Quickly Through Quito

The final stop of our flying visit through Ecuador was its capital, Quito. As this was Helen’s third visit, I left her at the hostel for my first bit of exploring. I joined the Free Walking Tour, lead by Ovi, to get an idea of the city, visiting the market and several of the major landmarks. As with all FWTs, it provided a great way to get a feel for the city and plenty of ideas for where to visit. After the tour, I re-met Helen and we went up to the statue overlooking the city. Somehow, we ran out of money at this point and only one of us could afford to go up to the balcony by her feet (which cost a whole one dollar!), I went as Helen had been before. The view from here really put the city into perspective, it’s vast urban landscape suddenly revealed from the height; from our hostel in the centre of the old town, the valley hides the city’s other, newer districts.

The following day, we visited the Presidential Palace. The encumbant Rafael Correa decided that the palace should be for all the people, opening it up for people to visit on free guided tours, and meaning he is the first president not to live there (although Ovi suggests that the last part might have something more to do with the number of presidents who have been assassinated in and around the palace). Although the palace wasn’t the most awe inspiring building I’ve been to, it was still impressive, especially as it’s still functional. There was an exhibition by a local artist throughout the residence and glass cabinets containing state gifts from countries around the world. We went into the cabinet room, and we couldn’t enter one room as there was a function going on (someone important’s birthday apparently).

After our tour finished, we headed to the Basílica del Voto Nacional, perched on a hill overlooking the old town. Although the knave wasn’t open, we could climb the church’s towers. On the way up, we crossed over a balcony that looked towards the altar and gave us a stunning, up close view of the stained-glass, something Helen was very happy about, before we carried on up. After several flights of stairs, we came to a wooden planked path that crossed over the top of the roof the chuch, followed by a series of very steep metal ladders, which lead to the tower of the church and alternative (more adventurous) view of the city.

With our eight days drawing to an end, we decided to have one night out in Quito, the highlight of which was a restaurant/bar along the bohemian street, La Ronda. It was a spot for locals and it was great to see their different attitude to keeping up public appearances: people would often get up to dance with their friends and at one point there was a teenager happily dancing with his grandmother, something that is less likely to be seen back home.

A Whistle Stop Tour

Guayaquil

After a few days dedicated to cataloguing and preparing the previous posts, Helen’s ninety-day Peru visa was up and we headed north to the border without time to spare. Our destination was Ecuador’s most populous city: the infamously dangerous Guayaquil. Our journey wasn’t without incident: due to some technicalities with Ecuadorian immigration, Helen was only granted an eight-day visa meaning that our time around the equator would be more of a flying visit.

Guayaquil’s notoriety was perhaps a little unfair, as over the last decade or so, areas of the city have undergone major renovations to increase safety. Although a lot of our time was still being spent in our hostel sorting out the jungle blog post, we visited the Malecón 2000, the redeveloped riverfront promenade. With this new image came a horde of security guards who looked on as we wandered past attractions and monuments, our favourite being the botanical gardens, taking in the evening sun.

Cuenca

Continuing our whistle stop tour of Ecuador, our second visit was the Andean town of Cuenca. We decided to go for a different approach here, taking the tourist bus up to the viewpoint (the cheapest option). We enjoyed our first sightseeing bus experience, even if it’s not quite how we would normally do things, especially for some of the more unique views that it gave us.

Cuenca itself was a particularly fine example of colonial architecture, with many beautifully restored facades and great stoneworking. We also visited the flower market, which, according to National Geographic is the best in the world. It seemed a little on the small side to me, but there was no denying that the bouquets were lovely.

The Final Family Chapter

First up, I have put together video footage from the Galapagos over the last ten days. Seeing as it was made using footage from a fifty quid, no-brand underwater camera, free and very basic editing software, and zero expertise, I hope it gives a feel for the experiences we had. (For the slightly less tech-savvy readers among you, particularly if your internet is slow, pause the video and leave it for a while to buffer, then you should be able to watch it smoothly.)

 

Our Countryside Break

Once we had returned from the Galapagos, we hardly had any slowing down time in Quito to get rid of the swaying feeling from the boat, before we were moving on again. We spent a couple of days in Otavalo, a town north of Quito. Our accommodation, or posada (meaning ‘lodging’), was beautiful, the entrance hall hung with indigenous art and the garden leafy, colourful and an attraction for hummingbirds.

We wandered around Parque Condor, a rehabilitation centre for birds of prey located just outside the town. There were many species of owls, eagles, hawks, and an individual of the king of them all: the Andean condor. The condor belongs to the vulture family and is absolutely huge, with a wingspan of up to three metres. It is the national bird of Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador, and a national symbol for Peru and Argentina, considered sacred in indigenous cultures which grew from the Incas, as a ruler of the upper world or heavenly world. We also saw a few individuals of different species in a flying demonstration, including a large bald eagle, famously the national bird of the United States, which did a large loop over the town below us with a few flaps of her wings, drifting on the wind currents.

Our evening meal in the posada’s restaurant, was accompanied by a local band playing traditional Andean music, the melody created by the distinctive panpipes.

The next morning I woke up to stomach pains, so had to skip out on the main reason for our visit to the town: the Saturday market. However, seeing as the accommodation was so nice, I spent a peaceful morning writing up the blog and relaxing with a view across the garden and the hovering hummingbirds.

 

Just Act Normal

The next day, having returned to Quito, we found the city struck down by the same Sunday syndrome evident all over the continent, so took the hint and had a more chilled out day. We found our way to Casa Gangotena, an incredibly posh and expensive hotel in the Old Town, which the guide on our free walking tour a couple of weeks ago had mentioned for having a small garden tucked away in a courtyard hidden from the street, as well as excellent coffee. The suited-up security man directed us to a receptionist, who phoned through to check the café could cope with our requests for drinks, and then personally escorted us the twenty metres into the next room, where a waiter tried to graciously help us all into our seats, and we instead filled the room with the sound of our scraping chairs. The place was beautiful, painted a pale yellow, with white columns, a high ceiling, and filled with light, one wall completely made of glass looking into the small ‘secret’ garden. The coffee was, as promised, absolutely excellent, though the pretentious and graceful nature of the place meant that though we tried our hardest to be on our best behaviour, the waiter was still snooty, and at the end Jo declared ‘to be honest, my favourite part of this experience was pretending to be a normal-volumed family’.

Once the working week began, the pace of the city picked up again. We visited the Convent of San Diego. Though we had found out about it from a guidebook, it seemed it wasn’t very well-known; there were no other visitors there at all. An elderly lady, very short with spindly legs and a smart tweed skirt, showed us around, carrying two huge bunches of keys and unlocking various rooms as we went along. We began in the main church, with goldwork and sculptures ranging across several centuries, moving into a small room with four hundred year old frescoes, and she then led us through a hidden stone door in the back of the altar which opened onto a tomb, where we looked down into a pit to see a heap of ancient skeletons. We were shown into the old bedrooms of monks, the refectory for praying, and their kitchen. The culmination of the odd tour came when she gestured up a flight of very narrow steps and told me to turn right, and I found myself on the roof. She led us up and down the red roofs of the convent, as if this was a normal, every-day activity, and showed us the bells, with a demonstration clank of each one and a gift of a small bit of gold leaf which had flaked off the clankers. We had a splendid view of the cemetery next door, down the hill into Quito’s old town, and up the hill to the statue of the Virgin Mary which overlooks the city.

This statue was our next stop, in fact. A taxi rumbled its way up the cobbled street leading to the top of the hill which the madonna stands on and dropped us off. We climbed the steps inside the base of the statue, which had colourful stained-glass windows, and emerged on a balcony which ran around the bottom. We had a beautiful view across the old town, and a strange one above us, an odd angle to look at the ‘Virgen de Quito’, with her halo of stars and large wings, as she stood on a globe, crushing a snake.

 

Crossing the Line

My family could hardly visit Ecuador without a trip to its namesake. Half an hour out of Quito, the Mitad del Mundo, or middle of the world, is honoured with a large tacky park, similar to a theme park but without any exciting rides, in the centre of which stands a large tower, the pavement on either side marked with a bright yellow line to show the equator. The main problem with the monument, in my eyes, is that seeing as the calculation was made in the 1700s, GPS has since shown that the equator is, in fact, 240 metres further north than the original calculations. Nonetheless, we did the usual ‘we’re at a landmark’ photos, with mum, dad and Jo stood in the northern hemisphere trying to reach across to me so far away in the southern hemisphere. We climbed the tower for the view and to see the museum inside it, with information on different indigenous groups across Ecuador, then left the park and walked the short distance to the Intiñan museum.

This museum was outside and presented a rather interesting but odd sight. A guide led us along a path which wound its way amid totem poles from various Latin American countries, as well as examples of the housing from different tribes of the rainforest region of Ecuador, who were invited to the site to create an authentic example of their living conditions. We then came to the actual equatorial line, as calculated by military GPS twenty years ago, and tried various experiments: balancing an egg on a nail, trying to walk along the line with both eyes shut, and the most interesting of all, observing the coriolis effect: watching water drain from a basin spinning anti-clockwise in the northern hemisphere, clockwise in the southern, and straight down on the equator, though in the light of complete honesty, some basic reading since has led me to believe this may have been a rather entertaining scam to please tourists.

All too soon, it was our last day together. We boarded the TeleferiQo, Quito’s cablecar system, which took thirty minutes in a gondola to soar more than nine hundred metres up one of the mountains surrounding the city. At nearly four thousand metres altitude it was pretty breathtaking work walking between the viewpoints, but well worth the incredible views across the great expanse of the city.

We ate a picnic in our parents’ room at the hotel (yes, we are an odd family) and that evening had a last family meeting/cuddle altogether, before waking up just a few hours later to get to the airport in time for their flight home. It’s always difficult to say something profound at the goodbye moment, especially after such a great holiday together, so we just focused on the hugging instead.

 

Alone Again, Naturally

As a parting gift, mum and dad had paid for a short flight south to another large city in Ecuador followed by a ticket with a posh bus company which drive straight to Lima, so that a journey which might have taken me fifty hours or more, with several nights spent on buses, actually only took forty-five hours and two overnight journeys.

Having crossed the border back into Peru, then driving for hours through desert and into the mountains, I arrived in the Andean city of Huancayo. I was picked up at the bus terminal by Eli and her two-month-old son, Renzo. Eli and her husband Neto founded and run Carisma Peru, a charity based in Huancayo which links volunteers to medical, educational and social work projects. Eli took me back to their house, where I will be living for the next month, and I met her husband Neto, and six-year-old daughter Maria Fe. And so, the next chapter begins.

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.

 

Over-whale-ming!

I’m going to start with two apologies. One, for the terrible pun of a title. I didn’t come up with it myself if that makes it any better. Which it probably doesn’t. Secondly, I apologise for the fact that it has been a particularly long wait since the last update. I thought it made more sense to relay my experiences carrying out volunteer fieldwork for the Pacific Whale Foundation in one go, to attempt to give some coherence to all the information I learnt, some of which I will impart, as well as the varied encounters.

A Foundation of Knowledge

My first day volunteering with the Pacific Whale Foundation began with a briefing. I was the sole volunteer at the foundation. I coincided for a few days with Wendy, who has done volunteer fieldwork for two previous seasons and this year was working for the foundation, training interns. She is also a biologist with an MA in Animal Behaviour and Welfare, so I was a touch undereducated in the field in comparison. Normally volunteers don’t receive training, they are given a camera and off they go on boat trips, so the lucky coincident of the few days with Wendy meant I began by learning a hell of a lot, which was then incredibly useful in understanding the behaviour I later observed, and also meant I could help out by inputting data.

Monday morning we began with humpback basics: anatomy, breeding and feeding grounds, the various pod compositions, different behaviours and photo identification.

The most basic fact about humpbacks: they are baleen whales. Whales are divided into two distinct sub-orders: those with teeth and those without. Humpback whales belong to the group without teeth; instead they have baleen, long, black, rigid strips of material, similar to that of human fingernails, which hang down from either side of the upper jaw and are used as a filtering system to trap small fish and marine organisms inside its mouth when feeding. The fact that humpbacks are baleen whales affects all aspects, from their anatomy to feeding habits to social organisation.

Machalilla National Park, a protected area around Puerto Lopez which stretches across roughly three parallel kilometres of ocean as well, makes up part of the breeding ground of the South Pacific Humpback population, and as I learnt, humpback whales have very distinct breeding and feeding grounds. Therefore, the behaviour I would be observing would often be related to mating.

courtesy of the Pacific Whale Foundation Bright red: breeding ground Dark red: feeding ground

courtesy of the Pacific Whale Foundation
Bright red: breeding ground
Dark red: feeding ground

My fieldwork would take the form of roughly three-hour-long boat trips, five days a week. Armed with the foundation’s camera which had a 300mm lens (in layman’s terms, one of those lenses which looks like it could poke out your eye), I would ride in the whalewatching boats along with the tourists, and photograph every single millisecond of humpback surface activity possible, making brief notes on pod composition and behaviour.

POD COMPOSTION

Humpback associations are very transient. The most stable pod association is the mother-calf pair, as a calf will remain with its mother for roughly one year after birth. These pairs tend to have a slower pace, particularly if the calves are newly born; as a female gestates for roughly 11-12 months, the calves are born at the same time of year as they are conceived, and therefore in this mating area. In breeding grounds it is common for one male to join them as an ‘escort’, as it is possible for females to get pregnant whilst lactating another calf, or to have male-female pair without a calf. These associations can range from a few hours to a few days. At the least stable end of the scale is the heat run association: one nuclear female followed by a number of males in a hierarchy who compete with each other. A pod of this type will usually be fast moving and can last mere minutes.

Lone individuals, always males in breeding grounds, are common and are still classified scientifically as a pod.

BEHAVIOUR

I was given a behaviour key. The most common surface behaviour is sailing, basically the whale swimming along with its dorsal fin curving above the surface every now and then much like a sail, or blowing, when a whale surfaces to breathe and therefore sends a plume of water droplets into the air through its blowholes.

Almost all other behaviour relates to different levels of aggression which males exhibit as they compete for a female. In the breeding grounds an adult female is never alone. She tends to swim along accompanied by a primary escort and a number of males, who compete to displace the primary escort, trying to get between the primary escort and female until there remains one victor who, having proven his manoeuvrability and endurance and therefore suitability as a potential donor of DNA, may, just may, get the chance to mate with her. The actual act of mating has never been scientifically documented.

The competitive behaviour visible on the surface during this heat run starts at the relatively chilled out end of the scale: a male may engorge his throat, believed to be so that he looks bulkier and more threatening, or shake his head. If the competition starts to heat up a bit, jaw clapping may follow, or lunging forwards out of the water with his inflated head. At the I-really-want-to-kill-you end of the scale, as Wendy put it, males may perform a head slap, propelling half of their body out of the water and slapping it with tremendous force onto the water’s surface, or one of the most aggressive moves possible, a peduncle throw, throwing the rear portion of their body out of the water and slamming into on the surface. At this stage males may butt each other with their heads, or jostle and push at each other, and have been known to draw blood and cause injury. Indeed, one way of guessing the sex of an adult is to use close up photographs to examine their dorsal fins: females usually have hardly any marks or damage, whereas males have deep marks, scars or even chunks missing.

Finally, there is the most spectacular move of them all: breaching, or the full body jump which humpbacks in particular are so famous for. It is not known for certain exactly what purpose breaching serves. There have been suggestions that it allows a whale to signal its position to other whales, see what is above the water’s surface, or ‘GPS’ their own location.

PHOTO IDENTIFICATION

The bottom of the tail fin, or ventral fluke, of each whale is like a human fingerprint. The coloration varies from all white to all black, with many mixed variations in between. Over roughly 16 years, Dr Christina Castro, the Research Director of the Ecuadorian branch of Pacific Whale Foundation, has compiled catalogues with the fluke prints of 3000 individual humpbacks. Photo identification, and thus individual identification and resightings, is crucial for analysing many aspects of the humpback whale, such as population, distribution, social dynamics and migratory movements. The fluke patterns of calves do not properly set until a year or two.

A range of flukes i gathered over my 3 weeks of fieldwork

A range of flukes i gathered over my 3 weeks of fieldwork

Photographs of dorsal fins allow for help with determining the sex of the animal and any significant scarring may also help identification at a further date. Therefore close ups of flukes and dorsal fins were my main focus.

A comparison of dorsal fins

A comparison of dorsal fins

So with all of these details swirling in my head, I set off to begin the actual fieldwork.

 

Week 1

Wendy came along on my first boat trip so I understood quite how many photos to take, and how to quickly categorise and understand the often fleeting glimpses of surface activity, particularly in relation to the composition of a pod.

We came across the sad sight of a sea lion who had either been entangled in a fishing net, or whose carcass had been tied up in fishing lines to attract fish.

After a couple of hours of constant alertness we had a break while the tourists had a snorkelling stop and ate the banana cake handed out every trip (not that I looked forward to the cake every day after that or anything), then we headed back to the pier.

In the evening Wendy showed me how to input the data into a spreadsheet (boat name, launch and return time, weather, tide, pod number, composition and behaviour) and then how to organise and edit photographs of dorsal fins and tail flukes so that they could be added to the identification catalogues.

Wendy left the next day, but I soon got into the swing of things on my own. I got to know various capitans and marineros (the helping hands) who were always friendly. As time went on, the day invariably began with shouts from various capitans, sat on the top deck by their steering wheels, arguing that ‘Elenita’ should be on their boat for the day.

Each evening I spent anywhere between half an hour to three hours inputting the data and organising the photos. The large table in my apartment became my work station, with books and scientific papers on humpbacks piled in between the large camera, extra equipment, a whale poster, clipboard, behaviour key and extra data sheets. My eyes often went square from staring at minute markings on dorsal fins for too long, trying to ensure accurate matches.

My quickly growing obsession, fed by all the reading material I consumed, meant that although I may be an English and Creative Writing graduate and much as I protested to all the boat crews that I had no formal education in the relevant field, I was soon known as a biologist.

More than 15 pods, 12 hours, and 2500+ photographs later, the week ended on a particular high with an amazing experience, which I detailed in a short article for the Pacific Whale Foundation blog:

The Perfect Tour

Friday 15th August

Our small whalewatching boat was following a lone adult male humpback whale as he swam through the water, every now and then blowing a spurt of water vapour into the air as he surfaced to breathe and curving his dorsal fin out as he swam back under. It had taken us half an hour to find him, our first sighting of the day’s tour, so it had been a pretty slow start.

We followed him for about ten minutes. Glancing up in the direction he was headed, I saw an unusual sight. Over a seemingly nondescript area of water, a hundred or more blue-footed boobys were spiralling. From a distance it looked as though, periodically, birds were suddenly dropping out of the sky, hurtling towards the water, but as we approached I realised these plummets were precision dives, with the birds pulling out just above the surface of the sea. I then noticed many more birds bobbing about in the water, like a small, feathery fleet of boats a passing school of fish must have attracted the attention of the boobys, I guessed, and caused the concentrated activity.

As we got closer many of the tourists on board the boat started pointing and exclaiming. All around us dolphins were leaping out of the water and skimming along just below the surface. After observing whales recently, the dolphins seemed unbelievably agile, fast and very very small. It was difficult to see much detail besides dark, shiny blurs, but Christina later confirmed from my blurry photographs that it was a pod of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins, which are normally roughly 2.5m in length when fully grown, in comparison to the 13-16m of the adult humpback whales, and have been previously encountered in offshore areas in schools of hundreds, even thousands.

Then the whales came. To one side of our boat, a large pod swam towards the area the birds spiralled, possibly twelve individuals the captain estimated. To our other side, where the birds bobbed and flew around, there were several more pods swimming amid the leaping dolphins, though there were so many individual whales that I had no chance of identifying which were travelling in the same direction and interacting with each other, and therefore which could be categorised as separate pods. They all exhibited similar behaviour: sailing, the term given to whales swimming along, blowing, and very frequently, no blow rises (rising to the surface without blowing).

The captain said the humpbacks had congregated for the fish, but I wasn’t so certain. Machalilla National Park makes up part of the area identified as the breeding ground of the South Pacific humpback population. Feeding has only rarely been documented in the breeding grounds of any of the world’s humpback populations, and indeed I saw no signs of lunge feeding (a technique whereby the humpbacks opens its mouth near the surface and swims back and forth engulfing the prey) or bubblenet feeding (when the humpback dives beneath its prey and turns in a board circle, emitting bubbles from its blowhole, so that when these bubbles ascend, they form a noisy ring around the prey, disorientating them long enough for the humpback to swim upwards and engulf the food). My best amateur, and somewhat flimsy, stab at a guess is that the whales had been attracted by the activity. Simply put, they were curious.

Whichever it was, the experience was incredible, far too much to take in. Birds crying out, swooping, circling, dolphins springing and arching out of the water, riding beside the bow of our boat and darting away as white shadows just beneath the surface, and the giant whales amid all this activity, rising slowly with their knobbly heads.

What is more, when I later came to input my data for the day, I realised my estimates had been right: this wasn’t just a short, fleeting momentary experience, it lasted half an hour.

As our boat headed back towards shore, everyone on board chattered excitedly. It had been an unusual and particularly exciting tour and to round it off, a lone male suddenly surfaced close to us, tail slapping. The fluke of his tail disappeared beneath the water’s surface and the anticipation began to mount. Suddenly, with an explosion of water droplets, his enormous black and white bulk was thrown up and out of the water, in a spectacular breach. The day’s tour had been about as near perfect as it can get.

 

Week 2

Week 2 began with an encounter with a male and female adult who seemed to be exhibiting courtship behaviour (a lot of body contact, rubbing of bellies, slapping of tail and pectoral fins) and then began to jump, or breach, one after another, time and time again, leaping in a kind of explosive, watery chain, each breach as spectacular and exciting as the last. All this commotion soon attracted other males and the courting stopped and the chase after the female began.

During the week I had a heat run with nine adults chasing one female, churning up the water with their tail slaps and peduncle throws, and also came across a lone male who seemed content to spend his afternoon simply breaching much to our delight.

 

Friday, we met a young calf with its mother and an escort. The calf was still grey in colour so probably no more than 2 weeks or so old, and incredibly playful, slapping its fins and trying to propel itself out of the water in the semblance of a breach. It came so close to our boat, almost touching the bow as it rolled around at the surface, and I realised that the minute animal was perhaps not quite so minute; even at its very young age, it looked vast compared to the people sat on the front of the boat.

Week 3

For my final week I was joined by a new intern, Marcel from Sao Paulo, for many a nerdy chat about humpbacks and joint boat trips. The week began with two adult males slapping their pectorals and tails onto the water’s surface incredibly close to our boat, perhaps thinking we were after the same female as they were, and passing underneath us as faint white shapes deep below. When working on photo identification that evening with Christina and Marcel, we had the rare and exciting moment of a resighting match: one of the males had been seen in these waters 9 years ago.

During the rest of the week I encountered multiple young calves, leaping out of the water and rolling around, similar to excitable puppies, as well as fast paced heat run pods, and slower more chilled groups, where the males seemed to be going about competing for the female without much sense of urgency.

 

Helen’s Diving Day Out

As a break, from all the stress of having to work with humpback whales every day, I went scuba diving on a day off. A boat took us about ninety minutes out into the ocean then anchored up and a group of nine of us slowly descended holding onto a line.

Beneath the surface, it was stunning. Turtles swam around us, looking almost like they were flying with the fanning motion of their flippers in the deep blue. There were vast shoals of fish and fans of coral on the pinky-grey, rocky bottom, and small rays, a mottled sandy colour, lying motionless and well camouflaged on the sea floor, sometimes having sifted a layer of sand onto their backs.

Just as most of us had laboriously got back onto the boat and got out of our equipment, and the boat was coming around to pick up the last three people, a manta ray passed us very close to the surface, an enormous animal, far larger than I had imagined, and beautifully shiny black and white in colour. Felt quite gutted I hadn’t been in the water to see it better, but lucky that at least I got a glimpse.

The second dive was even more spectacular than the first, with more turtles, rays, shoals of fish and the addition of a current running through the water, evident from the tunnel of small fish which stretched far into the distance in each direction (think Finding Nemo without the whizzing turtles). Passing into the tunnel the water was incredibly cold. We also saw an individual of another species of ray, a greyish colour and very large, more than 1.5 metres across, but much as I search for the precise species online I cannot be certain.

(Thank you to Native Diving for the photos.)

 

A Lovely Day for a Family Reunion

After my three weeks were up, I said goodbye to my last breaching whale and caught the overnight bus to Quito. It is currently 5am, and I am sat in the huge glassy terminal using the free wifi to put this up, while I wait for the sun to rise before I take a taxi into the old town area of the city.

The most exciting event of all: this evening my family fly in from London! I apologise in advance to the whole of Quito, and indeed Ecuador, for how much noise we will inflict on you in the next three weeks.

 

As a final extra, during this week it was exactly 6 months since I began my journey, and I thought I would mark this with a map of my route so far. According to goggle maps, minus the two short flights flying into and out of the rainforest in Bolivia, I have travelled about 9200 miles/14800kilometres so far!

 

And now for the ultimate English graduate move… ending on a quotation:

‘Rising with his utmost velocity from the furthest depths, the Sperm Whale thus booms his entire bulk into the pure element of air, and piling up a mountain of dazzling foam, shows his place to the distance of seven miles and more. In those moments, the torn, enraged waves he shakes off, seem his mane; in some cases, this breaching is his act of defiance.’

Moby Dick, ‘Chapter 134: The Chase–Second Day’, Herman Melville

 

 

Dr. Christina Castro is the Research Director of the Ecuadorian branch of the Pacific Whale Foundation. If you would like more information on volunteering, internships or anything else please contact Christina: palosanto22@gmail.com.

 

A Few Extra Facts about Humpback Whales

which I came across in the course of my obsessive reading

WEIGHT

An adult humpback weighs nearly 40 tons (36,000kgs). Its head compromises a third of this weight, with the tongue weighing roughly 2 tons (1800kgs).

In comparison, a calf only weighs about 1-2 ton (900-1800kgs) when born.

SKELETAL WEIGHT

In terrestrial animals, the bones make up roughly 50% of the total body weight; in humpbacks this is a mere 15%. The marrow of their bones contain a fatty oil, which makes some of their bones float.

SIZE

Humpbacks display reverse sexual dimorphism: the adult females are larger than the males by roughly 1-2m in length.

ADAPTATION

The skin coloration of humpbacks, as well as many other marine mammals, is referred to as countershading: darker on top and lighter underneath. When looking down into the darker depths of water, a darker object will absorb light and be harder to detect; when looking up towards the surface, a light-coloured object will reflect light and therefore also be hard to detect.

WHALE SONG

Singing primarily occurs in the breeding season, with little or no singing in the feeding grounds. Only males have been found to sing, but the exact function can only be guessed at. There is little evidence to suggest it attracts females though it may affect their choice possibly. However, it is far more common for lone singing males to be joined by other adult males rather than to have females approach singers, so perhaps it allows the males to size each other up, allowing for an ordering of status, or perhaps functions as a spacing mechanism to spread males across the breeding ground area. As with many aspects of whale behaviour, nobody currently really understands its purpose.

Unlike the song of birds, for example, whale song constantly evolves. Each breeding season it slowly changes as it is passed along and sung over and over by many individuals. Research has found whales who have switched breeding grounds and thereby introduced songs from other humpback populations, which then, in turn, evolve.

A humpback song is made up of basic units. A series of units makes a phrase, and multiple phrases, always sung in the same order, make a theme. A sequence of themes make up a song, which usually lasts between 5-20 minutes.

References:

  • Guide to the Marine Mammals of the World, Reeves, Stewart, Clapham and Powell
  • Hawaii’s Humpback Whales: A Complete Whalewatcher’s Guide, Forestell and Kaufman
  • ‘Male Competition in Large Groups of Wintering Humpback Whales’, Tyack and Whitehead Marine Mammal Science, Vol 17, No.3, July 2001, ‘Interactions of Singing Humpback Whales with Other Males’, Darling
  • The Humpback Whale, ‘Seasonal Feeding and Breeding in a Baleen Whale’, Clapham
  • ‘Use of Lateral Body Pigmentation Patterns for Photographic Identification of East Australian (Area V) Humpback Whales’, Kaufman, Smultea and Forestell

A massive thank you to Sam for editing endless whale photos for me. You’re awesome.