Sunday, 11 May 2008

This morning the kids surprised me with sweet gifts for Mother’s Day, all wrapped in yellow towels. Even more sweet were the cards they wrote and pictures they drew, I love Mother’s Day. Our first excursion this morning was to Bartolome Island, a desolate island, covered in black ashy sand. Not much can grow, or live in this place, we saw very few animals. We listened while our guide told us all about how the island was formed, the different kinds of rocks, the few plants that could survive. We looked longingly at the sparkling water below, the sun beat down on our bare skin and sweat trickled. The kids squatted in the path while our guide droned on, drawing pictures in the sand or finding interesting rocks. We hiked to a high point on the island where we could look out and see several other islands, but what was most interesting was that water far below. We could see the group that left first this morning arrive on the beach, we couldn’t wait to get in that water.

We finally got our turn, we were shuttled by zodiac to a tiny beach where Clay and I donned our snorkel gear. We left Alayna in charge and swam off to see what we could see while the kids played on the beach and in the shallow water. None of them were interested in snorkeling this morning. Clay and I snorkeled along the edge of a rocky cliff, a penguin zipped through the water in front of us and I tried to catch up to him but there was no way. They are really fast! A little later I saw a splash and looked underwater to see a large sea lion swimming past me. I saw starfish along the bottom of the ocean floor, parrotfish, and long, skinny needle fish. Clay stayed out a little longer, when he came back in he said a sea lion bumped into him while he was swimming down deep, it circled him once before taking off. He also dove down to look under the rocky shelves and found a white tip reef shark almost as big as he is. He dove down three times before finally irritating the shark enough that it swam off.

The snorkeling was the best we’ve seen so far, the water was beautiful and clear, great visibility. The kids were happy playing back at the beach, when we returned Alayna and Benji showed us some tricks they had come up with. Benji stood on Alayna’s shoulders, and when he was good and balanced he let go of her hands.

We got back to the boat where we took our first shower of the day, we’re always eager to get all the sticky salt water off our bodies. After lunch, I partook of a Mother’s Day nap before our afternoon excursion. We visited Santiago Island, where we took another long, hot hike. We did see some interesting things, while the guide stopped to talk about marine iguanas we noticed a red crab going to town on some seaweed. It ate with its two front claws, alternating one and then another as it shoved the good green stuff into its mouth.

I find these red, scuttly crabs very interesting. How do they hang onto the rock faces with their bony-looking legs that seem to come to points for feet? They can hang on to a rock that is perfectly perpendicular to the water. As Benji crouched at a nearby tide pool he found some very tiny black crabs creeping around, and a hermit crab tinier than my pinkie nail. Tinier than the eraser on a pencil. We were all enchanted.

Another animal we hoped to see on the island were the Galapagos fur seals, and we did find them, lolling on a rock. They are a little stockier than the other sea lions we’ve seen, but other than that, there didn’t seem to be much of a difference. An animal we didn’t expect to see was a sea turtle, we were all leaning over a crystal clear turquoise pool, Darwin’s Bath,  when we saw a giant head come popping out of the water. It was so graceful, flying through the water with its slender flippers, everyone crowded around and we held our breath, hoping it would appear again. It did, a few more times coming up to take a sip of air before diving down and swimming away. We also saw Darwin’s Toilet, a rock formation that has water that rises up into it, and then flushes away as the waves go back out again. It really did remind us of a toilet.

After finishing the hot hike, we got to swim again. The snorkeling wasn’t as good, but the water felt great. Nate decided he wanted to go out with Clay and me, but he didn’t want to wear his snorkel mask or fins, he just wore his goggles. He did great, swimming out there and diving deep to swim with the schools of fish we saw. The shorty wet suits are really good, they help the kids and me stay buoyant in the water, they keep us warm, and the kids look really cute in them.

We took another shower when we got back to the boat, it’s one of the few times on this trip we’ve taken more than one shower in a day. We’ve thrown caution and common sense to the wind, giving our clothes to the boat to wash, not once, not twice, but three times before we disembark on Wednesday. It’s nice to be clean. After dinner I slipped into the green pajama pants Alayna gave me for Mother’s Day. It’s nice to have new clothes, not worrying about carrying extra weight around anymore. It’s nice to be on the cusp of the end, to be able to look back and see where we’ve gone and how far we’ve come. We’ve got lots to talk about.


Monday, 12 May 2008

Clay’s thumb is no longer swollen, it doesn’t itch, the only remnant of his monster bug bite is a hard little lump under his skin. We’ll never know what caused him such grief. This morning we disembarked on Fernandina Island, one of the newest islands of the Galapagos. The Galapagos Islands are located on the Nasca tectonic plate, which is moving towards South America and the continental plate at a rate of 10 centimeters or so a year. Under this moving plate is a hot spot that doesn’t move, and it keeps squirting up lava and forming new islands, which then start moving eastward towards the mainland, like a conveyor belt of islands. The newer islands have towering volcanoes while the older islands have been eroded almost flat. Further out are former islands that now sit submerged below the surface of the sea.

As we began our walk on Fernandina we couldn’t help but notice a very large set of bones on the ground. Our guide explained they were once scattered all over the island and belonged to a whale that had been stranded. Over time, guides have gathered the different bones and put them back together again as well as they can, she guessed it was a minke whale, or maybe a killer whale. Benji loved these bones, he touched them carefully and studied them.

We kept moving, our guide pointed out a red mangrove tree, and commented that it was a very smart tree. Its seeds are dropped and carried by the ocean to other islands, and the seeds are clever enough to sprout and grow roots and small branches in the salt water while it floats, so that when it arrives in its new island home it’s a little sapling, all ready to be transplanted. 

We saw tons of marine iguanas piled on top of each other, sunning themselves. The island is a nesting ground for the iguanas, and we even got to see some babies on the rocks. I never thought I’d say an iguana was cute, but they were. We saw the flightless cormorant, a bird which is endemic to the Galapagos. That means it’s only found here. Unlike other cormorants, this species can’t fly, but it has adapted well to its environment and can swim really well, it can even catch the fast-moving octopus. It still stretched its wings to dry them after swimming, even though it doesn’t need them. It looks a little silly, stretching its stubby little wings to catch the breeze.

Our guide told us about “ouch ouch” lava flows, where big lava fields are full of spiky lava formed when the lava bubbled up and then cooled while bubbling, leaving sharp black spikes behind. We saw a field of this type of lava, it was not a place you’d want to spend much time in. A huge volcano hovered over the entire island, its last eruption was just a few years ago and they expect another one any time now. I kept eyeing the top, wavering between wanting to see a volcanic eruption, and not wanting to lose my life doing so.

Because it is a new island, there hasn’t been much time for vegetation to grow. As an island gets older, volcano cones erode away and soil has time to build up to support plants. One of the few plants that grows on the island is the Lava Cactus, this hardy plant sprouted straight out of the black lava rocks, somehow finding a place to send down roots. We noticed a tiny snake slithering near one of these cacti, it didn’t seem shy and we got some great pictures.

This afternoon we had a chance to do a deep water snorkel, where we jumped in from one of the zodiacs. The kids came along, and we all had a great time snorkeling with the sea turtles. It was amazing, to watch one drift up from the bottom to the surface to get a breath, or swimming by so gracefully. We also saw a small eagle ray and lots of schools of colorful fish. A sea lion swam around Alayna and me, going in circles and charging Alayna, who felt a little threatened. Clay and I got a brief glimpse of a flightless Cormorant swimming in the water before it zipped out of sight. The kids got cold and spent some time on the zodiac while Clay and I stayed out a little longer. Clay loves to dive down under cliff shelves and see what he can scare out, this time he found a barracuda. A long, thin fish with a greenish back, I followed it for awhile.

A little later, we took a zodiac tour along the coastline of Isabella Island. We saw boobies perched on the edge of the cliffs, some trying to dance in the narrow space. They whistled and called to each other, boobie pick up lines as the evening approached. We had to be careful, they could shoot their poop like a water gun and we were a floating target below them. We went inside a cave, the water was clear and deep and we could see fish swimming beneath us. Outside again, we idled along, every once in awhile a sea turtle or sea lion would pop up beside the boat, like little gifts from the sea for us to admire.

Before dinner, the boat threw a party to celebrate crossing the equator line. It was attended by King Neptune himself, his wife, and a randy band of pirates, who took passengers up on stage with them. Of course the kids were chosen, forced to bow on one knee and accept their punishment for drummed up charges of “flushing bulky objects down the toilet”. I don’t think we’ve flushed toilet paper since we’ve been in South America! This goofy skit was followed by the keyboard guy playing cheesy songs while the passengers danced even cheesier dances. Alayna was scared stiff that her parents might join in, we eventually went downstairs to play Emperor before dinner. I wonder how often we’ll play that game once we get home.


Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Today we got to see frigate birds up close. We’ve seen them ever since we got to the Galapagos, flying overhead, their black prehistoric-looking bodies silhouetted in the sky, but today we went to North Seymour Island, where they nest. What’s so cool about frigates is their neck pouch. The males have a red pouch that they inflate when trying to attract a female, it looks like a giant red balloon bulging over his chest. It’s the weirdest thing, it doesn’t look natural. It’s huge and heart shaped, our guide said it can pop and if it does it will bleed, but it will eventually heal. We saw dozens of frigates nesting in some trees alongside our walking trail, little fluffy babies in nests, females dozing, males inflating.

There were also lots of blue-footed boobies on the island, doing their boobie dance. They would slowly shift from one foot to the other, lifting one blue foot in the air, turning around in a slow motion attempt to woo. The males whistle, the females quack. It was a noisy island, with all that mating going on. Clay had to abandon our group, he had to meet a dive boat and so he went with the first group, entrusting the kids and me with the camera. It was a big responsibility, I did my best to get some good boobie dance video and frigate balloons.

Clay’s dives were amazing. He was able to swim with hammerhead sharks, a big thrill, it was what he was hoping for. He also saw some rays, moray eels, Galapagos snake eels and a whole school of barracuda. A sea lion dove down and played with them awhile, Clay stood on the ocean floor while the sea lion zipped all around him. While Clay was diving, I got to go on another deep water snorkel. The kids decided to sit it out this time, they stayed back on the ship. I got to see a white tip reef shark this time, so Alayna was glad she missed it. I also followed a whole school of surgeon fish, blue bodies and yellow tails. There were hundreds of them stretching into the distance, I floated above them, they looked like a moving road. A sea lion swam alongside me for awhile, and I saw some more barracuda. The sea was a little rougher than it had been and I was glad the kids stayed behind, it would have been hard to keep track of them all.

This afternoon we checked out some giant tortoises in the “wild”, on some privately owned farmland. It was a much cooler experience, seeing them in their natural habitat, than when we saw them the other day at the breeding center. The turtles were huge, we got our first glimpse of one from the bus. It was munching on grass on the side of the road, our driver stopped and we all hung out the window and took pictures. It looked so strange, its legs bumpy, a piece of grass hanging from its mouth.

After seeing the tortoises, we checked out a nearby lava tube. We first encountered lava tubes back in Australia, this one was impressive as well. It was like walking on the inside of a caterpillar, the ceiling rounded and the sides sloping to the muddy floor. I was not thrilled when we got out of the tube and saw the boys’ shoes, they were really dirty and the mud had made its way onto their legs as well. Just two more days, those shoes have to last two more days . . .


Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Oh. My. Gosh. Tomorrow we get on a plane and go home. I can’t believe it. The boat pitched and rolled a lot last night, I wonder if it will feel strange to sleep on stable land again? We said goodbye to our favorite waiter, Octavio, who always called Alayna a “beautiful girl” (he had three girls of his own back home), and to Juanito, the man who kept our room clean and supplied with interesting towel sculptures each day. We were always anxious to see what would be waiting for us on our bed when we returned from an afternoon excursion. We’ve become familiar with this boat and our room, I had to take things off hangers as we packed. It isn’t often I’ve used hangers on this trip.

We made our own towel man before we left, sitting him in a yellow chair. Juanito got a real kick out of it, maybe he’ll make a towel man for the next inhabitants of room 427. We didn’t do much this morning, we were taken by bus to an information center where we learned a little more about the human history of the islands. It really is a sad history, fraught with mistakes and bad decisions. Prisoners were granted freedom and brought to help build up cities and town in an effort to colonize the islands, but they weren’t reformed and didn’t do well with the town’s citizens, time and time again the colonization ended in disaster. Resources were exploited and animals diminished as humans continued to encroach.

Norwegians were promised an enchanted land and encouraged to come live on the islands, they sold everything to finance trips across the ocean, and arrived to find little to no fresh water and a harsh landscape. One man created a sort of private compound, using prisoners as workmen and treating them very harshly. He banished one man to an island where he was left for three years to survive ala’ Robinson Caruso. Finally, in 1959, governments and powers that be decided the best thing to do with the islands was to protect them, limiting settlements and encouraging the reintroduction of plant and animal species endemic to the islands.

It’s funny, whenever I heard of the Galapagos I always imagined an unspoiled paradise, but in a way it’s kind of like Jurassic Park. On some of the islands,  the animals had all but disappeared and without human intervention the place wouldn’t look the way it does. Giant tortoises wouldn’t be roaming wild and free, boobies wouldn’t be dancing, sea lions wouldn’t be cavorting, frigates wouldn’t be inflating. It is a wonderful place and I won’t ever forget snorkeling with sea turtles or being face-to-beak with a baby blue-footed boobie. This has been quite a finale, now it’s time to lower the curtain and go home.