Top: A Galapagos penguin hangs out off the coast of Tagus Bay on Isabela Island.
Middle: In the interior of Isabela, near Urbina Bay, part of the reef was uplifted onto land, displacing this piece of brain coral.
Bottom: A land iguana slowly moves through the hot ground of the interior of the island. (Photos by Janet Shedd)
Tuesday, Day 4, – Isabela Island. We started off the day with a hike into the interior of the island, and now truly understand why one of the first people known to have seen the islands in the 1500s, Bishop Tomas de Berlanga, called it “hell on earth.” More on that later…
I started the day at 6 a.m. on the bow, just looking at the ocean and seeing the beautiful view of Isabela Island on starboard and Fernandina on port. It is truly remote here…. No houses, no antennas, telephone lines – nothing that relates to how we live our lives at home. it's a strange and wonderful feeling. Sven Lindblad, the owner of the company that runs the expedition I am on, calls it “the tonic of wildness.” And being in that wildness connects you so much more closely to the natural world. There is a real freedom in being separate from technology and immersed in nature.
We took a Zodiac into Urbina Bay on Isabela for a hike along the coastline and into the interior. Isabela is one of the newer islands with many volcanoes, so the coastline is jagged with huge, black volcanic boulders that we have to scramble up and over. Hidden in the rocks are all types of life – Sally Lightfoot crabs, both the beautiful adult red ones and the juvenile black crabs that blend into the rocks. Sea lions loll in rock crevices and seek shade in the mangroves, and a hermit crab scuttles away from us. Up above, the endemic Galapagos hawk soars in the sky. The beaches are nesting grounds for sea turtles; our guide finds the remains of an egg from a nest that was laid too close to the water. It’s very soft and punched in, like a golf ball that has been hammered open.
We are close to Alcedo Volcano, one of the six shield volcanoes that fused together to form Isabela, and the rocky coastline is a product of the lava flows. The sea breeze keeps things cool, but when we hike into the interior, all that changes. It is, in a word, desolate. Lots of green thorn bushes, with long spikes, border the path. Paper wasps, introduced in the 1980s from a cargo ship, are omnipresent (we were told not to wear yellow, orange or white so as not to be mistaken for flowers the wasps like). It is very hot and dry under the equatorial sun. Dense thickets of low shrubs and grass line the path. In 1954, more than a mile of the marine reef off the coast of Urbina Bay was uplifted from the sea, leaving evidence of marine life behind. So in the interior we find huge pieces of brain coral, way away from the ocean and a product of that uplifting. Bleached animal bones, a goat skull and tortoise carapaces dot the trail.
“Imagine being shipwrecked on this island,” says Valerie, another Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. “You think you are saved and then you find there is nothing to eat or drink and you are not saved at all.” There is a plant with berries that birds and iguanas can get water from, and there is a poison apple tree with tiny apples that only reptiles can eat. If birds or humans eat them, the acid from the apples eats away at their stomachs and spreads a neurotoxin throughout their bodies. The guide warns us not to let the sap of the leaves of that tree touch our skin, because it will cause a rash.
Large land iguanas shelter in the shade of the poison apple tree or move slowly through the underbrush. We see evidence of giant tortoises on this island in the form of a tortoise trail, a low arch in the brush created by tortoises moving back and forth from the highlands to the lowlands. Isabela suffered from a large population of feral goats and donkeys, brought in by sailor and settlers, that now have been eradicated. The goats in particular consumed much of the flora and fauna of the island, which in turn harmed the tortoises that depended upon that vegetation for survival. One change in the ecosystem of the islands has vast implications.
I think we are all glad when we hear the sound of surf and return to the coastline – the interior is a very harsh place. We swim off the beach and dive in the waves like children -- a relief to return to the coolness of the water. But ss grim as the interior was, I was very glad to have seen it. Now I truly understand what historians and early scientists and whalers experienced when they wrote about the desolation of these islands.
Later in the day our ship moves to Tagus Bay, one of the places where the HMS Beagle docked in 1835. I choose to snorkel, and as always, see incredible things under the sea. A marine iguana feeding on algae! Sea lions playing, puffer fish gliding by, and as always, sea turtles. I hover over one, moving with it, when it starts coming right for me as it heads up to surface. I panic and roll away, and my companions laugh and laugh. On the rocks, a lone penguin sits, contemplating us. I especially love snorkeling and seeing the richness of the oceans around the Galapagos.
Later in the day we take a Zodiac ride out into the channel chasing a whale…. And sure enough, we actually find it! It is a tropical whale called a Bryde whale and we track by its spout and by what our guide Celso calls its footprint -- an oval shape of calm water that marks where it submerged. It is a teenager, Celso says, but still, it is as big as our Zodiac. We end the trip by quietly sitting and watching the sun set to the sounds of the waves, the wind and the birds.
This is our last day in the western Galapagos. Tomorrow, we sail for the central islands, destination Santiago.
I only wish for more hours in the day to take all this in.