Wednesday, February 16, 2011

January 27th, Swimming in the Shark Den

Marine Iguana, Isabela Island, Galapagos

After an early breakfast, we hopped into our small fishing boats again and headed off on a day of snorkeling adventures. The water was smooth as glass for much of the trip, although there was a sturdy South swell hitting the islands.

Our first stop was a small islet about a mile out to sea. The rock was covered in guano and we saw some Blue-footed Boobies and Brown Noddies on the rocks, and a couple of inquisitive penguins in the water. We also spotted a few manta rays swimming near the rock, as well as some large Green Sea Turtles, which seem to be very abundant on this part of the island. Apparently, it is breeding season for the turtles, and they are congregating near the shore to breed and lay their eggs.

After another short trip up the coast, we finally arrived at our snorkeling destination. As we approached the shoreline, huge swells were breaking on either sides of us. The boat captains timed it right, waiting for a break in the surf, and gunned it towards shore, half surfing these giant waves. Once at the shore, they navigated a series of tight channels between lava cliffs and arches and showed us an inland spot among the mangroves where the turtles were congregating to breed.

We actually saw a couple of turtles breeding, and it honestly felt a little too intrusive to be back there disturbing them in their sensitive and important time of their lives. I feel that sometimes guides think that they are doing tourists a favor by taking them beyond the bounds, but in this case we could have easily done without this intrusive excursion. Once we navigated back out of the channels to a nice calm exterior location, we finally got into the water for some snorkeling and it was fantastic!

There were tons of turtles eating algae and swimming through the channels, as well as stingrays on the sandy bottom, huge schools of surgeon fish and striped bass, and I even saw a Whitetip Reef Shark swimming along the bottom. Students were also visited by a curious sea lion, which cruised the channels where we were swimming. Blue-footed Boobies and penguins perched on the rocky outcrops, and they seemed content to let us snorkel right up to them.

Blue-footed Booby

The water in this area had some colder currents than the last snorkeling spot, which may have accounted for the increase in fish and other wildlife.

After about an hour and a half of snorkeling, we hopped back into the boat to warm up and eat some lunch. Our next stop along the coast was an area known for sharks. Sure enough, our guide led us to a series of underwater arches and caves. In one cave, there must have been 15 Whitetip Reef Sharks resting on the bottom and a few others swimming loops through the cave.

Whitetip Reef Shark

It was a sight to behold! At first, with the glare of the sun, the sharks weren't visible. By heading into the cave and into the shade, and allowing your eyes to adjust to the darkness, the sharks slowly took shape and were illuminated by a green glow from a connecting channel on the other side of the cave. It had to be one of the coolest things I have ever seen while snorkeling.

After a long boat ride back, we spent the rest of the afternoon at a local tortoise hatchery. Unfortunately, on Isabela Island, the giant tortoises have been severely impacted by invasive ants, rats, goats, cats, etc, as well as a cultural practice of eating one tortoise per month. As a result, the tortoises aren't able to breed on their own in the wild. The hatchery breeds and raises tortoises from the island, including a flat-shelled type, and releases them back into the wild.

Giant Tortoise, flat shelled type


Newborn with egg

We were shown a demonstration of the incubating eggs, young tortoises of different ages, and the challenges the tortoises face on the island. Their recovery seems to be a tough task, however, as even those surviving in the wild are unable to repopulate on their own because of all the invasive species that target their eggs. This brings up a sad reality of these islands, in that our human presence, along with our favorite invasives in tow, are going to ultimately prove a difficult challenge for these sensitive island species. Even with the current immigration caps in place, they should never have allowed the human population in the Galapagos to reach 30,000. Unless something drastically changes, the local families, with 6 kids apiece, will eventually overrun these delicate islands.
I spent my last evening on the island walking the beach, snapping some last photos of the iguanas and shore birds, and reflecting on the wonder and magic of the Galapagos, as well as the challenges faced by it's unique wildlife.

Sanderling footprints

Marine Iguana, territorial display


Greater Flamingo


The islands offer incredible opportunities for viewing wildlife, and I have never been so up close and personal with such a wide variety of land and sea creatures. The lessons on evolution and speciation are all around and it is a neat opportunity to experience firsthand, the subjects of Darwin's revolutionary ideas. Unfortunately, examples also abound on the impacts of human colonization and habitation of wild places. With a rapidly increasing human population, transformed invasive plant communities, and many species already imperiled by natural pressures like El NiƱo events, I wonder how things will look when I visit next with my family. I truly hope we can rally to protect one of earth's greatest historical and natural treasures for generations to come.

Last minute fun in the sand

January 26th, Volcan Chico and Sierra Negra

Volcan Chico, Isla Isabela, Galapagos

We woke up this morning to a slight drizzle, an ominous start to a planned ten-mile hike to a volcano at the top of the island. But we boarded the bus anyway, and our new guide Wilmer assured us that rain doesn't last long on the islands. Our other guide Julio had twisted his ankle on an earlier trip and opted not to push his luck with the hike. We had a few injuries in the group, Max had sprained a recently broken foot about a week ago, and Brenda banged her knee on a coral head during our snorkel yesterday. Beyond that, we were a little concerned at the flimsy footwear of many of the students in the group, as we had been told we would be walking a few miles of the trip across a razor sharp new lava flow.

As we started up the road to the volcano, the mountains looked socked in. We passed from the arid lowlands, through a transitional zone of mixed cactus and deciduous trees, and into a full-fledged humid forest at higher elevation. Much of the area on the sides of the roads was being farmed, but the rules for the islands limit the extent of the farms to within a narrow band along the roads. When we reached the end of the road, we had passed above the forest line, into the pampa ecological zone, an area dominated by ferns and now invasive guava trees, which had completely taken over the landscape.

Invasive canid

Warm ups, led by Rachel

Luckily, the rain let up, and although the ground was wet and things were a little misty, we were incredibly fortunate to have a dry hike. We trekked along a muddy trail until we reached the top of a huge caldera, 12 km by 10 km in length. Our guide Wilmer talked about the formation of the Volcan Sierra Negra caldera and how during the last large eruption in 1979 the people of Isabela Island had been evacuated to nearby Isla Santa Cruz. The volcano also erupted as recently as 2005, but it wasn’t a major threat to populations on the island.

Volcan Sierra Negra

Jay and Keith, geology buffs

Mickey examines parasitic scale

As we continued our hike along the rim of the caldera, we were greeted by more friendly finches, including a Woodpecker Finch, who uses cactus spines to extract insects from rotting wood, a Warbler Finch, whose beak and feeding strategy of gleaning insects off of leaves is very much like a warbler, Small Tree Finches, and the friendliest yellow warblers yet, who were within inches of Rebecca, Teddy, and Shadee while they ate lunch.

Galapagos Flycatcher

Small Tree Finch

After a quick bite, we left our comfortable trail and descended into the last leg of the hike, which was about 2 km each way across newly formed a'a and pahoehoe flows. The landscape was very reminiscent of Hawaii, except for the 10 foot candelabra cacti dotting the older flow areas.

Old (red) and new (black) lava flows

Sulfur deposits

At the end of the hike, we came to a viewpoint above some sulfur vents where we could see both sides of the island of Isabela, as well as many of the neighboring islands, including Floreana to the West.

Energy to burn

Dr. B

Mustering our remaining energy, we started the long hike back, which was a real test of stamina for many, including myself. Although I consider myself an avid hiker and in fairly good shape, the soles of my feet were killing me by the time we finally made it back to the starting point. One saving grace was a brief rest while we enjoyed an intimate view of an amazingly tame Galapagos Hawk.

Galapagos Hawk

The entire journey took us most of the day, and we spent the remaining couple of hours before dinner body surfing out front of the hotel and looking for souvenirs in the local gift shops. Everyone got too much sun over the last few days, including myself. Those little areas, like on the backs of my ankles and the sides of my neck are hurting, and I may have to "borrow" a piece of Aloe Vera that I saw in a neighbor’s front yard.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

January 25th, Snorkeling With Penguins

Happiness is a warm lava rock - Marine Iguana, Isabela Island, Galapagos

Keith had seen some flamingos late yesterday, so this morning, he got me up early and we headed over to a nearby mud flat to check it out. We arrived at about 5:45 am, and it was barely light enough to see. Sure enough, we spotted about 10 healthy looking adults strutting around in the water, preening their feathers, and occasionally dipping their heads for food.

I finally got some good use of the big camera lens and tripod, which up until this point had been a lot of extra weight to lug around. As the sun slowly crept up, the lighting kept getting better and better, and before I knew it, I had burned through 308 photos! Yikes! Some editing is in order, but I think I got some nice shots. The pink feathers, combined with some nice reflections off the water were just too beautiful for words.
After breakfast, we split the group into four boats, and headed out to a nearby islet called Isla Tortuga.

The island is actually a half moon shaped crater, with the potential for some amazing snorkeling and diving. Unfortunately, the surf is up today (being a surfer, I never thought I would say that!) and the conditions were too dangerous for our group to get into the water.

Swallow-tailed Gull

Instead, we did a slow tour of the cliffs, where we got to see some amazing birds, including the endemic Swallow-tailed Gull (the only nocturnal gull in the world), some Blue Footed and Nazca Boobies, Red-billed Tropicbirds with their beautiful white streaming tail feathers, and hundreds of Frigatebirds, displaying with their red gular pouches and soaring overhead looking for fish to steal. With the largest wing span to body weight ratio of any bird, they are amazingly agile in the air, and relentlessly harass any bird with food in it's mouth, a form of kleptoparasitism, until they either give up their fish, or regurgitate whatever is in their stomach.


Nazca Booby Nests

After the tour, we cruised back to another small island of Tintoreras where we were able to approach some incredibly large and tame Marine Iguanas, and see some Sea Lions in the water and on the shore.

Sunbathing local

Beach Master

Lava Heron

We also saw some white tipped reef sharks in a natural channel, and were able to photograph them from above. After the hike, we cooled off with a nice snorkel session near Tintoreras. As I was hopping into the water, a huge Green Sea Turtle swam by the boat.

Green Sea Turtle

Soon after that, I was lucky enough to be greeted by a Galapagos Penguin. He bobbed at the surface for a few seconds, and I watched underwater as he dove and gracefully sped off and out of sight.

Galapagos Penguin

These guys are the second smallest penguins in the world, the only penguins north of the equator, and it is still amazing for me to see them on a tropical island. Later in the snorkel, I spotted a couple of Marine Iguanas feeding on sea lettuce. They seem pretty comfortable in the water and the guide told us he has seen them as deep as 45 feet and for as long as 30 minutes under water. Once out of the water, they sneeze any residual salt water out of their noses, which I experienced first hand when I got a little too close while taking some close up photos on land.

After the snorkel, we had a late lunch and headed off to the site of an old prison. After the US built a base here during WWII, the Ecuadorians turned the site into a prison encampment.

The guides showed us a large rock wall, called the wall of tears, built by the prisoners as a brutal form of punishment. Highlights for me were some nice lava lizards hiding among the rocks of the wall, and some friendly Darwin's Finches, Yellow Warblers, and Galapagos Mockingbirds.

Opuntia Cactus, lowland arid zone

Lava Lizard female

Hungry Yellow Warbler

I still can't get over how curious and fearless the wildlife is. Lots of nice wildlife shots to share!