Ecuador - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 400 (210)

On board NEMO I

Tuesday 12th April (2005)

We’ve had restless nights on numerous occasions throughout this round the world trip and the reasons have been varied. I think I can honestly say, however, that we’ve never before had problems with sleeping due to several sea lions climbing all over our cabin and grunting to each other for half the night. Still, this is what happened last night and it isn’t every day that you can claim to be kept awake by the local sea lion population. We were moored up relatively close to a couple of landmasses throughout the night and to keep the mosquitoes away, we had to keep the hatches to our cabin closed. As a result of this, it was extremely warm and this didn’t help with our ability to get a good night’s sleep either.

After breakfast, we were taken over to the island of North Seymour for the first of what would be two guided excursions. It seems that this will very much be the theme of the overall cruise with a couple of landings each day in between meals on the NEMO I. There are some fifty odd visitor sites dotted around the Galapagos Islands where the cruise operators are allowed to take their passengers. Even though these stretch to nearly every island in the archipelago, it turns out that only 1% of the total landmass of the islands here are directly affected by visiting tourists, permanent settlements, research stations and military installations alike. Even though that’s a very comforting thought, all the naturalist guides take great care to instil into every visiting tourist the necessity and importance of minimising the impact of tourism as far as possible. As nature lovers and wildlife enthusiasts, this is something that we are both comforted to know.

From where we landed on Seymour Island, there are painted steaks impaled into the ground that mark out trails where we are allowed to tread. Seymour has essentially one trail that leads around the island and we spent the better part of a couple of hours slowly following this trail whilst Juan Carlos took his time to tell us all about the wildlife and ecology of the island. We’re especially lucky to be visiting Seymour at this time of year as both the blue-footed boobies and the frigate birds are courting and nesting here in colonies. We saw hundreds of blue-footed boobies all over the island and even though we were remaining within the metre and a half width of the trails, we still had to move aside from time to time to prevent from treading on them – that’s how prevalent they are. They stand about half a metre tall and are dotted around mostly in mating pairs. Both males and females perform their ritual mating dances by holding their blue webbed feet alternatively into the air as they strut around each other. There are very few instances in the natural world where the colour blue is present but these birds are the exception that proves the rule and are very unlikely looking animals indeed. Many of the boobies here were courting but many also were sporting single eggs, on which they hold their webbed feet to keep the egg’s temperature regulated. Every now and then we’d see one of the parent birds stand up so that they could gently roll the egg and then sit down on it again. It really is strange to be able to get so very close to the birds and other animals here without them experiencing fear and flying away. It was fascinating to witness the mating rituals and to see how one male encroaches upon another’s territory, thus creating friction and scraps between them.

The blue-footed boobies were a real treat but there were yet more fascinating spectacles awaiting us. North Seymour also happens to house to a colony of frigate birds too. These are the majestic and graceful birds that we’ve been seeing flying above us almost everywhere we’ve been since we arrived here on the archipelago. They look very large but are actually almost all skin, bones and feathers. They are incredibly light and can hover in the air absolutely effortlessly. The thing that is most striking about the frigate is the way in which the males attract females whilst courting. Much like the pelican, the underside of the male jaw is very elastic and can inflate like a huge balloon. It is the most brilliant colour red and nearly dwarfs the bird when he has the sack inflated. These frigates, too, were in various stages of their breeding cycle and we were very lucky to also get to see several very fluffy chicks perching on the low shrubs. I remain absolutely stunned at just how close we could get to the birds without them flying away. In the case of the blue-footed boobies in particular, they were sometimes standing or sitting right in the middle of the trails and we just had to walk right past them to get through.

Juan Carlos is very passionate about the Galapagos Islands and, more importantly, the protection thereof. He was very strict about ensuring that we stay within the posted areas and even went after members of our groups moving around the island for not doing the same. Apparently, the guides can and do report those guides that do not keep a very tight rein on their groups.

The island we visited this morning is also littered with dozens and dozens of land iguanas as well as the much smaller lava lizards. These, too, seem to have absolutely no fear for man whatsoever and made little attempt to move out of our way when we were passing through.

The now very familiar sea lions also sat in great numbers up and down the island’s coast and even these were very unperturbed by our presence. Many of them were nursing young pups and these playful little creatures were a lot of fun to watch frolicking around. The Galapagos land iguanas and lava lizards here on the island occur in great numbers but they are different sub-species to those we’ve seen before. The iguanas are more of a reddish colour due to the different diet here on the island and the lava lizards are slightly larger than their brethren with the females sporting an orangey-red head and neck colouring.

We enjoyed walking around the island and spotting all the weird and wonderful prehistoric-like creatures that we won’t see anywhere else. It was a good two and a half hours or slow walking, however, and the sun was starting to get to us all by the time we had completed our circuit and made our way back to the panga. Lunch was served and we would have went diving but for the fact that the water was very green and murky. Juan Carlos decided that the visibility would be very poor and it wouldn’t be too worthwhile getting into the water. There is diving on the agenda for tomorrow so I can look forward to then.

Much of the afternoon was spent simply relaxing on the NEMO I. Everybody has their own method of relaxing; some take to the sun deck whilst others go for a nap. A few of us cracked open the backgammon board and a packet of cards. I introduced several people to the joys of whist. Juan Carlos posts the day’s agenda on a white-board for each day but to infuse a bit of extra activity into the schedule, he offered everyone a ride around the island in the panga. Most people accepted the offer but Sandy was still napping and I wanted to pace myself for the long afternoon hike ahead of us.

Our second excursion of the day was to the relatively small island of South Plaza. It starts at sea level and slowly rises up out of the ground towards the far side, which then drops off immediately back to the sea again in the form of a series of sheer cliffs. Although there are lots of large cactus trees but the island for the most part is an open expanse of very low-lying grasses and shrubs. Some recent rain has cause much of the low-lying vegetation to spring into flower and we could see literally hundreds of the yellowish land iguanas out sunning themselves as far as the eye could see feeding from the yellow flowers that had blossomed into life. We could see them either stationary or crawling slowly towards the beach pretty much everywhere we looked. When we first got off the panga, we were all excited to see the odd iguana close to us but by the time we were through with our guided hike, we were not only no longer trying to photograph them all the time but actually trying our best to not step on them as we walked.

When we reached the cliff face, we started to see a lot more marine iguanas clinging to the rocks and sunning themselves. The updraft across the face of the cliff allows birds to soar over the edge effortlessly and we enjoyed listening to Juan Carlos pointing out the various species. Many of the birds were very agile and extremely fast in the air and I was having great difficulty getting a good shot at them as they flew past. It wasn’t just in the air that I had to point the camera either; we saw several schools of large fish in the waters below us as well as a very nice spotted eagle ray swimming very close to the surface of the water just below us. The marine iguanas sitting on the rocks all around us differ from the land iguanas in various ways. They look essentially like they are the same animal except for the colour of their skin but marine iguanas seek their food beneath the salt waters. This is a unique trait to the Galapagos marine iguana. They can hold their breath for about an hour whilst they swim out to forage for their favourite type of algae that grows on the rocks beneath the waters here. When they have eaten and come back to dry land, they expel salt water by sneezing it out from time to time. Also, the marine iguanas huddle together at night in groups to keep warm whereas the land iguanas return to their holes in the ground where they nest.

On our way back around to where our panga had dropped us off, we had to pass through the area where the sea lions were sunbathing. We had to literally just miss them in order to pass them by and Juan Carlos got several of the pups going by imitating the call of an adult female. He got down on his knees and had one of the pups actually come up to him to kiss him on the face.

Once again, it was a spectacular hike and extremely informative but we had to make our way back to the NEMO I eventually. The golden red sunset was magnificent as we all sat in front of the laptop to enjoy an impromptu slideshow of our day’s photography. This evening, we set course for southern tip of the archipelago and this will take anywhere from six to twelve hours of cruising against the wind, depending on the currents. We will likely be cruising all through the night but I’m not complaining since this will mean that we will be well out of reach of mosquitoes and other bugs and thus we will be able to leave our hatch open to allow fresher and cooler air to circulate around the cabin. I’m enjoying this cruise immensely so far but the cramped and hot conditions of the boat are not something that I would be too eager to recommend to subsequent travellers.

The crew had arranged shrimp for diner this evening but seeing as Sandy does not eat fish, the chef prepared a serving of filet mignon for her. I managed to get wind of this early enough to request the same for myself and we both got a few jealous looks and comments from one or two of the other passengers. The meat was quite tough and although it looked like filet mignon, that’s where the similarities with the real, succulent dish ended. We’ve come to have lower expectations of the food on the boat so far. That isn’t to say that the cook doesn’t do his level best to prepare a wide variety of good food; it’s just that we’re both very particular about what we will and won’t eat.

Most of the other passengers have been very happy about the very well presented meals that have been prepared.

The evening was rounded off with Juan Carlos putting up the white board of tomorrow’s schedule whilst briefing everyone on what to expect. From what I can gather, the format of one morning and one afternoon hike around one or more of the islands is pretty much going to be the format for the rest of the trip. With the exception of just a couple of other passenger, everyone here is a nature enthusiast and we are all very much looking forward to visiting all the islands and seeing the sometimes vast yet sometimes subtle differences between the wildlife and ecology between them. Since there are going to be diving opportunities tomorrow morning, our first hike will be at six o’clock and so there is a five-thirty wake up bell scheduled. Almost everyone made sure to be in bed and off to sleep early this evening in preparation for that.