FROG HOUSE GRAND OPENING
Thursday, June 28th Mangrove Sunrise and Going Home
Today we got up at 5:30 am for a dawn pre breakfast boat ride to Black Turtle Cove, to see the sunrise, mangroves,
and maybe, some turtles.
Mangroves can provide fresh water for themselves through a desalination process.
Turtles do the same, by expelling salt through their nostrils and retaining the less saline water. One female mates with five males for 2 hours plus each, and this feat has to be accomplished while swimming in the water. Normally, a turtle can stay underwater for 2 or 3 hours, but the energy required in reproduction requires them to breathe every 5 seconds.
In 4 or 5 weeks after mating, females go to the beach to lay their eggs. Compared to land tortoises, which live for as long as 200 years, water turtles live a more human lifespan of 80 years. If this activity was going on during our visit, we were unaware of it. While others were pushing me out of the way to peer overboard, I simply enjoyed the peacefulness of the visit.
Then it was back to the boat, back to the shore, back to the airport and connecting flights. Good bye, Galapagos and Ecuador!
(Editor’s note; by the time this last blog is published, on June 5th, I will be preparing for my next ecotour with SAVE THE FROGS! to Costa Rica, and some relaxation time with my friend who lives near Tamarindo. Look for more in the fall!)
Tuesday, June 27th A Motley Crew
This morning’s hike was a dry landing at a flight of very steep rocky stairs, known as Prince Phillip’s Steps. We were greeted at the top by a mockingbird, singing a happy welcoming song.
As daunting as it was to go up the staircase, we were rewarded for our climb with the sight of innumerable boobies: Brown, Hooded, Masked, Nazca, blue footed and red footed, single, married, divorced (they don’t mate for life) and children, in various stages of development. Apparently there are 150,000 pairs on Genovese. The juveniles have grey or white feet, and some, called morphs, never develop color nor mate. The color in male feet is a sign of very high testosterone, and male boobies are known as the most aggressive birds in the world.
The Nazca mother lays two eggs a few days apart, but the second is only insurance, in case the first dies.
If the first chick lives, it inevitably pushes the second out of the circle the mother has drawn. A chick out of the circle, neglected by both parents, is not fed, and will die of exposure, starvation and/or predation by other birds. Once airborne, they can fly as far as Panama, and do not come back for 5 or more years, mating at age 8.
Nazca Boobies are named for the giant geological plate “conveyer belt” which carries the Galapagos Islands southeast at a very slow but significant speed.
We also saw gulls, herons, pelicans, frigates (Both sexes are pirates. Males have a big red balloon gular sac and gobble when they find a female they choose to attract) and albatross.
The mating dance of albatross is mesmerizing, and goes on for hours, a tender fencing duel with their beaks. Of course, this is when my camera died for the day. These big birds do mate for life.
Although the water was murky in the morning, I got to see one new species of fish, the Moorish Idol. Next year I want to get an underwater camera!
In the afternoon, I had started reading Paul Stewart’s book, Galapagos, The Islands That Changed the World, which Matthew had discovered and just finished. While the others went to the beach for a hot sunny walk, and then snorkeling in choppier and murkier waters than in the morning, I relaxed under the canopy on the deck and read. It was a delightful and educational way to end our last full day on board the Cachalote, and gave me more to fill in some blanks when I got home.
To celebrate, all the crew dressed again in their uniforms, as they did the first night we got on board, and we had a fine cocktail to toast with and another excellent meal with modifications for their vegan passenger.
Monday, June 26th Life from Death
At 1 o’clock from the white ship, there is a large flat rock around which we later would swim. Just below that, at 2:30 from the white ship, you can barely see a tiny little sliver of a boat with hairline masts.
That mere toothpick traversed a minute portion of the Pacific yesterday and carried all 15 of us from Floreana.
Travel and transportation of living things is amazing in and of itself. All of the life on these islands, created exclusively through volcanic eruptions from under the sea, traveled also by sea or by air to differentiate into the endemic species we can now enjoy.
The Galapagos islands all sit on a underwater tectonic plate, which is moving southeast. The younger islands are northwest, the older southeast, and either have disappeared underwater, or will eventually.
Santiago is an younger island than Santa Cruz. To look at a relatively recent lava flow is to appreciate not only the loss of life that might have occurred during an eruption, but the difficulty of life coming again.
The surface heaves, cracks, explodes into minivolcanos (driblets), and/or exposes levels below.
The hot and quickly cooled lava forms in thick puddles and rope like twists which would belie the possibility of any foothold. Then, lo! A tiny seed of lichen blown in from afar, and manages to cling to an apparently impenetrable surface.
Little by little, this seed sprouts short fine stalks, and puts down long strong roots, gradually crumbling the rock. Water, both from rain and the sea, also wears the hard surface down.
The red “soil” is the result of a combination of iron, calcium and potassium in volcanic spatter.
Some accents of green can be seen, and occasionally the start of a cactus.
Since Cactus provide water and food to the vegetarian land Iguana, and Iguana can survive the cold, hot and dry conditions of a lava field home, it is no surprise that they flourish together, as on the older island of Santa Cruz.
Every lava cactus has a unique shape,
every Iguana a unique personality,
and every Iguana is uniquely coupled to another.
Iguanas mate when they are 11 to 14 years old, and live for 70 years. These prehistoric characters have been around for some 300,000 years longer than the islands themselves. Once they become isolated, like other forms of life, they evolve into differentiated, endemic species, such as pink iguanas on San Isabella, among 10 others throughout the islands.
Iguanas are hunted by hawks, which sit at the entrances to their caves, but the reptiles often manage to elude their predators by having more than one entrance to the same home.
Snorkeling twice that day yielded some new species and variations thereof: hogfish, puffers, sargeant majors, angels, damsels, balloon, trigger, chubs and sea cucumbers, in addition to many of the fish seen before. There were all kinds of starfish, bright blue, bright red, “chocolate chip”, either alone among other marine life, or scattered about like the night stars on an otherwise barren sandy ocean floor. I saw sea urchins of various types, and some beautiful intact sand dollars. The perfect ending to our day was going into a small cove at dusk, and seeing two groups of three penguins! It was definitely the highlight of the whole adventure. And of course, no working camera!
Sunday, June 25th Floreana Boobies
Because of their incredible fecundity and destructiveness to the environment, 150 thousand non-native goats were shot from helicopters by a New Zealand company, which in turn made off with 10 million dollars for the job, or $70 per goat.
While it was important to restore the natural habitat, it wasn’t the poor goats’ fault. So many factors go into saving our planet. Despite a keen interest in doing what I can to avoid harm, I follow only a fraction of them. It is much harder for a farmer who wants goat milk or meat to drink, eat or sell, to appreciate the importance of conservation, or for conservationists to appreciate exploiting animals for food. So, the alternative is to shoot them?
Fortunately, the boobies are doing well. Thirty percent of Galapagos boobies live on Floreana. We saw blue footed, red footed, brown and sterile white footed boobies. They are, like most other wildlife in the Island, calm and unflappable as they go about their daily business, either gazing curiously at or ignoring their visitors.
We snorkeled before lunch from the beach, Black Turtle Cove. It is strongly suggested not to leave a beach towel lying out, because sea lions will sneak up and appropriate them.
After lunch, we snorkeled off the shore of Post Office Bay, near a famous diving site called Devil’s Crown. There are two major points of the rock between which we were not allowed to go, because of sharp underwater spikes rising from the ocean floor and joining the two.
The submerged volcano provides great snorkeling, and I was glad I was not the only one having trouble swimming against strong currents on the other side of the rock. All of us were given a Zodiac lift back to the up-current side to explore the second face of this underwater haven.
The small white tip shark appeared for me once or twice, and there were more marine turtles and sea lions. Sting rays and large sharks did not show up during snorkeling times, but we did see them at night time swimming alongside the boat. Sharks evolved from Sting Rays, which the sharks now feed on. Sort of like politics.
On board there was a book on water wildlife, and while my greatest pleasure was simply watching the many shapes, colors, sizes and characteristic movements of the fish, it was somewhat satisfying to discover I had seen many species each of grunts, snappers, parrot fish, surgeon and wrasses, to name a few.
The crew seemed to enjoy helping me practice Spanish. Carlos definitely was the smiliest and happiest among them. You could always tell when Carlos was laughing from the back of the boat. As first mate, when Captain Guillerme was resting, Carlos was in charge.
It was a disappointment to learn that even the sailing yachts primarily use their motors to go from place to place, because we had chosen the Cachalote to try to be a little greener, and sailing is fun!
The breezes this day were going with us, so that at least the front mast sails could assist with the travel. It was deliciously relaxing and wonderful to be on deck for the only one of our six days on board using wind for power. And so we were off to Santa Cruz and Santiago.
For the thousands of miles frigates fly, you can’t blame them for hitching a ride on ships. Can you see them in the first photo? Basically, they are thieves, often snatching fish from the very stomach of other birds who have gone to the trouble of making the catch. The pleasures and perils of life are the same the world over, so why are we surprised or shocked at politics as usual? We can only do our own personal best.
Friday, June 25th Odd Early Settlers.
Floreana is known for it’s expansive white beaches,
and for flora (flores), such as this tree daisy, and other yellow (preferred by daytime carpenter bees) and white (favored by nighttime hawk moths) flowers.
Floreana’s biggest problem is fresh water, because the lakes and lagoons are brackish. This is great for flamingos (4/5ths of the world population of ruby Flamingos live on Floreana) and other sea birds, but not for humans.
Consequently, the island has a strange history of attempted settlement. English Pirates (legitimized by the crown) captured three Spanish ships (without their treasure) and took over 100 prisoners.
Most of the pirates and prisoners died of a plague or in battle at Guayaquil, except William Daumier, who went back home later to became a high society court writer and chronicler, described by Coleridge as “a pirate of exquisite mind”.
Other prisoners were brought over the years to their most certain death.
Whalers practically destroyed entire whale, tortoise, iguana, bird and fur seal population for profit and for sport. Herman Melville, a whaler hand in his youth, preserved the islands only virtually in a book of collected essays, The Encantadas.
Stranger yet, a married philosopher named Ritter brought his married mistress named Strauch to their “Eden”. Strauch shared Ritter’s view on a natural life, including nudism. Ritter had prophylactically removed his teeth, knowing there would be no dental care, and she subsequently lost hers, sharing his dentures. Both were vegetarian and during a slip of principles, he died of eating either bad or poisoned chicken. Strauch, who could have been the guilty murderer of her lover, went back to Berlin and was killed in Nazi Germany during bombing.
Strangest of all, a self proclaimed German baroness Wehrborn de Wagner-Bousquet, came to her “Paradise” with three lovers. She decided to elevate herself to Empress of Galapagos. The “empress’s” attempt to open Hacienda Paradiso failed. She and her favorite consort mysteriously disappeared. These two had mentally and physically abused a second lover, who was found dead on a distant island. The third’s fate is unknown, at least to me.
The most stable of the settlers was Margret Wittmer, who came with her husband Heinz and their son. After her family died or left and the other two irritating families were gone (or disposed of), she ran a guesthouse, wrote and published a book about, and lived alone on Floreana until the age of 96. About 150 people live there now, many probably descendants of the Wittmer Family.
There still is an original “post office” in the form of a barrel. Our group spent time sorting through batches of postcards there to find some to bring home and mail or hand deliver. Each of us in turn left a dated and self addressed card with the hope that someone else also will mail or deliver it to us some day.
There were many other visually delightful sights of non living things, such as a shrine of objects placed by various fellow travelers and clusters of shells along the path quite far inland from the beach.
There were ambiguous scenes. Is this water or sky, or both?
The Ecuadorian National Park system is doing what it can to preserve Floreana’s natural wonders.
I did leave behind one other thing, a temporary and passing imprint of my shoe.
It is named “Hello, God. It’s me, Margot.”
And God said “Hello”, right back.
Saturday June 24th, Overboard with wet and dry landings.
Every day we went snorkeling (wet landings, jumping or falling overboard from the Zodiacs) at least once, sometimes twice. The joys of floating quietly or swimming with or against the ebb and flow of sea life were reawakened in me after 40 years since trying it in Jamaica.
Others had underwater cameras, but I only can mention the sea turtles, white tipped sharks, the many varieties of fish, large and small, dull and bright, that had far less interest in me as a species than I in them. However, it is possible that the sea turtles were having some fun with us, suddenly popping up very close by, behind, in front of, or on either side of our funny eyed, flippered, wet suited selves.
There was one playful sea lion that was worrying a long feather, grabbing it and then letting it go, over and over again. Another had a similar game with a large chunk of seaweed.
The saddest part of the snorkeling is seeing for myself the loss of coral life. Naysayers about climate change are the same the world over, like medical personnel who daily witnessed black lungs, but kept on smoking anyway.
Each day also brought one or two hikes (dry landings, stepping onto land from the Zodiac). Today brought a beautiful broad beach and a Sea Lion that unexpectedly and uncannily looked like a member of my own family.
This photo doesn’t show it, but the beaches are strewn with more resting lions. The hiking was difficult in a different way than on the mainland, most often very rocky and sometimes slippery.
There is an interesting interrelationship with sea lions, which attract flies and insects, and lizards, which eat them.
The walks also are occasionally blocked by Iguanas,
who, if not mating, are taking in the sights of their sunny and bright world.
The most common birds on the Islands are varieties of warblers, mockingbirds, frigates, hawks, boobies, pelicans, and albatross.
And what a view they get to enjoy!
Enrique kept us quite busy with information, swimming, walking,and hiking. Breaks for lunch, supper, rest and sleep were most welcome in the middle and at the end of the day.
Friday, June 23rd, Zodiacs, Cows, and Fishing Yachts
After supper at the airport hotel and a good night’s sleep, at last it was time to set off for Galapagos. After landing at the airport, we took a 5 minute ride to the pier.
Our guide Enrique met us there and escorted us into the “zodiac,” a motorized inflated raft, which carried us to the Cachahote, a sailing yacht converted from a fishing boat.
The other 9 people on board were all from England and Australia, and had been having a good old time for the past three days, having started from Baltra, where we would end up. No time was wasted to get us back on shore.
Matthew, as always, being the life of the party, used his cat herding gifts to round up a stray member of the group. A bus took us up into the foggy and rainy hills of San Cristobal Island.
The bumpy ride took us through little villages where dogs lay in the middle of the sometimes paved road, and cows moved aside without a moo. Although sitting in the front of the bus, I wasn’t quick enough to get the whole herd of a dozen or so of these beasties.
Cows are a serious threat to the environment in Ecuador, for the same reasons they are all over the world. Strangely I was the only vegetarian on this part of the trip, and one of the only four vegetarians with the Save the Frogs ecotour group.
First stop: the Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado, part of the Galapagos National Park. Because of over harvesting of tortoises in the past for eating and for sport, this newest tortoise breeding and nursery center has been a godsend for preserving the species. The reserve is surrounded by fence, primarily to keep the cows out.
The eggs at a particular temperature favors the hatching of females. Baby tortoises emerge in about four months, and then stay in the dark for an even longer time.
They then are moved to a “training ground” in a larger area and released at 5 years old. The tortoises in the compound are fed two plant species (poisonous to humans) three times a week, otherwise fending for themselves.
Second stop: As usual, on the very LONG and STEEP flights of stairs up Tijeretas Hill, the rest of the group was well ahead of me. However, a tiny and colorful Yellow Warbler kept me company most of the last part of the climb, hopping in front of me step by step. When a hiker came clambering down, the Warbler flew out of the way, and then came back to finish guiding me to the top.
The point of getting up there was hopefully to see one of the few freshwater lakes in the Galapagos, El Junco Lagoon, in the deep basin on the other side of the hill. All we could see was fog. Nevertheless, there were satisfying colors along the way.
Back at the pier, while the rest of the group opted for drinks, Matthew and I drank in the atmosphere of small village at dusk and nightfall.
On the beach, a sea lion pup pulled its little self over the rocks until it got to its mom to nurse. A big old gent dragged himself over the sand and was rejected by female after female, until he fell exhausted and flopped on the sand. Finally he got up and managed to get to one last place where a female and another pup reluctantly accepted his company.
Heading back for our boat we found all four benches near the boarding site occupied.
Clearly it was time for us to find our own bunks.
Thursday, June 22nd, Never Hunt Innocent Life
At my several rests on the daunting climb and decline, Carlos was trying to make calls to various mechanics. He was justifiably distressed to be told that repairs to his car would cost $10,000. How did I guess that he was talking about a Mercedes Benz?
Carlos and I had great good luck when we got near the van, where we had the rare opportunity to spot a condor flying low along the rim. Carlos, standing at the edge of the world trying to find the great bird again, grumbled that the condor probably was eating lunch somewhere down below where it couldn’t be seen.
The group was fortunate that Cotopoxi wasn’t covered in clouds, as it often is, but they did roll in before we left the park.
On the way back, we stopped for “lunch” at 5 pm in a tiny village for another one of those extraordinarily delectable meals, with soup of course, which Alexander had ordered at the outset of the trip. It was a pleasant stop and opportunity to talk with a few of the others, including one who might be Victor’s future student.
During the entire year, the sun rises and sets at 6 am and 6 pm respectively. Alexander said he wanted us to go to sleep on the bus ride back to Quito, so he would tell us stories. He used his dramatic talents recounting several old Ecuadorian legends, in English and in Spanish.
There once was a son of a great warrior who was taught to fight and kill. However, the boy, who was prideful, got excited about killing and used his bow and arrow to shoot a beautiful bird. When he brought the bird to his mother to brag about what he had done, his mother was appalled. She told her son that it was one thing to kill someone who was trying to steal your land or your life, but to kill a beautiful bird who never does any harm, and provides us with songs, is unacceptable. Hismother plucked the most colorful feather from the bird and made him wear it from that point on, as a reminder never to hunt innocent life again.