Travelogue with marine vertebrates

Laura Allred

July 6, 2004

We began our journey with a short flight from Guayaquil, Ecuador to Baltra in the Galápagos Archipelago, with a short stop in San Cristóbal. At first glance when stepping off the plane, we could all tell just how different the environment was from what we were accustomed to. It was an arid climate with dry and cool air, as opposed to the rampant humidity we noticed in Quito and Guayaquil. The ocean was a beautiful blue while we were flying in, but the sky became slightly overcast as we loaded the bus to depart for our yacht. We were all anxious to get our first real glimpses of the supposedly fearless mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles that inhabited the islands.

Lo and behold, after climbing off the bus and grabbing our bags, we spotted our first creature: a sea lion. She was a small and furry female, and gave us only a slight glance as we hopped on the dinghies and motored out to the yacht. The San José was quite a formidable home away from home. There were eight staterooms for 16 people, and a wonderful 9-person crew accompanied by our tour guide, Luis. We had met Luis at the Baltra airport, and his enthusiasm was so infectious that we were getting antsy in preparation for our first island landing. Finally, we boarded the dinghies and took off for Las Bachas, a sheltered little beach on the north end of Santa Cruz Island. Luis proved to be very informative, describing a little bit about the general ecosystem, and allowing us ample time to take our pictures.

We came across a lot of intertidal pools and shallow areas on the beach where orange-tipped hermit crabs wandered and schools of puffer fish floated around, oblivious to our clumsy feet in the water. Basalt lined the beach, and was covered in hordes of Sally Lightfoot crabs. They came in all shapes and sizes, due to the fact that they have visibly different stages of maturity. We walked the rest of the afternoon, and eventually came across a large portion of beach scattered with broken eggshells and large depressions in the sand. Luis told us that this beach is one of the most important nesting grounds of the green sea turtles. These turtles live and feed their whole lives in the open ocean, and only the females ever come on land to nest and lay eggs. After this the females leave, and when the new turtles hatch they are left to fend for themselves. Blue herons, frigate birds, hawks, and pigs (which are introduced to the islands) prey upon baby turtles. Because of this high mortality rate, green sea turtles are considered an endangered species.

We finished our tour of Las Bachas, and returned to the yacht for a wonderful dinner and a toast with the crew. The first night was absolutely amazing. None of us expected the view of the Milky Way that we received after sunset. And to accompany our view, we had a wonderful late night encounter with a bunch of playful sea lions. Bed seemed inevitable and we had an early wake up call, so we retired for the night.

The next morning some of us awoke before wake up call, to catch the sunrise. We were in for quite a surprise when we realized the sun was rising right behind Pinnacle Rock on Bartolomé Island. We snapped away, taking advantage of the picturesque morning landscape and the way the light played off the water. Breakfast was then served and we loaded up on the dinghies for our morning hike. The summit on Bartolomé was 114 meters high, and we had about 400 steps to climb until we reached the top. The hike began easily enough with a few short stairs and some breathtaking views of Sullivan Bay. Then, the steps slowly became steeper and we strained to get our bodies up to the peak. The view was well worth it however, yielding a perfect view of one of the most photographed spots in the Galápagos Islands.

After the climb back down we motored over to the beach we had seen from the yacht. On the way we spotted a group of Galápagos penguins. Luis explained that there was an extremely small colony of 24 penguins living on Bartolomé Island. We were lucky enough to spot a few large groups of them over the course of the day. After this spotting we jumped onto the beach and walked over a small hill into a cove on the south side of the island that was simply teeming with life. Luis pointed out a small gathering of white-tipped reef sharks. They appeared to be feeding, but seemed very calm and rocked back and forth with the surf while we stood in the shallows and attempted to take pictures. White-tipped reef sharks are commonly found in the Galápagos as well as black-tipped and Galápagos sharks. They do not grow too large, and are fearless of humans. It was interesting to note that the creatures underwater displayed the same fearlessness as the animals on land. I learned that this is due to the fact that spear-gun fishing is prohibited in the islands, so most marine vertebrates have nothing to fear.

It was soon time to don the mask and flippers and have our first snorkeling experience in the islands. We planned to dock on the beach and snorkel our way around Pinnacle Rock, to see as much as we possibly could. It was here that we experienced the full range of underwater life in the Galápagos. Within 5 minutes of being in the water, a large green sea turtle glided seamlessly underneath us. Like baby ducklings following their mother, we kept our faces in the water and paddled our legs as quickly and quietly as possible to keep up with the turtle. We saw more of them, emerging out of the blue water and passing us, or merely lying on the bottom in a bed of sand and sea stars. We then moved on, toting our underwater cameras and seeing incredible types of fish. We came across chocolate-chip sea stars and more sea urchins than one could ever hope to see in their lifetime. Four of us broke off and headed around Pinnacle Rock, where shaded areas were beginning to form from the early afternoon sun. We noticed sea lions perched on overhangs, watching us as we swam around in circles like some strange kind of confused marine vertebrates. An adventurous female dove into the water and came closer to us to get a better look. Although female sea lions mature at 5 years and males mature at a younger age, it is still difficult to distinguish between a juvenile male and juvenile female. When the male sea lions grow up they develop a frontal/sagittal bump on their skulls, making them much easier to identify.

The female sea lion hung around in the water for a bit, and we soon realized that she was more comfortable with us than we were with her. She would float to the surface and lie in wait until we caught up, and then dive down and curl around us like a snake around a branch. Soon we found out that she was waiting for interaction, and that was when we dove down and swam with her. Sea lions, although a bit clumsy on land, are very agile in the water and spend their time feeding on fast swimming fish, surfing the breaking waves, or rolling around in the shallow waters. So with our cameras clicking away, we spent a wonderful morning in the presence of a very curious female sea lion.

After lunch, we switched to hiking clothes and made our way to the gigantic lava flow in Sulivan Bay on Santiago Island. We could see the lava from the yacht, but as the dinghies got closer we dropped our jaws. The lava flow was huge! It was a wonderful afternoon hike and Dr. Merck and I talked about the relationship in form between some of the pahoehoe lava and raku fired ceramics. Sally Lightfoot crabs greeted us as we came back from the hike, and we eventually boarded the yacht and ended another wonderful day.

The next morning saw breakfast and a view of Elizabeth Bay off of the southern inlet of Isabela Island. We boarded the dinghies and set off for a red mangrove lagoon where Luis promised a good show. The water was rushing out of the lagoon as we motored in, and looking down at the clear river beneath us we saw small fish fighting the current and pausing in small side gullies where the water was calm. We first noticed sergeant majors, a regal sounding fish with dark and sometimes yellow vertical bars. Not a very large fish, but impressive in its colors. We went further in, and then, suddenly, a parade of sea turtles made their way out of the lagoon, and we simply sat and watched as they brushed up against the dinghies and let the water take them back out into the bay. The sea turtles were covered in algae growth, and because of this their colors varied almost as much as their size.

We toured around the lagoon and learned about the flora as well as the fauna. Of course, we encountered more friendly sea lions and even caught a glimpse of one that had climbed a downed mangrove to nap in the shade out of the water. Sea lions have the agility to pull themselves up like that because they have enough strength in their flippers to support the bulk of their bodies. Seals differ from this because their fins aren't of much use, neither in water nor out. The sea lions escorted us out of the lagoon, and we hopped back on the yacht to go snorkeling.

The snorkeling in Elizabeth Bay was wonderful. The water was a comfortable temperature and clear as glass. We came across more marine life than we would anywhere else on the trip. The sea stars were abundant, as well as two species of sea cucumbers, and a plethora of fish. We saw four-eyed blennys in the shallows, which are small fish that sit on outcroppings and in crevices. They are characterized by their split-screen eyes, which apparently allow them to look out of the water and into the water at the same time. They were extremely common, and we ended up seeing them almost everywhere we went. My favorite fish that we saw while snorkeling that day was the streamer hogfish. Luis called them Mexican hogfish, saying that was what the Galápagos natives referred to them as. They had large bulbous protrusions on the front of their heads, and always looked like they had furrowed brows. Grumpy fish, I'd like to say. We also spotted many versions of the blue-chinned parrotfish and two species of wrasses. There were juvenile chameleon wrasses in the white phase, which is when they are so young that the colors have not developed on the fish yet. On the other end of the spectrum we saw supermale blue-chinned parrotfish. Supermales, as Luis described them, are females that have changed sex to help encourage reproduction in a school of fish where males are not present. These fish had a beautiful, iridescent rainbow pattern, and were large and easy to snap pictures of.

After the snorkeling, we ate lunch as the yacht made its way north to Urbina Bay, located on the northern inlet of Isabela Island. We snorkeled a bit, but the surf was pulling strong and the water was very cloudy, so we soon retired back to the beach. We then took an afternoon hike into uplifted areas of the island, where sea corals and shells of sea urchins were resting on the ground like they had been there all along. It was quite an interesting site. We also encountered a pair of courting land iguanas, and many skulls of dead goats. Goats, which were introduced to the Galápagos for farming purposes, had run rampant and were greatly damaging the fragile ecosystem that the PNG was trying so hard to preserve. So a giant effort was being organized to eradicate almost all of the goats on all of the islands, in a hope to replenish what they had taken. This basically meant open hunting season on goats. It was interesting to see how they were viewed as vile pests, while in North America we think of them as petting zoo attractions.

Our beach walk back to the yacht held a wonderful late afternoon surprise for us, which just so happened to be our first wild tortoise! Not too large but still impressive, the tortoise simply munched on vegetation while we crowded around and took picture after picture. It was a perfect ending to the day. We had dinner and fell asleep, exhausted after our hours spent under the sun and water.

We awoke in the morning at our next destination - Punta Espinoza on the northeastern side of Fernandina Island. Our original landing area was occupied by an extremely large bull sea lion, and so after a small diversion we landed on some slippery rocks and climbed up until we were all gathered. We then began our hike, where Luis filled us in on life habits and behavior of sea lions, marine iguanas, flightless cormorants, and blue-footed boobies. While motoring in, we had noticed the sea lions behaving very strangely. Luis had told us that they were merely "surfing" the waves as they broke. It was humorous, to see these creatures having just as much fun as a bunch of college students on spring break vacation would be having. While we were walking we saw sea lions relaxing on the beach as well as flightless cormorants chasing lava lizards and bringing nesting materials back to their sites. We spent a long while sitting on the lava next to a large pack of marine iguanas, who spent the morning sneezing and crawling all over each other. Marine iguanas are intertidal reptiles, and because they feed underwater yet breathe air on land, they intake a lot of salt from the salt water and the food they eat. In order to expel the salt in their bodies, they "sneeze" to forcefully push the hypersaline brine out of their bodies. This action results in a white salty layer encrusted on top of their heads.

As we finished with the marine iguanas we made our way back across the beach. We stopped immediately when Luis noticed something wrong with one of the female sea lions. She appeared to be in a lot of pain so we stood patiently while he went to take a closer look. After a few minutes Luis came back with a smile on his face and told us that the sea lion was in labor, and would soon have a baby. The shock was enormous. Many of us had only witnessed this on the Discovery Channel, and a few had never seen anything like this at all. We sat down on nearby rocks and watched as the mother went through a series of long contractions. Around 30 minutes later a baby was born. It appeared lifeless at first, but as the mother ripped off the amniotic sack the pup sprang to life, and started barking in a soft little high-pitched sound. The mother barked back, and Luis told us quietly that for the first few days mother and baby constantly bark at each other, to establish a relationship through smell and sound. Then, when the baby is more grown, the relationship is enhanced by sight as well. Barking is the main way that mother sea lions communicate with their pups.

No one wanted to leave. The scene was so perfect that we were convinced that Luis had set up the birth for us. We had no idea that we would be able to witness something so amazing and full of life while on a school trip. Still in a bit of shock, we boarded the dinghies and headed to the yacht for lunch. More time had passed than we had realized and we were starving and tired. We refueled and headed over to Punta Vicente Roca for some afternoon snorkeling. The water was deep and very cold, so we didn't snorkel for very long. We did get the chance to see giant ocean sunfish, with only large dorsal fins. From the boat they looked like sharks, but we never got close enough to see one up close. The captain saw a hammerhead shark from the bow of the yacht while we were in the deep water snorkeling, and pointed it out to us right before we slid off the dinghies into the water.

We hopped back on the yacht at 2 p.m., which for us was very early in the afternoon, and began our long trek to James Island. It was a slow evening, so we sat around and talked about the miraculous birth that we had seen by chance. Night fell and Luis brought us all to the bow of the boat to show us a common phenomenon called bioluminescence. Certain marine organisms, when provoked or touched or shaken, will emit a bright blue light. Off the boat, it looked like underwater fireworks. We begged and pleaded the captain to turn the ship lights off, and when he finally consented we all sat in silence and watched the beams of lights emerge from under the boat and drift off into the waves. The day ended exactly how it should have. It was amazing.

We awoke the next morning to the yacht pulling into James Bay, located on the northwestern side of Santiago Island. We landed on a black beach named Puerto Egas, and after a few group photos we headed on a short hike around James Bay to a sight of collapsed lava tubes. The lava was scattered with fur seals that had slid onto rocks during high tide and were now stranded 8 to 10 feet above the water line. The walk consisted mostly of geological features on the island that Luis readily pointed out. Afterwards, we snorkeled around the grottos that we had seen earlier. The shallow water provided for some very close encounters with marine life around the island. It was the first glimpse for me of the spotted porcupine fish, which was much larger than I expected and a lot more graceful. We also spotted flag cabrillas and creole fish along the rocky drop offs. The sea turtles were again in abundance and were also in very close quarters with us. It was a great opportunity to see them feeding and maneuvering their way around the shallow grottos. A final sighting that made Dr. Merck happy was that of a boxfish. Seeing both male and female in the same vicinity was a very nice experience as well. They were beautifully black with bright white dots, and the male had a large yellow streak across his "forehead."

The snorkeling, although beautiful, was also extremely cold. By the time we all arrived back at the yacht, our lips were purple and our bodies were covered in goose bumps. After a warm lunch and some extra clothes put on to warm us up, we sat for an hour or two and relaxed until the afternoon. The afternoon consisted of a soft hike and a stroll on a red beach. We anchored off of Rábida Island, which is known for its red sands. Then we snorkeled a bit, finally seeing our first octopus of the trip. We also managed to snorkel with more sea lions, this time a rambunctious pair that seemed to be courting each other. Their swirling antics were amusing enough to stay in the water until dinnertime. After Luis bravely dove in and found Annette's lost swim goggles, we headed back to the yacht. The evening stroll on the beach and around the island was very relaxing and gave up some great cliff views down to the ocean. The sea lions were loud and active, and the beach was such a beautiful dark maroon that it was difficult to restrain yourself from digging your feet into the sand with every step.

By the next morning we had anchored in Puerto Ayora, a small and beautiful town on the island of Santa Cruz. We took a trip over to the Darwin Research Center, where Luis showed us around. We sat to watch a movie, but I felt a little land sickness and had to sit for awhile to regain my stability. After the feeling passed (which took quite awhile, I might add), I followed the group towards the famous cage of Lonesome George. He is the last living tortoise from Pinta Island, where whalers and goats have ruined a once full and green island. He sat alone in his cage and looked glum, so we let him be and moved on to the rest of the center. We spent a lot of time in a cage with large tortoises, wandering around and eating whatever we put in front of them. They were so large and heavy that we simply stepped aside to let them walk past. The research center was such a wonderful place; it really showed the extent of the conservation efforts to keep a Galápagos Islands a protected haven for many endangered animals.

The afternoon was for souvenir shopping, and then we headed back to the yacht for lunch. We hopped on a bus afterwards and trekked up through the streets of Puerto Ayora until we reached Primicia Farm. The pastures we saw out the window were full of cows and plants, and much to our surprise, tortoises as well! A walk through the woods and the farm yielded the sight of 11 wild tortoises. It was a great habitat to see them in. We then traveled further up to see the twin pit craters at Los Gemelos. The forest was thick with vegetation, and we saw vermilion flycatchers and woodpecker finches. It was then back to the yacht for dinner, and back into Puerto Ayora to spend a fun night out on the town. We found a cute little salsa bar and danced the night away, while the locals watched and laughed. It was a wonderful day, and we all sat and talked with Luis, who lived there. Finally, the sleep deprivation kicked in, and we retreated to our rooms.

On our last full day in the Galápagos, we dry landed after breakfast and started a hike around the southwest side of Espagnola Island. It was a bird-infested day, with mating blue-footed boobies, nesting waved albatrosses, Nazca boobies, red-billed tropic birds, and finches galore. We watched albatrosses beak clacking during displays of courtship. It was an awkward romance but it worked out in the end. We all left laughing. The afternoon was for snorkeling, but for once I was feeling too under the weather to go. So instead I took and nap and did a little reading while everyone else explored the water to see eagle rays and reef sharks and more colorful and fearless fish.

The end of the night was definitely my favorite part of the trip. We hopped on the dinghies and pulled up to an incredibly serene white sand beach, just covered in sea lions and mockingbirds. There was no tour involved here, it was simply a time to unwind and take in the islands to their fullest. It was a time to appreciate all that we had seen and all we had learned about the Galápagos Archipelago. The sun set in a burst of fiery oranges and deep reds. The beach turned a yellow hue and the sea lions seemed to glow in the setting sun. We stood on the beach and looked at the blue water and listened to the sounds of the waves crashing and the sea lions breathing and barking. Not wanting to go, we reluctantly boarded the dinghies for our last evening ride and headed back to the yacht.

Seymour Island was our final tour stop in the morning and was alive with the nesting frigate birds that covered the branches around the coastline. We finished up our rolls of camera with pictures of blue-footed boobies, swooping frigate birds, and friendly pelicans that watched us leave. The yacht ride back to the dock was simple and a bit sad, and 3 days later as we all said goodbye at the airport, the reality of what we had just experienced set in. I have gained a new respect for evolution, conservation, and most of all, life. Quite a trip.