When I woke up it was still dark and quiet in my cabin. My roommate Bob was still sleeping
across the room. I was a little sore from lying in bed for a long time and wanted to get up and move around, but I elected to stay
in bed until the morning call was given. I probably tossed around for another hour or so before the call came. The good thing was
that I was not feeling sick anymore.
Once I got up I went to brush my teeth and was alarmed to find my tongue was black! I had never had a black tongue before and
had no idea why. But I went ahead and brushed my teeth and got myself dressed and ready to go. At breakfast I mentioned my
problem to Dr. Seville and he told me it was probably from the Pepto Bismol I had taken the night before. I was relieved that it
was not anything serious.
I was happy to be feeling better and was ready to start the day and see something new. The itinerary for the day was to take
place on Española Island, the oldest and most southern island in the archipelago. Dr. Church was excited to get going as well
because Española is her favorite of the islands. Her favorite animal in the islands is the Blue-footed booby and on Española there
is a huge presence of the quirky bird.
This day would find us starting out with a dry landing on Punta Suárez (Suarez Point) on the northeast tip of the small island.
As the panga approached our unloading point I could see white sands littered with black lava rocks, some of them covered with green
moss making for a colorful backdrop with the turquoise waters of the sea. There were several female
sea lions (Zalophus californianus wollebaeki)
along the stretch nursing their pups but I did not see any of the larger males in sight.
The panga pulled up to some lava rocks where we unloaded and had to climb up a short distance to more stable ground. At the top
of the rocks a
lava heron (Butorides sundevalli)
was standing guard, however he was not threatened by us as we
passed by. Making our way onto the island we crossed the sandy beach area and entered into the vegetation. Before we made it to
the shrubs we passed by the skeleton of a sea lion with remnants of some skin and other soft matter remaining around the bones. It
was evident that this sea lion had met its fate within the last few days.
The smell of rotted flesh was in the air, very acrid and uncomfortable to say the least. A few meters away from the corpse was
an infant sea lion alone and covered in flies. It was still alive, but was so thin you could see its rib cage protruding. It was
likely that the mother was either the dead body or had abandoned the pup and it would likely die soon. But in the Galápagos nature
is nature and no matter the circumstances people are not allowed to interfere even if they are trying to save an animal. Nature
must take its course with as little interference from humans as possible.
On top of the smell of death there was the smell of the salty, stale waters and of feces permeating the air. I think the
horrible smells on the islands were the biggest and most negative surprise of the trip. When you see the beautiful photos of such
an island paradise you do not think about foul odors, you might even think that the beauty is going to translate into a fresh
smelling nature experience. However, when you arrive it is surprising to find out how stinky nature can be, but then again the
animals do not use any sewage systems to control the smells. In fact, they go wherever they are when the need arises and over the
years it piles up. In the case of birds, the black lava rocks are usually covered in white fecal matter wherever they nest and
As we entered the rocky and shrubby plateau we first encountered some nesting
blue-footed boobies (Sula nebouxii).
Not having any fears of humans, they will build their nests right on the trail so that one has to go around them. Like the Nazca boobies the
blue-footed boobies make their nests on the ground, but they do it on the flat surfaces rather than in the cliffs on the outer edge
of the islands. They do not use sticks and twigs opting for a circle of guano instead to help keep the insects away. It is an
interesting nesting site with a large blue-footed booby lying in the center of a white circle made of its own feces.
Continuing down the trail there were hundreds of blue-footed booby couples representing all stages of the mating season. Males
were performing the mating dance to attract females, others were in the process of copulating and some females were already
incubating their eggs. Unlike their booby counter-parts the blue-footed boobies lay one to three eggs, the survival of which
depends on the quality of the food supply. In lean years only the largest chick will be fed and survive. The remaining siblings
are left to die.
Male and female blue-footed boobies while having a similar appearance do have some minor differences. The male is smaller than
the female on the order of two thirds and he whistles while she honks. The female appears to have a larger pupil than the male,
but it is an optical illusion created by her darker iris coloration.
The mating ritual, called the 'sky pointing display,' is one of the most interesting characteristics of the blue-footed
boobies. This is the reason Dr. Church considers them to be her favorite species in the Galápagos. During one of our classes she
performed the dance and tried to get students to join her without avail. The dance begins with the male rocking left and right
alternating the raising of its blue, webbed feet with each motion. The stomping is followed by the spreading of its wings with
tail and beak pointed skyward paired with honking to attract a female.
The bushes and shrubs gave way to another coastal area with 6 to 7 meter (20-23 ft) high cliffs holding back the ocean. The day
was overcast and the waves were the largest we had seen on the visit, and were breaking and crashing into the lava rocks and
cliffs. On one of the cliffs in the distance was a 'blow hole' where the rushing waves would gather with force and blow a
geyser-like stream of water mist into the air. The mechanism fostering this phenomenon is a lava tube just off the shore that
funnels the fast moving water and shoots it into the air pushed up by its own momentum.
The black lava rocks along this coast were teeming with life as was the airspace above them. At the water's edge Nazca boobies
were resting or hanging out with their mate on the smooth rocks. Two of the boobies were facing each other creating a heart-shape
with their necks and beaks, a nice site against the blue water backdrop. On another rock lay a
marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus)
Hood mockingbird (Nesomimus macdonaldi)
sitting on its back.
Swallow-tail gulls (Creagrus furcatus)
were flying to and fro as well as resting on the rocks among the red and black marine iguanas scattered throughout the area.
The marine iguanas here had red coloration in their body scales, but were in the process of molting (losing their outer skin)
signifying the end of the mating season. When the iguanas are mating the females will dig a hole in the sand and bury their eggs
guarding them for ten days. On Española where sand is scarce the female will bury her eggs under beach pebbles, sometimes
experiencing tragic results when a rock may fall and crush an egg.
Marine iguanas are definitely not the most beautiful creatures on Earth, but they do have interesting characteristics. One such
characteristic is that of spitting. To expel the salt taken in while diving for up to an hour for algae, they eject it through
their nostrils. It appears as if they are spitting and hissing and may be a violent posture used for warning potential
Again we started trekking back towards the interior of the island where large numbers of
waved albatross (Phoebastria irrorata)
were settled amongst the shrubs and lava rocks lying about. This species of albatross mates only on the island of Española and are
the only ones found in the tropics. When not mating they can be found residing along the coasts of Ecuador and Peru.
The largest bird species in the Galápagos, the waved albatross has a wingspan of 2.3 meters (7.5 ft). Although the wings are
very long, they have a short depth making them ideal for gliding, a fact they take advantage of to save their energy. These famous
flyers can soar for long periods of time by exploiting the difference in temperature of the water and atmosphere without ever
flapping their wings. However, they are also known for being clumsy on land, stumbling when they come in for landings.
Waved albatross take mating seriously choosing their mate for life and courting their mate a year before an egg will be laid.
They have a remarkable courtship display that reflects their values. During the display the albatross fence with their beaks, as
in a duel, then alternately one will sky point, open the beak then close it making a loud snapping noise before repeating the love
The display is not aggressive; rather it resembles a form of cuddling and affection. That being said, there are the villains of
the albatross world. If a female reaches the island prior to the arrival of her life mate, she risks being raped by another male
interested in extra pair copulation (EPC).
Passing through the field of nesting albatross and boobies we found ourselves standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking the
ocean. The wind was steadily racing up the cliff face and then blowing over the top where we were standing. On a rounded rock
resting on the cliff's edge a
yellow warbler (Dendroica petechia)
landed briefly. Above us another
Galápagos hawk (Buteo galapagoensis)
came to investigate its human visitors harnessing the power of the wind to hover motionlessly with its wings spread
open. All around us blue-footed and Nazca boobies and albatross were flying back and forth across the horizon.
In the distance along the perimeter of the island a
red-billed tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus)
was flying by with its two long
tail feathers trailing behind it. Tropicbirds are pelagic feeders and feed in the open sea. The bird we saw flying by was likely
a resident of one of the other islands and simply returning from foraging since they are not known to nest on Española.
From the cliff area we turned in towards the interior once again following a path made between dense shrubs. Initially the path
rose in altitude slightly before cresting and falling down to the sea at the point where we first entered. The rise in altitude
was the spine of the island, the peak of what was once a much larger volcano.
In the dense shrubs another habitat existed for more bird species to find a niche. I also saw insects such as butterflies and
grasshoppers that likely offer nutrition for carnivorous birds. One such species is the
Galápagos dove (Zenaida galapagoensis)
seen hopping across the rocks peaking through the leafless bushes. There were also at least three species of Darwin's finches
either in the shrubs, on the rocks or in the sand. Galápagos mockingbirds also inhabited the areas along the path.
Along the entire hike there were various
lava lizards (Tropidurus delanonis)
scurrying around. The insects on the island would
also provide a source of food for these carnivorous reptiles. The lava lizards found on Española are an endemic subspecies, the
largest of the Galápagos. The females will have red throats during the mating season, some of them have heads completely red in
color. Males are territorial and will defend their territories against other males by doing push ups displaying their spiny crest
sometimes biting their opponent and drawing blood. However, that is the extent of the fight.
At the end of the path we had made a full circle back to where we had entered and the pangas were waiting to take us back to the
Letty. Once again we were in motion traveling to the other side of Española to Bahía Gardner (Gardner Bay) where we set anchor.
Just off from the bay was a little island known as Islote Gardner where we would be going on our next snorkel. This was the
outermost land mass of the archipelago with nothing but open water all the way back to South America. It was also the point where
the Humboldt Current traveling up from the Antarctic meets the islands causing the upwelling that brings nourishment.
The pangas took us out to the deep waters between Islote Gardner and Española Island where
we would do our deep water snorkel. The guides warned us not to get close to Islote Gardner where the current was strong or we
could get washed away forever! Harry said the currents would be strong where we were but to keep paddling, this was the 'Rambo
Once in the water it was a little unnerving because the current was strong and the waves were high enough to go above my snorkel
and cause the float to rise and cut off my air. I noticed right away that if I did not paddle my flippers I would float with the
current. It took everything I could muster to even move against the current. But it was exhilarating to put my mask in the water
and not be able to see the bottom; the deep blue seemed to continue into infinity.
At first I did not see any life in the water, but there was an uprising of rocks that appeared. Harry, our guide, suddenly dove
down into the depths underneath me continuing down to a rock ledge. He went under the ledge I guessed looking to spook wildlife
out of its hiding place. Nothing came out when he went under the ledge, including Harry himself for what seemed like a long
moment. I began to worry how he was doing when he appeared once again and swam to the surface for air. As a native to the islands
he had been free-diving his entire life and could obviously stay underwater for extended periods of time.
Being satisfied that Harry was in goods shape I started to kick hard to try and move around and see if I could see some life.
Then, underneath me, a black mass was moving. As I watched it another mass came in behind it. At first I could not identify the
mass, but it was very large and heading in my direction. The masses kept approaching until I could make out their unmistakable
shape; they were
smooth hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna zygaena).
The smooth hammerhead is one of the largest hammerhead sharks, and from my perspective they were at least twice my size. One
curiosity I was having at the moment of sighting was that they were black rather than the brilliant blue I had seen in photos. But
hammerhead sharks actually share a characteristic of humans and pigs, they can get a suntan. I am sure the lighting in the water
played a role as well explaining why they appeared black.
Hammerheads are considered dangerous to humans, but there are only a handful of documented human attacks by these large
creatures. Besides, Harry told us that the most dangerous animal in the Galápagos was the male sea lion. He added that there has
never been a documented shark attack of a human in the Galápagos. So, having dodged the bullet with the male sea lion on Mosquera
Island, I figured I was going to be okay with the sharks. I must admit that my heart rate quickened as they approached me, but I
think when they saw me they were just as startled and swam away out of my sight.
Of course, shark sightings were the big hit with my group. All of us wanted to see them on our snorkels. So, after spotting
the sharks and realizing what they were I lifted out of the water and fought the waves trying to yell out shark! Only Mama Soso
was close enough to me to hear me, but she confirmed after the snorkel that she never did see them. It might have been this sudden
yell out that ultimately scared the sharks away because I never did see them again myself.
I continued the snorkel hopeful I would see more of these majestic creatures, but never did. However, I saw some very large
spotted eagle rays (Aetobatus narinari)
gliding through the water so effortlessly followed by their long tails. These large rays
can have a wingspan of up to three meters (10 ft), which is about the length of the ones I saw below me. They are easily
identified by their numerous white spots on their dorsal surface and their large beak like heads. They have 2-6 venomous spines
on their tails that could potentially prove harmful to humans, but they generally avoid human contact.
Both the hammerhead and the spotted eagle ray were the two most anticipated sightings I had while snorkeling in the Galápagos.
Of course, the reward of actually seeing these large animals in the wild would take place during the 'Rambo snorkel.' But I was
completely satisfied with finally seeing them because time on our voyage was coming to a close. The only thing that would have
made it better was if I had been able to get some photos of the animals. However, they were too deep and too far away for my
camera to get a good focus on them.
One thing that was common in the species of animals I saw on this snorkel was that they were all large animals. In addition to
the hammerheads and eagle rays I saw several
green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas agassizii)
and a large school of
yellow-fin tuna (Thunnus albacares).
I had seen the sea turtles in shallower waters on every snorkel we did from the northern most island we
visited of Genovesa to the western most islands of Fernandina and Isabela. The yellow-fin tuna, or ahi tuna (Hawaiian name), was
another first for sighting on this snorkel. These tuna are quite large and look even larger in the schools they swim in.
I was starting to get tired from the constant kicking just to keep moving, and I was getting cold. Luckily, the pangas were
nearby and I was able to get out of the water relatively quickly. By the time I had boarded many of the others had already decided
to end their snorkels. It was a rough sea and it certainly took more energy faster than any of the other snorkels we had
participated in prior. Tired although I was, I was incredibly happy to have seen hammerhead sharks with my own eyes only a few
meters away. My goals for marine wildlife spotting in the Galápagos had been met!
Our final activity for the day would be to relax on the beach in Bahía Gardner. This beach
is reminiscent of those one finds in the Caribbean minus the thick jungles and palm leaves. It has beautiful white sands made from
millennia of crushing sea shells and glowing aqua colored water. It was the most pristine of all the beaches we had seen in the
Most of the gang took a walk down the long stretch of the beach and some even went in for a swim, but with camera in hand I
decided to see if I could find any wildlife on the beach to photograph. The first sighting was the many sea lions lethargically
littering the beach. Most of them were laying perpendicular to the waves about five meters (16 ft) from the water. I did not see
a male on the beach. They were mostly adult females, a few with pups. It appeared that most of them had rolled in the sand after
returning from a swim as they were covered in the white grains.
Walking to the terrestrial edge of the beach near the vegetation zone I saw a couple of
Darwin's small ground finches (Geospiza fuliginosa)
hopping around on the sand. I assume they were foraging for seeds. They allowed me to get close to them, but not too
close. When I was within two meters (7 ft) of them, they would fly a short distance and continue their foraging. As I approached
on one occasion the pair flew into the bushes and landed on branches where they continued their foraging behavior. One of them
started feeding on a green stem from the bush itself, but they didn't stay long opting to return to the sandy surface to conduct
While following the finches and watching them forage I ran into a large piece of driftwood; the tree trunk must have washed up
from elsewhere because I did not see any mature trees on the island. On the driftwood a
Hood mockingbird (Nesomimus macdonaldi)
was using its long bill, the longest of the four Galápagos mockingbirds, to penetrate holes in the wood likely trying to extract an
insect for its dinner. Because the hole was in the side of the tree trunk, the mockingbird was grasping the wood with its claws
and had its wings outstretched to provide additional balance.
Turning to look back at the ocean and see where the group was I saw a lone
brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis urinator)
flying by. He eventually landed on the water for a brief period of time before extending his wings and clumsily flapping them
until he was airborne. He was probably uncomfortable with the humans splashing about in the water near his location.
Returning to my walk along the outer edge of the beach I spotted a female
lava lizard (Tropidurus delanonis)
resting on top of a twig lying in the sand. Her head and throat were completely colored bright red, a sign she was in her mating season. She must
have been foraging for insects buried in the sand evidenced by the sand grains adhering to her bottom jaw. She was a little weary
of my approach turning her body back toward the vegetation but pausing with her gaze fixed on me. I took another step toward her
and she made her decision - she scurried quickly into the brush and was out of sight in a flash.
Watching the lizard disappear brought me to my next discovery, the
Galápagos carpenter bee (Xylocopa darwini).
This is a large bee with black body, wings and eyes. The bee was flying around the flowers of the shrubs at the edge of the beach. Oddly enough I
never saw the bee access the interior of the flowers; rather it would land on the flower facing the stem. On the hairs of the bee
were numerous white grains, possibly pollen, but it could have been sand. The plant itself had trichomes (plant hairs) along the
stem that were saturated with white grains as well.
One thing is likely though, the carpenter bee's arrival to the Galápagos probably made it possible for several species of
flowering plants to reproduce and establish themselves on the islands. However, the bee is not the only pollinator on the
islands. The small ground finch also is a pollinator and feeds on the nectar of certain flowers. In a study on character
displacement it was found that the small ground finch consumes more nectar on islands where the carpenter bee is absent than on
islands where they are present.
I spent quite a bit of time observing the busy bee in action before turning my attention back to the group. I had walked some
distance along the beach and decided to turn back and join the group. While walking back I saw a lone blue-footed booby flying
by. When I approached the group everybody was focused on a sea lion that was swimming around Chris McGee. Chris M., Tana and
Mandy were still in the water swimming around. The curious sea lion took an interest in Chris and began to playfully swim around
and at him. Dr. Church accused him of being scared of the sea lion, but Chris vehemently denied the accusation.
After the playful episode the remainder of the group began assembling for the arrival of the pangas that would shuttle us back
to the Letty. We would go have our final briefing for the final day of activities on our adventure. Tomorrow we would be going to
San Cristobal Island.