Friday, March 16, 2007

Galapagos day 6 – The cruise begins – North Seymour

Today we began our week-long cruise on the Beluga ship. And at the end of the day, Mark and I are very happy with our choice.

We are on the top of three floors, the only room up here near the sun deck. We have two twin beds that are separated, but it’s better than having bunk beds, which was our other choice at the lower price.

Our companions include an opinionated, well-traveled older British couple, a British human resources and leadership specialist, a proper looking young Irish couple, possibly on honeymoon, a Danish cardiologist in training, an Australian woman who has been traveling for three months, a middle-aged Brazilian couple, and a French couple, one of whom is affiliated with the company who runs this ship. We felt lucky when we found out this travel agent was on board. Because we figured she’d report any problems to whoever is in charge and that the staff would be likely to be on their best behavior.

Taking care of the 13 passengers are 9 staff (an incredible ratio!), all men and all professional and helpful so far. The boat is quite comfortable. We have a beautiful view of the water, a sizeable bathroom, lots of storage space, and a shower with hot water.

Our first stop today was at North Seymour, a small island just north of Baltra, where the airport is located. At the airport, I noticed a plane that said “United States of America.” I wondered what it was. Later I was told that George Bush and his wife were here in the Galapagos for two days. Strange to think I’m cruising the same waters as him. Our international companions on this ship all reacted negatively to Bush when our guide confirmed that he was here in the Galapagos.

“I can’t figure out who voted for him,” the English lady said. “No one I’ve ever met did.”

“It’s going to be tough for him to not believe in evolution after he sees this,” Mark said.

The schedule of events on the ship is nice. It seems to alternate – activity, rest, activity, meal, rest, activity, rest, meal, rest. So we are able to see quite a lot in one day. We also get some exercise. But we actually have more down time than we have in the past few days while we were doing everything independently.

After a very nice lunch of beef with capers, steamed cauliflower, salad, rice and watermelon, we set out for our first excursion – snorkeling off the coast of North Seymour. We went out in two dinghies, small but firm rubber rafts with 15 horsepower motors, then jumped into the water. We saw a white-tailed shark lounging on the bottom of the ocean floor. I hadn’t been too afraid of sharks until our Danish companion, Dirk, (who is also a diver) told us about a Danish man whose arm was bitten by a shark three days ago. He had to be sewn up in Puerto Ayora and flown to Quito.

I had only been in the water a matter of minutes when I felt a sudden stinging on my right hand and my upper lip. I looked and only saw what appeared to be a thin, dark hair. It felt I’d been stung or bitten and those two places pulsed with pain, but I could see neither an attacker nor a mark.

I called out to our guide, Juan. “I think I’ve been stung,” I said.

“It’s probably a jellyfish,” he said. “I got stung too.”

He led me to believe it was no big deal, so I continued on. We saw some striped fish and some bright fish. But the sharks were the best sight. The water was a little murky and the variety and color wasn’t as great as what I’d seen before in places like Belize or the Red Sea. After a while morning, the Brazilian man assumed a shocked looked on his face and began swimming, stricken, towards the dinghy. He’d been stung several times on the back, also by jellyfish. He also hadn’t seen anything.

Juan saw another jellyfish and pushed a tourist out of the way. “There seem to be many more jellyfish than normal,” he said. “If you want to get out of the water, it’s probably a good idea.” He said it was rare for tourists to be stung and that usually they don’t appear in large numbers at this time.

Half the people returned to the dinghies and half continued to snorkel. The dinghy driver kept us entertained by showing us the jellyfish (which did in fact look like a thin, vertical hair, not the more bulbous bodies I’d seen in the U.S.), a red-pouched frigate bird, another bird feeding it’s young, and some sea lions, all alone the shoreline.

After a shower and a rest we returned to the dinghies, which brought us to shore this time. The short path led along the coastline and into the island. But it was so full of wildlife in action that it was among the most impressive encounters with nature I’ve ever had.

We started out crossing paths with sea lions, which lie across the black lava rocks we landed on. We walked on top of volcano barnacles, little creatures that come out at night to feed on organic matter. They live in a hard shell made of silica and calcium carbonate that looks like bubbles in a cauldron of soup atop the black lava rocks. We had close-up views of the fascinating frigate birds. Through sexual selection by females, the male has developed a gigantic red pouch that he puffs up when he wants to demonstrate his good gene quality. Though the bird is only 6-7 pounds, this pouch, when filled with air, can weigh two pounds. It is huge in relation to the rest of its body. He waves his head back and forth, extends his wind and makes a rattling sound. When a female sees that a male can develop a bright and large pouch, and avoid having been captured as prey (since a large red pouch makes them a more obvious target), she is confident that she is selecting good genes for her offspring.

Another attraction there was the blue footed booby, a white and brown bird with bright, pale blue webbed feet. While they mate all year, this is the height of the mating period. So we were able to see many examples of their funny ritual, in which the males lift their feet, one by one, in a type of dance, in order to demonstrate the bright and beautiful color of their feet and thus make themselves attractive to females.

Another highlight was watching the frigate bird feed her young. The baby caws in a persistent begging for food. This imprinted behavior causes the mother to regurgitate her fish and allow the baby to stick it’s beak into her throat to eat it. But she doesn’t do this immediately. First, she needs to look around to see that no other birds are around to steal the fish. Then she needs some time to regurgitate it.

We watched this in process. I thought she was taking much longer than necessary. Of course, the environment was full of birds. But none were in the immediate area. Yet as soon as she brought it up and the baby’s beak entered her mouth to eat it, a frigate bird swooped down and fought with the baby to get the fish. The frigate bird failed and the baby got the fish, although it seemed to choke it down after the fright. The mother squacked a protest at the potential thief, but I don’t think he was ashamed.

The frigate birds lack a preening gland on their backs that, like most other marine birds, would allow them to produce an oil for preening their feathers. Without this, they can’t go into the water because the weight of the water would prevent them from flying. So their method of eating is by stealing. Or by intimidating other birds in flight enough that they will regurgitate the fish, drop it, and the frigate will catch it in mid-air.

Because of the lack of natural predators, the animals on the Galapagos have no fear. We were sometimes just inches away from these animals – sea lions, marine and land iguanas, birds, and they didn’t move. I only got such a sensation of being so close to wildlife during a safari in Tanzania. But then we were within the protection of a jeep. Here we are out right next to the animal. It’s a remarkable experience.

In the evening, after a welcome Baileys and a delicious dinner, Mark and I fell asleep (with our pillows and blankets) on the front deck. The brilliant starry sky rotated above us with the swell of the waves, a live planetarium, complete with shooting stars.

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