Eye to eye with birds and beasts: a last Galapagos adventure

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The trip from Isabela Island, the second stop on my tour of the Galapagos Islands, to Santa Cruz Island, the third, is a bone-jarring, two-hour-plus voyage on a boat that looks too small to make the crossing. But make it I did, safe and dry, and ready for one more Galapagos adventure.

The main town on Santa Cruz – and the tourist capital of the islands – is Puerto Ayora, a slow-moving place of about 20,000 with tour shops and restaurants lining its touristy main street, across from the harbour. From here, you can go to almost anywhere in the Galapagos, even the distant islands like Genovesa.

My last full day in the Galapagos wasn’t to take me nearly that far, at least in distance. But it was to set me down in a place that seemed like another world. Much like many of the other tours, it started with a boat ride to the obligatory snorkelling stop, just off a rocky coastline where huge frigate birds soared overhead and small seabirds whizzed by in search of a morsel of seafood.

Galapagos coast

Then, the “wet landing” on a white-sand beach, jumping off a Zodiac into shallow water and wading onto shore. And like many of the Galapagos beaches, this one was ruled by a small mob of sea lions, which cavorted and played in the surf like 10-year-olds on a school holiday: check out this video to see what I mean.

This beach was also home to a few mother sea lions and their babies. But nearby was a sight we hadn’t seen before: a furry, brown baby sea lion lying by itself in a crevice in the rocks. It was waiting for its mother, who was off trying to feed up on enough fish to produce the fat-rich milk these babies need.

While she was gone, however, the baby was utterly helpless, though hidden from the sharks that can make a meal of young sea lions. And it didn’t seem overly alarmed at a group of tourists coming over to see what it was up to. It just turned its big, puppy-dog eyes at us and let out a plaintive wail.

baby sea lion Galapagos

Further on, we got a graphic reminder of mortality in the world of the Galapagos – the skeleton of a porpoise or small whale, laid out on the sand in perfectly articulated form. Its bones, bleached white by the sun and the sea spray, sat like the timbers of a wrecked ship, out of their element.

skeleton on the beach, Galapagos

Next up was a visit to North Seymour Island, one of the small islands near Santa Cruz, where we were promised some bird life. But in this case, we were going to see the huge birds we’d admired from afar – up close.

The moment we made our landing – jumping from the nose of the Zodiac onto a flat rock on the steep shoreline – shapes began to appear in the bare trees along the path. First, a few iguanas, these ones a ruddy orange, unlike the marine iguanas I’d seen on the other islands.

iguana North Seymour Island

Then, larger shapes, black and sinister-looking, with a flash of red here and there. These were the frigate birds we’d seen soaring above the cliffs, with their six-foot wingspans and long, hooked beaks. But it was breeding season, and the birds were perched on basket-like nests in the sparse cover the island provided.

There were lots of white-breasted babies, and males sporting their best mating colours – a big, red balloon-like sac on their throats, used to attract the girls (see the photo at the top of this post). Apparently female frigate birds do like a red balloon.

frigate birds nesting Galapagos

There were two species of frigate birds nesting here: the magnificent frigate bird, commonly seen in Mexico and other places, and the great frigate bird. The two are almost identical except for a slight difference in the colour of the sheen on their iridescent backs, and the fact that the young of the great frigate bird have a tell-tale brown patch across their breasts.

great frigate bird Galapagos

And here and there among the frigate birds, the huge, fluffy white chicks of the blue-footed boobies who shared this island. Their nests were a messy white patch, often surrounded by a field of guano – their best defence against predators looking to steal an egg or a chick. (As  you see, the babies don’t have blue feet — the colour develops later.)

baby blue-footed booby, Galapagos

And like the sea lions, these birds were amazingly tame, letting us walk to with an arm’s length without batting an eye. They seemed to consider the passing crowd a bit of entertainment put on for their enjoyment.

Almost as unexpected as these huge, ungainly birds was the look of island itself, dry as a desert despite the roaring surf that crashed on its shores. The path was lined with broad-leaved cactus, bearing bright yellow flowers and producing small fruit that the iguanas munched on happily.

cactus and iguana, Galapagos

Other birds patrolled the breeding grounds, looking for a meal. And as we gathered to jump back on the Zodiac, I spotted some of the local swallow-tailed gulls huddled in the shelter of the rocks. They were an elegant sight, with their grey plumage and red eye rings, which apparently act like searchlights as they hunt for squid in the night: they’re the only fully nocturnal seabirds in the world.

gull, Galapagos

And we headed back to Puerto Ayora, for a dinner at one of the seafood restaurants in the tourist district and some cable TV. For others, there were more voyages and more islands to come. For me, a half-day trip to a tortoise ranch the next morning, and my tour was over.

It had been a fascinating trip to some of the most iconic locations in the world. At times it seemed as if my television screen had come to life. There was more I didn’t see, but for those it would have taken more time and more money than I wanted to devote to this trip — considerably more. And frankly, after six days spent jumping in and out of boats and hiking through mountain, forest and volcanic rock, I was tired. No tour tomorrow? No problem.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Paul, The biggest surprise for me was to find out that there are people living on these island. From all the documentaries I’ve ever seen there was never an indication of people except for the tourists. The islands are not quite as pristine as I had envisioned but they nevertheless, sounds like an interesting place visit. dennis

    • Right, Dennis — most of the people I talk to have the same reaction. Those documentaries show you a close-up view of the birds and animals, but there’s a lot more you never see. I’m glad I can shed a little more light on the subject.

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