Top right: A five-day-old baby seal checks us out while his mother searches for food. Top left: An endemic Galapagos hawk perches on a rock. He sat there for at least 10 minutes as five or six of us watached him before flying away. Bottom: The lava deposits have created wonderful rock formations on Santiago. A sea lion lounges at the base. Photos by Valerie Raymond
Photos courtesy of Valerie Raymond, fellow Grosvenor Teacher Fellow (camera issues on my end)
Wednesday, Day 5 – Santiago Island After traveling throughout the night we arrived at Santiago Island in the central part of the Galapagos at about 9 a.m. This is the island that Darwin spent the most time on – nine days -- during the HMS Beagle’s five-week trip to map the islands. It is dominated by a large shield volcano named Sugarloaf and a lot of dramatic features from lava flows including a coastline with marvelous layered rocks carved into bridges and blocks by the waves. Our first stop was a beach walk Espumilla Beach at 6:30 a.m. Valerie and I overslept and raced at breakneck speed to make the Zodiac. Ghost crabs scuttled over the beach and jumped into their holes at our approach, while pelicans and blue-footed boobies dived into the water in search of breakfast. Boobies are especially fun to watch fishing. They hover very briefly, then go straight down into the water like small missiles. I did my best with my small camera, but not for the first time, I wished for a better camera. Note to self: a viewfinder is a must on a camera for a place like the Galapagos. While on the beach, we spotted two sea turtles mating off shore, and jumped into the Zodiac to get a close-up view. The two are locked together, floating in the sea, in a ritual that can take as long as five hours. This is September, though, and the mating season is not supposed to happen until November when the waters warm up. Our guide Celso said this is likely another sign that the El Nino – a weather event resulting in warmer waters – is definitely going to happen this year. Animals don’t pay attention to weather forecasts; they react to what’s going on around them. So mating this early means that the waters have warmed up way ahead of schedule – an El Nino harbinger which usually disrupts the marine food chain and means a tough season for some of the Galapagos wildlife. After a quick breakfast on the ship, we headed back out to snorkel, one of my favorite things to do. We saw a beautiful blue puffer fish and a scorpion fish, sea lions twisting in the water and many birds nesting on the cliff walls. And finally – I saw a shark! It was a white-tipped reef shark, prowling to defend its territory and not interested at all in us. It was about six feet long and just generally really cool to see. The ocean was filled with schools of fish, some big and colorful, others little and drab. Life is abundant here. Back to the ship, quick change, then a race to the next event -- viewing the coastline from above water in a kayak. The cliffs are really beautiful lava formations with waves and layers and undulating lines. They are layered because of the lava flows at different time periods. A baby booby with downy white feathers perched high on a cliff wall, and a young sea lion swooped beneath our kayak as we explored a wave-carved cave. We kayaked back to the ship and contemplated the fact that before 12 p.m. we had embarked on three different explorations of Santiago. The best was still to come, though. In the afternoon we moved to a different spot in Santiago – Puerto Egas. After the Galapagos became a national park in the late 1950s, settlers on Santiago were told they had to move. One man, named Egas, did not want to leave Santiago and argued that he wanted to create a town here on Santiago. That never happened – he had to leave but the beach where he had lived was given his name as a consolation prize. Santiago is also a success story when it comes to eradication of introduced species, in this case goats. Goats had been introduced by whalers and settlers but ate the vegetation that the giant tortoises and other wildlife depended on. After many attempts and many years, the goat population of 120,000 has been totally eradicated and giant tortoises have been reintroduced. One of the highlights of Santiago is a fur seal colony that lounges on the volcanic coastline. Fur seals are not actually seals but are a species of sea lions (unlike seals, they can raise the front of their body on their flippers – a sea lion trait). They have a fine layer of soft, blonde-brown fur on their bodies and a head that is shaped more like a bear. We saw many babies, one only about five days old (I was particularly thrilled by this because my classroom had just asked for a photo of a baby seal!) One large male swam among the grottos, while the females and babies slept on the lava shelves. We watched them for quite a while – especially the five-day old. She was totally unafraid of us and so young and so curious! The seals were wonderful, but perhaps my favorite thing was the Galapagos hawk perched on a boulder. We were only about four feet from this beautiful bird, and it sat and regarded us and let us study it for at least 10 minutes. It is such a spiritual thing to be able to jjust sit and observe the incredible creatures on these islands. Tomorrow, we head into town – Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island – and a chance to see the giant tortoises!