Monday, October 13, 2014


During the night the ship traveled to Genovesa, the most north-eastern island in the Galapagos. This ride of about 50 nautical miles. During the ride the ship bounced up and down and the engines worked hard. I woke up several times at night, and at one point could hear the anchor going down — we reached our destination around 3am. 

I gave up in my attempt to sleep around 5:30am. I climb outside on the deck and find that we are moored inside a huge round bay - Darwin bay. This was the caldron of a volcano that where part of the wall collapsed as the island started descending down, and it was flooded. The walls of the caldron are now steep cliffs around the bay. On the rim I could see a lot of vegetation and many birds.

The early morning air was bristling with the activity of seabirds. The various seagulls flying searching for food, and the black frigates hovering above keeping an eye over them. A bird that manages to spot a fish, dive and catch it, is still not done. Now it is the target of the frigates and it has to escape their dives and chases until it reaches its nest. I got to see one or two dives, which were very abrupt. 

Masked booby patroling the waves

As I watch the birds, I hear something moving in the water. A large sea lion was coming up for air just next to the boat. It seems that it was hunting below us (maybe targeting fish that took cover under the boat, or maybe just playful). It kept coming back regularly, take three or four breaths and then dive down. This was usually enough time for me to hear where it is, rush over, and miss a photo as it was diving down.

The passengers slowly woke up, and soon breakfast was announced.  Quite soon after breakfast, we notice a lot of bird activity outside. Apparently a school of small fish was near the surface. The birds started diving into it with frenzy. This went on for a while, and I managed to capture few shoots that show the general mayhem. The diving birds as they strike the water look like a narrow projectile.

General mayhem as seabirds dive into the sea

Our next activity was “wet landing”, meaning that we have to get our feet into the water, on the nearby beach. As we come closer we notice that some of the dark rocks on the sand are actually sleeping sea lions. We land, and they open one eye to look at us and promptly go back to sleep.

Just above the sand we run into a nesting ground of the masked booby, the red-footed booby, seagulls and frigates. We do not see nests, but rather the younger birds were sitting here and there not with much of a nest around them.

A parent seagull feeding its young

On the rocks next to the beach David points out two marine iguanas. They are much smaller than the ones we saw briefly yesterday. He claims that on this island there are no hawks, and so the iguanas do not have selective advantage to being bigger. I am not sure if this the reason. The lack of hawks is definitely a factor in the abundance of sea birds.

Our first marine iguana
Juvenile frigate bride
Young Frigate

As we walk along the beach we reach a large mangrove with blush green leaves. The trees are dotted by red-footed booties perched on the branches. We learn that the red-footed is the only type of boobies that preserved the ability to clutch branches with their feet.

Adult red footed booby sitting on a mangrove

Red footed booby juvenile
Same bird, making a face

Beyond the mangrove, we reach a tide pool, where three sealions are playing. One is a large male, and the others are apparently females, that are about half his size. The male barks at us, apparently to show off his strength and establish his territory. When he is satisfied that we are keeping our distance, he joins the females in the pool. It seems that they are playing at chasing one another. One of the females finds a stick and they start to playfully steal it from each other. The display seems similar to what I experienced in various marine world and aquariums in the sealion pools. But here, they are free to go when they want into the ocean.

Male sea lion announcing his territory
Sea lions playing in the pool

We start heading back toward the shore.

We now have attention to smaller birds, such the ground finches, the mocking bird, and doves. We even encounter one appropriately named lava seagull.
A finch eating a pear cactus

Mocking bird

We get back to the ship, where a refreshing fruit juice is waiting for us. And soon we get ready for snorkeling. The pangas take us toward the opening of the bay, and we stop close to the cliffs. David instructs us to look for sea life and not to get too close to the cliffs, as the wave crush forcefully on them. 

The water is colder than I expected, but once in I quickly adapt. Unlike most of the others, I am wearing a wetsuit, and I am grateful for taking one with me. The water is greenish with very limited visibility. I see many small planktons, including krill and other zooplankton. Clearly, the sea is living up to the reputation of being a rich source of food for fish. As I get closer to the cliffs, I start seeing the bottom, where there is a rock shelf at about 4-5 meter deep. I swim ahead of the gang along the shelf. There are many fish that are similar to the ones I am used to from the red sea. Later I check and they are different species from the same family.

Since the visibility is poor, I barely see the lower fish, but rather sketches of their outline. Suddenly my brain comprehends that one of the shapes below is too large. Then it emerges on me that there is a hammerhead shark cruising slowly below me. I try to follow it but it disappears into the depth. David who is standing on one of the pangas about 20m away. I signal to him — holding my fists to my temples to imitate the shape of head — and he shouts for the group to head in my direction. Few minutes after there is a crowd around me asking “what?, where?”. I then see the hammerhead passing again below us. I point with my hands as I try to follow it, but I believe that most of the other snorkelers missed it.

I continue snorkeling along the cliffs. Now I can start seeing the sandy bottom at points. There are many groups (too few to be schools) of fish busy eating away on the plankton.

In the water I see a plastic bag. The nemesis of sea turtles. I collect it, and then see another one. After three, I wave to the nearby panga to collect it from me. The driver waves his hand and say “muecho”, meaning that there are many plastic bags in the area and that it is futile to collect them. It sad that in such a marine sanctuary we encounter human waste floating in the water. 

The snorkelers are slowly returning to the pangas, and at some point David shouts to me to go back as well. I am reluctant but understand that he is not allowed to leave me to swim by myself to the ship. As the pangas head back, the driver of the other panga shouts “turtoga” (turtle in spanish). Our driver turns around and we scan the water looking for it. Instead we see a piece of net floating in the water. David jumps overboard and collects it. I later learn that they did see a turtle that was partially entangled with the net, and when they closed in it dove down. 

After a lunch break and some resting time, we go on a dry-landing. This means we take hiking shows and hopefully not get them wet while going on shore. We board the panga and go along the cliffs. As we progress we see more and more a different type of seabird the phaeton — it has very thing long tail (almost like the tail of eagle rays) and is very fast and agile in the wind. 

We complete almost half-turn around the bay, and get close to our landing point. Just before it, David notices fur-seals, a relatively rare sea lion species that lives in the area. We get close to the rock it is sleeping on and get a closer look. It took me time to get my camera out of the bag, and by the time it was out we started getting away from them, so the photo is not great.

Fur Seal (actually a sea lion)

We reach our landing point, a wooden staircase going up through a crack in the rock. The lower steps are made of rock. We find that a big sea lion is sleeping on the first stair and blocking our access. Here the guide is in a dilemma, we are not supposed to disturb wildlife, yet we cannot go ashore when it is there. After mild vocal disturbing, the sea lion decides that a swim is in order. We get a chance to board, climb up the cliff.

The view from top of the stairs toward the bay

On top there is a flat plateau covered with low trees that look almost barren. There are few leaves here and there. Everywhere we look we see birds nesting. The masked booby on the ground and the red-footed booby on the branches.

This juvenile is exploring nearby branches

Some juveniles have down 

This one lost most of the down and is starting to test its wings

The older chicks look larger than their parents and are constantly demanding of food. The scene  reminds me of spoiled teenager. 
Parent and child comparison
One way to keep the teenager in check.
According to the book the parents shade their offspring this way, although here it does not work that well.

A masked booby jouvenile playing with a stick

David shows demonstrates why the trees are named incense trees, their sap has strong pleasant and somewhat anis-like smell.

Red-footed booby on an incesnse tree

The trail continued until we reached bare rock platform above the ocean.

A pair of masked boobies looking toward the shore

The birds were all over the air going back and forth to the sea, with different arguments and fights. Trying to catch the birds in flight proved harder than expected.

Walking along the top of the cliff we see iguanas starting to gather up to enjoy the afternoon sun. 

Marine iguana

We also see smaller birds

A ground finch trying to break a seed

As we head back, David spots an owl sitting on a branch. We all hush up and watch it preening itself in the late afternoon light.

Galapagos owl

We are back to the ship and go for dinner. By now I know the names of our fellow passengers, and can introduce them. Hans and Ruth are swiss couple who live outside Basel. Kelly is an American who has been living in Ecuador for some time. He is in charge of a research station in the Amazon rainforest and also teaches in a Boston University program on “tropical ecology”. John is a recent graduate of the program who was hired as a teaching fellow to help run the program. He is interested in lizards and carries a huge 300mm prime lens to photograph small animals (e.g., lizards). The students in the program are a cheerful bunch. Six are students from BU — Yang (who is from originally from China), Luca (originally from Italy), Ben, Cristy, Andrew, and Juliana. Three girls are “outside” students Annie (Tufts), Devon (Colorado College) and Birch (Brown). 

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