Thursday, March 22, 2007

Galapagos day 12 – Cruise day 7 – James (Santiago) Island

Our last full day on the boat, today was a jam-packed and enjoyable adventure. We rock up next to a large, forest-covered volcano. Ocean waves hit against the sheer cliffs made of compacted rock, covered with visible soil, then greenery.

We took a dinghy to land at Puerto Egas (James Bay) of James Island (also called Santiago). Again, we came in onto a black sand beach and walked around on lava rock and terracotta tuff cone. Inside the tuff cone, water from the ocean filters in and makes an expensive, good quality salt.

In the 1960s, a man named Salinas opened a salt mine here. The last owner was Hector Egas, who the bay is now named after. He tried to found a settlement in Santiago, but it was hard with little freshwater and few ships. He eventually went broke.

Another change in the island is the disappearance of the 74,000 goats that used to live there. Juan told us how he volunteered with the goat eradication project on a neighboring island. Nineteen hunters, two volunteers, and a chopper with a gunman covered 30 square kilometers. Juan said he did it for the real life ecology experience.

“By participating, you learn there are a lot of things about conservation that aren’t necessarily right. You see how we can screw up nature and it’s too late or too early to do something about it.”

On Santiago, the goat elimination was successful. But the result was the appearance of invasive mallows, which the goats used to control. Juan didn’t consider it a serious problem. He said it’s a low level of vegetation and only during the rainy season, so it’s not taking space for anything else. When dry season comes, they will put on herbicide so the next generation of seeds don’t germinate. It will take five to six years because of the many layers of seeds.

On the beach, we found a few week old sea lion and marine iguanas who had drawn designs in the sand with their tails. We walked on a path through white cordial, thorny fortia, incense trees and shore petunia. Along the path, we found the discarded skeleton of a baby sally lightfoot crab. They grow out of and discard everything, including their eyeballs.

Darwin himself spent nine days on this island, climbing the Sugar Loaf Tuft Cone. As we watched the sea lions, Galapagos fur sea lions, pelicans, dolphins, marine iguanas, oyster catchers, a Galapagos hawk and a ring plover, among other birds and animals, I imaged Darwin seeing the same scenes, but so much more isolated from civilization.

Juan showed us a place along the lava cliffs that is called Darwin’s toilet. It’s a round hole in the rock in which frothy white ocean water builds up, then suddenly “flushes” and drains out, before filling again.

Later in the morning, as we sailed towards Bartolome, on the other side of James Island, we saw the beautiful scenery of rocks shaped as an elephant and a bishop. We passed Bucaneer’s Cove, where Darwin, and many pirates landed for fresh water. The ensconced nature of the cove helped keep the criminals hidden.

Best of all, we saw a couple of bryde whales. Together with one other tourist boat, the Flamingo, which doesn’t treat its waste and emitted a smell like a massive fart, we circled round the whales, allowing us to see them rise out of the water several times, often quite close by. It’s truly amazing to look out over the blue waters and suddenly see a submarine-sized mammal emerge. At the same time, a manta ray glided toward us, a Pacific Green sea turtle paddled by, and a sea lion was swimming unusually far from shore. I felt surrounded by large aquatic life and it was so rewarding to see them in their natural habitat.

In the afternoon we rode up to Bartoleme. Walking across the high sand dune on the inlet, we reached a bay on the other side, where we could see white-tipped sharks floating in the clear water, just a few feet from us.

We returned to the ochre sand beach where we’d landed and went snorkeling around pinnacle point, a large vertical outcropping. Again, the water was murky (the National Park determines which places are allowed for snorkeling, and at least at this time of year, most of them seem to be murky), but we did come across several schools of fish. Most fun was finding a penguin in the water. In the process of fishing, he flitted by me, just a few inches away, at least three times. Given the uniqueness of penguins overall in this region, it was especially nice to get so close to one.

Some of the group came close to white-tipped sharks. I didn’t and was just as glad not to, after one boatmate told us about a tourist getting bit by a bull shark a week before our trip starting. He was diving at dusk (which is the shark’s feeding time) and a bull shark is much more dangerous than a white-tipped. But still, I preferred to not get too close.

Our final activity of the day was to climb up the tall terracotta tuff cone on Bartholeme, to a lighthouse that offered a beautiful overlook. This required climbing 366 stairs, which I ran up as much as possible, trying to give my heart the exertion it has lacked in the past week. At the top, I was able, again, to get a true sense of the volcanic and geologic activity in the area. Looking out over the very small island, I saw a real-life relief map of spatter cones (smaller parasitic cones). It looked like a mars-scape that was formed yesterday. Only a couple of plants grew in that environment, the leather leaf, prickly pear, salt wart, sperch and the beautiful silver great mat plant. We waited up on the overlook until all the other tour groups had left. We watched the sun begin to descend, then walked down into the sunset.

On the boat, we drank a farewell cocktail while saluting the staff. And for dessert, we had a banana-nut cake covered with marshmallow crème and carmelized syrup, fruit and cinnamon (it tasted much better than it sounds). Our final treat was our guide making the mating sounds of a giant tortoise, a request he’d been putting off for the past several days.

And now it’s almost time to go. This evening we have to pack everything up and accept that tomorrow night, another couple will be calling our temporary abode their new home. We have one small morning adventure to go, then it’s on a plane to Quito.

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