March 23, 2011
There is one big problem with visiting the Galapagos Islands…there is so much to see, photograph, and do that there is no time to keep up with the blog. I have many interesting photos to post (the patient and obliging wildlife here make anyone look like a decent photographer and the volcanic scenery is amazing) but with no internet access on the boat on Islas Isabela or Santa Cruz and rather slow access on land here at Puerto Ayora more photos may have to wait until we get to Hawaii. I will write up the text from the last three weeks as we set off to Hawaii and will post it using the SSB radio.
We have absolutely loved the Galapagos Islands and feel so privileged to have seen so much here. We were also lucky not to be affected much by the tsunami and even in Puerto Ayora which seemed to have the most impact here, the clean-up appears to have been quick. We got to see lots of wonderful things on Isla Isabela and our missions on Isla Santa Cruz (to get provisions, water, diesel, propane, etc.) have been successful so even though we would love to stay longer, we feel that we should be able to leave as planned today (March 23rd). The wind may not cooperate and we have still not decided for certain whether to go north or west first but we will keep the blog posted as we can.
My apologies for overdue replies to emails and birthday greetings…please be patient. We expect our passage to Hawaii to take about 40 days but it depends on the wind so it will vary. We will try to keep the blog updated as we make our way there. (But do not worry if we are out of touch for a while. We cannot be certain that the SSB mail system will work from everywhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!)
NOTE: This is the end of this section of the blog. It will continue in the section “Galapagos to Hawaii, 2011”. Please follow us there and remember that if you would like to receive email notification about future updates you will need to request that again in that section.
March 22, 2011
Even though we had much to accomplish to prepare ourselves for our long passages, our week in Puerto Ayora with Ocean’s Dream was not all work and no play. We thoroughly enjoyed spending much of the time in the company of Jackie and Adrian and I especially cherished their British perspective on things. Adrian left us with Tony Blair’s (long) autobiography which was perfect reading material for the long passage and added to my nostalgia for my homeland.
Our cruising guide had recommended several activities around Isla Santa Cruz but with limited time we selected just a couple that were easily accessible and were not things that we had already seen on the other islands (e.g., seabird colonies, lava tubes, tortoise colonies, or trails over coastal volcanic rocks). So on Sunday afternoon (March 20th) we set off to the west of town to walk to Bahia Tortuga where there were a couple of beaches at the end of a long, paved path. The area is managed by the National Park so you have to check in and out at an office at the beginning of the path. This office is at the top of a large rock fracture that has created an interesting abrupt wall of rock at the west end of the harbor. There is a steep path and steps up to the office which has an impressive view back over the town and bay. The rest of the undulating path is very well built with a high curb on either side. As it disappears into the distance it gives you an impression of being confined in a rather shallow bobsled run.
It was a hot, sunny day and the path was busy with visitors like us, locals out for a relaxing afternoon at the beach, and surfers anxious to get out to the waves. At the office we had been firmly instructed not to swim at the first beach which was only suitable for surfing and had strong rip currents. We were to walk the length of that beach and after crossing a short headland would come to the quiet and safe swimming beach. It was at least a couple of miles (3 km) along the path and across the first beach, which indeed had some small but pounding waves. There were some rather subdued American oystercatchers (an endemic subspecies) and a few other shore birds there but by the time we walked back the tide was in and there was hardly any beach left to walk along.
Quite frankly the second beach was a disappointment for us. It was protected from the open sea by mangroves so the water was still, murky, and warm. Several families were enjoying the shade of the shoreline trees and the still water but we had hoped for some interesting snorkeling and there was none of that. In retrospect I wish that we had splashed about in the waves on the first beach but the dire warnings had been so emphatic that we did not want to risk it. There were a mass of marine iguanas on the narrow headland separating the beaches but, in truth, their novelty had slightly worn off on us.
In the end, it was the path itself and the arid rockland that it crossed that were the highlights of the excursion. Endemic Galapagos mockingbirds protected territories at regular intervals along the path with bold individuals singing loudly overhead or busily hopping about on the path almost regardless of the stream of humans passing by. We were also treated to a close-up view of an endemic Galapagos dove such that I got a much better look at its bright blue eye-rings and red legs than I had managed on my previous fleeting view of one on Isla San Cristóbal.
The most impressive features of the vegetation were the giant Opuntia cacti. There are six endemic species of Opuntia in the Galapagos Islands with some that can grow to 33 ft (10 m) tall and which may live for over 200 years. It can be 50 years before such species start to produce the bright yellow flowers which each only last for one day. They are the only Opuntia cacti in the world to grow like trees and mature trunks had reddish plates of flaking bark that were reminiscent of ponderosa pines. While we undoubtedly saw some cactus finches which nest in the Opuntias, feed on the nectar and fruit, and pollinate the flowers, it turns out that some of the other finches also inhabit the cacti so we were never quite certain of our finch identification.
We saw more of these cactus-trees the next day when we finally got to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station. It was a case of “third time lucky” for this expedition having tried on both Friday and Saturday afternoons. The station is by the waterfront at the east end of town which is a pleasant but not insignificant walk from the water taxi docks. On Friday we had arrived during the two hours when it is closed for lunch and had to meet Irene at the time it reopened. Foolishly we failed to notice on this first visit that in addition to being closed at lunchtime the facilities were closed at the weekends (a little surprising in such a tourist dominated area), hence the second abortive trip. Still, as we repeatedly made this trek, we enjoyed looking at the shops and galleries, and we were intrigued to see some of the signs of clean-up after the tsunami.
If, as we had heard, there had been damage to the busy passenger docks, it appeared that most of it had been fixed by the time we arrived. There may well have been some flooding in the Port Captain’s Office which was right down by the water but the only evidence we saw of flood damage was at one waterside hotel and at a bank. At the latter, piles of papers were laid out in the sun each day on chairs and benches by the front door. A security guard was keeping an eye on them but it somehow seemed a bit casual to have all these documents held down by rock paperweights.
The Charles Darwin Foundation is an international body that was established in 1959, the same time that the Ecuadorian National Park was created. The legal home of the Foundation is in Belgium but in 1964 the Research Station was established as the operational center. There is a pleasant trail for visitors, away from the research buildings and offices, which takes you to modest display rooms, the tortoise and land iguana pens, and the small gift shop. Compared to the newer Interpretive Center on Isla San Cristóbal, the displays here were a little more dated and general but in compensation, there were well designed paths that allowed you to go into the tortoise pens and informative signs.
The first giant tortoise that you meet is the most famous, Lonesome George. It is amazing to think that he has been at the Station since 1972 when he was removed from Isla Pinta where he was the last remaining individual of his species, the rest having been hunted or out-competed by goats to extinction. He was already old, perhaps 75, when rescued. In the 1970-80’s he was rather spoiled by his caretakers so that he became overweight and had to go on a diet in the early 1990’s. Despite being kept in the company of two female tortoises from Wolf Volcano on Isabela, the closest tortoise population to Isla Pinta, he showed no signs of reproducing. Genetic analyses in 1999 surprisingly showed that the species of tortoise from the distant Isla Española (SE Galapagos) was most closely related to George. Although that species was once endangered, a successful restoration program has resulted in more than 1000 tortoises being bred and released on Española. Then in 2007 an individual tortoise on Wolf Volcano was found that had half Pinta genes suggesting that it was a first generation hybrid and increasing the possibility of selecting for an almost fully Pinta genotype, if only George would reproduce. There will be a search for more hybrids at Wolf Volcano. Finally, after 16 years of co-habitation, the two females with George nested and laid eggs in 2008. Although these eggs were ultimately infertile, hopes of saving Lonesome George’s genes and his species have been raised. There is a full captive breeding program at the Station and there are other tortoises from different islands among whom one can walk in their pens but none of them capture the imagination quite like old George.
When we were on Isla San Cristóbal and saw brown iguanas away from the shore we wondered if they were land iguanas. Well, they were not. One subspecies is only found on Isla Santa Fe (small, uninhabited island between San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz) and the other, Galapagos land iguana, occurs on several western isles but not San Cristóbal. Individuals of the latter species are on display in pens at the Research Station and they are large and beautifully orange and yellow colored creatures. The largest population of these iguanas are on the relatively pristine (no introduced predators) Isla Fernandia. Amazingly during the July nesting season females from all over the island migrate to the top of the volcano at an altitude of 4,900 ft (1500 m). As if this multi-day trek were not enough, many will scramble down into the vegetation-less caldera which is up to 2,950 ft (900 m) deep. Having laid their eggs in the volcanic ash not only do the females have to climb out again but the hatchlings will have to survive the grueling ascent before they can find cover and food on the vegetated outer slopes. Incredible!
Although they did not have any on display, a third species, the pink iguana, was first discovered on Wolf Volcano in 1986 and only recently has this new species been formally recognized. It is a fairly rare creature that could be susceptible to the introduced predators on Isla Isabela so it is uncertain whether the species will survive for much longer. It is amazing to think that such a large (2 – 3 ft, 1m long) vertebrate could have evaded discovery until so recently.
Overall, we were extremely satisfied with all the wildlife that we had seen during our Galapagos visit, both in captivity and, especially, in the wild. The notable omissions would have required going with guides to more remote areas so we did not feel that we had been unlucky to miss them (with the exception of the vermillion flycatcher). There are fewer than 1,400 flightless cormorants on northern Isabela and while we debated about sailing towards Hawaii around that coast we decided that the likelihood of seeing any from the boat was very slim. The waved albatross (the only tropical albatross of 22 species worldwide) with its 8 ft (2.4 m) wingspan, only breeds on Isla Española to which we would have had to take a multi-day tour. The small Galapagos fur seal has a limited population after nearly being hunted to extinction and they tend to occur only along the inaccessible, rugged coastlines of the western islands.
There are three native raptors in the Galapagos but we did not see any of them. The endemic Galapagos hawk (thought to have evolved from Swainson’s hawk) is the dominant land predator on the islands. They are fearless of people, frequently landing on the heads of researchers, and survive on eight of the less inhabited islands. The endemic subspecies of barn owl is a nocturnal feeder of native and introduced rodents while the endemic subspecies of short-eared owl is a day-time hunter of smaller birds.
Our trip to the Charles Darwin Research Station inevitably ended with an investment at the gift shop which was much smaller than expected but stocked with high-quality items. Our remaining day and a half in Puerto Ayora were focused on: last-minute provisions; getting the boat ready (e.g., packing dinghy and outboard below); internet use; and enjoying, ice-creams, restaurant meals, and the company of Jackie and Adrian (things to be missed for the next 40 days).
Randall and I (at his insistence) took a ride through town after dark on a “bug-train” which for a dollar each was surprisingly extensive and fun, watching all the little children enjoying the novelty ride through the streets. Predictably (but of course she still surprised us), Irene showed up at 7:30 am on Tuesday with our zarpes from the Port Captain and an unpredictably modest fee for them. So all in all our preparations for the “big” passage went smoothly and as sad as we were to say Good-bye to Ocean’s Dream and to the Galapagos Islands, by Tuesday evening we felt ready to go.
It is hard to express how much our six-week Galapagos visit had exceeded our expectations and how incredibly pleased and privileged we felt to have spent so much time there and seen so much. Our overall impressions of the status of wildlife and habitat conservation on these unique islands were very good. Given the abuses of various periods of their history (excess tortoise exploitation, whaling, agricultural disturbance, introduction of exotics, etc.), we felt that the Ecuadorian and international efforts at protection and restoration were generally very encouraging. There were clearly some dramatic success stories such as the restoration of captive-bred tortoise populations, removal of exotic mammals from certain islands, etc. There are certainly continued and unacceptable population and species losses due to poaching and harm from introduced species. The potential effects of climate change on a system that is so characterized by adaptations to local micro-climates and to the unique influences of ocean currents, upwelling, and El Niño/La Niña events hardly bears thinking about. But even given these potentially drastic disruptions, we still felt a certain optimism and thankfulness that most humans in the area seem to “get it” and realize the value and specialness of the place.
Analyses of the future of the islands seem to concentrate on two important aspects that our own observations tended to support. The biology is unique because of the isolation of the islands and increasing numbers of residents and visitors and all the supplies that must be imported for them had rapidly diminished that isolation. Steps have been taken in the right direction (all flights must originate from Ecuador, all planes are fumigated on arrival, importation of plants and animals are restricted, boats must be inspected or fumigated, etc.) but the sheer volume of people and cargo is overwhelming for any truly thorough program of inspections and pest removal.
The second, related factor is the simple increase in the human population in response to the massive increase in tourism. While the Park can limit the geographical expansion of housing and other infrastructure, water supply, garbage and sewage disposal, oil importations, and all the myriad consequences of population growth will have to be closely managed if the influence of the few places of habitation and visitation are not to ruin the rest of the ecosystems.
Effective planning for sustainable economic growth, including limits on immigration and ensuring that a greater percentage of the tourist income actually stays in the islands to protect them, is crucial. It is not sexy and not visible to ecotourism like saving a species of giant tortoise but in the long run it will be even more important. While Ecuadorians undoubtedly feel a particular responsibility for the custody of these islands, continued international assistance will be vital to preserve this extraordinary World Heritage Site.
It would be easy to visit this place and at a superficial level of observation only be impressed and optimistic. It would also be easy to become overwhelmed, pessimistic, and depressed by the realization of what has been and still could be lost due to human greed and carelessness. Visiting the islands whether in one’s own boat, as a casual traveler, or on an organized tour is bound to engender ambiguous feelings about whether the ecotourism is economically helping fund protection or whether yours are just another pair of feet too many. We would love to spend more time in the Galapagos but I think that we would have to find some concrete method to help to justify impacts from an additional presence. Since we have been so fortunate, we would surely recommend a visit by anyone interested in natural history or geology but we are conflicted by the knowledge of what unrestrained tourism could do. There is nothing attractive about the hypocrisy of calling for restrictions on visitors and human impacts after we have enjoyed our own privileged opportunity.
Our own professional experiences made our visit particularly special but also have taught us that none of the development issues are easy to resolve either at the society or individual level. As we sail away, we can only hope that motivated organizations and people continue to face and resolve these difficult challenges. While there is potentially much to worry about, it is good to learn of causes for optimism. This final thought is quoted from the De Roy book and is cited from the Galapagos Conservation Trust. “Following a referendum to approve a new constitution in 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to enshrine the inalienable Rights of Nature in law.” (I will try to find a URL to link to the five articles that acknowledge the rights possessed by nature). Well done, Ecuador; this can only be a good sign.
March 20, 2011
Our last day in Puerto Villamil was the first day of the postponed island Fiesta. We did not discover this until we went into town to meet J.C. and get our zarpe from the Port Captain. Sadly this meant that we missed the inauguration of Phase II of the island’s recycling program but we did arrive in time to catch most of the parade. This was held along two blocks of one street. Participants got ready on one block then crossed the first intersection and walked down one side of the wide, hard-packed-sand road in front of the central park. They turned around at the next intersection and walked back on the other side giving a wave or salute to the dignitaries sitting on chairs at the edge of the park. The Naval band stood at the first intersection marching in place and somehow it all seemed very compact and sensible.
Before meeting J.C., Randall and I took our bikes to the long beach just west of town to take a closer look at the shorebirds there. However, having been delayed by the unexpected viewing of the parade and aware that a large storm cloud was rapidly approaching, we cut this effort short and returned to wait near the Port Captain’s office. It was a wise decision because it soon started to bucket down. Luckily the parade had ended by this time but the eco-friendly. tissue-paper bunting (decorative flags strung across the streets) dissolved into suspended strings of dripping, colored blobs and rainbow smears on the ground.
Once we, and Kailani, got our zarpes (and paid a mysterious series of other fees the receipt for which looked oddly like the list of fees we had paid when we arrived but J.C. had no suggestions other than to just pay them) we invited J.C. to lunch with us. He suggested a restaurant nearby and we filled some of the intervening time by escorting John to the health clinic. He was feeling somewhat better but was still pretty congested so J.C. had encouraged him to get some antibiotics to take on their passage. The visit with the attractive young doctor was free (part of the Ecuadorian National Health Service) and the fees for the prescriptions were reasonable so they felt that it was worthwhile.
When we sat down for lunch, Randall was keen to try some of the more exotic items listed on the menu but was disappointed to be told that today they were only serving the general lunch menu of chicken or fish. The reason for this soon became apparent when a squad of 30 young navy sailors marched up to the front of the restaurant and then proceeded to fill the place up. They were visiting from other islands for the Fiesta and by chance we had picked the same place for lunch. Inevitably it meant that our meal took quite a long time to be served but it was fairly entertaining especially when they all stood up, raised their glasses of bright red “jello-like” drink, and sang to celebrate the birthday of one of them.
The weather brightened up in the afternoon during which time Randall and I finished cleaning the hull and propeller. We said our farewells to Marina, Hillary, and John who planned to leave for the Marquesas as soon as John felt up to it. It was apparently not the next day (Thursday March 17th) because as we left the anchorage at 3:30 am we heard a very congested John croak Good-bye and suggest that they might wait around for another day or two.
Our passage from Isla Isabela to Santa Cruz was very uneventful with sunshine but little useful wind so we motored the whole way. We pulled into the bay at Puerto Ayora in the early afternoon and immediately understood why it had been described as crowded and rolly. There were many tour boats of various sizes including many that we had seen before. There were a three large sailing ships anchored out with the supply vessels and cruise ships and closer to shore there were about 15 charter or cruiser sailboats including Ocean’s Dream. The bay was open to the south so the swells from that direction rolled in unhindered. Some of the sailboats had put out stern anchors to keep themselves pointed into the swell, while the rest were free to rotate on a single anchor. It was important to distinguish which boats had two anchors and which do not because they would obviously behave very differently as the wind and current directions changed. Like Ocean’s Dream we decided to use just a single anchor unless the rolling became too uncomfortable and after a one aborted attempt when the anchor caught on rocks and did not hold, we finally got it well-set in sand. The boats did rotate with the wind and currents and even though there were some considerable swells at times we were usually facing them and the periods when we were rolling broadside were fairly brief. One of the boats with a stern anchor lost it, presumably because a water taxi or other small motor boat ran across their line so we decided to put up with a bit of roll and save an anchor.
For most of our time at Puerto Villamil our three boats (Ocean’s Dream, Kailani, and Tregoning) were the only cruisers there. A few other boats finally joined us including the first boat with a USA flag we had seen in more than seven weeks (since we left Las Brisas). At Puerto Ayora there were several USA boats along with the usual mix of French, British, German, Canadian, etc. Nobody from the Captain’s Office was available to see us (being a busy day with the tour boats) so Adrian told us that the agent that Bolivar had arranged for us would meet us the next day. Later we joined Adrian and Jackie in town and ate a good local meal at the “kioskos”, a series of lively, open-air restaurants that put tables in the middle of the street during the evenings.
In terms of the busy port, Puerto Ayora was much more like Puero Baquerizo than Villamil. There were many water taxis and crowded docks at which the inflatable launches for the tour boats picked-up and disgorged large numbers of passengers. All three towns, however, are quite different. Puerto Baquerizo is delightful and artistic. It is small enough that you are soon recognized by the water taxi drivers and waterfront store owners, and being the administrative capital of the islands there is a certain sense of dignity and relaxed efficiency. Tourism is welcomed and embraced as an honorable way to share the wonders of the wildlife, which are so proudly accepted as part of the town and its character. Puerto Villamil, with its sand and ground-lava roads and plethora of relatively new, open-air restaurants and tour-operators has a very close-knit, local feel but with the added slight edge of having not yet become quite familiar with the recent, rapid expansion into attracting and serving tourists. It feels like a place that is trying hard to retain its sleepy charm but is in a stage of transition. The wildlife is entertaining and protected but not yet quite held to the level of esteem and interaction seen on Isla San Cristobal.
As we anticipated, Puerto Ayora does not seem to have the romance of the other towns nor does it feel like a destination in itself. Everything seems much busier and tourists are seen as good for a few bucks as they pass through. With a population of 16,000 (1.5 times Baquerizo and 5 times Villamil), Puerto Ayora has the advantage of having many more facilities but for us was something of a rude reality-check of what life was like without as much of the Galapagos magic. Perhaps our perspective was biased because we were only staying for a week and had many practical things to accomplish. Maybe if one was staying for a while or if this were the first stop in the Islands it would seem more charming but for us the place was useful but not particularly attractive.
This did not mean that there were not some lovely vistas, interesting sites, good restaurants (and ice cream), and gorgeous art galleries. In fact at the east end of the town beyond the abundance of more typical tourist stores and restaurants, there were some stylish buildings with truly magnificent art and jewelry. These items were way beyond our price-range or storage capacity but beautiful to browse and indicative that some wealthy visitors must spend a bit of time on Isla Santa Cruz. One of quirkiest of these art stores, with bright blue outside walls and dazzling decorations made up of mosaics and mirrors, was owned by someone we hoped to meet.
Angus, a nephew in Randall’s extended family, has relatives in Puerto Ayora and at one point he had even hoped to join us there during our visit. That did not work out but he suggested that we meet Sarah (the artist and store owner) who could introduce us to other members of his family. He had sent her an email to introduce us but when we got to the store we learned that she was visiting Great Britain and would not be back until after we had planned to leave for Hawaii. It was a rather disappointing coincidence but as it turned out, our last week in the islands was pretty busy so we may not have had much time to meet other relatives anyway. Still, it was interesting to see Sarah’s store and we look forward hearing more stories about his visits there when we next see Angus.
On Friday morning we started with our list of chores, most of which we shared with Adrian and Jackie who were preparing for their passage to the Marquesas. We dropped off huge loads of laundry. We arranged with a water taxi driver to deliver 100 gallons of drinking water which was efficiently pumped out of his portable water-tank into Tregoning’s. We met with Irene, our agent, who was also a full-time college teacher so she tended to show up at the boat before classes around 7 am or we had to meet her after 3 pm. She took our papers to the Port Captain and paid our fees (much lower than at Puerto Villamil) for which we paid her back (J.C. did not apparently subscribe to this role of short-term money loaner). She also took us on Friday afternoon to the Immigration Office. We were a bit puzzled by this initially because we were not arriving from another country but it soon became apparent that we were there to get the exit stamps in our passports. Given that these were dated for that day (18th) but we did not plan to leave until the 23rd, this all seemed a bit odd, with six days when we were not theoretically approved to be in Ecuador. But we never had to show our passports again and it made one less thing to worry about when we left.
Irene helped us to get our propane tanks filled which was done within an hour that same afternoon. She also arranged for our spare diesel jugs to be filled and for another 15 gallons to be delivered for us to siphon out of a larger tank to top-up Tregoning’s main fuel tank. The cost of the propane and diesel was not cheap but neither was it outrageous and given her efforts and the simplicity for us, the costs seemed worthwhile. Irene’s English was slightly more limited than our Spanish but she was unremittingly cheerful and being a good teacher she would talk us through and mime a simple example if we were failing to understand something (such as how we would accomplish getting the propane tanks filled).
We availed ourselves of various internet cafes during our stay, trying to make sure that bills were paid and urgent messages noted before we were to spend a month without regular internet access (but there never seemed to be enough time to get fully caught up on emails, birthday e-cards, etc.) Of course, the other major objective was to complete our provisioning. It is difficult to decide when this is ever complete but we did our best. The town had two modestly sized supermarkets and numerous small grocery stores. By visiting each place a few times it was possible to find everything we needed. The bulk supplies we had got in Panama City were holding out well so we were really after perishable items such as dairy and bakery products. Fresh fruits and vegetables were in abundance at the big farmer’s market “Feria” that was held early on Saturday morning in a covered sports area. There was plenty of produce to choose from and on the whole the prices were reasonable and the quality acceptable. It took quite a while to hunt down items that looked as though they would last well in the boat but, as Randall’s aching arms would testify, by the time we carted it all back to the boat, we had got a good haul.
So from a practical standpoint, our stay in Puerto Ayora was efficient and productive. As we went about our business, it eventually dawned on us the other reason why this anchorage and town seemed different. There were no penguins and we saw very few sea lions around the boats or along the shore. Whether this was just a less attractive bay for the sea lions or whether the more built-up shoreline and constant boat traffic had driven them away we could not tell. One sea lion was a feature at the water-side fish market where the local fishers brought in their catch to clean and sell. This sea lion was not only tolerated around the catch but was used as the fish-trash disposal system, feeding on all the entrails cut out of the fish. It shared this role with a noisy crowd of pelicans but they kept their distance if the sea lion considered that they were being too greedy and gave them a threatening look. We wondered whether the same rather chubby sea lion was fed at the market every day or if there was competition for this enviable position.
One of the wildlife observations from the boat that was interesting was seeing flocks of noddies that fluttered and dipped over the water apparently following shoals of fish. We got used to seeing and hearing groups of medium-sized fish (tunny-size) splash around Tregoning as they were presumably also feeding on schools of smaller prey. Particularly in the mornings and evenings, the most unusual thing to see was pelicans diving down to scoop up water with small fish and while they were straining this through their oversized bills a brown noddy would land on the pelican’s head. In fact, noddies would compete with each other every time a pelican dived, fluttering around until they could land on the pelican but before it had finished feeding and could shake them off. Occasionally the noddies would lean forward to pick something out of the water so presumably their perch on the pelican was a good place to find some easy food but it made for a positively comical spectacle. It was a good lesson that even without the more charismatic sea lions and penguins, nature has plenty of things with which to surprise us, in even the most human-dominated of locations in the Galapagos Islands.
March 15, 2011
So far, all of the activities that we had done around Puerto Villamil which had been described in our cruising guide (e.g., Wall of Tears, Tintoreras, Volcan Chico) had been very worthwhile. So it was with heightened anticipation that we approached the boat trip to Los Tuneles which the guide had labeled as a “not to be missed” tour. We were also very thankful that Tuesday morning (March 15th) dawned calm and sunny and the water in the anchorage was finally clearer than it had been at any time since the tsunami. Having had to postpone this tour because of the tsunami we had been a bit concerned as to when conditions would be suitable again but we seemed to be in luck.
The area of shoreline we were to visit was rather surprisingly owned not by the National Park but by the local fishermen. Recognizing the ecotourism potential of the site, tours were allowed but only under a strict permitting system. Most boats were limited to five passengers and at $60 per person it was the most expensive tour we took as Isla Isabela…but it was certainly worth it.
John was still not feeling well and the recovering Marina had been sufficiently exercised by the previous day’s long hike to the volcanoes, so our allotment of five people consisted of Randall and me, Jackie and Adrian, and Hillary. We had arranged the tour through the San Vicente Hotel (very helpful) and at 8:30 am we met our guides and boarded their large panga named Diana. Roberto Sr. was our leader with his son, Roberto Jr. at the helm. Apparently they had been doing these tours together for many years and although they spoke little English we managed to communicate reasonably well. Their boat had two large outboard engines, one 115 horsepower and the other 75 hp. Whether as a result of requirement, availability, or preference we were pleased to see that most of the outboards used by the local ferries and tour boats were four-stroke motors which are generally less polluting than the older two -strokes. The smaller motor grumbled a few times during our trip but neither Roberto seemed too concerned so we chose not to worry either.
While it is more environmentally friendly to be sailing along at 5 or 6 knots, it must be confessed that it felt good for a change to be zooming over the water at 20 + knots enjoying the corresponding breeze while sitting in the shade of the panga’s Bimini top. We cruised westward from the dock for 45 minutes until we reached Roca Union an isolated rock a mile or so offshore. We only slowed down once on the way to observe a pair of green turtles locked in an amorous embrace at the water surface.
Roberto Jr. slowed down and circled Roca Union while we admired the birds roosting on the top and the beautiful white froth on the clear blue water as the swells rolled back and forth across the lower layer of rock. In addition to the endemic subspecies of brown noddies, blue-footed- and Nazca-boobies, we noticed a couple of swallow-tailed gulls lurking in the shade. With bright red legs and eye-rings these endemic gulls are quite distinctive but this was our first sighting of them as they are nocturnal feeders in open water. It is difficult to imagine that looking for fish at night is very easy but these gulls have huge eyes and certain types of marine prey occur closer to the water surface at night than during the day.
As we resumed our cruise, we were escorted by Galapagos shearwaters (an endemic species distinguished from Audubon shearwaters only in 2004) and watched flocks of smaller gray birds (maybe migrant sanderlings) scatter before the panga. Eventually we slowed down again and Roberto Sr. assumed a guiding position at the bow, using simple but clear hand signals to direct Jr. to a safe passage between the breakers. This was why the guides needed to be certified because we were going towards shore through a narrow, unmarked inlet, the only place where the swells were not breaking on the rocks. The panga was skillfully surfed shoreward over some fairly shallow-looking rocks and clear of the white-water breaking on either side of us. It would have been exciting enough in one of our little inflatable dinghies but knowing that any mistake would be unforgiving on the fiber-glass panga made it especially exhilarating.
Once inside the surf the Robertos carefully steered Diana through a maze of low-lying, volcanic rocks until we were in completely calm waters and were able to fully appreciate the peace and beauty of the area. White water was just seaward of us but hardly a ripple made its way through the network of black, knee-high, rocky stepping stones. Cameras in hand, Jackie, Hillary and I were invited to ride on the bow while we slowly meandered past penguins, brown noddies, and blue-footed boobies which obligingly posed for us without the least apparent concern about our proximity. It was the first time that we had really got a good view of the astonishingly vivid blue of the boobies’ large feet.
Only once we peeled ourselves away from the bird-focused view of the cameras did we fully appreciate our magical surroundings. As we had weaved our way further inshore, the black isolated rocks were coalescing into larger areas of shoulder-high, brown and gray lava separated by narrow channels and supporting many low arches. There were a few hardy grasses and low-lying clumps of vegetation but the predominant features were the erect Opuntia and candelabra (I think) cacti. The overall impression was of a peaceful Japanese water garden with many low bridges. Or, as Hillary suggested, a particularly challenging Putt-putt (Mini/Crazy) golf course! Either way, it was truly enchanting.
Diana was tied up to one of the islets and we were allowed ashore to wander around (in a clearly defined area), to pose for each other, and to take many photos. In the crystal clear water we watched a couple of sea lions and green turtles weave their way through the channels and under the bridges. Inland the shore became increasingly solid and vegetated and seaward we could see the backdrop of tumultuous white water. It was difficult to tear ourselves away from such a relaxing place but we eventually wound our way back out, vacating the landing area for the tour boat that had arrived after us.
Although the breaker-free channel is a little more obvious from the shore-side, the return passage, accelerating into the unbroken waves, was no less thrilling than the ride in. Roberto Sr. had asked us if we wanted to snorkel in the peaceful waters at Los Tuneles or if we wanted to see more wildlife at another cove on the way back to Puerto Villamil. Predictably we opted for more wildlife. We were treated to this sooner than expected because shortly after we resumed cruising speed Roberto Sr. pointed excitedly off to one side and we soon realized that we were in the midst of a group of about six manta rays.
Despite many other people telling me they had seen them in Las Perlas or around the Galapagos Islands, I had never seen a manta ray before and they were very high on my wildlife wish-list. The ones that we saw near Los Tuneles did not leap from the water (as they most spectacularly can) and the ripples at the surface precluded any clear photos but there was no doubt about what we saw. These were huge, diamond-shaped, filter-feeding rays, 8 – 10 ft (2 – 3 m) across and which were black on the upper surface and white below. They can be up to 19 ft (6 m) across and are found throughout the tropical oceans. We periodically saw a wing tip break the water surface and the white belly as one rolled over underwater but mostly we were simply enthralled by the graceful “flight” of these huge black creatures milling around us. Eventually, the rays moved away and we resumed our course to the snorkeling site but it had taken supreme self-control not to jump in the water and meet the manta rays face to face.
Eventually Roberto Jr. steered Diana into an indistinct cove between two rocky reefs and surrounded on the shoreline by mangroves. Initially this did not look like a particularly appealing snorkeling site as the water was not crystal clear and the bottom just looked rocky and uninviting. We asked Roberto Sr. where would be the best places for us to go but he quickly showed us that he was going to lead the way so we obediently followed. The first thing we did was swim right up to the mangrove roots and after a few moments of looking for a particular spot, Roberto beckoned us over one at a time. What he had found (presumably known from numerous visits) was a pair of Pacific sea-horses! This was a complete surprise and another first sighting in the wild for us. Their tails were curled around a mangrove root with the rest of their bodies upright for a total length of about 6 – 8 inches (15 – 20 cm). Interestingly when I saw them they were a reddish tan color but when Hillary and Jackie described them a few minutes later they were yellow. Apparently this species can grow to 12 inches (30 cm) in length, can change between quite a variety of colors, and are usually (according to our fish book) found in deeper (more than 33 ft or 10 m) water. So we were either very lucky, the Galapagos sea horses like the shallower water, or this was a “tame” pair that had been relocated here for the tours. Anyway, it was a very satisfying treat and made us particularly glad to have Roberto to show us around.
He led us along the edge of the mangroves and between rocks looking for other interesting things. We saw a couple of red spiny lobsters wandering over the rocks before scuttling into a hole. Predictably, lobsters have been overfished elsewhere in the islands so we assume they were being protected in this snorkeling area. Legal overharvesting and particularly illegal poaching of marine organisms are still a big problem in the Galapagos with sea cucumbers and sharks fins being common and (in the latter case where the shark is killed but usually the rest of the body is just dumped) wasteful targets. We saw some white-tipped reef sharks resting in a wide tunnel under some rocks and Roberto swam down close enough to encourage them to move out to where we could see them better. This was perhaps a bit more disturbing than absolutely necessary but once they had made a loop outside the tunnel they returned to it to continue their rest. After admiring various other fish and small rays, Roberto eventually swam eastwards paralleling the shore. He was going quite fast so to keep up we could not stop much even though we passed over a very intriguing looking soft-coral or huge, spread-out anemone.
Roberto Jr. moved Diana to another break in the reef beyond us so we started to wonder why we were being rushed so far from where we had started. Then as we rounded the edge of the reef to head in towards the boat we found ourselves surrounded by not just one or two Galapagos green turtles but 10 or 12 or more. The water was a bit murky so two or three of them would appear out of the gloom together but there were many of them casually swimming very close and showing only a mild interest in us. There is some debate as to whether these almost black turtles are an endemic species to the Galapagos but they seem to be genetically indistinct from the Pacific green turtle so at most they may be a local sub-species or population. Unlike many marine turtles, the Galapagos population seems to be fairly stable with good protection from the usually damaging suspects of hunting, pollution, fisheries by-catch, nest destruction or predation, etc. However, like other turtle species, tagging has shown that some of these turtles range widely around the Pacific and can become vulnerable to harm when they leave the safe haven of the Galapagos.
It was difficult to leave the party of turtles behind but it made a splendid end to the snorkel and after the exertion of keeping up with Roberto Sr. we were ready to wolf down our lunches. So we returned to our boats fully satisfied with the last of our tours and continuing to be charmed by Isla Isabela. The residents of the anchorage did not wish us to forget them after our explorations further afield and that afternoon a couple of particularly bold pelicans decided to accompany Randall in the dinghy as he prepared to snorkel under Tregoning to clean her propeller.
Since Jackie and Adrian were planning to leave the next morning to go to Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz, we closed the day with a gathering on Kailani (with John keeping his distance and forbidden to touch anyone’s food or eating utensils). We were all fairly tired but it was very pleasant and we enjoyed reflecting over the fabulous time we had spent together on Isla Isabela. We would follow Ocean’s Dream to Santa Cruz a day later but as soon as they were all fully recovered, Kailani planned to set sail directly for the Marquesas from Puerto Villamil. Although we had only spent a couple of weeks in their company, we knew that our time together at Isla Isabela had been so memorable that we would think fondly about our activities with Kailani and Ocean’s Dream for a long time to come.
March 14, 2011
From the anchorage at Puerto Villamil two volcanoes dominated the horizon. To the west was the distant dome of Volcan Cerro Azul but immediately to the north loomed the massive shield volcano, Sierra Negra. The latter was not the tallest volcano in the Galapagos (that distinction went to the younger Volcan Wolf at the north end of Isabela) but it was the most massive in volume. The active volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii are also shield volcanoes and these contrast in their gently rounded, upwardly convex, domes from the classic shape of composite volcanoes such as Japan’s Mount Fuji which are steeper-sided and upwardly concave.
Having admired Sierra Negra every day for two weeks, we were aware that much of the time the top was obscured by clouds and heavy rain was falling somewhere between it and the coast. Usually the peak was clearest in the early morning with the clouds building up during the day but we knew that it would be a matter of chance as to how the visibility would be on the Monday that we had booked our tour with guide, Julio. As we prepared to leave the boats to meet him at 7 am at the dock, things looked encouraging and we were indeed very lucky to have a beautiful clear morning.
Marina was feeling better and up to the rigorous hike but sadly John had now succumbed to the virus and decided to stay onboard the hospital ship. Julio met us with two pick-up trucks in which we would ride for about 45 minutes to the start of the trail. Our departure was slightly delayed because when we arrived at the dinghy dock with Adrian and Jackie, a large sea lion was blocking the boardwalk to the shore. Initially it moved inland ahead of us but when it realized that it could not get off the walkway it became less friendly and we did not have room to sneak past without risking a nasty nip. Finally, Randall did his best impression of the Pied-Piper and, using his walking stick, he managed to encourage the sea lion to follow him back to the dock where it happily flopped into the water while we could proceed ashore.
On the way to the mountain we picked up two other hikers, Gail and Todd, who were sight-seeing for a few days by ferry from the sail-boat “One World” which was anchored (with crew aboard) at Isla San Cristóbal. The drive started on the main, paved road that Randall and I had ridden our bikes along and took us through the agricultural area of Isla Isabela in which we could mostly see fruit trees of various types (guava, bananas, mangoes, etc.) The last part of the ride was on a dirt road which was quite steep and eroded in spots. We were passing more interesting vegetation at this point, including some endemic tree ferns.
Jackie (in the other truck from Randall and me) spotted a vermillion flycatcher on a fence which made me very envious as I had great hopes of seeing this distinctive red bird that is an endemic subspecies found only in the higher areas of the Galapagos. Despite searching for it all day and on the drive back, I never saw one but was almost fooled by some scarlet hibiscus flowers passing by at 30 mph. The bird life in general was not particularly memorable from this day but this was more than compensated for by the scenery.
The trucks left us at the top of the road by a National Park campground and having driven up most of the ascent, we set off towards the east on a wide, gently sloping path. The total walk was more than 10 miles (16 km) with little shade and Julio kept us going at a fairly steady pace so this tour was no idle stroll. While Julio pointed out some of the endemic plants, there did not seem to be time to stop and take photos and notes of them all so we were a bit embarrassed on our return to not remember whether or not one shrub Julio had pointed out was thin-leafed Darwin’s shrub (Darwiniothamnus tenufolius). We knew that it had “Darwin” in the name but that did not narrow the options down as much as one might think. According to our “Darwin in Galapagos” book, there are at least 24 taxa of plants and animals and 5 geological features in the Galapagos that include “Darwin” somewhere in their name.
Unfortunately, the plants that made the most impression on us were the non-native, invasive species, particularly the shrubs of guava. These were so widespread and dominant in the vegetation on the side of Sierra Negra that it would take a huge effort to remove them all to allow the native vegetation to flourish. Two other widespread invasive plants on the islands were also purposely introduced; hill blackberry for its fruit and as a living fence and red quinine for malaria medication. Huge projects to control these latter species using precisely placed herbicides have been initiated on other islands and in the case of the blackberry a biological control program has been considered. The guava shrubs were so widespread on Isabela that the removal or treatment of individual plants looked overwhelming. However, it seemed unlikely that biocontrol would be considered for a plant that is widely grown for its fruit in the island’s adjacent agricultural area.
As interesting as the vegetation was to us and how impressive the views were back towards the coast, these were soon forgotten as the path crossed the lip of the volcano and we found ourselves overlooking the massive caldera of Sierra Negra. (Calderas are greater than 1 mile or 1.6 km across, craters are smaller.) This is the second largest caldera in the world with a rim circumference of 20 miles (32 km) and diameter of more than 6 miles (10 km). It is not particularly deep, 500 ft (150 m) from the lip to the surface of the lava, especially compared to the caldera of the volcano on neighboring Isla Fernandina which is 3000 ft (900 m) deep. However, despite this great size, Julio showed us that it was still possible to hear an echo when he shouted down into the huge pit.
Given the absence of any vegetation and its dark, dull color, the a’a’ lava below where we were standing was clearly younger than on the far side of the caldera where the lava was grayer and supporting a thin veneer of plants. The older material was more than 10,000 years old whereas some of the closer lava had been added during the most recent eruption on the north rim in 2005. Because there had been rain on the volcano the night before, water that had seeped down through the lava was now returning to the caldera surface as mesmerizing tendrils of steam that contrasted sharply with the dull black lava. These steamy wisps gave the volcano an animated appearance that was a clear reminder that it was still active with a magma chamber just 1.3 miles (2 km) below us.
Once we had shouted for an echo and fully absorbed the scale and grandeur of the main caldera, we continued walking NE along the rim towards a recently active volcanic area called Volcan Chico. This area consisted of various parasitic cones and lava flows that had erupted outside the main caldera, from the northern edge of Sierra Negra and Julio explained that our path took us on an accelerated passage through time from formations that were laid down 10,000 years ago to cones that had last erupted in 1979 and sent rivers of lava down to the NW coast of the island.
At the edge of the Volcan Chico area the path, which had been surrounded by well established, shrubby vegetation, abruptly entered an area of exposed lava upon which only the occasional cactus and hardy, creeping plant had been able to establish. The scenery was dramatic, harsh, and fascinating with numerous lava tunnels and intersecting, “frozen” flows of different types and ages of lava. Although the landscape was dominated by grays, reddish-browns, and blacks, at the small scale there was a surprising variety of colors with lava formations in scarlet, orange, yellow, and green. Textures varied from the jagged a’a’ and smooth, shiny ropes of pahoehoe to twisted knobs of colored lava that looked exactly as if various plastic containers had been melted and mixed before suddenly hardening.
We walked about 0.6 mile (1 km) across this Martian landscape to the end of the trail on a cone that had a superb view over the northern end of Isabela and of Isla Fernandina. The trail over the lava was fairly obviously worn but had also been marked with discreet, neatly painted and varnished wooden arrows. There had been no other people ahead of us so our experience seemed particularly remote and other-worldly. It was only as we turned to pose for Julio to take a group photo (he handled our six cameras with great dexterity) did we see that several other tours had followed us and many other visitors were strung-out across the lava field. We were very lucky to be the first people to arrive at the area that day.
We felt well exercised by the time we got back to the campground and we continued to marvel at our good fortune that scattered clouds had developed above and below us but there were still fine views and no rain to make the paths muddy and slippery. It is difficult to describe adequately the fascination of the volcanic landscape and photos rarely do justice to its scale and uniqueness. However, we returned to our boats that afternoon thoroughly satisfied that we had truly experienced some of the raw geological wonders of the Galapagos Islands.
March 13, 2011
Although they became further apart and diminished in size, the unusual tidal surges that had started when the tsunami arrived in Puerto Villamil continued for a couple of days. The water remained very stirred-up and cloudy for even longer. After we had been forced to re-anchor in the dark and surges due to Kailani’s windlass mishap (luckily nothing was lost), Randall had slept in the cockpit on anchor-watch. The next morning we repositioned Tregoning to a more comfortable distance from the rocks of Las Tintoreras and, needing to catch-up on sleep, Randall was content the stay on the boat for the next couple of days
I went ashore with Jackie and Adrian late on Saturday morning (March 12th) to see how things were in the town. We had already noticed that the beach chairs for the little bar by the dock were still lined-up at the top of the beach so we were optimistic that there had not been too much damage onshore. This was confirmed by our visit during which time we only saw the one passenger ferry-boat on the rocks and a sunken panga near the docks. Plenty of people went out to help refloat both vessels and within a couple of days they were both on the beach and, at least superficially, it looked as though some fiberglass work and, not doubt, outboard overhauls might been sufficient.
The town was very quiet with only a few people on the streets and most of them looking unexpectedly idle. We discovered from Julio, a guide whom Jackie and Adrian had befriended, that the town was evacuated to campsites up on Cerro Negra which were not particularly comfortable (lots of insects), so most people had returned home when permission was first granted around 1 am. The other reason for the sleepy atmosphere was that everyone had expected to be involved with the town’s fiesta (Saturday’s program had included all sorts of contests and races). It had obviously been postponed and we eventually discovered to our disappointment that it was to start the very day we planned to leave for Isla Santa Cruz.
The other reason for our trip ashore was to rearrange our tour to Los Tuneles which had been scheduled for Friday. We debated about trying to go on Sunday but realized that the water might still be murky and the channels among the rocks might not be safe if there were any residual surges, so we ended up postponing the trip until Tuesday. It was low tide by the time we returned from town and with the water so turbid that it was quite tricky finding our way back around the shallow sands and submerged rocks. We were thankful that it was not our first trip ashore at low tide.
We learned that overall the impact of the tsunami in the Galapagos Islands had been much less than was anticipated. Hearing other cruisers on the SSB radio networks, we gathered that there was no damage at all at Isla San Cristóbal but there had been some flooding of water-front buildings and a damaged passenger dock at Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. Like us, all the cruisers and tour-boats had been ordered to leave the anchorages. It must have been a bit nerve-wracking for any cruisers who had left their boats and taken ferries to other islands at the time.
Overall we were very impressed with the efficiency with which the Ecuadorian agencies handled the event. We had initially heard a warning in Spanish around 7 am on the VHF channel 16 (which we luckily happened to have on in case we needed to talk to Ocean’s Dream or Kailani before our tour). Although we did not understand the whole message, we sensed that it was an official announcement the first time we heard it and when it was repeated we listened carefully and identified the word “Tsunami”. I jumped into the dinghy (which of course had to be pumped up first) and went over to tell Ocean’s Dream and Kailani to monitor channel 16 and to check the internet. I then approached the nearby tour boat, Angelito, which seemed to be preparing to leave at an unusual time of day.
I managed to communicate with the crew in Spanish enough to confirm the tsunami warning and that we had to go out to sea but the distance and timing was a bit confusing. Luckily, their English-speaking park guide came out and helped to explain that we all had to leave the anchorage by 10 am and that the tsunami was expected around 5 pm. We had to go at least 5 miles offshore (8 km), where the water was at least 300 ft deep (100m). She also told me to monitor VHF channel 26 as this was where further information was given in Spanish and English. So the three sailboats raised anchors and motor-sailed out for a day of circling around in what were beautiful conditions. It was a pity that we could not fish.
It was not obvious why we had to leave the harbors so early but we suspect that these were rules principally aimed at the tour-boats which could not be trying to drop-off or pick-up passengers through the day as the towns were evacuating. We presume that most people on such boats just lost a day of their tours at sea but it must have been quite awkward for people who were supposed to leave or join their vessels that day.
The official information about returning to port was not as clearly provided as the orders to leave, presumably because officials were preoccupied with damage assessment. Without access to the internet, we had been monitoring the SSB networks and got the general impression that other than the devastation in Japan, the tsunami damage elsewhere, such as in Hawaii, was not very bad. We also remembered the non-event of the tsunami warning after the Chilean earthquake the previous year when we were in Panama City. So we returned to the harbor as soon as we could, hoping to get anchored before dark and thinking that there would be no residual effects after the expected arrival time which had been revised to 5:30 pm.
In retrospect, given the surges and our unsatisfactory re-anchoring we might have been better just drifting out at sea for the night and sharing regular night-watches. Is it worth remembering for next time that even if the arrival of a tsunami can be forecast fairly accurately (and if you are not too close to the epicenter, it seems that it can be), how long any effects will linger is much less predictable. While it is important to get away from the shore with plenty of time to spare, we should plan to stay at sea for quite a few hours afterwards, even if there is the slight inconvenience of having to wait until the next morning to re-anchor.
In our self-absorbed state of general oblivion about the rest of the world, we did not see pictures of the damage in Japan and only heard second-hand about news reports of the reactor failures at the nuclear power facilities. While we were very thankful that the Galapagos Islands were spared much damage, we felt terribly sorry for the people affected by the quake, tsunamis, and evacuations around the reactors. Unable to stay glued to the mass media, our experience of the day of the quake may have been a different than for most other outside-observers but, like everyone, we wondered when and how the continuing drama in Japan would end.
March 12, 2011
(From Randall) We are safe and sound back anchored at Isla Isabella, and just beginning to hear radio reports of the terrible destruction in Japan. Our comparatively trivial experience included heading out to sea about 9 am (predicted tsunami arrival was 5 pm), a nice day at sea about 5 miles offshore, then uncertainty about when we were allowed to re-enter the anchorage. The small ferry boats (holding maybe 8-10 people) came roaring out of the harbor about 3 pm, then tentatively headed back to harbor about 5:30 pm only to be told by the Port Captain to stay out longer. We (three sailboats) sort of edged in toward the harbor, and were not told to stay out when we finally dropped anchors around 7 pm…then a bit of trouble began.
Kailani’s anchor chain stopper broke somehow, and dropped all but the secured end of the chain to the bottom, along with a few bits from the bow (we haven’t heard yet what the bits were). They were then stuck anchoring where they lay, which left us too close to them for comfort under the weird conditions. And the weird conditions included a sudden surge about every 15 minutes or so that would lift, then lower, the boats 4 or 5 feet, accompanied by a 3 or 4 knot current. All of this would cause standing waves next to the boat, and all of this would be gone in another 5 minutes.
When we lifted our anchor to adjust position relative to Kailani, we got caught by one of these surges and had to fight against heading directly for Ocean’s Dream, or the rocky bits just beyond Ocean’s Dream, and all of this in the dark. After a little frantic motoring and helm spinning, we got back where we wanted, estimated the point sort of equidistant from the reef, the moored fishing boat, and the other sailboats…and it was dark. So we spent a bit of a sleepless night a little too close to the reef and the moored fishing boat, and sleeping in the cockpit is never as comfortable as down below, but nothing untoward happened in the night.
Even this morning (8 am) the surges continue, but at a reduced level. There is one local boat on the reef this morning, and unfortunately not sitting lightly on top of the rocks, but half submerged and nearly upside down. The small harbor town was evacuated and the only lights on during the night were the street lights. At one point in the discussion (via radio) with the Port Captain’s office yesterday morning, a man from the Police Captain’s office came on the radio to tell us we were making a big mistake leaving the harbor. We should bring our boat back, then take the transportation being provided by the police to go up the mountain (volcano). Sort of understandable, since the police would be primarily concerned with protecting human life, but not an option since it was a Presidential Edict that all marine vessels were to leave Galapagos harbors by 10 am. And then you have to wonder about the wisdom of sitting on the edge of a volcano (last eruption in the Galapagos…2005) to watch a tsunami… We’ll see later today what the impact on the town has been, and our hearts go out to those affected so much in Japan where the real damage occurred.
March 10, 2011
We had been pleased with our tour of Las Tintoreras so it was with great enthusiasm that we looked forward to the longer boat trip to Los Tuneles set for Friday (March 11th) and the hike to Volcan Chico that was planned for Monday. In the meantime, Randall and I decided to complete our mission to visit the Wall of Tears so we loaded our bikes in the dinghy on Thursday morning and approached ‘The Hospital Ship’. Marina was still feeling rather feeble so John was happy join us on a bike that he had not used before. It had much larger wheels than our little bikes plus a multitude of gears, and it also turned out that John used to be an avid triathalon competitor. So we were thankful when he was happy to chat a lot while we trundled along slowly and made many stops to peer at birds or plants.
The correct road to The Wall ran just above the beach at the west end of Puerto Villamil, separating from the road that we had followed previously just after a sign-posted and well-used “iguana crossing” and a new, sleek looking hotel of the same name. There were all sorts of migrant shore birds on the long sandy beach including whimbrels, ruddy turnstones, semipalmated plovers, sanderlings, and royal terns. There were no gulls that morning but I had previously noticed a couple of lava gulls on the beach in town. I had also seen one or two of these dark grey, endemic gulls on Isla San Cristóbal and it appeared that these were fortunate sightings as they are one of the world’s rarest sea birds with only about 800 individuals estimated to be scattered around The Galapagos.
Inland of the beach and sandy road were a few marshy ponds and a cemetery. The latter, like others we saw in the islands, was characterized by large white, above-ground tombs. Many had ornately carved epitaphs or statues and quite a few had what looked like glass-fronted cabinets in which flowers and other brightly colored decorations were protected.
Beyond the beach the road changed from beach sand to black lava gravel and the inland ponds (some of which had signposts and boardwalks) were hidden amongst large chunks of volcanic rock. Around these ponds were some green shrubs lush in the wet season but most of the vegetation was, rather incongruously, species adapted to arid conditions such as several species of cacti. In one area there were many tall examples of the endemic candelabra catus, a species whose shape lives up to the descriptive name.
As we approached our destination, the road showed more of an incline and while John and his multitude of gears rode on without apparent effort, my inability to shift from top gear forced me to leap off and push in a few steep spots where the road surface was rather loose. We were impressed to see a bike rack at the end of the road and for peace of mind we compulsively locked our bikes even though the chances of theft there had to be almost nil.
Six mile (10km) west of the town, the area had been a World War II station for the US soldiers protecting the Panama Canal. There were few remains of the building except for a chimney and a basketball court. However, in 1946 when the US troops left, the Ecuadorian government had decided to take over the buildings for use as a penal colony to which 300 prisoners and 30 guards were sent. The camp was notorious for its harsh conditions and in an effort to keep the prisoners occupied they were forced to collect lava rocks and build a huge wall. It was not obvious that the wall served much of a protective or retaining function but it was very tall and wide with huge, heavy-looking stones piled on each other without any supporting structures or cement. It is said that the prisoners would be forced to build the wall in one place, then dismantle it and rebuild it elsewhere. As if such obvious make-work would not be disheartening enough, the punishments were so severe that the local saying was that “The strong cry and the weak die”.
As the name implied, it was a depressing place and it was hard to imagine that whenever it was closed the inmates would have returned to the mainland having been very much rehabilitated. We cheered ourselves up by eating lunch in the nice shaded picnic area.
We admired the Park sign that warned that the adjacent area was closed to visitors as it was set aside for locals to hunt feral, introduced animals listed as pigs, donkeys, cows, cats, and rats. It was not hard to work out which of those species were the more popular targets. When Adrian and Jackie had been there, they met a man with a horse carrying a large animal carcass (pig or cow) so it appeared that this gradual invasive species removal program was still active.
The Wall was built perpendicular to a small hill (presumably an old volcanic cone) and a trail with stairs led up from the end of the wall to a lookout point. It took a bit of persuading to get Randall and John to climb up but we all agreed that the view was worth the effort. To the east beyond the long beach were Las Tintoreras, the anchorage, and Puerto Villamil. Inland, the large dome of the shield Volcan Negra rose before us with the agricultural area around San Tomás flanking the middle slopes Lower down we could see the scar of black a’a’ lava, which we had visited on our previous bike ride, slashing across the green landscape. To the west the land swept away from us towards the cone of Volcano Cerro Azul and it was somehow intriguing to think that the only people in that long vista might be the occasional researcher or hunter.
We also briefly stopped at a densely occupied iguana nesting site and at a large lava tunnel. Varying in size from something that can easily be stepped over to a tunnel along which one can walk, such tunnels are formed when the outside layer of a stream of molten lava hardens but the rest stays fluid until it has all flowed away. This tunnel was very large and went down from the shore under the sea. There was standing water on the floor but it would have been possible to walk in far enough to hear the waves above it at high tide. We were there at low tide and by that time in the afternoon no one had the inclination to get their shoes wet.
Still, we had thoroughly enjoyed our expedition and once we returned to town we cooled ourselves down with the inevitable ice cream (me) or beer (the guys). As we sat and enjoyed these we noticed that the town was being spruced-up with weeds being pulled from the sides of the sandy roads and a water truck spraying water to keep the dust down. Jackie had found brochures explaining what was in store so we looked forward to enjoying the annual town fiesta in celebration of the Municipal de Isabela becoming a canton of The Galapagos 38 years ago. The proceedings started on Friday and lasted until Wednesday evening so there was much to look forward to.
There would be the formal introduction of the second phase of the island’s recycling program (currently there were excellent bins for bottles and cans) so we wondered what would be recycled next. In addition there would be: parades; the selection of the Queen of Isabela (the contest including day-wear, swimsuit, and evening gown presentations by the candidates); contests for the best meal, best-dressed donkey, and horse; volleyball and soccer tournaments; a rodeo; races for athletes, donkeys, and horses (not together) along the dirt streets; concerts, fireworks, and at the end a grand dance which we thought would make an excellent finale for our visit. So we returned to our boats that evening, needing to rest before our trip to Los Tuneles and the much anticipated start of the Fiesta.
As we set off back to town, we visited another viewpoint Cerro Orchilla, named after a lichen that was exploited for many years due to the dye that could be produced from it. At the top of a long flight of stairs there was a lovely wooden viewing platform that Randall and John fantasized about developing into a small snack bar and cabin. The area was called I amused myself trying to get a good photo of a cooperative lava lizard that appeared to be claiming pre-existing squatters’ rights to the platform. There are seven species of endemic lava lizard in The Galapagos. The species I was staring at occurs on several islands and the other six species are confined to one island each, including one that we must have seen on Isla San Cristóbal. They are fiercely territorial so Randall and John would not only have had the National Park to convince if they wanted to move onto the site.
March 09, 2011
Protecting the anchorage at Puerto Villamil from the open sea are several low-lying islands composed of black, jagged a’a’ lava collectively called Las Tintoreras. Although our cruising guide suggested that this was a good place to snorkel from one’s dinghy, we were quickly convinced by J.C. that this was no longer permitted and it was necessary to go on an organized tour with a guide. We watched dinghies from the tour boats cruise around in this area but they presumably had their guides on board if they were planning to go ashore. All this seemed a bit frustrating at first given that these intriguing islands were just in our backyard, as it were, but we understood the concerns about unsupervised visitors and at a cost of only $10 per person for two or three hours, the tours were cheap. As it turned out, it was well worth having a guide.
We arranged to go out around low tide on Wednesday (March 9th) with Manuel in his long green panga. Other than the fast, white power boats that are passenger ferries to the other islands, green seemed to be the color of choice for all the local boats in Puerto Villamil (perhaps it was required) and they all had broad Bimini tops to provide shade for the passengers. Manuel had talked to us a couple of times at the dinghy dock so we all felt that he was friendly and keen for our business. He kindly picked us up from our boats rather than meeting us at the dock. It turned out that his English was very limited and he really had quite a bit to tell us during our tour so much to his surprise, and with a little pride, Randall found himself as group translator as the others were even less proficient in Spanish than we were. There were a few complicated explanations that we could not quite understand even after a couple of attempts but on the whole with Manuel speaking slowly and simply, using lots of hand-gestures, and having studied our books about the wildlife, Randall generally did a very good job of translating for us all.
Only six of us made it on the tour as Marina was feeling decidedly under the weather. She had suffered from a sore throat and some congestion earlier in the week but had felt better on Tuesday when we went to the tortoise breeding facility. That was a much longer, hotter walk that she had expected and sadly it had knocked the stuffing out of her by Wednesday. It was rather discouraging to hear that this infection had been all through the town during the preceding month and the recovery time could be a couple of weeks. In an effort to avoid further contagion, we dubbed Kailani the “hospital ship” and the rest of us kept a respectful distance.
Our Tintoreras tour involved slowly skirting the edges of the islands near our boats to get a close look at the blue-footed boobies and penguins resting on the rocks. We were also shown some of the large sea lions on the moored barges and followed a small group of swimming penguins. According to our new bible (the De Roy Galapagos book) there are only about 1500 penguins in the Galapagos with 95% of them living in the cooler waters around Islas Isabela and Fernandina. Nesting sites are selected in shaded lava tubes or crevices and the birds feed in small flocks (2 -12 birds) near the shore. The population that we were observing at Puerto Villamil had only been documented since 2003 and consisted of up to 70 non-breeding individuals so we were particularly lucky to see them around the anchorage.
Of the 17 species of penguin worldwide, the Galapagos penguins are the second smallest, the only fully equatorial species, and the only species with populations in the northern hemisphere (northern Isabela). Naturally it appeared that sharks were the only predator for these penguins as the sea lions (which eat penguins elsewhere) seem to leave them alone in the Galapagos (other than the occasional chasing by young sea lions, apparently for fun, which we witnessed around Tregoning). However, the introduction of land predators (dogs, cats, and rats), along with diseases, accidental deaths by fishing, oil-spills, etc., have taken their toll on the species since the arrival of humans. The penguin populations are also highly sensitive to strong El Niño events when water temperatures rise, upwelling is reduced, and there are fewer fish around the Galapagos. Penguins starve in such conditions and the intense El Niños of 1982-3 and 1997-8 caused populations to crash with slow recovery in intermediate La Niña years. All these factors have probably contributed to the current population size being less than half what it was in the 1970s. Learning about the precariously small size of the penguin population made us particularly appreciative of the opportunity we had to see them and of the conservation work that is being implemented, such as the removal of introduced predators.
Having paid our respects to the penguins and boobies, Manuel dropped us off at the beginning of the island trail where we waited while he anchored the panga a little distance away and walked over the rocks to join us. There is a well maintained trail of crushed rock around the island with National Park signs and clear instructions not to leave the path. There were several other tours already on the trail so we took our place in the rotation.
Las Tintoreras is the Spanish name for white-tipped reef sharks and we had been promised that we would see them. I had assumed that this would be during the subsequent snorkeling but instead the path overlooked a narrow, natural corridor in the lava in which several white-tipped sharks were resting. Although some species of shark need to keep moving to force water over their gills, other species like nurse sharks and these white-tipped ones do not. Being nocturnal feeders, several of las tintoreras conveniently spend the day resting in this rock formation that is so ideal for us tourists to view them from a safe and non-disturbing distance.
While we saw sea lions, many of the bright orange sally-lightfoot crabs, and assorted other creatures on the island, the dominant inhabitants were the marine iguanas. These are the only lizards in the world that routinely swim and dive for food, grazing on algal beds covering the rocks. It is thought that this endemic species can gain little from trying to feed on terrestrial plants as their gut flora (digestive bacteria) is specialized for marine algae. Although they can submerge for between 2 and 45 minutes their activity and digestion can become limited by the cold if they stay in the water too long so they spend many hours a day sunning themselves on the sand or lava. If they overheat, they will “skypoint” standing up against rocks. We were amused to see iguanas piled all over the rocks and each other, as well as propped up looking to the sky. Their mottled but mostly black coloration blended well with the lava and once you really started to look carefully, it was shocking to see how many of them there were on the rocks.
The trail led around several sandy nesting areas where females were excavating holes in which to bury their eggs but this was about the only activity in the whole colony apart from the occasional pairs of males facing-off on the pathway. The marine iguanas appeared to be quite oblivious to the presence of people and this lack of response to mammals has made them susceptible to introduced predators (see the rather repetitive appearing pattern here?) Herons might prey on the very young hatchlings but the main native predator is the Galapagos hawk which will attack adult iguanas. Research has shown that even if marine iguanas cannot see a hawk, if they hear the loud, distinctive “hawk” warning given by Galapagos mockingbirds they will hide. This use of another species’ warnings as a predator sentinel has been rarely documented at all and never for a reptile.
When we returned to the panaga we saw several iguanas swimming away from the shore but none was feeding. We hoped to see some underwater when we snorkeled in the designated, sheltered bay on the edge of the islands but we were not so lucky. Having followed several other tours, the water was not very clear but it was pleasant to cool off in the water after being exposed on the black lava path.
There was one group of sea lions on the adjacent beach and a large, barking male entered the water nearby which grabbed my attention. However, he did not seem interested in the snorkelers but was probably making a routine patrol of his harem. Apparently male sea lions will hold a territory with several females for a period from a few days to six weeks during which time they may rarely come ashore, they bark almost continuously while patrolling for intruding males, and they do not feed. Inevitably, having fasted for several weeks they become pretty weak and will usually submit with little fighting when challenged to be replaced as the territory holder.
Manuel did not hurry us during our snorkel so our $10 tour must have lasted about three hours and it was well worth every penny. Las Tintoreras was a beautifully managed site and our new knowledge allowed us to enjoy even more the wildlife that we could see daily from the anchored boat and in our backyard.
March 08, 2011
The Ecuador Cruisers’ Guide’s (available and updated online) section on the Galapagos Islands had thoroughly whetted our appetites for all the interesting exploration that could be done around Puerto Villamil. So the evening after Marina, John, and Hillary had arrived on Kailani, we invited them, along with Adrian and Jackie (Ocean’s Dream), over to Tregoning for drinks and snacks (which inevitably end up being dinner). While we greatly enjoyed getting to know our neighbors, we also wanted to discuss which tours were of interest to everyone and whether we could try to bargain for good deals with the promise of seven passengers. The three group activities that emerged from our discussions were to tour Las Tintoreras, to ascend Cerro Negro and Volcan Chico, and to take a panga boat to Los Tuneles. Although there was some interest in trying to get a tour to see flightless cormorants at the north end of the island, we soon realized that this was difficult to arrange if you are not visiting on a tour-boat (it is a long, expensive boat ride from Puerto Villamil with little guarantee of success). After assigning research tasks per boat, we agreed to reunite on Ocean’s Dream two evening’s later to review our options.
In the meantime, there were many informal explorations to be made nearby. At the dock and adjacent beach it was fascinating to watch penguins, iguanas, bright orange Sally Lightfoot crabs, and sea lions that were oblivious to the general hum of human activity around them (but wary if approached too closely). Based on the animals we had seen around Tregoning, we had wondered whether the population of sea lions at Isla Isabela was composed of particularly small individuals. Looking at the sea lions lounging on the moored barges, local boats, and docks it was evident that the adult sea lions were no smaller here but unlike the pups, they rarely bothered to visit the boats further out in the anchorage. This was good news because our neighbors both had to shoo the occasional small sea lion off their decks but none of the less obliging adults.
One morning we took the short, delightful boardwalk through the mangroves to the east of the dock. No gratuitous tree-felling had been allowed just to accommodate upright humans so there were several places where it was necessary to duck low under the mangrove branches. There was a small platform at the end from which people could snorkel in a sheltered lagoon. Before we got in we saw a few penguins passing through so we were hopeful of seeing some underwater but we were not so lucky. It was also a bit murky when we were there so it was not brilliant snorkeling but we got a good look at one green turtle and noted some small patches of hard coral. There had been a few other snorkelers when we arrived but as we prepared to leave a large tour group arrived to enjoy this “approved” snorkeling site. We wished them well but were thankful we had been able to get out of their way.
The next day (Sunday March 6th) we took our bikes ashore to explore a bit further afield. We arrived at the dock about the same time as Jackie and Adrian who were planning to walk to the “Wall of Tears” visitors’ site and we had vaguely planned to go to the same place. Although it was much further away than the 6 km that the cruising guide had suggested, they found the correct route…we did not. Instead, we rode around some of the outskirts of Puerto Villamil noting how the town was expanding out into the barren lava landscape. We found where the cement blocks to build the houses were made (so contrary to our earlier observations, perhaps only cement is imported to the islands and the blocks are all made locally) and admired the beautifully finished wood, plaster, and paintwork that decorated the street-sides of many of the newer houses.
We started heading in the right direction to follow Adrian and Jackie but rather than following the sandy beach road out of town to the west we stayed on the bigger road that started to head inland. We were not disappointed because we soon came upon an old quarry where we could look down upon a diverse collection of feeding wetland birds including white-cheeked pintail ducks, black-necked stilts, gallinules, plovers, and several flamingoes. According to De Roy’s “Galapagos; preserving Darwin’s Legacy” (a brilliant 2009 book with fabulous photos and interesting articles on various research topics that we got in Puerto Baquerizo along with another excellent 2009 book that we are avidly reading “Darwin in the Galapagos”) there are no more than 500 flamingos in the Galapgos Islands. This population of the Caribbean flamingo has the pinkest plumage of all flamingos in the world. This was particularly apparent when a few of them took flight and flashed their brightly colored wings with striking black tips.
After leaving the quarries, our dirt road joined a much wider, smoother one that had clearly been paved by typical road-surfacing machines. We wondered how on earth they got such machines to the island. After cycling for several miles in a steady inland and uphill direction, we finally accepted that this was a road between the airport and the settlement of St. Tomás in the upland agricultural area and that we were nowhere near the “Wall of Tears”. The ride in the hot sun was a good work-out, especially for me given that my bike was stuck in top gear but we eventually turned around having decided that it looked as though it would be many more miles to the village.
The surrounding countryside was mostly vegetated with shrubs and cacti adapted to the arid, dry-season conditions. Since this was the wet season, everything was lushly leaved with plenty of flowers and it was against this greenery that areas of younger, dull-black lava stood out dramatically. We ate our picnic lunch by one high wall of particularly jagged a’a’ lava (the Hawaiian names are adopted here) that (to quote De Roy’s book) “forms when the solidified surface crust tumbles and breaks as it is conveyed on a still-molten layer below”. A few cacti and small bushy plants were colonizing this layer but it had a very raw appearance.
Following the paved road back to the airport, we then passed through an area covered with the smooth, “ropy-textured lava that results when very fluid lava cools with a stable crust preserving its liquid shapes”. This more shiny, pahoehoe lava was riddled with fissures and lava tubes and supported a slightly more mature looking vegetation of sparse shrubs and Opuntia cacti. We were lucky enough to watch a pair of Galapagos mocking birds feeding their nestlings on one cactus and found an unlucky Galapagos snake that was the only road-kill we noticed all day.
On returning to town we saw Adrian and Jackie who had been more successful in their mission but were tired, very hot, and happy to join us for a cold beer or lemonade. It has been nearer to 10 km each way (6 miles) to the “Wall of Tears” but there were plenty of interesting things to see along the way. Now that someone had done the reconnaissance work for us, we planned to bicycle to the Wall another day.
Mindful that we had research assignments to complete before our visit to Ocean’s Dream on Monday evening, we spent the morning in town with John, Marina, and Hillary asking some of the many local tour operators about options and prices for our anticipated expeditions. We enjoyed a delicious $4 lunch (including soup, main course, and a red drink that was like very dilute jello) at an unpretentious little restaurant (next to one more obviously trying to attract tourists). In the afternoon sun, we walked along an extensive boardwalk and nature trail through the local wetland system to a breeding facility for giant-tortoises. We saw a few flamingos and swimming marine iguanas on the way but the most noticeable feature of the ponds was how clear but red the water was, presumably a combination of highly tannic water and some salt-tolerant red algae. The latter were the explanation for the bright pink coloration of the flamingos.
This walk was somewhat enlivened by the presence of a young dog that had followed us from a hotel where we had checked on tours. We made several half-hearted attempts to shoo it away but much to the alarm of the National Park security guard, it was still with us by the time we arrived at the tortoise breeding facility. It was important that the dog not follow us around and find out about the concentrated collection of the young tortoises so John (who had visited the site the previous day with Hillary) sat outside with the dog.
Unlike the breeding center we had seen on Isla San Cristóbal where the adults were kept in semi-natural conditions, at this facility all the tortoises were confined to pens. The very young were caged for protection from feral cats, rats, etc. and the others were divided by size and site of origin into larger pens. There were many machineel trees in the area providing shade and copious numbers of small green apples. Several signs warned visitors not to touch the trees or fruit as some people can react very badly to contact and the fruit are very toxic to mammals but the tortoises eat them with abandon.
At the San Cristóbal breeding center (opened in 2003) the tortoises were all of one endemic species from the northern part of the island and they were saddleback tortoises. These tortoises have shells that appear a bit like Spanish-style saddles with a highly arched, flared opening at the front, and their necks and front legs are long. They occur in arid conditions where food can be limiting and they are adapted to reach high into the vegetation. Three of the other existing 11 species of Galapagos tortoise are saddlebacks. In contrast, three species that live at higher elevations, where conditions are moister and cooler, and ground-level food is more abundant, have very domed shells. The compact dome shape with a low opening for the neck may provide some protection from the cold.
There were three endemic species of tortoises at Puerto Villamil (facility opened in 1994), all from Isla Isabella but from different volcanoes. A fourth, domed species occurs on the island but has a large, healthy population that does not need to be supported by the captive breeding program. The Isabela tortoises in the program had shells that were somewhat intermediate between the saddleback and dome shapes although one population that had been saved from a recent volcanic eruption had noticeably flatter overall shape.
Having studied the tortoises and read the displays, it was time to return ourselves and the dog to town. We were not really certain whether the dog belonged to the hotel where it had joined us or whether it was just begging in the garden there. However, that was where Randall and John left it along with a small pile of dog food that had been purchased at a store along the way as an incentive for the dog not to follow them again. Introduced, feral mammals (dogs, cats, rats, goats, and donkeys) are a very big problem for wildlife on these islands either as predators or as competing and habitat-damaging herbivores and extensive programs are place on some islands (including north Isabela) to remove them. So we certainly hoped that this healthy-looking dog had a home in town and that it would not be tempted to return on its own to the tortoise center where its presence would not be tolerated.