Galapagos, Day 3: Fernandina & Isabela

Holy iguanas, sea lions, turtles, and penguins. I’ve never seen so many together in one spot in my life. It was like being in a zoo, but without the cages.

This morning, when we went ashore at Fernandina Island, one of the newest islands in the Galapagos archipelago and also home to one of the world’s most active volcanos, I felt like I was transported back in time. The entire island is basically made up of cooled lava. We could see the path of the lava flow as it oozed down the flanks of the volcano thousands of years ago immortalized in ropes and ribbons of black, porous, rock. As soon as we stepped off the Zodiac and onto Fernandina, we were greeted by hundreds of spiny, leathery marine iguanas just chilling out in the middle of the trail. Since they’re cold-blooded reptiles, they need the sun’s warmth to get them moving in the morning, so they were taking full advantage of the early rays. We gingerly picked our way over and through them only to find another colony basking on the lava flow a few hundred feet away. Throughout the island, there must have been thousands. Marine iguanas are unique because, well, they’re marine (meaning they swim), but also for another adaptation that we soon came to find out. In order for them to clear the salt out of their systems, they blow it (forcefully) out of their nostrils. Projectilely. It was disgusting, but hilarious. Moving on from the iguanas, we came across several lazy sea lions nestled into the sand and others rolling around in the shallow tidal ares. Some of them didn’t pay us much attention as we snapped photos a few feet from their heads, but others were playful and curious – turning circles in the water and popping their noses out of the water for a quick look at us before diving back down.

Among the iguanas and sea lions, which were the stars of the morning, we also saw flightless cormorants (who, obviously, have lost the ability or know-how to fly), a hawk, and some sea turtles.

Our second outing of the morning (this is all before lunch), was a snorkel excursion around the lava flows of Fernandina. The water was much colder than yesterday, but I jumped in regardless, and I was glad I did! I had another awesome moment with a sea turtle – I swam along just above him for a few hundred yards – and we got some play time with a young sea lion. I’ve swam with sea lions before at Los Islotes in Baja, but I never get tired of it! They’re so funny and mischievous. When I was thoroughly freezing, I climbed back into the Zodiac and went to warm up with a hot shower.

After lunch, we had a few hours of rest time. I took a nap (I think I’m either finally decompressing from boat time or catching up on sleep from interrupted nights on the road). But by the late afternoon, I was refreshed and ready to go on a Zodiac cruise around Isabela Island, the largest island in the Galapagos. The wind had picked up and the swells were huge, making our Zodiac bob around like a rubber ducky and the occasional wave to crash over the sides, soaking us all. It was a lot of fun though, and the tall red and green cliffs climbing straight out of the ocean were stunning. One thing that has struck me is that all of the islands are so different in terms of looks as well as inhabitants. We also saw hoards of playful young sea lions surfing the waves as well as more flightless cormorants, blue footed-boobies, Nazca boobies, brown noddy’s, and too many sea turtles to count. I think we even ran over a few (don’t worry, they dive way below the surface before they hit the engine). But my favorite were the penguins! My goodness, they’re cute. We saw a few sharing the top of a tiny rocky island with a sea lion and several others were being swirled around in the foamy, white water below. I was amazed that they didn’t crash into the rocks. It looked like they were in need of rescuing, but then we saw one swim and he was like a bullet in the water. They’re so fast and graceful! Tomorrow we might have a chance to swim with them. I hope so!

So iguanas, sea lions, penguins, sea turtles, boobies… I’d say it was a successful day in the Galapagos. Stay tuned for tomorrow!

Galapagos, Day 2: North Seymour & Rabida

Wow, what a full day! It’s only a few minutes past six and I’m already exhausted. Let’s see… a few things that we saw on our first full day in the Galapagos:

– A ton of frigate birds, many of the males with their bright red pouches inflated
– So many iguanas and lizards that we had to watch were we stepped
– Blue footed boobies with bright blue feet waddling in the middle of the path
– Green sea turtles swimming within ten feet of us
– White-tipped reef sharks
– Ginormous parrot fish
– A blue spiny-looking lobster
– Countless other fish that I couldn’t identify
– Playful sea lions turning circles in front of us in the water and blowing bubbles up to the surface
– A stingray slowly making it’s way along the bottom of the ocean floor

Welcome to the Galapagos! We started our day off early with a 7am breakfast. Then it was a Zodiac ride ashore to North Seymour island where we went for a three hour, mile and a half walk along a well-trod path (we stopped a lot). The island is flat with small, scrubby trees, and green because of all the recent rain. When we stepped off of the Zodiac and onto the wet rocks, there were two baby sea lions waiting for us. They could care less that we were only three feet away!

Another 15 feet brought us head to toe with a large land iguana basking in the sun. Of course everyone was ecstatic and snapped photo after photo, but after about 20 iguanas later, we all had enough lizard shots. The frigate birds, too, were sitting in just about every tree and flying high above our heads. Some of them had their red mating pouches inflated and were trying to attract the females by spreading their wings and making clacking noises with their beaks.

We also saw this little guy waddling down the path. He was quite happy to show off his blue feet for us.

We returned to the ship at around 10:30 and had an hour to rest before Paula (our Expedition Leader) gave a great talk about the geology of the Galapagos Islands while the ship repositioned to our afternoon destination. Basically, they were created by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago and there are still hotspots where the islands continue to be formed. After lunch it was time to get in the water. We took a Zodiac out to the edge of Rabida Island, then jumped into the water and let the current carry us along the rocky shoreline. As I mentioned above, we saw a ton of marine life. Unlike the Caribbean or Great Barrier Reef, though, the Galapagos isn’t known for its beautiful coral. Despite its lack of bright blue, green, pink, and red coral life, though, the Galapagos makes up for it with large schools of fish and a huge diversity of marine critters. C had his underwater camera, so he took some shots, but the battery died before we finished snorkeling. I had a magical moment when a green sea turtle swam straight toward me and when he was within four or five feet, the sun shone through the water, illuminating him with sunlight. Unfortunately that was after C’s camera battery died.

After snorkeling, we had 15 minutes to rinse off, change, and stash our snorkeling gear on the sun deck before we headed ashore to Rabida Island for a late afternoon walk. Rabida is unique because its soil is fiery red due to sand made from lava with a high iron oxide content. The walk was easy, but we had beautiful views of the green sloping hills of the low volcano and I stopped to take pictures every few feet of lizards, cacti, spiders, birds, etc…

As the sun set, it was time to head back to the ship for recap and dinner. Tomorrow will be more snorkeling, hiking, and a Zodiac cruise!

The Pearl Islands

It’s Carnival time in Panama, which – for us on a boat – doesn’t mean much except for the fact that the places we usually visit will be over-run by Panamanian families hitting the beach for a good time over next several days. So instead of trying to muscle our way through the crowds to stake out a landing on shore, we’ve made a few adjustments to our itinerary. To me, this is a blessing, because if you read my last entry, you might have gathered that any deviation from our unvarying course from Costa Rica to Panama and back again is more than welcome. This morning we would normally be doing Zodiac cruises at a group of islands called Otoque and Bona (known for their abundant bird life), but instead we visited another group of islands in the Bay of Panama called the Pearl Islands. Also rich in bird life, we did two rounds of Zodiac cruises here and I managed to secure a spot on the last Zodiac on the second round. I’m not a birder, but I enjoyed spending an hour off the boat in the sunshine, bobbing around in a Zodiac. Here are a few pics that I took. We also saw a young frigate bird that had fallen into the water. Despite being a marine bird, frigate birds are pretty much doomed if they get their feathers wet. Their bodies are so light (less than two pounds!), they can’t lift themselves out of the water if they happen to fall in. We came across him struggling to lift off out of the water while exploring one of the islands by Zodiac. Later one of our naturalists went back over to pull him out of the water, dry him off, and send him on his way, tired, but apparently fine.

After the Zodiac cruises, we repositioned the Sea Lion a short ways to a beautiful tiny island called Bartolome. One side of the islands consists of a large sandy beach peppered with broken bits of shell and coral and the other side of the island is formed of fascinating rock formations. I didn’t walk around the island today, but I have in the past and it’s quite beautiful. We spent about an hour and a half at Bartomole before we had to pick up anchor and commence our 205 mile run to Coiba National Park, where we’ll visit some more new places and islands. On the way we spotted a few humpback whales, an army of feeding pelicans, a few dolphins, floating turtles, and eerie underwater waves of red algae.