We arrived at Isabela just before dawn and dropped anchor near a rocky breakwater covered with Blue-footed Boobies. Sunrise gradually woke the sleeping boobies, which one by one began to fly past our boat and gather just off the coast of Puerto Villamil. At first I didn’t realize what was happening. All week I’d only seen boobies hunt individually. But years ago I’d been impressed by a Galapagos documentary that showed a dense swarm of Blue-footed Boobies diving simultaneously into a school of fish, and I finally realized I was about to witness a live version of that incredible scene.I ran to find Orville. An avid bird-watcher, he joined me immediately and was thrilled by the show. “Holy Cow!” he yelled each time the boobies made a synchronized plunge into the water. “Look at ‘em go!” We were too far away to see much with the naked eye, but Orville watched through his binoculars and I used my camera’s telephoto lens.
Later that morning we took the panga into Puerto Villamil, Isabela’s largest city (despite a population of only 2,200). Our group walked through the town’s sandy, unpaved streets on our way to the Arnaldo Tupiza-Chamaidan Giant Tortoise Breeding Center, where a variety of Isabel tortoises were being raised as part of the island’s repopulation program.
At lunch Larry reminisced about some of his favorite road trips over the years. “A buddy and I rolled into Yellowstone one summer,” he told me, “and all the campsites were full. So we found a little out-of-the-way spot by the big lake.”“Yellowstone Lake?”“Yep, that’s it. But all the restaurants were closed and we didn’t have any food. We did have a curtain rod, though, and my buddy always has some fishing line around. So we found a little bit of leftover bread to bait the hook with and just started fishing, right there under a ‘No Fishing’ sign. Wasn’t long before we pulled out a pretty nice trout. But we didn’t have anything to cook it with.”
“No… You didn’t use…”
“Yep, we sure did. We just dangled that thing right in one of the thermal pools and had ourselves some boiled trout for dinner. Not bad!”
After lunch our group visited Islote Tintoras, stopping along the way to watch penguins and Blue-footed boobies nesting on the breakwater. Islote Tintoras is a shallow island used as a kindergarten by both marine iguanas and white-tipped reef sharks. We followed a path that led through a field of black volcanic rocks. Inevitably I lagged behind the group, and as I crouched down to take a photograph I slowly became aware that I was surrounded by over a hundred silent and motionless baby iguanas, their beady eyes tracking me like a reptilian replay of Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Marine Iguana Kindergarten on Islote Tintoreras (Video)
Several days of watching my fellow passengers hike around the islands led me to a counter-intuitive conclusion: the people in our group with the least respect for the wildlife and environment were the two Ecuadorian men. They regularly harassed the animals. They whistled and yelled at the birds and sea lions and sometimes clapped in their faces. They frequently strayed into prohibited areas. And there on Islote Tintoreras, right after Enrique told us not to touch the volcanic rocks, one of the Ecuadorians blithely broke off a large section and smashed it to pieces. I wondered why they weren’t better custodians of their own land.Later that afternoon we returned to Puerto Villamil for my least-favorite Galapagos activity: “free time” in an inhabited area. I tried to make the most of it by climbing out on some rocks by the beach to photograph boobies and penguins diving for fish. The swarm had long since dissipated, but a few stragglers were still knifing into the surf.
I was grateful to have had a chance to see at least a small part of Isabela. Despite being the largest island in the Galapagos it’s also one of the least visited, and I’d missed it in 2001 and 2008. After dinner Larry and I finished off his bottle of pisco and toasted to our last night on the Estrella del Mar. The islands, in return, bid us farewell with a colorful sunset.
Day 8 – Santa Cruz
The sky brightened, the lights of Puerto Ayora blinked off, and the crew of the Estrella del Mar began preparing for our departure. I watched from the top of the boat, wishing I could stay longer. Our bags lined the deck, ready to be loaded onto the panga.“See those containment buoys?” asked Larry, pointing to a ring of nets floating in the water next to us. “A boat went down last night.” While we slept peacefully a tourist boat called the Cruz del Sur had taken on water and sunk. There were no passengers on board when it happened and the crew escaped unharmed.
Our group left the Estrella del Mar for the last time. A minibus met us at the dock and drove us north towards the Baltra airport. On the way we stopped briefly at Rancho Primicias, a private farm in the Santa Cruz highlands that has a population of wild tortoises. Sightings aren’t guaranteed, but we found several large tortoises wallowing in a muddy pool.
Wild Tortoise Walking at Rancho Primicias (Video)
People sometimes apply the language of pathology to travel destinations. Like a disease, the desire to experience a certain place can infect and possess you, and the only cure is to go there. A single visit, thankfully, is usually enough to eradicate all but the most stubborn afflictions. But three visits had completely failed to cure me of the Galapagos. As our plane left Baltra that morning I felt the islands under my skin just as sharply as ever.