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Bird Island

Ecuador day twelve


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Genovesa: the furthest island

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Yolande and Reto at Darwin Bay

Genovesa, also known by the English name of Tower, is unusual among Galápagos Islands in having not a volcanic cone. Instead most of the volcano is submerged and surrounds an ocean-filled caldera on the south west side of the island. Due to its remote location and lack of fresh water the island was less visited in the past and has remained unaltered by man; there are no introduced species on the island.

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Our bunk beds

This was the fourth island we visited on our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito, and one of my favourites. The journey here is a long one, and consequently it remains less visited than some of the other Galápagos Islands. The small engines of some of the cheaper cruise boats cannot reach it in a comfortable amount of time, and the larger boats (over 40 passengers) are not able to enter the natural harbour formed by its caldera. But if you find an itinerary that includes this remote spot, go for it!

The downside of a visit to Genovesa is the long voyage needed to reach the island, as it lies at some distance from the centre of the archipelago. The Angelito sailed here overnight from Bartolomé, a journey of around seven hours, and the return trip to St James’ Bay, Santiago, was eight hours. The sea between the southerly islands and Genovesa is more open and exposed, and therefore can be rougher. We had been warned to expect this and to take seasickness precautions. I did take a pill before going to bed on both these nights, and whether because of this, or because it was not as choppy as it can get, had no problems at all – indeed, I rather enjoyed the rocking of the little boat when I woke in the night.

Genovesa is also one of just three main islands in the group that lie north of the Equator (the others being Marchana and Darwin, neither of which can be visited). Although we have crossed the equator many times, it has usually been in the air, so it was quite fun to think that we were doing so at sea level – but of course, being an overnight journey, none of us was awake and on deck to appreciate the moment!

We also missed our 6.00 AM arrival at Genovesa, which I would like to have seen as to moor here boats need to cross a shallow and narrow channel into the caldera in order to anchor at the base of the steep crater walls. The bay formed by this caldera is Darwin Bay. Both visitor sites are found here, and the one we went to first, in the morning, was a wet landing on the small beach that bears the same name.

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Darwin Bay - you can clearly see the caldera's shape, and sea lions in the foreground

Darwin Bay trail

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Graffiti

This 750m trail, rated as easy / moderate, starts on the beach and is at first sandy and later over rocky lava. Near the start, on the cliffs lining the beach, we saw swallow-tailed gulls nesting, some with chicks. We were surprised to see some graffiti on those cliffs, as the Galápagos Islands are so strictly protected. But Fabian explained that this is regarded as part of the human history of the islands, a record of earlier visitors here who didn’t have our modern-day awareness of the damage they were causing.

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Swallow-tailed gull and opuntia

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Mockingbird bauri

Another bird we saw on the beach was one of the six sub-species of Galápagos mockingbird, the bauri, which is endemic to Genovesa, as well as various Galápagos finches. There were also a few Galápagos sea lions, although not as many as on some of the other beaches we visited.

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Booby feet

After taking our photos on the beach we headed away from it to walk among the red mangrove and palo santo trees, in every one of which (or so it seemed to me) several red-footed boobies were nesting, and (again, so it seemed) posing for our cameras. Many of them had soft fluffy white chicks, and they seemed to be among the least fearful of all the birds we saw in the Galápagos, and as gently curious about us as we were about them. I took so many photos as it seemed that in every tree there was a red-footed booby more engaging and even closer to me than in the previous one! They are also among the most photogenic of Galápagos birds, with their bright blue bills, pretty pink and turquoise colouring around the eye (“I like the eye-shadow”, was my Dad’s comment later when he saw my photos!), soft brown plumage and red feet. The latter are worth a close look – not only for their vivid colour but also for their amazing prehensile quality – look at my close-up to see how they grip the branch of the tree.

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Red-footed boobies

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Red-footed booby chick

Further along the trail between the mangrove trees it was great frigatebirds that proliferated, mainly juveniles with those comical ginger hair-dos, and fluffy chicks. I imagine that many of the adults were at sea looking for food for the young – great frigatebirds care for and feed their young for up to two years.

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Great frigatebird chick

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Juvenile great frigatebird

Behind the beach at Darwin Bay, the trail through the mangrove trees is interspersed with more open stretches beside a series of sheltered tide pools set into a rocky outcrop.

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The tide pools

The trail winds in and out of the trees, and the stretches in this more open environment offer opportunities to see some different species. Among these we saw several yellow-crowned night herons, both juveniles and adults, stalking the rocks or tucked into the crevices in the low cliffs that surround them. Nesting on these outcrops were lots more swallow-tailed gulls. I enjoyed watching how affectionate the pairs seemed with each other.

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Yellow-crowned night herons, juvenile on the left

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An affectionate pair

There were also some marine iguanas here. These are the smallest marine iguanas in the archipelago, and the only reptile to live on Genovesa – there are no land iguanas or lava lizards here.

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Marine iguana

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Lunch on board

After we returned to the boat there was an opportunity for snorkelling in the caldera but I decided to spend some time relaxing on deck and catching up with my journal – not a bad decision as it turned out, as visibility was poor and those who went said that it was the least good of all the snorkelling sessions of our week on the Angelito. We also had our usual excellent lunch on board – even though we were spending all day at this one island, park rules prohibit taking any food or drink other than water ashore so picnicking is out of the question!

Prince Philip Steps

Our afternoon landing was at Prince Philip Steps (also known as El Barranco), where a steep but short climb leads to a trail across the cliffs. On the way there we took a panga ride along the cliffs that surround the caldera. We saw a lava heron poking around among the jagged rocks, and some Galápagos sea lions sleeping here, but the most exciting sight was of a small group of Galápagos fur seals who make their home here. This was our first clear sighting of these and a good chance to appreciate the differences between them and their cousins, the sea lions.

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Galápagos fur seal

Arriving at the foot of the steps we made the usual transfer from panga to dry land – life-jackets off and passed to the stern, step off one at a time, from alternate sides of the boat to maintain balance, and move forwards quickly to let the next person off behind you. The slight challenge here was the last part of the operation. We were faced with the steep and uneven stairs cut into the rock, and although there was a (slightly wobbly) hand-rail to grasp, the large size of a couple of the steps meant that some of us took them a little slower than our usual pace.

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Short-eared owl

Add to this the wish to stop and take photos as we climbed, and you will understand that Fabian had to chivvy us along at this point! Just the same, we were all soon at the top, 25 metres higher than the landing point, and ready to set out on the trail.

Prince Philip Steps take their name from the visit by Britain’s Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, in the 1960s. They are also known by the Spanish name of El Barranco. Once at the top of the steps you are at the start of a 2 km trail, rated as moderate. It passes at first through a palo santo forest typical of the arid zone of the Galápagos Islands.

One of the first things we saw, very near the top of the steps, was a short-eared owl. Even Fabian was surprised! He said he had been counting on being able to point some out near the end of the trail, but not at this spot.

But mainly here it was the Nazca boobies that most engaged my photographic efforts. While the red-footed boobies we had seen in the morning nest in the mangrove trees, the Nazca boobies prefer the ground. They have different breeding seasons on the different islands, but here on Genovesa it is August to November. Many of them had chicks of different ages, from scrawny new-borns to larger balls of fluff.

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Nazca boobies with new-born chicks

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Close-up of a chick

Other pairs were yet to produce their young, and were either guarding eggs (Nazca boobies lay two) or even still in the courtship stage, building their nests.

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Nazca booby and eggs

I made a short video of one pair engaging in a rather lackadaisical courtship and of a very baby chick. You can see some finches in the background and hear Fabian speculating about the species, as we all did so often!

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Fabian demonstrating the scent of "holy stick"

We also saw more red-footed boobies here, and Galápagos doves. Fabian pointed out how the spines of the opuntia cactus here have softened through evolution, thus allowing the Galápagos dove to reach the pads more easily and to pollinate the flowers. This is a result of the lack of bees on this remote island that would normally perform this function. He also broke a palo santo stick to demonstrate the scent that gives it its alternative names of Holy Stick or the Jerusalem Tree.

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Palo Santo

Eventually the forest started to thin out and we emerged on to a more open plateau. This is a broad lava field that stretches towards the north shore of the island. Here we saw more Nazca boobies nesting, mainly still quite close to the trees. We followed the path through the scrubby vegetation towards the cliffs. Birds were swooping overhead – frigatebirds, swallow-tailed gulls and others. We also saw storm petrels. The petrels here, wedge-rumped storm petrels, are unique among petrels in flying so much during the day. They only return to their nests in the evening in an effort to avoid their predators.

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Birds above the lava fields

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Geoff and Sue on the trail

We were excited to see the birds' main predator, the short-eared owl, also flying past. Owls on the Galápagos Islands are not nocturnal so it is not unusual to see them in broad daylight like this, but for us it was amazing to watch them hunting in the middle of the afternoon! Fabian explained that with few competitors for prey and no real threats, they are free to hunt by daylight, unlike elsewhere in the world. However they do tend to feed nocturnally in areas where the Galápagos hawk is present - unsurprisingly!

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Short-eared owl

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He's spotted us!

The short eared owl is a medium sized owl averaging 34 – 43 cm in length. It has large eyes, a big head, short neck and broad wings. Its plumage is mottled tawny to brown with a barred tail and wings, and a streaked breast. Its beak is short, strong, hooked and black, and its eyes yellow. Those seen here in the Galápagos belong to an endemic subspecies, Asio flammeus galapagoensis.

We returned to the landing place at Prince Philip Steps by the same route and were back on board the Angelito in plenty of time for dinner, before casting off for the long journey back to the main group of islands and our next destination, Santiago …

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 animals birds islands galapagos ecuador Comments (6)

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 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)

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)

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