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The red island

Ecuador day thirteen continued


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Rabida

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The Angelito moored off Rabida

Rabida lies immediately south of Santiago, and we came here directly from James Bay where we had spent the morning, arriving in time for an early lunch with a backdrop of this striking red island.

There is just one visitor site here and a visit here begins with a wet landing on the island’s only beach. We had seen white coral beaches, yellow sand and black lava ones, and now here on Rabida (also known as Jervis) we found ourselves on a dramatically red one, surrounded by equally red cliffs. The colour is the result of a lot of ferric oxide in the lava that has been emitted from the spatter cones that form much of the island.

As usual there was a welcoming committee of Galápagos sea lions, but I think maybe they too had just had lunch, as they were pretty sleepy and uninterested in the two-legged visitors disembarking from the pangas nearby! But they made great foreground interest for our first photos here. We also saw some shore birds such as oyster-catchers, and there were frigatebirds wheeling overhead

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The red sands of Rabida

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American oystercatcher, sea lion and pup

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The red trail through the
palo santo trees

This was the one day when I chose to wear sandals for the wet landing, rather than wade ashore bare-footed and dry off on the beach before putting on socks and trainers. This was partly because Fabian had recommended sandals rather than his usual “tennis shoes” (I think the red sand here is a little grittier and less comfortable than the soft white sand in many other places), and partly because I had carried them all this way and I was determined to wear them at least once! But it proved to be a slight mistake – the grit of the beach continued for much of the path and found its way easily inside the sandals, and in addition, being unused to wearing them, I had forgotten to put suntan lotion on my feet and they reddened rather in the bright sun we had for part of our walk.

After spending a little time on the beach, photographing the sea lions against the strikingly coloured backdrop, we followed a path through the pale palo santo trees. The trail here is just one km in length, and is rated easy / moderate, as it involves a little bit of climbing but is generally easy going with a red gravel-type surface.

The redness of the soil and rocks here is due to the very porous lava, which has combined with rain, salt water and sea breeze to act as an oxidising agent. It makes for a great colour scheme, offsetting the dusty grey-green of the palo santo and opuntia that form the main vegetation. The former in particular looked stark and almost dead, as it was the dry season – in the wet they would be covered with green leaves. These are plants of the arid zone, and we saw another typical one of these, cordia lutea or yellow cordia, which added some bright colour to the landscape.

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Cordea lutea & opuntia on Rabida

An aside on vegetation, which in the Galápagos is usually divided into three zones: coastal (mangroves of various kinds, saltbush, beach morning glory and Galápagos carpet weed or sesuvium); arid (assorted cacti, including opuntia, lava cactus and candelabra, palo santo, palo verde, poison apple or manzanillo, alternanthera); and humid, found only on the larger islands.

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View from the cliffs

The path led us at first to a point on the cliffs immediately above the beach, from where we had a good view of the lagoon that lies just behind it, the red sands, the bay and the Angelito moored just off shore (the photo at the top of this page was taken at this spot).

The colours and the views are the main attraction here, as there are fewer wildlife species than on some other islands. This is due in part to the introduction in the 1970s of goats, which probably led to the extinction of several native creatures including geckos, land iguanas, and rice rats.

The goats were eradicated in 1971, reintroduced in 1975, and finally eradicated by 1977. Since then the island has remained goat-free, but there remains a problem with introduced Norway and Black Rats, which have negative impacts on both native vegetation and birds and reptiles. In January 2011 a rat eradication project was launched which hopes to clear Rabida of these and allow native plants and animals to thrive.

Despite this, there are the sea lions to be enjoyed, marine iguanas, and plenty of birds. On this part of the trail we saw several cactus and other Galápagos finches, pretty yellow warblers and a Galápagos dove.

From this high point the trail forms a loop, following the cliffs on the east side of the island. It led us next to another even more spectacular viewpoint on the cliffs where the contrasting colours of red rock, green opuntia , blue sky and turquoise sea made for great photo opportunities. In the distance was Santiago, where we had spent the morning (left-hand photo below).

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The red cliffs of Rabida

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Opuntia growing on the cliffs

There were various sea birds fishing off the cliffs, including brown noddies skimming the waves and a few blue-footed boobies with their characteristic bullet dive. But as before, for the most part of our time here the scenery was the greater draw, with its dramatic colour contrasts and texture too – craggy rocks, spiny opuntia, liquid ever-moving sea.

We had already spent some time here, admiring the views and taking photos, when someone spotted what we thought at first might be a dolphin or shark, but which on closer inspection by Fabian proved to be a huge manta ray in the sea directly beneath us. I had seen rays before (in an aquarium!) and loved the graceful way in which they move. But I had never before seen a manta ray, the largest of the species.

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Manta ray and brown noddy

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Manta rays can grow up to seven metres across, and when their triangular “wings” appear out of the water you might at first think a shark is swimming past, as we did, until you spot the large mass of its body just beneath the surface.

This one is likely to have been an oceanic manta ray, and as these can grow to seven metres wide, it is not surprising that he seemed really big even viewed from so high up on the cliffs above. He stayed for a long while, turning languidly in the waves. He was patrolling up and down the coast and I imagine looking for food there. Many rays are bottom feeders but others filter plankton from sea water passing through their mouths and out of their gills as they swim, and it seemed that “our” manta ray was probably doing this. We watched as he moved slowly along, from time to time lifting a giant “wing” above the surface. Watching this huge fish drift past below us here was a special experience and it was hard to tear ourselves away (not for the first time on this trip) but eventually he left, and so did we.

We followed the loop trail away from here and back down to the beach to visit the saltwater lagoon, which lies behind some of the mangrove trees that line the red sands. In the past this has been home to flamingos, but none were to be seen on our visit, and Fabian explained that it was likely that they’d been driven away by the groups of bachelor Galápagos sea lions who have chosen this spot as a place to chill out, undisturbed by the alpha male who throws his weight around on the beach. With each group of females presided over by a single male in this way, there are always plenty of bachelors who are unwelcome in the main colony and who need to find their own space. Maybe after some R & R here they will feel ready to fight for the right to rule a beach themselves.

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The saltwater lagoon

Meanwhile I can see why they favour this peaceful spot. The lagoon is surrounded by more mangroves, a bright green line below the grey-green of the palo santo trees, and has enough water for a leisurely swim to cool off in the midday sun, while the sea is only a short distance away when they feel the need to do some serious fishing for food. All the same, it is a little disappointing for us as visitors that they have caused the flamingos to leave.

We had hoped to have time for swimming or snorkelling here, but time was getting on and the Angelito had to sail that afternoon for Santa Cruz, so we said goodbye to the red cliffs of Rabida and headed for our next island. As we left we were treated to an amazing sunset.

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Tomorrow we were in for a change, visiting one of the few inhabited islands in the archipelago, Santa Cruz …

Much of the wildlife mentioned above is described in more detail in my previous entries on the animals and bird life of the islands.

Posted by ToonSarah 02:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals islands fish galapagos seals ecuador Comments (4)

Indefatigable

Ecuador day fourteen


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Santa Cruz

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The harbour of Puerto Ayora

Santa Cruz, also known as Indefatigable, sits right in the centre of the archipelago. It has the largest human population of any of the islands, and is home to the largest town in the Galápagos, Puerto Ayora. Unlike the barren volcanic landscapes we had seen elsewhere, its interior is lush and green, with plantations growing all sorts of crops. After five days at sea without seeing a single human habitation, passing these cultivated hillsides, and even more so, walking the streets of the small town, seemed like a return to a different world.

We arrived here after an evening/night voyage from Rabida to the north, and the Angelito anchored in the busy harbour of Puerto Ayora around bedtime. The next morning, after breakfast, we were ferried ashore in the pangas, directly to the jetty of the Charles Darwin Research Centre.

Charles Darwin Research Centre

The Charles Darwin Research Centre was set up in 1960 in order to promote research, conservation, and education in the archipelago. As with all such places, the centre offers you a chance to get close to wildlife. However, after five days visiting the islands it was clear to us that, given how comfortable the animals and birds are around their human visitors, “getting close” is much less of a bonus here than elsewhere! But we did learn a lot about the giant tortoises.

Giant tortoises

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Giant tortoise at the research centre

These are the animal that perhaps most symbolises these islands, and indeed gave them their name – Galápagos is derived from the Spanish for saddle, referring to the shape of the tortoise’s shell. And their huge size (they can weigh over 250 kilos, and their shells measure up to 150 cm) makes them the dominant species on the islands – dominant that is until man arrived.

These lumbering but strangely mesmerising beasts have captured people’s imagination through the centuries. They played a part in developing Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, when he heard the vice-governor of the Islands’ assertion that he could identify what island a tortoise was from simply by looking at him:

“The inhabitants...state that they can distinguish the tortoise from different islands; and that they differ not only in size, but in other characters. Captain Porter has described those from Charles and from the nearest island to it, namely Hood Island, as having their shells in front thick and turned up like a Spanish saddle, whilst the tortoises from James Island are rounder, blacker, and have a better taste when cooked.”

Giant tortoises are endemic to the Galápagos, with 15 subspecies having been recorded around the archipelago. Not only do we find a different subspecies on each island where the tortoises live, but on Isabella there is a different subspecies for each of the four volcanoes. To a tortoise these volcanoes might just as well be islands, as they are unable to travel the distances between them, being too slow to cross large areas devoid of suitable vegetation for their diet. My video, shot at the research centre, shows just how slow and lumbering their walking is.

But man very nearly wiped these animals from existence. When he arrived in the Galápagos there were hundreds of thousands of giant tortoises, but as the quote from Darwin above indicates, the tortoises were found to be a valuable source of meat for sailors who had been long at sea, and were hunted accordingly. They were also threatened by the arrival of alien animals introduced by man: pigs, goats, horses and cows whose existence in the islands threatened young tortoises. These ate the little vegetation that was available in the islands, and their hooves crushed tortoise eggs and the soft shells of the young ones.

Fortunately the danger was recognised, although not before several of the subspecies had been wiped out. In the 1970s the Charles Darwin Research Station established their tortoise-rearing project, collecting eggs from islands where the species had become endangered, and bringing them to the station where they are incubated and hatched. The young tortoises are raised until their shells become strong and they can withstand the threat of the introduced predators, and are then released back into the wild.

Touring the research centre

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Group of male tortoises

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Super Diego

To start our visit Fabian gave us a tour of the different pens used for the successful giant tortoise breeding programme for which the centre is best known. We saw a group of male tortoises in one, females in another, and elsewhere met “Super Diego”, considered to be the centre’s most sexually active male (and therefore very useful to the breeding programme!) The latter is a saddleback tortoise, and Fabian pointed out how his shell shape differs from that of his cousins, as described by Darwin. On the larger islands, such as here on Santa Cruz, the giant tortoises thrive in the highlands where there is plentiful ground vegetation. Here the domed shell is the norm. But on some of the smaller islands, where most vegetation is above ground and harder to reach, the tortoises have evolved to have this cut-away area of their shell, behind their heads, which enables them to stretch upwards to reach food. Fabian also told us that Stephen Spielberg had been inspired by seeing the tortoises on a visit to the centre to come up with the image of ET – look, you can see him, can’t you?

One inhabitant we did not see however was Lonesome George, arguably at one time the most famous tortoise in the world. Sadly he had died a few months before our visit, in June 2012. George was thought to be the sole surviving member of the Pinta subspecies (chelonoidis abingdonii), and scientists had tried for many years to persuade him to breed, with no success – hence the nickname of Lonesome (although Fabian maintained that his failure to find success with the ladies was down to his own cantankerous nature!) Around the time of our visit however it was reported that scientists have identified at least 17 tortoises that appear to be closely related to George’s subspecies, and that they might even have found one purebred Pinta tortoise. Maybe George was not totally lonesome after all! Meanwhile his pen has been left as it was and a plaque placed beside it in memory of one who undoubtedly did a lot to draw people’s attention to the importance of preserving as much of the wildlife of these special islands (and indeed of the world) as possible.

After seeing the adult tortoises, and a few land iguanas (although the centre’s breeding programme for these had now ceased, having achieved its aims), we went on to visit the rearing house, where hatchlings are cared for, and the adaptation centre, where young tortoises are gradually accustomed to the conditions they will find on release to their home islands, which happens at about four years of age. Nearly 2,000 young tortoises have been released so far!

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Young tortoises

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Numbered for tracking after release

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Cactus finch

Here our tour with Fabian ended and we all went our separate ways, free to explore on our own for the rest of the morning. Chris and I walked back through the grounds, stopping to look at the various plants – the centre also maintains a native plant garden of species endemic to the Santa Cruz arid and coastal zones. We watched a cactus finch at close quarters in one of the opuntia trees and then had a brief look inside the Van Straelen Exhibition Centre which has displays about the Galápagos Islands and the work of the Research Station. The centre also runs slide shows that describe the history of the islands and the current conservation efforts.

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Display in the Van Straelen Centre

We only spent a short time here as we were getting so much information from Fabian on all our island visits that we didn’t feel the need to read everything here in detail, and to be honest I felt that the presentation was a little dull and static compared with modern interpretation techniques employed elsewhere. Besides, we were more interested in spending time outside exploring for ourselves. But if you’ve just arrived in the Galápagos and would like an introduction to the ecology, geology and other aspects of this special part of the world, you could do worse than study these displays.

Near here we met up with another from our group, Ian, and decided to walk with him into Puerto Ayora, a stroll of about a mile.

Puerto Ayora

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Avenida Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora

Puerto Ayora is situated on Academy Bay, on the south coast of Santa Cruz, and is the most populous town in the Galápagos Islands, with over 12,000 inhabitants. When we walked into town from the Charles Darwin Research Centre it was the first time for five days that we had walked on pavements, or been among more than twenty other people! But you could hardly call this a large town – it just felt that way after our recent experiences. From a visitor’s perspective it consists mainly of a single long street running parallel to the sea, lined with small shops, bars and restaurants, and a few hotels. The Research Station is a short walk to the east, and the harbour is at the west end of town.

If you are on a Galápagos cruise a visit here provides an opportunity to shop for souvenirs, pick up emails, and maybe to eat and drink on dry land for a change. If you don’t want to cruise the islands but would prefer a land-based holiday, there are a number of hotels here to suit most budgets, and day trips can be arranged to the nearer islands.

Around the town

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'Follow George'

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'Lonesome no more'

As I mentioned above, the famous giant tortoise known as Lonesome George had died a few months before our visit, in June 2012. But in town we saw his image everywhere – on t-shirts, postcards and souvenirs, as decoration and graffiti, and more. It will be a long while before George is forgotten, it seems.

Of course, another character who has played a major role in shaping our perceptions of these islands is Charles Darwin, and we spotted him around town too! The main street is named after him (Avenida Charles Darwin), as is the research centre, and a bust of the famous naturalist sits on the roundabout at the eastern end of the main street, along with a colourful arch which also depicts some of the archipelago’s most iconic species.

The inscription below the bust describes his work as a natural historian that made him famous worldwide, his journey on the Beagle, and the part played by the Galápagos Islands in shaping his “Theory on the Evolution of the Species”.

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Bust of Darwin and entrance to the research centre named after him

The fish market

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In the centre of town we were drawn to the activity around the fish market. This is really little more than a few stone counters set by the side of the road in the middle of town, backed by the harbour. The fish can come directly from boat to counter to shopping bag. As a tourist you’re maybe unlikely to be shopping for fish, but just the same, this is a spot worth visiting.

The activity here (gutting and preparing fish) is a magnet for local wildlife, such as pelicans and sea lions, and they are as comfortable around humans in this populated area as they are on the more remote islands. So this is a great place to get some rather different photos of the animals and to record their interactions with the locals.

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At the fish market

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After spending some time here we were ready for a coffee break. A couple of our travelling companions, Sue and Geoff, had already spent a few days in Puerto Ayora prior to the cruise and particularly recommended the coffee at Il Giardino. So after our visit to the Charles Darwin Research Centre, and a walk through the town, we headed here with them and Ian to sample what was on offer. Despite the good coffee always on tap on the Angelito, and plentiful meals and snacks, it made a pleasant change to sit here, to peruse a menu and to make our choices.

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Il Giardino

I opted for an affogato – that wonderful Italian combination of strong hot espresso and cold vanilla ice cream. Chris had a very good cappuccino, while some of the others sampled the cakes on offer (the apple pie was especially praised). Others from our group were enjoying ice creams at a nearby table, but with so much to eat every day on the Angelito, I decided to forego any other treats!

The restaurant also has snacks and full meals, which seem to get good reviews too. It’s not the cheapest place to eat in Puerto Ayora, but it offers an attractive environment, a very central location, good service (from our admittedly limited experience) and lots of choice.

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'I love boobies'

Once we’d finished our coffees, and settled the bill, the five of us went our separate ways, and Chris and I decided to end the morning with a bit of souvenir shopping. If you want a souvenir of your time in the Galápagos Islands, Puerto Ayora is a pretty good place to search, as it has everything from the really excellent to the truly tacky! The main street, Avenida Charles Darwin, is lined with shops, all of them targeting the tourist (whether staying on town or, like us, stopping off here while on a cruise). We explored quite a few, though our wanderings were slightly hampered by the fact that the western end of Charles Darwin was undergoing major construction work (laying new pipes and/or cables) and was only passable on narrow walkways. We also had to pause at one point as dynamite was being used to clear a new area for work – the Ecuadoreans seem to like dynamite, judging by our experience of road-works on the mainland!

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Endemik

Anyway, we negotiated the holes in the road successfully and checked out many of the shops. T-shirts seemed to be a favourite purchase, many with the same slogan – “I love Boobies”. I guess it’s amusing, but not when you see it for the hundredth time!

More interesting for us were the couple of rather smart galleries, though I was rather surprised and concerned to note that one appeared to be selling jewellery made from coral beads (if they were only artificial they were charging far too much) so refused to consider buying anything there.

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Our little albatross

We had more success in a nice little shop called Endemik, near the western end of town. One of the favourite Ecuadorean crafts is carving tagua nuts, which give the appearance of ivory, into various native animals, and I bought a lovely pelican to hang in our kitchen where we display many of our smaller holiday mementos. In a nearby gallery, Cactus, we got a small ceramic bowl to take as a gift to our friends in Quito, Betty and Marcelo, whom we planned to see again on our return to the city.

Our shopping done, it was time to return to the Angelito for lunch so we headed to the main pier in town, where the pangas were waiting to ferry us back.

Santa Cruz Highlands

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Our first giant tortoise
'in the wild'

After lunch we were ferried back to the pier and from there boarded a small bus, driven by one of the Angelito’s owners, for our journey into the highlands. It was great to have this unexpected opportunity to pass on our appreciation of the boat and crew to one of the owners. Until recently one of them apparently skippered the boat for every cruise, but they are getting on in age now and have wisely decided to employ a captain, so we hadn’t anticipated meeting either of them.

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'Playing tortoise'

The bus drove through the outskirts of Puerto Ayora, giving us a brief glimpse of everyday life in this most remote of towns. As we left the town the road started to climb and we could soon see for ourselves how the vegetation of the arid and humid zones differed. The higher we went the more lush the greens, and we saw lots of pockets of cultivation – coffee, maize and fruit-bearing trees such as banana and papaya. There were cattle in some fields, and white cattle egrets.

We arrived at our destination, a reserve where the giant tortoises are protected and allowed to live in peace in the wild – but not before already seeing a few in nearby fields and passing one right on the road! At the reserve there was a small demonstration area, where Fabian gave us a talk about these amazing creatures. There was an empty shell there, from a long-deceased tortoise, and some of us took the chance to climb inside and “play tortoise” – a silly, fun exercise, but one that gave us a good sense of just how huge these animals are.

From here we went for a walk through part of the reserve. We saw quite a few tortoises on our route, including one enjoying a mud bath and several munching on grass and leaves. One came straight towards a small group of us, and we had to step aside and let him pass – he was clearly the boss and nothing was going to stop him reaching his destination. Sharing a narrow path with one of these enormous reptiles really does give you a sense of their size and strength!

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Meeting the tortoises

We also saw a variety of birds on our walk – a smooth-billed ani, white-cheeked pintail duck and yellow warbler among others. The reserve has a small but densely stocked souvenir shop which we checked out after our walk – Chris and I just bought a postcard but some of the others got a t-shirt or hat, at what seemed to me to be reasonable prices. There is also a little café / bar, where we got a drink each and sat chatting with the others from our party. Four of the group had left that morning, and a new passenger had joined us, so it was a good opportunity to get to know Eli from Israel and welcome him to our happy band!

But soon it was time to leave as we wanted to visit some lava tubes on our way back to the boat.

Lava tunnel

A short drive from the giant tortoise reserve we visited one of a number of lava tunnels that can be found in the highlands of Santa Cruz. These tunnels or tubes are formed when the exterior portion of a pahoehoe lava flow cools and hardens while the hotter interior lava continues to flow. Eventually the lava flow diminishes and there is not enough lava left to fill the tube, which is left hollow as a result. We had seen very small tubes on Santiago, but here on Santa Cruz some of them are large enough to enter.

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Entrance to the tunnel

This particular one is accessed down a short flight of rocky steps, with a slightly rickety handrail. These lead you to the tunnel’s entrance, which is actually in the middle of it, as it has in the past collapsed at this point leaving one half exposed and easy to walk into, and the other half more or less buried in rubble. More steps took us down to the bottom of the tunnel, which at this point was fairly smooth and easy to walk on. It even had electric lighting! If you didn’t know otherwise you would think that this were a man-made tunnel, maybe dug as part of a mine or underground transport system. But no – this was all created by the power of volcanic activity.

After about 100 metres of walking we came to a point where the tunnel roof has crumbled in places and made the going a little harder. Eventually that roof becomes so low that it is necessary to crawl. We had the option at this point of continuing with Fabian or returning to the minibus. About five or six of us, me included, chose the latter – there was no way with a dodgy knee that I felt like crawling on stony ground! But Chris and some of the others opted to finish the walk through the tunnel, though he later told me that apart from the satisfaction of having done it I hadn’t missed much. In the event they had not so much crawled, as the ground was not only stony but also wet in places, but rather had gone on hands and feet, their backs almost scraping the roof!

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Inside the lava tunnel

Meanwhile I and my companions took a leisurely walk back through the tunnel, stopping to take more photos as we did so. Once we were in the minibus we drove the sort distance to meet the others, who had already emerged from the tunnel and were waiting by the side of the road. I confess I was relieved to see them, as it had occurred to me that if the tunnel had collapsed in the past it could do so again! But there had been no mishaps, and we all settled down in the minibus to return to Puerto Ayora and to the Angelito.

After dinner we were offered the option to cross back to the town to spend an evening enjoying the bright lights of Puerto Ayora, but most of us opted to stay on board and spent our usual cosy evening in the lounge with a few beers and our by now habitual karaoke session!

Those who did go ashore had to be back on board very promptly, as we had another long overnight voyage ahead of us, to far-flung Espanola …

Much of the wildlife mentioned above is described in more detail in my previous entries on the animals and bird life of the islands.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals tortoises galapagos ecuador Comments (4)

Home of the waved albatross

Ecuador day fifteen


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Española

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Early morning view of Española from the Angelito

Española (English name Hood) lies in the far south east of the Galápagos Islands group and is fairly small. Being so remote, the crossing here from Santa Cruz took us all night, but passed without incident as far as we were concerned. The swell was not too bad and neither of us felt any adverse effects. We awoke when the anchor went down off the white sand of Gardner Bay.

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Some of our group at Gardner Bay

After an early breakfast, we made our first of two landings on the island – a wet landing on the soft sands of Gardner Bay. As we weren’t going to leave the beach, we could land barefooted and stay that way throughout our visit – no need to carry any footwear unless we wanted to. It was lovely to enjoy feeling the sand between my toes and to wander into the waves whenever I felt like it!

Gardner Bay is one of the few places where it is permitted for visitors to wander without the close attendance of a guide, so once we had landed here Fabian left us largely to our own devices. We walked along the beach near the water’s edge, where a large number of Galápagos sea lions had congregated. These were a mix of females and pups, as this is a favourite nursery site, and the pups ranged in age from almost new-born to almost full-size. I was intrigued by the buzz of activity here, as were we all, and I’ve put together a video of some of the highlights.

As everywhere in the islands, these animals were remarkably happy to be around people, and the presence of several groups of visitors on the beach at the same time didn’t seem to bother them in the slightest – indeed, some seemed to welcome us.

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Mele and me with
'our' pup

One little pup was especially persistent in his efforts to make friends. He came right up to me and tickled my toes with his whiskers! He then gave my trekking pole a curious nibble, and proceeded to follow me along the beach. Lest I get big-headed with all this attention, he switched to another member of our group, Mele, and seemed to adopt her, as you can see in my short video about the encounter.

It wasn’t difficult to see why some tourists are tempted to get over-familiar with these young creatures and I had to resist the temptation to pat him on the head like a puppy! In fact, a tourist from another boat, who it seemed had either been less carefully briefed by his guide or (more likely) had chosen to ignore the rules, started to tease the pup a little, putting out his foot to be sniffed at, then pulling it away. It is one thing if an animal comes to you to play, but you should never approach them or try to draw them into a game, however willing they seem. We did remonstrate a little with the guy, but he didn’t take much notice. I don’t think on this occasion any harm would be done, but we were a little concerned at how he might behave around some of the other wildlife – hopefully his guide will have put him straight.

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Our young friend takes a bath

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More of the sea lions

There was also plenty of bird-life here. We saw a pair of Galápagos hawks in the trees at the northern end of the beach. They were perched here for quite a while, and one member of our group managed to get some great shots and video footage of them mating, but unfortunately by the time I reached this point, having spent longer with the sea lions, they had calmed down and were simply enjoying each other’s company.

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Galápagos hawks

There were also yellow warblers on the sand, swallows swooping past, several Hood mockingbirds (endemic to Española) and various finches, among other species. Some strategically positioned logs at the top of the sands made for good perches on which to sit and observe all this activity when I had finished my stroll along the beach, and I really enjoyed the time we spent here – probably the most relaxing of all our island visits.

But after a while it was time to return to the Angelito as we were going snorkelling in the bay.

Snorkelling in Gardner Bay

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For our snorkelling this morning we took a panga to a spot near a rock a little off-shore and had the choice of swimming from there either to the boat or to the beach. I chose the latter, thinking I would encounter sea lions there, but that was to prove a bit of a disappointment as they were mostly very close to the edge where it was both too murky and too shallow to snorkel.

But before that I did enjoy the sight of a sea turtle at the start of my swim – the closest look I had at one so far on the trip, and the closest I was to get at all under water! Unfortunately though, I missed seeing the stingrays that some of the others spotted, as they had swum closer to the rock than I did.

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After a while I started to swim towards the beach – a longish swim for me but I fancied the exercise and as I said was hoping to encounter some sea lions on the way as we had seen so many coming and going from the water when on the beach earlier. One did come past as I swam but didn’t hang around. Once I reached the shallower water it became pretty cloudy, as the fine sand was stirred up by the waves breaking on the shore, so if any sea lions had been near I wouldn’t have necessarily seen them! But once I arrived on the beach I waded ashore, pulled off my flippers, and then went back into the shallows to enjoy relaxing there – and there I did get a bit closer to a few of these super-friendly animals (in my photo below you can see the rock I had swum from in the background and the Angelito on the very far right).

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In Gardner Bay

That was a nice end to my swim, but I couldn’t linger for long, as the panga arrived to take me and a few other beach-goers back to join those who had remained on the Angelito (including Chris) and those who had swum there from the rock. It was time for lunch and after lunch, a second landing on Española at Punta Suarez.

Afternoon on Española

While we ate our usual delicious lunch on board, the Angelito was sailing around to the western tip of the island, Punta Suarez. Fabian allowed time for a 'siesta' (which for me meant catching up with my journal as there was a lot to record after our interesting morning). I also observed an amusing encounter between a couple of the crew and a very persistent sea lion who was determined to enjoy his siesta relaxing in one of our pangas.

Once he had been persuaded to move on (which took some ingenuity by the crew, as my video shows) we could climb into the pangas ourselves and head back to explore more of Española.

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On the jetty

This time there was a dry landing on to a short flight of stone steps, on which a large Galápagos sea lion was reclining, so we had to negotiate our way very carefully around her – she had got there first and this was her territory not ours! The steps led to a stone path laid over the rocky jetty, where several more sea lions and pups were relaxing, along with some marine iguanas, and from there to the small beach where our afternoon visit was to start.

The trail here is very different from the visitor site at Gardner Bay, being three kilometres in length and rated difficult. With a troublesome knee, I found this trail to be the most challenging of any on the islands, both for its length and its rockiness. It was almost like walking on stepping stones in places, moving from one lava boulder to the next along the route. It was also tiring for several of the others I think, but we all agreed it was more than worth the effort – I wouldn’t have missed it for anything!

The walk started on the small beach next to the landing spot, where there were more sea lions, as we had come to expect on every beach. From here we followed a short path to an area where there was a large number of marine iguanas. These were different from those we had seen elsewhere, as this is a species endemic to this island. They have a deep red, and when breeding green, colouring – leading to the nickname of 'Christmas' iguana.

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'Christmas' marine iguanas

They were also among the largest we had seen, and more active than many, so I took the opportunity to make a little video to show their distinctive walk and the line they make with their tail in the sand. Watch how his back leg almost touches the front one – in fact, it was here that I saw one iguana nearly fall over his own feet as the back foot landed on top of and got tangled with the front!

The trail at Punta Suarez

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Lava lizard

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Lava lizard

After a while we left the marine iguanas to themselves and started along the rock-strewn path that heads across this narrow spit of land.

Near the start of the path we got a good look at a couple of the colourful endemic sub-species of lava lizard found only here on Española. It is the female who displays this vivid red colouring around the throat and often across the head too.

But the stars of Española, if you visit at the right time of the year as we did (late March to December) are the awe-inspiring waved albatross. My first sight of this five month old chick, already huge, will stay with me for a long time, and he seemed equally taken by the sight of us – happy to sit and pose on his nest for as long as we wanted to sit and watch him, which as you can imagine was quite a while! Yet again, Fabian’s relaxed approach to these excursions really paid off, as he gave us plenty of time to appreciate all that we saw.

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Waved albatross chick

We then moved on to an open area of jumbled lava rocks, on the far side of which there were a large number of albatrosses, and spent considerable time here too, watching all the activity. Some were engaging in bill-fencing, part of their courtship routine, and several came into land as we watched, in a rather ungainly fashion.

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Waved albatross

Waved albatross

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Waved albatrosses are considered endemic not only to the Galápagos, but to Española, where they are nest in just two locations, Punta Cevallos (which can’t be visited), and Punta Suarez. Like other albatrosses they spend part of the year at sea. They begin to return to Española in March, the males arriving first. They mate for life, so the male returns to the previous year's breeding territory to await his partner.

Waved albatrosses, again like other albatrosses, engage in a very lengthy, noisy, and complex courtship ritual, even if they are an established pair (although new pairs perform for longer). The dance involves bill-fencing, in which the partners bend, face each other, and rapidly slap their bills back and forth. In another step each faces the other in an upright posture, sometimes poising with bill wide open. The bills are then shut with a loud clap. Sometimes the birds will clatter their bills rapidly. The dance also involves bowing, and parading around one another with the head swaying side to side in an exaggerated sway, accompanied by a nasal "anh-a-annhh" sound. Although we visited towards the end of the breeding season, when pairs were already established and chicks hatched, we were fortunate enough to see a few of these displays as couples reinforced their bonds – or in one instance, it seemed, flirted with others – see my video , shot in the open area here.

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Albatross egg

Between mid-April and July the pair produces a single egg. They don’t build a nest, so the egg simply lies on the ground (the one in my photo had been abandoned and was empty). The egg is incubated by both parents for about two months. Early in incubation, each parent takes long stints, as much as three weeks, but as hatching nears, the stints become shorter. For the first few weeks after hatching, one parent guards the chick while the other forages for food, but after that, the chicks are left unguarded, in nursery groups, while both parents spend longer times at sea looking for food – it was in one of these groups that we found our young friends.

By the end of December, the chicks have fledged, and they leave their nurseries with their parents and head for the western Pacific. Although their parents return to Española the following year, the fledglings remain away for five to six years, at which time they also return to the island to begin breeding for the first time.

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On a nest

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Waved albatross in flight

After spending some time here Fabian again announced that it was time to move on, so we carried on to where the trail emerges on to the cliff top, having crossed the narrow spit of land to the opposite side from the landing point.

On the cliffs at Puerto Egas

We had a lengthy pause when we first arrived at this point, sitting and watching the albatross and frigates flying past us and the waves crashing on the rocks below. To see an albatross in flight is a breath-taking sight indeed.

A short walk along the cliffs brought us to another viewing point with a dramatic blow-hole beneath us, and again we paused here for quite a while to enjoy the spectacle.

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The blow-hole

But eventually we had to turn back, following a path parallel to (and a little less rocky than) our outward one. We passed a few more albatrosses and got a close look at their somewhat comical courtship dance, and towards the end saw some Nazca and blue-footed boobies.

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Nazca and blue-footed boobies

We spent so long on the trail that as we neared the end of the path back to the landing point Fabian realised that we were at risk of being still on the island after 18.15, when no one is permitted to be there. He urged us on, and the last of our group boarded the panga with five minutes to spare after a truly exhilarating afternoon!

Ahead of us was the long overnight voyage back to the main group of islands. I wondered if anything could match the experiences we had here, but our next island, Santa Fe, was to provide delights of its own …

Much of the wildlife mentioned above is described in more detail in my previous entries on the animals and bird life of the islands.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals birds islands snorkelling galapagos ecuador sea_lions albatross Comments (4)

The early bird ...

Ecuador day sixteen


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Santa Fe

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View of the bay from the trail

Known also by the English name of Barrington, Santa Fe is one of the smaller islands at just 24 km square, and has a single visitor site with a wet landing. Unlike many of the other islands, it is relatively flat, having been formed by an uplift of land rather than a volcanic eruption, about four million years ago.

We arrived here after an overnight voyage from far-flung Española and anchored off the sands of Barrington Bay. This is the only visitor site on Santa Fe, and is considered one of the most beautiful coves in the Galápagos, with its white sand and turquoise waters sheltered by a line of rocks and islets offshore. The Angelito, like all the cruise boats that visit here, anchored some distance off shore because of that line of rocks, and the panga ride in was a lovely one.

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Fabian on the beach

We made a wet landing on the beach, and had to be careful as we arrived, as the Galápagos sea lion colony here was patrolled by a large and noisy bull. We gave him a wide berth as we waded ashore, walked up the sand and sat on a convenient rock to dry off our feet and slip into the trainers that are recommended for the trail here. I was later to see him a rather closer distance when snorkelling in the bay, and it was clear that he had been in more than a few fights!

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Sea lion pup

Once we had all dried off, and put on trainers if we hadn’t landed in sandals, we turned our attention to the activity on the beach. We had landed early, at around 7.00 am, well before those from either of the other two boats moored in the bay, so had the beach to ourselves. As usual we were immediately drawn to the various Galápagos sea lions relaxing on the sand. The noisy bull who had taken such an interest in our arrival was now guarding his harem from just off-shore.

We soon spotted one female who was further up the beach, almost among the salt bushes that line the beach. Moving closer we saw that she had a new-born sea lion pup; she was still blooded from the birth and the placenta was lying on the sand nearby.

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Mother and new-born baby

Our “David Attenborough moment”

As we watched, we spotted a couple of juvenile Galápagos hawks circling the area and landing in the nearby trees, and more soon arrived. They sat there for a while, eyeing up this “treat”, and perhaps each waiting for another to make a move, or for the mother to be sufficiently distracted. Eventually one of the hawks dived in to grab the placenta, and they were soon all fighting over it, devouring it with great relish.

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Snatching, and fighting over, the placenta

I was able to get a short video of all the commotion, and to get some good action shots using the motor drive on my camera – luckily it was running at the critical moment when one snatched the 'treat'. Once the meal was over they retreated to the trees, presumably to rest and digest, and we were able to get very close for more photos, even capturing the blood that still lingered on their hooked beaks. They seemed totally unfazed by their human audience, even seeming to pose for photos with us. Definitely one of my most memorable Galápagos experiences!

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Posing with a hawk!

The Galápagos hawk is the only hawk to be found here and is endemic. It is found throughout the archipelago but not in great numbers, and is considered under threat. One estimate puts the current population of mating pairs as low as 150. The adults are a dark brownish black, with darker heads and paler tails and under-wings. They have brown eyes, grey beaks, and yellow legs and feet. The juveniles are a mottled brown, which becomes darker as they grow older. This mottled effect gives them excellent camouflage when small and vulnerable.

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Galápagos hawks

After this, our short walk through the opuntia forest, though pleasant and interesting, was perhaps always going to be something of an anti-climax, but nevertheless we went in search of land iguanas.

Land iguanas on Santa Fe

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Santa Fe endemic land iguana

From the small beach we took the short loop trail through the opuntia forest on the headland to the north, overlooking beach and bay. This trail is just 800 metres long and rated easy/moderate; it was a relaxing walk after our longer hike on Española the previous afternoon.

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Opuntia with land iguana

Santa Fe is known for its own endemic species of land iguana, which is larger than those found on the other islands in the archipelago. They are also paler than elsewhere, being beige or milk chocolate in colour, and have more pronounced spines along the back. It is not clear how this species of iguana has evolved, but there are apparently fears that it may be slowly dying out, as it is becoming rarer and rarer to spot a Santa Fe land iguana these days. I read on one website, which seemed to be targeted at naturalist guides rather than visitors, “Warn your tourists that they might not see any”. Fabian didn’t give us any such warning however, and maybe he knew what he was doing, as we certainly did see some, though not as many as on some other islands.

The trail winds through the extensive opuntia forest, which has the tallest trees in the archipelago, up to ten metres tall. This is not a coincidence – if the land iguanas are larger, the trees must grow taller to keep their fruit out of reach. And 'gigantism', as it is known, is a well-known feature of remote oceanic islands such as these, most usually attributed to the lack of large mammalian predators. These huge cacti certainly make for a dramatic landscape here, with the sea glimpsed between and below them, and the occasional land iguana dozing or eating the prickly pears at the feet of their sturdy trunks.

Snorkelling off Santa Fe

The second part of our morning here was devoted to snorkelling. I had been in two minds whether to join the group, as I was finding getting into the panga afterwards a bit of a challenge, and there was no option here to swim to the beach. But I decided to join the party, and it proved to be a great decision!

We were joined in our swim by a group of Galápagos sea lions, the females happy to play with us while the watchful alpha male who patrolled among them tolerated our intrusion but disdained to join the fun. They stayed with us for a long while, and I was really pleased to be able to capture some of their antics on my waterproof camera, both on video , and these stills, just before its battery ran out! The sea lions seemed almost to know what I was doing, as they repeatedly swam towards me, peered at the lens and flipped gracefully away again. I was so happy to be able to capture these images of what was to be our last snorkelling session in the Galápagos – a fantastic one to end with!

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Snorkelling with the sea lions off Santa Fe

Once we were all back on the Angelito enjoying our customary post-snorkelling snack, she set off towards the little Plaza islands (Norte and Sur) off the east coast of Santa Cruz, where we moored just before lunch …

Much of the wildlife mentioned above is described in more detail in my previous entries on the animals and bird life of the islands.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals birds islands snorkelling galapagos ecuador sea_lions Comments (2)

The last of our Galápagos Island landings

Ecuador day sixteen continued


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Plaza Sur

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Plaza Sur landscape

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Angelito moored off Plaza Sur

The two Plaza islands, North and South (aka Norte and Sur) lie just off the east coast of Santa Cruz. Both are uplifted islands, long and thin in shape, facing each other across a small bay.

We came to South Plaza on the last afternoon of our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito. It was the tenth island we visited, and before we landed I had thought that maybe I was “all island-ed out”, but yet again I was to be surprised by the variety of experiences the Enchanted Isles can offer.

We had arrived at the Plazas just before lunch, and the Angelito had moored between the two islands, of which only South Plaza can be visited (North Plaza being closed for scientific research). It is the larger of the two islands but only 0.13 km square, so a walk here gives you a sense of having seen a whole island rather than just a small part of one.

The panga took us across to the landing place as soon as we had eaten, and we made a dry landing on to a low stone jetty which led to a rocky shoreline. Here there was a stone obelisk indicating that this is part of the Galápagos National Park (as are all the islands and their visitor sites). There were several Galápagos sea lions on the rocks here, along with Sally lightfoot crabs and some swallow-tailed gulls. But we didn’t spend a lot of time here, and instead soon set off on the trail across the island.

This trail is a loop, 2.5 km in length and rated moderate, although I found it easier going than many others. It leads gently uphill from the landing place through a very striking landscape of rocky soil and brightly coloured vegetation. This is sesuvium or Galápagos carpet weed which is turned vivid shades of red by the arid conditions at the end of the dry season (like an ankle-high New England Fall). If you visit in the rainy season however, you will find it mostly green.

We encountered a number of male land iguanas here, of the same species of these that we had seen on our first island visit on North Seymour. Their bright yellow colouring really added to the impression I had of a landscape that was both dramatic and at the same time rather domestic, with the almost tame iguanas resting languidly under many of the opuntia trees.

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Land iguanas

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Landscape with land iguana

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The least bad photo of
a yellow warbler
I took all week!

Other wildlife that we saw on the trail included a yellow warbler, ground and cactus finches, several Nazca boobies and (near the shore) marine iguanas.

We looked out for, but didn’t spot, one of the unique cross-bred iguanas known as hybrids that can sometimes be found here, with (usually) a marine iguana as father and land iguana as mother. These are always sterile, so have not led to the evolution of a totally new species. It isn’t known why this cross-breeding only happens here on South Plaza and not on the other islands where both iguana species are found.

The island is only 130 metres wide so we soon reached the southern edge and turned east towards the cliffs.

On the cliffs

The trail climbs quite gently and on the far side of South Plaza emerges on top of a cliff, from where we had a wonderful view of the bird life of this island. Shearwaters were wheeling in the sky, heading straight for the cliffs and veering away each time just before touching them as if they had some sort of built-in radar.

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The cliffs of Plaza Sur

Frigatebirds were riding the thermals higher up, and a couple of pelicans dived for fish. But the most exciting for me, because it was my first really good look at one, were the red-billed tropicbirds that sailed past our vantage point from time to time. This is a beautiful sea bird, with its bright red bill and flowing tail. It is not endemic to the Galápagos Islands, being widespread across the tropical Atlantic, eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans, but that didn’t make seeing them so closely any less special.

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Red-billed tropicbird

Further along the cliffs we came to a colony of young male Galápagos sea lions, known as bachelors, that is well-established here. I was amazed to learn that they are able to climb these rocky cliffs quite easily, and thus to find refuge from the bossy alpha bulls or “Beach Masters”. Here they can chill out with their mates and refresh themselves before perhaps trying to fight one of the alpha males for the right to rule a beach.

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Bachelor sea lions resting on the cliffs

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And Angelito passengers doing likewise!

We rested here too for a while before following the loop trail back to our starting point, a little sad that our afternoon on the final island of our cruise was coming to an end.

End of cruise party

That evening there was a party on board the Angelito to mark the end of our time together. Not for this little boat the formality of the big cruise ships on such occasions, but instead a really friendly gathering with a buffet dinner for which the chef and his assistant pulled out all the stops! The chef carved some amazing animals and flowers out of all sorts of vegetables, cooked a great buffet dinner with a wonderful fish as the centre-piece, and made a farewell cake.

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Chef's assistant, chef and captain

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What a spread!

After the meal there was an impromptu concert on the rear deck, with some of our travelling companions providing the percussion and others treading the boards. More than a few beers were consumed, and we had a lovely evening to round off what had been an incredible week!

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Music from the crew

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Ryan joins in

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Sue dancing with Brian, while Geoff, Reto and Yolande look on

Tomorrow we would fly back to the mainland, although Fabian still had one more corner of the Galápagos to share with us …

Much of the wildlife mentioned above is described in more detail in my previous entries on the animals and bird life of the islands.

Posted by ToonSarah 13:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged people animals birds boats islands iguanas galapagos ecuador Comments (4)

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