THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, ECUADOR (Part 3) – October 2008

Galapagos Birdlife

One of the obvious features of the Galapagos Islands is the birdlife.

I have already mentioned the myriad variety of finches which have adapted, over the centuries, in order to best take advantage of the local conditions.

In addition, there are frigates, which are large, black, vulture-like birds. When trying to attract a female, the male frigate will inflate a large red pouch under his throat. It is unknown how successful this technique is in seducing the wary, female frigate.

One of the more interesting – and prevalent – birds is the blue footed boobie. As the name suggests, these birds have blue feet. Absent a red pouch, those male blue footed boobies which fancy their chances with the ladies dance, tail raised and wings spread, whilst whistling towards the sky. Judging by the number of this species on the islands, this technique is quite successful.

Also present on the islands are a large number of albatrosses. When we toured Dunedin earlier in the year, we visited an albatross colony, but had to stay several hundred metres from where they nested. By contrast, on Galapagos, we were allowed so close to some baby albatrosses that – with five quick steps – we could have taken them in our arms and given them a cuddle. We also saw some adult albatrosses soaring, majestically, across the sky, one of them making a crash landing as he returned to his rock-strewn home.

One of the more interesting bird varieties we saw was the flightless cormorant. Given the absence of any natural predators, these rare birds have forgotten how to fly, developing small, atrophied wings. However, whilst losing the gift of flight, the cormorants have learned the ability to swim. We saw one darting through some shallow water, chasing fish this way and that.

In addition to these birds we also saw some pink flamingos standing in a lagoon, their heads underwater eating food stirred up by their feet, together with pelicans, mockingbirds, flycatchers, doves and hawks.

A true, life-long, bird lover – such as my brother – would have enjoyed the birdlife on Galapagos far more than novices like B and me.

However, there was one event, involving birds, which I shall never forget…

On Friday afternoon, whilst preparing to snorkel, we were suddenly invaded by a mass of birdlife overhead. Looking up, there must have been 500 or more blue footed boobies soaring above us, across the beach. Once they had passed, four pelicans flew in hot – albeit futile – pursuit, followed by a lone frigate.

Without warning, all of the birds swarmed around a headland before plunging, en masse, into the ocean, plundering the defenceless school of fish below. It was an awe-inspiring sight. Even our guides were profoundly excited by the unexpected spectacle.

Unfortunately, it all happened far too quickly for us to get out our cameras and record the extraordinary natural occurrence. I realised that this was the case immediately and made an instant decision to simply stand back and witness nature at its most majestic. Thankfully, the sight was so dramatic that it is indelibly imprinted upon my memory.

Galapagos Marine Life 

I have already mentioned going snorkelling for the first time in my life. I was actually lucky enough to snorkel on six occasions during our week amongst the Galapagos Islands. It was a lot of fun.

In addition to my close encounters with a marine turtle and some playful sea lions, I saw large numbers of fish of different colours, sizes and varieties, together with star fish and sea urchins. I even saw a couple of nurse sharks, albeit, thankfully, well below me.

However, the most memorable marine life we saw was a pod of dolphins on the second morning of our cruise. We arose early that day to enjoy a 7am zodiac ride around Kicker Rock; an imposing volcanic rock formation rising sharply from the ocean. We skirted in and out of the nooks and crannies of the rocks for awhile – which was great fun in itself – before our zodiac driver suddenly took off and charged across the waves away from our cruise ship.

It turned out that our guide had spotted some dolphins frolicking in the water. We proceeded to tail them in our zodiac as they periodically leaped from the water in graceful arcs before surfing on the waves our own boat was creating. Huckleberry and I were thrilled by the experience, as were many other of the guests.

The Rare Galapagos Lava Texans

We met some wonderful people whilst cruising on Celebrity Xpedition.

Special mention must be made of a Texan couple, who I shall name JR and Sue-Ellen for the purpose of this journal. To use language they would understand; those two were a hoot!

JR and Sue-Ellen joined us for dinner the first night onboard Celebrity Xpedition. It’s fair to say, I think, that the four of us hit it off immediately. They had a sense of humour very similar to our own. We ended up dining together – sometimes with others – each night and going on most of the expeditions together. By the end of the cruise, the other friends we made onboard were in the habit of saving four seats for us, rather than two, because they knew we would be together.

JR had a sense for the ridiculous which we loved. He came up with an amusing theory that none of the animals on the islands were real and that they were merely animations being controlled in a computer room onboard the boat. So the guides would take us to the pre-arranged location and the captain in the computer room would put on a show. JR had us laughing until our sides ached as he developed his theory day-by-day.

He also pointed out, with his wry Texan smile, that fairly ordinary animals were made to seem exotic through the use of an exotic name. For example, a humble, common-place lizard was elevated to being a `lava lizard’ and an everyday lady beetle was revered for being a `Galapagos lady beetle’. Before long, thanks to JR, we were naming everything as a `Galapagos lava whatever…’ in reverent tones. By the end of our trip, we agreed that the holy grail of Galapagos wildlife was the “Galapagos Lava Marine Flightless Rice Rat”.

Sue-Ellen was adorable. Speaking with a very broad Texan accent – to our innocent ears – she kept us entertained with her infectious giggle and girlish attitude. Whilst short of stature she was very big on personality.

Sue-Ellen and JR were with us during the incident described earlier when the bull sea lion was defending his territory. After our guide warned that the bull might bite our legs if we got in his way whilst in such a foul mood, Sue-Ellen made the perfectly reasonably enquiry as to what the guide would do to intervene. However, as a Texan born-and-bred, Sue-Ellen proposed a Texas solution to Galapagos problem. In short, she asked the guide whether she had a gun!

As a naturalist by profession and an animal lover at heart, our guide was horrified. She stopped in her tracks and looked at Sue-Ellen as though she were the devil himself.

From that moment on, there was a running joke about Sue-Ellen wanting to shoot the sea lions and harpoon the dolphins. The truth, of course, was that she adored the living creatures on the islands as much as anybody else. However, with one slip of her Texan tongue, the guide had Sue-Ellen painted as a redneck.

Whilst Sue-Ellen loved animals, she reserved a special hatred for the marine iguanas.

On one occasion, we were returning to our zodiac to find that a large number of iguanas sleeping across our narrow path. Our guide advised us that our only option was to walk quietly, in single-file, through the nest. As long as we did not threaten the ugly little creatures, they would not bite us. JR told Sue-Ellen that her best option was to swim around the headland. I suspect Sue-Ellen actually gave that option serious consideration before dismissing it as impossible. The poor thing ended up holding her breath as she painstakingly stepped through the iguanas’ nest, desperate to avoid stepping on any tails.

As I am writing these words, we are entering our last afternoon at the Galapagos Islands, which means B and I will soon be saying goodbye to JR and Sue-Ellen, which makes us truly sad. Our adventures over the last week were made infinitely more entertaining for the unexpected friendship we quickly developed. We hope that the bond will be maintained through cyberspace and – hopefully – face-to-face on some future travels.

Moonriver

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