Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, Part 2

Day 3 – Genovesa

At midnight we crossed the equator on our way from Bartolome to Genovesa, and for the first time in five months I was back in the northern hemisphere.  Wide awake again in the pre-dawn dark, I poured a cup of coffee and joined the frigatebirds perched at the top of the boat, where we waited for sunrise.

Genovesa is one of my favorite islands.  The range of bird life – even for someone who isn’t a particularly enthusiastic bird-watcher – is extraordinary.  Nazca Boobies preen each other in the middle of the trail.  Red-footed Boobies, absent on many of the other islands, build nests in mangrove trees.  Lava Herons and Night Herons hunt in shallow lagoons.  Male frigatebirds puff out their bright red chests, flutter their wings, and waggle their heads in an elaborately-choreographed effort to impress the discerning frigatebird ladies.

Our group headed to Genovesa’s El Barranco visitor site at 6:15am in an attempt to find Short-eared Owls hunting Storm-petrels.  Owls are almost exclusively nocturnal, but Short-eared Owls occasionally adapt their hunting behavior to match the active periods of their primary prey, and – with big flocks of Storm-petrels flying around Genovesa in the early morning – the local Short-eared Owls typically catch their breakfast before settling down to a good day’s sleep.

A short hike took us from the dock to a flat rocky plain that sloped gently downwards towards the ocean.  The sky swarmed with Storm-petrels.  Enrique squinted into the distance and eventually pointed to a small brown shape almost motionless against the gray volcanic rock – a Short-eared Owl waiting patiently for a careless Storm-petrel to land nearby.  Over the course of about an hour we spotted several more owls, but we never saw one successfully nab its prey.

 

Two Nazca Boobies

 

Nazca Booby Squawking

 

Red-footed Booby

 

Nazca Booby Nest

 

Young Booby Straight On

 

 

Nazca Booby Whistling on Genovesa (Video)

 

Short-eared Owl Hunting Storm Petrols

 
Our Group Watching Short-eared Owls Hunt Storm Petrols (Video)

 

Technically, Galapagos guides are required to keep their clients in sight at all times during island visits.  In practice, some guides aren’t quite as strict as others, and Enrique – after, I’m guessing, he felt comfortable that the wildlife would be respected – quietly let individuals lag behind.  In terms of photography that made an enormous difference.  Instead of catching up to the group when Enrique stopped to explain some aspect of the island, I could park myself next to an animal and fire off another round of shots.

 

Booby Chick Portrait

 

Nazca Booby Straight On

 

Nazca Booby and Chick

 

Nazca Booby with Chick

 
From El Barranco we returned to the Estrella del Mar, stopping along the way to watch fur seals sunning themselves on the rocks below a steep cliff.  An hour later we were snorkeling alongside the same rocks, scanning the murky green water for the hammerhead sharks often found the area.  Towards the end of our time in the water Enrique and I spotted a lone hammerhead, but it darted away quickly – nothing more than a nebulous green blur on the few seconds of video I captured – and that turned out to be our only sighting.

 

Fur Seal

 
In the afternoon we landed again on Genovesa, this time at the Darwin Bay visitor site’s sandy beach.  A short trail took us to a large mangrove tree full of Red-footed Boobies.  Noisy frigatebirds nested in bushes surrounding the tree, most of the males proudly showing off their red stomach pouches.  All three kinds of boobies soared overhead.  Sea lions rolled happily in the nearby surf.

 

Frigatebird Mom and Chick

 

Sea Lion in the Water

 

Lava Heron Hunting

 

Puffed Up Frigatebird

 

Frigatebird Chick Straight On

 

Night Heron Drying Its Wings

 

Sea Lion Zen

 
After our hike we had an hour to snorkel in the bay.  I spent a little time in the water but couldn’t resist taking another pass at the photo opportunities on land.  Enrique, probably against his better judgment, let me return alone to the mangrove tree, where I watched a male frigatebird, beset on all sides by fierce competition, show his special lady that he meant business.  Eventually another group’s guide uncovered my truancy and gave me a disingenuously polite reprimand before sending me back to the beach.

 

Male Frigatebird on Genovesa

 

Night Heron Hunting

 

Firgatebirds Competing for a Lady on Genovesa (Video)

 

Frigatebird Showing Off for a Lady on Genovesa (Video)

 

Fernando and Alejandro Snorkeling with a Sea Lion

 

Blue-footed Booby in Flight

 

Nazca Booby in Flight

 

Red-footed Booby in Flight

 

That afternoon the Estrella del Mar turned south and began the long trip to San Cristobal.  Just before reaching the equator we gathered on the bridge to watch the boat’s GPS display hit 0°00.000 latitude.  Earlier that day, as the initial step in my own test of the Coriolis effect, I flushed the toilet and noted the counterclockwise swirling of the water.  Well after we passed the equator I flushed the toilet again and, frustratingly, the water still swirled counterclockwise.  I decided the force of the flush must have been interfering and regretted not watching water drain from the sink instead.

 

Crossing the Equator

 

Sunset at Sea

 

Day 4 – San Cristobal

My pre-dawn pilgrimage to the top of the boat revealed the lights of San Cristobal’s largest city, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, under a cloudy sky.  Scattered light rain fell.  Later in the morning a vivid rainbow appeared, its right side arcing directly into a boat with the poetically improbable name Treasure of Galapagos.

 

Rainbow over Treasure of Galapagos

 

I much preferred the uninhabited islands, but I’d missed San Cristobal on my previous Galapagos visits and looked forward to seeing it.  We took the panga into town and spent an interminable hour at a yawn-inducing interpretive center.  Packs of sunburned, overfed, vaguely disgruntled Americans shuffled en masse from exhibit to exhibit.  Several of them wore clear green plastic visors, as if they’d just been dealing blackjack.

The Estrella del Marthen unsentimentally shed the old and welcomed the new.  The trip was over for all seven of my fellow passengers, soon to be replaced by 15 more, giving us a full boat.  I was sorry to say goodbye to Jerry, Maria, Matti, and the Mexican family, who had all been good company.  And I was anxious about the arrival of the new passengers.  “At least we were all physically fit,” commented Jerry before leaving.  “I hope you get people who are young and in shape.”

Young and in shape is not how I would have described the group I saw approaching the Estrella del Mar that afternoon.  Several of them clearly hadn’t missed many meals, and one elderly woman literally had to be carried on board, followed by her wheelchair.  Really?  A wheelchair?  Granted, I might not be the most coordinated individual, but even just walking on the boat as it pitched and rolled could be challenging, and the trails on the islands were often steep and rocky.  I felt deflated.

Happily my first impression, as it so often is, was off-base.  The new blood proved to be every bit as interesting and friendly as the old.  Orville and Helen, a retired couple from Raytown, Missouri – hardly more than 10 miles from where I grew up – were so similar to my friends’ parents (and my parents’ friends) that I felt comfortable with them immediately.  Kathy and Patty were sisters who both taught at schools in California and had left their less-adventurous husbands at home.  Larry, who would share my cabin for the next five days, was born in New Jersey but as a young man built his own boat and sailed it to the Florida Keys and the Caribbean, where he’d been living ever since.  And the elderly woman in the wheelchair, a Venezuelan traveling with her daughters Nina and Nancy, smiled so broadly and infectiously and continuously that the extra care she required seemed a small price to pay for her presence.

It took me longer to warm up to the rest of the group – two Ecuadorian couples, one from Quito and the other from Guayaquil, and three German speakers, two Swiss and one Austrian.  I enjoyed talking with Patrick, the Austrian, but the Swiss pair never said a word to me unless I approached them first, and as a result we only spoke once.

Enrique welcomed the new group by announcing a snorkeling outing to Isla Lobos.  As the Estrella del Mar approached the tiny island we could see several sea lions frolicking in the shoals.  Only six of the recently-arrived passengers were interested in (and physically capable of) snorkeling, so we had fewer people in the water than we did when the boat had only been half full.

We’d only been snorkeling for a few minutes when a young sea lion raced up and began circling me mischievously.  I dove down and spun around, trying my best to respond in kind, and despite my lame performance the sea lion seemed to appreciate the effort.  It tore straight at me, turning away at the very last second, and returned to nip at my legs.  Enrique earned similar treatment, although the sea lion apparently got a little carried away and bit him hard enough to break the skin.  “It is the first time that ever happened to me,” Enrique said later.  It took the sea lion almost a half hour to grow bored with us and swim off in search of fresh entertainment.

 

Swimming with a Sea Lion at San Cristobal (Video)

 

Sea Lion Swimming Circles around Rob at San Cristobal (Video)

 

I’d often watched sea lions play-fight with each other, but that was my first experience as a participant.  I loved every second.  Later we found stingrays and sea turtles, but in the wake of the sea lion high I struggled to muster the appropriate level of excitement.  Back on the boat I asked Enrique if sea lions carry rabies.  “Oh yes,” he said.  “They are 10 times more contagious than dogs.”

I pointed to the puncture wounds near his knee.  “So do you need to get a rabies shot?”

“No, the salt water will clean it.”  He paused briefly before adding, “I hope.”  Me too!

 

Sea Turtle at San Cristobal (Video)

 

Stingray at San Cristobal (Video)

 

That afternoon we returned to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno for “free time.”  Locals played three-on-three volleyball near the dock.  Sea lions made themselves at home all along the waterfront, many of them stretched out comfortably on the city’s public benches.

 

Sea Lion Stretching Out in San Cristobal

 

At dinner that night I had a chance to talk more with Larry.  “How did you learn how to build a boat?” I asked.

“By building one,” Larry said with a laugh.  He sold his first boat and then built another, which he eventually sailed to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.  He traveled extensively, kept his expenses low, and worked a variety of jobs – welding, crewing boats, carpentry.  He currently lived on No Name Key in Florida, in a house – one he built himself, of course – with no electricity or running water.  “I’m used to living on a boat,” he explained, “so anything on land is luxurious.”  He’d also bought some property in a remote area of northern Arizona and built a house there, too.

Larry said his trip to the Galapagos allowed him to cross another destination off his “List.”  On previous trips he’d already taken care of Paris, Machu Picchu, London, and Lake Titicaca.  “What’s still left?” I asked.

“It’s tough to say – the list keeps getting longer!”  He mentioned a few places he hoped to visit soon:  Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China (referred to by Larry as just “the Wall”), and the Straits of Magellan.  “Every time I check one off the list I end up adding two more.”

After dinner Larry broke out a bottle of pisco and generously shared it with his cabin mate.  We sat out on deck with our drinks and agreed that there were worse ways to spend a Monday evening.