*Written on the boat 2010.07.14; posted by hotel WIFI in Quito 2010.07.18*
Ok, swimming with the sharks was cool. It was worth squeezing into the wetsuit and dropping out of the panga straight into the sea. We swam along a reef and eventually had to go single file through a couple reef channels, as we were looking for reef sharks. During the narrowest channel (maybe 1-1.5 meters across), the sharks were swimming beneath us. Not only were they larger than we expected (maybe 1-1.5 meters long themselves), but there were a lot of them, and the didn’t seem to mind being on top of each other like the marine iguanas. They were white-tipped reef sharks, and they were clearly identifiable by the white tips of their fins against their otherwise grey body. We were careful to keep our bodies horizontally floating on the water, lest our feet should dip too far beneath the surface… They swam along beneath us at the bottom of the channel, going both directions with seemingly little traffic control, and staying away from the surface of the water. I managed to resist the urge to reach out and touch them…
Yesterday evening’s land trip was cool too. We walked around the lava and mangroves along the southern coast of Isabela Island, looking for wildlife. We walked through the “kindergarten” of marine iguanas, where all the baby iguanas grow up because it has a good food source for them. The marine iguanas climb around on top of each other with even more disorder than the sharks, not seeming to mind getting elbows or claws in the face. We also walked through the nesting areas of tons of adult marine iguanas, all on top of each other in piles that blend in so well with the lava rock we almost didn’t notice some of them. Some of them appeared to spit at us out their noses, which we were told is how they cleanse their system of salt water and other toxins after going for a swim.
In addition to the marine iguanas, we saw 4 baby Galapagos sea lions and a few adult sea lions hanging out on the land near the path. 1 of the babies had been abandoned and was very scrawny; our guide said it wouldn’t last much longer. =( The others were pretty adorable, lying in the middle of the path taking a nap or stretching. Strangely, none of the babies seemed to be near any of the adults, even the healthy ones. One of the adults snorted at me as I took a picture… We also saw the head of a sea turtle stick out of the water a couple times, but no more.
On the way to and from the shore, the pangas stopped by a Galapagos Penguin hangout, and we watched the penguins waddle out of the water and wiggle around. They were also being visited by a pair of blue-footed boobies, proudly showing off their bright blue feet. Through we were on the southern tip, the northern tip of Isabela Island is the only place in the world where penguins can be found north of the equator (the equator runs through the top of the island).
This morning, we arrived at the southern side of Santa Cruz Island and took a bus up into its highlands, where the male giant tortoises like to chill. We wandered around looking for giant tortoises, spotting maybe 9 of them during our foray. These were much larger than the juveniles that we saw in the lowlands yesterday. Young turtles hatch and grow up in the lowlands, where it is sunnier and drier and the eggs can stay safe without getting lost in mud. Adult males stay at the top of the highlands, where the food source is better. Adult females stay in the middle, going up toward the males to mate and back toward the sea to lay their eggs. Tortoises can travel for months up or down the island to find a mate. The males also grow much larger than the females so that they can climb on top to mate with them. The largest that we saw today was perhaps 4 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 2 feet tall; the empty shell of a tortoise that died of old age was barely straddle-able by me. 😛 They moved very slowly, but when they moved, nothing in their way could stop them; they just plowed through it. Their heads also don’t go that far into hiding when they retract; if they want to be truly protected, they cover their heads afterwards with their thick elephant-like legs and feet. All of the tortoises that we saw this morning were domed tortoises; the other variety that exists in the islands are the saddleback tortoises, or the “galapagos” for which the islands were named. These have a saddle-shaped shell such that they can stretch their incredibly long necks and acquire food from the trees rather than the ground. Each island has its own species of tortoise which is endemic to its island, but most fall into one of those two categories.
In addition to searching for giant tortoises, we also walked through a lava tunnel and visited two sinkholes before returning to the boat for lunch. The lava tunnel was created as lava rushed down in tube form and had the outsides of it begin to cool and harden while the insides kept flowing. We walked through a part between two areas that had collapsed, allowing for entry and exit. We were also shown bones from cows that had gotten lost and died in the tunnels before people discovered they existed (and thus why their cows were going missing). In the largest portion, the tunnel was perhaps 18 feet in diameter; in the smallest portion, we had to wriggle our way through a maybe 2-foot high gap (though still wide enough to fit, maybe 5 feet wide). The varying widths of the tunnel were caused by its interaction with tunnels above and below it, and determined by which ones collapsed through which others. The sink holes were large craters in the ground now teeming with vegetation, which had been originally filled with lava that left through vents elsewhere, until eventually the basalt that formed their roofs collapsed into them. They were both large enough to be a lagoon, had they been filled with water.
In the evenings, Ted, Tatiana, and I have learned a new card game, courtesy of Laura, Julia, and Charlie. It is called Set. Apparently I’m not horrible at it, but neither am I fast enough to beat Laura. Sometimes Julia and Charlie took pity on me and donated points….
The only real downsides to our adventures of the last 24 hours were the speed and our health. At times we felt rushed, as our guide pushed us through areas to make sure that we got to see everything on schedule. In addition, my body has been having gastro-intestinal issues from the change in diet, culminating in stomachaches and diarrhea. While I don’t think I’m prone to seasickness, the rocking of the boat has been shaking around an already unhappy stomach and intensifying its issues. I spent the first half of last night sleeping on the couch in the dining room, because the lower level of the boat rocked less than the upper level. The staff kindly donated barf bags (I used one when I attempted to take a pill) and turned out the lights for us before they left for the night. I finally managed to keep some medication down this afternoon; hopefully it will help.