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Entries about sea lions

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)

A small Chinese Hat

Ecuador day eleven


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Sombrero Chino

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Sombrero Chino (taken from the Angelito as we left)

This was the second island we visited on our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito. It takes its name from its appearance – the profile of the island when viewed from the sea is very like a hat. It lies just off the south-east coast of Santiago, but although it is so centrally located in the Galápagos archipelago, it is one of the least visited sites. The Galápagos National Park Service restricts the number of visitors allowed here, because of its small size and the fragility of its lava rocks. We felt very lucky to have it included in our itinerary.

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Angelito at her mooring, with Santiago beyond

Early in the morning after our first night at sea, at about 4.00, the Angelito left the sheltered spot where she had been anchored and headed here, arriving at 6.20. After an early breakfast we climbed into the pangas, and before landing in Sombrero Chino, Fabian and one of the crew steered them towards the shore of Santiago opposite.

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Shoreline of Santiago

Here we motored slowly along the shoreline, giving us a sea-level view of one of the most outstanding volcanic sites in the Galápagos. The lava here is very new in geological terms – only a little over 100 years. An eruption on Santiago caused a flow of lava to sweep eastwards down to the sea in the formation known as pahoehoe – a Hawaiian word, meaning "smooth, unbroken lava", which is used to describe lava that has a smooth, hummocky, or ropy surface. These surface features are due to the movement of very fluid lava under a cooling and congealing surface crust. Being so relatively new, it is black, rather shiny, and almost devoid of vegetation apart from cacti and the bright red Galápagos carpet weed or sesuvium. The latter changes its colour from intense green in the rainy season to orange and red in the dry season, which is when we visited.

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Candelabra cacti

The cacti we saw included the large candelabra cactus which is endemic to the Galápagos. Named for its shape, it resembles the organ pipe cactus of the Sonora Desert and can reach seven metres in height. We also saw lava cactus. This plant is often the first coloniser of new lava flows (hence its name) and its presence helps to start the breakdown of the rocks into soil that will eventually allow other plants to move in. They grow in clumps measuring up to 60 cm in height with soft furry spines. New growth on the cacti is yellow, and rather attractive, but as the cacti mature the colour fades, becoming first paler and then eventually a drab grey or black with age.

It was here that we saw Galápagos penguins for the first time, a lava heron and other sea-birds.

Galápagos penguin

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Chris with the penguins

The Galápagos penguin is the second smallest penguin in the world and the only one to live north of the equator. It is mostly seen on the western islands, Isabella and Fernandina, neither of which were on our itinerary, so we were lucky to see some here (a couple of days later we spotted another, swimming just off the beach of Bartolomé). This group consisted of a couple of pairs and one juvenile.

Galápagos penguins nest in loose colonies in burrows or crevices close to the shore, breeding throughout the year depending on food availability, so you might be lucky enough to see a chick or juvenile at any time. They are considered a vulnerable species, and their numbers fluctuate between a few thousand and a few hundred, declining significantly after El Niño years when there is little or no upwelling of the Humboldt Current. Males and females are almost identical, although males are slightly larger than females. Their upper parts, flippers and face are black), with a white line running through the eyes, down the cheeks and across the throat. Their under parts are white with a black line across the breast and down the flanks. Juveniles are grey and lack the patterning of the adults. My photos were taken from a rocking panga so could be clearer, but you can see that the juvenile is on the left.

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Penguin juvenile and adult

Landing on Sombrero Chino

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The view from the beach

After our ride along the rocky shore of Santiago, the boats then crossed the channel to our main destination for the morning. The landing here is a wet one, on a small white sand beach. We waded ashore and sat on the rocks to dry off our feet a little and put on the trainers we had carried in our back-packs. It’s possible too, of course, to use waterproof sandals for such landings, but on the rocky trails of the Galápagos it’s quite good to have enclosed shoes at times, and Fabian always allowed plenty of “settling-in” time on each island so there was never a rush to get shod.

One thing that struck me while sitting here was the beautiful turquoise colour of the water. It made a wonderful setting to get some shots of the Angelito at anchor, especially with a sea lion or two to frame the view! In the background is Santiago, so you can see how close these two islands are.

On the beach

Once we were all ready, we started to look around, staying for the first part of our visit here on the beach. The first sight that greeted us here was a mother Galápagos sea lion and her new-born pup, which Fabian estimated was just a few hours old. We could see the blood on the sand where his mother had apparently dragged him to a more sheltered spot near the rocks, and on her body too.

There were quite a few other mothers and babies around on the beach. We watched one youngster as he struggled to reach his mother from his position on the rocks, and had to resist the temptation to help him! I made a short video of his efforts – you’ll be pleased to learn that he did make it eventually.

"Come to mother"

The same mother, however, then took exception to the new-born pup we had spotted earlier, which appeared to confuse her for his own mum (who was by now in the sea, washing herself clean after the birth) – or maybe she thought it was her pup. Either way, it got a bit too close for her liking. She then took a dislike to it and tried to knock it away, and it also seemed as if she might sit on it. We were really concerned for his safety for a while, but you aren’t allowed to interfere. In the end though Fabian did make a few little noises to distract her, and eventually she went back to nurse her own pup.

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Mother with her own pup and interloper

The lava outcrops

From the beach the visitor trail leads west along the lava-strewn shoreline, so eventually we dragged ourselves away from the sea lions and set off on to explore. The visitor trail here is short (around 400 metres) and easy, mainly following the coast of the island. This coastline consists mainly of lava rocks, which are fragile in places, so it’s essential (as it is everywhere in the Galápagos) to stick to the trail. Only small boats are permitted to visit Sombrero Chino, to minimise the risk, and this meant that it was one of the few islands that we had totally to ourselves.

The lava here is pahoehoe, like that of nearby Santiago. As the pahoehoe cools the crust forms all sorts of weird shapes. Among them here are some small lava tubes (we were to see a much larger example later in the trip, on Santa Cruz). These tubes are caused when the exterior portion of a pahoehoe lava flow hardens while the lava inside continues to flow. Eventually the lava flow stops and the tube is left hollow.

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Lava and Sally Lightfoot crabs

There were some lava lizards warming themselves on the rocks in the early morning sun, and a few marine iguanas well camouflaged on the black lava, but the most striking creatures were the large number of Sally Lightfoot crabs. It was our first close look at these colourful crabs and I took loads of photos here too! One of them appeared to be blowing bubbles (second photo below), and Fabian explained that this was a sign that he would soon discard his shell. Crabs have to do this from time to time as they outgrow them – basically the crab grows, but the shell, being rigid, does not! So the old shell is shed and a soft new one that has formed beneath it is then exposed to the air, where it hardens. For a short time though, while waiting for the shell to harden, the crab is very vulnerable.

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Sally Lightfoot crabs on Sombrero Chino

At the end of the trail we reached a point where we had a great view of the waves crashing against the black lava. Here there were more crabs and some lava lizards. We then returned the way we had come, and back to the boat, as it was time for our first snorkelling trip off nearby Santiago.

Our first snorkel

As this was the first such outing, all of us who wanted to snorkel were first fitted with mask, snorkel, flippers and wetsuits. The first three items are provided free of charge on the Angelito but wetsuit hire cost us $25 for the week. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to wear one, having not done so before, but I soon got used to it and it certainly meant I could stay in the cool water much longer than I might otherwise have been able to do.

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Poor photo of
white-tipped reef shark

The pangas took us from the Angelito, moored in the centre of the channel between the two islands, to Sullivan Bay off the Santiago shoreline. We climbed over the edge and slipped into the water. I found myself wishing I could slide in more gently, as inevitably I went beneath the surface and my snorkel filled with sea water – ugh! I always find it hard to blow the water out as you should, but simply detaching it briefly and turning it upside down usually clears most of it, so I was soon sorted out and ready to explore.

For this first snorkel Fabian came in the water with us (on some of the later ones he stayed in the panga to come to the rescue of the less confident snorkelers in the group if needed – I think he must assess each group and decide what type of support is most needed). Our swim took us along the shoreline, and was a great introduction to snorkelling in the Galápagos. We saw:
~ Galápagos sea lions (although only at a little distance – they didn’t interact with us as they did later in the week at Santa Fe)
~ a marine iguana feeding underwater
~ a white-tipped reef shark
~ and numerous fish, including parrotfish, damselfish, starfish in a rainbow of colours, and many I couldn’t name

As it was our first snorkel I was still getting used to the new underwater-safe camera I had bought for the trip, and unfortunately the most exciting sightings (sea lions, marine iguana, shark) were near the start of the swim. I did get an indistinct photo of the shark however. And later as I got used to the camera and the environment (it had been some years since I last snorkelled) I started to get some better shots, as you can see.

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By the way, there are several sharks that inhabit the waters around the Galápagos Islands – hammerheads, the endemic Galápagos shark, whale sharks, white- and black-tipped reef sharks. Of these, it is the white-tipped reef shark that you are most likely to see while snorkelling. And while the notion of swimming with a shark may seem scary, there is no need to worry, as this species is no threat to humans – they feed at night on small fish and are very docile. Nevertheless I won’t easily forget seeing that shark swim past me as I snorkelled in the Galápagos for the very first time!

Once we were all back on the Angelito it was nearly time for lunch, so we dried and dressed in our cabins and returned to the lounge to eat while motoring to our next island, Bartolomé …

Some of the wildlife mentioned above is described in more detail in my previous entries on the animals of the islands.

Posted by ToonSarah 02:00 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals snorkelling fish sharks underwater crabs galapagos ecuador sea_lions Comments (8)

It's all about the view

Ecuador day eleven continued


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Bartolomé

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Bartolomé is the most visited and most photographed island in the Galapagos. It was one of the islands I had most wanted to include in our itinerary, as it is generally recognised as having the best views in the archipelago. This view from the top of its peak is the must-have shot.

This was the third island we visited on our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito. Despite being keen to include it on our itinerary, it proved not to be one of my very favourite islands, as a combination of a relative lack of wildlife with which to interact, and relatively dull weather which failed to bring out the perspectives of this striking landscape, meant that Bartolomé didn’t make my “top five” list after all. But that is not to say it isn’t well worth visiting – there are no bad destinations in the Galápagos!

Landing on Bartolomé

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View from the landing place

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Stepping ashore

The landing here is a dry one, and as you can see in the photo, we had someone to meet us as we set foot on the island! This is Geoff trying not to step on any stray flippers ;-) The stone steps are very even and easy to walk on – I think they must be fairly new.

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Sea lion bones

If you look at what’s going on in the panga you can see our usual dry landing routine – the boat would pull in close to the landing spot, we would take off our life jackets and pass them to the back of the boat, and a crew member or Fabian would be on hand at the bow to help us out – one at a time, from alternate sides of the boat for balance, and using the recommended secure grip which is easy to do but hard to describe! This is the second panga arriving (I was on the first) and as soon as all of us were on shore we started the climb to the summit.

But as we did so there was something interesting to distract us beside the path. Another guide had arranged the bones of a long-dead Galápagos sea lion in a rough approximation of their arrangement in life. The bleached white bones looked rather striking on the dark ground, and it also gave us an opportunity to see the shape of the skull, the broad strong shoulder blades, and some of the bones of the flippers.

Once we’d had a good look and Fabian had explained some details of the skeleton, we set off.

The trail to the summit

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Our group on the trail

Bartolomé consists of an extinct volcano and a variety of red, orange, green, and glistening black volcanic formations. It is the slope of this volcano that you climb to reach the viewpoint. The trail across the desolate landscape (rated as moderate) is on a boardwalk, which protects the fragile lava. Fabian mentioned that there is talk of introducing boardwalks on other islands for the same reason – maybe eventually all of them. I can see that this would certainly help with the conservation of these special landscapes, and would have other benefits too, making it harder for contrary visitors to wander off the permitted path, and also making the going underfoot a little easier for the less able walkers. But I can’t help feeling that a proliferation of raised wooden paths would detract considerably from the appearance of the islands and the experience of exploring them.

Anyway, back to Bartolomé. The boardwalk here alternates between some fairly even steps, some more shallow ones, and a few stretches without any steps at all, where you get a chance to catch your breath and admire the view. There are also a couple of points where you can detour to a viewpoint to the side of the path. There are 375 steps altogether and as I had been having a few problems with my knee I found it a little hard going, although not too bad if I took my time. The main challenge was trying to use my hiking pole to take the weight off my knee, as it kept wedging in the slats of the boardwalk! I could avoid this if I watched where I was placing it, but that meant missing the views and the striking scenery.

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Looking back down the trail

The landscape around you as you climb is rather desolate, especially on a dull day such as when we visited. The black lava, crumbled on the lower slopes and piled into bizarre formations such as spatter and tuff cones and lava tubes higher up, is enlivened with plants of the few species that thrive in this environment. The most striking and prominent is the lava cactus, which is often the first plant to colonise landscapes scarred by volcanic eruptions. You will also see the pale leaves of the tiguilia dotted over the dark volcanic sand. Its leaves are covered with small grey hairs, which help prevent moisture evaporation and reflect sunlight.

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Lava cactus and tigulia

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Typical rock and lava formations

There are very few animals here. We did see some lava lizards enjoying the warmth of the rocks, or even of the boards, and of course there were birds overhead, but not the proliferation of wildlife we had become accustomed to already on the other islands. The main point of this visit is not the walk and the wildlife, it’s the destination at the end of the trail.

The classic Galápagos view

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Bartolomé is 168 metres high, but the trail stops a little below this, at 115 metres. – although I am not sure if this is the height at the point where the boardwalk steps run out, or at the top of the stony slope that you can walk up to get a little higher.

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We made it!

Whatever the exact height, from this point you can see Pinnacle Rock, Bartolomé’s “trademark”, immediately below you, and beyond it, nearby Santiago and the black lava flows at Sullivan Bay, beyond that Daphne Major and Minor, and in the channel between here and there, some other smaller islets and rocky outcrops. Further away Santa Cruz, Baltra, North Seymour and Rabida are all visible. The contrast of white sand beach, green scrub-land behind it, volcanic island and blue sea is dramatic and memorable. It looked great even on a dull day, and photos I have seen show that on a bright one it is spectacular. It’s not difficult to see why this is the most photographed spot in the Galápagos!

We spent some time here taking photos and relaxing after the climb. Fabian offered to do “couple photos” for each of us and also did some trick ones for some people, creating the illusion that they were leaning on Pinnacle Rock – very clever, but I prefer the straight-forward version. This is such a magnificent view it doesn’t need any gimmicks!

After a while though it was time to descend and return to the Angelito. There was more to do here for the second half of the afternoon, and a choice of activities .

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View of Bartolomé from the Angelito

On the beach

After we returned to the Angelito Fabian offered us a choice of relaxing on board, snorkelling around Pinnacle Rock, swimming or spending time on the small beach. We chose the latter, along with two others of our group, and he came along with us, as tourists aren’t allowed here (or on most other visitor sites) other than in the company of a guide.

Snorkellers, swimmers and beach-goers all climbed into the pangas and headed for a wet landing on the beach. On the way we made a brief detour to explore the rocks around Pinnacle Rock. This is the very dramatic lava formation that features on so many photos of the Galápagos Islands. It was formed when magma expelled from the volcano reached the sea. The cold water reacted with the molten rock and caused it to explode. Particles splattered down in the shape of cone often known as a tuff cone or cinder cone, and fused together to create this huge rock which is in fact made up of many layers of these lava particles. You can get an idea of its size from my photo below - look carefully near the bottom right and you will see the other panga close to the rock.

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Panga ride off Bartolomé

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Pinnacle Rock with panga, and Galápagos penguin

The rock was used as a target for US airmen during World War II. More recently it has featured in the 2003 film, “Master and Commander.” I haven’t seen the film, but it was clear from Fabian’s comments about it that they took some liberties with the geography of the islands, making it seem as if certain places were on the same island when in fact they are not – but that’s so often the case with film-makers! He offered to play the DVD for us one evening on board but we never got around to it, so I plan to look out for it so I can see it some time.

From the panga we were able to see a few of the Galápagos penguins that make their nests here, having established a small breeding colony in a cave behind the rock. There were also some Sally Lightfoot crabs, although not in the large numbers we saw on some other islands.

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Beach on Bartolomé

At the beach we waded ashore, and while some went off to snorkel or swim, we had an enjoyable and relaxing time spotting a number of bird species, including a Galápagos penguin that swam up and down, parallel to the beach, right opposite where we were sitting. Other sightings included a great blue heron, pelican, yellow warbler, and a booby diving repeatedly for fish in their distinctively direct fashion. There were also some sleepy Galápagos sea lions, although not as many as on some of the other beaches we visited.

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Relaxing on the beach

Much of the time though we simply relaxed and chatted to Fabian and the others, and enjoyed the views of nearby Pinnacle Rock, before heading back to the Angelito for another great dinner and cosy evening on board.

Posted by ToonSarah 07:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged beaches animals islands volcanoes penguins galapagos ecuador sea_lions Comments (2)

Home of the waved albatross

Ecuador day fifteen


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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)

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