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Sun Setting on Volcán Ecuador, Isabela Island
Sun Setting on Volcán Ecuador
Isabela Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007


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FACTS & PHOTO SLIDESHOWS
Volcán la Cumbre from Punta Espinosa, Fernandina Island
Volcán la Cumbre from Punta Espinosa
Fernandina Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

Red Mangroves (Rhizophora mangle), Fernandina Island
Red Mangroves (Rhizophora mangle)
Fernandina Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

Juvenile Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) Surveying the Water from Mossy Lava Rocks, Fernandina Island
Juvenile Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
Surveying the Water from Mossy Lava Rocks

Fernandina Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

Galápagos Hawk (Buteo galapagoensis) Investigating the Human Intruders, Fernandina Island
Galápagos Hawk (Buteo galapagoensis)
Investigating the Human Intruders

Fernandina Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

Marine Iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) Huddling for Warmth, Fernandina Island
Marine Iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus)
Huddling for Warmth

Fernandina Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

Lava Lizard (Tropidurus) Scavenging, Fernandina Island
Lava Lizard (Tropidurus) Scavenging
Fernandina Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

Blue-footed Boobies (Sula nebouxii) Precision Cycle Diving, Fernandina Island
Blue-footed Boobies (Sula nebouxii)
Precision Cycle Diving

Fernandina Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

Flightless Cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi) in Her  Seaweed Nest, Fernandina Island
Flightless Cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi)
In Her Seaweed Nest

Fernandina Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

The Dock at Punta Espinosa, Fernandina Island
The Dock at Punta Espinosa
Fernandina Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

Caleta Tagus: Contrasting Climates, Isabela Island
Caleta Tagus
Contrasting Climates

Isabela Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

Pahoehoe Lava Formation, Fernandina Island
Pahoehoe Lava Formation
Fernandina Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

Graffiti for the Ages, Genovesaa Island
Graffiti for the Ages
Genovesa Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 14, 2007

Sally Lightfoot Crab (Grapsus grapsus) Hiding in Purple Slime, Isabela Island
Sally Lightfoot Crab (Grapsus grapsus)
Hiding in Purple Slime

Isabela Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

Lava Lizard (Tropidurus) Piggy Backing a Marine Iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus), Isabela Island
Lava Lizard (Tropidurus) Piggy Backing
a Marine Iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus)

Isabela Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) Floating on Clouds, Fernandina Island
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis urinator)
Floating on Clouds

Fernandina Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

A Proud Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) Resting on the Cliffs, Isabella Island
A Proud Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus)
Resting on the Cliffs

Isabella Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

Pepé
Pepé's Group on the Panga Ride
Isabela Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

Evidence of Uplift, Isabela Island
Evidence of Uplift
Isabela Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) Head On, Isabela Island
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis urinator)
Head On

Isabela Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

Galápagos Penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus) Corralling Sardines (Sardinops sagax), Isabela Island
Galápagos Penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus)
Corralling Sardines (Sardinops sagax)
Isabela Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

Blue-footed Boobies (Sula nebouxii) On Guano Covered Cliffs, Isabela Island
Blue-footed Boobies (Sula nebouxii)
On Guano Covered Cliffs

Isabela Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

Brown Noddy Tern (Anous stolidus) Staring Down a Crab (Grapsus grapsus), Isabela Island
Brown Noddy Tern (Anous stolidus)
Staring Down a Crab (Grapsus grapsus)
Isabela Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 15, 2007

May 15, 2007
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Fernandina & Isabella Islands: The Newest Editions

Last night I decided to sleep on the sun deck to get some fresh air and be amongst the stars without the presence of light pollution. The temperature drops significantly in the night and coupled with the strong headwinds and ocean breeze it can make for a chilly experience. But it was not so bad bundled under a blanket, and it certainly paid off by allowing me to experience one of the best sunrises I have ever seen.

I woke prior to the morning announcement to a sun just beginning its rise, clouds hinting at its arrival showcasing hues of soft pinks and blues. To the port side of the boat loomed the northern most volcanic peak of Isabela Island, Volcán Wolf (Wolf Volcano). In the foreground overshadowed by Wolf Volcano was the smaller Volcán Ecuador (Ecuador Volcano). Ecuador Volcano has the typical conical shape with the rim of its crater half way up from where the peak used to be. Inside the crater a new cone was rising up showing signs that it is still active and pressure is building under the Earth.

These volcanoes make up two of the six volcanoes on Isabela Island, all of them active, giving the island the shape of a sea horse. To the starboard side of the boat another solitary volcano was rising on the horizon. Volcán la Cumbre (Summit Volcano) is the youngest of the archipelago and forms what is known as Fernandina Island, our first stop of the day. Fernandina is dated to about 500,000 to 750,000 years old and is located on the western edge of the island chain.

The seven volcanoes forming Isabela and Fernandina are the only active volcanoes in the archipelago. All the other islands in the Galápagos were formed by volcanoes as well but none of the others are active today. The reason for this anomaly is explained by tectonic theory, the theory of how the Earth's crust moves. The active volcanoes of Isabela and Fernandina sit on top of what is called a hot spot. This is the area where the hot magmas below the Earth's surface push their way up and form the volcanic cones.

The Nazca Plate where the islands are located is moving southeastward toward the South American plate where subduction takes place. Subduction is the process where a heavier plate sinks underneath a lighter plate when they collide. The Nazca Plate is the heavier plate and is sinking under the South American plate forming the Andes mountain range from the collision.

As the Nazca Plate moves south and eastward it is also moving downward pulling the oldest Galápagos volcanoes down. This theory explains why the eastern islands of the Galápagos have lower altitudes than those of Isabela and Fernandina. And because these other islands have moved eastward they are no longer over the hot spot and therefore are no longer active.

The Letty docked on the east side of Fernandina at Punta Espinosa (Spiny Point) and we boarded the pangas for a dry landing on the island. Unlike Genovesa which was gray both on land and in the sky, Fernandina had a bright blue sky backdrop with even bluer water surrounding the jet black lava outcroppings emanating from the main body of the island. These outcroppings are a result of the volcanic activity when Fernandina erupted in 1978 spilling its lava beyond its former shores where bright green mangroves continue to thrive. These red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle) are distinguished by their arrow-shaped leaves and their stilt-like roots rising from the water. The pangas took us up to an old concrete dock that had once been directly accessible prior to the encroachment of lava in 1978 where we unloaded to start the day's hike.

On the island one had to be careful in getting around. The lava rocks were uneven with many pools of water in-between. It was like hopping across the tops of rocks in a river but without the strong currents. The pools of water were the result of high tide and along with the water came some marine wildlife. There were many small, shallow water fish swimming around and we spotted a red octopus (Octopus oculifer) likely looking to make a meal of the fish.

On the edge of the outcroppings I saw another juvenile heron standing in green moss near the shore scanning the water, but this one was a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) slightly different from the night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) we saw on Genovesa. Also dotting the lava rocks were the numerous sally lightfoot crabs (Grapsus grapsus) most of which were darker in color, a sign they were juveniles not yet matured to the brighter red adult form.

Making our way to the main body of the island we were met by a Galápagos hawk (Buteo galapagoensis) that flew in to investigate the human intruders. The hawk landed in a nearby tree and watched us as we continued our hike. The Galápagos hawk is the only primary predator and the top of the food chain in the Galápagos Islands. These hawks were hunted to extinction on the inhabited islands but one was spotted on Santa Cruz, so maybe they will make a comeback. Endemic to the Galápagos, this species of hawk has one of the smallest populations and is the most inbred bird on the planet.

We were walking across the newest terrestrial surface in the Galápagos where one could clearly see the lava given that vegetation had not begun to grow. Harry took the opportunity to explain to us that there were two types of lava found on the islands. Here the lava is the same as you would see in the older Hawaiian Islands because they are formed in the same manner.

One type of lava is called 'pahoehoe' caused by the flow of hot lava that begins to cool and solidify on top leaving curvy and ropy formations. The second type of lava is known as 'aa' lava that is spewed from the volcano and lands with jagged results. Both types of lava get their name from the Hawaiian language, 'pahoehoe' meaning ropy and 'aa' meaning to hurt.

On Mosquera I had seen a single marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) crossing the sandy island, but here basking on the black lava rocks were hundreds of black marine iguanas. There were so many iguanas they were literally lying on top of one another absorbing the sunlight to warm their bodies. Their black color serves two purposes, one to absorb heat because they are ectothermic and cannot make their own body heat, and two it provides camouflage while sunbathing.

The marine iguana is endemic to the Galápagos and is the only marine species of iguanas in the World. The islands have seven subspecies of the marine iguana, all of which dive into the ocean and feed on algae (Ulva). Harry found a skull of an iguana and was able to show us the fork-shaped teeth they use to scrape the algae from the submerged rocks. The waters surrounding the Galápagos are very cold, so the iguana can only dive for a short time before resurfacing and basking in the sun to raise their body temperatures.

As if the iguanas huddled together were not enough, there were several species of lava lizards (Tropidurus) leaping across the backs of the iguanas also absorbing heat to warm their bodies. There are seven endemic species of lava lizards in the Galápagos that are all cousins to lava lizards found in South America. Some larger lava lizards were seen scurrying through the rocks most likely in search of their favorite food, insects.

Just off the rocky shore a flock of blue-footed boobies (Sula nebouxii) were diving for their favorite food, sardines (Sardinops sagax). It is quite the spectacle to watch these blue-footed birds do their work. As a group there are always birds cycling through their diving routine with some on the water, some at the top of their dive, some entering the water and some under the water pursuing their food.

On the northern tip of the island we approached several nesting sites of the flightless cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi). The only flightless cormorant species in the world, these endangered birds are endemic to Fernandina and Isabela islands. In the 1983 El Niño more than 50% of the population of this species was wiped out, but they have recovered now having about 1500 breeding pairs.

The Galápagos cormorant lost the use of its wings due to the lack of predators on the islands, they became unnecessary. However, after a dive for food you can see them proudly holding up their wings to dry. These birds seldom venture further than a kilometer from their nesting site and traverse the terrain awkwardly; however, in the water they are skilled swimmers.

Unfortunately, the battery in my camera chose this moment to run out of juice! I was able to get a few photos of these unique birds; however, I missed the opportunity to photograph a male bringing his mate a 'sea wreath.' As part of the mating ritual the male will dive into the ocean and gather seaweed that he will offer his female mate for nest building. On this day the female refused the 'sea wreath' brought by her mate. Rejected, the male clumsily made his way back to the sea and returned with a much larger 'sea wreath' and presented it to her. The second attempt paid off and the two love birds affectionately rubbed their heads together, a sign the female was pleased with the gift.

As we were witnessing the romance between flightless cormorants Harry announced we needed to go back to the boat to keep our schedule. Most everybody started making their way back to the pangas, everybody that is except for Dr. Church. She was enthralled over the courtship and was busily taking photos of the cormorants not realizing the rest of us were heading toward the pangas. To have a little fun Harry told us to board the panga and then we would paddle out as if we were leaving poor Dr. Church behind. When she arrived at the loading area we were all laughing and telling her she was too late and would have to remain behind. Not fooled, Dr. Church gave us a sarcastic smirk and we returned to pick her up and go back to the Letty for our afternoon snack.

Snorkeling off the Coast of Isabela

After everybody was on board and we were enjoying our snacks, the Letty lurched into motion crossing the Canal Bolívar (Bolivar Strait) toward Isabela Island. It was a quick ride over to Caleta Tagus (Tagus Cove) where the Letty's crew set anchor. The guides let us know we had a few minutes of rest time before we needed to gear up for another deep water snorkel. This time I would be mentally prepared to take on snorkeling even though it would take place in water that reaches depths of 500 m (1,640 ft)!

During my down time I ventured up to the sun deck to take in the view. We had anchored in a small inlet just south of Caleta Tagus surrounded by mountainous terrain appearing desolate and devoid of life. On the lower peaks the ground provided a dull red backdrop for gray ghostly looking trees. The trees were dormant during the time of our visit having dropped their leaves for the dry season.

These trees are called palo santo (Bursera graveolens), a tree that has white bark with leaves only during the rainy season. The red background behind the trees is caused by the oxidation of iron, more commonly known as rust, found in the basaltic lava rocks. This color change is drastic from the deep black lava on Fernandina that I could still see from my current vantage point.

Geologically speaking, this difference gives us another way to compare the ages of the two islands. The black lava on Fernandina has not been around long enough to achieve the red coloring from the oxidation that will eventually occur with its iron content; hence Isabela is the older of the two islands.

The higher peaks ultimately disappeared into a ceiling of gray clouds, but higher up existed bright green vegetation resembling a plush carpet. The contrast of the differing environments was surreal making one wonder how such a desertscape could co-exist immediately adjacent to such lush green mountainsides.

The answer involves the layer of clouds usually found resting on the peaks of the Galápagos. In what is known as the Scalesia Zone, 200 - 400m (656 - 1,312 ft.) in altitude, there is constant precipitation originating from 'garua' or fine rain from the loitering clouds during the dry season. From this persistent moisture the grasses, mosses and ferns abundant in this area are able to thrive and create two very distinct microclimates in a relatively small space.

The other observation of note was the graffiti on the north facing rocky slopes of the inlet. I had noticed graffiti on the Cliff in Genovesa the day before and had thought it took away from the natural beauty of the island. I was having the same thoughts as I scanned the graffiti in front of me until I noticed the dates - some of the graffiti had been around since at least 1832! That is three years before Darwin arrived on San Cristobal during the Voyage of the Beagle.

It suddenly occurred to me that the graffiti is part of the storied history of this remote island chain. People had been visiting this area for at least 200 hundred years and leaving their marks on the Galápagos. I asked Harry about the graffiti and he told me that in the 1980s they outlawed the practice, now it serves as a reminder of the days before the islands were granted government protection and what man will do without restraints.

The pre-departure message warned we had only fifteen minutes to be ready to board the pangas en route to our snorkeling expedition. Initially we went to the southern edge of the cove where the steep slopes continue their trajectory under sea level creating very deep marine environments. Resting on the water's surface looking through my mask it was impossible to see into the depths due to the murkiness, but Harry had told us it was greater than 500 meters (1,640 ft).

With my camera attached to my wrist I began snapping shots of the few species I could see. It was not what I had expected to see thinking that it would be more lush and colorful than what I had witnessed in the Caribbean on my snorkeling adventure in Jamaica. In fact, the sea creatures were few and far between and the coral was not nearly as complex and diverse as what I had seen in Jamaica, mostly just patches of bright orange cup coral (Tubastrea coccinea). I did get a shot of a Mexican anemone (Bunodactis mexicana) with an orange center and gray/brown tentacles, a green sea urchin (Lytechinus semituberculatus) with bright green spikes, a bright red panamic cushion sea star (Pentaceraster cummingi), a chocolate chip star (Nidorellia armata) and some small colorful fish leisurely swimming by. Unfortunately, due to the murkiness of the water, all of the photos I took were grainy.

Because the visibility was less than desirable we made our way to the northern side of the cove just off Punta Tagus (Tagus Point) where the sloping land mass was gentler giving us a shallower backdrop in which to view the life under the sea. Over on the northern side of the inlet the water was much clearer so I could start taking some underwater photos. But, as luck would have it, my underwater case had developed condensation on the inside obscuring the lenses view - another snorkel without any photos.

Letting my camera hang from my wrist I decided to enjoy the experience and watch the animals do their thing in this environment. The first major encounter with the locals involved curious sea lions (Zalophus californianus) that apparently wanted to play with us. The sea lions, probably juveniles, would start swimming right toward me building up great speed so that it seemed they would collide with my mask. This was an event that definitely got my heart rate up making me want to dodge the bullet. But inches before they approached they would quickly dive down under my body, circle and do it again. I am not so sure I really liked the game of chicken at first, but once I realized they would not hit me I relaxed and the sea lions lost interest or maybe went to play with the other snorkelers.

Having survived the sea lion threat I glanced deeper into the water where I saw a green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas agassizii) gliding across the rocky bottom in search of algae. It was beautiful to observe the turtle use its large fins to effortlessly move through the water as if it were floating through air.

While watching the sea turtle do its thing I saw fast movement out of the corner of my eye. Luckily I turned to see it before it was gone. The fast moving objects were three Galápagos penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus) literally flying through the water. The three birds were in a familiar formation with a lead bird in the center and another bird on either flank creating a V-formation.

I am not sure about the aerodynamics of water, but I would assume, similar to air, the drag and thrust properties are such that the two birds in back benefited from the V-formation by needing less energy to propel themselves by using the turbulence from the lead bird. Back in Colorado one often sees flocks of Canadian geese (Branta canadensis) flying in the V-formation and researchers have shown it benefits the geese in back by enabling them to catch the turbulence from the lead bird.

The Galápagos penguin is endemic and the only penguin found on the equator. Primarily located on Fernandina and Isabela islands, there are small populations on some of the others. One of the smallest penguin species it is thought they arrived in the Galápagos via the Humboldt Current, the current of cold water moving north alongside the South American coast towards the equator.

It is known that this same current is the source of not only the penguin's food supply, but all life in the Galápagos. The cold waters of the Humboldt are what carry the nutrient rich waters to the islands and is the base of the food chain. Moreover, because penguins require cold waters the Humboldt provides the perfect habitat to sustain the penguin at this equatorial location.

It turned out to be a very good snorkel having witnessed some of nature's amazing inhabitants, although I was unable to get the good underwater pictures I was after. Other students on the snorkel did, however, manage to snap some photos. Chris McGee was the luckiest guy with a camera this day as he shot great photos of the sea turtles, a colorful sea cucumber and even landed a picture of a flying penguin!

A Panga Ride Along the Coast of Isabela

When we finished the snorkel we loaded into the pangas and went back to the Letty to rest and have lunch. But the day was not over. After lunch we were going to go for a panga ride to look for wildlife on the shores of Isabela. Because of the limitations of our trip, namely time, we were not able to actually step foot onto Isabela. The area where we were required special permits for people to enter the island. Isabela does have areas in which tourism is allowed, but they were on the opposite side of the island and we did not have time in our itinerary to visit.

To make the most of the situation and still get a glimpse of the wildlife that lives on Isabela, we set out on the pangas following the shoreline out of the inlet traveling to the north. As we began the ride we saw many penguins returning from their day of foraging and entering shallow caves and crevices in the rocks where they would nest for the night. At the water's edge there were bright orange sponges clinging to the rocks as well as a large grouping of barnacles.

When stationary you do not see the depths, twists and turns of the geology, but by slowly roaming along the shore watching the landscape unfold one realizes the complexities of the geological history of the island. In and around Caleta Tagus on Isabela Island all of the slopes were going up at roughly a 45 degree angle. Most of the rock was oxidized basaltic lava as evidenced from its red color. However, some of the rock was light gray and others were more brownish in color.

The browner rock wall was large rising less than 45 degrees, but still having a relatively steep slope. The biggest difference was the erosion when comparing it to the other rocky walls in the vicinity. It appeared that this particular section of rock had been eroded by water due to its more rounded features. It is likely that it was pushed up and out of the sea by what is known as island uplift, seismic activity that pushes the earth up. A quick look in our Galápagos text confirmed the likely origin of this rock wall. In 1954 there was island uplift in Bahía Urvina (Urvina Bay), just south of Caleta Tagus, that pushed the Earth up by five meters (17 ft) after which was followed by an eruption in Volcán Alcedo (Alcedo Volcano) a few months later.

As we made our way out of the bay into open water a brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis urinator) landed near the pangas. The navigator killed the engine and allowed us to photograph the bird. Brown pelicans can be found from California and the Caribbean to the Galápagos, but the one here is considered a subspecies P.o. urinator.

While we were watching the pelican I noticed a group of penguins swimming around on the surface of the water. On closer inspection I saw a school of sardines literally jumping out of the water trying to escape the entrapment by the penguins. The penguins had corralled the sardines and were circling them coming closer with each revolution. It was a nifty strategy the penguins had devised, using cooperation to catch their meal.

Continuing north along the coast there was a group of blue-footed boobies nesting on red rocky ledges covered in white guano. This species typically makes a circular nest of its own guano, but this area was covered with large quantities so that any particular nest was indistinguishable.

I saw a few Nazca boobies and brown noddy terns (Anous stolidus) on the rocky walls as well. The brown noddy subspecies is endemic to the Galápagos Islands and gets its name from nodding its head during courtship displays. These sea birds build their nests on the cliffs using twigs. When feeding, they usually skim the water and grab small fish with their long beaks, sometimes landing on the heads of larger birds such as the brown pelican to wait for their prey.

As we were about to turn around and go back to the Letty we spotted a large cave and asked if we could go inside. The guides decided to humor us and had the navigators take us in. The cave was large and likely the remnant of a lava tube that had once been an avenue for lava flowing into the sea. The cave only went back about 10 m (33 ft) before it narrowed too much for the panga to pass. Inside there were purple and orange moss looking beings spread over the rocks underneath the water. They were quite beautiful and seemed to provide camouflage cover for some sally lightfoot crabs.

We exited the cave and went back to the Letty to relax and have dinner. After dinner I went up to the sun deck to gaze at the stars. Tonight we would travel north back around the top of Isabela on our way to Bartolomé Island where the activities for the following day would take place. Bartolomé is the site of Pinnacle Rock, one of the most well-known landmarks in the Galápagos.

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