Galapagos
In The Beginning
Galapagos
Year 1
New Caledonia
Vanuatu
South Africa

Yate Pelikano
Puerto Ayora, Galapagos

We spent four days on a guided tour of the  Galapagos aboard 'Pelikano'. This was a much more comfortable and informative way of seeing many of the islands than we could have accomplished onboard Gryphon. Of course the accommodations were a little less  commodious; we had a cabin with two bunks almost long enough to stretch out in and a bathroom the same length, but only wide enough for a toilet at one end and a sink opposite. The showerhead jutted out of the  wall about forehead-height, exactly where you stand up after using the toilet. Not only do you get a thump on the head, but you get wet to boot.

Pelikano's first stop is Post Office Bay on Floreana island.  It's 6:45 A.M. and our guide, Champion, starts ringing the ship's bell to wake everyone up. Somehow I think I'm back at summer camp. At 7 AM breakfast is served and we eat  with our fellow travelers - two Americans, an Australian, and ten Italians. At 8 AM, the first 'panga' leaves for the island. It takes two trips in our home-built 14' launch, and  we experience our first 'wet landing' which means simply that we bail out into knee-deep water carrying shoes, cameras, sunscreen, backpacks, water, etc. Ashore on the white sand beach, a lava heron  awaits us. Unconcerned, he watches as we approach and take photographs from a distance of only six feet or so. Ignoring us intruders, he stalks and feeds on a dragonfly in a nearby scalesia bush. (More natural harmony.)

About 100 feet back from the beach in a  clearing there is a wooden barrel on a post. The first such barrel was placed here in 1793, and ever since visitors have been leaving mail here for subsequent visitors to retrieve and  deliver. Whalers often called at these islands on their passages to and from home ports, and now visiting yachts and day-trippers leave postcards in the barrel and look through the  mail for any that they can deliver. We find none addressed to the Marquesas Islands.

A quarter mile further inland we come to a hole in the ground - an opening to a lava tunnel. Two ladders, recently placed, make  access to the first section easy. Less than 150 feet along however there's a sharp 10-foot drop that must be negotiated by hand climbing. Seven of us continue on and the others retreat to  the surface. By now the only illumination is from our meager flashlights; when they're off, it's dark! The tunnel descends slowly for a hundred yards or so and then we're in water. From here  the lave tube continues down, but is at or below sea level. Off come the shoes and we go another 150 feet or so, feeling our way over rocks and around boulders. At this point the water  is getting deeper and we're at the edge of a very long, very narrow underwater lake. Off come the clothes and we're swimming - a hundred feet underground! The tunnel roof slopes  downward as we swim toward the deep end of the pool until it finally meets the water. With five of us in the water we turn off all the lights. Dark. Very, very dark. The flashlights come  back on and the imagined monsters and beasts vanish with the light. We swim back, shake dry, and head back to the opening, emerging into full sunlight, feeling as strange and decadent as a Tuesday matinee.

 Back to the boat and we head to the Devil's Crown - a circle of rocks offshore very akin to Gordon Rocks. We anchor nearby in Punta Cormorant and panga over to the snorkeling site.  The water's chilly, but very clear. Lots of schooling fish - surgeonfish, pacific spade fish - also two colorful Moorish Idols with their bright dorsal fins streaming along a foot or more in  length. Plenty of familiar, yet strange, parrot fish, trigger fish, wrasses, blennies, and damsel fish. These are the same fish families we recognize from the Caribbean, but the species are  different - different colors, slightly different shapes, different sizes. Welcome to the Pacific Ocean!

Back to the boat, a brief lunch, and then off to the beach at Punta Cormorant. This time the  beach is green - a result of the mineral 'olivine' in with the volcanic tuff. The green bits are about the size of large grains of sand and they seem to ride on top of the predominant black  sand. It doesn't take a lot to give the whole beach its distinctive sheen. A short walk to the south side of the island and we're on a beach exposed to the southern seas; waves are rolling in  producing a beautiful surf. Along the surf line are schools of spotted eagle rays - fish that we encountered occasionally and only singly in the Caribbean - and here were schools of 10 or 12  feeding in the shallow waters. Meanwhile cruising just outside the surf line, white-tipped reef sharks. Back to the green beach and just enough time to visit with the family of sea lions  lounging among the rocks. As long as you stay ten feet or so away, they hardly seem to care; maybe they'll open one eye and watch you watching them. Only if you get too close, or invade  the territory of a protective male, will they bark. Also in the rocks, a pair of blue-footed boobies nesting! It's true - their feet are blue, like sky-blue. Cool. Lots of photos.

 Back aboard Pelikano again and we up anchor bound for Enderby Island. This is a small, circular, and volcanically peaked island just offshore from Floreana about one mile in diameter  and six or seven hundred feet tall. The island is very steep to and Pelikano is able to circumnavigate the island about 100 feet offshore. Ashore hundreds and hundreds of masked  boobies and great frigatebirds, singly and in pairs. One of the frigatebirds has inflated its bright red throat sack in an effort to score a date for later.

 Finally we anchor long enough for sunset and dinner. This has been a long, full day; I've lost track of the number of new animals I've seen today. And I'm still amazed at how close we  were able to get to the sea lions and the boobies. After dinner the guests sleep and Captain Klever moves the boat to Espanola.

Friday, and we awake in a calm anchorage sheltered by Gardner island, just offshore of  Espanola. Unlike the tall and obviously volcanic Floreana, this island is much lower, flatter, and therefore much older. It is the southeastern-most island in the Galapagos that is still above  water. Islands older still and now merely seamounts below the surface are further to the southeast. After breakfast we panga to the beach for some R&R. Yesterday was such a  strenuous day - what with sea lions and sharks and herons and boobies and lava tunnels and .... Was that just one day? We're not alone on this beach; we have to step carefully around all  the sleeping sea lions basking in the sun. This beach is a white sand beach, but if you look closely there are also green bits here although not as plentiful as on Punta Cormorant and they  don't produce the obvious green sheen that that beach displayed.

Sea lions are literally everywhere lounging in  groups. Some groups are apparently dominated by one male, much larger than the females and pups. If another male ventures near the harem, the current male barks madly and chases the intruder away. Now the word  'chase' might paint the wrong mental picture in this situation. In the water the sea lions are extremely graceful and very, very fast swimmers. While we were diving, sea lions  would approach from in front of us, swim fast - much faster than we could ever hope to - straight at us, and at the last moment veer away.  They were inspecting us and probably playing a bit. But on land it's the complete opposite; they're as ungainly on land as they are eloquent in the water. Picture first of all a large brown  dog lying asleep on it's belly, its legs tucked out of sight. Now quadruple the size of it - females weigh 250 pounds, males up to 500 - make it 6 feet in length. Now onto this body, in  place of front legs and paws, put a couple of short flippers about a foot and a half long. Take the tail and the hind legs and merge them altogether into a sort of double-flipper-fish-tail thing.  On land the sea lion moves by propping itself up on those front feet, raising its head about three feet above the sand, and performing a sort of waddle-shuffle as it "walks" on the front feet and drags the rest of the body along. To watch one male chase another  through a sleeping harem of females and pups is wonderfully humorous. The large male, obviously enraged, is barking and, well, running through, across, and over the others in his attempt to  chase the interloper. The females, awoken from their sleep, bark and snap at the males. Meanwhile the new intruder is also running through the harem, no doubt making promises of  eternal adoration and describing romantic weekend getaways to his country estate. Eventually one of the males must leave. After about a week of corralling a harem, propagating the species,  and chasing off competitors the exhausted male retreats to a bachelors pad where hundreds of males coexist in harmony away from the distractions of the female of the species, drinking  beer, watching football, nursing their wounds, and no doubt thinking about the next time.

Sea lions may be the largest and most apparent animals here but they are not the only company  we have on the beach. Endemic Espanola mockingbirds (Hood mockingbirds) scavenge all around us, on our blanket, in our pack - obviously unafraid. Galapagos doves (endemic) feed  near the scrub at the back of the beach. Red-billed oyster catchers work the rocks in the shallows. Blue-footed boobies nest in the higher rocks. It's an open air aviary.

 A brief lunch and a siesta, then back to Espanola; this time the west end of the island - Punta Suarez. We land on a small concrete dock and step around sea lions, pelicans, marine iguanas  and blue-footed boobies all of which are just lounging on the dock. It really is just like an open air zoo! The Espanola marine iguanas have distinctive red colorings which those on other  islands lack, being only black and gray. They cluster in groups, side-by-side or piled on top of each other, but always with their heads pointed toward the sun. Because they take their water  from the sea, they have a special gland which helps them to process and extract salt from the water. As a result they are repeatedly spitting salt. Quite audible, I imagine an old western with  a rugged bunch of cowboys sitting around, chewin' and spittin'.

We walk for a quarter mile along the  shoreline, being careful to step around the sea lions and the marine iguanas. These animals just don't understand the National Park paths! The trail winds inland through shoulder-high  scrub until we reach a clearing of sorts. Here on dried and trampled grasses are dozens of nesting waved albatross. These magnificent birds with a wingspan of up to 8 feet are endemic to Espanola, nesting only here. We  see albatross eggs and juvenile birds - the young chicks being big, brown, ungainly looking things, something like a miniature hen.

We also witness the courtship ritual of the albatross. The birds - about the size of a  Canada goose - face each other with their heads a few inches apart. One starts the dance by bending its long neck from side to side, lowering its head to horizontal or lower. A coo-ing sound accompanies this maneuver.  When the mate starts to weave its head, they both stop, straighten their necks high and lean toward each other. They nip each other's long beak with a lot of sharp snapping and  clattering. No harm is apparently intended as they do not peck at the head or eyes; the noisy kissing goes on for 15 or 20 seconds. Then they stop. One will lift its head and beak straight  upwards, stretching, and give one loud, sharp snap of its beak. The sound echoes in the long narrow throat and comes out as a distinctive 'plonk'. For a while then they mimic each others  movements, stretching, dipping, touching the group, clattering. Then stillness. Both birds look around as if noticing their surroundings for the first time. "Oh! Is someone watching?" A slight  rearranging of feet, and it all starts again. We watch four or five rounds by one couple - about 10 minutes. Then they are finished; they waddle over to a nesting area and sit. Every now and  then a little kissing, but no more grand display.

A short distance further is a massive cliff area, dropping straight down 200 feet into the  crashing sea. It is here that the albatross must come to take flight. It seems they cannot run or flap fast enough to start to fly from flat land; they need the height advantage offered by the  cliffs. I imagine the adolescent albatross looking down 200, 300 feet into the breaking waves and surf as the adult nudges it forward and ... over the edge! Yikes!

This is also a major nesting area for masked boobies, gray gulls, and  long-tailed tropic birds. A young masked booby, still brown overall without the distinctive facial mask, sits in the middle of the path near the cliff's edge. It ignores we human intruders even though we are  sitting only three or four feet away. As a particular adult booby flies overhead, the youngster stretches its neck and beak to the sky and lets out a mighty "Squawk!" I think its lunch has just flown past  without stopping. The baby looks at us. We have nothing to offer but a shiny wristwatch. It pecks, but dislikes the flavor.

Around another corner in the trail moving inland this time and we are  in blue-footed booby land. Hundreds of birds; some single, some pairs, some groups. Nests are everywhere, including in the middle of the trail. We literally step  around birds nesting on eggs. Their nonchalance in the presence of people was emphasized by the number of birds asleep on their nests as we walked only feet away. These are beautiful  birds and somewhat strange with their blue feet. They are a svelte and slender bird, standing  about 18 to 24 inches tall when erect. Their bodies are generally white and the wings brown. At the neck a shade of gray starts to mottle with the white, darkening towards the head and beak. The beak is brown, long, and  narrows to a point. The eyes, a bright yellow with a dark center. And of course, they are standing on sky-blue legs that end in sky-blue webbed feet. Wonderfully bizarre.

Meanwhile around us, oblivious or perhaps  simply unconcerned with our presence, the booby courtship ritual proceeds. Not just one pair this time - dozens. In this case the male performs a display for the admiration of any nearby  females. He stands tall, his head high and proud, tail feathers erect. He arches his back, spreads his wings to their full width of three feet or more, and emits a distinctive, airy whistle.  This results in some animated discussion among the nearby women. While he's waiting, the male stands and sort of waddles in place, alternately lifting one foot then the other, as if  marking time. If one female dominates, the male repeats the display directed toward that bird. Eventually the display is judged sufficient and the male is tested for his hunter-provider skills.  He'll pick up small twigs and other gifts and offer them to the female. In one case we saw a male pick up a twig, take off in flight, make a circle of maybe a hundred yards or so, then land  again in the same spot and offer the female the twig. During the whole flight the female sort of watched nonchalantly out of the corner of her eye until the male returned. We also watched  apparently flawed or unskilled displays as lone males stood and preened and whistled to no avail.

Back to the boat landing, stepping around more marine iguanas, more sea lions, more boobies.  And yet our guide laments the paucity of life here now compared to before the 1997-98 El Nino. During that phenomenon when the warm water of the western Pacific is forced to the  east by changes in the prevailing wind patterns, the water temperature around the Galapagos rises as much as 10 degrees. This causes the normal sea life to move away from the area,  affecting the food chain for all the animals in the region. Apparently many animals died during that recent meteorological event. Still for us, we are amazed at the abundance and the  diversity of life we've seen in just two days. And their apparent disregard for human presence makes a thrilling opportunity for firsthand observation of these unusual animals and their behavior.

 The next morning we awake to find ourselves in a bright, clear lagoon on Santa Fe island. The lagoon is formed by a long narrow peninsula of land that nearly encloses a bay. The result is  great protection from the wind and waves; the anchorage is secure and very comfortable.

Today we are going hiking on Santa Fe. We panga to the beach - and lo! more sea lions. Every  beach we visit, more sea lions. Our hike takes us across the low flat plains behind the beach where we see a Galapagos snake and the Santa Fe land iguana (yes, of course endemic to  Santa Fe). The plains end at a long, sharp rise that gives the path a narrow steep ledge up which we scramble. Along the path there is considerable erosion and we notice numerous  plants tagged with numbers and dates, no doubt part of a study of the effects of tourism on this island. At the top, now several hundred feet above sea level, we have a commanding view  of the lower plains, the lagoon, and Pelikano. A Galapagos hawk flies past and lands nearby. The hawk represents the top of the food chain here. More land iguanas, more finches, more  mockingbirds, and now a pair of hawks. Good grief!

When we return to the beach, a team of scientists (endemic) from the Darwin Center are  filming the sea lions and collecting their feces. Five years of college for this? We panga back to the boat, but no snorkeling is permitted. Our guide, Champion, is concerned about breaking  any park rules while the scientists are there. Champion is a free-lance guide who has been properly trained and certified by the national parks, but who must go from boat to boat each  week seeking a long-term position. There are 400 guides here. All of course speak Spanish and most speak English. About 20 also speak German, as does Champion. If he is doing an  English language group, he makes $20 a day; German, $40 a day. Not much pay for a competitive and uncertain job. Champion by the way is a native Ecuadorian, from a jungle tribe high in the mountains. Endemic.

Our next stop is the Plaza islands - the same  place we anchored between and after our diving at Gordon Rocks. Our tour of South Plaza island starts at the boat landing where we depanga. (I figure if you can deplane, you can depanga, right?) The guide books mention  a very territorial male sea lion that claims the boat landing as his own. Sure enough Charlie is there as the first panga group lands. We watch  from Pelikano as the first group is reduced to a cowering cluster at the end of the dock while Charlie stands and barks at them. The group jumps down from the dock one by one and passes  Charlie by climbing from rock to rock to reach the island. Our group, the second to land, reaches the dock while Charlie has slid off the side of the landing and is lounging on the rocks.  The first of our group, one of the Italians, starts walking straight up the dock fiddling with his camera as he goes. Head down, he's completely forgotten about Charlie. Charlie has not  forgotten him! Charlie clambers back onto the middle of the landing just in front of our oblivious friend. They both start yelling and waving at about the same instant, one in anger  and the other in fright! Satisfied, Charlie saunters off to watch the rest of us pass.

I think sea lions are named that at least in part because of their resemblance to house cats. All  along the shoreline they're dozing everywhere in all sorts of impossible postures. On cliffs they sprawl over rocks. On the beach, a craggy rock of volcanic tuff can be a pillow or a prop. They  seem to spend the bulk of their days sleeping in the sun. When they decide to head to the water, they only make it about 6 of 8 steps at a time before they simply drop from apparent  overexertion and sleep until they awake again and remember what is was they were doing or where they were going.

Our walk across this island takes us past dozens of large land iguanas. For some  reason not understood this island supports a disproportionately large population of iguanas. Everywhere, iguanas. More iguanas, more sea lions, and on the southern cliffs more birds. This time it's the nesting area of  swallow-tailed gulls, distinctive with their red-rimmed eyes. Also Audubon shearwaters, common noddies, and long-tail tropic birds. These latter are a beautiful white bird with a  dramatic, long tail. We encountered their cousins in the Atlantic ocean between Bermuda and the Caribbean; Bermudians call them Bermuda Long-tails and have made them famous in  jewelry, clothing, and post cards. Tucked into a hollow in the cliffside is a long-tail's nest with a white and black, fluffy chick. Adorable.

 After the hike, we take a long snorkel around North Plaza island. A moment after jumping into the water we're greeted by a large male sea lion who checks us out and is perhaps warning us  not to stray too close to his territory. I don't need to be told twice! It's unnerving at first, but eventually fun, to see a 500 pound animal swimming straight at you out of the murky distance.  The snorkeling is very good; the water clear and protected, although not warm. There are plenty of green sea urchins and pencil-spined sea urchins. We also see a colorful Guineafowl  pufferfish in its bright yellow phase and a blue and brown pacific burrfish. The highlight is several white-tipped reef sharks. One passes just under Raine's nose! Did you ever hear a scream come out of a snorkel?

It's our last night on the Pelikano, and  the end of the week for all the other guests as well. We anchor in flat calm seas in a narrow channel between Islas Santa Cruz and Baltra; the latter has the airport. The crew is presented one last  time along with a celebratory cocktail, evaluation forms are passed out, and National Park passes are collected. The night ends with dinner and a bon  voyage cake baked by Juanita, while the Professeur de Salsa gives the ladies dance lessons. This has really been a week at summer camp!

 Early, early Sunday morning the bell rings calling all campers to a pre-breakfast hike on North Seymour. This is a popular last-minute stop as at least four other tour boats have the same  idea, disgorging 50 inquisitors upon the sleeping sea lions, boobies, frigate birds, and probably iguanas too. Naturally there are sea lions here, but we're impervious to their entreaties by now  and just step around them; the attraction here is booby chicks and frigate birds. After a few days of sightseeing in the Galapagos, you can get pretty selective in the sights you see.

 Sure enough, it's not long until we come to the first of many booby nests with a baby chick. Little white fluff balls, they look as if they're squashed cotton balls with eyes under their  sleeping parents. The adults look at us curiously if they're awake, but are otherwise unthreatened unless some oblivious Italian nearly steps on one. Then the adult raises up and  faces the intruder, but makes no aggressive move. They apparently don't know what a predator is. What an ideal nesting ground.

 The other sight on North Seymour is male frigate birds perched in trees with their bright red throat pouches inflated. These sacks are great leathery affairs that the males inflate to the size  of a softball to attract and seduce females. The inflation takes about 15 minutes to achieve and seems to last about a half-hour. (Wow!) A frigatebird alone is an awesome sight - a large  bird to begin with, they have a long, hooked beak and a wingspan of six feet or so. They can feed by simply swooping low over the sea and plucking small fish from the water, or by  harassing other birds until they regurgitate food they've already eaten. Ummm, tasty.

This is the extent of our visit to North Seymour since all but two of the guests are flying out  this morning. So back to Pelikano for the short trip to the dock at Baltra. Everyone else disembarks but we stay, invited by the crew to spend the rest of the day! Working in the  Caribbean on charter sailboats we were used to doing "24-hour turnarounds" - old guests off, clean the boat, reprovision, new guests on in 24 hours. But these guys - a two-hour  turnaround! Clean eight cabins, refuel, reprovision, change one crewmember, and voila! 7 new touristas. We meet three Dutch, two Brits, and two Americans. They're curious about what  we've seen but we try not to describe much - it was such a surprise for us all along the way and we would hate to set expectations that weren't met for some reason.

 Our first stop with the new gang is Bahia Tortuga Negra, a lagoon surrounded by mangroves on low volcanic mounds. A very still and placid area used by green sea turtles for mating. Also  a home to many juvenile rays and sharks. We see several large turtles in a quiet cove. Then we stop the panga in a narrow channel where the rising tide is flowing in. Shortly we begin to see a  lot of fish as they enter the lagoon. Also 3-4' white-tipped reef sharks and a golden cownose ray about the same size. There are also spotted eagle rays and diamond stingrays.

 Along the way we pass a blue-footed booby (one) perched on a rock. The new group goes crazy! A blue-footed booby!! Everyone to one side of the boat; the boat tips madly, cameras  are whirring and clicking! We chuckle knowingly, but take no pictures. The group looks at us strangely.

Our next stop is Las Baccus. We're on a white sand beach and egad! no sea lions!! What's this?  We snap a dozen pictures of this rare event while the rest of the gang is now looking at us and whispering among themselves. Meanwhile a marine iguana is spotted! Click, click, whirr, whirr.  A pelican! Whirr, whirr, whirr, click, click, click. Were we ever so na´ve?

But our moment comes - behind the sand dunes in a salt marsh are four large flamingoes. They feed by sifting salt water through their sieve-like beaks,  filtering out hundreds and hundreds of minuscule shrimp and other animals. Their pink color apparently is a result of this shrimp diet. They're big, they're beautiful, and they're very close.

 The day ends and Raine and I are panga'd to the dock. A car takes us back to Puerto Ayora, to Gryphon. Adios to Champion, Klever, the others, and to Pelikano. What a fantastic tour! I could not have  imagined the abundance and variety of life that we not only saw, but moved in and among. There's nothing in the world that compares to the Galapagos  and we've had an intimate and enjoyable experience with the wildlife here.
 

Copyright 1999 by Jeff Williams