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Aerogal Airplane Bringing Toursit to the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador Aerogal Plane Landing
Baltra Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 13, 2007

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FACTS & PHOTO SLIDESHOWS
Lazy Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus) Lying on the Dock, Baltra Island
Lazy Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus)
Lying on the Dock

Baltra Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 13, 2007

Marine Iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) Basking in the Sun, Baltra Island
Marine Iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus)
Basking in the Sun

Baltra Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 13, 2007

The Letty with Pangas in Tow, Espańola Island
The Letty with Pangas in Tow
Espańola Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 18, 2007

The Letty
The Letty's Main Congregation Area & Bar
Derek and Anna

Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 19, 2007

The Letty
The Letty's Bridge, or Main Control Room
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 19, 2007

Our Naturalist Guide Harry, Mosquera Island
Our Naturalist Guide Harry
Mosquera Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 13, 2007

Two Blue-footed Boobies (Sula nebouxii) Flanked by Our Sistser Ship The Flamingo, Mosquera Island
Two Blue-footed Boobies (Sula nebouxii)
Flanked by Our Sistser Ship The Flamingo

Mosquera Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 13, 2007

The Letty on the Horizon, Mosquera Island
The Letty on the Horizon
Mosquera Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 13, 2007

Female Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus) Sleeping on the Beach, Mosquera Island
Female Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus)
Sleeping on the Beach

Mosquera Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 13, 2007

Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor) In Pursuit of the Letty, Mosquera Island
Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor)
In Pursuit of the Letty

Mosquera Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 13, 2007

Daphne Minor Island
Daphne Minor Island
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 13, 2007

White Sandy Sliver in the Sea, Mosquera Island
White Sandy Sliver in the Sea
Mosquera Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 13, 2007

Male Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus) Protecting His Family, Mosquera Island
Male Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus)
Protecting His Family

Mosquera Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 13, 2007

A Foreign Landscape, Mosquera Island
A Foreign Landscape
Mosquera Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 13, 2007

Female Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus) Nursing Her Pup, Mosquera Island
Female Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus)
Nursing Her Pup

Mosquera Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 13, 2007

Sally Light Foot Crab (Grapsus grapsus) Peeking from the Shadows, Mosquera Island
Sally Light Foot Crab (Grapsus grapsus)
Peeking from the Shadows

Mosquera Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 13, 2007

Marine Iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) Traversing the Beach, Mosquera Island
Marine Iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus)
Traversing the Beach

Mosquera Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 13, 2007

Blue Footed Boobies (Sula nebouxii) Diving for Food, Mosquera Island
Blue Footed Boobies (Sula nebouxii)
Diving for Food

Mosquera Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 13, 2007

Baltra Island
Baltra Island's North Cliffs
Mosquera Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 13, 2007

Sally Lightfoot Crabs (Grapsus grapsus) Dotting the Black Lava Rocks, Mosquera Island
Sally Lightfoot Crabs (Grapsus grapsus)
Dotting the Black Lava Rocks

Mosquera Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 13, 2007

May 13, 2007
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The Galápagos at Last!

The day began with another early wake-up call, so early the hotel arranged for the breakfast staff to set up earlier than usual just to serve us. After rushing through breakfast we boarded the bus with our limited one checked bag and a carry on. The Galápagos requirements only allow one bag going, but when returning a second bag is acceptable - of course they want you to buy souvenirs to take back. Unfortunately, packing in the snorkeling gear (wetsuit, snorkel, fins and mask) left little room for other items such as clothes, but I was able to take enough to get me through the seven nights on board the boat.

When we arrived at the airport a somewhat chaotic mess ensued with 20 of us traveling in the group handing over our bags and passports to our guide whom secured our boarding passes and lined us up for checking the bags and getting through security. But once aboard the Aerogal plane we could catch a few more minutes of sleep before we landed in the Galápagos. We had a 45 minute stopover in Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city located on the Pacific coast, to pick up more excited travelers on their way to the enchanted islands. We were finally on our last leg to beginning our adventure!

We landed on Baltra Island, home of a former US air base strategically located to defend the Panama Canal during World War II, because the airport on San Cristobal Island was under construction.

The airport located on what otherwise seemed like a deserted island was a rickety structure without walls, much less boarding gates, where we exited the plane via a stairway onto the tarmac. From there we entered into the make-shift structure where inspectors checked us and our luggage to ensure no foreign life forms other than us as tourists were entering onto the islands.

Although we had been instructed not to take anything from the island, because everything is to be left as natural as possible and is wholly protected under Ecuador's laws, Dr. Scott Seville, a parasitologist from the University of Wyoming and co-instructor on the trip, spotted feces on the tarmac and proceeded to collect it for later study. He was quickly forced to put it back by one of the authorities at the airport. When they said we could not take anything, they meant ANYTHING!

When we were cleared and our luggage was loaded onto a bus, we boarded and were whisked away to a small inlet, known as Punta del Norte (North Point) where our boat, the Letty, awaited ready to serve as our home and transport throughout the archipelago for the next eight days and seven nights. On the short drive to the dock I couldn't help but wonder where the wildlife was. All I could see was a desolate landscape consisting primarily of tall cacti (Opuntia echios) growing from barren red soil.

Upon arrival at a small loading dock there were several sea lions (Zalophus californianus) lazily lounging without a care in the world and certainly no fear of the visiting humans as if they knew they took precedence. While we waited for the groups before us to be shuttled out to their respective boats via the small pangas (inflatable boats that shuttled people to and from the larger boats) I spotted some blue-footed boobies (Sula nebouxii) diving in the shallow waters for their midday snack, a couple of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis urinator) flying about and a marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) taking in some sun on the black lava rocks at the water's edge.

Wow, the reality of our location was starting to settle in - pure excitement!

Orientation on the Letty

Finally, it was our group's turn to board the pangas and make our way to the Letty. As we lined up and donned our life vests we were instructed on how to get aboard the panga safely by mutually clutching the arm of the navigator just below the elbow so as to steady ourselves and avoid falling into the water. Each of the two pangas accommodated a navigator, a naturalist and 10 passengers seated five on each side. Once we were all loaded into the panga the navigator revved up the small outboard motor and whisked us away to the Letty, anchored in the middle of the bay. There we were warmly welcomed aboard, again utilizing the safe arm clutching technique avoiding any unfortunate mishaps.

Upon boarding we were immediately led to the main congregation area, or briefing room in the bow (front) of the boat sitting adjacent to the restaurant-like booths of the dining room. This area had wood-paneled walls with a couch spanning the full perimeter of the room where we all comfortably sat awaiting the briefing by our naturalists. The room contained a magazine/book rack and a television hooked up with a DVD player complete with a small library of DVDs for our entertainment, as if seeing the sites was not entertainment enough.

Beside the dining area, separated by a set of stairs leading to the next deck, was a self-service stocked bar that operated on the honor system requiring each person to manage their own tab, paying for it at the end of the voyage.

As we settled in for the briefing we were served some cool punch to counter our thirst from waiting in the hot equatorial sun followed by introductions to our two naturalist guides, Harry and Pepé. Pepé was feeling a little under the weather so Harry took the lead and provided us rules of the boat and information regarding what to expect while we toured the paradise known as the Galápagos Islands.

The rules seemed somewhat strange in some respects for us Americans accustomed to living in the land of plenty, especially the one requiring throwing toilet paper in the trash bin versus simply flushing. Due to the importance of the natural state of the Galápagos and its precious treasures of life, conservation is taken very seriously and flushing paper is a preventative measure to reduce waste in the environment.

Other rules included the washing off of sand and any potentially tag-a-along organisms with every boarding after trekking on an island to prevent foreign introductions of life forms into environments we would visit afterwards.

We were informed of the difference in wet and dry landings and were foretold that an announcement would precede each landing so that we were appropriately dressed for each departure. Last, but not least, the rules of safety were explained including what to do if the emergency alarm sounded - we were to go to the upper sun deck and await for further instruction - followed by the announcement that there would be a practice drill directly after the briefing.

Harry continued with a quick orientation of the yacht gesturing down the stairs to the Iguana deck where four rooms were located in the bow where those subject to sea sickness would be best off choosing a room. The crew's quarters were also located on the iguana deck in the stern (back).

Motioning up the stairs he pointed to the dolphin deck where four more guest rooms were located in the center flanked by the rear observation deck where we boarded and wet suits were hanging and available for use. Immediately in front of the guest rooms on the dolphin deck were the bridge and another observation deck positioned in the foremost area of the bow.

The deck on which we were all gathered was known as the booby deck where the galley (kitchen) was located just behind the dining room and another two guest rooms behind it. Finally, on the very top of the yacht was the sun deck, the largest observation deck, with lounge chairs for our comfort.

Now that the housekeeping had been addressed it was time for some details of the day's events. Pepé grabbed a framed map of the Galápagos archipelago and hung it in the stairway entrance. Harry went on to point out our first destination, Mosquera Island lying just to the North of Baltra spanning, but not closing, the gap between Baltra and North Seymour Islands. We were informed it would be a dry landing and instructed to be careful as we would be walking amongst a population of sea lions of which are the most dangerous animal in the Galápagos in regard to human attacks. The bull sea lions were quite large and very territorial and are prone to patrol their beaches attacking intruders that they deem threatening.

In addition to the map a white board hung on the front side of the bar. Harry jotted down the details of the day's itinerary and informed us that each evening we would have a briefing on the next day's details, which would be available for us on this white board.

To wrap up the orientation brief we received a quick reminder from Harry to secure our paper tickets. We had been warned prior to leaving Quito not to lose our paper tickets or we would be subject to buying another in order to return. I reached for mine and realized I would be the one on this trip to have lost it. How embarrassing! I suppose I left it on the plane but regardless I did not have it. I wasn't alone in the lost department though. Janine, a biology student, had had her luggage lost on the flight into Quito albeit through no fault of her own. She had been forced to wear the "clothes on her back" for the past couple of days hoping that the airline would find and deliver her bags.

Our boat was in contact with the other employees of the touring company, EcoVentura, who were working in the background to get her bags before we departed Baltra. Due to the logistics of the trip, once we departed she would be out of luck. Her bags had been located and were flown in on the plane arriving after our flight, so Harry let us know we would be delayed from starting our adventure hoping the bags would arrive in time. Of course, everyone was sympathetic to the situation and selflessly obliged the postponement. And, as luck would have it, the bags did indeed arrive after a long while giving Janine a sigh of relief and a fresh change of clothes.

During the delay we were introduced to the 11 crew members from the captain to the meal server and then received our room assignments and proceeded to them where our bags were waiting. As we were unpacking and settling into our rooms the alarm sounded and everyone calmly headed for the sun deck. The drill was successful and we received accolades from the crew. While everyone was gathered on the sun deck it was apparent we were all restless and anxious to get the adventure underway.

The Adventure Begins

When Janine's bags had arrived the engines were ignited, the anchor retracted and the Letty was on the move, destination Mosquera Island. I went back up to the sun deck to take it all in and snap a few shots. The weather had been quite warm and unsuspectingly dry reminding me of a hot summer day back in Denver. This was quite the contrary to my expectation of heavy humidity given that the islands consisted of such a small land mass in the middle of the Pacific Ocean 1,000 km (600 mi) from the South American continent. But now in motion, the salty breeze racing across the sun deck bringing with it such welcome relief from the heat, suddenly I felt as if I had been whisked away into a surreal yet amazing paradise.

In pursuit was a great frigatebird (Fregata minor) taking advantage of the trail winds created by the Letty helping her to conserve energy on her way to the next land mass. Off in the distance to our port side (left) sat the tiny island of Daphne Minor famous for the evolutionary studies of Darwin's finches conducted by the Grants, a husband and wife scientific research team. It was quite a thrill to see the island in person really propelling the trip on to a great start.

The Grant's decades of research has provided staggering evidence in favor of Darwinian evolution theory showing that a devastating drought resulted with forces of natural selection selecting for those finches with larger beaks. The explanation behind these results involve the fact that small seeds, more plentiful in wetter periods, were consumed relatively rapidly by finches with both large and small beaks leaving larger seeds that were edible only by the large-beaked birds. The small-beaked birds found themselves in a desperate scenario, in which many died due to starvation, leaving mostly large-beaked birds to reproduce the new generation that would ultimately possess beaks of greater average size. Furthermore, following a year witnessing nine months without a break in rain, the average beak of the finches decreased lending evidence of small-beaked birds thriving when the smaller seeds were more plentiful and the large-beaked birds selected against.

Mosquera Island

While taking it all in, the boat's engines quieted and the breeze subsided as we slowed to an eventual halt. Before us was a white sandy beach seemingly floating out in the middle of the ocean dotted with black lava rocks and numerous sea lions. The crew lowered the pangas into the water while we put on our life vests and lined up single file to board.

We were quickly ferried to the beach that is Mosquera Island and disembarked to stroll across the desert-like landscape with the towering cliffs of Baltra to the south and the up sloping terrain of North Seymour to the north. It appeared as if we had landed on a distant planet reminding me of scenes from movies such as "Star Trek" and "Planet of the Apes," or more aptly, planet of the sea lions.

Both groups filed onto the beach, cameras in tow, absorbing the experience of being in a place so foreign to our experience. I think many were a little hesitant facing a large population of sizeable mammals lying about the beach like land mines. But people started moving forward ready to explore and photograph this amazing island.

Just as we got underway we were halted by the sight of a very large bull charging toward us in a comical Charlie Chaplin-like gait. Every one of us froze in our tracks not knowing whether to run or laugh. We came to our senses and began to scatter, our instincts telling us to turn opposite and run back toward the pangas. Lucky for us we had knowledgeable guides screaming at us to run "out" of his way and not from him. Apparently these large blubber-filled animals were not adept at maneuvering to the side while charging, causing them to charge in a straight line.

With the bull sea lion now behind us at the water's edge we were cleared to continue our exploration of the island with some extra vigilance regarding the local residents. The island simply did not seem possible in its structure. It was literally like a beach in open water lacking any terrestrial depth. Mosquera is roughly the length of a football field but only half the width, just a sliver of an island still standing above water. It is the result of being an older, sinking island in the central part of the archipelago.

Due to the movement of the Earth's crust, the Nazca plate containing the islands is slowly moving toward and under the continental shelf of South America, gradually pulling the islands down below the water's surface as they inch eastward. It was quite surreal leading me to wonder where all the white sand comes from in an environment of predominantly jet black lava rocks and how it can remain a viable island and not erode away in rough seas.

The Inhabitants of Mosquera

The sea lion is by far the largest animal and one of the few mammals endemic to the Galápagos Islands, the others being the red and hoary bats (Lasiurus brachyotis and cinereus) and seven species of Galápagos rice rats (Aegialomys galapagoensis). On Mosquera they seemed to be the primary residents and probably the only mammal on this small island. Guarding the beaches and protecting large numbers of females (up to 30) and their young were a few very large bull males weighing up to 250 kg (550 lbs). The males are very territorial and quite aggressive in protecting their territory as we experienced first-hand.

While walking along the length of Mosquera it was evident the males ruled the land while mothers were left to lazily sunbathe and feed their pups in that all so familiar mammalian style of suckling them from one of four teats. The breeding season was underway, ranging from May through January, amid many newborn pups having likely been born a month or so earlier (nine month gestation period) actively being nursed by their mothers. Going hand-in-hand with witnessing the newest generation of sea lions in this large colony, there was the inevitable sign of life's end, a carcass lying across the white sand almost fully recycled back into the fold of life.

In addition to the dominate sea lions, there were numerous, bright red sally lightfoot crabs (Grapsus grapsus) swarming the dark black backdrop of the lava rocks edging the sandy island. Unlike the playful and curious sea lions, the crabs were a bit more intimidated by human trespassers opting to slip off into the shadows in-between the rocks upon our approach. Amongst the many red crabs were countless smaller, black crabs that turned out to be the camouflaged juvenile stage of the sally lightfoots.

The final inhabitant I spotted on this island was the marine iguana albeit not seemingly in large numbers. I saw a few of these spiny reptiles warming their blood while resting upon the heat-absorbing black lava rocks. Given that it was getting late into the afternoon some of them may have been out in the ocean feeding on algae (Ulva), their primary food source. The marine iguana here in the Galápagos is the only species of iguana on the planet to evolve a reliance on the sea unlike their terrestrial cousins in South America.

While walking down the center ridge of Mosquera one of these slow moving iguanas was making its way across the sand to the opposite side. In its wake was a slithering trail in the sand with foot prints alternating one either side every foot or so. When I approached to photograph this exquisite creature he paused momentarily, turned his head as if to size me up, and then without further hesitation continued on his journey. Although we had been told in class, in our text book and on all the documentaries we viewed that the animals in the Galápagos were not afraid of humans; it was still strange to experience such indifference for the first time.

Off of the northeast shore of Mosquera, with North Seymour Island serving as a backdrop, I saw two blue-footed boobies flying around. I did not see any nesting boobies on Mosquera so I assume this pair resided on a nearby island. Regardless, I snapped a few photos of them in flight as they began diving into the ocean in an attempt to catch their evening meal. The way in which these birds dive is remarkable. When they spot their prey they do a quick nose dive bringing their wings close into their bodies forming the shape of a dart just as they hit the water. The booby possesses air pockets in their skull to cushion their brain upon impact and create only a slight splash any Olympic diver would envy.

Consequences of a Late Start

We had been on Mosquera for probably an hour-and-a-half when Harry and Pepé began motioning for us to return to the pangas for the short ride back to the Letty. I boarded the second panga as the first one made its way back to the boat. Because we had a late start we ended up experiencing difficulty getting our panga away from the island and into deeper waters.

As the day was nearing its end the tide had begun to wane exposing much more of the lava rock around the perimeter of the island and creating a shallow trap for our panga. The outboard motor was not so useful in the rocky terrain and the paddles proved inefficient as well given that the panga kept bottoming out on the rocks. But after struggling for a good twenty minutes, our navigator with the aid of the first panga returning to help, we eventually made our way into the deeper water and back to the Letty.

Upon returning to the Letty we were greeted with snacks and cold soda, a welcome treat before our first dinner. We enjoyed a few minutes of relaxation prior to convening in the dining room on the booby deck. For dinner Ricky Martin, our server, offered a choice of fish or chicken of which I chose the fish. The entrée featured a Mahi mahi steak with sides of potatoes and broccoli.

The meal was very tasty and satisfying but was not enough to mute the massive headache I felt coming on. With my good game face on I suffered through the briefing of details for our next day's events. We would be traveling through the night 55 nautical miles (6,076 ft, 1/8 longer than the standard 5,280 ft of a standard mile) to our destination of Genovesa Island, the bird capitol. Immediately after the briefing, my headache not subsiding and likely caused by the counter reaction to my yellow fever inoculation, I decided to turn in and get some sleep. I made my way up to the dolphin deck, entered my room and climbed into bed quickly fading into a deep sleep aided by the rocking motion of the boat.

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