Travelogue


John Merck
July 14, 2000


Day 5 - Baltra and Santa Cruz:


Contents:

No Heave Ho
Baltra
Down Time
Black Turtle Cove


No Heave Ho: 6:30 AM. Alarm. Shower. Get dressed. Somewhere in all of that, I noticed that for all the rocking and rolling of the previous night, the boat was now stationary. Into the hallway and up the ladder to the lounge. People were milling around. Those from our group were simply awaiting their cordial invitation to breakfast. The rest, sitting next to piles of luggage, were preparing to disembark right after the meal. For them, the trip was drawing to an end. Glancing out the windows, I saw that we were anchored in Aeolian Cove on the west side of Baltra, the home of the Galápagos' first airport. Passengers who had embarked at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno for a four day tour would meet their flights to the mainland here. Later in the day new passengers would fly in and be escorted to the Corinthian. How much later only God and Ecuatoriana Airlines knew, and perhaps Ecuatoriana knew not. Reflecting on the Corinthian's obligations to these new passengers, it seemed more and more unreasonable even to suppose that we might possibly return to our original itinerary.

Scanning the lounge, I spotted one of our motion-sickness experts. I stepped up, dreading what I knew I was about to hear.

"Hi. How'd you sleep?"

"Oh, we slept fine," she bubbled. "We set our alarms to wake us up every four hours so we could take our medication on schedule, and that seems to have worked."

"Both of you?" I was incredulous.

"Yeah."

"Great," I said aloud. Inwardly I was thanking God. If those women had spent a third night driving the porcelain bus, I felt sure they would have come down with something serious. Now it seemed that, with luck and diligence, they would be able to enjoy the rest of the tour in health. With joy in my heart, I answered the cordial invitation to breakfast.

Sharing a final meal with the Corinthian's two parties of non-University of Maryland passengers, we were sorry to see them go. On a personal level, we liked both groups, a foursome of retired Australians and a couple of Californian aerospace engineers and their son, a recent high school graduate. On a practical level, it was rumored that the activities scheduled for all passengers were scaled to the lowest physical common denominator among them. We had been lucky to be thrown together with able-bodied adults who were as eager for physical activity as the young people in our group. The meal ended, the announcement came for them to embark, we said good-bye, and they buzzed off in a dinghy.

Baltra: For those staying aboard, much of this day was destined to be "down-time," as the Corinthian's crew awaited the new set of passengers. The plan for us was to snorkel, swim, and kayak in Aeolian Cove, or stroll on its beach until lunch, then hang out on the Corinthian until the new passengers arrived. Off we went, weaving past a couple of other tour boats in the cove, to a wet landing on the beach.

The Galápagos National Park does not encompass all of the archipelago. Towns such as Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and Puerto Ayora, and the agricultural land around them lie outside its boundaries, for instance. Baltra, however, is the only island that lies completely outside the park. Instead, for historical reasons, it belongs to the Ecuadorian military. During the Second World War, the US Army had persuaded Ecuador to allow them to build an air base here, part of the defense against a possible Japanese assault on the Panama Canal. The anticipated assault did not come, leaving the staff to while away the hours on this tiny isolated rock taking pot shots at its population of land iguanas, which was predictably eradicated. After the war, control had passed back to Ecuador. The island, barely large enough to accomodate its air strip, now funneled ecotourists into the park, but remained under the military's jurisdiction.

The contrast between Baltra and the islands of the park was stark and instructive. Utilitarian concrete buildings and aviation navigation beacons sprouted, at intervals, from the basalt boulders on the north and south sides of the cove. The beach, itself, was bisected by an aging concrete mole projecting a short distance into the cove. As we splashed up onto the beach, we noticed decayed pieces of plywood and other remains of human civilization alongside the shells and pencil sea urchin spines. As we began our snorkeling we realized that the water concealed far more human residue. Paddling out from the beach, the first recognizable thing I encountered was an automobile wheel, half buried in the sandy bottom. Pieces of plywood and numerous nondescript steel bars were abundant as well.

Marine life seemed outwardly unconcerned and took shelter in human debris as readily as they would have in natural shelters. Swimming away from the sandy beach and toward the cove's rocky margins, I encountered most of the usual reef creatures, including sea urchins, damselfish, wrasses. The sound of life, that incessant clicking of little jaws, rose in my ears as well. As I entered shallower water, inspecting the rocky bottom, I was even surprised to see something new. Bullseye puffers, little boxy fish with rigid bodies maneuvered by rapidly vibrating fins, hovered and cavorted across the bottom, the concentric bands of their pattern blending with the patterns of refracted sunlight transmitted through the surface waves. I killed off my roll of film on them.

Time passed. Occasionally, other members of the group would swim past or paddle by in a sea kayak, but eventually, fatigue would bring us onto the beach. Comparing notes, we found that people had found a range of artifacts including, most spectacularly, a large sunken boat. Sitting on my towel I scanned the rocks lining the cove. A pity we couldn't actually take a geological tour of Baltra. In the cliffs on its north shore, basalt was interbedded with thin layers of limestone - the remains of sea creatures deposited in the past when the island sat lower in the water. Watching the omnipresent swallow-tail gulls and noddy terns, I pondered what other bits of natural history might be found there. Suddenly, an entirely slate gray gull flapped lazily past. I sat up. A lava gull? There are fewer than a thousand individuals of this endemic species, and we had, so far, seen no sign of one. "Hey, everyone..." I started, but the bird had moved on. Shortly thereafter, we were rescued by the dinghies and transported to lunch on the Corinthian.

Down Time: After lunch, we enjoyed our usual down time interval plus some as we waited for the new passengers to board and for the Corinthian to take on fuel and supplies. After our afternoon meeting, people updated their notes and relaxed. I decided to take the opportunity of capturing photos of each individual for later use, pursuing every student who came outside and forcing them to pose (inevitably squinting iinto the sunlight.) I discovered one knot of students leaning over the rail of the middle deck watching activity in the water. A group of fish, bullseye puffers and striped chubs, were congregating at a point on the side of the Corinthian.

Occasionally, we noticed small clouds of a pale liquid being discharged from the vessel, the apparent source of the attraction for the fish. This went on for some time, as we speculated on the nature of the discharge. Surely they didn't discharge waste here in this harbor? We subsequently learned that they don't. The Corinthian, we were told, discharges waste only in deep water between islands. Even this practice would be frowned upon in US waters. Probably, the liquid was relatively benign - gray water from a kitchen dispose-all, perhaps. Nevertheless, we were struck by how easily even trivial activities of these tour boats effected the natural order. Weeks later, students would continue to refer to this episode as a distressing reminder that even the ecotourism industry, whose long-term effect should be to mobilize people to preserve pristine environments like the Galápagos cannot, itself, avoid degrading them in the short term.

By and by, without fanfare or fuss, new faces appeared among us. The new passengers had arrived and were observed exploring the ship and sunbathing. By mid-afternoon, the Corinthian was under way, bound for Black Turtle Cove on the north shore of Santa Cruz. Once clear of Aeolian Cove, the view was expansive. Baltra was a low shape on the vessel's left. Ahead of us, loomed Santa Cruz, a classic shield volcano topped by a line of small cinder cones. Peeping out behind Santa Cruz's western end was Pinzon. To the right and slightly behind us were the two Daphnes, tiny volcanic islets famous for the research that Peter and Rosemary Grant have conducted into the evolutionary dynamics of Darwin's finches. Beyond them, in the distance, were Rábida and Santiago.

During the passage, we gathered on the sun deck for a class, where an amusing incident took place. I had taken a seat near the middle of the deck and was facing out toward the students. Behind them, the ocean rolled. As I addressed the class, it abruptly dawned on me that something roughly the size and shape of a large quadrangular black beach towel had broken clear of the water behind the assembly and crashed back in, all in a split second. My lecture went something like, "Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah WHAT IS THAT!?!" To which everyone turned around, looked at the featureless waves, and, nonplused, said, "That's the Pacific Ocean, Dr. Merck." It had to have been a manta ray. Nothing else that shape was that big or was ever in the habit of jumping out of the water. I insisted it go on the life list, even though we never really got a proper look at one.

Black Turtle Cove: Baltra is separated from Santa Cruz by a narrow strait. Geologically this is a graben valley, a block of rock defined by parallel faults that has subsided with respect to its neighbors. At one time, before this faulting, Baltra had been a peninsula jutting from Santa Cruz's north shore. The practical result was that the trip was a short one, and we were soon ready to embark in the dinghies. Zipping toward the shore, we could see that we were headed for an unusual environment. The prevailing wind blows from the southeast, leaving the north side of Santa Cruz an arid, rain-shadow desert. Consequently, as we approached, the island presented a uniformly barren aspect, except for a strip of deep dark green vegetation along the shore - a mangrove environment. It was toward this strip that the dinghies steered.

The cove's entrance was formed by two spits of basalt that pointed roughly toward one another and whose continuation beneath the waterline was marked by the occasional rock breaking the surface. On each spit rested crowds of brown pelicans, noddy terns, and blue footed boobies. Once past this barrier, the cove became a quiet still amphitheater fringed with lush mangroves. Farther in, breaks in the foliage marked subsidiary insets.

"How did this form?" I asked, marveling at the cove's similarity to a river delta.

"From lava flows." Lenin answered. "The insets are simply the spaces between lava flows that have fingered out into the ocean."

Near one of these inlets, the helmsman shut of the outboard and he and Lenin grabbed two oars and began paddling. This, we were informed, was to avoid scaring the animals. We pushed past overhanging mangrove branches to enter the inlets. There, all was quiet. The surface was glassy still but for the ripples raised by insects gliding on its surface tension. Minutes passed as we paddled farther in. Off in the distance, something the size of a person's fist broke the surface. A green sea turtle surfacing to breathe. The mangroves, although quiet, were full of life. Juvenile brown pelicans stared down at us from their roosts. Rounding a bend, we came so close to a juvenile yellow-crowned night heron that we could have pushed it over with one of the oars. Yellow warblers flitted through the foliage.

Some distance away, groups of small triangular fins repeatedly broke the surface - The wing tips of golden cow rays. A school of them cruised past us, just beneath the surface. More turtles broke the surface. One was sufficiently close that we could see it clearly underwater as it submerged and swam away. Beneath an overhanging branch, two turtles surfaced in tandem - a copulating pair, the male hanging onto the female's back for all he was worth. In the shallows beneath another tree, a white tip reef shark rested. Away from the bank, a solitary spotted eagle ray flapped past. All the while, schools of golden cow rays patrolled the surrounding waters.

Our sojourn in this strange mangrove environment was another of those special moments in which I enjoyed watching the entire group be surprised by something wonderful. There were no idle minds during the hour we spent in the cove. Just alert eyes, fingers pointing at new sights, and the incessant clicking of cameras. As we reentered the main amphitheater of the cove, the sun was setting behind us and the full moon was waiting just above the horizon of the opposite shore. Cameras swung into action as everyone vied to capture the best "moon over mangroves" shot.

As the outboard was restarted, everyone prepared to return directly to the Corinthian. Black Turtle Cove was not finished with us, however. The birds that had lined the rocks of the entrance when we came in were now aloft and a frenzy of activity. A significant school of fish must have been entering or leaving the cove, because all around the entrance, birds were circling and diving, each in their own way. Boobies would descend from a considerable height and, as they approached the water, fold their wings straight back against their bodies, straighten their heads and necks, and plunge into the water like animated javelins, disappearing beneath the surface for several seconds. Often, several would come in at once. Pelicans would also dive on their targets, but made no attempt to straighten their bodies or submerge. Instead, they would crash in head first, taking gallons of water into their throat pouches, then slowly drain the water out. Noddy terns provided an interesting side show. Rather than hunting for themselves, they would attach themselves to pelicans, often landing on the big birds' heads, and wait for a small fish to slip out of their pouches. We motored straight through this welter of activity, into the open ocean, and toward the Corinthian, its lights glowing in the darkening twilight.

That night at dinner, our group effervesced over the afternoon's activity. The feeling was voiced that it was lucky our itinerary had changed or we would never have seen that marvelous place. For me, as well, it was also hard to be upset.

Day 6 - Genovesa
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