return to Española
Tuesday, December 29 2015
location: off Punta Suarez on Española Island, Galapagos, Ecuador
This morning after breakfast, we had a dry landing near a makeshift-looking solar-powered lighthouse at Punta Suarez on Española Island, which I'd referred to as a "pile of volcanic rocks" ten years before. Immediately after landing, we were in danger of trampling on the Marine Iguanas, which were everywhere. Some blended so well with the black rocks that they were almost invisible, while others had festive green and pink "Christmas" coloration. A number of people had to be yelled at as they blithely stumbled towards a motionless iguana in the trail. There were also a good number of sea lions mixed in among the boulders, and some of these were little babies of the sort that so delight Gretchen and the girls. There were also a number of sea lion skeletons and isolated bones, indicating all is not ideal in this apparent paradise.
In the adjacent bay (1.369268S, 89.744901W) were four or five baby sea lions of similar age playing like puppies would if puppies had flippers instead of legs. They were old enough to venture a short distance into the water, though clearly they weren't old enough to take care of themselves. This begged the question: where were the parents? Here our guide Hernan supplied the answer. This was what he called "a sea lion nursery," where mother sea lions leave their babies while they go off into the ocean to eat the fish necessary to generate the milk so the babies can be fed. Such nurseries are established in shallow bays with mild currents and are overseen by the alpha male of the group, whose job it is to run off any sharks who venture in. Amazingly, alpha males only remain in office for 25 to 29 days, which raises more questions than it answers, for example: what is the Darwinian incentive for an alpha male to protect babies fathered by earlier holders of the alpha male title? I would often have questions like this throughout the course of this vacation, but Hernan had a way of lecturing relentlessly and not providing opportunities for questions until the end, at which point I would have either forgotten my question or one of the kids would have asked something adorable and the whole tone of the lecture would have changed. As for the mothers, supposedly they can abandon their babies for days and venture hundreds of miles from the Galapagos to what Hernan referred to as "the sea lion supermarket." But if one fails to return, her baby will starve to death. Orphaned sea lions can expect no altruism from the other sea lions in the group.
Hernan then told us a story from the outer limits of mother sea lion behavior. He said that sea lions routinely swallow rocks to help with digestion, but one mother who was being tracked was seen to eat an unusually large number of rocks. Then, out in the ocean, she used those rocks as a weight belt to help her dive to such a great depth that her eyes were permanently destroyed. But she was still able to hunt using the electric-field-detecting capabilities of her whiskers. Despite blindness, this mother sea lion managed to live and care for her baby for two more years before dying.
Further southeast from Punta Suarez, Hernan lectured at length about the Marine Iguanas: how Charles Darwin found them repulsive, and how Jacques Cousteau tied a rock to one and found they could survive under water for a half hour. I got too close to one and it spit something at me from its nose, a substance Hernan identified as salt. Sneezing extracted salt from their noses is one of their many adaptations to living in a marine environment.
Somewhere in among these lectures, a juvenile Galapagos Hawk strolled through shrubbery nearby. Hernan said he was looking for Marine Iguanas to eat, but they had to be small. This explains why the small ones (like the immature Sally Lightfoot Crabs) are the color of lava.
Ten years ago when Gretchen and I came to Española, I'd marveled at the tameness and thirstiness of the endemic Hood Mockingbirds (Hood being the English name for Española). This time, though, there were fewer mockingbirds, and they seemed less attracted to people and their water. Evidently things have changed a lot in the past ten years. There are fewer "punk rock" tours led by marginal naturalists like Cezar, and guides have become better at preventing visitors from offering water to the birds, and so they've stopped begging.
Away from the coast, the trail passed through low scrub across a variety of boulders. In an effort to fight a case of athlete's foot that had developed after all the shoe-wearing of the previous three days, I was going barefoot, carrying my Keens in case the terrain became terrible (which it never did). Aside from stepping on a few thorns, though, I was doing well enough to get comments from the others. Indeed, my bare feet provided more sensitive traction over the uneven terrain than was possible with a shoe. Others weren't as lucky; my mother-in-law experienced a bad fall, and though she said she was okay, she decided not to continue with our group.
On the way to the cliffs along the south side of Punta Suarez, there wasn't much to see except for lava lizards and Darwin finches. Our guides (maybe James, since he was the reptile expert) explained that different species of lava lizard signal their affiliations by executing different sequences of pushups. These patterns of movements send such a strong signal that a lava lizard will attempt to mate with a crude robot it it makes them in the correct sequence.
And then we arrived at the "albatross airport," where young Waved Albatrosses make their first land-landings after five years at sea. It's a long stetch of terrain that is mysteriously devoid of brush, though its boulder-strewn surface doesn't look like a good place for anything airborn to land. According to our guides, incoming albatrosses come in like cannonballs, folding their wings and tumbling across the surface. We saw a couple albatrosses not too far in the distance, and there was also an airborn one. After haviing seen all the boobies, their heads looked strangely huge.
Things became crowded near the albatross airport as other tour groups queued up for a chance to see the big white birds. There was another human queue at the blow hole nearby, where crashing waves forced up through a crack in the lava sprayed clouds of mist across a jumbled expanse below the cliffs. Looked at through binoculars, this expanse was covered with groups of lounging Marine Iguanas and sea lions. Closer by were the nests of Nazca Boobies, whose severe white bodies and black masks gave them a bit of a Storm Trooper vibe. Heading back towards the dry landing, the trail wound through a densely-populated Nazca Booby nesting site, where just-hatched babies could be seen under only mildly-threatening mothers. My brother-in-law was so intently staring at the viewfinder of his camera at one of them that he walked right into another one, who raised an immediate fuss. "Benito!" Hernan shouted, playing (as always) the spank-happy authoritarian foil to James' easy-going mellowness. "It's always a bad thing when the guide yells your Spanish name," Jeff chuckled.
By this point, Gretchen and I had both decided that Hernan is a bit of an asshole, even if being one is something of a job requirement for wrangling clumsy ignorant Americans, with their propensity to climb on the coral, steal kisses from the sea lions, and trample the birdlife. But there were other negatives about Hernan that were now becoming clear. Most striking here on Española was that, though he's a young man with what is presumably a recently-acquired PhD in Biology, his knowledge contains anachronistic biases and inaccuracies. Drawing our attention to the small size of their brains, he talked about birds as though they're emotionless robots, without the fierce compulsion to protect their children common to mammals. Still, according to Hernan, in the hierarchy of animal intelligence, at least birds are smarter than reptiles such as turtles, which just lay their eggs and leave. "Turtles are reptiles, like dinosaurs," he declared at one point. Evidently he hasn't been following the evidence from paleontology and gene sequencing that for over 20 years has compelled biologists to categorize birds as a subset of the dinosaurs, all of which are about as closely related to turtles as mammals are. All indications from the fossil record are that dinosaurs fussed over their children the same way birds and human helicopters do. Despite all that, Hernan is a huge improvement over the Golondrina's guide Cezar, who barely spoke any English and clearly had little in the way of a scientific education. (His response to any question about geologic history was infamously "five meyun years.")
During lunch, the Letty sailed eastward about ten miles and dropped anchor near Gardner Island off Bahía Gardner, which was billed as another of the Galapagos' world-class beaches. Before we'd be going there, though, there would be deep water snorkeling off Gardner Island. Wanting every possible advantage, I decided to put on my borrowed wet suit, though it still smelled like a dirty sock.
After jumping off the panga near a prominent penninsula of Gardner Island (1.341260S, 89.648115W), I swam quickly for the rocks. But this time, my gear seemed to be working well. My flippers weren't colliding, and I'd tightened my mask a notch and it wasn't leaking. Also, based on something my mother-in-law had said (that in order pass a snorkeling course, she'd had to be able to keep her head and both hands above water for a certain amount of time), I tried to see if I could briefly remove my mask and snorkel without relying on the stability of holding onto a part of the shoreline. It turned out that I could; my flippers could propel me upward all on their own, freeing my hands to make adjustments. This would allow me to fix minor near-drownings without having to make a beeline for the shore. It was a revelation. There are few things as empowering as discovering new ways to keep yourself from dying.
The penninsula I was snorkeling around contained at least two large caves, both of which I ventured into. There was a great diversity of colorful fish in the water and the visibility was incredible, but the best thing of all (as always with the Galapagos) was the sea lions. I kept encountering them, and each one of them took the time to interact with me in some clever way. Some would swim right up to my face, roll over onto their back, and then dart off. Others would release bubbles at me or grab various objects from the seafloor, swim up to the surface, and mouth them like Ramona the Dog. Part of their message seemed to be, "Look at me, this is my home, and I am completely comfortable here!" Had they been the slightest bit belligerent, they could've inflicted a nasty doglike bite (and when they'd get close and then pause to look me over for a moment, sometimes I'd be worried), but they were all completely benign.
My snorkeling eventually put me into a group of snorkelers from some other boat, most of them much younger than me. I heard one of them saying she'd found a lobster, so I swam over and looked where she'd been, and there he was, a spiny beast lodged in a crack in a large underwater boulder. Then I noticed that a sea lion was making the rounds through the crowded water, occasionally diving down and hovering near the sea floor and then coming up to join us humans on the surface. And then I saw a second sea lion. And then, because this was the Galapagos, a pelican got in the mix, padding around in the small patches of water between snorkelers. When the sea becomes such a thick stew of large amniotes, it's best to head to less crowded waters. So I continued swimming southward to right about the place where my panga pilot indicated I should stop. There, I saw a huge cloud of bubbles rising up from the sea floor. Sensing something was going on, I lingered in place for several minutes. Eventually a sea lion came swimming up from a submerged cave, briefly checked me out, got a hearty sip of air, and then disappeared once more into that cave.
In this same area, I came upon a massive school of a mid-sized grey fish with black markings and a yellow tail. It moved as if it were one organism, its members nibbling tiny bits of unseen material from the rocks. I committed this fish's appearance to memory and later identified it in a book in the Letty library as being the Yellowtail Surgeonfish.
Our next activity was kayaking in the same waters in which we'd just been snorkeling. The Letty only had five kayaks, four of which were strapped to its outside. Since all but one of them were two-person kayaks, this meant there were slots for nine kayakers. As you might imagine, Gretchen and I had signed up for this activity. We climbed into our kayak from the back of the Letty and paddled to the rocky Gardner shores, heading mostly northeastward. Most of what we were there to see was sea lions, probably the same ones I'd just been snorkeling with, though there was also that pelican and even a Hood Mockingbird (which I'd also happened to notice while snorkeling). Coming out of the pristine sand-free water onto a rocky shelf, the sea lions looked as if they were made of molten bronze, a visual that wouldn't seem quite natural if it were done in CGI. One of the guides had suggested that if we see a sea lion, we throw one of the handling ropes into the water. Supposedly the sea lion would grab it and maybe give us a tow. We tried a few times before one of the whiskery beasts grabbed it with his mouth. Though all she did was chew it briefly, it was enough of an interaction to delight us.
Before our next activity, I drank my first kratom tea of this Galapagos adventure. This put me an uncharacteristically good mood for our wet landing on Bahia Gardner. This is the place where, ten years before, I'd made a fake sea lion out of sand that was realistic enough for a real sea lion to come along and snuggle with it. As we approached the beach, I saw that there was a large whale skeleton near the beach's western end. Hernan explained that it was Minke Whale. Later he would tell me that it had died and washed ashore about a year ago, and that it had fouled the beach for weeks as it decomposed, drawing numerous crabs (and probably Marine Iguanas). When we got to the skeleton, we couldn't tell if the large bone at the end of the spine was the hips or the remains of the skull. Even my brother-in-law (a doctor) couldn't say for sure. Hernan cleared this up by explaining the skull was now at Darwin Station. We were encouraged to pick up and handle the bones. The ribs were like swords, and each vertebra was big enough to form the seat of a small chair. Oddly, the disks between each vertebra were completely ossified plates. Despite all the handling, when people were done with the bones, they put them back where they'd come from, and the skeleton remained more or less articulated there on the sand.
I decided not to snorkel at all and instead marvel at the sea lions, who were hauled out on the sand in various clusters like human sunbathers, though with much less interest in maintaining personal space. In one place, four or five of them were spooning one another. And then a big male came and flopped down on top of them, plowing a space for himself in the middle. There were also babies, though they weren't as young and numerous as they'd been at Punta Suarez. Gretchen and I ended up walking all the way to where the lava pinched off the beach in the east and then turned around and walked back. At that point, I'd had enough, so I caught the next panga back to the Letty.
At the end of the evening briefing it was announced that some of us would be having dinner with the ship's captain, yet another person named Peter. Those eating with the captain tonight would be Gretchen's parents, Leah & Andrea's parents, and Gretchen and me. We sat in the back at a table normally occupied by the kids. It wasn't quite big enough for the seven of us, and that was only part of what made this meal uncomfortable. There was a stiltedness to the conversation, since it all necessarily had to focus on the interests of the captain, a man none of us knew. There managed to be a number of interesting topics, such as when the captain mentioned that one of his many captain school courses had required him to master navigation with an astolabe, causing me to mention that constellation finder app, which uses the astrolabe principle in reverse. Gretchen and I also talked about the last time we came to the Galapagos and the crappy ship we sailed on, which dragged its pangas behind it the whole time, since there was no way to raise them up out of the water. As for food, the meateaters in our group (Peter the captain and Peter the Greek patriarch) had dismal-looking slabs of pork, whereas the rest of us (one of whom wasn't even vegetarian) had the spaghetti with red sauce. It was a little weird, but I rather liked it. I put a rather large amount of Snob-branded Aji hot sauce on it (that's the local hot sauce, which, until I arrived, seemed to be used exclusively by the crew), and I thought that was what was making me sweat. But it turned out everyone at the table was just as hot as I was. It seems there is no air conditioning ducted to this table, something the kids don't even notice due to the metabolic flexibility of extreme youth.
A young Galapagos Hawk. Photo by Gretchen's father.
Another picture of that Galapagos Hawk. Photo by Gretchen's father.
A baby Nazca Booby with a couple adults. Photo by Gretchen's father.
A couple Marine Iguana friends. Photo by Gretchen's father.
A Hood Mockingbird. I think I stepped on one of those thorns. Photo by Gretchen's father.
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