P p p p p p play with a penguin!


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South America » Ecuador
August 21st 2015
Published: July 28th 2017
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Geo: -1.13333, -78.6

After a lovely smooth crossing through the night, the water gently lapping the side of the boat and lulling us to sleep, we awoke to clear blue skies, the first cloudless day of the trip, the sea reflecting the sun with dazzling crystals dancing on the surface, and rocky outcrops in the distance, fringed by white sand. We Panga-ed over to the soft, white sand of Sullivan Bay, a wide stretch of beach with tiny, powdery grains. All around the outside, stretching above us and around us were the lava fields - petrified magma that had cooled instantly on meeting the cold water of the ocean, leaving folds of basalt - curved and melded into incredible formations.

A playful sea lion was waiting on the shore as we arrived, splashing in the clear, shallow water and inviting us to come and play with him. Sadly, we had exploring to do and spent a good 90 minutes walking over the twisted rock patterns, some rope-like, others like melting icecream, others huge petrified explosions, the droplets of lava frozen in time as the bubbles burst. As we explored the lunar landscape, we were treated to vast, deep cracks in the rock, where minerals were exposed in rich layers - sulphuric blues, iron reds and tiny shimmering particles of silver and copper were folded one on top of the other like a giant gateau. Tiny lava lizards scuttled around searching for mosquitoes in this arid landscape, a mere 500 years old and still desolate following the destruction of life on the island so geologically recently. As we headed back to the beach, we saw three penguins hopping and flapping on the rocks, their large feet making them ungraceful and ungainly on the rugged land.

After picking our way over the dramatic landscape, we headed back to the beach, grabbed our snorkels and swam out to where the lava met the sea. We swam quickly to where the penguins had been spotted and began to scour the waters for an encounter with the tiny birds. Tropical fish of every colour swam around us, but there was only one spectacle we were here to see. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a sea lion came swimming into view, and she wanted to play. Without any prompting, she swam straight up to our masks, blowing bubbles in our faces, tipping upside down and hanging static in the water before darting away beneath us, twisting over and over again before turning rapidly and pelting towards us full throttle, veering off just in time to grab a deep breath of air. She performed graceful barrel rolls, loop-the-loops and balletic turns under water, her bag of tricks seemingly endless. It was an enchanting display and we played together for a good ten minutes, taking it in turns to dip below the surface and swim down towards the rocks below, before shooting back to the top of the water, rolling around one another in turn. Of all of the experiences we'd had on the trip, it was the most magical.

Below us, a huge shoal of sardines swam in formation, their silvery skin shimmering and changing colour as they turned one way and the next, flashing like the tip of a dagger one moment, and then gun-metal grey another. Suddenly, they parted, their tight ranks broken by a torpedo flying below them. As they separated, we could see the torpedo was in fact a penguin, careering through the middle of the shoal, causing chaotic shapes to form. Diving down to the sea bed, we followed the penguin through the fleeing fish, kicking desperately to keep up. The penguin barrelled through and around the fish, twisting and turning, like the sea lion, but with the speed of a bullet. As it raced away, we turned around, trying to locate it again, when suddenly, the sea lion popped back into the field of vision of my mask - once again putting on a wonderful display to divert our attention from her rival. We played for a little while longer, until another dark shape pinged past us, and the chase was on again. We managed to spend some time with one little penguin, who clearly wanted to play, waggling his tail, swimming over and under us and leading us on a merry dance over the rocky sea bed. He was joined quickly by another playful friend. We followed the penguins to a rocky crevice where the shallow water was lapping against the solid lava. Here, they padded out of the water, shook their tail feathers dry and hopped off across the rocks satisfied from their morning fishing.

I could not have been more reluctant to get out of the water when we were told to do so, passing huge parrot fish and delicate damsel fish on the way back to the shore, exhilarated, enchanted and absolutely thrilled with the morning's scenery and snorkelling and sure that nothing would top the experience in the water that day. As we got back on the panga and pootled back to the boat, we passed close to the rocks, where the penguins preened and pranced on the ledges as we sailed by.

After lunch, we enjoyed some free time on the sun deck of the boat, watching the birds soaring past us, before taking a panga to Bartolome Island, across the narrow bay from Santiago. Here, we climbed to the top of the guest point on the island, where we would have stunning sweeping views across much of the archipelago. En route, we held the different types of hardened lava in our hand, feeling the various weight of rocks thrown from the eruption of the volcano that created the island. We continued on up the 400 steps to the summit, where we indeed enjoyed incredible views; taking in stunning beaches, bright blue sea and sky and beautiful reds and blacks of the rocks. From out vantage point, we could see seven of the nearby islands, the tips of ancient volcanos visible in the distance. We walked back down and caught the panga to the base of Pinnacle Rock - part of an ancient crater rim that has collapsed over time, leaving it separate from the rest of the island. Here, we hopped into the water, and were treated immediately to several penguins perched on the rocks at the bottom of the pinnacle. We took photographs with them and then continued snorkelling. Under the water were huge volcanic formations, lava tubes and tunnels created by the flowing of different temperatures of lava that erupted thousands of years before. The cooling lava created swim-throughs and windows in the rocks, which the sunlight filtered through, creating a magical land under the calm water.

We snorkelled over the bay to the other side, passing snake eels curling and writhing on the sea bed, headed for the black rocks where a group of four penguins were resting. From the water, we were able to get less than a metre away from them as they posed on the rocks. We floated in the water for a while, just watching them, until one turned tail and promptly shot out a stream of white excrement in our direction. We took the hint and exited the water, sitting in the panga waiting for people to come back to the boat. As we did so, we continued to watch the the penguins, half expecting them to take their opportunity to jump in the water now the humans had gone. Instead, what they did caused a flurry of excitement, not just amongst the tourists, but even for the jaded guides with us on the boat. The four penguins on the rocks were two couples and they proceeded to mate with one another, something apparently rarely seen in open spaces as they usually retreat to sheltered cove areas. Once their display was over, and feeling a little voyeuristic, we made our way back to the boat for dinner. While we waited, we enjoyed music and watched the sunset as a host of frigate birds followed the boat, dipping below us to dive into the water, grab a fish and then soar back up again, using the warm currents generated by the movement of the boat. They fought with one another, each trying to take the best position, spiralling down in a tangle of black feathers with the occasional flash of red as they tumbled down towards the sea before rising back up sharply into the air again, despite apparently over. It was a perfect end to a perfect day and one we will treasure for many years to come.

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