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.