As usual, we were called to lunch at 12:30, and by quarter past one, most of the group had either retired to their cabins or had headed up to the deck to read and chat. My roommates had taken the key, so I retreated to our cabin to join them. I found them curled up on their beds for afternoon siesta, and I made a poor attempt to quietly read up on my bunk. The swaying of the ship and the warmth of the sun that had set deep in my bones quickly persuaded me to drift off to sleep.
The Ambasador I fired up her engines hours before and was currently trekking across open sea between San Cristóbal and Española. The marker-board next to the receptionist desk predicted that we would arrive at our destination at four, a later hour than usual. However, I awoke quarter past four, and it felt as if the engines were still full-throttle. Fortunately, we were not scheduled to snorkel this afternoon; otherwise, the water would have been too dark to see much.
It was roughly around five when the ship anchored and the radio announced that we had only ten minutes to get ready before disembarking. The three of us, Mel, April, and I, always felt a little rushed, and usually, I would leave something behind. This time, it was my water bottle... I know, it was very, very irresponsible of me even if April was willing to share hers.
We rushed off to the island of Española and soon, we set foot on the ancient 3.4 million year old lavas. Since a stable source of fresh water was absent on this island, a significant variety of terrestrial life would be lacking beyond populations of nesting seabirds. The four species of seabirds Luis promised we would see were Blue-Footed Boobies, Masked Boobies, Tropicbirds, and Waved Albatrosses. Also, we could also spot some Galápagos Doves, Galápagos Mockingbirds, and several of the species of Darwin Finches on our hike through the seabirds' nesting sites. The ever-elusive Galápagos Hawk also haunted the island, and today, we were hoping to get more of a glimpse of one.
We hopped up on the smooth black rock of the short jetty when Luis called our attention to a pair of marine iguanas. The baby, Luis estimated, was about five or six years old while the adult was past thirty and not quite middle-aged yet: allegedly, iguanas have the life span of 70 years.<
"Can you imagine for seventy years, just lying around, sunning on a rock?" I wondered aloud, sounding a bit appalled with such a boring life.
Some responded that hey, it didn't sound too bad; until they remembered that the life of an iguana involved eating algae and snorting salt out through their noses. However, algae do come in a wide variety of flavors. In the Galápagos, there are 300 species of algae, but when El Nino hit the Islands several years ago, the algae abundance suffered due to the rise in the water's temperature. Of course, with their food supply devastated, the iguanas inevitably suffered a sharp decline in population as well.
A portrait of the elder and "baby" iguanas. Despite the appearance of the adult guarding the younger on its back, iguanas are mostly independent and merely share a sun-baked rock with one another.
Española is also a home to California Sea Lions. On the beach, we saw a group of several females, a few males, and a couple of young pups. The pups were about the size of a human toddler and were only five and six months old.
We caught sight of a Hood Mockingbird, an endemic species to Española Island, with a grasshopper in its mouth, and Jessica befriended a Praying Mantis nymph that briefly landed on her hand. Suddenly, shrill chirping filled the late afternoon air as a number of Tropicbirds flew from the cliffs farther up the trail, north in our direction. We have seen this seabird only in flight, and it was nearly impossible to snap a shutter in time as these swift, shockingly white birds darted past us. We were awarded with three more attempts as other birds jumped out of their nests and journeyed out to sea. Most pictures, according to Dr. Holtz, were destined to come out as unrecognizable smudges.
A picture that has captured a tropicbird clearly! Tropicbirds have a long tail feather much like the tail of a kite, and a scarlet beak. Also, they have a black mask-like marking and black-tipped wings.
The reason why the tropicbird was one of the camera-shy challenges on the trip was because the birds are either in flight and fishing, or perched in their nests high up on the cliffs. They are very shy of human activity, and rumor has it that once they land in their nests, tropicbirds hardly move again until they take off again. In other words, the only time a tourist could ever photograph the bird, it has to be in flight.
Soon, the tropicbirds were out of sight, and we move on up the trail. We heard the familiar sounds of whistles and cackling of male and female Blue-Footed Boobies, and we weren't surprise to be tripping over nesting circles and angry females that lined the rocky trail.
Since the trails were littered with ocean-carved stones, I spent a lot of the time with my head bowed, watching my footing. We ventured farther up the trail, making our way gingerly toward the Blow Hole and albatrosses, when Luis shouted, "Fragataaaas!"
He gestured and several trail mates started to bubble with excitement. My attention snapped alert, and just ahead, not far from the trail boundaries, sat a large marine iguana with pale smoke-blue markings running from his brow down along his back. He watched us nonchalantly as we immediately broke from our direction and veered toward him. Upon closer inspection, his copper-blue markings were laced with dark red spots, and while he posed for our pictures, Jacob called our attention towards a second blue iguana, hiding nervously under a rock.
"We're looking at this one and didn't even notice the other. He saw us and he ran," Jacob explained as we stared at the slender tail poking out from under a rock.
Once we were all satisfied with our snapshots, Luis motioned for us to return to the trail, and we hiked a little uphill to grassier terrain.
The blue iguana poses majestically for the giddy Americans.
The breeding season for Masked Boobies occurs October through December, and since the chicks had long since fledged, the Masked Boobies weren't half the entertainment the Blue-Footed Boobies were. Most spent their early evening preening their feathers after a day of fishing far out to sea. We were told that Masked Boobies preferred Española because it faced out over deep Pacific Ocean waters filled with squid. The abundance of squid nearby was also one of the reasons the Waved Albatrosses chose Española for their nests.
A Masked Booby preens himself.
After snapping a picture of a Masked Booby, I again lowered my head and carefully stepped rock to rock. I paused a moment when the long, dried grass before my feet started to quiver and out burst an enormous centipede. It scrambled away from the slanting sunlight, its bright red legs rowing its slithering black body over the trampled vegetation. I cried out, "Oh! Centipede!!"
"Where! Where?" everyone doubled back, cameras ready. Dr. Merck found where it burrowed itself in the brush and shook the plants in attempt to scare it back out. To everyone's pleasure, the critter hurried back across the path and skittered back into the grass.
A pic of the bug. To give an idea of dimensions, its body was at least an inch wide and six to eight inches long. Luis admitted that he got bit by the Galápagos Centipede when he was young, and the bite causes fever and fatigue for the victim.
We picked our way along the coastline, passing by Masked and Blue-Footed Boobies and making our way toward the famed Blow Hole. The Blow Hole is a lava tube with an end collapse right on the shore and the other end collapsed higher up on the beach. During high tide, when a wave would hit the one end, the tube would act as a pipe, and spray would shoot from the other end like a geyser. The sound of the spray was much like that of a whale popping up for air, and thus the lava tube was dubbed the "Blow Hole."
Unfortunately for us, we arrived at the site during low tide. The Blow Hole could still function during low tide, but the spray couldn't reach its twenty-foot height and it wouldn't occur as often. We stuck around, waiting with our cameras trained on the beach opening of the tube. The geyser did launch once but none of us got a picture of it. It was getting late, and we still hadn't seen the albatrosses, so we abandoned the Blow Hole.
The blowhole's best effort.
Not long after we turned away from the lava tube, we spotted large birds in flight overhead. Among them was a Galápagos Hawk, and it hovered in one spot while albatrosses glided on the same wind. The trail hugged the cliff's edge, and we passed by a huge, towering rock with a few dozen red iguanas clinging to it.
We had seen large assemblies of iguanas before, but the scene looked creepier considering how high up on the rock they were (see right).
Turning away from the ocean's breeze and looking inland, we found that we had entered a meadow filled with nesting Waved Albatrosses. This species of albatross has a wingspan of two meters, and they chose Española as their sole nesting site in the world because of this one cliff (right). The wings of the albatross are so large, the bird cannot flap them to give them lift off the ground, so the albatross would approach the cliff, wait for a wonderful strong gust, work up a running start, and then leap from the cliff with wings spread.
Dr. Holtz pointed out that this cliff was the "flight school" of every Waved Albatross in the world. The strongest winds would blow against these cliffs in the months of August through October, and it would take a hatchling four months to grow and eventually learn how to fly during the windiest season. By December, nearly all of the albatrosses would have had left Española for their flight back to the mainland, and adults would return mid-April. A fledgling would not return to the island for another four years, until it is mature and ready to mate.
At the time we went trumping through the peaceful menagerie of Española, the albatrosses were incubating their eggs. Each couple would mate for life and have one egg every year. The eggs were very large, about the size of softballs (see picture at left) and weighed 235 grams. Sometimes, a female for unknown reasons would abandon an egg, and if another female discovered the egg in time, she would adopt it and raise it as her own.
When we first approached the nesting area, we saw one male mosey his way diligently toward the cliff, and on Luis's command, we all watched patiently, our cameras keeping him in frame. First, the bird approached a nesting female and clacked beaks with her and then headed straight for the cliff
A farewell kiss.
A strong gust came quickly, and with a swift pounce into the air, the albatross took off and soared out to sea. Another albatross came along with the same intent, but the winds would not come. After several attempts of flapping and readying his wings, the bird was granted a tremendous gust and off he went.
Our group of fourteen soon broke off into smaller groups as some were ready to explore away from the cliffs. We headed deeper into the island and passed nesting birds.
We stumbled across a patch of Tiger's Eggs, which are bright yellow relatives of the cucumber with fuzzy spines. Luis split one open, and the watery, sweet smell of cucumber was unmistakable. I was told that on a previous trip, some people had exclaimed excitedly that they had found albatross eggs and had then gestured toward a patch of tiny yellow spheroids lying in the grass (left: a patch of Tiger's Eggs).
It was getting very late and the sun was almost set, so we hiked the rest of the trail with little pause. Deeper in the island, we saw Warbler and Small Brown finches and Jessica and Kelly found what they deemed the "World's Cutest Lava Lizard," which was only two and half inches long.
When the trial looped around and met up with the trailhead, we spotted a Galápagos dove and a Galápagos Hawk perching in the shrubbery lining the trail. However, the hawk was difficult to photograph, and we were granted only mere glimpses of the beautiful bird of prey. We soon regrouped while we awaited our panga. We had a late start, but the tour allotted us time to fully enjoy Española for the half-day we would were there, and after the easy-going hike, we were ready to return to the ship and settle down for dinner.
We signed ourselves in and we had time enough to drop off our things back in our room and freshen up a bit before all the guests were summoned to the briefing and eventually to dinner.
Day Six was a very relaxing day, but regardless, my appetite was as ravenous as it was all the days before. Our University of Maryland group of fourteen had adopted the other two members of the Fragatas group earlier in the week, so at dinner, we would take up two tables of six and one of four. The couple that was with us for a while had left Las Fragatas group to join their recently arrived family, and this reduced the table of four to a table of two. For this evening, Ms. Shaw and I volunteered to be the exiles, but soon Dr. Merck joined us.
Dinner satisfied my growling tummy, and after dessert, Dr. Holtz sat down at the "Exile" table. Pleasant conversation was startled when the lights dimmed and a parade of crewmembers exploded from the kitchen doors on the opposite side of the dining room. Presenting a cake in front, they sang loudly and the guitarist strummed enthusiastically while they marched through the dining room.
"Hey, Christina, is that an anniversary song?" Dr Merck asked while we clapped in beat.
"Hm, no, it sounds like a Birthday song cumpleanos yeah, birthday." I answered and Ms. Shaw nervously chuckled to herself, hoping she was the unwitting victim. Ms. Shaw and I agreed that the restaurant practice of cornering a birthday patron can be embarrassing for some, and I teased, "Yes, Ms. Shaw, I'm gonna nominate you for Birthday Girl next time!"
The entourage of singing crew continued their trek, turning and heading in our group's direction. Ms. Shaw's eyes widened as she cried, "Why are they still coming?"
I denied any wrongdoing just as the group abruptly turned toward our table and ceremoniously placed the cake before Dr. Merck and finished their song. We clapped, very much entertained, and the singers looked at each other and broke out into another song.
We continued to clap and laugh as streamers and confetti snowed down for another three songs. We thanked the singers, and Dr. Merck began distributing his cake around to the three tables.
Dr. Holtz, who smiled quietly through most of the presentation, admitted that he learned of the scheme five minutes beforehand when one of crew asked him who John Merck was, but no, Dr. Holtz did not set it up.
"The passports, they checked the passports!"
Then it made a little more sense because the day we boarded the Ambasador I, they took our ticket packets and our passports, explaining they would return the passports and our airline tickets the next day. Seemingly, they scanned the passports for upcoming birthdays of any passengers on board.
It's a shame no one had a camera to record on film the metallic green Birthday Boy hat Dr. Merck donned while we ate the tasty cake. The celebration and humor eased our tired muscles and we assembled for our after-dinner meeting a little more awake.
Seated on the cocktail deck, we shared our ideas and feelings about the day, and soon the short meeting was adjourned. We had only a short time left in the Islands, and this night I felt a sore twinge of realization that the trip was coming to an end. I went to bed, hoping my pictures would turn out well and waiting excitedly to tell those at home about my trip. The hardest part so far was remaining incommunicado with everyone back in the States, but all that meant was a bunch of stories were saved up to tell everyone at once. Now, my biggest concern was, what to get for everybody?
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To day 7a: Darwin Research Station and Puerto Ayora