Monday, 9 July (Part I)
Temps: 82F(28C) / 72F (22C)
Overnight, the ship repositioned to and anchored off Santiago Island (aka, San Salvador, or as the British named it, James Island). The fourth largest island of the archipelago, it’s the second one Darwin visited. At the time, he noted that there was a healthy population of the now-extinct land iguanas on the island:
I cannot give a more forcible proof of their numbers, than by stating that when we were left at James Island, we could not for some time find a spot free from their burrows on which to pitch our single tent.
(Land iguanas are still present on some of the other islands, by the way, and we hope to see them at some point during our trip.)
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Santiago was a popular anchorage for sailors, pirates, and whalers who came to the island to make repairs to their ships, and provision themselves with fresh water, meat (tortoise was favored), and firewood. I don’t recollect seeing any other ships here today; at least not within sight of our anchorage.
Xpedition from Santiago Island.
We were up and at ‘em well before sunrise. (Though the Galápagos is an hour behind, we’re operating on Quito time, so sunrise is always around 7:00a). All was quiet around the ship. Except for a few people who wandered by the Beagle Grill to pick up a cup of coffee, or camera buffs who came by hoping for a colorful sunrise, I had the aft deck to myself. It was a peaceful time conducive to cogitating about our trip. I caught up on my notes and read for a bit, often distracted by a bird flying by or dive-bombing into the waters around the ship.
When Mui showed up shortly after 7:00a with his carried-from-the-buffet breakfast, I went down to get a plate for myself. At 8:00a, Mui went to the snorkeling briefing, which covered procedures to follow, what creatures he could expect to see, and where he could expect to see them. I stayed behind to wander the outside decks, contemplating our first landing. Would we see the fur seals that make their home on Santiago? Or would we be skunked? Would there be marine iguanas by the hundreds? Or would we be skunked? What about birds? Would we see any of the ones that are endemic to the islands? The answers would have to wait until 9:15a when we disembarked for our morning excursion!
Pan de Azucar (Sugarloaf) Volcano — Santiago Island
The morning itinerary called for a landing at Puerto Egas, the site of a salt-mining operation in the 1920s and 1960s; we saw the ruins of one of the buildings on the beach where we landed. From what I understand, the business failed because the cost of salt on the continent was so cheap that it didn’t warrant exploiting the islands.
The arrow points to the site of our morning landing.
[map courtesy of the GalapagosIslands.com website]
Of the two excursions offered — a long walk and optional snorkel vs a short walk and optional snorkel — we opted for the long walk on a 1¼-mile (2 km) long, reasonably flat and sandy trail. We covered the trail in about two hours; far from strenuous. The landing was a wet one, so we wore our water shoes, and opted to change out of them and put on trail hikers once we were on the beach. (We picked up inexpensive water aerobics shoes from Walmart for about $7 with the intent of leaving them behind at the end of the trip.)
We landed at a black sand beach where we were greeted by one of the few mammals that can be found on land in the islands — the Galápagos sea lion. Well, greeted is probably the wrong word since it slept the entire time we were getting ready for our walk. With a population about 50,000-strong, these sea lions are a subspecies of the California sea lions. It is believed they originated from stray individuals that found their way here from the west coast of Mexico.
Galápagos sea lion — the welcoming committee is sleeping on the job.
Of the two trails at this site, we followed the coastal one that ends at the fur seal grottoes. There was so much to see along the way that I wondered if we would make it that far before we had to turn back. No worries; we did! At first, Mui and I tried to keep up with the group so we could hear Fatima’s commentary, but it didn’t take long for us to fall behind. Oh well!
The terrain we hiked was quite varied. It wasn’t difficult, by any means, but when we stepped off the trail to explore the rocky areas, we had to pay attention to where we put our feet. Not just because there might be an iguana or other creature in our way, but because the rocks had grooves and dips, and could also be slippery where the sea had washed across them.
at the far end of the landing beach are eroded cliffs;
brilliantly colored Sally Lightfoot crabs stand out against the black rock.
From this spot the varied terrain is easily viewed.
Eroded lava rock is all along the shoreline.
The oldest lava flows on the island are more than 750,000 years old.
The lava flows have interesting shapes and textures.
Opuntia (Prickly Pear Cactus)
I was going to post pictures of the wildlife we encountered in the order we came upon them, but that seemed a bit too willy-nilly, so I’m going to group them and provide a few comments about each in the caption. Look for the link if you’d like a bit more information. A few exceptions to what I just wrote — the marine iguanas, which can only be found in the Galápagos, deserve their own post; as does a drama that unfolded before our eyes.
Marine Iguanas won’t win any beauty contests, but I find them charming nonetheless.
According to Fatima, The red throat patch identifies this lava lizard as female.
these lizards stood surprisingly still when we came across them on the trail; not at
all like their skittish counterparts in other parts of the world, which dart away at
the slightest sound or movement. they are the most abundant of the reptiles here.
[seven endemic subspecies; they differ by the island on which they are found.]
Lava lizards are considered to be dwarf iguanas. The ones that live in areas of
volcanic rock have adapted to have darker skin so that they can blend in better.
locusts and birds
A quick word about the Galápagos finches. They are commonly called Darwin’s finches as he was the first to collect them from the islands when he visited during the second voyage of the Beagle. There are somewhere around 13-15 species of these birds, all of which evolved from a single species. As they are very similar in size and appearance, Fatima wouldn’t hazard a guess as to which kind we were seeing except to say they were ground finches.
the Galápagos hawk evolved from the Swainson’s Hawk, which arrived in the islands
approx. 300,000 years ago. They developed broad wingspans and tails to allow them
to soar over the islands. They are at the top of the food chain.
[the only endemic predator in the islands]
(By the way, without giving anything away, this hawk was one of the protagonists in the drama we witnessed.)
In the Galápagos, the slaty gray form of the green-backed heron is commonly
referred to as the lava heron. Its color allows it to blend in with the lava rocks.
This heron is sometimes considered a subspecies of the Striated Heron. IT has a
Longer, stouter bill which is useful since a major portion of its diet consists of crabs.
I’m at a loss on this heron. I thought I was taking a photo of another lava heron, but its
feathers are quite different and not nearly as dark as the first one. there have been
sightings of the less common Striated heron. Anyone know for sure?
Update: My friend MBz thinks this is a lava heron, just a different morph. I trust her opinion.
Yellow Warblers are not endemic to the islands. They are often seen darting
along the shoreline, where they have figured out that there are more bugs to eat.
missing the reddish cap that is common to males, I am guessing this one’s a female.
The Galápagos Mockingbird descended from the Ecuadorian long-tailed mockingbird.
There are four species that occur in the archipelago. Several sources mention
that they had the greatest early influence on Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
American Oystercatchers use their bills, which are flattened on the sides, like a
shucking knife to open clams and other mollusks. They are not endemic to the islands.
Yellow-Crowned Night Herons — juvenile on the left, and an immature (I think) on the right,
with a blurry adult in the background scratching away.
Shy on the mainland, in the islands this non-endemic species is bold, and active day and night.
(There were some ghost crabs on the beach, but they quickly retreated into their burrows at the slightest vibration they felt from people wandering around; perhaps I’ll have better luck on a different island.)
John Steinbeck wrote of the Sally Lightfoot Crab: “These little crabs, with brilliant
cloisonné carapaces, walk on their tiptoes, They have remarkable eyes and an
extremely fast reaction time.”
And finally … the end of the trail at the grottoes.
Galápagos fur seals are actually a type of sea lion. Their thick coat looks furrier
than that of the sea lion; hence the name, and the reason why they were hunted to
near extinction. Less tolerant of the sun and heat, they prefer the rocky coastline
where shade is available; these grottoes on Santiago are perfect in that respect.
And on that note, we began the walk back to our landing beach. Plenty more to come from this morning …