Ecuador day eleven
05.11.2012 - 05.11.2012
Sombrero Chino (taken from the Angelito as we left)
This was the second island we visited on our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito. It takes its name from its appearance – the profile of the island when viewed from the sea is very like a hat. It lies just off the south-east coast of Santiago, but although it is so centrally located in the Galápagos archipelago, it is one of the least visited sites. The Galápagos National Park Service restricts the number of visitors allowed here, because of its small size and the fragility of its lava rocks. We felt very lucky to have it included in our itinerary.
Angelito at her mooring, with Santiago beyond
Early in the morning after our first night at sea, at about 4.00, the Angelito left the sheltered spot where she had been anchored and headed here, arriving at 6.20. After an early breakfast we climbed into the pangas, and before landing in Sombrero Chino, Fabian and one of the crew steered them towards the shore of Santiago opposite.
Here we motored slowly along the shoreline, giving us a sea-level view of one of the most outstanding volcanic sites in the Galápagos. The lava here is very new in geological terms – only a little over 100 years. An eruption on Santiago caused a flow of lava to sweep eastwards down to the sea in the formation known as pahoehoe – a Hawaiian word, meaning "smooth, unbroken lava", which is used to describe lava that has a smooth, hummocky, or ropy surface. These surface features are due to the movement of very fluid lava under a cooling and congealing surface crust. Being so relatively new, it is black, rather shiny, and almost devoid of vegetation apart from cacti and the bright red Galápagos carpet weed or sesuvium. The latter changes its colour from intense green in the rainy season to orange and red in the dry season, which is when we visited.
The cacti we saw included the large candelabra cactus which is endemic to the Galápagos. Named for its shape, it resembles the organ pipe cactus of the Sonora Desert and can reach seven metres in height. We also saw lava cactus. This plant is often the first coloniser of new lava flows (hence its name) and its presence helps to start the breakdown of the rocks into soil that will eventually allow other plants to move in. They grow in clumps measuring up to 60 cm in height with soft furry spines. New growth on the cacti is yellow, and rather attractive, but as the cacti mature the colour fades, becoming first paler and then eventually a drab grey or black with age.
It was here that we saw Galápagos penguins for the first time, a lava heron and other sea-birds.
The Galápagos penguin is the second smallest penguin in the world and the only one to live north of the equator. It is mostly seen on the western islands, Isabella and Fernandina, neither of which were on our itinerary, so we were lucky to see some here (a couple of days later we spotted another, swimming just off the beach of Bartolomé). This group consisted of a couple of pairs and one juvenile.
Galápagos penguins nest in loose colonies in burrows or crevices close to the shore, breeding throughout the year depending on food availability, so you might be lucky enough to see a chick or juvenile at any time. They are considered a vulnerable species, and their numbers fluctuate between a few thousand and a few hundred, declining significantly after El Niño years when there is little or no upwelling of the Humboldt Current. Males and females are almost identical, although males are slightly larger than females. Their upper parts, flippers and face are black), with a white line running through the eyes, down the cheeks and across the throat. Their under parts are white with a black line across the breast and down the flanks. Juveniles are grey and lack the patterning of the adults. My photos were taken from a rocking panga so could be clearer, but you can see that the juvenile is on the left.
Penguin juvenile and adult
Landing on Sombrero Chino
The view from the beach
After our ride along the rocky shore of Santiago, the boats then crossed the channel to our main destination for the morning. The landing here is a wet one, on a small white sand beach. We waded ashore and sat on the rocks to dry off our feet a little and put on the trainers we had carried in our back-packs. It’s possible too, of course, to use waterproof sandals for such landings, but on the rocky trails of the Galápagos it’s quite good to have enclosed shoes at times, and Fabian always allowed plenty of “settling-in” time on each island so there was never a rush to get shod.
One thing that struck me while sitting here was the beautiful turquoise colour of the water. It made a wonderful setting to get some shots of the Angelito at anchor, especially with a sea lion or two to frame the view! In the background is Santiago, so you can see how close these two islands are.
On the beach
Once we were all ready, we started to look around, staying for the first part of our visit here on the beach. The first sight that greeted us here was a mother Galápagos sea lion and her new-born pup, which Fabian estimated was just a few hours old. We could see the blood on the sand where his mother had apparently dragged him to a more sheltered spot near the rocks, and on her body too.
There were quite a few other mothers and babies around on the beach. We watched one youngster as he struggled to reach his mother from his position on the rocks, and had to resist the temptation to help him! I made a short video of his efforts – you’ll be pleased to learn that he did make it eventually.
"Come to mother"
The same mother, however, then took exception to the new-born pup we had spotted earlier, which appeared to confuse her for his own mum (who was by now in the sea, washing herself clean after the birth) – or maybe she thought it was her pup. Either way, it got a bit too close for her liking. She then took a dislike to it and tried to knock it away, and it also seemed as if she might sit on it. We were really concerned for his safety for a while, but you aren’t allowed to interfere. In the end though Fabian did make a few little noises to distract her, and eventually she went back to nurse her own pup.
Mother with her own pup and interloper
The lava outcrops
From the beach the visitor trail leads west along the lava-strewn shoreline, so eventually we dragged ourselves away from the sea lions and set off on to explore. The visitor trail here is short (around 400 metres) and easy, mainly following the coast of the island. This coastline consists mainly of lava rocks, which are fragile in places, so it’s essential (as it is everywhere in the Galápagos) to stick to the trail. Only small boats are permitted to visit Sombrero Chino, to minimise the risk, and this meant that it was one of the few islands that we had totally to ourselves.
The lava here is pahoehoe, like that of nearby Santiago. As the pahoehoe cools the crust forms all sorts of weird shapes. Among them here are some small lava tubes (we were to see a much larger example later in the trip, on Santa Cruz). These tubes are caused when the exterior portion of a pahoehoe lava flow hardens while the lava inside continues to flow. Eventually the lava flow stops and the tube is left hollow.
Lava and Sally Lightfoot crabs
There were some lava lizards warming themselves on the rocks in the early morning sun, and a few marine iguanas well camouflaged on the black lava, but the most striking creatures were the large number of Sally Lightfoot crabs. It was our first close look at these colourful crabs and I took loads of photos here too! One of them appeared to be blowing bubbles (second photo below), and Fabian explained that this was a sign that he would soon discard his shell. Crabs have to do this from time to time as they outgrow them – basically the crab grows, but the shell, being rigid, does not! So the old shell is shed and a soft new one that has formed beneath it is then exposed to the air, where it hardens. For a short time though, while waiting for the shell to harden, the crab is very vulnerable.
Sally Lightfoot crabs on Sombrero Chino
At the end of the trail we reached a point where we had a great view of the waves crashing against the black lava. Here there were more crabs and some lava lizards. We then returned the way we had come, and back to the boat, as it was time for our first snorkelling trip off nearby Santiago.
Our first snorkel
As this was the first such outing, all of us who wanted to snorkel were first fitted with mask, snorkel, flippers and wetsuits. The first three items are provided free of charge on the Angelito but wetsuit hire cost us $25 for the week. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to wear one, having not done so before, but I soon got used to it and it certainly meant I could stay in the cool water much longer than I might otherwise have been able to do.
The pangas took us from the Angelito, moored in the centre of the channel between the two islands, to Sullivan Bay off the Santiago shoreline. We climbed over the edge and slipped into the water. I found myself wishing I could slide in more gently, as inevitably I went beneath the surface and my snorkel filled with sea water – ugh! I always find it hard to blow the water out as you should, but simply detaching it briefly and turning it upside down usually clears most of it, so I was soon sorted out and ready to explore.
For this first snorkel Fabian came in the water with us (on some of the later ones he stayed in the panga to come to the rescue of the less confident snorkelers in the group if needed – I think he must assess each group and decide what type of support is most needed). Our swim took us along the shoreline, and was a great introduction to snorkelling in the Galápagos. We saw:
~ Galápagos sea lions (although only at a little distance – they didn’t interact with us as they did later in the week at Santa Fe)
~ a marine iguana feeding underwater
~ a white-tipped reef shark
~ and numerous fish, including parrotfish, damselfish, starfish in a rainbow of colours, and many I couldn’t name
As it was our first snorkel I was still getting used to the new underwater-safe camera I had bought for the trip, and unfortunately the most exciting sightings (sea lions, marine iguana, shark) were near the start of the swim. I did get an indistinct photo of the shark however. And later as I got used to the camera and the environment (it had been some years since I last snorkelled) I started to get some better shots, as you can see.
By the way, there are several sharks that inhabit the waters around the Galápagos Islands – hammerheads, the endemic Galápagos shark, whale sharks, white- and black-tipped reef sharks. Of these, it is the white-tipped reef shark that you are most likely to see while snorkelling. And while the notion of swimming with a shark may seem scary, there is no need to worry, as this species is no threat to humans – they feed at night on small fish and are very docile. Nevertheless I won’t easily forget seeing that shark swim past me as I snorkelled in the Galápagos for the very first time!
Once we were all back on the Angelito it was nearly time for lunch, so we dried and dressed in our cabins and returned to the lounge to eat while motoring to our next island, Bartolomé …
Some of the wildlife mentioned above is described in more detail in my previous entries on the animals of the islands.