Drowning in Rain, Bartolomé Island

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Bartolomé Island is a volcanic islet just off the coast of Santiago Island. It sits in the rain shadow of Santiago and Santa Cruz.Bartolomé’s volcanic landscape, with its spatter cones, tuff cones and lava flows, has been featured in many movies, “Master and Commander” being one. Very little grows here, it seems to be a wet desert. Scientists cannot figure out why so little grows here. There are a few lava cacti, tiquilia, and even spurge. We did see some crabs near shore, a Central Galápagos Racer snake and a few lizards.

While these volcanic islands look very solid, the basalt is simply a layer over the volcanic dust/sand. Once the basalt slips back into the sea, the rest of the island will erode very quickly.

We woke up at 5:45am for an early morning walk to the top of Bartolomé. I really wanted to roll over and go back to sleep, but I forced myself out of bed for the 6:30am departure. There was a light rain as we traveled by zodiac to the island. The waves were high enough to make it an adventure. The ascent consists of 376 steps, with a few landings along the way for us to catch our breath. I kept telling myself “only five more steps,” then repeating it until I reached the top. The rain simply got stronger, so that we were drenched by the time we reached the top. The only thing missing from this natural shower was the soap!

We were told that, from the top, you can see almost all of the Galápagos Islands. That may be true on a sunny day, but not today. Even so, the views were stunning, including Pinnacle Point.

Sombrero Chino, another islet off of Santiago, was named for its resemblance to a Chinese hat. It is an islet with lava tubes and caves that provide nesting ground for Galapagos penguins. We boated here in the afternoon, and were rewarded with sightings of penguins as well as several other birds. These Galapagos Penguins are the only species that live north of the equator. They are related to the Humboldt penguins of southern Peru and Chile.

 

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Local Talent from Santa Cruz

Tuesday afternoon, January 15, 2019

This afternoon, we visited a tortoise farm (can’t think of a better term) where we could see the tortoises in their natural environment. It was a real treat. There were males and females, old and young.

The shell of the tortoise can give some indication of its age. The shell is formed of plates that spread as they grow. The smoother the shell has become, the older the tortoise is. Males can weigh as much as 600 pounds, while the females are smaller. We did see one male attempting to mate with a female, but she wasn’t terribly interested. They were pressed against a tree trunk, hardly able to move, but some time later, we did hear the male’s sound of satisfaction. I wonder if they are still trapped there!

Back on board the ship, there were some local artists displaying their work: painting, paper beads (also called paper pearls), and wood carving. I did purchase a blue-footed booby carving for a Christmas ornament.

Tonight, we were entertained by musicians and dancers from the island. We enjoyed them enough to purchase a couple of their CDs.

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Cerro Dragon and Guy Fawkes Island, Santa Cruz

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Santa Cruz, Galápagos

Tuesday morning, January 15, 2019

Santa Cruz is the second largest island, and sits in the center of the archipelago. Its capital is Puerto Ayora, the most populated town in the islands, with a population of about 18,000.

We started our day by landing at the main town dock, then taking a bus to the Galápagos National Park Service, home of the Charles Darwin Research Station. One of our fellow travelers, Daniel, works at the station. As an employee, he was given the opportunity to join this cruise. Daniel is from New York, and he mentioned that many of the people who live here have never seen more than the island they live on. Also joining us on the cruise are five young people from the islands, who are being sponsored by National Geographic to train with the chefs on board.

Lonesome George was the last living Pinta tortoise, found in 1971. He was probably 150 years of age at the time. He had been alone for so long that he didn’t know what to do with the females at the station. It took about 10 years before he started mating. Several females did get pregnant, but none of the eggs were viable. However, some of his semen was collected and frozen before he died in 2012, in case scientists can find a better female match. His body was sent to New York for taxidermy, and his remains are now on display at the Research Station.

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The Research Station collects eggs and keeps the tortoises in a safe environment until their shells become hard enough to deter predators. This takes about 5 years, after which they are repatriated to their natural environment. Almost 5,500 have been returned to the various islands since 1983.

After visiting the Research Station, we toured a local private school, Tomas de Berlanga School. At this school, the students learn in a natural environment – no windows in the classrooms. The school emphasizes care for the environment. About 90% of the students go on to college, with most of them coming back to Santa Cruz after they graduate.

After we returned to town, we stopped at the local fish market to watch the sea lions, pelicans and even a blue heron vying for any scraps. The heron chased all of the pelicans away – apparently this was his territory! He did leave the sea lion alone, though.

 

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Floreana, Galápagos

Monday, January 14, 2019

Our day started very early with a 6:30am walk with professional photographer, Walter Perez. We traveled to Punta Cormorant on Floreana Island, aboard a zodiac, then disembarked in shallow water – a “wet landing.” Early morning is the best time to find turtles before they return to sea, then to witness the flamingoes beginning to feed.

Floreana was named for Juan Jose Flores, the first president of Ecuador. This island has numerous extinct volcanic cones. While there is foliage here, the plants that rely on fresh water were still brown. With a little rain, they will green up again. Other plants that can survive with brackish (seawater mixed with fresh) water do seem to be thriving.

Ecuador had sent a group of convicts to populate the island in the 1800s, but that didn’t last long. It was a stopping point for whalers, and there is a spot where travelers would leave their mail to be picked up by another passing ship heading in the opposite direction.

Floreana is home to flamingos, shore birds, and a turtle nesting beach. After making a wet landing (disembarking in the water), we hiked to the nesting beach where we were treated to the sight of a few turtles on the beach, and many others in the water. The females come to this beach at night to lay their eggs, we were able to see their tracks as they made their way up the beach. Some turtles were mating in the water.

We also saw a yellow-crowned night heron, some least sandpipers and a semi-palmated plover, as well as a brown penguin and several frigate birds at this beach.

On our way to a brackish pond where flamingos nest, we saw a blue-footed booby feeding her chick. She would fly out to the sea for food, then return to her nest. The chick sticks its mouth into the mother’s mouth to take the food.

There were quite a few flamingos moving around. We were able to see a nest across the pond with several young chicks. The flamingos are white when they are born; they don’t acquire their pink color until they are old enough to begin feeding on the plankton in the pond. The mother regurgitates a type of “milk” from the plankton that she feeds the chick.

In the afternoon, we moved to a different beach on Floreana, at Post Office Bay. In the past, whale ships would stop here for water, and to drop off letters for home at the “Post Office.” Ships passing in the opposite direction would stop here and pick up whatever letters they could on their route. We wrote a few postcards and dropped them. We also picked up one to deliver to Plymouth, Minnesota. It’s not exactly on our way, but it will be fun to try to complete the delivery.

 

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Española, Galápagos Islands

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The day started with a review of the rules of snorkeling – a good reminder since it’s been a few years since we’ve snorkeled. Then we were fitted with wet suits, flippers and masks. We had also been told to bring rash guards to protect us from the sun and from sea jellies (correct term for jellyfish here).

We are anchored near Española, one the oldest of the islands, estimated at 4.5 million years.  It is slowly being reclaimed by the sea. The island is unoccupied by humans, but is home to marine iguanas and sea lions. We went to Gardner Bay to try out our snorkeling skills, while more experienced snorkelers went to deeper waters. Although Mark could have gone with that group, he stayed with me.

 

The water in Gardner Bay is quite warm, in the 70’s. We stayed near shore for our practice session, where high waves churned the water, making it difficult to see anything but the floaters in my eyes. Tomorrow, we can start snorkeling in earnest.

Lindblad/National Geographic offers several classes during the week. Today’s was on photography, so I went hoping to pick up a few pointers. I’m a rank amateur, I don’t have heavy, bulky equipment, I just have a passion to photograph the beauty around me.

Later in the afternoon, we returned to the island, at Punta Suarez, for a nice long hike. We engaged in boulder hopping most of the way, with the trail going through shrubbery and along the shore, to a cliff edge where many seabirds were soaring on the wind. There are lots of sea lions here (many females come here to give birth), along with crabs and marine iguanas. One sea lion was in labor, she was very uncomfortable and moaning in pain. We thought she might deliver before we returned from our walk but she wasn’t so lucky. By the end of our walk, she had moved to shallow water, but was still in pain.

Among the many birds were a few blue-footed boobies, Nazca boobies with eggs and hatchlings, some young wave albatross and the Espanola mockingbird. The mature albatross lay their eggs near a cliff. These large birds need to jump off a cliff to get enough lift to fly. Nazca young will play dead if they feel threatened.

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San Cristóbal Island, Galápagos

Saturday, January 12, 2019

We had to leave the hotel in Quito at 5:30 this morning to catch a flight to our next destination. We arrived here in the dark and we are leaving in the dark.

The Galápagos Islands (official name Archipiélago de Colón) is a volcanic archipelago with 19 islands. The islands and surrounding marine reserve are located at the confluence of three ocean currents. They are isolated from other bodies of land, so that animal life has evolved in ways that are particularly adapted to their environment, different from their relatives elsewhere.

The Galápagos Islands are best known as the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. As a young man, he visited in 1835 to study the volcanic formations. While there, he was struck by how various species of bird and animal differed greatly from island to island.

The islands have been visited by many peoples, but there is no evidence of long-term occupation until the 1800’s. Ecuador annexed the Galápagos Islands in 1832, naming them the Archipelago of Ecuador. They were joined soon after by some artisans and farmers. In the late 1800s, a few attempts were made to establish sugar cane plantations on San Cristóbal Island and Isabela Island. Over the next few decades, settlers arrived from Europe and the United States as well.

In the early 1900s, Ecuador attempted to sell the islands to raise cash. The US had expressed interest in buying them for military use, as they were strategically close to the Panama Canal. The US was permitted to establish a naval base on Baltra Island during WWII. After the war, they facilities were given to the Ecuadoran government, which then established their own military base.

A large part (97.5%) of the Islands was designated a national park in 1959. The population at that time was less than 2,000 people. by 2010, the number had increased to over 25,000, many of them fishermen and farmers, who have resisted some of the restrictions imposed by the park service. There have been violent confrontations between some of the locals and the park service in the 1990s and 2000s. Illegal fishing within the reserve is a serious problem.

In 1978, UNESCO recognized the Islands as a World Heritage Site; in 1986, 27,000 square miles of ocean around the islands was a marine reserve; and in 1990, the archipelago became a whale sanctuary.

There are only about 500 native and endemic plant species here. Over the years, another 700 have been introduced, whether accidental or intentional, and they are taking over and eliminating the native species. Goats, dogs, pigs, rats, cats, mice, etc. have also been brought here, and they too are wreaking havoc on the native species on animals and plants.

We reached Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal Island, the capital city of the Galápagos Islands, in the late morning. Here we were greeted by several sea lions and iguanas, while we waited to be transferred by Zodiacs to our ship, the National Geographic Endeavour II. There are 87 passengers aboard, along with 63 staff (biologists, guides, physician and crew).

After orientation, safety briefing and lunch, we returned to town to visit a local interpretation center at the foot of Cerro Tijeretas (Frigate Bird Hill). We took a short hike to observe the natural vegetation and wildlife (including a few swimmers below the hill). There were lots of small iguanas, several bird species, and some carpenter bees along the way.

It was a vigorous walk. There are over 80 tourist ships that operate within the islands. The government regulates which island each of those ships can visit each day. They also assign specific times that the ship’s tour groups can visit each of the sites. As a result, our time is short in any one spots. Also, the sun rises around 6:00am and sets around 6:00pm, another constraint on our time. All parks must be vacated by sunset.

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