ted & pamela

Posts Tagged ‘giant tortoises’

Island Civilization: Ecuador Days 15-16

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

*Written 2010.07.15, published in bulk 2010.07.18*

Ok, the diarrhea medication, along with a seasickness pill kindly donated to me by Tatiana, helped a lot. I feel better now than I’ve felt since leaving the jungle.

giant_tortoiseland_iguanaBefore leaving the Galapagos, we visited two towns, one on the southern side of Santa Cruz Island, and the other on San Cristobal Island. Yesterday evening we visited the Charles Darwin Research Center, located near the town on Santa Cruz Island. (We learned today that Darwin’s explorations did not actually include Santa Cruz Island, and thus find the Center’s location a bit perplexing.) At the Center, we were able to get quite close to some giant tortoises that are kept there, because they have gotten used to humans from being there for so long. Most are kept there for preservation of their species, being used to breed and release young to ensure that their species become repopulated. One that we saw was named “Lonesome George”, or “El Solitario George”, because he is the last of his species–when he dies, his species of giant tortoise will be added to the list of extinct species. They tried breeding him with females of a closely related species, and he did actually mate with them, but they did not manage to produce any offspring. He was pretty far away from the walkway, so we didn’t get to see him up close like some of the others, but at least he wasn’t hiding in the bushes. Also at the Research Center, we saw endemic plants that are being grown to help repopulate the native species (while they try to exterminate the non-native plants that were introduced in the past) and 2 yellow land iguanas. Land iguanas have become much more rare than their marine cousins, such that they are now rarely seen on the islands except for the ones in captivity at the research center. It is thought that both species evolved at some point from the same ancestor. Of all the iguana species in the world, the Galapagos Marine Iguana is the only aquatic member. The land iguanas, however, were much larger in size.

pelicansAfter our tour of the Darwin Center, we were given some free time to visit the gift shop and wander down to the town, where we did some more shopping, got some ice cream, and visited a pier where a local fisherman was feeding some of his catch to the pelicans, which was quite a site. It was then that we learned the true dedication of our staff…. After we finished shopping, we headed back to the pier by the research center at which we’d landed a few hours earlier, arriving exactly 4 minutes after the designated meeting time (6pm). We had both been under the impression that we were supposed to go back to the pier we’d been at earlier… but no one else from our ship was there. In fact, no one else was there at all. Deciding that they couldn’t possibly have all left without us and disappeared in 4 minutes, we decided it was more likely that we’d misheard, and that we were meeting at the pier in town. So we powerwalked the mile back into town and went back to the pier where we’d been watching the pelicans get fed. However, there was no one there, either. From there, we noticed a 3rd pier quite a bit farther down, and started wandering down the road trying to figure out how to get to it. After taking a wrong turn, asking for directions (sort of… I asked for “the boats” due to “pier” not being in my Spanish vocabulary), and staring at a map we found, we heard Tatiana yelling our names from a truck. Apparently after sending everyone else back to the ship, she’d asked her cousin (who lives in that town) to drive her around to look for us, while the ship captain searched for us on foot and the panga drivers came back and waited for us at the dock. As it turns out, that 3rd pier that we couldn’t find was in fact the designated meeting area… when she’d said to go back to the one we’d been at earlier, she’d meant… the one we’d been at that morning, not the one we’d gone to when we returned in the evening… not that that would have helped, since we’d had no idea where we were that morning. Embarrassing.

leon_dormidoThis morning, we got up a little earlier than normal and went to the top of the boat at 6:45am to watch as the ship circled a giant rock (called the sleeping lion) that was a popular nesting place for birds. We got out the binoculars and watched nasca boobies, blue-footed boobies, and frigate birds circling the rock or sitting on it. In addition, we got the bonus for getting up there early: we got a few glimpses of a whale that was near the ship!

flightWe then made our final stop before leaving the Islands, which was an Interpretation Center and a small town on San Cristobal Island. At the Interpretation Center, we were able to learn about the geologic history of the islands from Tatiana and to read about human history on the islands on our own. We learned facts such as that the original settlement on Floreana was supposed to be a refuge for prisoners… and it failed, and that there were many other failures in its history of settlement, with governors getting murdered, mysterious disappearances, etc. Apparently we’re really slow readers, however, because when we were about halfway through the exhibit we discovered we were the only ones in there, and left in search of the rest of the group… finding them just as they were leaving the Center. We have no idea what else they’d been doing in the meantime… and we never did finish reading about the human history. We then had about half an hour to wander the town and shop a bit more before being dropped off at the airport… for a flight that not only was the only flight leaving the islands all day, but left 2 hours late and had a layover in Guayaquil before getting to Quito. Therefore, the rest of the day was spent mostly in transit.

Ted’s Top 3 Mentionables from Galapagos:
1. Lots of animals you can walk up to!
2. Boat rocks a lot!
3. Fun! =)

Two positive notes once we got to Quito: we were met but our same guide from before, Paul–he hadn’t known whether he’d be assigned back to us or not–and he recommended to us a great pizza place that we walked to for dinner. We’ve had this great craving for pizza since before we even left for our cruise, due to eating a rather similar cuisine for our first 2 weeks in Ecuador. We generally can’t eat the same type of cuisine for more than 2 meals in a row before we get sick of it. The pizza was fantastic!

Wildlife Extravaganza: Ecuador Days 14-15

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

*Written on the boat 2010.07.14; posted by hotel WIFI in Quito 2010.07.18*

Ok, swimming with the sharks was cool. It was worth squeezing into the wetsuit and dropping out of the panga straight into the sea. We swam along a reef and eventually had to go single file through a couple reef channels, as we were looking for reef sharks. During the narrowest channel (maybe 1-1.5 meters across), the sharks were swimming beneath us. Not only were they larger than we expected (maybe 1-1.5 meters long themselves), but there were a lot of them, and the didn’t seem to mind being on top of each other like the marine iguanas. They were white-tipped reef sharks, and they were clearly identifiable by the white tips of their fins against their otherwise grey body. We were careful to keep our bodies horizontally floating on the water, lest our feet should dip too far beneath the surface… They swam along beneath us at the bottom of the channel, going both directions with seemingly little traffic control, and staying away from the surface of the water. I managed to resist the urge to reach out and touch them…

baby_iguanasYesterday evening’s land trip was cool too. We walked around the lava and mangroves along the southern coast of Isabela Island, looking for wildlife. We walked through the “kindergarten” of marine iguanas, where all the baby iguanas grow up because it has a good food source for them. The marine iguanas climb around on top of each other with even more disorder than the sharks, not seeming to mind getting elbows or claws in the face. We also walked through the nesting areas of tons of adult marine iguanas, all on top of each other in piles that blend in so well with the lava rock we almost didn’t notice some of them. Some of them appeared to spit at us out their noses, which we were told is how they cleanse their system of salt water and other toxins after going for a swim.

baby_sea_lionIn addition to the marine iguanas, we saw 4 baby Galapagos sea lions and a few adult sea lions hanging out on the land near the path. 1 of the babies had been abandoned and was very scrawny; our guide said it wouldn’t last much longer. =( The others were pretty adorable, lying in the middle of the path taking a nap or stretching. Strangely, none of the babies seemed to be near any of the adults, even the healthy ones. One of the adults snorted at me as I took a picture… We also saw the head of a sea turtle stick out of the water a couple times, but no more.

penguinsOn the way to and from the shore, the pangas stopped by a Galapagos Penguin hangout, and we watched the penguins waddle out of the water and wiggle around. They were also being visited by a pair of blue-footed boobies, proudly showing off their bright blue feet. Through we were on the southern tip, the northern tip of Isabela Island is the only place in the world where penguins can be found north of the equator (the equator runs through the top of the island).

tortoiseThis morning, we arrived at the southern side of Santa Cruz Island and took a bus up into its highlands, where the male giant tortoises like to chill. We wandered around looking for giant tortoises, spotting maybe 9 of them during our foray. These were much larger than the juveniles that we saw in the lowlands yesterday. Young turtles hatch and grow up in the lowlands, where it is sunnier and drier and the eggs can stay safe without getting lost in mud. Adult males stay at the top of the highlands, where the food source is better. Adult females stay in the middle, going up toward the males to mate and back toward the sea to lay their eggs. Tortoises can travel for months up or down the island to find a mate. The males also grow much larger than the females so that they can climb on top to mate with them. The largest that we saw today was perhaps 4 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 2 feet tall; the empty shell of a tortoise that died of old age was barely straddle-able by me. 😛 They moved very slowly, but when they moved, nothing in their way could stop them; they just plowed through it. Their heads also don’t go that far into hiding when they retract; if they want to be truly protected, they cover their heads afterwards with their thick elephant-like legs and feet. All of the tortoises that we saw this morning were domed tortoises; the other variety that exists in the islands are the saddleback tortoises, or the “galapagos” for which the islands were named. These have a saddle-shaped shell such that they can stretch their incredibly long necks and acquire food from the trees rather than the ground. Each island has its own species of tortoise which is endemic to its island, but most fall into one of those two categories.

In addition to searching for giant tortoises, we also walked through a lava tunnel and visited two sinkholes before returning to the boat for lunch. The lava tunnel was created as lava rushed down in tube form and had the outsides of it begin to cool and harden while the insides kept flowing. We walked through a part between two areas that had collapsed, allowing for entry and exit. We were also shown bones from cows that had gotten lost and died in the tunnels before people discovered they existed (and thus why their cows were going missing). In the largest portion, the tunnel was perhaps 18 feet in diameter; in the smallest portion, we had to wriggle our way through a maybe 2-foot high gap (though still wide enough to fit, maybe 5 feet wide). The varying widths of the tunnel were caused by its interaction with tunnels above and below it, and determined by which ones collapsed through which others. The sink holes were large craters in the ground now teeming with vegetation, which had been originally filled with lava that left through vents elsewhere, until eventually the basalt that formed their roofs collapsed into them. They were both large enough to be a lagoon, had they been filled with water.

In the evenings, Ted, Tatiana, and I have learned a new card game, courtesy of Laura, Julia, and Charlie. It is called Set. Apparently I’m not horrible at it, but neither am I fast enough to beat Laura. Sometimes Julia and Charlie took pity on me and donated points….

The only real downsides to our adventures of the last 24 hours were the speed and our health. At times we felt rushed, as our guide pushed us through areas to make sure that we got to see everything on schedule. In addition, my body has been having gastro-intestinal issues from the change in diet, culminating in stomachaches and diarrhea. While I don’t think I’m prone to seasickness, the rocking of the boat has been shaking around an already unhappy stomach and intensifying its issues. I spent the first half of last night sleeping on the couch in the dining room, because the lower level of the boat rocked less than the upper level. The staff kindly donated barf bags (I used one when I attempted to take a pill) and turned out the lights for us before they left for the night. I finally managed to keep some medication down this afternoon; hopefully it will help.

El Mar: Ecuador Days 12-14

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

*Written on the boat 2010.07.13; posted by hotel WIFI in Quito 2010.07.18*

No more potholes, no more cars, no more bumpy, rocky roads!

…Hello ocean, hello ship, hello bumpy, rocky sea!

We are now on our third day of a 5-day cruise around the Galapagos Islands! In many ways, it has been a relief to be able to stay in one place 2 nights (so far) in a row and to not have to spend all day in a car driving places. Ted’s headache has lessened since getting back down to sea level, but my intestines have been not-too-happy since last night.

odysseyWe are aboard the Odyssey, a boat whose naval name is the Gran Natalia. She has 16 passengers and 8 staff in 13 cabins on 4 levels. She is a relatively new vessel, built in 2008, and for a ship, she’s pretty nice. The bottom level has some staff cabins, the kitchen, the engine room, and I don’t know what else. The first main level has an outdoor deck, a loading deck for the pangas (the small boats that can take us to and from shore), an indoor dining room, and an indoor hallway with cabins. The second main level has an outdoor lounge area in the back, and cabins accessible by 2 outdoor walkways. The top level has a jacuzzi, beach lounge chairs both under the shade cover and in the sun, and a laundry line for wet clothing. Our room is on the 3rd level; it has 2 twin beds, a desk and chair, a nightstand, a mini fridge, a closet, a mini couch, and its own bathroom. It seems to get cleaned by the staff twice a day while we’re gone, and every time we get clean towels they are arranged in some cute shape–today they were turtles. We found it odd that we cannot lock the door from the outside, but there is a safe inside the closet. We also thought at first that all the drawers were fake or sealed; they get stuck shut and hard to open, possibly from lacquer that melts and gets sticky.

Our shipmates are 1 bilingual guide, Tatiana, 7 male staff, 1 family of five from Maryland/DC (Aileen, Dave, Laura, Julia, Charlie; the girls are twins), 1 family of 4 from Denmark who’d been on the boat for 4 days already when we got here (Anna, ??, Christine, Marie), 1 family of 3 from Denmark (Gitta, Henning, Simon), and 1 couple from Texas (Thomas, Colleen; he’s about twice her age). Colleen takes more pictures than Ted and I (this is an accomplishment), and Laura and Julie are pretty different for being twins (one is talkative and social, the other is quiet and reads a lot; she reminds me of myself at her age). Marie has been keeping to herself so Christine has been making friends with the ship captain, who tried to give us a dance lesson Sunday night.

marine_iguanaSince getting aboard the boat on Baltra Island, where the airport is, we have been to Santa Cruz Island, Bartolome Island, San Cristobal Island, and now Isabela Island. The first afternoon, we went for a short walk along the north side of Santa Cruz Island and then went snorkeling off its beach. We saw flocks of blue-footed boobies flying through the air, hiding their blue feet. We also saw pelicans, a flamingo, a neat bird that hovers solo, Sally Lightfoot crabs, marine iguanas, and lizards. When we went snorkeling, Ted and I were the only ones to not bother putting on a wetsuit; it was a warm day, and the water felt good… and warmer than Santa Cruz (CA).

bartolomeYesterday, we began the day with a hike up to the top of Bartolome Island, from which we could see many of the Galapogos Islands as well as a caldera in the sea next to Bartolome. We then went snorkeling off the coast of the island, this time all but one of us (Laura) in wetsuits. I spent some time following this bright rainbow-colored fish that was by itself amidst a school of large Nemo-looking fish. It had a greenish-yellowish middle with stripes of orange, blue, and pink around it, and a very metallic sheen. It also appeared to have 2 very scary-looking buck teeth that it kept permanently displayed. It was maybe a foot long. As I started to head back to shore, I was interrupted by a Galapagos Sea Lion that came to play near the shore. It swam pretty close to the swimmers, jumped up onto the beach startling two poor children who ran away, and came and nibbled on my foot! Later I saw it posing for pictures on the rocks. After lunch and a siesta (spent reading/napping), we had another opportunity for snorkeling, but Ted didn’t feel well and stayed on the boat, and I went and just splashed on the beach, apparently missing an opportunity to see a sea turtle that some of the kids watched. In the evening before dinner, we went on a hike on San Cristobal over large hardened lava flows, seeing neat lava formations, lava caves, lava potholes (in which our guide hid to trick us), lava rock mixed with iron that turned orange and weighed less, and eventually vegetation started to spring up in the older areas.

flamingoesToday, in contrast to the bright sunshine of yesterday, has been mostly overcast all day. We were supposed to hike to the top of a volcano on Isabela to see its caldera, but our guide said that there was so much fog we wouldn’t see anything once we got to the top. Instead, we took a drive along the coast in a bus/truck combo. We saw a family of endemic marine iguanas crossing the road, a few young giant tortoises (not so giant, due to their age, and thus more normal-sized), 5 flamingoes along with a few other birds, a colony of marine iguanas living on the lava rock (they blend right in), and crabs. I learned that crabs… can jump. It’s scary. We also took a short walk to the “wall of tears”, which was built of lava rock when Isabela was used as a prison as a way to give the prisoners something to do. We then took a nap in a hammock at a bar until it was time to return to the boat for lunch. Ted and I, along with Laura and Charlie, attempted to use the jacuzzi after lunch… but it was more of a pool than a jacuzzi. More hot water fail. It also regularly emptied itself as the boat rocked back and forth.

Things I hadn’t expected when I pictured the Galapogos Islands: I was surprised to learn how many precautions the government of Ecuador is taking in an attempt to preserve the islands. All of our bags get checked both when we depart from the mainland and when we arrive on Balta; our feet got cleaned off as we entered the airport on Balta, they have exterminated non-native species that were introduced and found to be harmful (such as goats), and they are not allowed to import their food–we’ve been eating native beef, native fish, etc. I also did not expect the islands to be as brown as some of the ones we’ve seen. For that matter, I hadn’t even realized they were volcanic, although it makes perfect sense. Some of them have had little more than weeds growing, although Isabela had areas of jungle today. Third, I did not expect the boat to rock quite so much. We sail between islands mostly at night; the first night it was short and not too rough, but last night I almost fell out of the bed. Since my stomach hasn’t been doing to well to begin with, the rocking boat isn’t helping much, although I don’t think it’s making me seasick. The first night, I woke up to the shower door slamming shut over and over again, until I got up to secure it. Lesson learned. Fourth, I had expected the water to be warm. I don’t know why. It’s not.

Finally, I hadn’t expected there to be civilization on the islands. Apparently there are 2 settlements, one on Isabela Island and one on the southern side of Santa Cruz Island, with a total of about 19,000 people living in them. I’m guessing that these populations existed here prior to it being made a national park; the people now make a living mostly off tourism, with restaurants, hotels, etc. Our guide even grew up on one of the islands, although she now lives in Quito with her husband.

It is now time to get ready to go deep-sea snorkeling off the panga, during which we will be looking for sharks… too bad it’s still overcast. Even the wetsuit doesn’t make it sound too inviting, but who can miss the sharks?