Galapagos and Beyond: day 6 - Dragon Hill and Bartolome Island

Published: June 28th 2018
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We certainly slept well to the rocking of the boat! When we woke up the scenery was amazing. Steep cliffs in front of us and the stillness and silence was incredible, and the air was so pure and so unpolluted. This was surely Paradise. We decided to recite our morning prayers at the front of the yacht. At 7am precisely the sounds of the Beatles singing “Magical Mystery Tour” blasted out from the speakers. Each cabin is wired up to the P.A. system and there is no getting away from it. The sound inside the cabins is reasonably muted on most mornings for a soft wake-up, but in this case we were standing directly in front of the speaker horns above the pilot house and the music was somewhat louder than the rest of the week's startup - oy!

Breakfast was 7.30 am and this was the routine for the week. This morning the breakfast was served on the top deck. Many birds joined the boat and we got a close look at several species. Some stood on the corners or aerials of the boat, while others flew around overhead. Most impressive were the Magnificent Frigatebirds. They are black with its most obvious feature being a bright red chest. Actually it is the male who has a red chested sac that he can inflate to impress the female, who has a white chest. Galapagos hosts two species of these: the Magnificent Frigatebird and the Great Frigatebird. The Magnificent Frigatebird is a bit larger and more solidly black other than its chest.

Then it was onto the Zodiac for the trip to the northwestern side of Santa Cruz island to ascend to Dragon Hill. Why was this place called Dragon Hill? When the pirates landed and explored the island they discovered “dragons” ie large iguanas. Speaking of pirates, the Zodiac drivers reminded us of 'banditos' with their hats pulled down and balaclavas to mask their faces, presumably to minimise the effects of noise and fumes from the outboard motors. Look at the picture "Pelicans on Rabida rocks" on day 7 as the driver steers the Zodiac around Rabida Island.

We saw gray Marine Iguanas and the larger Galapagos Land Iguanas which are covered with red and brown and orange scaly skin. We often saw grey marine iguanas on the sandy rocks - where they are easier to spot than when swimming - but conversely did not notice any Land Iguanas in the water. These colour differences are due to a combination of camouflage and how the males attract females.

It was a difficult landing for me (Lesley) at the base of a pile of lava rocks. The Galapagos Islands were the result of volcanic eruptions and, in terms of geological history, are relatively new and only between 5 and 10 million years old. We had to climb over the rocks to reach the beach and then climb the hill. As the group of 30 was divided into two groups one on each Zodiac, each group walked up a different part of the hill to the top. As we climbed up, besides iguanas we saw mocking birds and across the path were spiders’ webs stretching from one cactus to another.

We were instructed to keep 2 metres between us and the animals. Suddenly a brightly coloured Galapagos Land Iguana walked in front of us and came to a complete stop. The piece de resistance - he decided that he needed to relieve himself. After a lot of pushing and struggling he was able to defecate and as soon as he’d finished he nonchalantly sauntered off. Of course his human audience had to photo him performing his ablutions and so started Caroline’s “poos of the world” site to go with her “loos of the world” site!

One of the trees we stopped to admire was the mystical Palo Santo tree. This tree is related to frankincense myrrh and copal. It is said that this tree has healing properties and is used for the common cold, asthma, headaches, anxiety and depression and of course as an oil for aromatherapy. Hernan scratched the tree with a stick and the tree immediately started producing the oil. We climbed up to the top of the hill and saw hundreds of land iguanas living carefree.

We walked back down and back to the stones and onto the Zodiac. Somehow I managed to step into a rock pool and my trainers were full of stinky water.

Once on the yacht everybody got changed ready to go snorkeling. Don, Caroline and Max went but I stayed behind to rest to get ready for the afternoon excursion.

At first Don was not excited by what he saw in the relatively shallow water - mostly lava rocks. But then he began to spot multi-coloured fish such as the Moorish Idol with its yellow and black stripes. Suddenly he realised a pair of sea lions were swimming around him, nearly dashing between his legs. The water temperature kept fluctuating between warmer and cooler spots, but it never got very cold. Some people had donned wetsuits, but Don was happy with just the snorkle-mask and fins he borrowed from the boat for the week ... and wearing his new swim trunks of course!

After a hearty lunch we boarded the Zodiac and onto Bartolome Island. This is just east of Santa Cruz island. We got off the Zodiac and went to a volcanic cone which once we climbed to the top we would find a panoramic view. We were reassured that the last volcanic eruption was 100 years ago. (However see the 'Ring of Fire' comment in our Day 9 blog when we visited Fernandina Island.) One of the concessions to tourists has been the erection of steps to the top of the cone - 374 in total along a 600 metre rising path. This staircase protects the cone and the wildlife and the plants. On the way up there are three stages where we stopped and learned more about the botany. The only vegetation are the tequila plants which look like dead brush. However, when the sun is out the plants turn white to protect themselves from the sun; as the sun goes down the chlorophyll is brought out. We climbed to the top to see the lighthouse. This is a solar powered lighthouse, with its solar panel so obviously visible that it seems technologically out of place among the isolated volcanic island habitat. The final approach to the top of the cone where the lighthouse resides is the steepest part of the climb, and instead of steps the ground is bare volanic rock with slippery volcanic pebbles and rock dust. But so close to the top I refused to be defeated! On the way down I saw Caroline in a different group and announced that I had succeeded in climbing to the top (114 metres high) and the whole group clapped and cheered!

At the bottom we walked down and saw the penguins. Penguins you may ask at the equator? These penguins are the only penguins at or north of the equator. Once they had made their way there they stayed because the food supply is plentiful. The water is cool enough for them because of the Humboldt Current and the Cromwell current. The penguins are about 49 centimetres high. The colony today has approximately 2000. Before El Nino in 1984 there were about 5000 penguins but the rise in temperature caused by El Nino caused the penguins to cease breeding.

We also were introduced to the Blue Footed Booby! They are gannets with blue feet. They have become one of the popular symbols of the Galapagos. (At the airport before leaving Ecuador, I bought Don a coffee mug picturing a Blue Footed Booby and he got me a similar thimble for my travel sites collection.) The blue feet are from carotenoid pigments in the fish that they eat. During El Nino 75% of these birds were wiped out because the ocean temperatures rose to 35 deg C and wiped out the food chain. The sea needs to be cold for algae to flourish and the food chain to be productive.

We then climbed back into the Zodiac and motored to the yacht. We got ready for dinner which was a Barbecue on the top deck of the yacht. It was amazing being in the pitch black able to see the stars so very clearly. We also saw the moon rise over volcanic hills. After the evening briefing it was time for bed - 9.30 pm!

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