Sante Fe to Espanola
AM: Snorkeling in Gardner Bay
Written by Patrick
While we were sleeping in our cabins, the Guantanamera moved onto the Island of Espanola. They had warned us that it might be a bit of a bumpy ride and some of our fellow guests had a tough night. Nevertheless we woke up nicely anchored at Gardner Bay on the eastern side of the island. Española's remote location helped make it become home to a big number of endemic animals. Due to the distance from the other islands, wildlife on Española adapted to the island's environment. Despite its size of 60 square kilometers it lacks a fresh water source, so it is considered inhabitable to humans. After breakfast, "Tiberon" one of the sailors on the boat took us with the dinghy to the beach. Wet landing.
The shore of this bay is a beautiful long sandy beach home to at least one sea lion colony. This was one of the few spots we were allowed to go out and explore on our own as long as we stayed on the beach. We we among the first on the beach this morning, just in time to meet the Marine Iguanas on their way to the water to feed. We found quite a few of them already in the water, being washed over by the incoming waves. We saw them have a chunk of seaweed off the shoreline rocks and even witnessed a crab vs. iguana stand-off. It was more a traffic issue, do I go left and you right and vice versa...oh you are not moving...ok I go left then. Their breed is also special, being the only ones known to change their color for breeding season. Normally Marine Iguanas are camouflaged with a black color, making it difficult for predators to identify them among the black lava rocks. On Española adult Marine Iguanas poses a reddish coloration. This changes to green when mating.
Lori and the tortuga...
We doubted how big it really was. You know, water distorts sizes. But when she finally sent us proof, we were sorry we ever doubted her.
We also had the opportunity to see a large Sea lion bull patrol his beach from the water, making loud noises and watching out for threats to his colony from predators such as sharks. Back at the spot we landed, we also witnessed a younger bull attempting to coax a lovely sea lion lady into mating. He needed to get her into the water, what worked out well, but then she would always escape back onto land and he needed to start all over again. We never learned if he was successful or not as we left the beach too early.
After the visit to the beach, we performed our clean-up ritual and the boat was moved just a few hundred meters to the twin islands called Tortuga Rock and Gardner Island. Here it was time to go snorkeling, expecting to see schools of large colorful tropical fish including yellow tailed sturgeon fish, king angelfish and bump-head parrot fish swim along with an occasional Manta Ray gliding by and white-tipped sharks napping on the bottom. The dinghy took us for a 5 minute ride to a little bay around the corner and we did get to see plenty of tropical fish. However, we waited without any luck for the Manta Ray or White-tipped shark to come by - I guess they were to busy. Fortunately they did send by their rather interactive "stand-ins" in the form of a bunch of young sea lions. And just like yesterday I was about to make friends that I would never forget. This time we were in deeper water and I saw these guys swimming in and out of an underwater cave. I dove down myself to check how deep it goes into the rock but couldn't see the end in the pitch darkness. Soon, one of the younger ones (this one was less then 12 months old) darted and started playing with me. He even brought along a little toy for us to play with. It was some trash and looked similar to the plastic that holds a six-pack of cola cans together. I knew I would have to somehow take it away from him since this could cause some serious trouble. Well, he was not easy to catch and wouldn't drop it for me to grab. Eventually, we actually, climbed out of the water onto a ledge on the vertical cliffs we were swimming along. The ledge was small and only a little above the water allowing me to reach up to the animal and its toy. Here, my years of playing with dogs, learning how to snap a rag or similar item away from them in that moment of distraction paid off. When the sea lion seemed more interested in me then the toy, I used the uplift of an oncoming wave to grab that plastic away from him. He was so surprised that he just let me have it and I swam straight to the dinghy in the middle of the bay to put the junk in Victor's safe hands. While doing so I looked back and saw a sad looking sea lion pup...I had taken his favorite toy. It turned out later that he had forgiven me since he and two of his sea lion buddies joined me for a bit of playtime.
Sea lions can be playful and often you can see them imitate humans in the water by blowing bubbles out of their noses right in front of you. Those with me were so kind to give me a display of just that. In addition, one of them came very close and started nibbling very carefully, just like a dog puppy, on my fins. It was the absolute highlight of my Galapagos trip. When it was time to return to the Guantanamera, the dinghy was already picking up the others, so I decided to get a little work out and swim back to the boat. All three agile sea lion friends decided to accompany me and so we swam together. While I was moving steadily through the water, they had the extra resources to play around me as we moved. One guy had gotten a clam shell of sorts and dropped it in the water next to me just for it to be picked up by the other. They stayed with me for another 5-8 minutes before I had to swim out into the open water to get to the boat. That was the time they had to say good-bye and leave me. I guess mother had not allowed them to leave the shore line quite yet. Back on board the boat was streaming to our next stop at Espanola: Punta Suarez
PM: Punta Suarez
Things to see:
Your tour brochure to the Galapagos might state "Punta Suarez is one of the highlights of the Galapagos Islands. The variety and quantity of wildlife assures a memorable visit." Little did we know how true this would be. While anchoring in the bay we could see the waves break at the point and riding the waves were sea lions, playing as if it was the most fun thing in the world. We had a full dinghy and actually had to time the run for the shore well not to get slammed by the waves. It was no problem and as soon as we arrived (dry landing), we got to see the cutest sight. A sea lion cow was hanging out with a freshly born sea lion pup. Victor thought that this one was less then a day old. We walked on and after passing on to the next stretch of beach found a mother sea lion with a baby that was just born. It was so fresh on this planet that we even witnessed the birth of the placenta. The sand was slightly pink from the blood but it seemed that both mother and baby were well, with the little one looking for mother's food already. The sound that such a new born makes is just adorable. A cow has a single pup, born a year after conception, which is when the pups develop a strong bond with their mother through smell and sound of the bark. Sea lion mothers will nurture a pup for up to three years which we witnessed on many occasions, seeing a rather large animal still going for the milk. Victor told us that soon the mother will take the young pup into the water to get it washed off and used to the water. After that it will rest for a little while and then has to go hunting again to gain strength. They stay on land for over 2 weeks after the birth and do not feed in that period. This and the stress of giving birth makes them very weak in the post-partum period. Unfortunately that also means that they are easy pray for predators like sharks that can sense the weakness and the wounds of birthing. It is not unheard of that a mother doesn't return from feeding leaving it's pup to die. When the pup is 2 - 3 weeks old the cow will mate again.
Wildlife is the highlight of Española and the star of the show is the Waved Albatross which I was very excited to see. My hope was to see them start and land since I remembered from TV shows of my youth how funny the landing and how labor some the take-off can be. What I didn't know is that these challenges are mostly only observed with very young birds, that in fact a grown up can land and take-off almost gracefully. The island's steep cliffs serve as great natural runways for the Waved Albatross which take off to show their amazing flying skills to the visitors, soaring above the cliff. They usually head for their ocean feeding grounds near the mainland of Ecuador and Peru, leaving Espanola from January and March. This Island is the Waved Albatross's only nesting place. Every April the males return to Española followed shortly thereafter by the females. Albatross mate for life, but due to the longer periods of separation they have to get to "know" each other again. We were lucky enough to see their ritual in which the male begins the annual dance to re-attract his mate. The performance, which can take up to 5 days, will include strutting, honking, and beak fencing. After a pair is re-acquainted they produce a single egg and share the job of incubation. The colony remains based on Española until December when the chick is fully grown. By January most of the birds leave the island to fish along the Humboldt Current. Young Albatrosses do not visit Española again until their 4th or 5th year. At that time they return to seek a mate.
Leaving the Albatross behind we came upon a rock with numerous marine iguana on it. It almost looked like a piece of art. From here it wasn't far to the famous Galapagos blowhole shooting water 50-70 feet/15-30 meters into the air. A few Red-Billed birds hung out while we watched the water spray up. On our way back to the shore we come along a young Albatross who soon will learn to fly, but yet still working on getting rid of the protective fuzz on his body. That night we would sail on to Santa Maria.