Ecuador - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 401 (211)

On board NEMO I

Wednesday 13th April (2005)

It was still dark when the hideously early five-thirty wake-up bell was rung this morning. I think most people had a much easier night this time since we were on the move to the island of Española throughout the night. This made for a nice cool breeze and, perhaps more importantly, no mosquitoes, flies or other bugs around to keep us all awake. Since it was such an early start to the day, breakfast was not yet being served but the crew did layout some biscuits and tea and coffee for everyone. I can’t say that I’ve particularly enjoyed the food on the cruise so far but it has been well prepared and very nicely presented. Nobody else seems to be having a problem with the food so I’ll simply put it down my being very finicky.

Everyone assembled in the panga and we set off for our guided hike around Punta Suez on the island. The one thing that we immediately took note of after landing on the island was that the multitudes of iguanas on the island were of a slightly different variety. Although very similar in shape and size, they were a different colour. Depending on their gender, they were either a reddish colour or a near green or turquoise. Juan Carlos explained that this variation in colour between the different iguanas on the different islands is due to the different diets available to them locally. We saw plenty of the now familiar lava lizards throughout the hike and these too differed slightly with those that we’ve seen on previous islands. The females sport a brilliant orange colour around the head and neck. Unlike other animals species here in the Galapagos Islands and elsewhere, it is these female lava lizards that initiate the mating rituals and thus have this brightly coloured display. Ordinarily, it is the male of a given species that tries to attract the females but with these lava lizards, things work the other way around.

Although we had a very early start, we were still not the first to land on the island and were just beaten to it by a party from one of the other boats in the bay. After we landed, we had to hang around for a few minutes to allow the group in front of us to move on ahead a bit. As we stood there waiting, a couple of mockingbirds were scurrying around our feet. They were looking for fresh water and somehow seemed to know that we each had a bottle with us. Juan Carlos would not allow us to give them any water but it seemed clear that people had done exactly this in the past since the birds were instinctively pecking at the bottle tops when these were offered to them. By allowing the birds to sip our water, they quickly learn that this is the easy way to find it and this can be a serious problem for the birds that then fail to locate their water using natural means. Even this kind of very simple interference can have disastrous consequences for the wildlife here.

We’ve been very lucky in many respects with the timing of this cruise. Both the blue-footed boobies and the frigate birds have been in mating season and we’ve seen them in the various stages of courting, mating and rearing of their chicks. It also just so happens that the wave albatrosses have just recently arrived and have started their courting and breeding season. We saw dozens of both individual and mating pair albatrosses on the island including a whole colony of them at what Juan Carlos described as their landing site. Albatrosses spend most of their lives at sea and only come to land to mate and rear their young. They can spend incredibly long periods of time on the wing and are extremely graceful birds in the air. As a result of this, their feet and legs are not particularly well suited to landing and walking and this is where they are disadvantaged. For all their grace and beauty in the air, they are clumsy and cumbersome on the ground. We were very fortunate to actually see a couple of albatrosses copulating.

The albatrosses were a real treat but this island is also the home to the largest colony of blue-footed boobies and we walked through an area that housed thousands of them, most of which were courting and dancing for each other. Many of them were also sitting on eggs and we found at least a couple of birds sitting on multiple eggs.

As if the albatrosses and blue-footed boobies weren’t enough, there is also a huge colony here of nazca boobies. There are three (possibly four) types of booby here in the Galapagos Islands but we won’t be visiting any of the islands where the other common sort, the red-footed booby, can be found. The nazca boobies must have recently had their mating season since we saw lots of their chicks and juveniles.

The trail that we followed around the island was extremely rocky and uneven. The whole island, in fact, is strewn with boulders that have been overgrown with bush and vegetation. The hiking path that we followed has simply been cleared of the vegetation with no other interference by man save for a few posts here and there to mark the boundaries of the path. Once again, Juan Carlos was extremely emphatic about everybody, be they in our group or someone else’s, remaining within the boundaries of these staked posts.

The Olympus camera was in the underwater housing from the previous diving so we only had the Nikon with us today. We still managed to rack up three hundred and forty shots, though. With just the one camera between us, we had to devise a means of sharing so as to avoid arguments so we each ended up using it every alternate half hour.

One side of the island sports a cliff face edge with rocky outcroppings. The entire cliff area is littered with boobies, frigates, soaring albatrosses and other birds so we sat there for a while simply enjoying watching them fly right over our heads. I was in photographic heaven as the albatrosses in particular came very close from time to time. Below us and just above sea level was a fissure in the rock. Each time the huge sea swells crash against the rocks, a blowhole to erupts up to thirty metres in height through the fissure. From what we could see from the clarity of the crystal clear waters, the diving should be great later this morning.

Breakfast this morning was at eight forty-five and it was hard to believe that we’d already had such a packed day of exploration by the time we all sat to eat. As soon as the breakfast table was cleared, the captain set sail for out next destination around the far side of the island.

As we sailed, those of us that were going to go diving started to sort out all the SCUBA gear, trying various things on for size. Excluding Juan Carlos as our dive master, there would be four divers this morning. There was only enough equipment for the five divers with no spares as far as I could see. This became a bit of an issue when the five of us set off in the panga to the dive site. When we arrived and started to suit up, one of the other divers noticed a broken clip on his fin, thus rendering it useless. There was just one other panga in the area that was waiting for its compliment of divers to surface and we considered waiting for them to do so, that we might borrow one of their fins. With a bit of ingenuity and lateral thinking, however, we managed to use the string from a drawstring bag to fashion a makeshift tie for the fin. It turned out to work quite well and the dive was able to go ahead after all. The dive itself was quite nice but nothing that I would consider special. There is no coral here around the Galapagos Islands but there are plenty of large pelagic species to be found. The bottom composition is a sandy seabed and lots of large boulders. The highlight of our dive was a large white-tipped reef shark that was circling around us. At one point, the seabed also seemed to be alive with garden eels poking their heads out of the sand. I and another diver, a young Welshman living in Brazil, were the first to reach our fifty bar threshold and thus the first to surface after our three-minute, five-metre safety stop. Once all back aboard the panga, we made our way back to NEMO I for lunch. There was to be a second dive at the same location but I rather thought I’d seen what there was to see there and decided to skip it. Two of the divers had only ever intended to dive once anyway and since Juan Carlos did not want to dive with less than one passenger, the second dive was cancelled as a result.

Our second landing for the day was a wet one and it was a five minute panga ride over to a long, white, sandy beach for a couple of hours of free time. The entire length of the beach was littered with sea lions either lying on the sand or frolicking around. There were plenty of other people from other boats walking up and down the shore and it was a truly bizarre sight to see the sea lions and people mixing with a complete disregard for each other – apart from the fact that some of the humans were photographing some of the sea lions.

We spent much of our time on the beach just walking the length of it and back trying to spot as many species of Darwin finches as we could. The bird spotting was put on the back-burner shortly before we were due to be collected again when one of our group pointed out an absolutely huge school of rays just a few metres from the shore. There must have been thousands of them there and even Juan Carlos was amazed at the size of the school. As if that wasn’t enough, there were also several turtles swimming very close to the shore along with the rays. Every now and then, they would poke their heads out of the water and then just hover beneath the surface. It almost seemed like they were checking to see if the beach was clear before coming ashore. Apparently, they do come ashore later in the evenings and at night. Unfortunately, all the uninhabited Galapagos Islands are off limits from six o’clock onwards so we would not get to see this.

Juan Carlos had brought a radio with him but it was either not working or nobody on the boat could hear the calls to come and collect us. Accordingly, we were the last group to leave the island but when the panga did finally come to collect us, we spent a few minutes slowly following the huge schools of rays that had by now split into a several smaller groups. It was a truly amazing sight. Dusk was starting to set in by the time we made it back to our boat and it seemed like the captain was eager to set sail for our next destination, as we noticed the NEMO I making its way over to rendezvous with us. We had our briefing of what to expect from tomorrow and it was clear that there was going to be another early start for the divers. After dinner, I set up the laptop to show the now customary slideshow of our daily photos. Some four hundred snaps later and after a spontaneous round of applause, I wrote up a few notes and went straight to bed. I was feeling a little off weather and was exceedingly tired.