Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Lonesome George is not gay, not that there's anything wrong with that! - Santa Cruz, Galapagos


Destination: Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

Best of: Giant Tortoises in the wild - the gentle giants of the Galapagos who only exist in the wild here and an island off the coast of India

Worst of: Santa Cruz has the largest population of all the islands with over 20,000 inhabitants. Seems a little out of place and could be a much smaller town just to facilitate tourists.

*With the islands being so diverse, we decided to post each one separately. The Galapagos Islands will be an 8 part series. Here is Part 4.

Day 04: Santa Cruz: Charles Darwin Station/ Highlands

We arrived around 7pm into Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos at over 20K people. I had always pictured the Galapagos as devoid of human's with the exception of a research station and a few scientists. I thought that the only way to see the islands was by a cruise. Boy was I wrong. Of the eighteen principal islands, five are inhabited to some degree, with Santa Cruz making up nearly 2/3's of the total population. Puerto Ayora is the main tourist center with loads of shops, restaurants and hotels. The "original 8" (Dave and Diane from California, Pat and Margaret from Yorkshire, Allen and Sylvia from London and Tracy and I) on board the Beluga decided to head into town and have a drink. It was Dave and Diane's last night with us and the next day eight new people would be joining us (Mike and Jill and their kids Kate, Susie, and John as well as James all from the UK along with Wing and Helena from Canada).

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The next day we started off at the Charles Darwin Research station. The station was established to research and help the endangered species that exist on the islands breed and repopulate. It provides a good overview having a couple of each of the different types of species that exist on the islands, but it's main focus is on the Giant Tortoise.

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They have several pens dedicated to the different sub-species of Giant Tortoise. Each Island has a different sub-species that had adapted specifically to the environment in which it lived. On islands where the only vegetation is on trees, the shells allow more space for the neck to stretch up as well as the necks are longer to reach the branches of the trees. On the islands where the vegetation is plentiful on the ground, the shell comes closer to the neck to provide more protection. One of the aims of the station is to repopulate the islands back to pre-human numbers of tortoises living in the wild on the islands.

Here enters the story of Lonesome George (the big boy in the pool below), the most famous tortoise of them all. Back in the sailing and whaling days, tortoises were sought after because there were easy to catch and flipped upside down in the stores of the boat, they would survive for weeks without food or water providing fresh meat to the crew. Ships would stop at these islands, pick up mainly females, because they were smaller and easier to carry back to the ship, thus devastating the fragile populations. On Pinta Island this happened until there were none left...or so they thought. In a little place far far away known as the San Diego Zoo there lived a tortoise who went by George. When it was determined that George was the last remaining survivor from Pinta Island, he was brought to the station in the 1970's to begin an attempt to breed with similar female tortoises from a neighboring island. Over thirty years passed and despite all attempts by researchers and workers at the station, Lonesome George just would not having anything to do with the females. Some began to speculate that George was gay. Then, just a couple of years ago, George did a complete reversal and is now quite the ladies man chasing around the other females. Sadly, however, George is shooting blanks at the moment...but keep trying we have faith in you!

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The station has also rescued several tortoises from private homes were they were kept as pets and passed down from family to family. It is unknown exactly how long they live, but it is estimated that they can live for over 200 years.

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After the station, we took a quick stroll through town doing a little souvenir shopping. Tracy and I got suited up for diving (which we will recap in the last part) while the others grabbed a drink at a local pub.

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The afternoon was a visit to the Highlands of Santa Cruz. First stop were the massive twin sink holes that straddle the main road to Baltra. They were formed when a fault line collapsed. The Galapagos are also a geologists dream as well with all different types of lava (which is more prevalent in the upcoming islands) and different land formations. Not only did Darwin hypothesize the theory of evolution and survival of the fittest, but he also theorized that the earth was on plates that were constantly moving. One would think he spent years here, but he was merely a passenger on a ship and only spent about four months here. Certainly a scientist ahead of his time.

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One other geological wonder found on Santa Cruz are the lava tubes. When lava flows slowly, the outer edge cools while the interior part still flows. Once the flow stops, what is left are tubes that start out small and grow to the size you see below. This is the very end of the lava tube.


A trip to the Highlands would not be complete without witnessing the tortoises in the wild. While the island is populated on the southern coast, there is an agreement with the farmers not to bother the tortoises. The tortoises don't know where the national park ends and the farms begin. Most "farms" have turned into snack shops and charge admission to see the tortoises which is exactly where we went! Again, they don't seem bothered by humans too much, but they are a bit more on the shy side than some of the other animals.

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After our trip to the highlands, it was time to wave goodbye to Dave and Diane from California who were off to the jungles of Ecuador! Back on the Beluga we greeted our new sailing mates and headed off to Isabela!

To see more photos of Santa Cruz please click here!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Winning a race with the dolphins! - Floreana Island, Galapagos


Destination: Floreana Island, Galapagos

Best of: The dolphins put on quite a show as we sailed away from Floreana and towards Santa Cruz

Worst of: The flamingos refused to come and greet us and stayed on the far side of the dare they!

*With the islands being so diverse, we decided to post each one separately. The Galapagos Islands will be an 8 part series. Here is Part 3.

Day 3: Floreana Island: Punta Cormorant / Post Office Bay

Punta Cormorant was the first hike of the day. After a wet landing, we walked up from the beach to the salt water lagoons that serve as stopping points on the flamingo tour. Dotted across all the islands are shallow, salt water lagoons where the flamingos like to call home. While there are a large number of flamingos in all of the Galapagos, only a few of the lagoons are open to visitors and they migrate from lagoon to lagoon in search of food. On this particular day, there were only about six and they remained on the far side of the lagoon the entire time we were there. There was one small one however, that was all alone and closer to us; albeit not as colorful as the full grown ones.

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After walking past the lagoon, we arrived at the other side of the island. This side is an important nesting area for sea turtles and there were several deep depressions in the sand where they dig and then lay their eggs. The sea turtles lay over 100 eggs and bury them in the sand. The warmer eggs end up being females and the colder eggs are male. Their survival is a result of strength in numbers. Of all the eggs that hatch, only a few survive. From the moment they hatch, it's American Gladiators, turtle style. Amazingly, they all seem to hatch at about the same time and begin running the gauntlet. Birds circle the air and dive down to pick them off, both on land as well as in the sea. If they make it out to sea, it will be 20 years before they return to this beach once they reach sexual maturity. Amazingly, research has shown that they will travel all over the ocean, swimming thousands of miles. And yet somehow, they can find their way back to this very same beach, twenty years later.

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Snorkeling for the day was in a place between a place called Devil's Crown and the island of Floreana. Devil's Crown is a rock formation jutting up from the sea with some pillars above the water and some below. The area is home to several white-tipped and black-tipped reef sharks as well as the occasional stingray. We did see one white-tip sleeping, but aside from that, this was the least eventful snorkeling adventure of them all.

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Post Office Bay was our afternoon excursion. Not really noted for its wildlife or scenery, it's more of a discovery of the history of people on the islands. It's also home to an unofficial post office where people drop off post cards that are picked up by other travelers and then either delivered by hand or mailed upon their return home. It's the only place where reading someone else's mail is not against the law and is actually encouraged.

After sorting through a few of the cards, we got a history lesson on the human aspect of the islands. Floreana was the first island to be inhabited due to the fact that it has a small amount of fresh water up in the highlands. Serving as mainly a stopping point for whalers to pick up fresh meat in tortoises (more on them in the next posting) a German couple thought it would be a great island paradise and moved to the islands. They soon realized that the island had very little water and was unbearably hot most of the much for paradise. Meanwhile, another German couple heard about the islands and also thought it would be nice to share this island paradise with fellow Germans. Well, the two didn't exactly get along and with resources tight, tensions flared. While it is not known what exactly happened, people began disappearing until there was only one original settler left with a couple of descendents from the other families. Today, there are around 100 people living on the island running a small B & B and fishing/farming. Also, as a result of all the whaler activity, there are no tortoises left on the island as they were all hunted and killed for meat.

After an unbearably hot, but short walk up, to the post office below we had some free time and Jason watched the crew of the Beluga plan in a futbol (SA soccer) game while Tracy went for a swim with some of the other travelers from the Beluga. Sadly, the Beluga team did not win the futbol game but the swim was a welcome respite from the heat and while swimming a young sea lion came out and put on a show porpoising in and out of the water while the swimmers clapped! The more clapping the higher he jumped! As a finale a blue footed boobie appeared and dive bombed into the water emerging with a fish which he gobbled up instantly. Just another amazing afternoon in the Galapagos!

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The highlight of the day was actually on the way from Floreana to Santa Cruz, dolphins decided to put on a show for us. These bottle nosed dolphins leaped out of the water and raced along side the bow of the ship for a good twenty minutes before calling it quits. What an awesome way to end our day!

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To see a video of our dolphin race click here!

To see more photos from Floreana please click here!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Swimming with Sea Lions & Albatross Sightings! - Española Island, Galapagos


Destination: Española Island (Hood Island), Galapagos

Best of: Hundred's of Sea Lions sunning themselves and paying us little attention other than the occasional curious one "running" up to you!

Worst of: The large males, known as Bulls, are arguably the most "dangerous" animals to humans in the Galapagos. They can be territorial and may attack if they feel you are a threat. It rarely happens, and it's usually the human's fault for getting to close in the first place.

*With the islands being so diverse, we decided to post each one separately. The Galapagos Islands will be an 8 part series. Here is Part 2.

Day 02: Española: Gardner Bay / Pta Suarez.

Española Island is the southern most island of the Galapagos and is also considered the most "pristine" meaning that human impact is considered minimum here. There are two "trails" on the island - Gardner Bay and Punta Suarez.

Gardner Bay is really just the beach and not really a trail so you are free to roam about wherever you please...that is as long as a Sea Lion is not in the way! The moment you set foot on the beach from a wet landing, you are greeted by hundreds of these seemingly lazy creatures of the sea. A bit clumsy when they try and "walk" it's fun and quite entertaining to watch them attempt to move about in the sand. As the little ones return from the sea, they seek out their mom's who give them little assistance. The way they find their mom is by angrily getting rejected by all the other ones in between them and their moms. They do eventually find one another and it's fun to watch them interact. The sea lions also like to sit up on their front flippers and hold their heads up high as if they are posing for the camera.

The beach is also home to Sally Light Foot Crabs, who are afraid of just about everything, including humans. It is also home to the Mockingbird who has learned that tourist water bottles can be a source of fresh water and are unafraid to come up and "tap" on your bottle if you have it out. Sea Turtles also use the beach as a nesting area (see the "tracks" left below). Española is also home to out first glimpse of Marine Iguanas (more on them later!)

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After the fun on the beach, it was time to do a little snorkeling! Just like the islands, the waters are also regulated and controlled so ships can only snorkel in certain areas at certain times and days. The water here is much colder than one would think. We were here when the water is actually warm at around 24 degrees Celsius (about 72 Fahrenheit). This is due to the ocean currents that pass by the islands and upswellings of cold water from the deeper parts of the ocean. The colder water teems with life making it a great source of food for the many animals on the islands and is the main reason why so many are able to survive on these very dry islands.

We jumped in the water and ran across a family of sea lions playing in one of the coves! The floundering around on the beach is replaced by a much more graceful and agile movements. They seemed to be fighting over a candy bar wrapper that one of them had found. As on the beach, the young ones are curious and like to play. Here is one flipped over and blowing bubbles as if to imitate a diver. The most enthralling part is when they are charging right at you and then veer off at the last second as if to play chicken. I must admit that the sea lion won the battle every time. Aside from the sea lions, pelicans peddled by, sally light foot's scampered on the rocks and there were some colorful reef fish munching away at the coral.

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Here is a video of the sea lions playing while we were snorkeling!

After the morning snorkeling and playing with the sea lions, the afternoon hike was called Punta Suarez. The trail goes along the rocky shore to visit the rare nesting grounds of the Waved Albatross. Along the way, we saw another type of boobie, the Nazca boobie with is slightly larger than the Blue-footed ones, but far less colorful with just black and white markings. Believe it or not, the goofy looking bird with it's wings spread out below is a chick. Unlike the blue-footed boobies, the Nazca boobies only lay one egg and will not even attempt that if conditions are not favorable to raising a chick.

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The striking features on the Waved Albatross are impossible to miss. With their bright yellow long beaks and massive wing spans, you can see them from a long distance away. They are ocean birds, meaning they spend all their lives flying over the ocean and fishing except when they come here to reproduce. They are also one of the few monogamous animals in the world, meaning they mate for life with only one single partner. Sadly, however, this does not prevent the single males from virtually raping the first females that comes to nest from sea. Sadly, they are on the endangered species list. Thousands of these beautiful birds are caught in line fishing. Another problem is that they have a bad habit of rolling the egg around before it hatches. This results in some of them rolling a little to far and cracking against the rocks.

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The island is also home to the largest and most colorful Marine Iguanas in the Galapagos as well as the largest lava lizards. Aside from the wildlife, Espanola is also home to the infamous Blowhole. A hole in the rocky cliffs gives way to the rough seas and when the tide rolls in, a spray of water comes gushing out. While we were there, however, it was not very active so we didn't get a good photo, but we could tell by the water markings that it shoots pretty high at times.

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Back on board the Beluga, we set sail for the next island and the first inhabited island, Floreana.

To see more photos from Espanola Island please click here!