Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Galapagos - Isabela Island

Frolicking sealions
After another interesting speed boat transfer, we arrived at what became my favourite island: Isabela. Isabela is the largest of the Galapagos Islands, we stayed to the southeast of the island in Puerto Villamil, a great base for exploring. We were greeted by Galapagos penguins on the rocks and zipping through the crystal clear water, their silhouettes appearing perfectly streamlined. There were also, of course, more sealions and pelicans on our arrival by water taxi into the harbor. The sealions were incredibly playful and were rolling and tumbling in the shallows.
A happy and dozing Galapagos penguin

Marine iguana trying to cool down
Isabela is a relatively young island when compared with those in the East, meaning it is still quite volcanic. So, on our first afternoon on the island, we were taken to the lava fields a short water taxi ride away. Our guide warned us to be careful. The igneous rock making the land was basalt, and due to the way it cooled and the shapes made, there were jagged pieces jutting out in all manner of directions. The other thing to look out for were the marine iguanas. Although we had see them many times already, we had never been to an area where they seemed to blend in quite so well... We had to be very careful not to tread on them! We also saw some different marine iguana behaviour. They are dark in colour, as are the igneous rocks they bask on, meaning that they are very good at absorbing infrared radiation from the Sun. When it is a hot day, like the day we visited, they are at a serious risk of overheating. The marine iguana in the picture (left) has his tail raised, which is their method of cooling down.

Lava lizard, staying still for once!
Another creature to look our for among the rocks was the lava lizard. They were everywhere, scuttling over the rocks, the iguanas, all looking for flies and insects to snack on. It was as I was trying to photograph these that we suddenly heard our guide call:

"Quick everybody, boobies!!!"

 Not a phrase I thought I'd ever hear, or if I did, not one I would run towards... But we were glad we did. As we rounded the corner, we saw hundreds and hundreds of blue footed boobies gathering and circling in a large flock above the bay. We watched them in awe, which was made even greater when, all of a sudden, and almost simultaneously, they folded their wings and dove into the surf creating a feeding frenzy. The video of this moment is below.
Blue footed boobies gathering in a feeding frenzy

On our walk back, we looked for white tipped reef sharks in the channels through the rock. When we got back to Isabela, we spent the evening in a beach bar, with its own passed out marine iguana. All of this amazing wildlife, and it was only our first afternoon on Isabela. We still had a day and a half to go!

Galapagos mocking bird
The next day was physically the toughest of the trip. We started the morning early to pick up mountain bikes to cycle through the wetlands to the 'Wall of Tears'. The wall of tears is steeped in human history, and is where, as our guide said "the weak man dies and the brave man cries". As he was explaining the story to us, a series of Galapagos mocking birds came to check us out from the top of the wall, and tried to chime in their side of the story too. Whilst I was taking photos though, I managed to get stung by an introduced yellow paper wasp. Something I would recommend you avoid if you go to the Galapagos. On our cycle back, we stopped at
various places in the wetlands. The first was an inlet, surrounded by mangroves, we had to walk through a tunnel made out of their intertwined branches to reach it. We abandoned our shoes and waded through this slightly brackish 'stream' until we reached the sea. The view was akin to that of a stereotypical tropical paradise, but complete with perching boobies, snowy egrets and pelicans.

Our next stop was to a freshwater pool in the hope of seeing greater flamingos, and we were not disappointed! A small group of flamingos were filter feeding, with one, presumably a male, being rather loud and showing off. Greater flamingos are a recent addition to the fauna of the Galapagos, having only been here for around a thousand years. After being enchanted by them for a number of minutes, we were off again to our final stop before heading back to town, the giant tortoise breeding center. We had seen some wild giant tortoises on our cycle ride, tortoises probably bred at the breeding center and released into the wild. The breeding center had the young tortoises in different holding pens, and each had tortoises of a similar size. They were all tiny compared to those we had seen earlier and whilst on Floreana island. We also learnt that giant tortoises are the only animal that eat the 'poison apples' we kept seeing, and they do so to use it as a laxative to speed up their digestion.

Young giant tortoise eating a 'poison apple'

That afternoon, we hiked the Sierra Negra volcano. An hour and half's hike to see the 10 km wide crater of this shield volcano was well worth it. The volcano is still active, but is packed with wildlife on the walk up to the summit. We heard what we think was a short eared owl, although it refused to call every time we pointed it out to our guide. We also saw both male and female vermilion flycatchers.

Male and female vermilion flycatchers
Our final morning on Isabela was one of my best snorkelling experiences. It's not every week you get to start a Friday by snorkeling with playful Galapagos sealions and beautiful Galapagos penguins. Completely unafraid, we drifted close to a pair of squabbling penguins, listening to their calls and bill clacking. The sealions too were unafraid, but also curious, and would come right up eye to eye with you to blow bubbles at you or just check you out. At one stage, a young sealion jumped over my head as raised it out of the water!

After this amazing experience, it was time to head to our final island: Santa Cruz.

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