A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about snorkelling

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)

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)

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)

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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