Travelogue


John Merck
July 14, 2000

Day 4 - Floreana and Santa Cruz:


Contents:

Itinerary change
Calling for Ralph
Punta Cormorán
Flamingoes
Ghost crabs
Devil's Crown
Puerto Ayora
Pacifitel
Charles Darwin Research Station
Departure


Small changes: 6:30 AM. Alarm. Music on PA. Tom in shower. Grrr. My routine was becoming established. Peeping out the port hole, I saw that we were approaching a different gray silhouette of an island, this one marked by steep conical hills - Floreana. Tom emerged. Shower. 7:00 AM. Cordial invitation to breakfast. The day began.

Our first activity was to be an unpleasant chore. During the previous evening's briefing, we had been concerned when William indicated a different trip itinerary than the one we had expected. During William's slide presentation, Lenin had handed me a copy of the official confirmation of the itinerary which, upon later inspection, added color to our concern. The changes from the itinerary our travel agent had supplied were not that great, however the new itinerary did omit the western islands of Fernandina and Isabela. We would lose the chance to see some of the most active volcanoes up close, and would miss flightless cormorants, the penguin breeding colony, and a pristine population of land iguanas. Of course, we would pick up other stops, but we would not be able to prepared for them.

We found representatives of the Corinthian's company in the dining hall, showed them our travel agent's itinerary, and asked them what was up. Puzzled, they took the material away to confer with the Corinthian's officers. Tom and I breathed a sigh of relief to have that over with, and got in line for breakfast.

Calling for Ralph: At about this point, I noticed the two students who had been so motion sick the night before last. Last night they had been moved to a less problematic cabin and fortified with Dramamine. Surely between that and their fatigue from the days activities they had managed to sleep well. After all, I had passed the last night with no recurrence of my first night's queasiness. With optimism in my heart, I asked how they had slept. Bad move. Alas, they had not slept well. In essence, as soon as the Dramamine wore off, they were sick again. The medication had only postponed their symptoms until the middle of the night. Betty urged them toward the blandest breakfast food available: plain toast. Although I didn't say it, I was now officially worried. If these people spent many more nights worshipping the porcelain idol instead of sleeping, they would probably contract some real illness. And yet, it seemed that everything that could be done was being done. I turned to my own breakfast.

Punta Cormorán: The morning plan was to visit Punta Cormorán, the northernmost point on Floreana. After this, people could go directly to a deep-water snorkel at Devil's Crown or snorkel off the beach at Punta Cormorán. As a result, we braved the cool morning air in little more than Tevas and swim suits.

As the dinghies approached, it was clear that Floreana was conspicuously unlike Española. The former was low and, but for the fault scarp cliffs at its southern edge, nearly flat - the eroded remains of an extinct shield volcano that had probably never had any steep slopes. Floreana's profile was a profusion of conical hills, many of whose bases had been eroded into cliffs by waves. The cones were mostly composed of material that erodes quickly. The presence of these geologically ephemeral cones revealed Floreana's relatively recent volcanic activity.

The most conspicuous difference was that not only was the shore not lined with basalt boulders, basalt seemed complete absent. Instead, such "bedrock" as was visible was made of welded tuff - a soft granular crumbly stone that forms when hot particles of volcanic ash fall from an eruption and adhere to one another. Since tuff does not flow after it falls, greenish brown layers of it, one for each eruption, sloped at very high angles from the peak of the cone that formed the tip of Punta Cormarán down to the shore, where they were truncated by wave erosion. This tuff cone was linked to the rest of the island by a saddle-shaped isthmus lined by sand beaches and covered with powdery soil. Beyond the isthmus, a cinder cone - literally an unconsolidated pile of clinker-like volcanic cinders - rose up. Between these two cones, we were told, lay a brackish pond with its population of flamingoes.

As the "albatrosses" took of on their hike, the "boobies" strolled on the beach. Here, the bulk of the material came from the tuff deposits on either side. Sand grains ranged in color but blended to a pale brown at a distance. Lenin pointed out that olivine was present in the beach sand. That was weird. Olivine, a major component of Earth's mantle, is unstable at surface conditions and gets chemically altered very quickly. And yet, there the glassy olive green grains were. the material on the beach could not be that old.


After an impromptu geology lesson, we looked at the plant life. A large black mangrove tree grew directly out of the beach. mangroves can grow in direct contact with salt water, and like the marine iguana, they need to unload excess salt from their systems. Lenin pointed out that the leaves were covered in a fine residue of salty powder, then showed us the source - a salt gland at the base of each leaf. Beneath the tree, a crowd of semi-terrestrial hermit crabs sought the shade. Here we became acquainted with Polistes versicolor, a recently introduced wasp species. Numbers of these buzzed fearlessly through the foliage, sipping nectar from the mangrove's flowers. Although they never behaved aggressively to us, we immediately disliked these creatures. They seemed to favor mangrove environments, and in them, they were an omnipresent reminder of how easily the Galápagos ecosystem can be disrupted. We later learned that they are implicated in the decline of the mangrove finch, with which they now compete for food.

Flamingoes:At last our hike began. The trail to the flamingo pond was a smooth dusty track, totally unlike the rocky roads of Española. It was also a botanical treat, lined with Scalesia, Cordia lutea, and hairy morning glory, and shaded by white barked palo santos and green barked palo verdes. Very soon, we reached the pond, a broad expanse of still water separated from the line of mangroves along the shore by a broad flat of pale gray mud. Beyond the opposite shore, the cinder cone rose impressively, its flanks covered with stark white palo santos. In the distance, brown pelicans and blue-footed boobies dove for fish. Off to the left, a group of flamingos waded deliberately across the shallow water, periodically dipping their heads to sift up tiny crustaceans. Soon, they disappeared around a bend in the shoreline and we were left dodging Polistes. Of all the creatures of the Galápagos, the flamingoes seem the most improbable - refugees of a tropical island environment stuck in an arid land, dependent on one ephemeral body of water. We learned that they apparently had not been in the islands that long, judging from their noticeable fear of humans.

We back-tracked, and were soon on a trail leading straight across the isthmus. Where it wound past the north shore of the pond, we saw, at some distance, a larger group of flamingoes resting in relative privacy. More mangroves, more Polistes. The trail passed between the pond and the Punta Cormorán tuff cone, emerging at the north end of a white sand beach. We paused for Lenin to explain that the beach was a nesting ground for green sea turtles, who bury their eggs in the dunes above the high tide line. We were to stay below that line.

Ghost crabs: I had noticed that the beach was covered with balls of sand about the size of a pea. These, we were told, were made by crabs constructing their burrows. It seemed improbable that the small handful of sally lightfoots on the nearby rocks could be responsible for the thousands of little sand-balls we saw, but as people began to move out, I was won over. The sand literally came alive with ghost crabs, dashing for their burrows and surging away from the oncoming humans. Ghost crabs that I have seen on the east coast are very pale yellow or gray. Even though they lived on white sand, these Galápagos ghost crabs were a colorful salmon-pink. Like their North American cousins, however, they wasted no time finding shelter. Those standing near their holes slipped quietly into them, while those caught out in the open zoomed and careened toward safety like spring-powered toy cars on a living room floor. After a few good photographs, people gave up chasing and cornering the terrified crustaceans and took in the area's other inhabitants. White cattle egrets roamed the slopes of the tuff cone while dark brown noddy terns ("Naughty terns?" someone asked.) skimmed over the waves.

Devil's Crown: Soon, we returned to the landing site on the olivine beach to meet the dinghies. Those who were going to the deep water snorkel passed cameras and extra clothes to those who weren't waded out and climbed aboard. Those who were staying put on masks and fins and went to join the handful of sea lions in the surf. Advancing along the tuff cone cliffs, the dinghies rounded the end of Punta Cormorán and proceeded toward Devil's Crown. At the previous evening's briefing, this activity had been described in slightly ominous tones. Devil's Crown was a partially submerged volcanic crater whose rim had been breached by the ocean in several places. The current there, we were assured, was swift, and to defeat it one had to swim exactly where they instructed. We would be dropped off upstream of the crown, drift down its seaward side, staying close to its rock wall, then squeak into the first opening to the crater's interior, where we could swim freely. If we went too far, we would be swept away by the current. Understand, being swept away merely meant suffering the indignity of having a dinghy come after you, not being lost forever at sea. Nevertheless, I had several able bodied students ask me if they thought it was safe for them to go, even though I, a middle aged fat guy, obviously intended to do so.

Over the side we went. Lenin had mentioned that we might see scalloped hammerhead sharks on the back side of the crown, so we kept a lookout in the deeper water. Alas, no sharks, but as a Gardner the previous day, we saw may other things. The bottom on the back side of the crown dropped away precipitously, and it was clear that we were sampling a different fauna than we had at Gardner. Instead of damselfish defending territories in shallow water, we saw fast swimming Creole fish, sleek creatures with tall crescent tail fins, and others like them. Still, reef fish were there. At one point, perhaps thirty feet down in the rocky shadows, a perfectly day-glo yellow fish about the size and shape of a grapefruit emerged from the crevices - the yellow morph of the guineafowl puffer. Someone dived toward it. The ridiculous creature demurely retreated into a crevice as if it thought it were capable of being inconspicuous. When it came back out, another student managed to dive toward it and squeeze off a photo.

We were approaching the crown's downstream side. Time to act smart. We crowded close to the wall. As we neared the entrance, a pair of gorgeous moorish idols, their diamond-shaped bodies painted in bold yellow and black bands and dorsal fins narrowing to training streamers, peeked around a rock. Ah, for a photo of those. Alas, they were shy as well and I couldn't stay there. Reluctantly I slipped into the interior. This was like entering a different world. Whereas before we had swam over a deep dark rocky bottom, here everything was shallow and brilliantly lit. In the most sheltered part of the crown a white sand beach had actually accumulated, and light reflecting up from the sandy bottom added to the ambient illumination. Best of all, the water was noticeably warmer. As I paddled in, something massive crossed maybe twenty feet in front of me - a male sea lion. Thinking about my wife's encounter the previous day, I pondered whether to follow it or head the opposite way, but it really didn't matter. He was gone in an instant.

I can't overstate the beauty of the light in this place. Large schools of black striped salemas cruised a foot or two beneath the rippling surface, reflecting the sunlight. In six feet of water, a neon blue pyramid sea star stood out like a beacon. Inside the crown was in some ways more like the environment the previous day at Gardner. Wrasses, damselfish, and yellow-tailed surgeonfish competed for algae and broad-banded blennies darted in and out of the crevices. In a practical matter, the water inside the crown was sheltered and calm compared to anything else wee had experienced. People who had been swallowing sea water in teh choppy swell at Gardner were able to explore comfortably here. But, all too soon, the dinghies arrived to scoop us up and take us to lunch.

Puerto Ayora: Back on the Corinthian, as we staggered into our showers and wrestled with clean clothes, the engines rumbled to life and the vessel headed north for Santa Cruz, the site of our next destination about three hours away. That gave us time for lunch and a class meeting on the sun deck.

As we were approaching Puerto Ayora, the largest of three town on Santa Cruz, a representative of the Corinthian caught up with us and explained the itinerary situation. The itinerary the boat was now following was its normal one. The itinerary our agency had given us was used only when the boat was chartered and occupied by a single group, which was not currently the case. The captain had reconfirmed with the home office that the current itinerary was the one they should follow. We asked if we could place a phone call from Puerto Ayora to our travel agent after we landed this afternoon. Yes, indeed, we could.

And so it was. The Corinthiananchored far out in Academy Bay, Puerto Ayora's natural harbor. We boarded the dinghies and buzzed between the freighters and tour boats anchored closer to shore. The town center and municipal docks were at the western end of the bay, but the dinghies headed toward the eastern end, up to the concrete docks of the Charles Darwin Research Station. The "DRS" is the research branch of the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands, a scientific non-profit organization. Among its many functions are the rehabilitation and captive breeding of the most endangered species of the Galápagos, including the Galápagos tortoise and the land iguana. The dock was surrounded by black mangroves, with their inevitable Polistes. Lounging on both dock and tree branches were adult and juvenile marine iguanas. These were the first we had seen since Española. Unlike those, the Santa Cruz iguanas were flat black, with no hint of red mottling. As we wandered off of the dock, the students departed for a tour of the DRS while Tom and I climbed in a taxicab and headed off to make our call.

Pacifitel: Telephone service to the mainland only came to the Galápagos in 1991. Not surprisingly, the infrastructure to make an international call is not yet well developed. To do this, we traveled to the offices of Pacifitel, a one-story tan Kleenex-box of a building in central Puerto Ayora that seemed to be the focal point of a network of telephone cables. Inside were a lobby, a bank of telephone booths lining one wall, and a payment desk. One employee received payments while another cruised the lobby handing out numbers to people waiting for their shot at a phone booth. Of course, Tom and I figured all of this out after the fact. At the time, we just stared noncomprehendingly until the lobby man greeted us and ushered us into a booth. (The prerogatives of being foreign?) Fortunately, there is not a great time difference between the Galápagos and the East coast as the islands are on Mountain Daylight Savings Time. After a brief struggle with country codes, we managed to leave a message with University of Maryland Study Abroad and contact our travel agent who, bewildered as we were, promised to go straight to the company president. Heading back in our taxi, we considered the situation. Somehow, communication between our travel agent and the owners of the Corinthian had failed, even though it was evident that everyone had acted in good faith and was doing their best to help us. The best course was probably to resign ourselves to the change.

Charles Darwin Research Station: Back at the DRS, we headed down the dusty rust-orange path leading toward our group's tour, enjoying this unique chance to walk unsupervised on the Galápagos. On the grounds of the DRS grew many specimens of Opuntia echios, the Galápagos' unique arborescent prickly pear cactus. Lava lizards, a different species from those of Española, studied us as we passed. We overtook the group at a series of enclosures housing juvenile Galápagos tortoises. As Lenin discussed the breeding program and tortoise lore, Galápagos mockingbirds, yellow warblers, and unidentifiable Darwin's finches flitted through the cages' wire mesh, and a natural drama unfolded as one small tortoise, having been overturned by another, managed after a long struggle to right itself. Down a path we came to the enclosure of Lonesome George, the last living representative of the Pinta race of tortoise. So far, the DRS' attempts to pair him with females of closely related races has yielded nothing, but patience. At about 90, Lonesome George is barely middle aged and good things take time. Farther down the path, we entered an enclosure for adult tortoises. Three animals were variously napping on their concrete feeding platform or struggling to climb out of a hole adjacent to it. Some displayed the domed shell form while others showed the saddle shaped shell from which the Galápagos got their name. Cameras clicked as people posed with the long-suffering reptiles.

Departure: Leaving the DRS, we had an hour in which to explore Puerto Ayora and make our way to its municipal dock. Predictably, the first thing we saw as we trudged off was the DRS gift shop, replete with safari shirts bearing the DRS logo, T shirts (long and short sleeved) emblazoned with various boobies, tortoises, frigate birds, and iguanas, and a whole host of pieces of local rock or coral carved into the rough semblance of a turtle, iguana, or other thing of significance. My general observation was that the Galápagos was no place to go for souvenirs. After all, anything local of real interest was strictly protected. Nevertheless, souvenirs in hand, we trudged on toward downtown Puerto Ayora. Although souvenir shops and snack stands lined the street, beckoning to tourists, it was plain that Puerto Ayora actually had a distinct character, independent of the tourist industry. Along the way, workers were whitewashing the wall and gate of a cemetery whose architecture seemed almost... well... cheerful.
Further along, a structure that seemed to be made of found objects on a slap foundation served as an internet cafe. A student approached and explained that she was eager to place a call to the US. Could we show her how? Sure. It was just a matter of retracing the rather indirect rout that our hired car had taken earlier. It ought to be easy. After all, how big could Puerto Ayora be? Several false starts and half an hour later we arrived to find a line of customers so intimidating that we made no attempt to phone out. There would be other opportunities.

We rushed to the dock as if we thought they might actually leave us behind. To our dismay, at 5:55, we were among the first there, although we recognized one of the Corinthian's dinghies. Soon William appeared, curious of the whereabouts of the group. People slowly drifted in, but not fast enough, and William went off in search of the rest. We later learned that tour operators are obliged to adhere to a 6 to 6 rule as closely as possible. No tourists on the islands before 6:00 AM or after 6:00 PM. William quickly reappeared, driving the rest of our group like a herd of recalcitrant cats. How he actually located them is unknown.

Soon we were on the dinghies and headed for the distant Corinthian.. The prevailing wind in the Galápagos is from the southeast. Once out in the harbor, we realized that it had picked up, raising a high chop. Although the helmsman deliberately avoided going too fast, the dinghy pitched significantly as it dove off the crest of one wave only to slam into the base of the next. We all hunkered down to avoid the spray, but as I surveyed my companions, I noticed that one person was curling up and turning a distinct gray color. She was one of the motion sickness patients and the pitching of the dinghy was too much, both physically and psychologically. By the time we boarded the Corinthian it is hard to say what was effecting her worse, motion sickness or frustration. I can't blame her. She had already spent two sleepless night and was now staring the third in the face. The path from the Corinthian's embarkation point to the ladder to the upper decks passed the window of the doctor's office. She saw our student coming and was ready with the Dramamine. The sea sick student climbed to the sun deck and prepared to spend the evening curled up watching the horizon and inhaling the sea breeze. By this point. Everyone in our party was seriously concerned about the motion sick twins.

As soon as we were aboard, the Corinthian got underway, heading east from Puerto Ayora, bound for Baltra around the north end of Santa Cruz. The sun was now below the horizon but still lighting the strip of sky between the crest fo the island and the shroud of Garua mist that clung to its highlands. On the south side of Santa Cruz, each swell lifted and rotated the vessel. We dined, gathered in the lounge to pour over field guides and compare notes, then headed off to bed which, on that night, was rather like sleeping in a swinging hammock. Even at this hour, our sea-sick student remained curled up on the sun deck, attended by concerned friends. I shuddered to think how she would pass the night. For that matter, would I get motion sick this time? I was too tired to find out. Sleep overtook me, then the 6:30 alarm rang.

Day 5 - Baltra and Santa Cruz
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