Subspecies Evolution: Ecuadork to Galapageek

The Grand Reunion

An Ecuadorian friend of Jo’s had kindly offered to pick up my family from the airport, so I arranged to ride along as a surprise. So, twenty-four hours after I had left the coastal whale project, I was stood in the small crowd outside the doors of Quito airport’s international arrivals, keenly holding up a sign I had made which read ‘Familia Maimaris-Bell’ and was decorated with a stick figure of me running towards a stick figure of Jo whilst stick mum and dad raised their arms in the background and cheered ‘Yay! Family Reunion!’. When the three of them emerged, they were so travel-weary that their faces mainly registered shock and confusion before I was leaping on them, much to the amusement of the Ecuadorians around us.

We headed straight into Quito’s Old Town and our hotel there. The next morning, we ate breakfast in the glassy rooftop restaurant of the hotel, overlooking one of Quito’s many historic plazas. I was presented with notes from various family members and my boyfriend, as well as a series of edible treats which I had requested: salt and vinegar crisps, crunchie bars, jaffa cakes and a tin of baked beans.

My delight at receiving cheese pastries from Cyprus, a childhood obsession of Jo and I

My delight at receiving cheese pastries from Cyprus, a childhood obsession of Jo and I

Jetlag, sleep deprivation and getting used to the altitude meant that our first family day was a chilled one. We wandered around the narrow streets and plazas of Quito’s Old Town and, seeing as it was Sunday, managed to slink into a few churches during services to see the stunning goldwork interiors. We popped into the San Francisco Convent Museum to admire the collection of the religious art made by the Quito School of Art during the 16th and 17th century, with its visceral style depicting droplets of blood and wounds on crucified Christs. We came to the main square, Plaza Independencia, and somehow managed to be the only people who weren’t shepherded off the lower veranda of the National Palace as the two guards standing either side of the main doorway did a somewhat out of time, ninety second changeover with the waiting replacements.

Feeling more recharged the next day, we took part in the free walking tour around the Old Town. We began with the weekly and far more impressive version of the changing of the guards in Plaza Independencia, in honour of the independence revolutionaries. More than a hundred guards dressed in royal blue, with white trousers and red and gold trimmings, took part in the impressive display, and Ecuador’s vice president stood on the balcony of the national palace watching. Below him several rows of guards made up the band which accompanied the entire proceedings, as guards both on foot and horses marched down the sides of the square and in circles around the central fountain, then a lone guard stationed on the roof of the palace raised the large flag of Ecuador.

We visited churches, a local confectionary stocked with fudge, guava jelly, sugar-coated nuts, fried plantain chips and roasted maize corn, and La Ronda, the bohemian street of the city. Although the street is quiet during the day, we popped our heads into the small workshops of an artesan woodworker, who designs and creates beautifully carved lock boxes and frames, and his brother, a metalworker, who made candlesticks and intricate padlocks.

 

My Family and Other Animals

After a couple of orientation days in Quito we were on the move, taking a short flight out to the Galapagos Islands.

It was during a voyage around the Galapagos islands, in 1835, that Charles Darwin began to formulate his theory of the Origin of species. He spent six weeks aboard the Beagle, travelling around the thirteen islands and forty-two islets which make up the archipelago, observing the amazing variance in the geology, vegetation and animals. There are ten different species of the famous giant tortoise across the islands, for example, or three species of land iguana endemic to the Galapagos, as well as the only marine iguanas in the world, though famously he studied the adaptation of the beaks of different species of finches and mockingbirds.

Currently four islands are inhabited, with a total population of roughly 30,000 people. We spent our first couple of days on the central island of Santa Cruz, in the largest town of the archipelago called Puerto Ayora. We began by visiting the Charles Darwin Research Centre, where four of the ten species of giant tortoises found across the islands are raised for the first six or seven years of their life, before being released back into the wild on the appropriate island. This is in order to ensure their protection as they are particularly vulnerable when young because their shells have not yet hardened. We passed a number of nurseries with absolutely tiny individuals only a few inches long, ranging from a few months old to two years. We then came to rocky, shrubby areas, with huge specimens, hardly moving more than their head as they basked in the sun.

We also visited a lava tunnel, created as the outer layer of lava cooled as it flowed down the mountain whilst the inner core carried on moving. It was huge, large enough for a lorry to drive through.

The next day, Jo and I were transferred by a motorised dinghy to a large sailing boat for our day of diving. We travelled for a couple of hours to a site called Gordon Rocks, a crater in the ocean roughly thirty metres deep, known for its abundance of marine life due to a strong current which runs through it. Though the visibility was unfortunately unusually low, during the course of my two dives I saw two large marine turtles drifting past, large marbled sting rays lying on the rocky seabed motionless aside from small ripples of their bodies, and the tails of multiple whitetip sharks protruding from a resting place in the darkness created by a large rock.

 

The Voyage of the Monserrat

Our eight day route, follow through the rainbow

 

DAY 1: Santa Cruz — South

Still on the island of Santa Cruz, a bus drove us to Manzanillo Ranch, where we ate lunch with our new guide Omar and the eight people who would be our fellow passengers on board the Yacht Monserrat, our home for the next week.

Omar then showed us around the ranch. It is a family-owned area, but wild giant tortoises roam around, munching on the greenery. Apparently, they can travel two kilometres a day, though most of them seemed in no rush to do so.

The bus drove us to the port, and a motorised dinghy, or panga in Spanish, skimmed across the water the short distance to the Monserrat.

The yacht was fairly small, with a capacity for twenty passengers, though we were only a group of twelve, along with two guides and nine crew members including the captain, first and second mate, two engineers, chef, chef’s assistant, barman/waiter and housekeeper. Cabins were on the lower deck and upper deck, whilst on the main deck in between there was a comfy lounge area with sofas, and a dining area with several booths and tables. Above the upper deck, there was a small area called the solarium, essentially a sunbathing a relaxing spot with sun loungers.

The four of us had two cabins on the upper deck. They were small but nicely fitted, and each with their own shower room, overall decidedly more luxurious than several places I have stayed on land over the last six months.

In the evening we had welcome drinks and the crew and passengers all introduced themselves. Our briefing for the next day came next and most days it roughly followed the same routine: breakfast around 7AM, hiking activity and snorkel session in the morning, moving to another spot over the couple of hours for lunch and rest time, then another hike and snorkel in the afternoon, followed in the evening by a briefing for the next day and then dinner.

Omar also explained a bit about the geography of Galapagos. The islands were created from volcanic activity around a hotspot, forming as lava spurted to the surface. The archipelago is on the Nazca oceanic plate which is subducting under the continental plate on which the mainland of South American rests, and therefore the islands are moving towards the continent at a rate of 3-5cm per year. The hotspot activity combined with the tectonic plate movement means that the oldest islands are to the east, nearer the mainland, and are thought to be roughly 5million years old, whereas the youngest are to the west and thought to be roughly 300,000 years old. The youngest islands have not yet moved away from the hotspot so they still have active volcanoes.

This staggered formation, along with being at the convergence point of seven different oceanic currents, is the reason for the Galapagos Islands’ famously varied environments, which have given rise to incredible adaptations of the flora and fauna. The Galapagos is home to endemic species (found nowhere else in the world), native species (found on the Galapagos but also in other places) and introduced species (such as rats, goats, cats and dogs brought over by human settlers).

 

DAY 2: Santiago and Bartolomé

The Monserrat moored in Sullivan Bay, of Santiago Island, and the pangas dropped us on land. We walked around the area which was covered in black lava rock in beautiful formations created in 1896 during the last eruption on the island. There were large ropey sections which looked like the puckered surface of whipped cream, cinder cones created when the dry surface had cracked and lava spurted out, cooling quickly so that that rock was high in crystals and had a shiny quality, and globules of lava tears from slower lava movement. There were a couple of galapagos sea lions, a species endemic to the islands, sunning themselves on the rocks by the sea.

During our first snorkel, in the bay, I gave mum a snorkelling lesson as she had never done it before and felt a touch nervous, and we saw many large shoals of silvery fish.

In the afternoon we moved the short distance to the small island of Bartolomé and got back into the water for another snorkel. The sandy seabed was covered in large brown and bright orange starfish. Jo, dad and I came across our first sea lion in the water, who was incredibly playful. It looped around and swam headlong straight at us, before blowing a burst of bubbles in our face and changing course at the last moment. The more we swam in circles and around it, the more it showed off. It was an exhilarating feeling which left us all on quite a high.

For our hike around the island we followed a boardwalk, climbing 365 steps up to a peak with a stunning view across the island and those surrounding. Like Santiago, Bartolomé was similarly covered in lava formations but the rock was a reddish colour because the volcanic eruption which created it occurred underwater, so the iron in the lava oxidised with the oxygen of the seawater.

On our way back to the boat, the pangas passed by a few penguins waddling around on the rocks, the only species of penguin in the northern hemisphere, and we witnessed the very fast phenomenon which is the eight seconds penguins take to mate.

 

DAY 3: Santa Cruz — North

Overnight we travelled back to Santa Cruz, but to the north of the island this time. For our morning hike we landed on the Beach of the Bachas, and saw how different the landscape was compared to the south. The brilliant blue of the sea in the sunshine led to a white sandy beach which was broken up here and there by areas of black lava rock. We stuck strictly to the beach, as apparently in the sand dunes behind there were marine turtle nests. Omar named the various wildlife as we spotted it: a great egret with an eel in its mouth, a blue footed booby sat on a rock with its wings spread to dry in the sun, fiery-coloured sally lightfoot crabs, and very excitingly, a small, definitely juvenile blacktip shark swimming up and down in the clear shallow waters very close to the beach. We walked a short way inland and came to a freshwater lagoon with several blackish marine iguanas basking in the sun at the edge of the water. They are a species endemic to the Galapagos, and the only iguanas which dive in the world. They optimally need to reach 40°C in order to enter the water to eat the algae which their diet consists of. They can dive for up to an hour, though usually are more likely to spend around thirty minutes in the water.

During our snorkel sesh, mum and I saw a large marbled ray rippling along the sandy bed and many more fish, both large shoals and colourful usually larger individuals.

For the afternoon hike we stayed on the same island, moving slightly south-west to Dragon’s Hill. This area was slightly hillier, and we climbed through a landscape of incense tree (also called holy tree or holy stick and known for the strong, aromatic smell of its sap) and cacti. Dotted around we saw land iguanas, the males bright yellow to brown in colour, whilst the females a duller brown to grey. Their colour is from the pigment of the yellow prickly pears they eat. Both giant tortoises and land iguanas eat the pods and fruit of the cacti, so the plant has adapted by growing taller. Land iguanas, therefore, can go up to six months without water, waiting near a cactus for it to become so laden with pods that it bends over.

 

DAY 4: Santa Cruz — North, North Seymour and Mosquera

We had an early start, with a panga ride around Black Turtle Cove, a shallow inlet with wide passages surrounded by mangrove trees. We saw an abundance of wildlife, including a large eagle ray, black with white spots swimming with a flying motion, very large marbled rays, and multiple marine turtles, including two bobbing at the surface. It transpired they were mating, bobbing at the surface for air. A female can spend up to three days mating with multiple males, and is able to store the sperm inside of her for three years afterwards so that she can create multiple nests during the right season, a necessary adaptation seeing as the survival rate of marine turtles which make it to adulthood is a mere 1%.

We came to an even shallower area of the cove, named Shark Avenue. We could see multiple whitetip sharks resting, as well as several which swam in and out of the avenue whilst we were there. Unlike oceanic sharks which can never rest in the same way, as reef sharks whitetips can rest in shallow areas facing upstream so water flows through their gills allowing them to breathe.

As soon as we headed back to the boat, several passengers who had been on the cruise for a few days before us transferred out to the airport island, and we waited around for the new rotation to arrive. When they did, we were a larger livelier group of eighteen in total, with two new guides, Gandhy and Maria.

In the afternoon we had the chance for two snorkelling session. The first was in the clear waters next to North Seymour island where we swam through large shoals of razor surgeonfish, silvery-blue fish with yellow tails. We then snorkelled from the beach of Mosquera islet, where several sea lions came into the water to play, including fairly small pups and an adult who had a penchant for nibbling our fins. I learnt to mimic the sea lions more, trying to time my breathing so that I surfaced at the same time as they did, diving down to loop around with them.

In the evening one of our guides, Gandhy, played guitar for us, and we all had a sing along to those songs we knew, as well as an introduction to some Spanish and Galapageño ones we didn’t. Juan the barman/waiter, or Juanito as he was affectionately called by all of us, and Maria started dancing and soon everyone was up and boogying around the lounge room. We were interrupted by a surprise visitor on board: a sea lion juvenile had climbed onto the back of the main deck and waddled around as we all cooed until it was successfully directed back into the water.

 

DAY 5: Tintoreras and San Isabella

In the morning we walked around Tintoreras. It is a flat islet of lichen-covered, spikey, black lava rock. Multiple times as we encountered large groups of marine iguanas as we followed the trail. The groups were thirty-five strong at least, basking in the sun and periodically spitting out salt, with many sally lightfoot crabs nearby, as they live in symbiosis, eating the ticks off the skin of the marine iguanas. We came to Tintoreras Fissure, or Whitetip Fissure in English, a narrow canal of water which we could look down into to see multiple whitetip sharks resting, nine individuals at the time we were there.

As the pangas took us back to the boat, we passed by a large group of blue-footed boobys on guano-covered rocks, with a few penguin visitors amongst them.

We snorkelled close to the islet, seeing a Diamond Stingray and I had my first close encounter with several marine turtles, who were unfazed by our presence and slowly skulled along in the water below us.

In the afternoon we were dropped off at a pier in the south of the large island of San Isabella. Sea lions lounged in small fishing boats in the bay, on benches and under trees. Double cabin taxis drove us into town, stopping on the way next to a freshwater lagoon made as rainwater collected in an old quarry. A group of flamingos stood in the water, each balancing on one leg with their heads tucked into their wings. They are the brightest flamingos I have ever seen in the wild, their colouring due to the shrimp they eat. They are believed to be the newest arrivals to the Galapagos, within the last 1000 years, as they have not adapted and are the same as the greater flamingos, also known as the caribbean flamingos, found further north.

We visited the Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre. The species there differed from those found in the Darwin Centre on Santa Cruz island. The last ten individuals of a specific domed shell variety had been found around some of the southern volcanoes of the islands and brought to the centre, to breed offspring and therefore save the species from extinction. Eighteen individuals of the other species at the centre, a spattershape shell variety which have a flatter shape to their shells, bred 200 individuals in two years, with basically 100% survival rate of the eggs seeing as they are carefully incubated and monitored. After six years, all offspring are released back into the wild.

 

DAY 6: Sombrero Chino and Rábida

We landed on the islet of Sombrero Chino next to the beachmaster, a large, male, two hundred kilogram sea lion, who was swimming up and down protecting his territory and the harem of female sea lion and pups within it. Because a beachmaster has no time to eat, what with his constant patrolling duties, he will gradually become weaker and usually last no longer than three months as the king of his domain, as another male will challenge him and succeed in taking over. Females, however, are free to move between harems and mate with different males, and have the ability of delayed insemination, so can prevent sperm from fertilising their eggs if they find a bigger, stronger male with better DNA to donate. We passed a lactating sea lion pup who brawled loudly at its mother, and found the islet covered in carpetweed, a shrubby plant which turns red in the dry season to conserve water.

The snorkelling there was excellent, with amazing visibility, a fairly strong current so that we could drift along without much effort, vast shoals and even a whitetip shark who casually swam past us.

In the afternoon we landed on the beach of Rábida islet, which had dark, maroon sand caused by the erosion of reddish, oxidised lava rock. We climbed up a slightly rocky trail, passing through an incense tree forest, and more of the opuntia cacti which the land iguanas and giant tortoises feed on, and were told the astonishing fact that they can live more than four hundred years.

During the snorkelling session I had a quick play with a couple of juvenile sea lions and was also lucky enough to see a large eagle ray ‘fly’ beneath me.

 

DAY 7: Santiago

We arrived back on the island of Santiago this time on the western coast. We landed on the beach of Puerto Egas, which was made of black sand from eroded lava rock, and had beautiful layered stacks and arch formations. We followed the coastline to a rocky area, where we encountered a pair of galapagos hawks, as well as the remains of a marine iguana, which they kill by picking up in their talons and then dropping from a great height, before picking clean. In the crevices of the black rock we found several galapagos fur sea lions sleeping. They are much smaller than the other species of sea lion endemic to the Galapagos which we have been encountering so far, with a stockier physique and shorter snouts so that they look more bear-like. They are nocturnal, though do not feed at night during the full moon as sharks, which eat them, can see better in the moonlight.

Snorkelling was interesting, with greater variety of coral than we have seen so far, and several large marine turtle cruising along and resting on the sandy sea bed to eat seaweed.

As we had a longer distance to cover that night in the boat, we only had time for a snorkelling session in the afternoon, our last of the trip. It begin fairly normally, then suddenly, out at the front of the group, I spotted the white tipped tails of several whitetip sharks resting under a rock, roughly eight in total. They swam in and out and allowed us a close up look.

Further along the bay, as the last people still in the water, Jo and I met a couple of adult sea lions with four absolutely tiny pups, the smallest we have seen in the water, a darker colour than usual and shooting around like bullets through the water, with scarily large but cute eyes. An amazing snorkel to end on.

 

DAY 8: North Seymour

The best wake-up call of the week: following a loud exclamation outside the door of our cabin, we rushed outside to find four galapagos sharks circling the boat, very close to the surface. Beautiful animals.

We had time for a quick hike around North Seymour. The island is particularly known for its birdlife. We saw swallowtail gulls, widely considered the most beautiful gull in the world and the only nocturnal one; they hunt at night by following the bioluminescence created by plankton which the shrimp they eat feed on. We saw a lot of courtship behaviour, with male blue-footed boobys dancing, with their wings spread and feet hopping, to woo females, and male frigatebirds with their large red throat membranes inflated.

After a quick breakfast, we disembarked the Monserrat for the last time, waving goodbye to the crew members, and the pangas dropped us off on South Seymour island to take a flight back to Quito.

And there we have it: the Voyage of the Monserrat! My family are in Ecuador for another week yet though, so we have plenty of time for a few more adventures and mishaps.

 

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