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…they will come.

After seeing such a different selection of flora and fauna it is easy to forget how wonderful our own native species are.  In response to Becky’s last post about the lack of birdlife on these islands, then I can only refer to “Field of Dreams” – there’s one for your Media Studies!

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We might be lacking in reptiles on this island, but we make up for them with their relatives, the birds.

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The tortoises really were amazing.  It was so surreal to spot our first one just standing in a field as if it were a cow.  I suppose that’s the niche they fill.  No large mammals made it to the Galapagos, so the few reptiles that did evolved to fill that niche.  We had some wonderful up close moments with these lumbering giants.  It was great watching them eat, which they seem to do most of the time, and occasionally making the effort to put one foot in front of another.  We even heard the sound of tortoise love from the woods and found a mating pair, he had even brought a bunch of flowers for the occasion!

We learnt a lot about how the different shell shapes suited the diet available on the different islands and how their populations had been decimated by the earlier visitors to the islands who used them as a source of fresh meat on long boat voyages before refrigeration.  Apparently a large tortoise could survive in a ship’s hold for a year without food or water.  The same adaptation that had allowed their ancestors to survive the long journey on a raft of logs that brought them to the Galapagos led to their near extinction.  Not only were the tortoises and turtles of the islands a source of meat.  The fats that could be extracted from their bodies were used as lamp oil before the discovery of oil fields in the United States of America.

The name Galapagos comes from the Spanish for the saddle shape that the shells of the tortoises from the drier islands have to allow them to reach leaves from shrubs and trees.  We saw a wide range of shapes on the different islands, including the last remaining Galapagos tortoise from the island of Pinta, the world famous Lonesome George.  George had been removed from Pinta in 1971 and taken to Santa Cruz.  A reward of $10,000 was offered for a female from Pinta, but no females have ever been found.  Attempts to breed Lonesome George with related species have failed.  There have been numerous success stories with the populations of tortoises from other islands and we saw lots of young tortoises up to the age of 5.  Then they can be released into the wild; when their shells are hard enough to resist all predators, native – the Galapagos Hawk, and introduced predators like feral pigs and dogs.

It was great to see the symbol of the Islands now in good health, with populations increasing.  A sure sign that the projects and policies in place, as well as the management of the tourist industry are compatible with unique biodiversity of these special islands.

Video of Sea Lions on shore of San Cristobal (very cute!!)

Our last day on the Islands, a short trip to Los Tintoreras. The sickness is sweeping through us today. Very sparse at breakfast. In the end though, the girls pulled together as a team (again) and through mutual support managed to rally round to make the short trip to Los Tintoreras.

Our small boat was the ideal viewing point for numerous sea lions. Including one that was tossing a fish it had caught in the air, like a cat playing with a mouse. In swept a huge frigate bird in an attempt to grab the fish from the sea lion (unfortunately just before I had switched from the video camera to the still camera!). Anyway, I got one of my favourite shots of the trip of the receding frigate bird looking back over its shoulder and filling the photo.  The final footage of the frigate birds flying below us are actually from San Cristobal – near the statue of Charles Darwin.

We also saw a perched blue footed booby (at last, for me) and another galapagos penguin, staying out of the water to avoid getting its moulting plumage wet.

We moored on Los Tintoreras and saw yet more marine iguanas as well as many sea lions, young and old. We discovered that sea lion poo is very similar to dog poo, but paler and that on occasion marine iguanas have been seen eating it – yeuch, dropping points there guys – you might not be my favourite animal if I keep hearing of things like that! Read the rest of this entry »

A lie in – much appreciated after being awake from 4am to 5am dealing with the new flora of bacteria that are now living in my intestines.  Best just to say that we have had a dodgy introduction!

Unfortunately the local primary school were having their English exam today so couldn’t take us to the tortoise breeding centre.  We did call into their school on our way though to say hello.  The 6 year old students and their teacher were very welcoming, singing us songs and making us feel at home.  The girls had brought some Welsh cuddly toys and the Amys had brought books and colouring pens, which were appreciated.

We then walked along the road and came across the most amazing road sign I have ever seen:

Sure enough there were marine iguanas waiting to cross the road!  Amazingly they have had time to evolve some road sense.  I’m not saying that they looked left and right before crossing or that there was an older one with a lollipop to help the young ones cross!  But when a vehicle did come along they ran away from the road or sped up if already crossing.  I had just switched off the video camera when a dog ran past on the road.  Luckily I managed to get it back on again as they raced back towards the bushes for cover.  Its got to be one of my favourite bits of video footage of the whole trip.  Unfortunately introduced animals are the main predators of marine iguanas, but at least this shows that the native fauna are evolving to be scared of them.

We then walked along a raised platform through the undergrowth and inland lagoons, seeing more marine iguanas, a nest of yellow paper wasps (Charlotte’s favourite), beautiful passion flowers and fruits as well as some Galapagos mocking birds – the species that first gave Charles Darwin the idea that species could change when he noticed that they were different from the mainland mocking birds that he had seen. Karen has worked on extracting the DNA from some of Darwin’s original mocking bird specimens at the Natural History Museum with a view to helping their reintroduction onto Floreana where they are no longer found – possibly due to a major fire on the island. Read the rest of this entry »

The day of the trek to the summit of Sierra Negra…Up early for breakfast and then into the van with Julio and our driver Solitario Pinzon (Lonesome Finch – because he has had 5 wives – Ecuadorian logic!). Eagle (hawk) eyed though, as about a mile into our traverse of the arid lava fields Lonesome Finch spotted a (rare) Galapagos hawk riding on the thermals.

We ascended up through the zones of vegetation, getting more dense and verdant as we moved up into the clouds. Julio told us to look out for a red bird and within minutes Amy S had spotted a Vermillion Flycatcher. An absolutely beautiful small, bright red bird with a black Zorro like mask that is unfortunately getting to be rare in the Galapagos. Julio said that some twitchers (enthusiastic bird watchers) often spend hours trekking through this zone and often fail to see one. Within 2 minutes we saw another, this time with his mate (much less brightly coloured). I find it amazing that in most bird species it is the male that invests so much in personal decoration, whereas in humans… Read the rest of this entry »

Early edit of snorkelling off Isabella

Dedicated to Eleri, who’s strength of character got her out and about that day to see the sharks.

Eventually got the underwater footage to upload.  Glad that I managed that as we don’t have wireless on Isabella.  Things will be published from here upon our return to the UK.

Last morning on Santa Cruz a little sad.  We were just getting used to the layout of the town, the pace of life, the people in the shops and restaurants, the marine iguanas, the special Tortuga bay, the wonderful breakfasts of chocolate Scotch pancakes and cheese, followed by fruit, with wonderful Ecuadorian coffee and fresh juices – sounds weird, but do try it if you get the chance.

Spent the morning buying a few last minute presents – very few shops on Isabella, and walking around the town.  In particular went to the CDRS again as well as the fish market where we saw a bill fish – it looked totally out of this world, almost cartoon like. Just 100 yards down the road I came across a poster urging fishermen to throw bill fish back if they caught one. I do eat fish (mainly when eating out) but don’t think I could eat a bill fish steak, not having seen this magnificent beast.

We checked out of the hotel and I managed to spend 20 minutes on a sun lounger by the pool listening to the Doves.  So year 11 – that was my holiday bit of the trip – you can’t begrudge me 20 minutes!

Then it was lunch and down to the harbour.  Our cases were checked to make sure that we weren’t smuggling wildlife or moving fruits, or anything else with seeds etc that could contain invasive species.  Then we were packed onto a speedboat and set off for Isabella.  A bumpy ride, but saw 4 dolphins as we were pulling out of Puerto Ayora harbour – a fitting send off from Santa Cruz.

Arrived at the lovely natural harbour on Isabella.  We were wondering as we went through passport control what the policeman was doing bouncing a ball when there was a dog tied up getting really excited about it.  It was a sniffer dog – trained to look (not the correct verb – sniff, smell?) for smuggled wildlife etc.  Anyway, we had nothing to hide.

Short drive to our hotel.  Right on the beach, I can hear the waves crashing as I am writing this.  Palm trees with hammocks – a wonderful setting.

Our guide, Julio, took us on a quick tour of the town (village really) – a square with restaurants and thats about it.  Finished with the soda lake with flamingos – absolutely beautiful.

Trekking up to the 2nd largest caldera in the world tomorrow.  Sturdy shoes, 1.5 litres of water, sunblock, sunglasses, long sleeves needed.  Apparently it should reach 35 degrees C when we reach the summit.  The view should be amazing…

A very early start today.  Met by Javier at 7am at the hotel and walked into the harbour to catch our boat “Andy” to the island of San Cristobal. As we were pulling out of the harbour we saw some incredible waves – it looked like the swell has been building.

In a little over 2 hours we pulled into the bay where Charles Darwin first set foot on the Galapagos Islands.  The spot is marked by a statue.  Overhead, frigate birds flew in lazy circles above us.  They nest above the bay in their breeding season.

It was our hottest day on the islands, we disembarked in the harbour and had to avoid tripping over the sea lions.  It seems that the sea lions have chosen San Cristobal, just as the marine iguanas have chosen Floreana to set up home.  We walked to the interpretation centre where we had a talk on the history and conservation of the islands, followed by a look through the exhibition where we saw more of the history. We were all amazed at the amount of development shown by some aerial photos of the islands.

We then walked to view the statue. Like everywhere in the National Park, tourists are only allowed to walk on the paths to prevent damaging the habitat. It reminded me of the Ray Bradbury short story I read at primary school, A Sound of Thunder, in which a hunter travels back in time to shoot a dinosaur. The hunter is only allowed to shoot a Tyrannosaurus rex that is about to die of natural causes. In the panic of the hunt he steps off the path and kills an insect (I think – it was a long time ago!)  Upon his return to the present time the hunter notices that things have subtly changed. I wonder if a modern day tourist stepped off the path and trod on, say a tortoise’s nest, it would affect the future of evolutionary progress. I love the idea of contingency!  What will happen to the tortoises released onto Pinta Island – will they evolve similar body plans to Lonesome George?  Or will conditions have changed to suit a different shaped shell?  Or even if the conditions were exactly the same, would something different happen every time we replayed evolution?  Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Galapagos is also a great exploration of the idea of contingency. Stephen Jay Gould explores the idea more fully in Wonderful Life – The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History.

After a hot trek back into town, we had lunch at a restaurant overlooking the harbour, listening to the honking of the sea lions. Then it was into a taxi and off to the beach. Again some incredible waves. The Galapagos is sure to take off as a world class surfing destination. The path was criss-crossed with lines left by the tails of marine iguanas as they moved from their basking area to the sea to feed on algae. We came to a small reef that the huge waves were breaking against that formed a small lagoon of more sheltered water. On the beach of the lagoon were perhaps 50 sea lions – females and juveniles. In the water was the dominant male, protecting his harem by swimming up and down, honking and occasionally getting out of the water and shaking his head about. He looked impressive with his swollen head – much larger than the females.

The real stars of the show were the young.  On a cuteness scale of 1-10, I reckoned a 15, Charlotte thought much higher!  They were all wrinkled with puppy fat, their eyes were adorable and when they scratched themselves with their flippers…

For lots more pictures have a look at the Flickr set.

Then it was time to get into the water.  Javier showed us the best place to get into the water so that we didn’t disturb the dominant male. The water was quite murky due to all of the sand and seaweed in suspension due to the size of the waves, bringing visibility down to about 3-4 metres. However the animals must have been told that so they made sure they got exceptionally close. Within a minute of getting in the water I found myself practically on top of a large turtle less than 5 metres from the shore. The water was incredibly shallow and I had to avoid bumping in to it. I managed to follow and film the turtle for two and a half minutes – an incredible experience – its flippers moved so gracefully. At one point we made eye contact – awesome!

Then there were the sea lions. They loomed out of the gloom towards us. Once they saw that we had noticed them they charged towards us, blowing bubbles through their nostrils, only veering away at the last moment. It took some getting used to! I don’t think any of us will forget that experience. As time went on the sea lions got even more confident. Coming at me with open mouths and making honking sounds underwater – can just be heard in the latter parts of the video. One then tried to grab one of my fins in its mouth!! It was amazing to see these acrobats of the water, pulling somersaults, changing direction in an instant and most of all having fun! We are definitely not the only species capable of doing that. They reminded us of playful puppies.

I was the first out of the water and was described as, “The most animated we have ever seen you,” by Becky!  I will certainly never forget my time on San Cristobal. Amy Turner was escorted out of the water by the dominant male – he must have seen her as a threat, or maybe a potential addition to his harem!

We caught a catamaran back to Santa Cruz – a slower ride, but made worthwhile when we were buzzed by a pod of dolphins leaping out of the water.  The icing on a wonderful cake! The icing was then decorated with a beautiful sunset.

Thank you San Cristobal – we shall never forget you!

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