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Close Encounters of the Animal Kind

Galapagos - land tour

sunny 27 °C
View The planned itinerary, correct as of December 2008 on pendleton's travel map.

At first glance, the landscape of the Galapagos really does look hostile and barren - all jutting lava rocks and bare rocky pinnacles. Very 'Master and Commander'.

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But on closer inspection, the place just teems with life. Here is a brief run-down of some of the endemic species we saw at (very) close quarters during our final week of touring the isles.

Giant Tortoises
Weighing in at an impressive 250kg (or 550lbs) and living for 150+ years, Giant Tortoises are sadly at risk of extinction from human predation - they were once killed in huge numbers for their meat and for their oil, to light streetlamps. Only one surviving individual from Pinta Island now exists, the 80-year old Lonesome George. Efforts are being made to hook him up with a couple of frisky 30-somethings from another island to continue his line, but frustratingly, he's just not that into them.

No other examples of these huge beasties have been found in South America, so where did they come from? No-one knows for sure, but it's thought that normal-sized tortoises may have floated over from somewhere in the Seychelles millions of years ago, and once on the Galapagos, evolved gigantism because of a lack of natural predators... until we showed up :(

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Galapagos Penguins
Penguins on the equator?? Bizarrely, yes - made possible due to the aforementioned Humboldt current bringing cold waters to the Galapagos from the south Atlantic, and with it, bringing tasty fish at shallower depths. These diminutive birds are only about 30cm tall! We had the opportunity of snorkelling with a few of them and found out that they're pretty crap swimmers, actually. Never mind, they look cute.

Galapagos Sea Lions
Ridiculously photogenic and ubiquitous to most islands, you can't help but fall in love with these playful and inquisitive clowns. The "unofficial welcoming committee" of the Galapagos. I want to be a sea lion, they are just awesome creatures and look like they have the most fun ever. Plus they get to dive and eat raw fish all day, which is pretty much all I want to do.

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Jon sounds uncannily like one, as evidenced here.

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Land Iguanas
About a metre long, yellow. They feed exclusively on cactus fruit, which they have learned to roll around on the ground to break the sharp spines, before tucking in. They are totally unbothered by humans, often walking right in front of you so you have to change direction in order to avoid stepping on them.

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Marine Iguanas
These guys have evolved to feed on algae on rocks in the sea, so they freedive for up to half an hour amidst the crashing surf. They're usually black, but on Floreana Island are red due to their eating the red algae that grows there. They have a nasty habit of shooting jets of super-salty water out of their noses at you if you get too close, which is charming. And they look really smug whilst doing it.

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Hybrid Land/Marine Iguanas
A spot of cross-species wife swapping has resulted in these sterile black/yellow hybrids. Mum is a land iguana (who is bigger than) dad, who is a marine iguana. They hang about with land iguanas but can't go into the water like dad can.

Blue-Footed Boobies
Responsible for the proliferation of 'I Love Boobies!' t-shirts in EVERY shop in Santa Cruz. They don't have any natural predators so they just nest on the floor, kicking out a bit of dirt to form a depression in the ground and then pooing in a circle around it to keep biting ants from wandering in. They partner up for a season at a time and share babysitting duties, taking it in turns to sit on the eggs for up to 8 hours at a time whilst the other stretches his/her legs, goes down the pub, or goes to find some food. They often hatch 2 chicks, but only feed the first-born, so the younger sibling always dies. Males have smaller pupils than females, and whistle (females kind of squawk) which is how you can tell them apart.

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Nazca Boobies
Quite stately-looking, they are the biggest of the boobies (boobies galore!) on the islands. I don't know much else about them to be honest.

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Frigate Birds
These birds are thieves. They steal most of their food from other seabirds, and also eat their chicks and baby sea turtles. The males have large red neck pouches which they inflate to attract the female of the species. They have beautiful black plumage that looks shiny like a vinyl record.

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Waved Albatross
They have an awesome courtship ritual which is a bit like a clackety thumb war. We didn't manage to video it as our camera batteries died but here's a little something from you-tube.

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Darwin's Finches
Thirteen different species of finch exist on the Galapagos. Their markedly different beaks, adapted to different food sources, piqued the interest of a certain Charles Darwin after he visited the islands on HMS Beagle in 1836, which led to his revolutionary theory of evolution by natural selection. There's one species that uses a twig to poke insects out of tree trunks, and even a vampire species that sucks the blood of Nazca and Blue-footed boobies.

Sally Lightfoot Crabs
The males are orange and blue and the females are purple/red. Juveniles are black so they are camouflaged against the black rocks on which they gather - they're a favourite food source for many sea birds.

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Posted by pendleton 11:04 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Galápagos - Day 5

overcast 25 °C

We are back at Wolf, having made a detour north to Darwin and returned the day after.

It´s just before dusk and the visibility is starting to get low. We are separated from the group and floating at about 60ft in a large ball of silvery chubb. Around the outside of the fish are lurking sharks, mostly hammerheads with some Galápagos thrown in the mix. They swim around us in an endless circle... we can never see more than twenty or thirty but it´s a different twenty every minute. It occurs to us that we are suspended in a huge ball of their favourite food; also that they don´t have very good eyesight.

We drift... and drift... and drift... in the current. The darkness closes in a little more. The sharks circle, coming in to peer at us occasionally. We look at each other nervously. They aren´t even trying for the fish. Just circling.

In the end we come up with quite a lot of air still left in our tanks. No recorded shark attacks in the Galápagos. But no need to push our welcome...

Posted by pendleton 17:43 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Galápagos - Day 3

Concentrate, here comes the science part

overcast 25 °C

Everyone has seen the pictures of the indigenous land-side wildlife of the Galápagos (big tortoises, blue footed boobies, marine iguanas et al - more about these guys soon). What's not quite as commonly known is that there is an astonishingly rich underwater world which is even better preserved than the topside ones.

The Galápagos islands straddle the Equator line (most of the southern islands are below but Wolf and Darwin are above), so you would naturally expect the water to be quite toasty. This isn't necessarily the case though, as the islands are at the junction of several large oceanic currents - the Panama current coming from the northeast (warm water), the transPacific coming from the west (warm water), and crucially, the Humboldt current coming from the south. This is the key current, that sweeps in all the way from Antarctica up the coast of South America, bringing cold water, rich in nutrients. And penguins...

The cold water brings nutrients, which are eaten by the microscopic shrimp and such. Who are in turn eaten by the little fishies. Who are eaten by the hand size fish. Who are then eaten by the big game fish... and the sharks!

Wolf and Darwin are, as previously mentioned, the two northernmost islands of the archipelago. They are geologically distinct to the other islands, being part of the Cocos tectonic plate rather than the Nazca plate, and formed by the subjunction zone between these two plates slipping over each other. The islands are uninhabited by people, and just look like big rocks in the sea with masses of bird colonies on top. These are two of the most revered sites among scuba divers, to be spoken of in hushed terms. The access to the islands is restricted so much that less than three thousand people dive them every year. We have a dive briefing the night before, where we are told to expect currents, lots of fish, and hopefully some sharks. We go to bed, beyond excited.

We're out of bed before the morning wake-up bell has started ringing. A quick breakfast and a more detailed dive briefing and we are in the water. Today the current is only mild, so we drift along at about 60ft above the tumble landslide that falls into the deep. We start to see some sharks - firstly the small Galápagos sharks (about 1-2 metres long), then some larger hammerheads (2-3m) (note - not dangerous to people unless you cut your leg off or something... just a little disconcerting). I have floated forward in the group to be the point man, even ahead of the divemasters. I turn around to check that my buddy Angi is OK and still where I think she is, and when I face forward again my brain almost stops. I can't believe what I am seeing. Coming directly towards us is a huge whale shark - 40ft of harmless, beautiful beastie. People construct entire dive trips around these things and quite often fail to see them. We had hoped to see one in Belize or Honduras but weren't lucky enough then. And one has just snuck up on us. It's huge, as big as a fortress, as big as the sky. I hold my breath (they don't like bubbles so much) as it effortlessly drifts towards us, close, closer than people are supposed to get to them. Less than 3m and it glides past us, its huge body surmounted by a load of remoras hanging on to the tail. It's probably a female, here to get the remoras cleaned off by cherry-picking smaller sharks. I hang there, motionless, speechless, as the divemasters frantic tank ting-tinging alerts the rest of the group that Mrs Big has arrived. She's past us in what seems like seconds. Some of the group are haring off after it but Angi and I just hang there, not really knowing how to process the information. Then we high-five, hug and grin like idiots.

A week later, it still seems like a dream.

(Note - we don´t have any pictures/videos unfortunately due to the lack of an underwater camera (and also the lack of a working computer) - any donations from our kind new friends gratefully received!)

(update 16-06 - we have some photos very kindly courtesy of Dave from our trip! Links are

http://i484.photobucket.com/albums/rr204/bonessdiver/galapagos%202009/DSCF1081.jpg
http://i484.photobucket.com/albums/rr204/bonessdiver/galapagos%202009/DSCF1137.jpg
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Depicting a whale shark, a hammerhead, an eagle ray, a dolphin, me, a turtle, a sea lion, a penguin and the brooding Wolf landscape.

Thanks Dave & Nicki!)

Posted by pendleton 11:52 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

Galápagos - Day 1

And so it starts...

overcast 25 °C

We are in the Galápagos.

The Galápagos are a small archipelago of young volcanic islands in the Pacific. They are remote (600 miles to the west of Ecuador, next stop is the Marquesas 2000 miles further to the west), and are justly famed as an incredibly unique, fragile and special set of ecosystems. Because they are so far from anywhere else (and as they have not been completely spoiled by humans) a large proportion of the flora and fauna on the islands are endemic to the Galápagos, that is, they are not found anywhere else in the world. A side effect of the fairly limited human influence on the islands is that the wildlife is utterly unafraid of people, often to the extent of behaving like we are just not there.

They are a group of around two dozen large and small islands, some with people living on them, many uninhabited. We have joined a liveaboard dive boat, spending the first few days in the southern group of islands (which are all relatively close) before a long haul up to two isolated, barren pinnacles of rock named Wolf and Darwin. The emphasis on the boat is diving - over the next week we will do 17 dives at various spots, with a peak of four dives per day, and the odd land excursion. This is hard work.

The first dive of the trip is what they call a "check-out" dive - i.e. you check that you have all your equipment, get everything setup correctly, have a thick enough wetsuit for the chilly water, remember how to dive, etc etc. The dive is in approximately 20ft of water with fairly crappy visibility so we aren`t exactly expecting wonders. We jump in, faff around with our weights (as we are wearing massively thick wetsuits we need a LOT more weight than we are used to), struggle briefly with the current and then sink to the bottom and make our way along the bay wall.

We are swimming slowly along the bottom, not the most excited we have ever been, when the sea lions appear. Comical, lardy and waddling on dry land, sleek and moving like shit off a shovel underwater, they are amazing to watch. We sit on the bottom for half an hour, with nobody else in sight, as they whirl, cavort, spin and play around us like acrobatic freedivers on crack. They are shooting around us just for the pure pleasure of it, coming mere centimetres from our faces. We watch as they pirouette, turn and stop on a dime like ballerinas, just to strike a pose on top of a rock. Some of them are playing with our exhalation bubbles above us and making bubbles of their own (seemingly for us to play with), others swim past our shoulders at the speed of light, almost making us drop our regulators several times (the regulator is the bit that goes in your mouth to dispense air to you). Two of them are even, um, courting. We sit there, speechless (well, obviously, but especially so this time) until nearly an hour is gone and we are supposed to be topside.

We come back up grinning so hard the tops of our heads are almost falling off. A good start!

Posted by pendleton 09:04 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

From Middle Earth to Evolution

sunny 22 °C

We are OUT of Central America (and hopefully won't have to worry about influenza A again).

We are in South America now, in Quito in Ecuador to be precise. We are here for one of the highlights of our trip - a week-long dive safari in the Galapagos islands which are off the coast of Ecuador - so we've taken a couple of days unwinding in Quito and sorting ourselves out to make sure we are as ready as possible for the trip.

Quito (lit. Middle Earth) is only 20km or so from the actual Equator line so we went down there yesterday. It's quite touristy but fun, we balanced an egg on a nail and learned the effects of the Coriolis force. And jumped back and forth between hemispheres like loons.

As an editor's note, we've finally put up all the blog entries that we've been putting off for ages while we've been lazing around the Caribbean, and I've annotated them with most of the photos we have taken. We'll be out of touch for the next week or ten days but will hopefully return with lots more excitement!

(later editors note - computer problems again so it will be a while before we get pictures up)

Posted by pendleton 13:52 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

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