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Entries about iguanas

Of iguanas, sea lions and other beasts

Ecuador days ten to seventeen


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Animals of the Galápagos

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Land iguana on North Seymour

The Galápagos Islands are located 600 miles from the Ecuadorian coast in the Pacific Ocean. There are 14 large islands and 120 smaller islets and rocks. Their isolation from any other place has resulted in the evolution of many unique species of flora and fauna, endemic to the archipelago or even to just one island within it.

The islands have been formed through volcanic activity, due to a “hot spot” just the west of the group (under Fernandina). Eruptions here cause an island to form from the lava and rock emitted from beneath the sea bed. But rather than create one ever-growing island, made larger by each new eruption, the slow south-eastward movement of the tectonic plate on which they sit means that by the time of a subsequent eruption the island created by the previous one is some miles to the east, and instead a new one forms. Thus each island is on a slow journey south and east (moving at a rate of seven cm/year); those furthest on that journey, such as San Cristobal and Espanola, are the oldest, and those in the west, such as Fernandina and Isabela, much younger (in geological terms).

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Colours of the Galápagos - Isla Santiago and Isla Rabida

A keen geologist will be fascinated by the details, but for the rest of us the attraction lies in the vivid scenery that results from all this activity, and for me, above all the colours. A jumble of black lava boulders, the backdrop to a white coral beach. Or a black lava beach washed by a turquoise sea. Or again, on Rabida, dark red cliffs with dusty green opuntia clinging to them.

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Giant tortoise

And this dramatic scenery is the set for a multitude of living dramas, as the various animal species play out their lives under the gaze of mesmerised visitors. For the islands’ isolation has not only led to the large number of endemic species being present, but also to their tame and inquisitive nature. The Galápagos were never attached to any continent and the island chain's remote location made it impossible for large land mammals that usually dominate the food chain to make the journey to the here. The giant tortoise became the dominate animal on the land, and he is a herbivore, so no threat to the others. With this lack of natural predators, the wildlife of the Galápagos thrived in an Eden-like environment and never learned to be fearful of other species – even our own. Meeting these animals and interacting with them in their own environment is the true joy of a Galápagos holiday, so this blog entry is devoted to a description of the main ones we saw on a lot of the islands, while more about the most memorable of these encounters will follow in future entries describing the individual islands we visited.

Galápagos sea lion

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Sea lions at Gardner Bay, Isla Espanola

The first animals to greet us on almost every island were the sea lions. And I do mean “greet”. It often seemed that they had been lolling around on the beach or even the landing jetty just waiting for our arrival! This isn’t a scientific distinction, but for me they fell into four groups – adorable pups, languid and photogenic females, lively bachelor males, and the occasional bolshie alpha male throwing his weight about. The latter are best avoided, but all the others will allow you to come pretty close, and will often come closer still to you.

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Seal lion pup, North Seymour

The Galápagos sea lion is a distinct species, but closely related to the California sea lion. They are found on all the islands and number in the ten thousands. The females usually have just the one pup a year, though Fabian said twins are not unusual and he has once seen triplets! We saw several newborn pups, for example on Sombrero Chino and Española. The babies are nursed by their mother for about six months until old enough to fish for themselves, and most of those we saw were still at this stage, so stayed quite close to mum. Some were more adventurous though and were venturing along the beach or across the rocks. One such followed a few of us for some time at Gardenr Bay on Española, apparently mistaking us for family – so cute!

In addition to these large nursery groups we saw several of bachelor males (including on Isla Rabida and South Plaza). Male Sea Lions sometimes retreat to these so-called bachelor colonies to take a rest from the aggro of the alpha male. Once refreshed they may try themselves to take on one of the latter and to try to establish their own beach territory with several females, which they will then have to defend continuously from other bulls. These fights take their toll – most alpha males we saw were battle-scarred, and Fabian told us that their reign is often short (sometimes only a few weeks) as they grow weaker with each fight and are then more easily vanquished.

Galápagos fur seal

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Fur seal, Isla Genovesa

In addition to the Galápagos sea lions, which are everywhere in the islands, there are a smaller number of Galápagos fur seals. These too are an endemic species, and live mainly on the rockiest shores. They are smaller than the sea lions, and their fur made them a target for poachers in the past, although they are of course now protected and their numbers are growing again. They live in the greatest numbers in the western islands, Fernandina and Isabela, which we didn’t visit. They also tend to be shyer than their cousins! But although we weren’t lucky enough to see any while on any of the islands, we did see some on a couple of our panga rides, most notably off Genovesa when on our way to the dry landing at Prince Philip Steps.

The sea was quite rough here and it was difficult to hold the camera steady, so my photos were not as clear as I would have liked, but they do show the thick fur and distinctive whiskers.

Fur seals are part of the same “eared seals” family as sea lions, and differ from true seals in having small external ear-flaps. Their hind flippers can be turned to face forwards, and, together with strong front flippers, this gives them extra mobility on land – an adult fur seal can move extremely quickly if it has to. They also use their front flippers for swimming, whereas true seals use their hind flippers. Their scientific name is Arctocephalus, which comes from Greek words meaning “bear headed”, and it’s easy to see how they got this name.

Land iguanas

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Land iguana on Plaza Sur

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Land iguana eating opuntia ,
North Seymour

One of the largest animals you can see in the Galápagos are the land iguanas, which on some islands can reach over a metre in length. There are actually two species to be found here – Conolophus subcristatus on six of the islands, and Conolophus pallidus only on Santa Fe. The latter is often a paler yellow than the main species (hence the name, “pallidus”), and has more spines on its back. Charles Darwin described the land iguanas as “ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath, and of a brownish-red colour above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance.” however I have to say that I disagree with the famous naturalist, as I found them sort of cute, although probably only their mothers would find them beautiful!

All the marine and land iguana species in the Galápagos are thought to be descendants of a single species, the green iguana, which is native on the South American continent. Arriving probably on vegetation rafts to the isles, the green iguana, in order to survive, had to adapt to a new and different environment by evolving into two very distinct new species.

One of these, the land iguana, adapted to feed on the vegetation of the islands. Surprisingly perhaps, they prefer the prickly pear cactus or opuntia. This in turn has evolved, growing much taller than elsewhere in the world to be out of reach of the iguanas, but the latter simply stand on their hind legs to reach the pads and fruit. They have a leathery, tough tongue and don't need to remove the spines from the cactus before eating. The cactus forms about 80% of their diet and ensures that they get plenty of water even in the arid dry season such as when we visited.

Marine iguanas

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Marine iguana on Isla Espanola

The other main species of iguana that you will see on many of the islands are the marine iguanas, of which there are in fact seven sub-species, varying in size and colour. Most are black or dark grey but some have red colouring too, most notably on Española where the males have not only red but often green colouring too, which becomes brighter during the mating season – giving them the nickname of Christmas iguana!

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Marine iguanas,
Isla San Salvador

When the green iguana arrived here, some found themselves on islands where vegetation was sparse, and turned, through necessity, to the plant-life beneath the sea, and thus became the world's only sea-going lizard. They have developed a flattened snout and sharp teeth in order to feed on the algae on the underwater rocks. Their tail is flattened vertically like a rudder to help them swim and they have long claws to grip the rocks while feeding so that they don’t drift away.

Marine iguanas can stay submerged for up to ten minutes, before having to come up for air. When not feeding they are usually found sunning themselves on lava rocks, often in large groups and, as we saw in several places, even piled up on top of one another! Sometimes you will see them appear to sneeze, but in fact they are snorting to get rid of any excess sea salt with the help of special glands in their nostrils.

Lava lizards

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Lava lizard, Isla Espanola

The smallest of the reptiles we saw regularly on the islands were the lava lizards. There are seven species, and there is only ever one species on each island. All but the Galápagos Lava Lizard is found only on the island whose name they bear, whereas the former is found on many islands.

Lava lizards are smaller than the iguanas but nevertheless can grow to up to 30 cm in length (males – females are shorter), although the average is considerably less than that. They are found on all the major islands apart from Genovesa, and are the most abundant reptile on the islands. In all the species the females tend to be more colourful, with a red throat, but on Española the whole head is often bright red. Only the males have spines along their backs, and their colouring and patterns vary quite a bit between species, according to the landscape and environment of the islands, as they have evolved to blend in with their surroundings. They don’t blend in that well however!

Sally Lightfoot crabs

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Sally Lightfoot crabs, Isla San Salvador

These distinctive crabs can be seen all over the Galápagos, especially on the dark lava rocks, and they really catch the eye with their vivid orange and blue colouring. They are not endemic to the islands, being also found all along the Pacific coast of South and Central America. Nevertheless they seem to be one of the animals most associated with the Galápagos.

They are quite large (adults can grow to about 20 cm) and really stand out against those dark rocks, so you will spot them easily. They are harder to photograph than some of the other animals though, as they can move quite quickly at times. If you spot one that appears to be blowing bubbles from under the shell, as in my second photo, it’s an indication that it will soon be discarding its shell. The crabs have to do this periodically as they grow, because the shell doesn’t grow with them and becomes too small. So they shed the old shell and then have to stay in a sheltered, hidden spot such as a crevice in the rocks until the soft new one beneath it, now exposed, can harden. During this time they are very vulnerable and would make a tasty meal for a sea bird, hence the need to hide.

Also known more prosaically as red rock crabs, these are among the most beautiful of crabs. The colour can vary but is always bright, although the young are dark brown (for camouflage on the rocks). John Steinbeck, one of my favourite authors, wrote about them:

everyone who has seen them has been delighted with them. The very name they are called by reflects the delight of the name. These little crabs, with brilliant cloisonné carapaces, walk on their tiptoes. ... They seem to be able to run in any of four directions; but more than this, perhaps because of their rapid reaction time, they appear to read the mind of their hunter. They escape the long-handled net, anticipating from what direction it is coming. If you walk slowly, they move slowly ahead of you in droves. If you hurry, they hurry. When you plunge at them, they seem to disappear in a puff of blue smoke—at any rate, they disappear. It is impossible to creep up on them. They are very beautiful, with clear brilliant colours, red and blues and warm browns.

Sea turtles

As well as all the wildlife on the islands and in the air above, there is lots to see in the surrounding waters. You will some marine life from the boat and panga, but to see it at its best it is necessary to get into the sea with them – I loved our snorkelling sessions here.

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Sea turtle, Isla Espanola

The Galápagos Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas agassisi) is a subspecies of the Pacific Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas), and is the only turtle to breed on the islands. Nesting is between the months of December and June, and we were there in November – too early, although Fabian did point out one nest on the beach of Bartolomé, where we also saw a turtle swimming in the sea very close to the shore, his head poked above the waves. We saw several on our last morning too, on a panga ride in Black Turtle Cove, Santa Cruz. But the best place to see them is, as I said, in the water. There were several at our snorkelling site off the beach of Santiago, while my clearest encounter was in Gardner Bay, Española.

The Pacific Green Sea Turtle is listed as an endangered species and is protected from exploitation in most countries, including Ecuador. The Galapagos National Park authorities close certain beaches in the islands when it is nesting season for the Green Sea Turtles to protect the nests from tourist activity. However, the turtles are still in danger because of several human practices. Water pollution indirectly harms them as it threatens their food supplies, and many green sea turtles die caught in fishing nets. If you do find yourself on a beach with a turtle nest, as we did, your guide will point it out – be sure not to walk on it.

Some other animals, seen on only one or two of the islands, will feature in my future entries about our visits to those. Meanwhile though I will continue this overview of the wildlife of the Galápagos in my next entry, with a look at the islands’ birds …

Posted by ToonSarah 01:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals turtles islands lizards wildlife crabs iguanas galapagos seals ecuador sea_lions Comments (2)

Our first landing

Ecuador day ten continued


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North Seymour

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Taking photos on the beach

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The Angelito from North Seymour

As you can imagine, tourism to the Galápagos Islands is very strictly controlled. There are about 60 designated “visitor sites” which you can visit only with an authorised guide. You stick to a marked trail, leaving most of the island free for the animals to enjoy in peace. Some islands have only one visitor site, some have two and the larger ones have multiple sites. Each site is designed to showcase specific scenery, vegetation, and wildlife, although much of the latter can be seen at most locations. And each site will be designated as a “wet” or “dry” landing, depending on whether you have to wade ashore or can step directly on to land (usually a small stone jetty). Before each landing our guide, Fabian, told us what to expect and what footwear would be most suitable (“I recommend you tennis shoes” became something of a catch phrase!) Normally these briefings took place the previous evening but on this occasion we had just boarded the Angelito after landing at Baltra, so our briefing took place as we sailed.

North Seymour was the first island we visited on our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito, on the afternoon of our arrival day. Many cruises do this, as it is very near Baltra where most tourist flights arrive. And it’s a great introduction to the Galápagos! This is one of the smallest islands in the archipelago, less than 2 square kilometres. It is rather flat and was created by an uplift of land rather than, like many of the larger islands, being the eroded top of a volcano.

Landing on North Seymour

The landing here is a dry one, on lava rocks dotted with crabs. Even a small boat like the Angelito can’t moor directly at the island, so to cross to the island we took the pangas or small dinghies. We wore life-jackets every time for these short crossings, putting them on before getting into the dinghies and discarding them in the boat before stepping out on to the shore.

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Rocky shore near the landing place (with swallow-tailed gull)

Once on the rocks we all gathered around Fabian for a first introduction to the island, while the dinghies returned to the Angelito to await his call later to pick us up. This way the landing place is left free for any other groups arriving on the same island. Sometimes we did get an island to ourselves, but inevitably on others there would be more than one group there at a time, so we had to leave room for them to land. But Fabian was quite clever at making sure we didn’t get too caught up in other groups – for instance, we often went the opposite way round a loop trail so that we just passed them at one point!

The lava rocks

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Our first marine iguana

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Lava lizard, North Seymour

The trail on North Seymour is about 2.5 km in length and is rated as moderate/difficult, although as an inexperienced walker with a dodgy knee I didn’t find it too bad! It starts here on the lava rocks by the landing place. This rocky area was a good introduction to some of the wildlife of the Galápagos, as we saw our very first endemic species here, the idiosyncratic marine iguanas. These are the world's only sea-going lizard. They have developed a flattened snout and sharp teeth in order to feed on the algae on the underwater rocks, and can stay submerged for up to ten minutes, before having to come up for air. When not feeding, they are usually found sunning themselves on lava rocks, and this was how we first encountered them here on North Seymour.

We also saw swallow-tailed gulls here (endemic to the Galápagos), and lava lizards, as well as our first Galápagos dove.

On the trail

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Land iguana on North Seymour

From here we headed inland on a rocky trail which took us over mainly flat ground through a forest of grey palo santo trees and opuntia. This is where we saw our first land iguanas, and realised for the first time just how close we could get to the animals here.

There is an interesting story attached to the land iguanas here on North Seymour – a rare example where man’s interference in nature has proved to have a positive consequence. It is told fully in a Galápagos Online blog article, but to summarise:

In the early part of the 20th century neighbouring Baltra (also known as South Seymour) was home to numerous land iguanas, because of its plentiful supplies of opuntia or prickly pear cactus, their favourite food. In the 1930s the members of a scientific expedition noticed that, surprisingly, there were no land iguanas on North Seymour, despite it having even more vegetation. They had already been concerned to note that those on Baltra seemed to be suffering from starvation, so decided to move some to North Seymour. Such interference would normally be deplored, as introducing non-native species can have a disastrous effect, but it turns out to have been providential. In 1943 a military base was established in Baltra, and shortly after the end of the war land iguanas became extinct on that island. The reason for the extinction has been speculated for many years. The military personnel stationed here have been blamed for killing the iguanas for sport, but it seems more likely that the destruction of their natural nesting habitat, through the use of local sand etc. in construction, was to blame, and/or possibly workers from the mainland killing them for their skins.

Whatever the reason, by 1953 there were no more land iguanas on Baltra. The Baltra sub-species would have been extinct, were it not for the population by now thriving on North Seymour. In the 1980s the Galápagos National Park Service captured iguanas on North Seymour and brought them to the Charles Darwin Research Station for a breeding programme. In the 1990s these land iguanas were reintroduced to Baltra. Today Baltra has a healthy population of land iguanas that live happily alongside the military base and airport, but they also still remain and thrive on North Seymour.

Bird life

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Palo santo and blue-footed booby

This trail took us through an area full of blue-footed boobies, and also magnificent frigatebirds. I had been looking forward to seeing the former especially, as they seemed to me one of the symbols of the islands, so it was great to see them on this very first landing. Even more exciting, some of them had chicks! Lying so close to the equator, the climate in the Galápagos Islands is relatively stable, and many of the species that breed here do so year round. Here on North Seymour you are likely to see blue-footed boobies with eggs or chicks whenever you visit.

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Blue-footed booby & chick

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Blue-footed booby chick

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Magnificent frigatebird

But it was the magnificent frigatebirds that most attracted my camera – those bulbous red throat displays of the males are pretty hard to ignore! North Seymour is home to the largest nesting site in the archipelago of these well-named “magnificent” birds.

They were sitting in the bushes either side of our path, and many of the males were inflating their scarlet throat pouches, known as "gular pouches", to attract females to mate with them. We saw several groups each vying for the attention of a single female who happened to land in their tree – fascinating to watch and excellent subject-matter for our cameras!

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The female magnificent frigatebird -

Back to the coast

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Sleepy mother sea lion

After a while the trail looped round and returned us to the coast near where we had landed, but further west. The beach here is home to a colony of Galápagos sea lions. It was our first close look at these – and I mean close! We were still learning just how tame the wildlife here could be, and were thrilled at the photo opportunities. We spent a long while here, slowly making our way along the beach and stopping frequently to photograph yet another cute pup. The mothers too looked very photogenic in the golden light of late afternoon. Sea lions typically have just the one pup, and look after it carefully for the first six months of life, so here, as elsewhere on the islands, there were plenty of opportunities to observe the interactions between mum and baby.

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Mothers and pups

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Posing for Chris

As we walked back to our landing point the sun started to sink and we enjoyed some beautiful light for these last photos, with the skin of the sea lions almost golden in colour. There was a lovely sunset over the neighbouring island of Daphne Major. What a wonderful start to our explorations!

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Sunset from North Seymour

Evening on board the Angelito

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Relaxing in the lounge
Geoff and Simon

Once back on board we were able to properly settle into our cabins, before gathering in the lounge area for dinner. This was our first taste (literally!) of the excellent dining we were to enjoy all week – not fancy but very tasty and generous, and especially impressive given the small size of the galley. It was also a chance to start to get to know each other, which we did over a few beers from the honesty supply (note what you take from the bar on the sheet of paper pinned above it and the tally will be totalled at the end of the week). Fabian also delivered the first of his evening briefings, outlining the plans for the next day when we would visit two of the small islands that lie off Santiago – Sombrero Chino (Chinese Hat) and Bartolomé.

The Angelito spent most of the night moored off North Seymour, before sailing to Sombrero Chino in the early hours of the morning …

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 07:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises animals birds islands lizards iguanas galapagos ecuador sea_lions isla_seymour Comments (4)

The black island

Ecuador day thirteen


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Santiago

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The Angelito in James Bay

After an all night voyage from Genovesa we were back among the main group of islands, moored off one of the larger ones, Santiago (also known as San Salvador). We had been here a few days ago, snorkelling in the waters of Sullivan Bay on its south-east coast and exploring the shoreline in our pangas. Now we were in James Bay on the north-west side of the island, and for the first time would be landing on its black volcanic sands.

Of all the uninhabited islands in the Galápagos, Santiago (or San Salvador or James) is the one most affected by man’s ability to destroy nature. A combination of early 20th century salt mining, a brief attempt at colonisation and the introduction of several species (goats, pigs, donkeys, rats, and mice) has meant that Santiago’s wildlife and vegetation has in the past been severely compromised. But that is no reason not to visit.

In recent years, a programme of eradication has removed the goats, pigs and donkeys; the Charles Darwin Centre’s breeding programme has revived the giant tortoise population; and the vegetation is gradually being restored. But even without this good news, Santiago would still be worth visiting, I think, for the drama of its relatively young (just over 100 years) lava flows – in fact, this was to prove (somewhat unexpectedly) to be one of my favourites among the islands we visited.

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Near the landing place at Puerto Egas

At the southern end of James Bay lies Puerto Egas, our landing place. The landing here is a wet one, on to a volcanic black sand beach. One thing that struck me during our week in the Galápagos was the variety in the colour of the islands’ beaches – black here on Santiago, white on many others (e.g. Española, North Seymour and Sombrero Chino), yellow on Bartolomé, and even red on Rabida. Fabian explained that the dark colours, as here, soak up the sun’s heat and can become uncomfortable for the sea lions and other animals on a hot day, whereas the white beaches of many of the islands stay cool because they reflect the sun’s rays rather than absorbing them. When it is hot, therefore, you will see more sea lions on a white beach than on a black one.

However, we were here pretty early, at about 6.30 AM, and heat wasn’t a problem, so we were met as so often by a small welcoming committee of Galápagos sea lions. There were also a few blue-footed boobies on the low cliffs alongside the beach, some oyster-catchers and other sea birds.

We had brought snorkelling gear ashore, ready for a swim later, and we piled this up in a spot at the edge of the beach – no need to worry about leaving belongings here! Fabian pointed out the nearby manzanillo, also known as the "poison apple" tree. This is the only indigenous toxic plant in the islands. Touching the sap causes dermatitis, and eating the fruit can be lethal to humans, although giant tortoises can eat it and enjoy it. We were careful not to get too close!

Puerto Egas trail

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Altenanthera

We didn’t spend long on the beach and soon headed off on the trail. There are two possible trails here. One leads inland to the old salt mine workings, but we took the second, which leads along the coast to the area known for its dramatic rock formations and tide pools. This is a fairly easy two km walk, at first among opuntia (prickly pear) cacti. There were other more colourful plants too – the beach morning glory twined across the ground, and bright red splashes of altenanthera dotted the landscape, which here features brown layered tuff stone and black basalt volcanic rock that creates some weird and wonderful formations.

One of the most exciting sightings along this part of the trail was our first glimpse of a Galápagos hawk. We were to see more, and see them much more closely, later in the week, but for now this seemed pretty special!

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Galápagos hawk

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Scorpion on Fabian's sleeve

Another interesting sight was the scorpion that Fabian uncovered from beneath a small rock. He clearly knew exactly where to look as he only tried three rocks before finding one. And he “bravely” picked it up and put it on his sleeve so we could all get a close look and a photo or two! This is I believe the endemic Galápagos scorpion sub-species, which is despite its sting a favourite food of the lava lizards.

The lava rocks

After a while the trail brought us to an area of lava rock formations. This bizarre landscape of twisted black lava and hidden rock pools was one of my favourite sites in all the islands we visited.

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The rocky shore of Santiago

Much of the lava here is in the formation known as “pahoehoe”. This has an undulating, or ropy surface, caused by the movement of very fluid lava under a congealing surface crust. Unlike the “a’a” lava found elsewhere on the islands (and indeed elsewhere in Santiago), which is loose and broken, pahoehoe makes for interesting photos and a relatively smooth walking surface. Here at Puerto Egas it has created a series of pools and grottoes spanned by volcanic bridges, just like a fantastical black garden.

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Pahoehoe lava formations

This area is sometimes referred to as the “fur seal grottos” but we didn’t see any of these relatively elusive creatures here. But there was more than enough to keep us occupied for some time. In one of the pools three Galápagos sea lions were playfully enjoying the in-rushing sea water.

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Sea lions in a pool

There were lots of marine iguanas posing for our cameras too. As well as still photos, I took some videos, and was really happy that on one of these I was able to capture their curious habit of snorting out excess sea-water ingested as they feed underwater. They do this to deal with the excess amount of salt taken in, which is filtered out of the water through large glands in their noses before being disposed of in this manner.

This was the first place where we observed this behaviour closely, and also the first where we saw quite so many of these fascinating (to me anyway) creatures. They congregate in great numbers in places on the islands, and are quite happy to pile on top of each other for warmth and security. Sitting on the jagged-edged rocks of this other-world landscape, eye-balling a marine iguana, must be one of the quintessential Galápagos experiences.

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Marine iguanas

I also made a short video of a sea lion pup here, making his way over the rocks to the sea. There were lots of brightly-coloured Sally Lightfoot crabs standing out clearly against the dark rocks, as did a pretty (but too lively to photograph) yellow warbler. We also saw several oyster-catchers and other shore birds such as whimbrels and turnstones.

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Sally lightfoot crabs on Santiago

I would happily have stayed here even longer than we did, but a snorkelling session needed to be fitted in before lunch, so we eventually tore ourselves away and headed back along the trail the way we had come.

Snorkelling in James Bay

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Our snorkelling here was directly from the beach at Puerto Egas. We had brought all our gear when we landed first thing in the morning for our walk on the trail to the fur seal grottos, and worn swimwear under our shorts etc., so it didn’t take too long for us to pull on the wetsuits, flippers and masks/snorkels. Swimming from the beach meant we could all do our own thing and go at our own pace, though Fabian made some recommendations about good areas to check out. I headed for some rocks to the left of the beach, as did several others. On the way, I swam through a shoal of beautiful small silvery fish that sparkled in the sun that filtered down through the water.

When I reached the rocks, I found that they were green with algae and the sea floor strewn with rounded boulders, rather than the more jagged ones I had seen on the east coast in Sullivan Bay two days previously. Unfortunately, I swam here a little too slowly, or perhaps didn’t go close enough, to see some sea turtles that others in the group reported spotting there. But I was thrilled to get my first good look at a Galápagos sea lion underwater, as one female came right up to me and swam round me several times, although she didn’t stay to play as a group on Santa Fe did a few days later, and I was too excited to remember to take a photo of her! I also saw lots of fish around the rocks – damselfish, parrotfish, sea urchins and many that I couldn’t identify. It was a super end to our time on Santiago.

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In James Bay

After snorkelling it was back to the Angelito. As soon as we were all on board she set off for our next island, Rabida …

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 01:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals birds islands snorkelling fish crabs iguanas galapagos seals ecuador Comments (4)

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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