Archive for August, 2013

August 30, 2013

Another Miraculous Day in the Galapagos

A male blue-footed booby performs his mating dance

Following a 6:45 wakeup call and a 7:00 breakfast, my third day in the Galapagos started with a 10-minute panga ride to Cerro Dragón, Santa Cruz Island’s “Dragon Hill.” After a dry landing, we set out on a two-hour walk through dry, rocky trails bordered by cacti and trees oozing a delightfully fragrant sap that actually works as natural insect repellent.

This area of Santa Cruz gets the name “Dragon Hill” from the Galapagos land iguanas that make their home here, and they are definitely a sight to see. The land iguanas are enormous and very prehistoric looking – quite representative of the unique wildlife and cycle of evolution in the Galapagos.

Depending on age and gender, these dinosaur-esque reptiles are different shades and combinations of yellow, orange, brown, and red.

The Galapagos land iguanas lounged on desert-like hills and in the shade provided by cacti and other plants, and some could be seen attempting (clumsily) to climb trees and get at higher vegetation to eat – a behavior our guide told us has been a recent adaptation born out of necessity that they’re still working on. During our walk around Cerro Dragón, we also came upon lagoons inhabited by flamingos picking around for foods like shrimp and algae, high in the keratin that’s responsible for the bright pink/orange color of their feathers.

We returned to the ship to relax, and I opted to tag along for an optional deep water snorkeling excursion. We took the pangas out into open water along the lava rocks at the edge of the island and jumped straight over the side. This excursion was recommended only for reasonably strong swimmers, as the water was somewhat choppy, but the encounter I had here ended up being the highlight of my time in the Galapagos. Two adult sea lions and a pup were lounging on a rocky ledge hanging over the water, and decided to hop in and go for a swim. All three sea lions then approached the other snorkelers and I and started playing with us. They would come up to within a foot or two of me, then dart away and circle around myself and each other. Having only really had the chance to see them rest lazily onshore, I was stunned by the incredible speed and agility with which they were capable of moving all that bodily mass underwater. This is what I came to the Galapagos for.

Later, the group took the pangas out to North Seymour Island for a two-hour walking tour. As was completely expected by this point, this island was another totally new experience, and it was dominated largely by birdlife. There were plenty of sea lions around, chilling on the brownish-red dirt paths, but the real show was put on by the frigate birds and blue-footed boobies.

All around us, they put on elaborate social displays to attract mates and looked after their eggs. Male frigate birds had the giant red air sacks on their chests inflated in hopes of catching the attention of a female flying by. My guide explained that the female’s decision isn’t actually based on the pouch itself; it’s based on the location and quality of the male’s nest, and the red pouch acts as a beacon to indicate his presence and to provide the female with a chance to come down and check out the nest. After she does this, the male flies away in search of a stick to bring back as an offering. If the female approves of the stick, she agrees to mate with him, and if not, she keeps looking, and he keeps trying. Love stinks.

However, the most remarkable thing about the visit to North Seymour was the display put on by the blue-footed boobies. Myself and the other people in my group were standing a foot away from mothers looking after their eggs, and they were so comfortable with our presence that they weren’t even suspicious of us in a situation as delicate as this. Equally close to us were male boobies doing their elaborate mating dances, ruffling their feathers, hopping around and letting out loud, competitive bellows. If I haven’t made this clear yet, the Galapagos Islands archipelago is a enchanting place.



August 29, 2013

Unreal Wildlife & Volcanic Terrain

My second day in the Galapagos began with a romantic Latin pop song, very gradually increasing in volume as it came over the ship’s speakers.  Just as I slipped peacefully out of my sleep and acknowledged that the music wasn’t simply a soundtrack to my dream, the ship coordinator softly informed the passengers that this was our 6:45 wakeup call, and breakfast would be ready in 15 minutes.

After a nice buffet breakfast in the main dining area, we prepared for the 10-minute panga (a small, motorized boat) ride to Puerto Egas on the island of Santiago. It didn’t take long to notice that this island was drastically different from anything I had seen on Santa Cruz. We spent about an hour and a half walking along a shoreline characterized by volcanic black sand, lagoons, and lava rocks, all harboring a magical array of birds, mammals, reptiles and crabs.

Sea lions lounged on the rocks and the sand. Galapagos marine iguanas rested on top of each other and made their way into the water, while brightly-colored Sally Lightfoot crabs scurried all around them. Fur seals (according to our expert naturalist guide, actually a type of sea lion, as opposed to true seals) kept each other company on rocky ledges overlooking pools of sparklingly blue water. Blue-footed boobies and American oystercatchers scanned the surface of the water for tasty sea life, yellow warblers and Darwin’s prized finches hopped around nimbly, and a mockingbird actually flew out of a nearby tree and landed on top of the backpack of a man in my group.

The scene was astounding, and unlike anything I had ever seen before. At this point, I was still utterly amazed at the fact that I could stand a foot away from any animal here and evoke no reaction of fear of defensiveness whatsoever.

After our guided walk, we descended upon a peaceful little beach and spent about an hour snorkeling. I saw vibrant schools of tropical fish, and legitimately almost crashed straight into two massive sea turtles by accident as they swam contently and occasionally breached the surface. Another optional snorkeling excursion a bit later in the waters around the famous Pinnacle Rock presented us with an ocean floor populated by starfish far bigger than I knew existed.

With the day’s snorkeling behind us, we made our way to the island of Bartolomé. As I was quickly coming to expect, this island was starkly distinct from the ones before. Its relatively recent formation is resoundingly evident, with fascinating, Mars-like terrain stretching vastly and only very new pioneer plants growing out of the volcanic ash covering the hillsides. Natural, black and gray rock structures stick out dramatically and beautifully all over the place, and the groove marks left by lava flows cut through the compacted ash.

We trudged up about 400 steps to the island’s scenic lookout point, and the heaving and panting was more than worth it. The iconic Galapagos view provided was absolutely stunning, with glassy blue waters surrounding the piece of the island that juts out, with Pinnacle Rock looming proudly on the right side, and the much larger island of Santiago in the background.

The group returned to the ship, and an unforgettable day was capped off with a delectable churrasco-style barbecue buffet and some stargazing on the top deck.



August 23, 2013

Fearless Tortoises and Endless Craters

Santa Cruz is only one of the 14 islands in the Galapagos archipelago, but this island alone harbors an incredible diversity of landscapes and ecosystems. A drive up into the highlands of Santa Cruz to see the giant tortoises that make their home here was my first activity, and it absolutely set the tone for my unbelievable Galapagos adventure.

Our pangas pulled into the rocky shore, and we stepped out amid cacti and bone-dry, gnarled shrubs baking in the sun. Here, we boarded a bus and started the drive up into the highlands. I can’t begin to describe how quickly and dramatically the landscape began to change; the forested mountain terrain grew lusher and lusher as we reached higher elevations, and it soon looked like we had reached a completely different island than the one we had only recently disembarked at.

Within ten minutes, the air coming in through the open windows was substantially cooler. The dry plant life of sea level gave way to lush, tropical vegetation. We made our way up through misty mountains, passing secluded houses with roosters and banana and guava trees in the front yards, and started to come upon small farms and grazing cattle. The place was like a one-stop microcosm of all the beautiful green places in the world, where jungle meets farmland and tropical meets comfortably temperate.

After the half-hour bus ride, we set off on a leisurely walk through the giant tortoise habitat. These gentle creatures were roaming slowly all around us, some as old as 100 and quite enormous. They spend the first part of their lives trying to make their way up into these highlands, so we were really exploring the tortoises’ land of milk and honey. The most striking thing about these tortoises (even more evident in the iguanas, sea lions and birds of the Galapagos) is their total lack of any kind of fear of humans.

Unlike anywhere else on earth, you can stand a foot away from an animal in the Galápagos Islands and it won’t show the slightest bit of apprehension, because they have been so perfectly protected that they don’t associate the human form with any kind of threat. We’re not their natural predators, and tireless efforts have gone into making sure these islands represent only the natural circle of life and evolution, so they’re perfectly content ignoring our presence and going about their business.

On the way back down from the highlands, we stopped off at the site of “Los Gemelos,” or “The Twins,” which are two vast collapsed volcanic craters. We stepped off the bus and started walking down a path surrounded by lush moss and scalesia trees (found only in the Galapagos) when, all of the sudden, the earth opened up. The path dropped off into a deep sea of rich vegetation, bordered by a sheer rock face stretching all the way around. The mist made its way across the crater and sent shivers down my spine and I thought to myself: “This is just day one.



August 16, 2013

I wish I wasn’t in the Aisle Seat…

Flying to the Galapagos Islands

That’s a thought I never expected to cross my mind, but I realized a few days ago that to be two seats away from the window on a flight into the Galapagos Islands feels like a tragedy. Before I left for this trip to Ecuador, my highly general expectations associated wildlife with the Galapagos, and scenery and culture with the Andean Highlands – it didn’t take long for me to learn that the striking landscapes of the Galapagos are most definitely not to be overlooked as a huge part of what makes this natural paradise so extraordinary.

As we flew over the islands, it looked like someone had combined Mars and the US Southwest and plopped the result into the middle of the Pacific. Still, looking down on these arid, craggy, cacti-dotted masses of hardened lava on a deep blue backdrop, I had no idea just how unique this undisturbed ecological sanctuary would prove to be.

Once the flight touched down, it was evident that this place was going to waste NO time establishing itself as a destination like no other. After a 5-minute shuttle from the airport to the dock I was about to embark from, the sea lions of the Galapagos greeted me with a nice initiation to the next few days of my life. I hadn’t even boarded the small boat (called a “panga”) that would take me to the ship I would be staying on when I almost tripped over a sea lion lounging – carefree as could be – on the dock. A few moments later, a few more sea lions hanging out on the rocks beneath the dock started up a symphony of playful barks. Not a bad how-do-you-do from the most well-preserved ecosystem on earth…