As daylight dawned I began to wake from my lounge chair on the sun deck. I arose to find the
Letty anchored in James Bay near the island of Bartolomé. Having been used to waking and seeing only the sister ships the Flamingo
and the Eric in the outer islands we were now back with many other vessels in this central location. All around us were many
chartered boats loaded with tourists to witness the most photographed site in the Galápagos, Pinnacle Rock.
After breakfast we would set out on the most physically arduous hike we would undertake in the Galápagos, the climb to the top
of Bartolomé. To reach the summit, and the incredible views it offered, we would have to climb 365 steps made from wooden planks.
In addition we would have to climb up a few rocks and trek across some sandy areas prior to reaching the steps.
As we approached the island in the pangas I could see a few
sea lions (Zalophus californianus)
penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus)
around the shoreline, but I did not see any other animal life. Bartolomé seemed to be a barren island as it did not
have much in the way of plant life, mostly covered with rocks of various colors. At the point where we unloaded we had to climb up
about two meters (6.7 ft) of rock to get onto the island.
Harry led us from the starting point along a rock wall formed by lava. Pieces of the wall had crumbled away from erosion giving
us a view of what the lava looked like on the inside when it cooled and dried. It was evident that when the lava cooled there were
still gases in the rock that created pits and holes that were eventually exposed when the rock broke down. Much of the wall of
rock looked as if it was made from many different pieces that had landed and piled up from a violent volcanic explosion, a
collection of lava bombs.
Bartolomé definitely is covered with far more 'aa' lava, but there were a few signs of 'pahoehoe' lava on the surface of the
island. One such occurrence looked like a tomb of sorts with the top clearly showing the ropy structure of the 'pahoehoe' lava.
One end had collapsed creating a hole with a view of the interior of what once was a lava tube. Lava tubes are created by flowing
lava that quickly cools on the outside allowing the hot lava to continue to flow on the inside until it reaches the sea. Once the
flow of lava is finished, the lava tube empties and creates what is known as a lava tube.
Not having much of any wildlife to photograph I took interest in the lava rocks scattered about the island. I was somewhat
surprised to see so many different types of rocks varying in colors from purple and red to black and even white. Some of the
purple rocks appeared to have crystalline structures at their core, but we were not allowed to disturb them from where they sat, so
I could not confirm the crystals.
Other rocks were gray or brown with dots of orange/red all over their surfaces, a sign of oxidized iron in the lava. On one of
the orange rocks I did see a
lava lizard (Tropidurus),
a female with a red head signaling that it was mating season. When looking
at the rocks closely it appears that they are a conglomeration of several types of rocks formed into one. This is likely due to
the different minerals found in the lava and the fact that differing substances solidify (freezing point) at differing temperatures
allowing the separation effect.
As we proceeded forward we crossed a sandy area that continued up the slope reaching the peak of Bartolomé. The sand had a
mostly grayish color with some red areas mixed in. The sand is the result of years of wind and water erosion of the tuff cone we
were about to begin climbing. The sand provided habitat for some
lava cacti (Brachycereus)
and the grayish/sage colored
tiquilia plants (Tiquilia nesiotica)
with tiny white flowers, both plants commonly found in arid areas.
Coming around the base of the Bartolomé up and over the sandy area we reached the wooden steps and began to climb to the top.
On this side of the cone the island is more consistently red in color and has several mini-volcanoes scattered about, a landscape
fit more for Mars than what one would expect to see on Earth. The mini-volcanoes are known as spatter cones and are formed by
percolating lava in magma patches forcing its way to the surface as lava fountains. Spatter cones are one of the three forms of
We had started on the north side of the island making our way around the base of the giant cone along its eastern side. The
wooden steps began on the southwest base of the cone and wound around to the west side at the summit. Arriving at the top, most
of us were a little winded, made even more difficult by the significantly high winds at the peak. Fortunately, the views from that
perspective easily made one forget about the work it took to get up there.
Wow! This has to be one of the most beautiful natural sites the world has to offer. From our vantage point we could see a 360
degree view around Bartolomé including the islands of Santiago, Daphne Minor and Major and Santa Cruz. But the spectacle of note
was to look down on Pinnacle Rock and the twin U-shaped beaches separated with a green swath of mangroves flanked by Santiago
Island's many spatter and tuff cones each rising higher than the one in front of it changing colors with distance. All of this
stunning landscape was surrounded by deep blue water with shallow sandy areas glowing bright turquoise. Adding another dimension
of beauty and intrigue, the sun peaked through the mostly cloudy sky highlighting some of the distant cones on Santiago Island.
Pinnacle Rock is the most photographed icon of the Galápagos Islands and is a distinctive symbol of the archipelago itself.
Pinnacle Rock is another type of parasitic cone called a tuff cone. tuff cones are formed in shallow sea water where small grains
and ash, created by exploding magma, are forced up into the cool water, cementing themselves in the process. The Pinnacle Rock we
see today is an eroded spear-like shape jutting from the ocean on the shore of Bartolomé.
We spent about a half hour at the top of Bartolomé taking in the incredible vistas. The location also provided a great backdrop
in which to take group pictures. Harry collected our cameras and we grouped together in a pose while he took a picture with each
of them. In addition to the group photos we split into a group of just guys and one of just girls. I am sure the photos will be a
nice souvenir to remember the moment as well as the people I was with on this great adventure.
Descending the cone was much easier and quicker than climbing it. However, it still took about half-an-hour to get back to the
waiting pangas. Now we would go back to the Letty to change into our snorkeling gear and snorkel from the north beach adjacent to
Pinnacle Rock. I had high hopes that I would finally get some good underwater photos due to the shallower waters and a brighter
backdrop provided by the sand.
In the standard 15 minute warning announcement we were informed that we would have a wet landing on the beach. This would be
the first time we snorkeled from the beach so I put on my wetsuit and dive boots and carried my flippers. The hard part about
beach diving is walking in the sand with your flippers on! Luckily we had Mike T., our resident dive instructor, to tell us to
walk backwards while in the flippers. The trick made the trek into the water much easier.
The water was relatively still, at least on the surface, and the sun had come out to light the water. With my mask and snorkel
in place I put my face in the water and began to swim out to discover what life awaited me in Bahía Sullivan (Sullivan Bay). This
time the visibility was much improved at about 7-10 meters (23 - 33 ft) holding promise for a good day of photos. And as luck
would have it there was much life taking place under the bay.
The scenery was breathtaking with columns of rock jutting out from a sandy ocean floor dotted with sea weeds covered with a
dusting of settled sediment. The towering rock formations were evidence of other tuff cones that had been submerged and over time
eroded. The erosion of the underwater rock created holes, cracks, crevices and ledges that serve as hiding places for a diversity
of marine life.
Tucked away in small holes in the rock were
pencil urchins (Eucidaris thouarsii)
having purple, pencil-sized spines emanating
from their black bodies. Openly foraging the rocky surfaces were the
white sea urchins (Tripneustes depressus)
that resembled a loaded pin cushion with its white spines. There were several species of sea stars slowly crawling the bottom featuring the
brightly red spotted
panamic cushion sea star (Pentaceraster cummingi)
chocolate chip star (Nidorellia armata)
easily identified by its yellow body with little black spikes resembling chocolate chips. Sea urchins and stars are both part of the phylum
Echinodermata which are characterized by a five way symmetry called pentamerism and numerous 'tube feet' they use to move about.
Hovering above the sandy bottom were several species of fish including the
Mexican hogfish (Bodianus diplotaenia),
azure parrotfish (Scarus compressus),
blue-barred parrotfish (Scarus ghobban),
large-banded blenny (Ophioblennius steindachneri),
throatspotted blenny (Malacoctenus tetranemus),
king angelfish (Holacanthus passer),
Cortez rainbow wrasse (Thalassoma lucasanum),
spinster wrasse (Halichoeres nicholsi),
barred serrano sea bass (Serranus fasciatus)
and four species of damselfish,
panamic sergeant major damselfish (Abudefduf troschelii),
Galápagos whitetail damselfish (Stegastes leucorus beebei),
giant damselfish (Microspathodon dorsalis)
night sergeant damselfish (Abudefduf concolor).
Hiding in a crevice on one of the rock columns was a puffer fish,
long-spine porcupinefish (Diodon holocanthus),
having both stripes like a tiger and spots like a leopard that kept it well camouflaged. Puffer fish are generally found in tropical waters
and have two major defense mechanisms, one being that it puffs up when it is in danger to look much larger and intimidate its
prey. Second, this family of fish is the second most poisonous vertebrate on the planet with toxins located either on its skin or
in internal organs.
There were several schools of fish that contrasted with the more solitary species just listed. Schools were passing by along
the bottom as well as through the rocks at higher depths. One species of schooling fish was that of the
sardine (Sardinops sagax),
a favorite food source for
penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus),
blue-footed boobies (Sula nebouxii)
brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis urinator).
These fish are blue-green in color with white flanks and one to three series of dark spots/stripes along their sides.
The more impressive schools of fish I saw in Sullivan Bay were the
razor surgeonfish (Prionurus laticlavius).
This family of fish, Acanthuridae, is classified based on their characteristics of large dorsal and anal fins running down most of the body
length, a pair of sharp spines on either side of the tail and small mouths with a single line of teeth for algae grazing. It was
an incredible site to watch several hundreds of these fish pass right in front of me flashing their blue bodies and bright yellow
I followed the relatively slow moving school through the rocky formations being careful not to get pushed into the jagged rocks
by the wax and wane of the tide. From an aerial view I was moving away from the north beach on Bartolomé and around Pinnacle Rock
to the west. As I moved in front of Pinnacle Rock on its north side the sandy bottom was suddenly much deeper and less cluttered
with the rocky formations. This was a wide open area with many sea stars occupying the bottom and several species and schools of
fish I could not identify.
I was calmly resting on the water's surface and watching the fish and other creatures go about their daily routines when
suddenly all of them disappeared. My first thought was that a predator was coming and everything went into hiding for self
preservation. However, I did not know what the predator might be and if I might be a menu item. It was a scary thought, my body
tensing as a swarm of silvery light engulfed me coming and going just as quickly. Then a brief emptiness for a split moment before
a group of penguins came flying right by me in pursuit of what turned out to be a school of sardines. Once I realized what the
commotion was, I was able to relax and continue the snorkel if only briefly before the pangas showed up and the navigators coaxed
us out of the water.
While we ate lunch the Letty was in motion heading toward Santiago Island where we would
have the choice of either snorkeling or taking a hike. This time I did not want to miss out on the chance of spotting a shark, so
I was going to go snorkeling. This activity involved another wet landing and snorkel from the beach.
From the beach I ventured out into the water while the ones that opted to go hiking disappeared from view. We did not venture
far from Bartolomé and the sea life in this location reflected this fact. I saw the same species of fish and echinoderms as I saw
in Sullivan Bay. The sea floor was shallow and rocky, but it did not have the pillars of rock or tuff cones that were
characteristic of Sullivan Bay. However, the water felt colder to me during this snorkel, especially on my hands and ears, areas
not protected by my gear.
I was only able to take a few underwater photos during this snorkel because the lens area on the waterproof case fogged over
again. I am not sure if it was because the water actually was colder or if I had not cleaned it well enough between snorkels.
Regardless, my camera became a wrist ornament once again.
I continued to snorkel and watch the fish swim around for a little while longer, but becoming colder and somewhat uncomfortable
I began to make my way back to the beach. Besides, I was not seeing anything spectacular to keep my attention. I swam back toward
the beach until my knees made contact with the sand and then lifted myself out of the water to walk the remaining distance to dry
At that moment Mike T. was also making his way back to the beach. He looked over at me and asked if I had seen the shark.
Suddenly I was disappointed because I had not seen any sharks and conveyed that to Mike. He motioned for me to come over to where
he was, so I turned around and started swimming toward him. When I reached his position he told me there was a
whitetip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus)
right below us about three meters (10 ft), but the water was murky so I would have to dive down a little
to see it.
It seemed easy enough to dive down, but in my new wet suit it was a challenge because of the buoyancy it created. Nonetheless,
I was able to dive down and see the shark on the bottom before the suit floated me back to the surface. It was exciting to be in
the proximity of a shark and see it. I dove down a few times trying to get a clearer view, but the buoyancy of the wet suit
prevented me from getting too close.
Only a few meters from us Mama Soso was snorkeling. She rose out of the water, looked around and saw us nearby. She was
excited about something and told us to come have look. She was watching a sea lion hunting for fish below the water's surface.
We swam over next to her and stuck our masks in the water to observe the feeding habits of the sea lion.
Initially, the sea lion would dive down to depths where we could not see her and then a moment later she would return to the
surface and repeat the dive. While she was in the dark depths of the rocky sea bottom we would see a lot of bubbles rising to the
surface. At first I thought she was just playing, she was only about two meters (6 ft) from where we were snorkeling, but did not
seemed to be bothered by our presence.
I continued to watch the sea lion go up and down, up and down. Suddenly on one of her passes to the surface she had a red fish
in her mouth. That is when I realized she was not playing; rather she was in the process of hunting for her dinner. She had
developed a strategy that was paying off. When she would dive down towards the bottom, the fish would hide under rock ledges and
in crevices where she was too big to access them. So in order to catch them she would fill her lungs on the surface, dive down to
the crevices and blow it out forcing them from their hiding spot and into the open. Once in the open she could easily snatch it up
with her mouth, return to the surface and swallow it taking in more air in the process so she could do it once again.
It was quite amusing to watch her do her work over and over again. As we were watching the sea lion Mama Soso noticed another
creature swim into our area. Lo and behold it was a
Galápagos shark (Carcharhinus galapagoensis).
The Galápagos shark has the shape and look similar to the great whites, but is much smaller. The one that had come to investigate us was only about a meter
(3 ft) long, a juvenile to be sure. These sharks grow up to three meters (10 ft) when fully grown.
The shark was very curious about the strangers in the water, unlike the sea lions and penguins in the area. He continued to
swim around us in a circular path as Mike, Mama Soso and I watched. We were coming out of the water to talk about what we were
seeing and then stick our masks back in to see more.
During one up time Mama Soso was telling me that when sharks swam in a circle around something it was a sign of aggression and
that he might attack. Sure enough the circles the shark was swimming were getting tighter and tighter and he was coming much
closer to us. Mike, an experienced diver, suddenly kicked the shark with his fin as it came around near his legs. When he kicked
the shark it swam away frightened by the attack it had just received. Mike confirmed as much when we surfaced to talk about it.
After Mike scared away the Galápagos shark the excitement was over, so we snorkeled back to the beach where we waited for the
others. I was feeling a little cold from all the day's snorkeling so I was happy to get back to the Letty and change into dry
clothes. After changing I went up to the sun deck to hang out and take in the view, we were back in motion on our way to Santa
Cruz Island where our adventure would take place the following day.
I was sitting in one of the loungers on the sun deck watching some of the others peering into the ocean searching for whales. I
decided to get up and add my eyes to the effort. I didn't see any whales but I did see a slew of
Galápagos shearwaters (Puffinus subalaris)
seemingly walking on water. In reality the shearwaters hover just above the waves with their feet skimming the water's
surface when they are feeding on small fish and squid. They are known to follow whales feeding on the fish disturbed by their
Someone in the front of the boat yelled shark! Everybody ran to see it. But, what appeared to be a dorsal fin jutting out of
the water was the wing tip of a
manta ray (Manta birostris).
While everyone was watching the wing tips glide through the water,
the ray suddenly jumped out exposing itself briefly. Upon closer inspection there were hundreds of these rays swimming at the
water's surface all around the boat. They are known to be curious of boats and will follow them around, but given the number of
rays in the water and seeing them far in front of the boat, it was likely the group of mantas were migrating to a feeding area,
another behavior they are known for.
The sun began descending rapidly and the light became too dim with which to see any possibility of a whale. Unfortunately, we
did not have luck on our side during this trip that would produce a whale sighting. But we certainly were treated to many other
interesting species nonetheless.
Giving up on the whale sighting everyone made their way to the dining room for dinner. On this night I chose to have fish for
dinner keeping with the oceanic theme. Following dinner the crew brought out a graduation cake they had made for some of the
students who would finish their degrees upon completion of the class. Those whose accomplishment we celebrated were Jen, Anna and
Jacque. After dinner and cake I went back to the sun deck where I had become accustomed to the cool sea air for sleeping.