Magic in the water

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South America » Ecuador » Galápagos » Santa Cruz Island
August 29th 2017
Published: October 4th 2017
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Santa Cruz (English Indefatigable) is the second largest of the Galápagos islands after Isabella, and contains the largest urban center, Puerto Ayora. During the night the crew had cruised the boat to Puerto Ayora for refueling in the early morning, and anchored near the fuel station. I walked to the stern of the boat in the early morning and immediately noticed that there was a lot of commotion with pelicans and other seabirds diving under the rear of the boat as it began to move toward the fuel station. It quickly became what can only be described as a feeding frenzy among the birds, who were soon joined by several small sharks and at least one larger (7-8 feet) Galápagos shark. I could only assume that many small fish had gathered under our boat during the night, and the feeding activity came about when the boat's movement forced them out into the open. After refueling, which only took a few minutes, we sailed out of the harbor and across the channel to Isabela (Albemarle) Island, anchoring near our first landing of the day at Bachas Beach. The US Navy maintained a station here in the days of World War II, and
Feeding frenzy at BaltraFeeding frenzy at BaltraFeeding frenzy at Baltra

A close look shows the dark shapes of sharks underwater
a couple of barges got grounded on the beach. We were told that Bachas is a corruption of "barges". Their rusted remains can usually be seen on the beach.

The walk brought us by sleeping sea lions, some with nursing pups, completely oblivious to our passing. At an inland brackish bay we saw three flamingoes, a species not common in the Galápagos. We had to be careful where we went because marine iguanas nest here among the dunes. Giant candelabra cactuses just upward in many areas.

Following our morning walking excursion, we did a snorkel trip in the same area. Unfortunately, I did not have an underwater camera, but in the space of about 20-30 minutes in very frigid water I saw marine iguanas feeding on the bottom, got buzzed by two penguins that passed within two feet of me at a speed somewhat more rapid than my own, had a sea lion come up and look me in the face from about 6 inches, then turn over acting like she wanted her belly rubbed (not sure of protocol, I declined), followed a green sea turtle through the reef, and watched a flightless cormorant diving down and hunting among the nooks and crannies of the rocky bottom. Probably worth the chill.

While we ate lunch, the crew moved the boat back across the channel to Santa Cruz and anchored near our next scheduled excursion at Cerro Dragon (Dragon Hill). Here we would have our first encounters with the land iguanas. Land iguanas and marine iguanas are both endemic to the Galápagos and descendants from a common ancestor, the split having occurred about 7-8 million years ago. Since that predates the current islands, it is thought that they inhabited islands that are now submerged. Occasional hybrid breedings occur, and the offspring are viable, although probably sterile.Land iguanas are significantly larger than marine iguanas. The largest marine iguanas we saw were probably no longer than 24 inches, while the land iguanas range to 3-5 feet in length. Darwin found both to be repulsively ugly, and in truth they are not beautiful in any conventional sense. In both types of iguanas found here, males are significantly larger than females, and therefore more likely to die of starvation in times of food deprivation.

Like the other animals of the Galápagos, the land iguanas are largely oblivious to us, and more than once we had to wait while one crossed the path in front of us and even occasionally had to step over one to proceed. We watched with some amusement as a large male went across the path in front of us toward a smaller female resting in the shade of a tree. We waited, expecting an amorous encounter, but when we got to the female the male merely ran her off to claim her spot in the shade. Guess that is why their species name is cristatus rather than chivalrous. This is a dry area, so the prickly pear cactus is one of the main sources of water for the iguanas. As a result, the prickly pears have evolved thick, stiff spines for protection. On another island, pollination is done by Galápagos mockingbirds, and the cacti have evolved soft hair-like spines that do not deter the birds from landing. If anyone is dumb enough to question whether evolution exists, they need to visit these islands. It is simply amazing to see how the animals have co-evolved.

Additional photos below
Photos: 11, Displayed: 11


Finch nest in prickly pearFinch nest in prickly pear
Finch nest in prickly pear

Note the real spines for protection from land iguanas
Sally Lightfoot crabSally Lightfoot crab
Sally Lightfoot crab

One of the few things not endemic to the islands
Land IguanaLand Iguana
Land Iguana

Obviously not particularly concerned about humans

5th October 2017

peaceful abode
Oh wow. I have been waiting for this post. Also amazing to be around animals that have no fear of humans. I remember being charged by a very large sea lion after he showed his teeth and hissed while we were swimming in SF Bay. Very scary. But to have one be calm and playful must be truly magic.

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