Sunday, July 5, 2015

Galapagos!!! June 28 - July 6

Blue-footed Booby, the quintessential Galapagos bird
June 28 and 29, 2015 - Quito

I am Danny’s mom and the guest blogger today. Steve and I met Danny and Tamara in Quito, Ecuador. During the day and a half we had in the city, we got a chance to see some of the sights. Everyone is very excited because the Pope will be arriving on July 6th and will be here for four days. Danny and Tam rode by the old airport where the Pope will be giving mass. There are huge Jumbotrons set up so that everyone will be able to hear and see him. We stayed at a small, boutique hotel that had once been a rest station for visiting nuns.

The city has a Spanish feel to it with flowers on balconies and ornate architectural features on buildings. It was fun observing the people, especially the indigenous ones with their traditional fedoras, colorful clothing and gigantic straw baskets or babies on their backs. We couldn’t help but notice the number of churches concentrated in the Old City! One huge church, the Basilica del Voto, covered an entire block. Along the top of the church, instead of the normal gargoyles, there are fanciful stone images of animals found in the Galapagos. What fun to discover turtles, iguanas, crocodiles, monkeys and dolphins looking out at the Old City. We loved these whimsical creatures more than the traditional gargoyles.

The four of us mostly stuck to the Old City, peeking into the bakeries, jewelry stores, phone stores, florists, toy stores, flower shops, and stores selling dried herbs and enormous sacks of flour. A surprising number of police were congregated in front of the presidential building to make sure that the evening marches remained peaceful. One group is in favor of President Rafael Correa’s current policies and the other is protesting against them.

Later in the afternoon Steve and I happened upon La Ronda, an artsy street that offers a variety of restaurants and charming shops.

June 30, 2015 - Quito, San Cristobal Island

After a filling and typical Ecuadorian breakfast of bread, eggs, yogurt and fruit at Portal de Cantuna, the four of us headed to the airport to begin our Galapagos adventure. The flight from Quito was uneventful until we arrived at San Cristobal. We were subjected to the most thorough passport and immigration check we had ever seen — and this was all for a domestic flight.

Sea lions joining our morning talk
While waiting for our dinghies at the wharf, we were entertained by the sea lions frolicking in the water, sunning themselves on the rocks and sprawled out on the benches. They looked very comfortable and paid us no attention unless we came too close to them. Then they’d chase us! Fortunately, they are not that fast on land. 

The Odyssey is a lovely ship with roomy cabins. We didn’t anticipate that amount of space so it was a pleasant surprise. The naturalist took us to see great tortoises — we saw one that was about 4’ long. It totally ignored us even though we were 6 feet from it. In the ’80’s the parks department built a special spot called a breeding ground because 85% of the tortoises had been eaten. Now the parks department moves the eggs that the female tortoise lays and moves them to a warm spot until they hatch. The eggs are the size of tennis balls. When the baby tortoises are about 5 years old and have a strong enough shell to protect them from predators, they are gradually introduced into the wild.

While we slept that evening, the Odyssey motored to the next island, Española. Steve and I woke up in the middle of the night as the boat lurched from one side to the other. It took us a while to get used to the movement and then we were fine for the rest of the trip. The motion woke up Danny and Tam, but apparently not for long.

July 1, 2015 - Española Island

Taking a nap
Not a cloud in the sky as we left for the morning walk. A bull sea lion had established a harem at the pristine, isolated beach where we landed. There were 30-50 female sea lions flopped over each other on the pure white sand, basking in the sun. Every now and then a competitor would show up and the bull had to fend it off by chasing it out of the area with threatening barking noises. What an exhausting job keeping out the competition!  

The ground was flat but there were a lot of lava rocks on the walk, and it was tricky stepping on and over them. You never knew when one would move underneath you. Along the way Christian pointed out an “airport landing area” for the albatrosses who lay their eggs throughout the area. After six months with their parents, the baby albatrosses are ready to fly on their own in the wind currents. What fun to watch them, along with the hawks, take flight from the top of the high rock where we were standing down to the ocean below.

Waved Albatross
Farther along the coastline, as we approached another area , we could hear the water hitting the rocks and then could make out huge sprays of water. whooshing 20 feet into the air. They reminded me of the Yellowstone geysers. That’s where we came upon red, colorful Sally Lightfoot crabs scurrying over the rocks, alongside numerous iguanas. They were everywhere we looked. The males’ crest extends the length of their back, making it easy to distinguish the two sexes. 

In the afternoon we snorkeled and admired a variety of colorful fish. At some points there were hundreds of schools of small blue fish. A few people dove way down, including Danny. Several had underwater cameras and showed us their videos and pictures in the evening. The water was a perfect temperature although Danny needed a wetsuit because he has no insulation! As the sun was setting, we walked on the beach enjoying the incredible sunset and watching the sea lions. Adorable and very social, they frolic in the water and swim along side people. As awkward as they are on land, it’s quite the opposite in the water where they are graceful and lightning fast. 

The "blowhole" on Espanola

July 2, 2015 - Floreana Island

Greater Flamingos
The highlight of the morning was seeing 6-8 flamingos, some standing on their spindly legs and others balancing on one. Steve and I have seen them before but never this close! There were mangroves that helped protect the animals — once they tucked in, other animals cannot find them. Christian explained that the green sea glass on the beach was created when volcanic ash explodes to the air. The sandalwood trees on the island give off a scent that can be used as a  mosquito repellent or incense. 

Snorkeling was at Devil’s Crown where we saw starfish and, again, many colorful fish along with a sea turtle swimming on the bottom of the sea floor. When it surfaced for air, Danny dove down and swam with it, which he described as a surreal experience. 

At the end of the day we mailed our post cards at the “post office,” which is just a barrel. Years ago anyone heading in the direction of the address on the card would take it with him and mail it for the person who was sending it. That was the way that mail made it back and forth from these islands. It could take years to receive word that a loved one was safe. Steve and I were disappointed that we didn’t see any cards for Atlanta, GA, or, for that matter, anywhere in the southeast. Oh well.   

Another spectacular day!
Sunset scenery from Floreana
And... penguins! Our guide took us on a special trip to try and find one of the maybe five penguins living on the island, and we found two! A juvenile and an adult.
Galapagos Penguins

July 3, 2015 - Santa Fe Island, South Plaza Island

The day dawned overcast and a little threatening, but the clouds soon burned off — leaving us with another temperate and sunny day filled with activities we’ll tell you about shortly.  This is Steve, Danny’s dad, who has the privilege of being the guest blogger for the day (I was given this honor because today is also my birthday).

We first traveled by Zodiacs the short distance to the island of Santa Fe and landed on the beach in the midst of an immense colony of sea lions.  We were thrilled to be that close to these wondrous creatures but they pretty much were uninterested in us.  In fact, we had to be careful not to step on the resting animals spread out all over the beach.  The exceptions to this were the alpha males who were not happy having us this close to their harems and were prepared to let us know their point of view.  These large males could be intimidating as they sat up and bellowed at us. 

After threading past the sea lions and iguanas enjoying the beach we returned to the boat for lunch and then snorkeled and kayaked for the first part of the afternoon … then back to land where we made our way up a trail past iguanas, boobies (yes that is the name of the birds), frigate birds, crabs, iguanas, lizards and other amazing subspecies found nowhere else on earth. 
Swallow-tailed Gull, South Plaza Island

At the top of the hill overlooking the ocean were more sea lions, but in three distinct groups. On the beach the sea lions grouped mainly by harem: One bull, his females and their pups.  Here the sea lions were grouped differently: bachelor males who were not yet powerful enough to command their own harem (the “wannabes”), old males who could no longer defend their harems (the “has beens”) and females who were about to give birth (the maternity crowd). 

The happy four of us. Photo credit to Kiichi
That night, dinner on board was a special treat as a celebration of one of the passenger’s birthdays (I was that passenger).   We all shared wine and a birthday cake and talked that night.  The dozen passengers on the trip were all friends by now and it was fun to share this occasion with them.  Days don’t get much better than this!

July 4, 2015 - North Seymour Island, Santa Cruz Island

Danny here. Happy birthday, America! We were in another country now, pretty much another world, so hardly any mention was made of the American holiday. The animals, of course, see every day like all the others and were up early (like every day…) to welcome us as we stepped onto the rocky dock of North Seymour Island. Every island thus far had been different in its landscape and biology, and this one would be no different. Arriving on the beach, we were greeted by the barking and whining of sea lions, inhabitants of every beach and old friends to us by now. It’s hard to maintain the required two meter distance from them when they’re so friendly looking, so clearly playful.

We followed our guide, Christian, up the path, noticing frigatebirds flying overhead, their giant red pouches inflated from the heat of courtship and dangling awkwardly, swinging from side to side as they soared overhead. Both species, the great frigatebird and the magnificent frigatebird, nest on North Seymour, and we were fortunate enough to see every stage of their lives, from the tiny chicks, to the adolescents, to the full-grown birds with seven-foot wingspans. The landscape was open, nothing higher than bushes and small trees, a perfect nesting site for blue-footed boobies, the quintessential Galapagos bird. 

A few experiences on North Seymour cemented my growing idea that the Galapagos are unlike any place I had been. From just feet away, I watched a galapagos dove, a very pretty bird with an attractive blue eye ring, actually land on a giant yellow iguana, who didn’t seem to care one bit. At another point we were in a circle, listening to Christian discuss the nesting behaviors of the boobies (they poop in specific shapes to mark their nest sites!), when one of the bright blue-footed birds flew in to join us. It whistled a bit, spreading its wings for a moment and pointing its bill at the sky, then waddled right through our circle. Again, that two meter rule was hard to maintain. What do you do when the animal approaches you?! I almost stepped on a sea lion yesterday, entirely on accident. 
Dove on giant iguana

Along the coast of this particular island is a known nesting place of the rare fur sea lion, a similar species to the common sea lion but with big eyes and a shorter snout. We were lucky enough to find a few of them, but as today would be probably the busiest day of our trip, we soon went back onboard and, after just a few minutes of prep time, were in our snorkeling gear. The coast of North Seymour was a fantastic place to peer through the crystal clear water at the sandy bottom; we saw rays, huge starfish, and tons of fish, of course. The moorish idol was my favorite, its unmistakeable snow-white dorsal fin trailing behind it like a streamer.

After snorkeling, we headed over to Santa Cruz, the big central island, and took a bus up to the highlands. The destinations were some giant sinkholes, a lava tube not unlike those we had explored a long time ago in California, and, of course, giant tortoises! These, in Christian’s words, were “the big boys.” Pictures don’t do them justice. The tortoises move with lugubrious calculation, their enormous mass flattening everything in their path. Apparently they can travel 1-2 kilometers a day, quite a distance for a 700 pound creature. 
Oh, hey there

Back on the boat again, we celebrated our last night by thanking and toasting the crew, enjoying another delicious meal, and looking at pictures, reminiscing over our fleeting time in this magical place. 

July 5, 2015 - Santa Cruz Island, Quito

On our last morning, we woke up early to cram in one last activity: snorkeling with the possibility of seeing hammerhead or galapagos sharks! We didn’t end up seeing any, though we did see some small reef sharks and tons of fish. The water was choppy but clear and the subsequent goodbyes bittersweet; it was a good end to an amazing cruise. A lot is said about how amazing the Galapagos Islands are, and to try and sum them up in a blog post, or even in a book, is absolutely impossible. To go there and see it is absolutely incredible and worth it. In hindsight, without my parents sponsoring our trip, it still would have been worth it to spend a sizable chunk of our limited budget. If you, dear dedicated reader of our humble blog, have the chance to go to the Galapagos, drop everything and jump on it immediately. And spread the word about how these places need to be conserved as is; apparently there are social issues in Ecuador that may threaten the sanctity of these otherworldly meccas of nature.

The rest of the day included a lot of time in airports and on planes, which included some delays due to airport closures; the Pope was arriving in Quito at the same time we were. Maybe we’ll get to see him in the next few days.

A huge thanks to my parents for providing us with the opportunity to share this wonderful time with them!
Sally Lightfoot Crab

You may have noticed that the photography on this post was a notch above what it has been. There are two reasons for this: 1) it's the Galapagos Islands. The photography still would have been incredible with a pinhole camera made in middle school art class. And 2) my parents brought my nice camera from home, which will hopefully replace our phone as the primary image-capturing device for this blog.

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