Dancing with the Albatrosses

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South America » Ecuador
August 18th 2015
Published: July 28th 2017
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Wow. Last night was a very rocky night. Our cabin was rolling around on the waves, tilting back and forth. Side to side, the water sloshing against the steep metal sides of the ship, sometimes sounding like it was coming into the cabin. However, once we were docked, the waves had reduced to a gentle swell, the sea a stunning sapphire blue, and across the water we could see the inviting sands of Gardner Bay.

We arrived by panga, a wet landing, wading ashore through the clear shallows to the blindingly white sand, as soft as cotton under our feet. Sea lions huddled together on the beach, flippers wrapped around each other, cuddled up as they slept. We heard a honking noise behind us as a tiny sea lion out came waddling out of the sea, pausing at each adult sea lion in turn, sniffing it to see if it was his mum. Each one rejected him and we all watched sadly as he tried in vain to find his mum. Our guide explained that we shouldn't worry unduly, his mum was probably out fishing at sea. As we wandered further down the beach, the sea sparkling out towards the the horizon, we heard a loud bellowing noise, as the huge bull male made his presence known. He puffed out his chest, slapping his flippers on the wet sand at the shore edge. It was a dazzling display of machismo and left us in no doubt about who was the boss of the harem lounging around in the sunshine.

Mockingbirds darted in and out of our shoes as we walked across the beach to a huge pathway made of lava rocks. Here, marine iguanas basked in the sunshine, mostly black but one with a scarlet hue to its skin. After a short stroll, we relaxed on the white sand for a while and then hopped back onto the boat, preparing ourselves for some incredible snorkelling at Torutuga Rock - a place where we would reputedly experience swimming with playful sea lions. We were not disappointed. The boat dropped us off at a large island, where the rocky walls rose steeply around us, the clear water lapping their edges.

As soon as we entered the freezing water, a call came from the dinghy to head towards the rocks. Despite there nines 14 of us in the water, only 5 of us heard the information and swam over. Here, a large juvenile male sea lion was floating on the surface of the water. As we approached him, he merely floated towards us, enjoying our presence and allowing us to swim around him, taking photos of him as he began to perform his acrobatic routine, twisting and turning in the water as the current moved, sometimes suspended head down in the water, but always keeping us in his sights. It was a magical experience, until he finally grew tired of our company and dashed away into the depths.

From here, we swam around the edges of the rocks, keeping close and encountering bumphead parrotfish, big king angelfish with their shocking purple scales, moorish idols and thousands of sergeant majors. Huge starfish in every colour and shape imaginable clung to the rocks, their thick, rough skin studded with clove-like barbs that, as the guide placed them in our hands, felt like solid baked clay. We continued out journey around the edges of the rock and suddenly, a playful pup dashed towards us. Looping, twisting and turning at lightning speed, he was eager to play with us, swimming past us, blowing bubbles and circling our feet as we swam. Every now and then, he popped up to the surface for air, before hurtling down to the depths and then shooting towards us like a torpedo, shifting direction at the last second, narrowly missing our fins. It was one of the experiences we were most looking forward to in the the Galápagos and it was magical.

Sad to leave our new friend behind, we clambered into the dinghy, exhausted but elated, and we set sail for Punta Suarez, where the Pacific ocean pounded the steep cliffs to the South coast. Here, we landed amid rougher seas into a bay lined with volcanic rocks, where we were met by a huge pile of marine iguanas stacked on top of each other, gleaning as much extra warmth as possible. Tails splayed out in all directions, while stubby arms ending in sharp claws were wrapped around the spiny backs of the other prehistoric looking creatures. Three long black reptiles with deep patches of red on their sides emerged from the surf and waddled towards us, sneezing out the salt from their nostrils as they swung their tails from side to side. More groups of iguanas lay in wait for us as we made our way along the shore, the reptiles covering every inch of ground, our ultimate destination the cliffs where we would find some of the most famous of the Galápagos residents, we stepped over a pile of lava lizards, hoovering up flies that had been attracted to a fresh sea lion placenta that lay in our path. Just around a jagged corner, we happened upon a small colony of sea lions, the newborn pup laying beside his mother, while the male looked on proudly, demonstrating loudly if any of us went to near. Other members of his harem washed up on the shore, shaking droplets of water from their oily skin before shuffling through the sand to come to rest, flopping down on the beach to recover from a busy morning's fishing.

We followed a rocky path further inland where tiny lava lizards, with their bright red chests, dodged in and out of our feet and iguanas moved sloth-like over the craggy craters. Soon, amongst the foliage, we heard a plaintive squawking sound. Our guide hushed us and pointed in the direction of a large nest that was in the midst of the scrubbish trees. We could just make out the fluffy feathers of a large chick sitting amongst the twigs and moss of the nest. It was a baby Galápagos hawk, its parents circling overhead, returning from their fishing excursion to bring food back for their baby. Suddenly, from the corner of our eyes, we saw the unmistakeable wingspan of a soaring Waved Albatross, native to these islands and visiting only between April and December (the rest of their time is spent soaring around at sea - they go 4 months without touching land at all). Its name comes from the beautiful swirling pattern on each individual feather, some of which our guide passed around for us to see.

Continuing on along the path, we came to a colony of albatrosses. Some rested under bushes, others brazenly stared at us from their rocky nests. As we approached closer, we were able to experience one of the more endearing encounters of the trip, the albatross courtship dance. This consisted of one of the birds, who mate for life, raising or lowering their head, or moving from side to side, which their partner would echo. Whatever one bird did, the other did, dancing, bending and swooping their heads and necks in a constant fluid rhythm. At the same time, their huge pale blue paddle-shaped feet would flap on the ground in time with their movements. Without warning, they would suddenly rattle their beaks together, parrying energetically, the sound vibrating throughout the colony. We stood and watched enchanted for a good half an hour, standing amongst around forty couples, all performing their own version of the dance - each routine is unique to the monogamous couple and it is how the birds recognise each other after their long months at sea. Those that were not dancing soared over our heads, their two-metre wings spread wide, catching the uplift of the breeze from the cliff edges. One solitary chick remained on a nest in the midst of the colony, the rest were never born this year, due to the late rains caused by El Niño, and as we walked on, we found an abandoned egg - sometimes one of the birds is late returning from hunting to take their place on incubation duty and the other simply leaves the egg in order to feed themselves.

We made our way to the cliff edge - the main reason for the presence of the albatrosses - a huge flat space which serves as a runway for the take off and landing for the birds, so graceful in the air, yet rather ungainly on land. Here swallow tailed gulls dipped and dived in the air and Nazca boobies, their black masks covering their eyes and making them look like bandits, preened and pranced on the edges of the rocks, the sea pounding behind them, shooting through a narrow fissure in the rock, causing great plumes of smokey vapour to whoosh up in a column before fading and drifting back towards land. Sea lions surfed and danced in the crashing waves, their bodies flung against the rocks by the raucous water. We walked on, through a Nazca booby colony, where more of the highwaymen of the skies were sitting on nests, waddling along the rocks and puffing their feathers. Behind them, a group of bachelor sea lions were hauling themselves out of the water and flopping up the cooled lava as the sun set behind them. Finally, we came across a group of blue footed boobies, rubbing their beaks together, their blue feet bright in the fading light. They posed on the rocks, their bumbling, awkward walk (and f course, their name) amusing us as we watched them. We left our feathered friends reluctantly, passing back by the sea lions basking on the beach, the mother and pup huddled against the rock, their flippers wrapped around one another, and made our way back to the boat for dinner and bed, ready for another long night's sailing.


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