Wednesday, December 30 2015
location: just west of Devil's Crown off Floreana Island, Galapagos, Ecuador
When I looked out the window this morning during breakfast, I recognized the craggy remains of Devil's Crown from our last visit to Floreana ten years ago. In my memory, it's a maritime Stonehenge, though in truth it's little more than a random assemblage of rough-hewn rocks flooded by the sea.
Our first activity was a landing at the beach just west of the inappropriately-named Punta Cormorant. As had happened before, our guide (in this case Hernan) pointed out the jewel-like green minerals in the sand. This was olivine, and, unlike the ground-up shells that makes up the sand of Bahia Gardner and Cerro Brujo, it had a tendency to absorb sunlight and get hot in the middle of the day. Just above the beach, there are interesting rough-sided strata, but when I asked Hernan about these, he said they were just layers of sand.
Again I'd decided to spend the day as barefoot as possible, and it would turn out that I wouldn't need shoes at all. Down a short trail, we arrived at that lagoon sprinkled improbably with the pink dollops of flamingos. We stood there for a long time at the damp trail's end while Hernan did a massive data dump about flamingos. The most interesting thing he said about them was that they fly at the altitude of jet planes, which made me wonder how they could possibly tolerate the extreme cold. On our flight out to the Galapagos just south of the equator, temperatures at that altitude had been around negative 40 degrees, the one temperature whose unit one normally doesn't have to give. Later, on the walk back from the flamingo lagoon, there was another Hernan data dump on the subject of the Smooth Billed Ani, the eradication of which did not, he insisted, involve the use of pistols.
It was a relatively short walk across the isthmus to the east side of Punta Cormorant, where we'd seen all the sting rays on our last visit. This time, though, we stumbled upon something that surprised even Hernan: a half dozen or so Green Sea Turtles slowly dragging themselves back to the ocean after having laid their eggs. This is something that can only be seen in the early morning, since the turtles lay their eggs at night and have to get back in the water before the sun gets too hot. Since they move very slowly on land, they allow themselves a lot of time. The turtles were now just reaching the highest of waves, but we would be there about a half hour and not all of the turtles would be floating before we left. And even those who made it into the water could be seen lingering exhausted in the waves just off shore. On land, sea turtles are massive beasts whose parts seemed connected together with the reptilian equivalent of duct tape. We were told to not stand between them and the ocean, since that might cause them to turn back towards shore. But all the guides have different rules, and rules we'd been obeying for the turtles on Hernan's (north) end of the beach weren't good enough for the anonymous guide on the south end of the beach, and he yelled at us for getting to close to a turtle there. But yelling is something that just has to happen when tourists are stumbling around, lost in their thoughts of beer, football, and pussy on a beach being used by an endangered species. [REDACTED]
In the midst of all this turtle craziness, a Yellow-crowned Night Heron landed three feet away from us in pursuit of a crab (it looked to be a smallish Sally Lightfoot). For pregnant pause, there was a standoff as the crab, standing on the tips of his toes with outspread claws, stared down the heron. But then he thought he could escape by diving into the surf. That was a mistake. The heron soon fished him out, plucked off his legs one by one, and then stabbed him through the carapace and waited. [REDACTED] Eventually the heron seemed to be searching for an angle that would allow her to swallow the crab body whole, but Hernan herded us back towards the pangas before we could see how the story ended.
Back on the Letty, I snorkled up for the next activity: deep water snorkeling at Devil's Crown. Ten years ago, I'd begged out of all but the gentle snorkeling within the crown. But today, equipped with my wetsuit and new mask maintenance skills, I felt confident enough to jump from the panga well outside the crown to be carried by currents past it. The plan for all of us on our first snorkel was to pass on the outside of the crown (to its north), and then, if possible, go back and do it again. But some of the kids were skeeved out by the deep roiling ocean and couldn't psyche themselves up enough to jump in. (Mind you, up until now they'd seemed bold for their age.) So, after a few of us had been carried by the currents past the crown and some of us had even seen sharks, Hernan ordered us all back into the panga for a redo. This time the smallest kids got out first, and once they were comfortable in the water, the rest of us splashed in. The currents were strong and the waves fairly big, but my techniques for draining my mask in the open sea were enough to keep me comfortable. Soon I'd seen my first Whitetip Reef Shark swimming slowly below me. It was maybe three feet long.
I was about fifty feet north of the northmost part of Devil's Crown and looking towards the rocks when, mysteriously, all the fish scattered in an instant, leaving the entire field of view devoid of non-sessile life. This was immediately followed by what appeared to be a bolt of silver lightning that would have been impossible to explain had I not then noticed that at its bottom (at a depth of what looked to be twenty feet, but might have only been ten), was a swimming bird covered with a thin metallic layer of air. It was a Blue-footed Booby that I'd been lucky enough to see diving within 20 feet of me. Who knew that their dives went so deep? And that fish are able to both escape in time and, it seems, communicate this strategy to peers, all of whom respond so quickly that it appears that they are responding to the original stimulus. And what is that stimulus? The vision of a dark mass rapidly growing larger against the sky? Though I would go on to see a lot of beautiful things in the Galapagos, seeing a booby hit the water while snorkeling would be the highlight of this whole vacation.
After that, I continued snorkeling with Gretchen and Hernan (neither of whom were wearing wetsuits or flippers), and by the time we reached the tiny sandy beach inside the crown, everyone else from the Letty was back in the pangas. This would have been a credit to my power and stamina as a swimmer had I not been using the biggest flippers on the Letty.
On our third drop from the pangas up-current from Devil's Crown, we navigated through the crown, where currents were gentler and depths much shallower. This time Hernan gathered a species of gastropod that was suffering from a type of barnacle that drills into its shell.
The first activity of the afternoon featured another kayaks, if one didn't want to go on a panga ride instead. Since slots were available, Gretchen and I got to be in a kayak for a second day in a row. The kayaks were tied together in a long chain (resembling a sort of kayak train) at the Letty, and then were towed by panga to the place where the kayaking was to happen: a flooded lava field full of microbays and microbeaches ( 1.227909S, 90.443779W). The water would be clear and shallow, and we were expected to see sea turtles, Great Blue Herons, and, naturally, sea lions. All those creatures were there, even a Blue Heron (which we saw at 1.229835S, 90.439888W), but Gretchen regretted we didn't spend more time with the baby sea lions at 1.227477S, 90.443877W. There were a fair number of sea turtles in the water, but having seen them on land, seeing them in the ocean was a bit of a let-down. Sea lions are much more entertaining and interactive in the water; my niece actually got one to grab the rope she threw to her and then held on for a ride.
After dropping off our kayaks at the Letty, pangas took us to a wet landing at the beach of Post Office Bay. The sand here is full of those green olivine crystals, and they were hot after an afternoon of soaking up the blazing equatorial sun. Above the place on the beach where it was cooled by the waves, one couldn't stand in any one place barefoot for long. But I was still determined not to put my feet in my Keens. Reassuringly, though they'd warned us about the heat of the sand, our guides had arrived on this beach shoeless themselves.
Before partaking of the beach, we walked a short distance inland to the "post office." (Paying attention to every step, I landed my bare feet in places shaded by bushes, rocks, and manmade objects.) Ten years ago when Gretchen and I had come here, an essential thing about the post office got lost in the interface between languages. We'd thought that people would leave postcards here to be picked up by others, who would then take them back to their home country and mail them. Instead, the idea is that if you pick up a card someone has left at the Floreana post office, you're supposed to hand deliver it to the addressed recipient. This makes delivering almost any postcard from Floreana a rather involved chore, and one unlikely to be initiated by someone who doesn't live near a recipient. James and Hernan removed all the post cards, divided them into small piles, and had all of us look through them for addresses possibly near the homes of other passengers on the Letty. There were a smattering of addresses in New York (mostly in the City), and Gretchen decided she could deliver one of those on some future visit to Manhattan. (She pointedly did not want the postcard I'd found that was addressed to a place on Staten Island.)
Back at the beach, I was regretting my failure so far this trip to apply any sunscreen to my legs and feet. This hadn't been a problem until today, when I'd been sitting for about an hour with my legs horizontal in a kayak under the noonday Galapagos sun. I'd taken off my hat and used it to cover my knees, but it looked like my ankles and the tops of my feet had caught a huge number of high-energy photons. I got some heavy-duty sunscreen from my sister-in-law (its zinc ingredient had been giving them a ghostly goth complexion), but I feared this was too late to save me from future discomfort.
I'd brought my snorkel, and the water seemed like a good place to protect my legs from any further solar injury. So I went out along the rocks on the northeast side of the beach, since rocks are always where the good stuff ends up being. The visibility was fouled by sand near the beach, but further out, in lava-bottomed water only about three feet in depth, I saw many dozens of small colorful fish, each with an oval profile and little more than an inch in length. I'd never seen these before, and they were restricted to an area no larger than a bathroom. I stood on a rock and looked out over the nearby bay for Gretchen to wave her over (since I had no other way of marking this small area), but then one of the guides whistled at me to get off the fucking rocks. You're not supposed to do that, evidently.
Later I did find Gretchen. She was swimming out in the bay where the sand formed regular patterns on the bottom and wasn't being stirred up enough to badly mar visibility. According to Gretchen, this was the place to swim with the sea turtles. Also, someone had seen a shark. Eventually a turtle passed through, and encountering one when snorkeling is its own kind of wonderful, one distinct from seeing them struggle across a beach after laying their eggs. Later we also saw the shark, which James later identified as an immature Blacktip Reef Shark. Young sharks stay in these shallow bays for the same reason that young sea lions do.
By this point, I'd swallowed my share of seawater for the day, and I wasn't really enjoying myself. Without a wetsuit and flippers, I couldn't develop the buoyancy necessary to fix my mask and snorkel in the open water. And I was finding the process of swimming painfully slow. So I landed on shore with the plan of maybe wrapping a towel around me like a burqa. But then Jeff invited me to play a game called Prokadima, which is a sort of netless, scoreless beach ping-pong, where the goal is to keep a volley going as long as possible. He'd brought his Prokadima set in among his many other possible (but unlikely) needs somewhere in one of the eleven units of checked luggage he and his family had traveled with. At first I was terrible, but within fifteen minutes, we were reaching volley counts exceeding 20.
I was aware that there was some sort of pick-up soccer (that is, fútbol) game happening in a field adjacent to the beach (1.235375S, 90.448741W), and I could hear sports-initiated crowd noises coming from that direction, so I walked over there to have a look. Along the west side of that soccer field was the only place nearby having shade-casting trees, so if nothing else, this would give me a place to get out of the sun. What I found over there was definitely odd. The field was a small one, only a third the length of a proper soccer field, though the players were taking the game very seriously. For the most part, they consisted of the panga drivers and guides from the other ships (our sister ships on this voyage had been the Eric and the Flamingo II; they're almost identical to the Letty). But there were a few tourists on the field as well, including, most improbably, my nine year old niece. She probably weighs about 50 pounds and is well under five feet tall. But she takes her soccer seriously, and nobody on the field was treating her like comic relief. But if someone were to land a kick in the wrong place, she might have gone airborne.
Back on the Letty, it was soon time for our evening briefing about the next day's activities, which would mostly be in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. Gretchen's brother likes to organize group activities of precisely the sort ("coerced jocularity") that cause Gretchen and me to roll our eyes (indeed, it was famously Gretchen's contemptuous expression during an icebreaker activity in Harkness lounge that first brought her to my attention back in 1988). At the end of today's briefing, we were all handed pieces of paper on which words had been written in pencil. Gretchen's brother had composed lyrics to be sung in a round to the melody of "Row, Row, Row, Your Boat" expressing our joy at being in the Galapagos with our guides James and Hernan. I forget how it went, but one of the lines was "Adventures on the sea and land with James and Hernan." Fortunately, songs sung as rounds provide ample opportunities to passively express annoyance. All one has to do is get the timing hilariously wrong.
During dinner, Gretchen and I weren't part of our usual vegan table. Instead we sat with Andrea, who, unlike us, hadn't found a stable set of dinner companions. The vegan alternative has gradually been improving over the week, and today us vegans were offered an unexpected delight: a mushroom strudel. Because the dessert tonight was also a strudel, Gretchen deduced that the cook had figured out a way to both make use of extra strudel flour and placate the annoying vegans on board. For some reason, Gretchen and I were feeling punchy during dinner, and we kept turning around and having staccato conversations with some of the kids, who were in the next booth sternward. I shared with them an idea I suddenly had for a replacement for the Ecuadorian flag, whose three colors I thought boring and pointless. (There's also a version with a seal on it, but as any flag designer will tell you, seals are bad design elements for flags.) My design featured a rectangle divided into two horizontal halfs: blue on the left (representing sea) and green (representing forested land). And running horizontally down the middle would be a black line representing the equator. That's the kind of simple straightforwardness a flag needs to have.
During dinner, our boat began sailing north for Puerto Ayora, and by 9:00pm (Guayaquil Time), its distant lights had risen enough above the curvature of the Earth to be visible in the distance. For the first time since we'd first embarked from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island, the Letty would spend the entire night in a harbor (as opposed to crossing the big waves of the open ocean). This was good news to everyone onboard.
Having largely given up on my Letty-based Arduino tinkering and having finished The Master Algorithm, I've been reading a PDF on my computer of A New Kind of Science, the infamous Stephen Wolfram tome that hopes to replace mathematics with cellular automata as a basis for a rigorous understanding of the world (science). It will take more than this Galapagos cruise for me to read the whole thing, but after reading 100 pages, including an introduction that made all sorts of wild claims for the value of cellular automata, I'm struck by how unrigorous Wolfram's analysis of his own automata are. While he has provided a solid (and probably useful) taxonomy of automata, so far, the best he can do when describing them is to say that they are either chaotic, repetitive, or neither. Once he sees chaos in the result (that is, in the printout of the automata generated by a computer), his analysis is done. He then declares, "Wow, that's just like nature!" and that's it. So far, I'm not seeing how this can be used for a new kind of science. But I have 1100 pages left to go, so perhaps it's all there. In any case, the pictures are gorgeous, and it's a great work of conceptual art if nothing else.
Flamingos on Floreana. Photo by Gretchen's father. Click to enlarge.
Three anis, the invasive bird species that may or may not be shot for a bounty. Photo by Gretchen's father.
Turtles on the Florana beach with all the tourists. Photo by Gretchen's father. Click to enlarge.
The heron with the crab after plucking off the legs and skewering it. Photo by Gretchen's father.
Us with the crab-eating heron. From left: my niece, me, Gretchen, my nephew, and the heron. Photo by Gretchen's father.
Leaving Floreana at about 6:30pm Guayaquil time this evening. The thing on the horizon to the left is Devil's Crown. The boat is either the Eric or the Flamingo II, both of which are identical to the Letty. Click to enlarge the frame.
My design for a replacement Ecuadorian flag.
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