There are crazy, rich people doing bad things all through history. It helps sometimes to remember now is no different than any other time. Right now might be closer to home for some of us but corruption and exploitation are a continuous part of human history. From the bible’s first stories (allegory, mind you) to current day news, from the current situation in the U.S. to the Galapagos Islands you can find people lining their own pockets at the expense of others everywhere.
At Egas Port on Santiago Island in the Galápagos there are the remains of a salt production facility. Internet research reveals only a tamed down version of this story our guides told us. In the 1960s Hector Egas was granted a salt monopoly in Ecuador by his buddy the president. There was no shortage of cheap salt available in Ecuador and it made no sense to mine salt on an island over 600 miles from the mainland and ship it to consumers but the monopoly made that a money making situation. An additional economic plus came from Egas promising his workers land in exchange for work. Out in the islands with nothing to do after work, the workers even made block in their spare time. For free. Because that block was going to be used to build a hotel (where they might work) and their future homes. Meanwhile they mined salt and lived in rough circumstances and received very low pay. They bunked in a barracks. Oh, there was a soccer field. This lasted about two and a half years.
But surprise, surprise. New elections came and Egas’ buddy lost. Egas also lost his salt monopoly and the workers learned that Santiago Island was a national park and there was no land for them. They were out of work, out of luck and they had to go. Today everyone is gone. Only some pilings from the barracks, a commemorative sign and scattered remnants remain. Current day ship workers still use the soccer field, the salt lagoon is a safe home to breeding birds, including flamingos, and there are still blocks visible along the trail. Visitors are not allowed to visit the lagoon but can take a very scenic walk along rocky cliff and grottoes. Notable for our trip were the fur seals and a wee oystercatcher hatchling. Darwin himself spent several weeks on this island while the HMS Beagle sailed off to restock with water. Darwin was constantly afflicted with sea sickness so he leapt at the chance to stay on land for a few weeks. There’s a feature of surging, roiling water seaside named Darwin’s toilet. No proof on whether or not Darwin found relief there.
Moral of the story: the regular people got screwed, the villain’s family is still prominent, and elections happen. And it’s hard to get to the truth of the history. Googling only came up with superficial stories. Nothing on the exploitation and heartbreak the workers must have felt after spending years working towards a dream of their own home.
Galapagos February 2019 Naturalist Journeys, LLC trip with hosts Susan and Burt Mittelstadt. More photos daily as data limits allow.
Guests: Mariel, Roy, Jill, Maggie, Baird, Janis, Chuck, Mary, Peggy, Bobbie, Julia and Janet.
Before flying to the Galápagos our group of fourteen travelers took an excursion to Antisana National Park to see creatures of the high Andes. Rain was predicted for the afternoon so we got an early start despite some late night arrivals. Despite the predictions it was as clear a day as one could hope in the mountains. Manuel was our knowledgeable guide and Jonaton our expert driver. Our goal was the Andean Condor. At the first pullout it was clear we weren’t at sea level. Despite pounding hearts and fuzzy heads (the elevation all morning was near or over 13,000’) we were all thrilled with instant success. Andean condors were spotted by Maggie at rest on cliffs across the deep canyon. Manuel set up his spotting scope and showed us how to take great photos with our phones and the scope.
The day continued to amaze. Condors were spotted at a total of three locations with one very close flyby. Lunch was a delicious Andean feast. The rain started to come down just as we puled away to head for our hotel. Here’s what else we found that day:
Day One: Arrival in San Cristobal
We were met at the airport by the brother and sister team of guides, Ivan (I-love) and Karina and four more passengers of our ship the Eric. These two very experienced guides got us to the Eric for lunch and a safety drill and then we were back in out pangas for a visit to the Galapaguera, a tortoise breeding facility on the Island of San Cristobal. At the port we found our first creatures of the Galápagos. There were sea lions, Sally Lightfoot crabs, blue-footed boobies and a green heron. In Galapaguera we saw our first of Darwin’s finches and learned about efforts to restore the archipelago’s land tortoise populations. The highlight bird was our first of two woodpecker finches. We also were introduced to the poison apple tree. The rainy season was well underway and the island was lush with greenery and the air heavy with humidity. Our winter escapees had found a warm refuge. That evening we met the crew and toasted to our great luck to all come together on the fantastic final voyage of the Eric. Our evening meal was the first of many tasty meals. Sleepyheads one and all we hit the racks and motored all night towards Genovesa.
Striated heron (Galápagos)
San Cristobal Mockingbird
Galápagos sea lion
Sally Lightfoot crab
Day Two: Genovesa, Darwin’s Cove and Prince Philip’s steps.
First activity of the day was a walk at Darwin Bay. Immediately we were met by the archipelago’s famously accessible wildlife. Birds and lizards and fish all seemed to welcome our observations and photographs. Our first marine iguanas were here. After our short walk and talk we donned our gear and hit the water. This group was a happy bunch of snorkelers. Ivan even had a Ring-of-Happiness and individual support for our less experienced participants. After the hour long swim we headed back on ship for snacks and lunch and sea kayaking and paddle boarding. Late that afternoon, after music and a siesta we did a deep water snorkel. Hammerhead sharks and many of their sea companions joined us, including a baleful purple octopus. Back on board to change and then back in the pangas. We climbed the Prince Philip steps to see the vast population of birds that make this remote isle famous. Target bird was the short-eared owl. Bobbies, gulls, frigates, doves, mockingbirds, there were a lot of birds, both species and numbers. As we walked we learned about the Nazca boobies practice of NAV (non-parental visitor aggression) and we watched a juvenile spar with an NAV. The short eared owl has developed a daylight hunting strategy to avoid the Galápagos hawk. It can take birds much bigger than itself and on Genovesa it frequently waits in cracks to ambush incoming storm petrels. We spotted four of these interesting birds on our afternoon walk. One gave quite a show looking as though he might have a pellet to expel. Nothing materialized despite a solid ten minutes of what appeared to be owl expectoration. Then it was back to the Eric for more food and libations. The very active day sent us to bed right after dinner.
Band-rumped storm petrel
Wedge-Rumped storm petrel
Large cactus finch
Spotted eagle ray
Blue chinned parrot fish
White sea urchin
Pencil spend sea urchin
Yellowtail surgeon fish
Gold rimmed surgeon fish
Manta ray (sp)
White-tipped reef shark
Giant damsel fish
Panama sergeant major
Large banded blenny
Calico lizard fish
Guinea fowl puffer
Baby jack (sp)
Day Three: Santa Cruz Island, Black Turtle Cove, Baltra, Dragon Hill
After a sound sleep and another long night crossing we headed out early into Black Turtle Cove on the pangas. Here we learned about the mangroves and saw an abundance of penguins, turtles, and nursery sharks. A pair of Pacific green turtles obliged us with their mating practices. The penguins swam by in formation. It seemed like they were seeking handouts. The next activity was another snorkel. The snorkels were so full of saline that further lists only contain notable animals. Midday was occupied by refueling at Baltra. The Gypsy Carpenters helped pass the time with a singalong
in the lounge. That afternoon we snorkeled (again :)) and took a hike up Dragon Hill in search of land iguanas and giant tortoises. Of course we saw both. This group had magic.
Great blue heron
Pacific green sea turtles
Chocolate chip seastar
Pencil sea urchin
Day Four: Fernandina Island, Punta Espinoza, Bahia Urvina
By day four we are really into the rhythm of our daily activities. Getting in and out of our wetsuits, eating great food, napping, singing. every day is action packed. This day we arrived at the western most part of our trip. Fernandina is the youngest island in the archipelago. Our landing on the dock brought us nose to nose with marine iguanas and sea lions. Overhead we found three Galágos hawks. Underfoot there were lava lizards sunning onto of sea iguanas. We saw the rarely seen flower of the lava cactus and flightless cormorants. Our afternoon hike on the edge of Isabela Island was filled with enormous marine iguanas, giant tortoises and more cormorants.The day’s snorkels were excellent again but it was hard to imagine better, but more was waiting.That night we had a special concert by the Eric’s crew. I-Love led the group in high energy songs but Segundo moved us with his traditional ballads. Those guys could really jam. There were songs and dancing and Maria led is in the limbo. Then collapse into our beds with smiles again.
Striated heron (lava)
Darwin’s finch (sp)
Day Five: Isabela Island, Elizabeth Bay, Tagus Cove, Darwin’s Crater:
After another fortifying breakfast we took a panga ride along the coast of this marvelous island. The surprise was seeing the largely vegetarian Pacific green sea turtle with it’s jaws firmly locked on an half eaten fish. A large half eaten fish. Somebody was craving protein. A concentric pufferfish was dining on a moth. The damp season had brought a lot of insects and the birds and fish were taking advantage. Spiders (argiope sp) in beautiful webs were also seen everywhere. The morning snorkel was laden with sea life. Penguins, cormorants, turtles and iguanas in a parade amongst the permanent creatures of the deep. we learned that an animal is a land creature if it eats on land and a marine creature if it eats in the sea. One irritable flightless cormorant took a nip at Bobbie’s right calf leaving a small red dot. Another first for our group. Really, the visual wonders of the sea made it hard to end every snorkel. Our guides frequently had to chase some of us back into the boat. That afternoon we hiked to Darwin’s Crater for magnificent views of the mysterious salty water body and the vast lava field making up the north of the island. Mockingbirds and finches entertained us with their feather fanning mating displays. Heaps of Monarch butterflies raised questions of migration and food sources. They do not migrate and there is milkweed on the islands. How the Monarch got to the Galapagos is a mystery.
Golden eagle ray
spotted eagle ray
Sea (Tree) lion
Pacific green sea turtle
So many fish. We got tired of trying to sort them all out. Heads were exploding.
Day Six: Puerto Egas of Santiago, Rabida Island
At Puerto Egas we learned about a short lived era of human habitation that left behind a few ruins. It was the eternal story of corruption and exploitation that we hear all over the world. People were promised land that the promiser did not own. A change in government ended it all and everybody left. Today the island teems with wildlife. A group of fur seals were frolicking in the grottos near Darwin’s toilet. We could see the different facial features between the sea lion and fur seals, even thought this fur seal is not a true seal. The dominant male greeted our group with a large bellow. Along the edges of a tidal pool was an American Oystercatcher with its wee down covered hatchling no larger than an egg on legs. Sally Lightfoot crabs added dots of red and gold on the dark sculpted rocks. Zig zag spiders decorated trailside trees. On our morning snorkel we spotted a huge stone scorpionfish and a school of salema I would have said numbered over 100,000 individuals. The afternoon snorkel had a spotted tiger eel snake and toothy moray eel. Late in the day we hiked the red soil of Rabida. Before we even had our shoes changed Burt yelled, “Flamingo” and Karina ran to see if he was kidding. He was not. For the first time in years and only the second time ever in her 20+ year career there was a flamingo in the brackish water at Rabida. Oddly, it was the second time in 18 months for Burt and Susan to see a flamingo here. Their amazing good luck continued. We got an eyeful of that calm and showy bird. It was spectacular. We all watched as it swung its improbable bill back and forth in the water filtering out crustaceans and preened its bright pink feathers.
White-cheeked pintail (Galápagos)
Moray eel (sp)
Tiger eel snake
Day Seven: Highlands of Santa Cruz Island and the Darwin Center
Our tour was coming to an end and there was a kind of gentle sadness infecting us. Not only would we have to say good-bye to new friends but all of us, crew and passengers, had to bid farewell to the Eric. After nearly three decades of service the Eric was being replaced by a new ship. We all loved this hard working craft and nobody wants dot see it retired. Still we had fun and more things to see and more songs to sing. That morning we visited the Darwin Center and Karina delighted us with a passionate presentation of the land tortoise restoration program. She explained how island by island rats were being eradicated. It was a complex process but slowly they were notching up success. Land tortoises are breeding in the wild for the first time in 100 years in some locations. Then we took an hour to explore the town and stock up on gifts for home. After lunch we took a bus ride to the highlands and visited the Gemelos, twin sink holes. Green warbler-finches sang for us and a woodpecker finch sped on past. At the working ranch we observed the tortoises in mid-migration across a working farm. We also walked through a dark and damp lava tube. Karina explained how these tubes form when the lava cools at different rates. A cooler and harder exterior can contain a warmer flowing interior, like a straw and soda. That night we played music and gathered ourselves for the parting.
White-cheeked pintail (Galápagos)
Day Eight: Interpretive Center at San Cristobal, Departure
The final day was spent touring the exhibits at the San Cristobal Interpretive Center or hiking up Tijeretas Hill followed by a snack and wi-fi in town as we waited for our flight to Quito. The hill hike rewarded us with a breeze and expansive views of Puerto Ayora and the Pacific. Our group arrived in Quito and had one last dinner together and then it was off on ur own journeys. Some headed home, others to Mindo for more birds, and others for a more expansive tour through Ecuador. It was a privilege to be in your company. We were lucky to have a group of warm and interesting companions, guides that wanted to share their home with us, and a crew that saw to our every need.
Great blue heron
San Cristobal mockingbird
There’s a very special bird visiting Helena right now. While common in much of the US, Mexico and Central America the green heron is a rare visitor to this part of the country. This is the same species (or not) of bird found in the Galapagos Islands. Out on the remote islands it can be seen in two distinct plumages and is called the lava heron or striated heron or green heron. Depending on your predilection. Burt and I saw many many many green herons on our two trips to the Galapagos. Today we will not discuss if we should lump or split this lovely bird and it’s kith and kin. We shall marvel at the fact that this individual said, “I’m gonna check out a new place.” My ebird research reveals the closest record was from 2016 up in Cascade.
How we found this bird is a testament to doing science every day and the motto of “every bird counts, count every bird.” The book Lab Girl certainly has been on my mind as I consider all the work volunteers around the world are doing to count birds. Almost every list is mundane. Robins, house finches, starlings, Eurasian collared doves…blah bland blah. But the science is found in the mundane. Data is boring but must be collected so we can see the meaning in the big picture. Each individuals list is meaningless but together something is learned. Our lone green heron is a blip. He’s meaningless to science but he’s a juicy reward for us.
Burt and I had both had long busy days. He worked on the remodel job. I walked 4 1/2 miles to town and then spent two more hours cleaning an older friend’s home. At lunchtime Burt and I met for Bridge. The unit game started with a free lunch and a commotion. The director and her minions were out of sorts. There was yelling, a kerfuffle over the wrong movement. Boards were seen by the wrong people. More yelling. I kept my head down and mouth shut but I was rattled. Then I had a long sequence of missed heartbeats or palpatations. I became confused and couldn’t remember what I was doing and ruined a couple of hands from complete brain fog. My mood was dour and my head and chest ached. Burt wanted to leave. I told him I’d rather die playing Bridge than go through another endless round of tests in the ER. He let me stay. It is clear that emotional stress with a mix of physical exhaustion is my main trigger. With my new meds just getting underway I want to just wait a bit before heading to the doctor again. Bridge wrapped up with us not in last place. That is the best we can hope for on a good day. Considering I couldn’t remember if aces were out in any suit of any hand it was a great day.
Afterwards we had an hour and a half to pass before meeting friends for an early birthday celebration. I suggested we take the dogs to the new Ten Mile Creek Park. Elvis and Olive could enjoy the new off-leash area and we could see some birdies. And that’s how we came to spot a rare visitor in the jungles of Helena. Burt said, “I see some kind of heron over there.” I peeked and thought, “It seems very familiar. It reminds me of the striated heron in the Galapagos.” Well, that’s because it was the same species of bird (if you’re a lumper). A quick look in iBirdPro revealed that we had found a green heron in an unusual location. What an improvement over bridge. Calm brain on a gentle walk. I felt like I was firing on all cylinders again.
Here’s a fact about the green heron that I should have known but didn’t: Green herons are tool users. They use bits of leaves or bread or other fishies to lure in fish to eat. They are bait fishermen. No wonder we like them.
In the Galapagos every place seems far away and everything in Montana seems close. When we visited the famous mail box of the Floreana Island I happily snatched up three post cards from our area and thought it would be fun to deliver them to the addresses. The post box is a three hundred year old whisky cask and has been in use since 1793. For over three centuries people have left their mail in the hopes that other travelers would help it get home. The system is easy. You drop off a card and subsequent passersby look through the addresses and take any letters they can deliver.
In my enthusiasm I grabbed Livingston, MT, Idaho Falls, ID, and Stevensville, MT. Two weeks ago we were driving through Idaho Falls and I couldn’t find the post cards. What a loser. Idaho card looms over my head. Luckily we drive through there nearly twice a year. The cards are now in the glove box ready when we are. This weekend we barely found the address of the Livingston card. Google Maps had us looking for a home deep in open country. Luckily the nearest house was the place. It was only a mile away from the GPS dot. Sadly nobody was home. I hope young Sam still lives there. I found him on Facebook and sent him a message after we dropped it but so far no response. The location could not get more stereotypical Montana. A historic ranch, a shovel with the house number, an antique table on the porch. It was all so green and idyllic. Too bad the young cowboy was not there to complete the montage.
Stevensville card weighs on my mind. Why did I pick this one? I never get to Stevensville. I think the note was called to me. Mom sent a sweet words to her daughter. Maybe this week on our way home from Kila we will take the hour detour and deliver the card. Maybe not. Maybe some other time.
Trip report from the singing and swinging group on the Letty. Susan and Burt, Susan and Bill, Amy and Edwin, Sue and Clay, Brian, and Fiona, and Robert. From this point on: Susan is Susan Mittelstadt. Susana is Susan Roth, Sue is Sue. There’s a full list of birds seen at the end.
2/4/18: The very first moments of our very first day looked like we might have a long week ahead of us. It all begin well enough with a fish dinner followed by Amy’s birthday cake at Puembo Birding Gardens. Then things went bad. Susan woke up with an intense version of tourista at 2 AM. With only 5 hours to go before the bus to the airport arrived some tough calls needed to be made. Pondering the hospital or disturbing a guest, Susan and Burt chose the guest. Edwin has been Susan’s intermittent primary care provider of 35 years and the two share a long tradition of medical care in remote locales. Susan swallowed her pride and gratefully accepted a shot of anti-nausea drug. She also despaired over the idea of dragging some noro-virus like disease onto airplanes and a ship with a group ready to enjoy the Galapagos Islands. Edwin assured her that if she kept her hands clean she would not infect the group. So she made up her mind to get herself to the Galapagos and recover en route. At seven she was able to leave the room and found the group rallied and taking over leadership roles. Burt was managing Susan. Susana was gathering people, luggage and keeping track of time. The bus was late. Twenty minutes after the scheduled pick up time the bus was spotted passing by a block away. Our hostess was excitedly trying to direct the driver by phone but it was not working. Ultimately Bill saved the day and ran down the bus on foot. Run, Bill, run! We arrived at the airport with only a little time to spare but EcoVenturas was ready and swept us though all the preliminaries with alacrity. Susan was wheeled about in a wheelchair. Sue and Clay joined us at the airport. We all made the flight. Way to go team. Roberto joined the group at the stopover in Guayaquil.
We arrived in San Cristobal on schedule and were ferried to the boat. The Naturalist Journey’s group met 6 new friends and we seamlessly merged into one group of friendly and excited participants. Susan passed out the species checklists and shared the extras with the other couples. We had our boarding briefing and then enjoyed the first of a continuous string of fine meals. After lunch there was a practice emergency drill. Susan slept through it but reports were it went well. We are all pleased there was no need to find out who or who not might have been paying attention.
The afternoon was the first snorkeling of the trip. Burt helped the newbies figure out the mask and snorkel and generally relax in the water. Fiona saw her first sea turtle. Highlights of the outing were the Pacific Green Sea Turtle, the blue-footed Booby, sea lions, great and magnificent frigate birds. That night an exhausted group headed to bed early. No music was played.
2/5/18: By the first morning aboard we were all under the Galapagos’ magic spell and the bad omens of the day before were forgotten. We started with a wet landing at Cerro Brujo and a beach walk. Our Ecoventura guides Cecibel and Giancarlo set us free to explore a lovely stretch of soft sandy shoreline. We walked in sight of Leon Dormido (or Kicker Rock). There we saw our first marine iguanas and lava lizards. The San Cristobal mockingbird, a warbler finch, and the velvety gray lava gull were also spotted. Elliot’s storm petrels danced on the water behind the Letty, too.
The late morning was spent snorkeling nearby. Words fail, mainly because I have no idea what we saw. The snorkeling never failed to impress.
After lunch we did a hike at Punta Pitt. Begging blue-footed booby babies. Dancing blue-footed boobies. Egg sitting blue-footed boobies. Blue-footed boobies are looking good at Punta Pitt. A marine iguana took a run at Susan and she leapt and screamed to the delight of everyone in her group. Susan swears she was not scared only startled by the love stuck reptile.
Highlights of the day: All three species of boobies (red-footed, blue-footed, and Nazca) were seen. We also enjoyed close up swoops of the nocturnal swallowtail gull and the red-billed tropic bird. Fiona is bitten by the bird listing craze and it is revealed that her SO is an eBird administrator. Fiona spots a pair of American Oystercatchers.
2/6/18: Day three found us walking at Punta Suarez on Espaniola and sea kayaking, snorkeling, and hiking along Gardener Bay. It was a jam packed day. On our hike we saw our only waved albatross. It was dead but nobody seemed to mind. Giancarlo explained that the largely unfilled niche of carrion eaters in the Islands was why skeletons and mummified remains were so plentiful. On the live side we saw more Nazca boobies, a snake, and sea lions and marine iguanas. The marine iguanas are especially colorful and active this time of year. Our boating expedition was a delight. Calm seas, clear water, balmy temperatures. What else could you ask for? Susan and Fiona went out together while Burt boated with Brian. Roberto did the SUP and all the other couples were paired with their mates. Nobody was thrown overboard.
During the snorkel we saw a massive ball of creole fish. A shimmering blue delight.
That night Susan ate her first solid food and the instruments and singers came together and got the trip groove going. Brian, Burt, Susan, Fiona, and Roberto got down. The Capitan danced with Sue to Love Potion #9 while Claudia drove the ship. Edwin wins the award for knowing all the words to all the songs.
The day’s highlights: Galapagos mockingbird, Espaniola warbler finch, wandering tattler, a yellow-crowned night heron, creole fish, marine iguanas.
2/7/18: On our fourth day we were getting the hang of this expedition. Our ship was anchored just off Floreana. Cecibel had us getting up early to avoid the heat. The early wake up call had the added benefit of avoiding other groups. We’ve hardly crossed paths with other visitors on any day. Despite our good natured grumbles about the 6 AM alarms we are happy. That Cecibel is a smart one. On this day we visited Post Office bay and learned the history of the area. Following a centuries old tradition we took the time to sort through the mail and find some post cards to hand deliver. We left our own cards behind with the hope someone would bring them to us someday.
Before the visit to the post office, we took a walk to the turtle beach and saw fresh tracks of a Pacific green sea turtle. She was swimming away from her nest as we arrived. On our return walk we stopped and watched American flamingos in the pond just behind the dunes. Joining the flamingoes were a whimbrel, a sanderling, some lava herons, white-cheeked pintails, and a black-necked stilt. The day’s bird list was very long and varied.
That afternoon there was more snorkeling and in the evening lots of fun music with Fiona singing Crazy and Danny Boy. The requests started pouring in and the whole group was singing along now. Brian wowed us with some Sligo solos and joined in on the pop tunes, too.
2/8/18: On this day we left the wilderness behind and visited the inhabited island of Santa Cruz. First up was a stop at Los Gemelos, the twin giant sink holes in the lava on the side of the highway. At this volcanic formation half our group saw the elusive woodpecker finch. The rest of us enjoyed hearing about seeing the woodpecker finch. Afterwards we bussed up to El Chayote Farm to see the giant Galapagos tortoises. The seasonal rains were late this year and so the vegetation wasn’t very deep or thick. While a dry wet season isn’t good news for all creatures it makes for prime tortoise viewing. We saw many fine creatures and they were in the mood for love. Tortoise humping is not as sexy as it sounds nor is it a high action event but it is very fun to see. We saw many Galapagos finches here and started checking off some of Darwin’s famous species. We walked through a beautiful and long lava tunnel. There were common gallinules, smooth billed-anis, a whimbrel and some cattle egrets in the ranch surroundings.
That afternoon we took a tour of the Darwin Center. Giancarlo and Cecibel explained the captive breeding program and the accidental finds of George in the wild and Diego in a zoo. We saw Diego, father of hundreds, in his compound with several lovely ladies. We also saw the remains of George, father of none, hermetically sealed in a glass case. George was the last of his kind so it’s appropriate he has a place where we can forever contemplate the loss of a species.
Afterwards we had free time in town. There was shopping to do and Ecuavoli to watch. That Ecuavoli is a high stakes game. Three on three for several hundred dollars a match. The Carnival parade with a band and the local beauty queens came by just as we headed back to the Letty for the evening.
2/9/18: On this day we visited one of the most spectacular scenes in the world, Bartolome. We took a boardwalk across a lava landscape to a view of Pinnacle rock. It was a stout hike but we all made it without distress. Again we were grateful to Cecibel for an early start. We had the island to ourselves and the dark lava was already heating up at 7:30. Our guides explained the geology of the area while we walked. Tuff was discussed at length. We saw some lovely lava cactus starting the process of vegetating the islet. At the viewing deck you can see the isle nipped in with bays on opposing shores and Pinnacle rock in the center of it all. Afterwards some of us snorkeled. Again, the snorkeling was worth the effort of donning all that gear. White tipped sharks lurked in shallow crevasse just below us. The lava landscape continued into the seascape. On our way back from the swim we passed the base of Pinnacle rock and spotted a Galapagos penguin. Fiona, on board, was watching the pangas and took note of our stop and saw the penguin from the Letty with her binoculars. Impressive skills of observation.
That afternoon we took a panga ride into the Black Turtle Mangroves on Isla Santa Cruz. Right away we happened upon a multi-species feeding frenzy. Sardines were running and everything else was chasing them. Frigates slid down in lazy arcs to just dip the tip of their bills in and flick out a fish. Pelicans and blue-footed boobies plunged deep from up high. Herons lined the shore and stabbed at passersby. Meanwhile bigger fish swam behind the schools and created vortexes of disturbed water.
We traveled deeper into the mangroves and found a hawksbill sea turtle and both white and black tipped sharks. Then we found one of the most delightful creatures to see from a boat, juvenile hammerhead sharks. We had stumbled into the recently discovered hammerhead shark nursery. There were clumps of five or more in several locations. Our guide, Giancarlo, had never seen so many baby hammerheads in one location. Hammerheads at this size look like a fun pet. This is such a recent discovery that it only made the news the week we returned.
More music and more singers let lose in public that night. Roberto slayed Dylan’s Another Cup of Coffee. Brian showed he’s got the chops to improvise on anything we throw at him.
2/10/18: The penultimate day. The previous day was one boggling scene or creature after another. On our last full day in the islands we had the time to look around and think about all the beauty we had taken in. First we took a long walk at South Plaza. We saw a hybrid of a land/sea iguana at the entry to the island. This streak faced animal is neither one nor the other. It isn’t even known if it can propagate. We also observed courtship between swallowtail gulls, a nursing sea lion and pup, some wrestling lava lizards, and some interspecies interactions between land and sea iguanas. I guess they have to interact if they occasionally produce hybrids.
We watched the shearwaters and swallowtail gulls soaring off the cliffs. A hatchling in a cliff side nest below us was fed by a parent. Half the group watched sharks eat a seal. It was reported to be a gory slow death.
That afternoon we snorkeled and hiked at North Seymour. Our hike was full of frigates in all stages of reproduction from courtship to eggs to hatchlings to juveniles. There were shrub climbing land lizards, too. There were also many blue-footed boobies. We saw two male boobies vying for the attention of a lone female. All that foot wagging and sky pointing and she seemed unimpressed. We enjoyed the show.
Our last night of tunes was full of group singing. The crew joined us for some well known numbers in both English and Spanish. Cielito Lindo, Besame Mucho, Quizas…
2/11/18: We spent our morning hanging in internet cafes and passing the time before our flight back to reality. Here’s the complete bird list.
The wonders of the Galapagos are widely covered in books and magazines and I am running out of time. Burt and I are headed into the Northern Jaguar Reserve tomorrow. I will be incommunicado for another two to three weeks. I can’t keep up. So here is a summary:
Naturalist Journeys runs a well organized, fortifying trip full of exciting wildlife and fun activities. You can check them out. Our tour had two daily walks, a daily scuba and about three sea kayaking adventures. No activity was too long or too draining. My favorite activity was snorkeling. What a surprise. I have had some bad snorkeling experiences and this was mesmerizing and fun. There was time for us to play some tunes and sing with our friends. The boat was well kept by a stellar crew. The naturalists were knowledgeable and generous. I encourage you to go while you can. It is a very active trip and it’s fun to do while strong and energetic. I have lots more photos on Facebook. If I have time I’ll put them up here.
Our fifteen hour cruise through rough waters took us to Genovesa Island. Genovesa Island is shaped like partially eclipsed sun. The island is the tip of a defunct volcano barely peaking above sea level with a water filled crater. The Letty and four other ships were at anchor when we awoke. Access to sites in the Galapagos National Park are strictly regulated. Each ship was assigned this destination over a year ago. Throughout the day the 100 or so people scattered throughout the vessels would take their turns visiting the island and its surrounding waters. Our agenda included two walks, a snorkel, and a sea kayak. First up was a dry boat landing at the Prince Phillip steps for a morning walk.
The names of the archipelago features were originally in English when the first map of the area was made by the buccaneer Ambrose Crowley. In 1684 Crowley honored his fellow pirates and British royalty or noblemen. These names were in use at the time of Charles Darwin’s renowned voyage on the HMS Beagle and so became authoritative as the Beagle produced navigational charts of their expedition. Eventually Ecuador took possession of the islands and chose to rename most prominent locales in honor of the 1492 expedition of Christopher Columbus. Genovesa Island is in honor of Genoa, Columbus’s home town. Prince Philip steps are in honor of Isabela’s husband, the Columbus expedition’s patron.
Prince Philip has a mighty memorable feature names after him. The walls of the crater are very steep lava. There’s hardly a break and one small beach. We’d be making a wet landing at the beach that afternoon but this morning our panga driver pushed the nose of the our shuttle up against the cliff and one by one we disembarked onto a narrow break in the cliff. Steep, irregular steps led up to the bird filled island body. Our line of eager visitors was immediately held up by a nesting swallowtail gull. There was no way to pass without violating the 6 foot rule. Welcome to the Galapagos. The wildlife has no fear. Our guide pushed ahead and lead us past. The gull did not flinch. A thousand people must pass every week.
Up on top we had our first in depth interpretive tour. The highlight was a Galapagos Mockingbird killing a giant centipede. Our group stopped and watched the mockingbird whip the centipede over and over again on the rocks. Satisfied the centipede was no longer a threat the bird ate the centipede’s brain and only its brain and flew away. The centipede’s legs were still moving. Our guides and Howard had never seen this behavior and has never seen a centipede of this size in the islands. Day one and we were already making history.
Next up was a heap of red-footed boobies in all stages of the reproductive cycle. We saw nesting, hatchlings, juveniles all at the same time. Our guide said it was unusual for the red-footed booby to have a mishmash of breeding at one time. The guide speculated climate change was triggering profound changes in currents and food and bird habits.
The swallowtail gulls were all around, too. These birds are the only nocturnal gulls in the world. Their eyes are rimmed in bright red trim that resembles plastic. Nobody knows for sure what the eye makeup does. At night we could see their ghostly shapes following our ship and diving for churned up squid or jellyfish.
After the walk we returned to the ship for lunch. Our afternoon was filled with another walk at Darwin Beach and a kayak and snorkel. More glorious wildlife above and below the seas and too much food. Food was always plentiful and delicious. There’s no snacking on the islands which initially caused me concern. I like to eat on a walk. The return from excursions was always met with fruit, snacks, and juice so I had no need to worry. My friend Pat told me it would be okay and she was right.
That afternoon we headed out to sea for another big overnight crossing.
The good ship Letty was our vessel for the week. She’s about 30 years old but biannual dry dock upgrades have kept her in fine shape. I wish I could go in for a remodel every two years. Burt and I were bunked below deck in a room with three beds. The extra bed made for spacious storage. We had our guitar and mandolin and the usual necessities to stow and the bed made it much easier. Also, it’s generally considered more comfortable to sleep apart in rough seas. There’s nobody else rolling around in your bed. Elbows and knees fly about erratically when trying to exit the bed for a midnight pee. Not a very romantic situation.
The first excursion was to La Loberia on Isla San Cristobal. Here was a harem of sea lions lolling about and a ‘beach master’ bull male guarding his ladies. The beach master was lumbering in and out of the shallows and down the shore break bellowing and grunting. He swung his head back and forth and if his flippers could reach he would have been beating his chest. The beach masters are mature males working hard to prevent competitors from accessing the females. Beach masters work so hard chasing off suitors they only last in charge a short while until they collapse from exhaustion and hunger. Every few weeks they are dethroned and a new beach master takes over until he too is drained of all virility. This sounds entertaining for the ladies in more ways than one.
While the menfolk do what men do, the females are feeding and caring for the youngsters. We saw many nursing babes and juveniles snoozing in the waning sun. Well fed sea lions rolled around and did yoga poses and slept while we gaped and took photos. It was as if we were invisible. Our guides kept us a whole 6′ away. Years of conditioning made it hard to let an animal of this size this close. In a magnificent roll reversal I was more cautious of the sea lions than they were of me. I mean to tell you, those things have some serious teeth and despite the lack of legs they do move fast.
San Cristobal Island is one of teh oldest in the archipelago. At La Loberia the lava boulders are well worn and rounded because it is the oldest lava and the beach faces the harshest waves. Over the milleniums the rocks have been softened. Other places we were to see were full of jagged and scary rocks of new lava. Also, there are two types of lava: aa and pahoehoe. Aa lava is jagged from the time it erupts. Pahoehoe means robes and it is a softer, more sinuous lava. Pahoehoe rocks start out smoother. Our guides explained all this during our walk to the beach.
We returned to our ship where I had an octopus dinner. Burt had beef. The cruise’s food was good and surprising. The menus are very diverse. Lunches are more traditional with a base of beans and rice but dinner was influenced by world cuisine. That night was a 15 hour open ocean cruise north to Genovesa. I took a dramamine and woke up 12 hours later. I highly recommend dramamine if your are prone to motion sickness. I nearly threw up trying to brush my teeth. Once I took my pill and hit the hay I had not a care in the world.
Morning found us anchored in a sea filled volcanic crater. Coolio.
I’m too tired to get into the blow by blow trip details. The Galapagos are famous for the friendly wildlife and amazing scenery. They are a volcanic archipelago bathed in cold sea currents. If you don’t know the name of some species of plant or animal stick the word Galapagos or Lava in front of it and you might be right. Lava gull, lava lizard, Galapagos mockingbird, Galapagos prickly pear….Our journey covered more than 500 nautical miles and 5 islands in 8 days. Naturalist Journeys hosts Howard and Carol gave 4 lectures covering the natural history, human history, evolution, and environmental threats. Our local guides were phenomenally well informed, energetic, and kind. Burt and I snorkeled in 8 locations. We saw more than 40 new species of birds and animals. I think you should check it out.
Two weeks ago Burt and I landed in Ecuador and had a memorable adventure. An adventure full of fun and action and family and friends. Here’s how it went.
The Gypsy Carpenters flew out of El Paso which is three hours from Portal, AZ. Our trailer and dogs and cat were stowed safely with friends in Portal. The cat is apparently happier with her friend Dodi than with us and the canines. Our flight was at mid-day and on the spur of the moment we drove to El Paso the evening before. After a few frustrating u-turns on the endless highways surrounding the El Paso airport we found a La Quinta with an authentic taco joint next door. Live music and tacos pastur for dinner. The La Quinta took us in and kept our car for free with a free shuttle to the airport. What a deal. The next morning we slept in, ate the complimentary breakfast and took to the skies.
There’s not much to say about air travel beyond how uncomfortable it is for everyone involved. Twelve hours later we landed in Quito. Burt and I have both been to Ecuador several times but the most recent trip was ten years ago. A lot has changed in Ecuador in ten years. We stepped out of our airplane expecting a third world style-runway exit with lots of intimidating barriers and screaming taxistas. Instead we landed in a modern day airport. It was clean and cavernous and well lit. Everything was orderly. What happened? President Rafael Correa happened is what I hear. A country wide investment in infrastructure has made the place anew. The Pan American highway was once a two lane pot hole riddled byway. Kind cute. Now it is a super highway. Six lanes of well-engineered roadway all the way to Columbia. Welcome, tourists.
At 11:00 PM we were shuffled through customs efficiently and with smiles. My ink splattered declaration was not a problem. My crossed-out name not an issue. Quite the opposite of our entry into Miami yesterday where I accidentally pushed a wrong button at the mandatory automatic kiosk and got us swept into the X line of suspicious people. Four in the morning and nobody was smiling. I was told I wouldn’t make that mistake again by the grumpy inspector. The taxis were lined up and regulated. We paid the standard ten US dollars to be ferried to our Air B and B host in Tababela. Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as its currency. Another reason to travel there.
We spent a day resting and acclimating to the high elevation. Chester’s B and B was a cozy spot with a comfortable bed in a town where nothing was happening. Worked for us. Most of our tour companions were on a pre-Galapagos side trip to see the condors and were staying in Puembo at the Puembo Birding Gardens. Naturalist Journeys uses the Puembo Birding Gardens as its Quito base camp. The inn is in beautiful location and has many fantastic birds, a friendly hostess, and fine dining. I figure my heart wasn’t up to the elevation where condors soar so we just hung out and played music and read for a day in seclusion.
The next morning we were up early and taken to the airport by our hosts. At the airport we united with our group and began the intricate journey to the Galapagos Islands. There were 18 guests and 2 hosts on this trip. Carol Simon and Howard Topoff were our hosts. In February Burt and I will be hosts and have guests of our own. Our twenty person group was met by the Ecoventuras team and shuttled through the detailed Galapagos luggage inspection and baggage check and sent off to our boarding gate to wait for our nearly three hour flight to the islands. The Galapagos are a unique place full of native plants and animals. The luggage inspection is to make sure we are not carrying anything that might harm the natural environment. No seeds, unpackaged food, plants, or dirt are allowed. I cleaned Burt’s and my shoes before the trip. (Shocking, I know.)
Our group was comprised of a bunch of scientific types with connections to Portal, Arizona. All of us knew someone on the trip. Burt and I knew Carol and Howard, of course, but we also had longtime Helena friends Ed and Rosemary on board. Our flight made a stop at the coastal city of Guayaquil and we picked up two more of our participants and then it was off the the archipelago.
The Galapagos are more than 600 miles from shore in the Pacific Ocean. The airplane makes quick work of what used to be a many day sea voyage. Flying is convenient but it also minimized the vast distance and made it easy to forget how far from the rest of the world we were. Our plane landed on San Cristobal Island around 3 in the afternoon. After another inspection we met our week’s guides, Fabricio and Franklin, and headed right out our ship for a late lunch and a boat safety meeting. After eating and considering a midnight sinking we headed back to land and took our first nature walk to La Loberia. Sea Lions are called Lobos Marinos and La Loberia was the place of many sea lions. They weren’t kidding. More next post.