Travelogue


John Merck
July 14, 2000

Day 3 - Española:


Contents:

Yo Heave Ho
Boobies and Albatrosses
Punta Suarez
Albatross Colony
Blow Hole
Gardner Dive
Gardner Bay Beach


Yo heave ho: 6:30. Alarm went off. Ugh. A short time later, music started coming through the PA system. Grrr. Tom was already in the shower. I lay there and pretended to sleep for a few minutes more. Not a morning person. The engine hummed and the vessel rolled, yawed, and pitched. We were obviously still under way. I crawled out of my coffin and peeped out the porthole. In the gray morning twilight, the Corinthian's course was slowly converging on the dark outline of an island. It had to be Española. Tom emerged, I took my turn in the shower- like any other except that IT also rolled, yawed, and pitched. Rather like showering in a moving carnival ride. Soon I was ready to face the day. Abruptly the music ceased and the purser's voice filled the cabin, "Ladies and gentlemen, it is 7:00 AM and you are cordially invited to breakfast in the main dining hall." Hard to turn down so cordial an invitation.

As I started down the corridor, Betty appeared out of the opposite cabin. Although the dining hall was on the same deck as our cabins, they were separated by a kitchen area that was off limits to passengers, so to reach breakfast we had to pass through the lounge on the next deck up. As I opened the door, I noticed a human form, sleeping or half awake on a couch. It was one of our students. This couldn't be good. "Hello?" I probed, "are you all right?"

"Well," she squinted up as us, "my room mate got really sick during the night. I haven't thrown up since I was three years old, but once she started, I started, too."

"Oh, dear. Do you have medication?"

"We got some from the doctor. ("Nice," I thought, "that the Corinthian comes equipped with a doctor.") My room mate's checking to see if they can switch us into a room farther back. We were right up in the bow."

"Well, let us know how it works out. You probably should try to have something for breakfast." She seemed unenthusiastic but agreed. I made my way to the dining hall, hoping I wouldn't find everyone else in the same shape. To my relief, the worst that anyone else had to report was mild queasiness. I couldn't help noting that they ate enthusiastically, as well. Disaster averted? Breakfast was mostly American-style with concessions to local preferences. Main dishes varied from day to day - pancakes, bacon, sausages, etc. In addition, pastries, toast, jam, and porridge were always available in the morning. Above all, coffee flowed freely. Eventually, the room mate of the lounge sleeper, and presumed instigator of last night's ralphing party, slipped in.

"Hi. I heard. Did they manage to move you?" They had - to a cabin near the middle of the boat. Minimal pitching and yawing, then, though rolling should still figure prominently. I hoped the coming night would be more comfortable, but was more concerned at how little the two were eating for breakfast. The briefing the previous evening indicated that today's hike would be the most strenuous of the trip. Would they make it OK?

Boobies and Albatrosses: There were more University of Maryland students on the Corinthian than would fit on a single dinghy, even though all passengers could fit into two. Since the normal tour group on land consisted of the number of people who would fit into a dinghy, and there were two guides available, it was determined that we would make our land excursions in two separate groups. (Lenin had been joined, during the night by William.) To this end, Lenin earnestly informed us that our people would have to decide whether they wanted to be "boobies" or "albatrosses." In this way, the Maryland group was split in two, with me accompanying the boobies and Holtz the albatrosses. The division of the passengers into manageable shore parties, while necessary, was not ideal because each guide had distinct specialties and aptitudes. As things panned out, our students managed to get sorted into groups whose guides complemented their research projects well.

Punta Suarez: Our morning destination was Punta Suarez, a "dry landing," meaning that you could step from the dinghy onto solid land without plunging up to your knees in the surf. It didn't mean you wouldn't have received a dose of bow-wave spray before doing so. The "boobies" took the second dinghy in. As we approached, a flurry of fins or flippers broke the surface near the shore. "Cetaceans?" I asked. "No," said Lenin, "sea lions." Indeed, as we drew closer, it was clear that sea lions were everywhere. The landing was a simple cement platform that blended into a spit of black boulders at the end of a small beach. Among the boulders, bold red shapes stood out - sally lightfoot crabs. The first dinghy empty, it moved off making way for us.

It's passengers had not gone far from the landing when we arrived, being seized by the kind of dumbfounding shock that had afflicted them on the dock at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno the previous day. By the time I was on dry land, Holtz, at least, had found his voice. "This is incredible! After being ashore for FIFTEEN SECONDS we had already seen four of the classic Galápagos animals: sea lions, sally lightfoots, marine iguanas, and Hood mockingbirds." He skittered off. I looked toward a knot of students up ahead, bent over and diligently blocking the path.

Two feet to the side, two beautiful marine iguanas leaned upon one another. Until this moment, the lore of marine iguanas had been part of my academic store of zoological arcana. Now, suddenly, it was concrete and practical. The lizards' dull black bodies were tinged with bold red mottling, the hallmark of the Española race. Their faces were encrusted with salt - the product of salt glands that constantly pulled the substance out of their blood and dumped it into their nasal cavities, causing them periodically to snort a hypersaline brine out their nostrils and onto themselves and their companions where it crystallized like icing. Looking farther, I saw that there were many iguanas.

Slowly people moved down the path toward the small beach. Unfamiliar birds fluttered and stepped around us. About ten feet away, a Galápagos dove bobbed its head, oblivious. Ahead of me, other birds announced their presence vocally. Hood mockingbirds were gathering. They were not oblivious, but positively interested in us. The typical pattern was for them to land in front of one, establish eye contact, then whine and peep like a neonate begging from its parents. This, we learned was because they had learned that humans carry water bottles. On this uniformly arid island, they would follow hikers around in hopes that we would become either generous or careless with the liquid. For obvious reasons, we were instructed not to indulge them. When they got discouraged by us, they would attend to the marine iguanas, picking away their parasites.

The "boobies" spent several minutes strolling around the nearby beach, gawking at all the novelty while the "albatrosses" began their hike and moved off. Once everyone had attempted to capture the perfect marine iguana photo, we began to notice smaller details. Small land birds flitted through the brush, fearless, but darned difficult to ID or photograph as they popped through the thickets. By the end of the hike we had seen abundant warbler finches, large cactus finches, medium cactus finches, and had glimpsed Galápagos flycatchers and yellow warblers.

On the ground everywhere were lava lizards, so fearless and oblivious that we quickly learned to be careful not to step on them. These lizards vaguely resembled North American fence lizards (Sceolporus) in size and proportion, but were somewhat thicker in the middle. Their sexual dimorphism was interesting and conspicuous. Females, while generally a uniform brown on top, sported a blush of reddish orange on their throats. Males, in contrast, wore a bold pattern of dark and light gray spots and stripes, without the feminine throat blush.

All around, the island's geology proclaimed its alienness. The rocks were uniformly of basalt - flat black with no crystals visible to the naked eye, but shot through with vesicles that had once been bubbles in the flowing liquid lava from which the rocks had formed. None of this basalt had erupted recently, however. Its surface was polished and eroded by waves. Indeed, in all but a few places, the basalt boulders and pebbles were rounded, as if they had all been rolled about in the surf during some period of higher sea level.

The beach, itself, had appeared white from the dinghy - like a normal quartz sand beach. That would not be a crazy thing to expect here. Quartz is one of the most durable minerals at the conditions of Earth's surface, and although it is not the most abundant mineral in basalt, one would expect it to accumulate in sand beaches while other minerals like olivine or peridote would weather away quickly. Nevertheless, a glance at the beach showed that quartz, if present, was not the major ingredient. This beach owed its whiteness to the deaths of innumerable sea creatures. It was made up of their calcium carbonate shells, in various states of demolition. Clam and gastropod shells and their remnants were visible, but the lion's share of identifiable fragments were from echinoderms, including fragments of sea urchin shell and legions of thick spines from pencil sea urchins, items that I had previously only seen strung up into necklaces. Nowhere else would I see an "echinoderm beach." Regrettably, I didn't photograph this phenomenon. Had I only known how utterly different the constituents of each beach would be from the last, I would have attempted to keep a record of their diversity.

Albatross Colony: Finally, the "boobies" began their hike, winding down a trail through the island's thicket of palo santos and smaller shrubs. The exact nature of the "difficulty" of this hike quickly became apparent. Rounded basalt boulders were not only spread out along the shore. The entire island seemed to be paved with them. As a result, the trail resembled a path along a rocky stream bed, requiring us to keep our eyes on the ground and calculating our steps from one round black rock to the next. As we scrmbled along, we started to become accustomed to a background level of wonder, and managed to maintain our focus as Darwin's finches flitted teasingly past us in the scrub, although the presence of a Galápagos hawk perching on a nearby rock would still bring us to a halt.

After a short while, it became apparent that people ahead of us had started doing a good bit of halting, as traffic on the narrow path began to back up and tour guides began enforcing rest stops to allow groups to reestablish their spacing. Although we had noticed that the Corinthian was not the only tour vessel anchored off Punta Suarez, this was our first real encounter with the sheer number of tourists on the islands. In addition to the "boobies" and "albatrosses," at least two other tour groups were taking in the next attraction - the world's only breeding colony of waved albatross.

The first hint was the sight of the birds coming in to land. Although, with their long, slender wings, albatrosses are graceful oceanic soarers, they are, nevertheless, goose-sized birds for whom landing and taking off pose huge technical problems similar to those faced by aircraft. In fact, the albatrosses approached the problem of landing in much the same way as our Ecuatoriana pilot the previous day, passing high overhead then throwing themselves into broad skidding 360 degree turns as they crooked their wings, extended their webbed feet and lifted their alulae. In this manner they kill some speed and descend with "full flaps" and "gear down" to a running, stumbling landing in the clearing that contained the colony.

Soon, however, we were walking through the colony, among individuals and pairs of birds, some incubating large eggs. These birds do not nest. They simply stake out a suitable patch of level ground upon which to lay and incubate their egg and raise the hatchling. Although pairs are thought to mate for life, maintaining their bond requires some effort, as mates come together only to breed. The "boobies" managed to witness an elaborate ritual dance between two individuals cementing their bond. Facing one another, the birds would alternately or in unison bill-fence, point their beaks upward, open and close their mouths with loud snaps and guttural clicks, and symmetrically avert their gazes, facing the side with their beaks pointed down. Ironically, the "albatrosses," including Holtz and his video camera, missed this display.

Blowhole: Moving through the colony, we realized that the breeze had picked up and that we were moving toward the sound of surf. In fact, the clearing in which the albatrosses raised their young extended to the sheer cliffs that line Española's southern shore. One reason for their preferring this spot became apparent as we watched them take off by diving over the shear edge. Looking over the cliffs, we saw that in addition to albatrosses, swallow-tail gulls were also raising families, eggs and fuzzy chicks, here although they did so among the rock faces of the cliffs. At the base of the cliffs, marine iguanas piled upon one another in large groups, swam languidly through clear tide pools, and struggled in the surf.

Here, for once, we saw in-place bedrock, not wave-rounded boulders and pebbles. The cliffs are a fault scarp, marking the line along which the southern third of Española, now under water, was thrown downward along a normal fault. Along its length, the cliff face was divided into more or less vertical columns of basalt by prominent columnar jointing. From down the trail we repeatedly heard a throaty "whumpf!" as if someone were trying to start a faulty steam engine. This was the blowhole, a lava tube whose entrance faced the onrushing surf. As large waves poured in, their waters were pushed into fissures leading from the tube to the surface. The pressure of the wave would force them up and out in a spectacular noisy spray.

From here, we turned inland and returned to the island's north shore across outcrops of eroded rock faces and tide pools. Along the way we caught glimpses of lava herons, the Galápagos' basalt gray cousin to the North American green-backed heron, and passed a small colony of masked boobies. Pausing to rest and have some water, we were immediately visited by a mockingbird, who stood on the arms of at least three people, eagerly awaiting a chance to drink from their water bottles. Continuing back to the landing site, we passed a mother sea lion and its large baby, loudly suckling at her nipple, piled onto the dinghy, and returned to the Corinthian just in time to be "cordially invited to lunch." Everyone, including the nocturnal heavers, had a good appetite this time.

During lunch, the Corinthian moved from Punta Suarez, at the westernmost extremity of the island to Gardner Bay, on the northeast shore. The Corinthian's routine was for passengers to relax for an hour or so after lunch. On this day, the crew showed a Galápagos nature video in the lounge, although subsequently, the University of Maryland group would use this interval for daily meetings.

Gardner dive: Around 2:00, two dinghies departed for our first snorkeling event - Gardner Rock. this was a "deep-water" snorkel. That is, we entered the water off of the dinghy, never expecting to touch bottom. Sitting in our swimming suits and masks as the dinghy pounded toward the drop-off point, we were both cold, and anxious about the cold water temperature we had been told to expect. Upon reaching the spot, I was suddenly confronted with a boat full of faint-hearts debating about the water temperature and who ought to go in first. In one of the few moments on the trip when I actually felt like I was acting like a leader, I took the plunge. Simple enough, you make sure your fins are on and that you have your disposable box camera strapped to your wrist, hold onto your face mask, yell some expletive, and fall over backwards.

It was very cold for a few seconds, but one quickly acclimated. I had not snorkeled since the year 1988, and never in deep cold water, so I was slightly apprehensive as I righted myself and started looking around. The bottom, plainly visible, was at least twenty feet down. I saw lots of little fish, then, suddenly, something I recognized - a white-tipped reef shark, and that within a minute of entering the water. There are no sharks in Galápagos waters that are considered dangerous to humans. Of, these, however, the white-tip reef shark is reputed to be the most docile. According to the rules I shouldn't be afraid. H'mmmm. I aimed my box camera and clicked. The shark was moving slowly away. I lifted my head to tell the others that it was present. I put my face back in the water. It was gone.

The plan was to drift around the rock with the current to where the dinghies would pick us up. Ahead, a wall of basalt projected from the rock like a jetty and vanished into the water. A classic dike. Pity this was no place for a geology lecture. The dike was a remnant of an earlier time when Gardner and Española had been part of a larger island, and a vertical sheet of magma had been injected into a crack in its bedrock. The bedrock had eroded away, leaving the dike, projecting outward and continuing under water like a wall.

A short distance away, Lenin was gesturing toward a location along the dike. We arrived in time to see him dive toward another white-tip resting beneath the overhanging wall of the dike. As he approached, the shark moved off into a wide circle. Lenin hit the surface and the shark returned to its resting place. Other people had begun diving to investigate items of interest. Panamic cushion sea stars were common, as were gray nondescript sea cucumbers. I caught sight of a trumpet fish. Oh, for a picture of that. I dove and the fish was gone.

I can't begin to describe the impact of the abundance and diversity of life here, and at our other snorkeling destinations. Fish and echinoderms were everywhere, showing a great diversity of color, body shape, ecology, and behavior. Several species of damselfish pugnaceously defended territories of algae among the rocks, only to be overwhelmed by large schools yellow-tail surgeonfish who moved through hoovering up the green stuff like pushy sheep. Every large crevice seemed to be the property of a large-banded blenny like the one at left, a slender, rock-hugging, fish with an endearing clown-like characature of a fish-face. Much film as was wasted on them, as they were too shy and too well camouflaged to photograph well.

In fact, had we understood the limitations of the little disposable underwater box cameras we had stocked up on, we might all have avoided considerable waste. Only upon receiving our film back from the developers did we fully understand that the underwater box camera is just like its terrestrial cousin: optimized for photographing people about ten feet away. Although our pictures of larger fish and of divers worked out well, all our carefully set up shots of little reef fish and echinoderms were hopelessly out of focus.

One thing that photos would never convey is the remarkable sound of Life near the rocky shore. When one held ones breath, one became aware of this background noise - incessant clicking - the sound of thousands of little jaws, biting things. It was greatest near the edge of the rock and diminished toward open water, but never entirely absent. Much too soon, the dinghy crews lowered the ladders and signaled us to climb out. Sitting in the bouncing boat, I regretted not having boned up on reef-fish identification before the trip. This was simply not what came to mind when I thought of the Galápagos, yet it was clearly a big part of the learning experience. I tried to burn images of the fish I had seen into my head, for identification later.

Gardner Bay Beach: Back at the Corinthian we had time only for a brief shower before heading back into Gardner Bay, this time for a stroll on what is arguably the world's most attractive beach.

One dinghy had already taken the non-snorkeling passengers to the beach at Gardner Bay. Emerging from our cabins, we piled in the remaining one and followed. This was a "wet-landing." The boat pulled up to the beach and we slid off the bow into knee-deep water. One at a time, splish, splash, we made our way onto the sand. We walked up, deposited our day packs, and looked around.

Gardner Bay is a broad crescent. The beach was pure white quartz sand, not the echinoderm beach of Punta Suarez. At intervals, wave rounded blocks of basalt protruded, although they were outnumbered by other dark blobs - a sea lion colony was scattered the length of the beach. In the late afternoon light and the cool breeze, it seemed idyllic until one remembered that Española had no fresh water.

Some of us decided to snorkel in the shallow water. Ready for a change, I decided to accompany Betty and Nancy down the beach. As we started out, we observed people from other groups. At least one tour contained children (must be over six) who were playing on the beach and swimming in the light surf with the sea lions. I had to wonder how it might have changed my life to have had this experience of close contact with wild animals at that age (or while I was an undergraduate, come to think of it.) As we started out, a juvenile sea lion sliced through the surf and dashed frantically up the sand in front of us, only to flop motionless for several seconds. Was it exhausted, playing, or merely unconcerned with appearances? Suddenly it was up again, calling and dashing toward a knot of females. Checking each one out and determining that she was NOT mom, he was off to the next group. The little guy continued his frantic search for several minutes, punctuated by intervals of motionless flopping. We never saw him reunite with his mother, but there were only so many females on the beach.

Everyone had to try to pose with and otherwise get close to the sea lions. Most of these were females, although an old bull, a younger bull, and a number of juveniles were also present. Our guides had warned us about the males. Apparently, during breeding season, Galápagos tours don't allow visitors close to sea lion colonies for fear of attacks by protective males. This was not breeding season, and we were merely to exercise common sense and not to touch or closely approach the animals. Handing my camera to Betty, I prepared closely to approach a group of resting females. I kneeled and inched forward, thinking I might unobtrusively sit next to them. When I was about ten feet away, the closest one abruptly sat up, established eye contact, and made a loud rude call. I had been warned off. As it was with me, it was with almost everyone. Sea lions tolerated us if we didn't get too close. The big take home message, however, was that the tameness of Galápagos animals was not docility, it was merely fearlessness.

Returning to the landing area, we learned that the snorkelers had seen sting rays, puffers, flounders, and a range of other creatures not observed earlier. Farther down, a pair of American Oystercatchers, similar to the ones here, but fearless, were hunting for buried invertebrates. Two types of hermit crab had been identified. In all, a good naturalist's outing.

As I was walking to the landing site, I was startled by the sound of a commotion behind me. I turned to see my wife dashing down the beach with the young male seal lion in hot, angry pursuit. On land, Betty was faster than any sea lion, so he quickly broke off the chase. The story has it that he had been fighting with the older male, the "beachmaster," with little success. When one of our students approached to photograph this natural drama, the sea lion had decided to take his anger out on this new convenient target and charged. The student ran past Betty who became the male's new target. As the story unfolded, it was amusing, but also a serious reminder not to take anything for granted. No park rule had been violated, yet we had inadvertently disturbed and provoked a "tame" Galápagos animal. Had this interaction occurred in the water, the outcome might have been dangerous for us.

We were saved from any further acts of folly by the call to return to the Corinthian. A shower, and change of clothes, a cordial invitation to dinner, and we felt civilized again. After dinner, we met all-round introductions and reviews of progress on research topics, then it was off to bed for ME.

Day 4 - Floreana and Santa Cruz
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