensive, getting so close and you half expect them to turn around and bite you. But, they continue to lie there in apathy, so you get much more brave as you go along. You can lie right next to them and they don’t budge. Well, mostly. After getting a few shots we wandered around the lazy colony and discovered that they weren’t all lazy. One pup in particular thought I was great and kept approaching me. I kept backing away and as a result there was a slow-motion chase going on across the beach. The pup gave up after a while, but it was only another 5 minutes before another one decided that it had looked like fun and would give me a small chase too. Well, I guess at least it beats their other hobby of chasing and throwing marine iguanas into the air until they die.

There were a stack of marine iguanas here, huddled in groups as they returned from the open beach and getting ready to sleep overnight. A few were still cooling down and as a result looked like sentinels, watching and guarding the seals against…..? Who knows? We were able to get quite close the iguanas as many of them were dozing, and got some great shots. They DID give us a fright though – as we are huddled there with our cameras, one spat salt a good few feet, spraying those closest. This is not an aggressive gesture, they are just cleansing the salt out from their nasal cavities after spending so long at sea. Made for an interesting time trying to get photos and not get sprayed though! There were also a few more curious mockingbirds, rifling through bags and pecking at random things – apparently they do this to find water, as fresh water is scarce around here. One amusing anecdote from our guide Billy had a young gentlemen going to the bathroom and having mockingbirds peck his pecker in attempt to get to the water! I laughed, Andrew decided never to go to the bathroom on the island. Good work!

The water has been amazing colours this entire trip – from deep azure blue to bright jade green, watching these waves roll over the dark volcanic rock has been amazing. I don’t want it to end!!

Today I saw STACKS of Darwin’s finches, which thrilled me no end. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, Darwin’s finches collectively refers to 13 species of finches (found across the 13 islands, though there can be more than one species on an island) which formed an integral part of his theory of evolution (although he didn’t think about this till after he had left the Galapagos) as these species evolved in isolation they have exploited separate niches and hence evolved slightly different beaks. It is being just amazing to see some of these species (e.g. Large ground finch, Medium ground finch, Cactus finch) and look at the distinct differences in their beaks and imagine Darwin being here nearly 400 years ago. I love you Darwin! So completely awesome!! *huge nerdy grin*

We walked along further and I saw my first albatross! I was pretty excited, particularly because it was just so close, just sitting in the dry grass and looking at us partially inquisitive, partially apathetic. Took a few photos and then a few steps to get to another albatross whose partner was leaving, and this guy was guarding an egg. He look strange the way he was sitting kind of back from the egg, his knees bending in ways that ours can’t, egg positioned carefully between his feet. This one looked at us more apprehensively, particularly as Billy had to get quite close to him to retrieve an old egg to show us up a bit closer. The albatross shifted uncomfortably, so we soon left him alone.

We next encountered a courting pair who were dancing – this involves lifting their feet with their head slightly down, facing their would-be partner. Afterwards they sat down and clicked beaks together, sometimes grooming each other, sometimes almost snapping at each other, but canoodling in general. They carry this on for an entire year before they mate. Crazy little love birds.

On our way to the colony where we saw more courting, we also happened across a Galapagos dove – another endemic species. Just assume if it has ‘Galapagos’ in it’s name that it is endemic, k?

A bit further on and we came across some stunning scenery, a sheer volcanic cliff dropping off into the deep blue water tinged with white foam as it crashes into the rocks below. Stayed here a while, watched the few swallow-tailed gulls floating on the breeze, just knowing that no matter what I write, nothing could encapsulate the beauty of this place. Further along the cliff there was a blowhole very similar to the one I saw in Hawaii, so I only took a couple of pictures of this.

We were fortunate enough to spot a pair of Galapagos hawks – reasonably rare as they are critically endangered (I think) and are much more human shy. Watched them for a while until they flew away, and we certainly couldn’t get anywhere near them.

Next came one of my favourite creatures – the beautiful blue footed boobies. I don’t have so many pictures of them because I was expecting to come across an entire colony but we ended up only seeing a few individuals, but it was still amazing. In particular we came across a courting pair, which was gorgeous to watch. The male started dancing and then did a beautiful (and sound accompanied) courting display by thrusting his head and wings into the air – I got a shot of it too. He did this several times as the female watched with interest. Just as we thought she was going to ignore him, she moved closer and they continued to court. It was fun getting a colour accent photo of these guys – though I had wanted more than just the two. Juvenile BFBs look nothing like their parents – they lack their blue feet and are very brown – unless we were told they were juvies I would have thought them to be an entirely different bird.

Next up was a masked booby colony – these guys are white with, you guessed it, a black mask around their eyes. There were a lot more of these guys, but mostly further away on rocks so my photos were again limited. We had to tread carefully through these parts as many marine iguanas bury their eggs around here. We took some time looking out at the jade coloured water crashing against the volcanic rocks. Masked boobies flew around in the now semi-stormy sky and I was yet again left feeling like I was in the middle of a documentary. Unfortunately it was time to go, I was not ready to leave Espanola, it is just a beautiful island. We did get farewelled by a juvie BFB, who was curious though a little aggressive, making a small lunge for my camera as I paused to take his photo. We are setting sail again tonight, so I will probably be very tired tomorrow. Oh well. Do what I can I guess *smile of sweet, sweet contentment*

***************

Well, I may have left you feeling very content last night, but unfortunately that happy feeling was only going to last for a very short period of time. After stuffing around with my laptop and camera, I gave both to Andrew who was going upstairs to the cabin to put his book away. He returned a minute or two later, looking ashen-faced. As he had ducked a towel up top, the boat had rocked unfavourably and my camera had slipped off the top of my laptop and plunged into the ocean depths. I was absolutely devastated. Although thankful that I had already uploaded my photos and it wasn’t my laptop, I couldn’t face people and essentially ran up to the cabin and cried for a while. I couldn’t believe that here I was, two days to go in the Galapagos, and I had NO camera. I was inconsolable for a while – most of you would know that I have been dreaming of the Galapagos for many, many years and it was essentially to be the highlight of my entire year.

Andrew felt terrible and helpless, unable to fix the situation at all, my poor baby. I didn’t go back downstairs that night, but on the bright side it meant that I slept soundly, as most women will know how exhausting crying is.

When I emerged the next morning I was feeling crestfallen, not really caring where we were going because I couldn’t take photos. People offered their photos, which was absolutely lovely, but nothing compares to taking your own photos. However, lady luck shone on me – one of the guys from the trip, Dave, actually had a spare camera. I couldn’t believe it. It was nowhere near as good as my baby camera, but I didn’t care! I had a camera for a couple of days and I could take my own photos! Glory be!!! YAY!!! I could have kissed Dave right there and then. Thankfully I had been able to repay the favour by transferring files to a USB so he could take as many pictures as he wants.

We had sailed overnight to Floreana and our first stop was at the ‘Pirate Post Office’. A post office established in 1793 and these days you post your postcards here and rifle through the existing ones and take the ones that you can hand deliver. An absolutely wonderful system, although I didn’t have any postcards (didn’t really know about it till this morning) and we aren’t going home till late December, so we couldn’t really join in the fun. Back to the boat and cruised along to a different section of Floreana to get a flamingo ‘filled’ lagoon. The lagoon was a murky brown colour and wasn’t the prettiest smelling, due to constant drying up and stagnation. There were a few flamingos far, far away donkey, but thankfully we’d already had our share in Bolivia. One highlight was seeing a Galapagos penguin as he swam around and came to perch on a rock ledge. We came to yet another white-sand beach that stretched along the jade-green water, cut across by black volcanic outstretches of rock littered with the beautifully vivid orange Sally Lightfoot crabs. Yep, my kinda place. We hung around for a while, then back to the boat to take us around the coast of Floreana for a snorkel.

The water got pretty damn cold today, but not before seeing many schools of colourful fishes, another and much larger shark - possibly a black tipped shark (gorgeous nonetheless), and another sea turtle. After an hour or so we headed in to the warmth of the boat. We are now cruising back to Santa Cruz where we will disembark to go to a bar tonight, as tomorrow is our last day. Pouty McPouty Pants. But!! Tomorrow I get to meet Lonesome George!! Woohoo!!!!!

***************

Well, my Galapagos tour has come to an end, and I am sad. However, I thought that after coming here I would be able to check it off my list, but with a few things unfulfilled, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to come back to do the northern islands. Ah well….it’s something I can do when I am much older.

Last night after dinner we went out to a bar for a bit, but unfortunately my digestive system wasn’t cooperating very much with me, so I had to take the dinghy back at ten. At least I wasn’t alone – the dinghy had its full capacity of 8.

This morning I was up and raring to go – I’ve been waiting to see the Charles Darwin institute for a very long time. We had to say our farewells to a few people who were staying on the 8 day cruise rather than the 5 day, and of course I had to say goodbye to Billy, our guide. Billy has showered me in compliments from the day I arrived, calling me ‘my teacher’ and telling me that many Australian women are beautiful, but I am the most beautiful. Apparently I have captivating eyes. I tell, I’ve changed my mind on that whole thing. I LOVE being lied to. Flattery gets you everywhere gentlemen. Hell, he even told me he loved my laugh. So, I liked spending time with Billy. He always made me feel wonderful.

Anyway, we disembarked and left the Darwin Yatch to go to the Charles Darwin institute. First up we were taken straight to see 5 of the giant Galapagos tortoises – one was 150 years old (take that Sandy Plankton!). They were just stunning. Although I was getting frustrated because the camera wasn’t really working the way I wanted it to, I can’t complain, I at least got photos. They munched slowly at the breakfast of leaves and twigs set out for them on the platform. Can you believe they eat 18kgs of the stuff a day? They must just eat all bloody day! From time to time they would shift their heavy masses along, clunking the other tortoises’ shells and looking like they will never get anywhere. I could have stayed there for so long, just watching them eat.

Unfortunately, we were moved on before too long. However, there were many more tortoises to come, just none that were quite so old or big. We walked through the maze-like (outdoors) centre, marvelling at the different tortoises from the different islands, of varying sizes through species and age variation. I did learn that the shape of the shells depend on the climate – those with dome-shaped shells are found on high, humid islands, and those with saddle-shaped shells are found on low, arid islands. Lonesome George fits into this latter category and was coming up next. We approached his rather large home where he lives with 2 females from other species. For those of you who are thinking who the hell is Lonesome George, he is the only remaining Galapagos Tortoise from Pinta Island. Although the 15 different types are sometimes described as separate species, sometimes as only sub-species, what’s important is that there were 15 different types from 15 locations around the islands (If you remember that there are 13 different islands; 5 were on Isabela and none on Marchena, Genovesa or Baltra). Of these, 3 are now extinct and only Lonesome George remains from Pinta Island. Many attempts have been made to find further Pinta tortoises, though none successful. Some scientists live in hope that there still may be a Pinta tortoise amongst another unstudied tortoise colony, but at best so far they have only found a tortoise sharing 50% of his genes (which is actually fantastic). Any attempts to mate George with other types of Galapagos tortoise have so far been unsuccessful. Poor, poor lonesome George.

We approached his lair to be confronted with thick shrubbery and no Lonesome George in sight. The guide attempted to point him out sleeping, but I think he was just making it up. I was devastated, for the second time in two days. Here I was, at the Galapagos Islands, and I didn’t get to see Lonesome George because the bastard was taking a nap somewhere in the dense vegetation. Selfish prick!

I left feeling dejected, having no camera (of my own) and no sighting of Lonesome George. Our next stop was at the baby tortoise enclosures, which did manage to cheer me up somewhat – they are so damn cute! Only 5 years old and no bigger than a mango, they slowly ambled along the ground, feeding and not doing much else. One poor little bugger had managed to fall over and was subjected to the ‘ohhhhh’ of all the girls as it tried to get up. It was unsuccessful whilst we were there, but would have made it up eventually. It did look comically pitiful, waving its stubby legs in the air, rocking not quite enough to get up. Even I wanted to go in and pick it up and turn it up the right way, though thankfully the biologist in me knew it was better to leave it alone. If a big one manages to upturn itself though, it’s a much bigger issue.

We watched the little guys for a while, then visited the store which I am proud to say that I didn’t buy a single book. I wanted to, but I wasn’t going to cart it around all year. I figure I can probably order one online later on. Anyway, then we had a quick squiz at some incubating eggs, and to our surprise 3 had hatched and were resting after their ordeal. Photos didn’t turn out that great, but they were cute. Walked through the inside part of the centre, looking at typical museum-type stuff, watched a short video then it was time to go.

Off we went to the airport, taking a taxi, a bus, a ferry and a bus to get there. And here I am, back in Quito after my wonderful, wonderful time in the Galapagos Islands. As aforementioned, I feel that I just have to come back – it was just amazing and rather than whetting my appetite, I just want to see more.

It has been such an amazing experience (and an epic one for you if you’ve managed to read all this) – go if you can. You can get tours a lot cheaper over here (nearly half the price) if you’re umming and ahhing about the cost. It is the experience of a lifetime, and you don’t need to be nerdy to enjoy it.

Hope you’re not absolutely exhausted! We have a few more days in Quito whilst we wait for Snuffy’s Brazil visa, then off to Brazil. I will try to update before we go, though hopefully I’ll spend more time doing work.

Love and kisses.

Galapagos photos part one

Galapagos photos part two

 

Comments

1

wow... i always wanted to go their but i just cant get over the boobies, being a teenage boy u just lost me at that.

IIIIIII
IIIIIII / \ a plain footed boobie
E= =3

Too bad on the camera btw, buy one for cheap at some shady market :D

  jordmans_quest Jun 11, 2008 3:05 PM

2

DAMMIT my impression of a plain footed boobie died and it cut off some of my writing.

  jordmans_quest Jun 11, 2008 3:06 PM

3

Wow Mel, don't know where to start...what a fantastic experience. I would so love to go there and see all those wonderful things, and think about Darwin and what he saw and how he thought and, and everything!

  Sally Jun 11, 2008 3:39 PM

4

Wow, I also don't know where to start, truly amazing.

  Gloria Jun 11, 2008 7:51 PM

5

so so jealous. wah.
i'll go back with you!!

  ben wood Jun 22, 2008 7:00 PM

6

Nice blog, Mel. Good to see what you were writing on the boat made it to the web.


  Dave Jun 30, 2008 2:49 PM

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