Ecuador and the Galapagos Part 5: Fernandina and Isabela Islands

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


The white board:

We got to sleep in until 7:30 this morning because of the long transit time between yesterday’s stop on Santa Cruz Island and today’s activities on Fernandina and Isabela Islands. Fernandina and Isabela are the westerly islands in the Galapagos archipelago, and as such, they are the “young” islands. The volcanos are still active, and our guides told us that some visitors have been “lucky” enough to see an eruption.

We had a dry landing at Punta Espinoza at Fernandina, and we knew it was going to be something special before we even got off the pangas. The water in the bay was filled with marine iguanas. On our previous days’ tours, we had certainly seen marine iguanas here and there, but this was something on a different scale. Their heads were sticking out of the water everywhere.

When we got ashore, it was a little difficult for our minds to accept what our eyes were seeing. At first glance, it looked like a black volcanic lava shore. Closer inspection revealed more.
Marine iguanas everywhere.
Marine iguanas are cold-blooded, and so they must absorb the heat of the sun before and after diving into the cold waters to search for algae. To avoid overheating, they vary their position in relation to the sun. Sometimes they face the sun directly to reduce their exposure to it. The colony segregates itself. These are the males.
As we watched, a sea lion grabbed the tail of a swimming iguana. Our guides said that the sea lions are “playing” with the iguanas.
Smile for the camera!
The Sally Lightfoot crabs clean the scales and parasites off of the iguanas.
The marine iguana can stay under the water for up to 10 minutes. When they return to land, they forcefully expel the salt from their nostrils. As we stared at this pile of iguanas, every few seconds a spray of white snot would go up. One of them hit the girls with the snot-rocket. I trained my camera on the group and snapped away, hoping to catch one in the act. It seemed like an easy thing to do, as the sound of the nose-clearing was almost constant. The problem was that I could never figure out when any given iguana was going to clear his nose, and so I never got the shot. I got lots of good close-ups anyway.
This guy didn’t make it. An adult marine iguana does not have many enemies. Most of them die by being crushed against the lava rocks in a storm.
As we walked along the beach, we came upon a flightless cormorant on the nest. The cormorant has useless vestigial wings. They swim with powerful webbed feet. Our guides told us that if we could come back in a millenium, the wings will have transformed into flippers, like a penguin. They build nests on the rocky shore with seaweed.
Near the bird on the nest, we saw another fellow come inland.
He passed by the nesting bird, and she gave a squawk.
He headed straight for a lady-friend, and right there in front of the children, they began getting it on. James said they were “doing the coochie-coochie.” The iguana in the foreground is unimpressed.
Landscape interlude….
Was it good for you?
Sea lions basked in the sun.
The next photo is a little disturbing. We first spotted this little guy from afar, and our guides said, “Oh look. A baby!” As we got closer, it became clear that this baby was dying. Our guides explained that he had probably lost his mother to a predator, a whale perhaps. The other sea lions will not adopt an orphan and so the baby slowly starves. The kids gathered close, and they were all disturbed. Oddly enough, the baby was purring. I did not even know that sea lions could purr. The girls all wanted to take the baby home with them, but our guides explained that this could not happen. The guides are not allowed to intervene in nature’s cruelty. In a little while, this little fellow will perish, and the Sally Lightfoot crabs will pick his bones clean.
A close-up view of the cormorant’s useless wing and his very useful foot:
The kids look at the sea lion, and the sea lion looks at the kids. Wonder if either of them liked what they saw?
Another colony of marine iguanas. I think these are the females.
Offshore, a group of penguins fished.
A close-up of the pale blue eye of the flightless cormorant:
We got to watch the changing of the guard. Both male and female cormorant incubate the eggs.
My turn:
Go grab a bite!
A marine iguana with a lava lizard hat.
This is what I felt like most days after lunch.
Our guides Hernan and James decided to strike a pose for us.
They clearly shared a great working relationship and a strong bond. Hernan was from San Cristobal and claimed that was the “best” island. James was as strong in his belief that his home island of Santa Cruz was “No. 1.” We were never asked to choose our favorite island or guide, and it would have been impossible.
Cactus grow from the lava rocks.
A Galapagos hawk perched atop a tree. James joked that if you do not know the name of an animal in the Galapagos, a good guess is simply to start with one of these words: Galapagos, Darwin or lava.
We took a short walk to a mangrove inlet, where we saw sea turtles skimming the surface.
In 2007, several pilot whales beached on neighboring Isabela Island. Through the efforts of bystanders, some were saved but others perished. The National Park preserved the bones and relocated them to this beach to provide educational opportunities for visitors.


After our walk, we went for a very short snorkel. Due to prevailing currents, the water off the shore of the western islands is much colder than the eastern islands where we started our cruise. Wetsuits were a must. We saw amazing things in the water. Right off the bat, we saw a marine iguana eating seaweed. Talk about feeling like you have stepped back in time. It was the closest thing to Jurassic Park that I expect to ever see.

I’m trying to upload my first youtube video to this blog. Let’s see if this works:
Genene watched the iguana swim away.
I cannot really describe how bizarre it is to see a lizard swimming gracefully in the sea.
I hope this video of the swimming iguana turns out:
No sooner did the marine iguana make his exit than the sea turtle floated into view.
Genene followed, trying to maintain the six foot rule.
This guy turned right toward me, and I was a six-foot violator in a moment’s notice. He went right under me and all I could do was simply be still and let him pass.
See you later!
We came back aboard the boat for lunch and a siesta.

In the late afternoon, we made our first trip to Isabela Island (Isabela and Fernandina are within sight of each other). We had a wet landing at Bahia Urbina.

The island was grassy and green.

As we walked the trails, we got our first glimpse of the land tortoises. There are several species of tortoise, but they can be roughly divided into two groups: dome shaped and saddlebacks. Isabela’s tortoises are dome shaped. Dome shaped tortoises evolved on the larger islands with more extensive moist area and vegetation. The saddlebacks live on the low islands. Their saddlebacks evolved because the tortoises much reach high into the vegetation to feed.
The tortoise is one of the few animals of the Galapagos with a fear of man. Pirates who landed on the islands valued the tortoise as food. They can live up to a year on their backs with no food and water, making them ideal meat for hungry sailors. Sailors to the islands would fill the holds of their ships with the big beasts (tossing out the goats that they were sick of eating) and have fresh meat for their voyage. The tortoises take over 25 years to reach sexual maturity and live to be over 100. At maturity, they weigh several hundred pounds.
Speaking of goats, their invasive introduction by sailors became a huge problem for the islands. The goats destroyed the habitat of the tortoises and competed for natural resources. The Galapagos government undertook a massive goat eradication program, shooting the goats from helicopters. There is a wonderful hourlong “Radiolab” program on the Galapagos that discusses this issue in some detail. I commend it to your listening pleasure.
We got our first glimpse of the tortoise. He was not hard to find, sitting in the middle of the trail.
This fellow was naturally shy. Don’t worry. We won’t toss you into the boat.
The turtles are deaf but can feel the vibrations of people walking.
This fellow ate a poison apple as we watched. Their digestive systems are adapted to it, but James explained that this fruit will make a human very sick. Even the leaves of the tree are poisonous to people.
It came a drenching afternoon shower as we toured the island, and this outline showed us where the land iguana had been laying. It looks a bit like a police outline, doesn’t it?
Look at the big feet and tail.
We came upon this fellow strolling down the walk as we toured the island. To mind the six-foot rule, we all had to push to the edge of the trail and give the right-of-way.

Our guides told us that the early sailors called the Galapagos the Enchanted Islands. They were frequently covered by the mists and clouds, and the sailors thought that the islands moved. Staring across at Fernandina from Isabela, I could understand their point.

After our walk, we snorkeled from the beach. I didn’t see anything new, and the cloud cover made for lower visibility. Some people saw a sea turtle. Genene simply enjoyed letting the waves push her in and out on the shore.


We went back to the boat, where snacks of ice tea, chicken salad sandwiches, PBJ, cantaloupe-prosciuttto and black olives awaited, along with the ever-smiling Abel. He was not about to let us get hungry. We all had time to take a shower before the briefing on tomorrow’s activities and supper. Tonight we ate cucumber appetizer, chicken consommé, with entree choices of beef and salmon, and for dessert bananas foster. The chef was a genius. Every course was delightful.

After dinner, we got a special treat. The crew put on a musical show for us. Tomorrow, we will spend the day on Isabela Island. Because the crew only had to move the boat for 3 hours, we were at anchor after dinner. There was time for everyone to relax, including the crew. Even the captain joined in the festivities. He bought us all a beer, and the entire crew sang songs for us. They had a guitar, and the captain played bongo drums with his hands. Even Abel joined in, banging on an empty wine bottle with a spoon. Soon, they were all dancing. The captain gestured to me (at least that’s the way I saw it; That’s the way I wanted to see it!) I jumped off the couch in a moment and danced with him. (Did I mention that he was very handsome?) At some point, I looked over, and Genene had her face covered with her hands. Oh well. I don’t care if she was embarrassed. When will I get another chance to cavort on the high seas with a swarthy young boat captain? Several of the other ladies took a turn, and the boat was filled with laughter and song.

They asked if any of us wanted to sing, and young Alec took the guitar. He did an absolutely stunning rendition of “Hey Soul Sister.” I reached out to his mother, and we shared a little moment. I felt her pride for her son, and it welled up inside of me. We were bursting with emotion….or was it the wine?

After Alec wowed everyone, one of the fathers, Matt from Vancouver, picked up the guitar. He played and sang Neil Young’s “Old Man Take a Look at My Life.” His acoustic guitar and vocals were astonishingly beautiful. We teased his wife Laura, asking her if this is how he had courted her. It was on this night that I began to suspect we had something really special going on. What were the chances that we would have two phenomenally talented musicians on board? Several of the girls take piano lessons, including Genene, but they were all beginning to see the utility in learning to play a portable instrument like the guitar. If only I had brought my clarinet!

It was just an amazing night. Perhaps the coolest part of all is that after Alec and Matt sang their one song each, no one sang anything else. Too often, an amateur musical night can devolve into hours of one-upmanship, but this was not the case. The crew, Alec and Matt performed their best, put down the guitar and left us wanting for more. Their best was fabulous, all of it.

We stayed a while and laughed and talked. The kids, bonded like glue, played their own games.

At anchor, until tomorrow…..


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