Life in Slow Motion, Part 2
I was grateful to have as much time as I did, because I was able to explore so much of the Galapagos islands. Each island offered something different to see and explore, and there were so many opportunities for wildlife spotting it was nearly impossible to keep a smile off my face.
Another day trip took me from Puerto Ayora to the island of Santa Fe almost directly south. It wasn’t the sunniest of days on Santa Cruz, but thankfully on reaching Santa Fe, the cloud finally broke and we ended up in sunshine for most of the trip. On the far side of the island is a beautiful lagoon where we anchored and a dinghy took us to shore: a beach which was littered with sea lions basking. I don’t think it is possible to get enough of seeing sea lions as they noisily shuffle around the beach, and plonk down next to each other, or roll around in the surf. We watched them for a while before heading inland on an easy trek in search of land iguanas. We found a few sunning themselves on rocks underneath cacti trees where they wait patiently for the fruit and flowers to fall. We gained enough altitude to have a beautiful view over the lagoon and out to the waves crashing on the coast. Like a lot of the archipelago, it was stunning and it was unique.
There was a dead sea lion on the small beach reached at the end of the walk. I’m as fascinated with dead things as I am with the living so I gave it a good close-up inspection. Our guide pointed out the shark bites on its side before we left it to nature to make use of such a good meal. Back out at the boat, we were dropped off at the lagoon entrance for snorkelling where the water was deep but still relatively sheltered. Almost straight away we saw two eagle rays swimming towards us, and the depth meant there were large shoals of fish below us, bunched together in giant balls. We swam to the wall of the lagoon and followed it for some distance until we found some sea lions who promptly jumped in the water and played with us briefly, blowing bubbles and swimming loops in front of us. We turned round to keep going and saw a shark swim past. We were ferried across to the far side of the lagoon where we got back in the water where there were some marine turtles resting. One swam past and away from us and the others were resting next to a rock on the lagoon floor.
We had a 3 hour slow sail back up to the port on the north of Santa Cruz, and following another delicious lunch, I sat up top and sunbathed watching the large frigate birds circle above us. They joined us close to Santa Fe and thermalled above us the whole way, only leaving the boat when we moored at the end. A couple of them landed on the bridge briefly resting before taking off again. Up close these birds are huge. Known as the pirates of the sky, they steal food from the other sea birds rather than catch it themselves. With no webbed feet they can’t land on the water, and their feathers can’t get wet either or the weight will drown them or affect their flight. Despite these downfalls, they seem to be thriving with two species of frigate birds very prevalent in the region. Anchoring in the Itabaca channel, it was a short dinghy ride back to the port and then the long bus ride back to Puerto Ayora and my ‘home’ where a new volunteer had arrived.
My favourite of the day trips involved an early start for another long bus ride north to the Itabaca Channel. Joining the same crew as an earlier trip, we set off north-west on a long crossing to the island of Bartolome. Following breakfast on board, we passed the rock island of Daphne Major where some seabirds were nesting, and for the first time I saw some Nazca boobies, a similar species to the blue-footed boobies. The water was extremely calm so I climbed the side of the boat to reach the bow, and sat there almost the whole way scanning the horizon for life. I was secretly hopeful for spotting whales, but instead, I was treated to several sightings of various sea creatures. First, something large flapped out and slapped the water right by my side. It looked like the wing of a very large ray, probably a manta ray. Then to my complete surprise, a manta ray jumped out of the water and somersaulted before splashing into the depth again. It happened so fast I nearly didn’t believe it, but I later found out that they are known to do this to shed parasites from their skin. In the far distance, I saw a splash which was big enough to have been a whale breaching, although I never saw what caused it. Shortly after, what looked like a large shark fin was seen, and later again something that may have been a sunfish. By the time we reached Bartolome I was already wearing a huge grin and excited for the rest of the day.
Bartolome is a relatively small island that sits in front of the large island of Santiago. Both are very volcanic looking, and Bartolome especially is near barren, with only a smattering of hardy cacti growing in rock crevices. Santiago in the distant past was multiple smaller islands close together that became joined up by a later eruption. From the top of Bartolome, the hills of the former islands stick up smartly above the flat ‘fresh’ lava that joined them all. On the far side of Bartolome we anchored in view of Pinnacle rock, a large pointy rock that sits at an angle like the leaning tower of Pisa. We were ferried ashore where a heron was sunning itself, and then it was a steep climb up the beautiful but stark volcanic rock to several view points. The lava had hardened in flows, making for some visually stunning striations, and there were remnants of some fumaroles on the side of the main peak. The higher we got, the more stunning the vista, and eventually we reached the point to overlook Pinnacle rock and the nearby bay, one of the archipelago’s most photographed views. I personally love volcanic landscapes, and to me the barrenness was simply stunning.
On the way back down we saw a track in the sand for a snake, although we never saw the creature itself, and on boarding the boat we took the short ride over to a sheltered bay on Santiago. I was exceedingly keen to go snorkelling because just a week prior my friend had been here and swum with lots of penguins. I was keen to be in the water with them, and headed straight in on arrival ahead of everyone else in my group. The reward for my impatience was almost immediately coming across a marine turtle in the crystal clear water. There was nobody else around, and it seemed totally unfazed by me, going about its business whilst I watched. There is something so special about those moments that you have to yourself with nature, and I floated for some time watching it until it swam away. Following the rock wall at the edge of the bay, the water became deeper and larger shoals of fish were plentiful. By this point there was another group of snorkellers from another tour group who were intent on barreling into anyone else who got in their way. Even in the Galapagos, it can feel overcrowded. I did my best to keep my distance, hugging the rock wall until eventually a nearby boat signalled for me to go no deeper, and I turned and headed back to land. There was not a penguin in sight and I came to the realisation that swimming with penguins was likely going to elude me. In the shallows a hogfish repeatedly charged me when I tried to swim to shore. I’m not sure exactly what it would have done, but it was a reasonable sized fish and I didn’t want a bite.
From the beach, I took a quick walk to the flat of the local lava field, walking barefoot on the lava and seeing it stretch for miles ahead. Nobody else came to see it, but there was little time to explore before we had to leave. On the dinghy to our boat, we found a penguin drying itself on the rocks, and although I didn’t know it yet, it would be the last penguin I would see on the trip. From Santiago, the spray was too much to sit on the bow of the boat, so I sat up top where it was easy to spot the multitude of manta rays in the ocean. They are huge creatures, and I lost count of how many we came across swimming near the surface. In between, there was also plenty of marine turtles popping up to breathe, and again I enjoyed the crossing as much as the islands themselves. A red-billed tropicbird lazed on the ocean near Daphne Major, and suddenly the captain cried out that he’d seen a whale. We were all up on our feet scanning the horizon, seeing nothing until as we approached the entrance to the shipping lane into the Itabaca channel, we all saw the distintive dorsal fins that signalled orca, and two orca broke the surface to breathe. I was lucky enough to see a massive pod of orca in the north pacific off the west coast of Canada when I was 19, but my memories are becoming more vague and blurred and I’ve been desperate to see them again in recent years. They only came up in sight for 2 breaths, and whilst it was such a brief viewing, I was absolutely stoked.
My final day trip was to the very popular island of North Seymour. It is the most commonly visited non-inhabited island by tourists, and with good reason: it is the nearest and most accessible breeding colony of blue-footed boobies and frigate birds. By now I knew the drive to the Itabaca channel well, and from here it was a relatively short boat ride to the island which sits just north of Baltra island to the north of Santa Cruz. Immediately we were overwhelmed with birds flying above our heads, and the path from the boat was partially blocked with 3 dozing sea lions. As much as I loved Bartolome, it was hard to beat being surrounded by hungry chicks and adults doing mating displays. There is a set path to stick to round the colony but there were plenty of blue-footed booby chicks to see and we were entertained with the whistle of the adult males as they tried to attract a female. We saw the famous blue-footed booby dance and even an actual mating. They are gorgeous.
Further round we were treated to juvenile frigate birds of varying ages perched on the low-lying trees waiting for a feed. The males were grouped together with their inflated red throat pouches desperately trying to lure in a female. There were two different species of frigate birds nesting there and no matter which direction you looked there was something worth seeing. There was even some land iguanas towards the back of the colony, and I was reluctant to leave at the end of the tour. I would have happily walked round again and again.
But lunch and another snorkel called us, so we boarded the boat again and headed south. The food on all of the trips had been utterly delicious and plentiful, and that day was no exception. In no time at all though, we reached Playa Bachas on the north coast of Santa Cruz where we landed. The water was very murky and quite cold making for a less than enjoyable snorkel, but having such poor visibility meant that on 3 occasions I almost swam directly into 3 huge marine turtles that were eating algae off the rocks. I couldn’t see them coming and then all of a sudden they were right in front of me, about to be barreled down by my breaststroke. Each time I had to suddenly back track to give them space and avoid touching them, but it was an exceedingly close encounter every time. The cold eventually took over and I exited to an overcast afternoon sky. Just behind the beach, a single flamingo fed in a small lagoon, and with time to spare, I wandered along the length of the beach watching an iguana running across the sand, and looking at crabs in the rock pools. It was another satisfying day, and it was rounded off with dinner out and then dancing at Bongo Bar to see off my friend who was leaving soon. For me, my remaining days were also reducing fast…