Monday, April 20, 2015

The Snorkel Trip of All Snorkel Trips

Our intrepid traveler on the tour boat dock.

Our tour guide started out with "Well, can you swim?"
 On Monday April 20th we became full fledged tourists, sans the safari shirts and $5,000 Nikons, and joined a tour to the famous Las Tunneles. Eight tourists and two full-fledged cruisers all boarded a glorified panga with twin 125 hp outboards and began the 25-minute ride south along Isabella’s coast, cruising along at a steady 30 knots.

Forlorn home to the red-footed boobies.

Along the way we stopped at an oddball rock out in the middle of nowhere to see and learn about blue-footed and red-footed boobies. The red-footed boobie spends most of their time at sea while the blue-footed are a more terrestrial bird. Oh, and one has red feet and the other blue feet.

This is the entrance to Les Tunnels. There are rocks everywhere, with the added extra that it's very shallow.

White mangrove tree growing on the lava outcropping.

After another 10 minutes of bouncing around in the offshore swells, the boat did an abrupt right-hand turn into a swirling surf line. He wove the boat right and left like a conga dancer following some unseen underwater channel through the surf and then came to a calmer area, but one with rocks protruding from the water everywhere. I would never, ever take a boat into such a place. But these boat drivers were the original fisherman who used to enter this labyrinth while fishing for lobster. We passed through areas with rocks almost scraping the hull on both sides at once. Further and further in we wove, passing lava arches and pristine aqua pools resembling an enchanted fairyland.

Our guide (you don’t go anywhere in the Galapagos without a guide) explained this was once a molten lava field that entered the ocean, and at some point the lava tubes collapsed leaving a bay-like area littered with lava rocks. Absolutely amazing.

Love is in the air, the beginning of the famous "boobie love dance."
 As the boat wove in and out of the passages it would slow and we’d be looking eye-to-eye with a blue-footed boobie or two (I’m not much of a bird expert but the blue feet do give them away.) The animals in the Galapagos, for whatever reason, have no fear of man. You can approach then very closely in most cases (be careful of the sea lions) and get some incredible pictures. At each stop the naturalist explained the traits and habits of the various seabirds and mammals.

Not much grows out on the lava flows except cactus.

At one point, so far into the labyrinth that I would never have found my way out, we came upon several other tourist boats tied up to a lava wall. We disembarked for a short tour of the lava field where the guide showed us a nesting site for the blue-footed boobie (even you, with no ornithology experience, can identify this bird). Nearby several female blue-footed boobies sat solitary on rocks, until they heard the shrill whistle of the male bird who landed close to one of the forlorn females. The male began lifting one foot, then the other in the famous boobie mating dance (seriously, people come from all over the world to witness this). It was kind of cute to watch, with the female doing her version of the same.

We then boarded the boat and headed further into a large pool-like area, where we suited up for our snorkeling trip. Normally this would be fun but we had about 8 totally novice snorkelers, and the guide wanted everyone up close and personal. Trying to avoid having your mask kicked off was a challenge. Some really couldn’t even swim that well and had life jackets on. I was patiently videoing some yellow-fined damsel fish when all of a sudden a GoPro on an extension stick come in over my head, soon followed by its owner. I tended to hang to the back of the group, but that was a disadvantage as the guide “discovered new surprises,” like a free swimming sea horse that I never got to see. Also a stone fish that disappeared back into the camouflage.
A green sea turtle, up close and personal. (The photos with date stamps where taken by the tour operator.)
Schools of beautiful yellow-tailed surgeonfish.
 I was amazed by the green sea turtles. I have never seen so many or so close up. One poor fellow was surrounded by about six snorkelers; luckily he was pretty laid back about the whole thing. I got some great footage (that I’ll upload as soon as I find some bandwidth) swimming within two feet of these prehistoric monsters. I sat and watched them nibble on the algae lining the rocks, then slowly surface for a gulp of air, then back to the rocks for more algae.

A lonely Galapagos penguin.
A lonely Galapagos penguin with his new friend.
As we swam by a rock the guide popped up to show us a solitary Galapagos penguin, quietly sitting on a rock outcropping about two feet above us. Everyone circled around to have their picture taken with the penguin. Gotta wonder what he was thinking.

After awhile you are totally overwhelmed by the sheer richness of the environment, it’s like a primordial stew from which all life emerged. This is caused by the upwelling of the colder Humboldt Current by the warmer Counter Equatorial (or Cromwell Current) pushing all the deeper-dwelling nutrients to the surface creating a Disneyland for sea life. According to Darwin, “. . . about 25% of the known algae, invertebrates, and shore fishes [of the Galapagos] occur nowhere else on earth.”

I couldn't pick out this sea horse from the mangrove root from two feet away.
Our guide led us in a single file line with our bellies barely clearing the rocks (some of our bellies scraped more than others) in places further into the labyrinth to a final secluded pool, where one by one he had us swim over to his location deep in the mangroves. There, about two feet below the surface was something I’d waited years to see:  a sea horse. It was so well camouflaged that even at one foot away I didn’t see it until he pointed it out. It exactly resemble the mangrove root it’s tail was attached to. Again, amazing.

White-tipped reef sharks who are hopefully sleeping.
The guide saved the best for last. We entered another secluded pool and he had us swim over to a semi submerged lava arch. Underwater we could barely make out the shapes of three white-tipped sharks resting near the back of the cave. White-tips are nocturnal hunters and sleep in caves and under ledges during the day. The water was so full of nutrients that you had to dive down a bit to more clearly make them out. But getting deeper in the cave with them didn’t seem like a great idea at the time.
He swam over to say good-bye.
Swimming back to the boat I got another drive-by by a huge green sea turtle while the rest of the group was boarding the boat and oblivious to what was swimming right beneath them. We got hosed off with fresh water as we boarded the boat and passed around juice and sandwiches for a late lunch. Most of the participants on our boat were Spanish speakers so we couldn’t participate in the normal animated post dive banter, but after all that exercise we almost nodded off during the long ride back to the anchorage.

What a great day!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Isabela's Upland Farm Harvest and Lunch with the Hauser's

Word spreads quickly when something different and appetizing comes along.  We had spent the morning bicycling with some new friends on S/V Full Circle and were talking during lunch about taking an excursion to a local upland farm and having a buffet lunch at “The Hauser’s” restuarant following.  This is a popular activity and many cruisers are usually interested.  We were five, and needed at least 10 for the buffet.  Word spread quickly and we were soon 17 ready to meet up the next day for a trip into the hills.

Perfect air-conditioned truck

We were a mixed group of Americans, French, Dutch, South African's, and Kiwi’s,  Conversations could be heard in English, French, Dutch and a little Spanish.  We hired a great truck with 4 rows of outdoor seats and headed first to the farm to do some fresh vegetable and fruit provisioning. Since everyone at some point was heading for French Polynesia we all had fresh food in mind.

We soon arrived and were welcomed by some friendly dogs at the gate.  Our host soon showed up and began showing us his farm.  We had a little language difficulty initially but were able to communicate what we were looking for.  I think some of us were thinking we would find all the produce picked and on tables ready to put in our bags.  Harvesting our own food was much more fun as we walked along a path toward the lime trees and then to the tomato field which had many varieties.  The cherry tomatoes were incredible and we couldn’t stop sampling along the way.   Green tomatoes seemed to be the most sought after as they would last longest on a passage.  We next gathered up some guava’s and oranges before the rainfall started soaking us.  We were all still interested in harvesting some melons and squash but ran out of time before our lunch time drew near.

Not far from the farm we arrived at the Hauser’s Restaurant owned and run by an Austrian chef, Bert and his Ecuadorian wife, Yvette. We had a marvelous four-course meal for $22.  We had a garden fresh salad, delicious tomato soup with homemade rolls, followed by a buffet of roast chicken, wahoo fish, beef with mushroom sauce, along with sides of Austrian potatoes, mixed vegetables, and pasta.  Dessert was also included and was delicious. 

Los Hauser's Restaurant
Yvette showing us a large Guaybana or Soursop
Yvette was a charming hostess and made us all feel so welcome.  Everyone was appreciative to have such a nicely prepared and presented meal on the small isolated island of Isabela.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Passage to Isabelle

On April 15th we departed San Cristobal at 3:30 pm for the overnight 80-mile sail to Isabelle. I was very concerned about the inaccuracies of the charts, and knowing their was a strong current pushing us along we opted to motor sail to avoid hitting several islands along our course. With no moon it was pitch black and we couldn’t see a thing.

I also had a lot of consternation about entering Puerto Villamil after seeing aerial photos with pounding surf all around the entrance. Our friend David on Full Circle had left the day before and emailed me his GPS coordinates for entering the harbor, and even though the electronic chart was off the GPS numbers were spot on as we carefully wound our way around markers into the tiny harbor protected by lava outcroppings. The harbor, while seemingly big, only has one small area deep enough for yachts to anchor, and it was chock full. Luckily one boat had left that morning and we squeezed into his space (only having to re-anchor a day later when we swung too close to a boat).
Walking from the dingy dock to the road you run a gauntlet of marine iguanas and big seals.

Little did I know this little beauty had a jealous boyfriend right behind me.
 On the 17th we reconnected with David, Cindy, and Larry off the 50 ft. catamaran Full Circle, with whom we had toured San Cristobal, and arranged a to rent some bicycles for a ride out along the coast. Arriving at the dingy dock, we were amazed by the number of sea lions lazing on the docks and covering all the bench seats in the waiting area. Sensing a photo op, I carefully approached a female laying on a seat and carefully focused the camera. No sooner had I taken the picture then I felt a searing pain in my left calf. I spun around and came eye-to-eye with a large male, who had just bit me and was barking furiously. Discretion being 9/10s of valor, I slowly backed away, trying to avoid the other sea lions who seeming had me surrounded.
Yes, it hurt.
Meryl, having had enough medical emergencies with me over the last two weeks, just shook her head. While the males have four 1 ½ inch long incisors, I brushed it off the incident while Meryl rinsed the blood off with her water bottle. It hurt a lot, but I figured I’d survive. I later learned the males get highly protective of their females during mating season and I shouldn’t have positioned myself in such tight quarters with the seals.

We walked (I limped) about two miles into town and waited while David checked in with the the Port Captain. Fortunately our agent, JC Desoto, was there and we completed our check-in with him. Meryl told him of the sea lion incident and JC recommended I go to the clinic so a doctor could have a look. Luckily it was just around the corner and the doctor saw me immediately. He prescribed some antibiotics and sent me down the hall to a nurse who carefully cleaned and irrigated the wound and put some anti bacterial cream on, along with a big mother-honking bandage. The one positive:  health care in Ecuador is totally free, even the antibiotics. Gotta love that.

The road to Muro de las Lagrimas.
As the tide got higher the waves started breaking over the road, making for a little more challenging riding.
So what do you do after being bitten by a 200 lb. sea lion? We went on a 7-mile bike ride along the seashore to an area called Muro de las Lagrimas  (The Wall of Tears). The bike ride was pleasant, first on a sandy road that paralleled the shore line, then into the desert-like backcountry covered with thorny bushes and cactus plants. Unfortunately David got a flat tire (how do you ever know if the rear tire of a mountain bike is low on air?), so we alternated walking with David and riding.

A wall with no purpose except pain and suffering.
After about 3 ½ miles we parked the bikes and hiked the last ¼ mile to the wall. Between 1946 and 1959 the Isabella Penitentiary Colony was located nearby, home to some of the most incorrigible prisoners in Ecuador. Unfortunately, the guards were worse than the prisoners, many bordering on sadistic as they made the prisoners carry 20 to 40 pound lava rocks several miles in the 90-degree plus heat where they slowly built a towering wall. Many died during the effort and eventually the penal colony was shut down. The Wall, approximately 300 feet long, 50 feet wide, and about 30 feet high, had no purpose but to provide meaningless labor for the prisoners.

As we rode back into town we had to navigate several areas where the upcoming tide had washed onto the road creating a watery trail for some distance.  We had lunch at one of the numerous open air restaurants and plugged into the glacially slow Internet to catch up with mail from home.

Back at the dock, I had a new wariness as I navigated the pathway, first covered with up to twenty 1 to 3 ft. long menacing looking marine iguanas, then through another twenty basking seals. I swear one looked at me and gave that glaring “Don’t screw with me again” look.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Legacy of Charles Darwin

Meryl's bounty from the weekly vegetable market.
 While Meryl went in on the water taxi to visit the Saturday morning vegetable market, I attacked the broken bow running lights. Since my blue-footed boobie had pooped on just about everything on the bow pulpit, it took a while to get things clean enough to work on it. After removing the light I tested it, but only the green LED would come on, which was very strange. I took out the new running light and tested it and found only it’s green LED would light. I then rearranged the source wiring I was using to test and found both lights were functional, but very sensitive to voltage (LEDs usually have a wide voltage range they accept). Even thought I was half laying over the bow pulpit I managed to get the wires soldered back on (the wires were too thin to crimp) and finally got everything working again. A simple job that would take 20 minutes in my shop at home took all morning on the boat.

Everywhere you go in the Galapagos there are sea lions. The seem to populate more of the waterfront than the people do.

This would be a great place to land your dingy, except for . . .
The main street of beautiful downtown San Cristobal.
In the afternoon we decided to walk west out of town to the Charles Darwin Interpretive Center. Spain had donated a ton of money to San Cristobal to have the center built, but over the years there had been little to no maintenance and things were beginning to fall apart. We did learn a lot about the formation of the islands and their history.

The Charles Darwin Interpretive Center.

Display in the Center showing the influence of the three ocean currents on the Galapagos.
Geographically the Galapagos Islands are uniquely situated in the Pacific Ocean 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, with the warm Panama Current coming down from the northeast, and the Cromwell (Equatorial Counter Current) sweeping in from the west and meeting the cold waters of the Humboldt Current that comes northwards along the coast of South America. The warmer Cromwell current sweep under the cold Humboldt Current and bring the nutrient rich deeper waters to the surface in the area of the Galapagos, a perfect stew for propagation of wildlife and fauna. This provides a fertile feeding ground for the numerous species of seabirds, including the blue-footed boobie, the white-footed boobies, the frigate birds, flightless cormorants, pelicans and other species. Ashore are the famous finches on which Darwin based his monumental theory of evolution, including one who uses catus quills as a tool to get bugs out of holes. The waters around the Galapagos are rich in sea life, with green turtles, sea lions, penguins, eagle rays, white and black tipped sharks, hammerhead sharks, and the endemic Galapagos sharks.

The famous Galapagos finches that served to catalyze Darwin's theory of evolution.
Their are over 20 species found nowhere else in the world except the Galapagos, making it a wonderful research base for Charles Darwin who formulated his famous Origin of Species. Darwin surmised: “hence, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact — that mystery of mysteries — the first appearance of new beings on this earth.”

The Interpretive Center also sheds a little light on the colonization of the island. First used by buccaneers and whalers, the islands were populated by a rough crowd set on exploiting the resources of the island, mainly tortoises, seals, and whales. As more criminals were sent to the island from the mainline, the decadence of the islands increased. A large penal colony was established on Isabella (home to the famous “Wall of Tears”) but the guards were so repressive that the prisoners revolted, stole a yacht owned by an American and sailed off to Hawaii, never to be heard from again. A well known Baroness from Europe showed up with her three lovers. Two turned up dead and the Baroness disappeared, leaving only one lover who knew the true story. A group of Norwegians tried to set up a altruistic colony to harvest cod only to be set back by the hardships of the place. While rich in resources, the islands turned out to be a difficult place to live in its isolated location in the Pacific Ocean.
Our daily toil, hauling 10 gallons of water back to the boat.
Back at the water taxi dock we asked one of the water taxi drivers about sources of drinking water for the boat. He took us up to the public bathrooms and using a coke bottle, carefully metered out 10 gallons into our two plastic cubes.  Over the next week we would always bring the two cubes in with us and stop by the bathrooms at the end of the day to refill our water supply on the boat. We’re one of the few boats without a water maker on board so we don’t have much choice in the matter.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Exploring San Cristobal

While having ice cream the day before at La Zappa, we overheard an American couple sitting nearby trying to put together a trip to the Highlands of San Cristobal. Not knowing any of the local cruisers, we decided to be bold and asked if they had any more room on the tour, which started a nice friendship with the crew of Full Circle from Austin, TX. David and Cindy had built the beautiful custom catamaran in Astoria, OR which was unique in the fact it had electric motors rather than a diesel engine. We also met their long time friend, Larry, who used to crew for David when he raced J boats. Larry was a former programmer for the IRS and had that wry sense of humor I enjoy.

We met the next day at the water taxi and all piled into a pick-up truck (with David and I in the truck bed) and headed up to the top of San Cristobal. We were very fortunate to have Jorge as our guide, he apparently is the only English-speaking guide on the island who is also trained as a naturalist.

David off to explore the tree house.

All the comforts of home in the tree tops.
Our first stop was called, appropriately enough, the Tree House. Still don’t know the full story but a local guy built a very unique tree house that was part art and part construction (reminding me of my friend Tom Teitge’s houses). He rents it out as lodging to tourists and has tours when it’s empty.  The bar on the ground level was made up of over 20,000 former green Pilsner beer bottles. David, an engineer by profession, marveled at the construction and ingenuity of the design of the tree house. It even featured a fire house pole for quick descents, and the base of the tree was hollowed out for a TV room and mini bar.
Descending into the roots of the tree. Perfect location for a root cellar. 

Over 20,000 beer bottles went into constructing the bar.
From there we continued up the hill to El Junco Lagoon, a volcanic basin lake and the only source of fresh water on all the Galapagos Islands. Our guide, Jorge, was a trained naturalist and took us on a two-mile hike around the rim of the volcano/lake. This area is home to hundreds of frigate birds, the males with a bright red pouch on their necks and the females with a white underbelly. Frigate birds are the only seabird without oil glands, which means they need a source of fresh water to clean their feathers and to drink. They are also superb flyers with long sculpted wings that they twist into various configurations as they swoop down to the lake to drink. We could have watched them fly for hours.

The volcanic highlands of Isla Isabella.

Soaring frigate birds.
Hike around the rim of the crater lake.

We also saw a nesting area for gulls located in a fern-type grotto. The park rangers have to put rat traps (not an indigenous animal but introduced from sailing ships) as the rats feed on the bird eggs. The view from the top of the rim was incredible, looking out over hundreds of miles of blue Pacific Ocean.
Our guide, Jorge, explaining the procedures at the tortoise breeding center.
Lunch is served, don't everyone one rush in.
Next we went to the Cerro Colorado Galapagos (Tortoise) Breeding Station where a large amount of land as been preserved by the parks authority for the conservation and breeding of land tortoises.  Our timing was perfect as the ranger was just bringing an armful of otoy (banana leaves) that are fed to the tortoises twice a day. To say they all rushed over when the ranger appeared with lunch would be overkill; they very slowly raised their prehistoric heads and slowly lumbered over to the feeding area. There were six tortoises in the immediate area, including a baby, and in the distance we saw three others slowly ambling their way to lunch. It is breeding season and the smaller females are very wary about being around the much larger males. When they eat, since they really can’t use their hands, they grab the banana leaf and slowly masticate it using just their mouth. This is all a very slow process, much like a lunch in a fine French restaurant, but without the wine.

Scientists estimate there used to be more than 200,000+ tortoises on the island, but unfortunately they were too convenient a food source for visiting pirates and whalers who would take them aboard their ships so they would have fresh food during their voyages. Stuffed into the hold, they could live up to 8 months on a passage.
These tortoises live in a protected cage until the reach the age of 3 years old.
This acclimatizing area hold tortoises up to the age of 5, when they are then released into the wild.
 A typical tortoise will lay up to 10 eggs (much different from the sea turtles who lay up to 100 eggs) in a nest dug out of the hard ground. At the breeding center the rangers collect the eggs and put them in special incubators where they stay for 90 to 120 days. Then they are transferred to holding pens where they live until age 3, after which they are put in special acclimatization areas that replicate the environment of the island. At age five they are transferred into the wild, but this long process only produces about 20 tortoises twice a year.

Dining area at the Otoy Restaurant
Delicious fruit crepes for dessert
Our next stop was a real treat. Jorge knew of a new restaurant named Otoy that was about to open and was having a group of potential investors over for the day. We were fortunate to be included in the group and were served an excellent lunch in a very posh setting. They had hammocks strung between the trees and we were tempted to just spend the afternoon just chilling. (By the way, we learned the term posh comes from the British aristocracy who when sailing from England demanded Port Outbound and Starboard Home for the best views).

Puerto Chino Beach.
Our final stop of the day was the Puerto Chino beach area, a pristine white sand beach with tumbling surf on the shores. Unfortunately we were all too tired to take advantage of the swimming opportunity and just stayed under the shade of the trees and talked.

Once back in town we stopped again at La Zappa for a shot of ice cream and some WiFi, then back to the boat for sundowners and to chase the sea lions off our back step.