Sea Lions at Bartolome
Our past few days on a boat have been fantastic. The scenery and animals have been fantastic, as has been the food and the snorkelling.
Our schedule worked out well, since the boat had gone to the Darwin centre in the morning, something we’d already done, and in the afternoon the Santa Cruz highlands were on the schedule. The main attraction was the tortoise sanctuary, basically just some private property that has ideal conditions and lots of food for the tortoises, but with open access to the national park. Our guide talked about how the tortoises had been decimated during the 18th and 19th centuries, when they were a popular food supply for pirates. Since the tortoises can live for up to a year without eating, they can be a fresh source of meat when a ship doesn’t have many ports it can safely stop in for resupply. It’s estimated that about 300,000 tortoises were taken or killed during this period, and since they have such long lives – 150-200 years or so – recovering the population is a slow process.
Also on tap was a walk through a lava tube – basically just a cave, though interesting in that it was almost as perfectly regular and about the same size as a subway tunnel.
For our first uninhabited island, we stopped at North Seymour, just north of the airport on Baltra. Don’t ask me where South Seymour is, I have no idea. The island itself wasn’t overly interesting, as it was covered by similar vegetation as the Santa Cruz lowlands. However, it was an island with no history of Iguanas until the ’30s, when scientists of the time figured that they must have been wiped out by some sort of calamity, so they introduced them from Baltra. This was good, since later the conversion of Baltra in a US military base during WWII killed off the iguanas native to that island, and they’ve been able to reintroduce them using the new population on N. Seymour. However, though the plants look the same, they’re far less resilient to iguanas, and they haven’t been doing so well. Estevan, our guide, told us that once the population on Baltra was large enough to self-sustain, they’d go through and remove all the iguanas that remained on N. Seymour.
Then came snorkelling time, which was fantastic. The visibility was great, and there was a bit of everything on the bottom. The most common fish in these parts is a large flat fish with a yellow tail, which we later learned was called a yellowtail surgeonfish. Also, we saw a cornetfish (a long, almost clear, tube-like fish), a stingray, sea lions, and a white-tipped shark. And loads of various colourful fish. It was fantastic. Though Kathy would like to mention that while snorkeling off a Zodiak seems practical, getting back in isn’t a skill that everyone possesses.
While making our crossing to the second stop, Bartolome, we had the real treat. Our ship ran into a pod of dolphins, and they came to investigate the boat. The snap decision was made to go snorkelling right there, at a random spot in the middle of the pacific. So we did. To be honest, the dolphins are far more interested in boats than people, so the view from in the water wasn’t as good as it was on the boat, but the crew used the zodiacs to attract some, and it was good. The sounds of dolphins under the water are quite different and more melodic than the squeaks you hear on the surface. Stay tuned for the fantastic dolphin pictures taken from the boat.
At Bartolome, we snorkelled again, this time with penguins. The cold water currents allow this very northerly species of penguin to live on 4 islands in the archipelago. Again sharks and stingrays, which seem to be everywhere in these islands. Like everywhere else, the sea lions are everyone. A couple of large ones had planted themselves on the beach, right in the midst of another group of visitors.
The land trip to Bartolome wasn’t all that interesting. It’s mostly lifeless, as the volcanic rock contains too much magnesium to support most species. One of the two types of plants we saw was a type of cactus which breaks up the rocks, allowing more life to move in. Eventually – like maybe a couple million years – you might be able to see similar species on Bartolome to the other islands. The landscape is kind of neat, though – from the top of the island looking down, it’s much easier to see the volcanic tuffs and dried lava flows – it really does look like it erupted only recently.
For our last full day on the boat, we had stops at Plazas and Santa Fe islands. No snorkelling at Plazas, just a land trip with much the same species of cactus as elsewhere. The land iguanas were out in force here, as were the dove-tailed gulls. Many pictures of those to come when we get home. Once again, the sea lions were everywhere – we had to step over one on the small dock, just to get back into the Zodiak. They really seem as though they couldn’t care less about all the people around them.
Santa Fe was a bit more interesting. The cactuses there grow taller than elsewhere, making them harder for the iguanas to get at the food. So a unique species of land iguana evolved there. It is a different colour than the usual land iguana, but the main difference is that it is territorial, which most iguanas don’t seem to be. This was, all it has to do is wait for fruit to drop from the cactii in its territory, and then eat once it’s on the ground.
This was our last snorkel stop, and it was again amazing. The bay where we snorkelled had maybe 30 or 40 eagle rays just kind of swimming in circles. The eagle rays are much more majestic and active than stingrays which are just kind of bloblike and sit on the bottom. There’s also a small reef there that is a popular resting stop for sea turtles. Unfortunately, we couldn’t actually find the reef while we were in the water, but we did run into a (very large) turtle while we were returning to the boat. I was also very startled when two huge sea lions swam past me at full tilt. Kathy thinks swimming with sharks and rays is just a wee bit intimidating, even if the real danger is minimal.
Which brings us to today. Our last excursion as part of the cruise was a bit disappointing, as it was just a visit to the interpretive centre at San Cristobal, which pretty much reiterated much of what our guide was telling us. And I couldn’t quite figure it out, but I think that the part on sustainable tourism was trying to tell us that tourists should spend more money, and that would make it more sustainable. Kind of fuzzy logic if you ask me.
Anyway, we’re flying back to the mainland tomorrow. We’ve decided not to stay in Guayaquil, since it just means another one night stop, which I don’t think we really want right now, so instead we’ll probably just get straight on a bus for Cuenca. That also means just one long travel day, instead of two shorter ones.