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.