August 31, 2008
I woke up early to have time to get breakfast in town and to get to the boat in time for the snorkeling trip to Floreana Island. It was a two-hour trip to the island over rough seas in a small boat - a pounding ride. Most of the passengers (thankfully not me!) onboard became seasick and spent time with their heads over the rail. There were several times when we hit a good wave that we were almost at zero G. The guide said that the seas were the roughest that he had seen in several years. A contributing factor to the roughness was that we were headed into the wind and the current. I actually enjoyed the ride!
It was a very mixed bunch of people on the trip. There were people from Ireland, Germany, Austria, Australia, Japan, and of course me, from the United States. There was a young mother and her newborn baby returning from the mainland to their home on the island. I was told that most expecting mothers who can go to the mainland to have their babies because of the lack of quality medical facilities on the islands.
The first part of the day was spent on the island. The town on the island, Puerto Valesco Iberra, has a population of less than 120 people, one hotel of sorts, and one restaurant (run out of the owner's home). From the docks and the town we took an open-air bus on a bumpy dirt road to the highlands to see a population of Galapagos Tortoises that were rescued from an island that had an actively erupting volcano. The tortoises were in a large penned in area that approximated their natural habitat. We were allowed to walk amongst them. Again, the tortoises are amazing creatures! They were unfazed by our presence - which is why they were so easily caught to be used as a source of meat by crews of sailing ships. Eventually these tortoises will be released back into the wild. From the tortoise enclosure we travelled to an area in the highlands where the first family to settle on the island lived. The interesting thing about this site was that the people carved their living area directly into the volcanic rock forming a series of recess caves. From this point we were able see incredible vistas of the island, several volcanic cones, and the ocean - a breathtaking experience.
After lunch on the boat, anchored off the town we set off for our first of two snorkeling areas. The first place that we stopped was along an unprotected part of the shore. I was anxious to get into the water. After a short briefing from the guide we were set to go! The water is much colder than you would expect for an area along the equator. The islands are in the path of a cold current coming up from the Southern Ocean and are exposed to nutrient rich coldwater upwelling. I was glad that I had decided to spend the extra money to rent a wet suit. The water was very clear and I was able to see lots of fish, including Parrot Fish and sharks. I wish that I had been able to identify more of what I saw. I found it hard to believe that I was actually snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands!
For the second stop we went to a more protected area - it was roughly circular and had high cliffs around approximately 45 percent of the perimeter. The guide pointed out a family of Sea Lions and said that this was an area that juvenile Sea Lions would often come out and swim with the snorkelers. He also explained that the dominant males are very territorial and will defend their territories and that we would be safe as long as we stayed on the opposite side of the area from the where the male was. We all got into the water and swam away from the Sea Lions. There were many more fish in this area - many with beautiful colors - in schools and alone. The behavior of the fish was to eat without being eaten. Again, it was an absolutely amazing experience. The juvenile Sea Lions did come out and swim briefly around us - amazing, graceful, fast, and inquisitive creatures. They left way too quickly. In my total fascination with the experience I had apparently drifted away a bit from the group. I became vaguely aware that I heard what sounded like shouting. I looked up and toward the boat and saw that everyone was back onboard the boat shouting and waving me in - the male Sea Lion was only a few feet from me! He darted toward me a couple of times, turning away in what seemed (in my panic induced state of mind) like the last second. I swam the fastest that I ever have in my life getting back to the boat! Safely back on the boat the guide explained that it was the male's presence that likely chased the juveniles away. Whew! As a famous old time TV spy said: "Missed it by that much!"
The trip back was a little shorter and calmer; we were going with the wind and the current. We saw whales off in the distance; we saw them blowing when they surfaced and their tailfins as they dove. About halfway through the trip the most amazing thing happened. Seven to eight Bottle Nosed Dolphins began following the boat and leaping out of the water. Their leaps would take them 7-10 feet out of the water! They were so fast and graceful - what absolutely magnificent animals. They followed the boat for about 10 minutes and in an instance they were gone - unbelievably amazing. I know that it is wrong to assign human emotions to the behavior of animals, but it seemed to me the Dolphins followed the boat just out of curiosity and for the fun of it. I was so taken with watching them that I forgot to grab my camera and take a picture.
I had dinner with Zehra, an Australian that I had met on the snorkeling trip. She was travelling South America alone for a few months on her way to a new job in Canada. I met two other females from Europe during my stay, that were also travelling South America alone. Dinner was a very cool experience. We went five blocks away from the tourist strip/area and to a narrow street that was lined on both sides with small restaurants for a block and a half. Most of the restaurants were smaller than a two-car garage. What was really cool was that in the evening the street was closed off and the restaurants pulled most of their tables and chairs out into the street. Almost all of the tables were full; it looked like we were the only tourists there. The smells from all of the cooking were wonderful and exotic and only made me hungrier. We decided on a restaurant that served seafood; because of my horrible Spanish I allowed Zehra to order for me. What I got was amazing - a very large piece of some type of white fish (never did find out what it was) on a bed of rice that covered the whole plate and all smothered in a yellow sauce. To wash it down I had a very cold local beer. I felt like I was experiencing some of the true culture of the islands. The only thing that could have made this dinner better was having my wife and children with me. I wish that I had taken a picture of the experience - I didn't because I felt that it would be disrespectful and would be intruding into something that "belonged" to the residents and was a part of their lives. I felt honored just to be there and enjoying a part of their culture.
Zehra was great to talk to; she had some wonderful stories to tell about her travels. I walked her to her hotel and then walked the 2 km back to the Station. WOW! What a day! I was asleep in an instant.