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On a visit to Tortuga Bay I came across a new subspecies of a Galapagos mammal – one that has evolved adaptations for survival in the sea. This sub species has evolved the ability to use a large flat pointed implement as a tool to take advantage of the power of the waves. Another adaptation it has is a thick rubbery skin to maintain body temperature. Scientists are predicting if these adaptations will be perfected and what other adaptations may evolve with time.
Further along the bay literally piles of marine iguana were to be found flopped in the sand, random individuals periodically spitting out excess salt. There was quite a pungent smell!
Then came what I was waiting for – the opportunity to be close enough to see what is probably the most beautiful pair of blue feet on Earth.
We all put our recycling out (at least I hope we do!), but how many of us wonder what actually happens to it. Today we found out. As part of the trip we volunteered at the local recycling centre – it may not sound like a prize, but it was great fun, rewarding, hard work and a fantastic opportunity to meet some of the “real” islanders. We also learnt more Spanish that morning than any other time so far.
We began the day with a tour of the facility, seeing what they were able to recycle – glass, plastics, paper, metal, organicos (anything compostable) – that was the smelly bit! As well as some of the products made from the recycled materials such as concrete that contained recycled glass. I bet that looks lovely when polished down as a floor.
Then we had a tour of the interpretation centre where we learnt what the Galapagos islanders are doing to live sustainably. In many ways they are much more advanced than us back in the UK. They have been separating waste for over a decade. Then it was time to get hands on.
I was assigned to help Henry on the compactor. It began with me being given a pair of latex gloves and told to climb into a trolley full of paper. I then had to load the paper into the compactor. Within 5 minutes I was drenched with sweat and the gloves were shredded, but the compactor was full. Henry then showed me how to operate the machine, I was surprised at his trust in me since he spoke no English and my Spanish only really works in restaurants. Anyway with lots of gestures and repetition I was able to compress the paper into a bale and not break the most important machine in the plant.
I then learnt how to bale up the compressed paper, using a tensioner and a crimper to join the ends of the plastic strapping together. Henry and I then trolleyed the bale to the weighing station, recorded its weight (70kg) and then stacked the bale to await shipping to the mainland for processing. This was then repeated with cardboard, plastic bottles and metal cans.
The morning that we spent there flew by. We all really enjoyed the camaraderie of working as part of a team. The guys that worked there had a great sense of humour, even through the language barrier. It was great to shake Henry’s hand at the end of the shift, feeling that we had done just a little bit to offset some of the harm to the Galapagos that all visitors inevitably bring with them.
We were all stinking at the end, but with broad grins on our faces.
Tortuga Bay gives a wonderful idea of the scale of geological time. It is made from the ground up spines of the pencil spined sea urchins that we saw whilst snorkelling on Floreana as well as the excrement they produce after eating the white corals found offshore. The sand formed in this way is very fine and a beautiful shade of white. Just imagine how many thousands or even millions of years that it must have taken for these echinoderms to form the tonnes of sand that make up most of the Galapagos Islands’ beaches.
The beach is reached via a two kilometre path through the dunes from our hotel in Puerto Ayora. At the beginning of the path you sign in and out again to make sure that nobody is left on the beach when the gates are locked at 6pm. The long beach receives most of the ocean swell that comes from the south.
I went there on Wednesday afternoon to check out the waves to see what sort of board I should hire. On arrival I was disappointed in the waves – a strong onshore wind was blowing the shape out of what offshore swell there was. I walked the length of the beach in the shallows (a favourite occupation of my wife, dog and I).
When I got to the end I got a shock as I saw what I thought was a dead marine iguana washed up on the beach. Upon closer inspection I saw it was breathing. I looked around and there were many more. They were just basking as we had seen them doing on Floreana, they just looked particularly strange against the white sand. I think most were females as they lacked the vivid colours of the larger males that we had seen on Floreana.
Today, while the girls were getting their hands dirty volunteering at the recycling plant, Karen and I snuck off to take a look at the other half of Galapagos – that which lies beneath the sea.
Looking at our packed itinerary we’d realised that this morning’s activity was the only one we could bear to miss, so we booked ourselves on a dive trip to Mosquera and Seymour Island.
We’d both qualified fairly recently so hadn’t been sure that we’d be allowed to dive here- the currents can be strong and the water cold, so a lot of sites are only suitable for advanced divers. Luckily we found a reputable company that happened to be taking out a Canadian father and son who also were novices, and we were able to join them.
First we moored off Mosquera, a tiny reef of lava covered in sand, in between Baltra (where the airport is) and Seymour Island. After a quick weight check and briefing we entered the water ‘James Bond’ style and descended.
Our first encounter was a stingray resting on the bottom. Gradually we got down to 20 metres and swam along to peer off the edge of the reef into the deep. The water was about 15 degrees but we were warm in our thick wetsuits and swam along taking in pufferfish, angelfish, sea stars, bright blue nudibranchs (always a favourite of mine) and garden eels.
After about 40 mins, I was disappointed to find that I had reached the safe reserve of 50 bar of air, so Karen and Ryan, one of the other divers, had to come up with me. But the disappointment abated when we were joined in our (slightly too fast) ascent by two sea lions. They really are like the dogs of the sea; spinning around, copying us and generally larking about.
I knew we might see sea lions but its amazing to have one swim right up to your face at breakneck speed before veering off and upwards at the last possible moment. And it was something else when we ended playing fetch with one sea lion who stole Karen’s fin, dropped it and then grabbed it again just in time for Ryan to rescue it!
Not so amazing for Karen was the choppy water up top. Like Darwin, she struggled valiantly against seasickness, and recovered just enough to come down on the second dive at Seymour point. This one was tougher than the first with what felt to me like a fairly strong current. We pushed on, perhaps too hard as again I used my air pretty quickly, but not before we had all marvelled at a flock of about 25 beautiful manta rays passing overhead.
As we reached the point, the current slowed and we paused by a cave to watch a few white tip reef sharks napping in their sheltered spot. White tips are small (for sharks) – maybe 1.5 metres long – and they feed at night, so we were perfectly safe- just fascinated to get a close look at them through the mouth of the cave.
Karen and I ascended together and this time took care not to be distracted by sea lions and did a proper safety stop. Unfortunately the rolling waves near the surface did not do anything for Karen’s sea legs and she was feeling decidedly peaky as we hit air. To her dismay we surfaced a good way from the boat, and had to bob around for a bit before they picked us up and we struggled out of the water. But we made it, and the colour returned to Karen’s face just in time for her to attempt to eat some lunch as we sat up front in the sun watching sea lions, pelicans – and in Karen’s case – the horizon.
Diving out here is certainly not for the faint hearted (or delicate of stomach) but very rewarding and the only way to really see the other half of Galapagos. Just as on the surface, under water is teeming with life that is astonishingly happy to get up close and personal!
Post script – I have just managed to post this after a lengthy power cut which meant I had to type in the dark wearing a natty little head torch. I really hope this is not going to delay dinner – after all that exercise my stomach is growling.
We have just spent the morning at the recycling centre for Santa Cruz. What to do with waste is obviously a serious issue as the resident population and tourism have increased.
The municipality is working hard to educate the general public about recycling. We smelt the recycling of organic waste, saw the rubbish coming in (general waste is collected daily) and the bales of waste going out which is shipped to the mainland about every three weeks for further processing. Much of the plastic goes on to China and then comes back again (and around the world!) in the form of various goods! The interpretation centre explained the problems created by waste and what was being done to try and solve them.
We then spent almost two hours helping out. Nick packaged materials into bales, looking happy and contented and very sweaty. Amy Turner, the girls and myself separated waste from a conveyor belt, each having our own resposibility - paper, glossy paper, newspaper, cardboard, different coloured glass, various categories of plastic (which I never quite got the hang of), cans.
There were bursts of frantic activity from Amy when lots of bottles came down - an awful lot of champagne is drunk in the Galapagos! We concluded that everyone in Britain should do ‘national service at a recycling centre – certainly made us think about our waste. The men working at the centre were a cheerful bunch and seemed to enjoy us participating – even if we did make mistakes.
We are off to the beach this afternoon. Nick, yet agin, is soooo excited – he is going to surf (whatever the height of the waves)!
Wednesday – We visited Tomas de Berlanga School , a private school nestling amongst vegetation with pupils ranging from 3 to 16 years old. Not quite what we might imagine a private school to be like in Britain. This school consisted of a few simple single storey buildings with open sides, roughly painted walls, simple wooden furniture, connected by larva ash paths weaving through the dense plant growth. There was a playground with brightly painted wooden swings and slides and a dusty football area. The younger children rushed around in their t-shirts and jeans with beaming smiles. The purpose of this school is to educate the children to be effective communicators in Spanish and English, to be critical thinkers and to have a passion about their environment.
Our 4 girls had the opportunity to interact with many of the teenage pupils. I was able to have a long conservation with the science teacher. She had little in the way of practical equipment and no laboratory but was so keen to encourage a problem solving approach with her pupils. A small group were preparing a project about the brain for a science fair and we attempted some of their brain teasers. I was very pleased to be able to take apart the two intertwined nails before the girls!
The Galapagos mocking bird and finches cracking nuts provided some of the background noise. We ate our packed lunch in the open air school snack bar watching the chickens chase away a cat, presumably waiting for food scraps. Read the rest of this entry »
I would like to start by thanking Sheila, her students and staff for making us so welcome today at Tomas de Berlanga school.
We were flung into the deep end with an English workshop with some 15-18 year old students and their teacher Todd. Our task was to make a drawing of how we had adapted to change. We then had to guess what each other’s drawings were trying to show. Right outside of my comfort zone! But it was a good ice breaker and got everyone talking. I found that 2 of the students were surfers and asked their advice on where I could find a break locally and they directed me to a shop in town where I could hire a board (more later).
We then went and joined a science class – the students were approximately year 9, we tried some puzzles and looked at their preparations for their science fair. Their curriculum was much more relaxed than ours, with no formal exams. The teachers set the students projects and then assisted them when they needed help. The relationships between the teachers and the students were very informal. I suppose a class size of 4-15 helped! (It is a fee paying school).
The Amys had brought books and other presents for the students which were much appreciated, as was the cuddly Welsh dragon that the girls had brought. I uploaded some of my software onto their network for them to use in their biology classes. Our students got to meet more of the Tomas students and quickly made friends, arranging to link up on Facebook.
We joined a tour of the school with a party of mainly Americans from a cruise ship (lots of socks and sandals!) and then had lunch in the outdoor student cafe. The grounds of the school were lovely with open air classrooms and playgrounds with birds hopping in and out.
In the afternoon we went with some of the students to a farm that now specialised in providing a protected habitat for tortoises. Our guides Anne and Freddie (we think we recognised Freddie from the BBC4 program on Lonesome George) were very knowledgable and showed us how they had tagged some of the tortoises (pictured in Flickr album Santa Cruz 20/10/2010 Alf) to track their movements. The males and females had their tags in different places so that they did not interfere with mating! We also learnt about the problems posed by invasive species such as brambles and guava.
Thanks again to Sheila and everyone at Tomas de Berlanga school, Anne, Freddie and Javier our guides and Steve – the owner of the farm, who has been on Santa Cruz since the 1940s when the population was less than 100 (now >30,000)
This morning I shed a tear as I stepped off the ‘plane onto Santa Cruz. I had actually arrived on an island of the Galapagos archipelago. On cue, there were a couple of finches on a small cactus plant showing off at the entrance of the ‘disembarkation control’, a large low shed. Here we waited (I momentarily felt I was queuing for a ride in a theme park) to show our Galapagos National Park visa, pay a fee for the privilege of visiting this hallowed ground and have our bags checked for ‘illicit goods’ i.e. any foreign organic material, alive or dead, which could affect the ecological balance of the islands. (Another example of the conservation strategies in the airport cloakroom – ‘Please put toilet paper in the bin not down the toilet’.) A frigate bird flew overhead as we left the airport.
It wasn’t long before we were travelling in a small minibus through distinct vegetation zones on our way to the highlands of Santa Cruz. There were many apparently dead grey trees in the arid zone – Palo Santo or Incense trees – stretching their branches proud of the rather scrubby green vegetation. (These trees are .playing dead – they are leafless for much of the year.) As we rose higher the plants became more varied, a spectrum of greens interrupted by the occasional red and yellow flowers. Lichens hung in long strands from branches. In some areas we could see large numbers of cattle egret (– they arrived naturally in the Galapagos in the 1960’s and have increased rapidly).
We stopped in the highlands to see Los Gemelos (the twins) – a pair of craters formed by collapsed caves. Their steep rocky grey walls were draped in greenery. The dominant plant in this zone was the Tree Scalesia with many flowering plants (mostly yellow and purple flowers), ferns and mosses forming the ground cover.
This morning I shed a tear as I stepped off the ‘plane onto Santa Cruz. I had actually arrived on an island of the Galapagos archipelago. On cue, there were a couple of finches on a small cactus plant showing off at the entrance of the ‘disembarkation control’, a large low shed. Here we waited (I momentarily felt I was queuing for a ride in a theme park) to show our Galapagos National Park visa, pay a fee for the privilege of visiting this hallowed ground and have our bags checked for ‘illicit goods’ i.e. any foreign organic material, alive or dead, which could affect the ecological balance of the islands. (Another example of the conservation strategies in the airport cloakroom – ‘Please put toilet paper in the bin not down the toilet’.) A frigate bird flew overhead as we left the airport. Read the rest of this entry »
I have officially lost track of what day it is. I think it is a wednesday.
So, today we went by bus to visit the local school, Tomas de Berlanga. Everyone is so friendly! The kids are so cute and just come up to you to say Ola!
We then met a group of students and had a discussion about how different our lives are compared to theirs. It was really interesting to learn what they like to do etc..
We had our lunch and then took a bus ride to another tortoise reserve with some of thew local school children we met. We saw how they have tagged some of the tortoises to see how far they can travel.
When we got back to the hotel, me and Eleri decided that the weather was too nice to stay in, so we went for a swim in the pool. The water was so warm and lush!
Had a really good day today. Very tired now.
Forgot to mention, I fell over on the runway at Galapagos airport. Didn’t hurt at the time and it was really funny. Hurts now.
Oh well.. no pain no gain?
Bienvenidos i Galapagos!
Just getting ready to go out out for dinner after our third day on Santa Cruz island. It keeps on getting better and better.
Monday, after landing, we visited the first tortoise reserve of the trip in the highlands. I was surprised at how quickly the plants and trees change from bare to a blanket of leaves within a few centremeters. As soon as we hopped off the van we saw our first tortoise: a beast of a fella just quietly munching on some leaves on the roadside. At this point, we didn’t realise how many more there would be.
The thing that amazes/amazed me most about tortoises is the noises they make. Everytime they move they make a huffing and sighing noise, even for a few little steps. Also, the noise of their shells scraping the ground sounds like a boulder being pushed in a cave. Everything is such an effort for them. To be fair to them, I’d be out of breath if I had that much weight to carry.
It’s difficult to comprehend how big they actually are until you’re standing next to one.
It gave us a great chance to practice our toroise faces though!
Yesterday we went to Floreana Island which involved a two hour speed boat journey there and back. I did learn that a life jacket makes a very comfortable cushion for a nautical nap. As soon as we got off the boat we saw sea lions, iguanas, lizards, blue-footed boobies, Sally lightfoot crabs, everything! (Cue much excitement and many squeals from the group). It was everything I’d read about.
Before we could run out our camera batteries, we were taken on a tour o the highlands. To get there, we had a roughly twenty minute journey in a van that can only be described as “bone shaking”. It was especially fun when we sat at the back on the way back down! The views were spectacular and we had an opportunity to walk amongst more tortoises at the tortoise reserve. We were lucky enough to see two males fighting, mainly using their necks as weapons. A couple of the tortoises were very curious in us, Charlotte and Mr.Alford in particular, often following us as we walked around.
After a delicious lunch of fish, rice and veg (with coffee cake and cream for dessert-my favourite!) we wandered round the pier and were able to take lots and lots of photos of wildlife that was SO close to us! Sea lions lazing on the rocks, iguanas giving us sceptical looks as we got nearer, crabs scuttling away as soon as they saw us. None of the animals were particularly bothered by us being there, as long as they got to lay in the shade.
Today we went to the Tomas de Berlanga school. It was so fasicnating to speak to the local children and compare how they learn and what they study. The only study a few core subjects such as physics, biology, english, music, maths and art. The pupils were horrified when I explained our exam system to them. Their english was very good and the little kids were so cute and funny, running in between us, giving high-fives and giving us gifts of a leaf and raw pasta (pasta paintings are clearly on the curriculum all across the world).
It showed me how formal our education system actually is. The relationships between teachers and pupils is very relaxed and personal, calling each other by first names, often hugging each other and generally being tactile with one another. We wouldn’t dream of being like that with our teachers! It probably helps that the average class size is about ten pupils. I know that most of the students I spoke to had Facebook so, if you’re reading this pupils of Tomas de Berlanga school, maybe we could stay in contact?