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A Journey to the Galapagos

Blowhole with masked boobie nesting, Española Island (Oscar Sogandares)

by: Oscar Sogandares G.


I never thought I’d take another course at the Panama Canal College once graduating in 1996. But, never say never, especially if its Dr. Jack Petersen Ph.D. who’s giving it. I’ve taken many courses with Dr. Petersen (I’ll always remember Entomology: the science of "bugs" or "bichos"). Or visiting faraway places such as Campana National Park, Isla Tigre, Nusagandi, or even Sarigua National Desert, in Panama. But these were only appetizers compared to "Field Study" 97, a once in a lifetime (now maybe more than once) trip to the Galapagos (February 3-12, 1997), mecca for all aspiring naturalists everywhere (last thing we heard Dr. Petersen was already preparing Field Study 98). Here were the fabled islands of Darwin, Melville’s Encantadas or the legendary Garden of Eden, or all of the above.

Swallow tailed gulls grooming each other, Española Island (Oscar Sogandares)

A place with animals so tame that the birds, would alight on your head or feed from the hand, as they once did with the first pirates and buccaneers whom sought shelter there. The Spaniards never ventured there, once Bishop Berlanga discovered them in 1532, christening them "Galapagos", for the saddle shaped land tortoises he found there. Since they were considered to be adrift, due to their ever-changing currents, they were also called "encantadas" or "bewitched". Something that definitely worked to the buccaneer’s favor. Even types such as Ambrose Cowley were to take note of this, honoring himself by even naming an islet between Abermarle and James, "Cowleys’s Enchanted Isle".

Although Pre-Columbian ceramics have been found on the islands and world-renowned anthropologist Thor Heyerdale (Kon-Tiki) has advanced the notion that Inca Yupanqui and others had previously been there. Some believe however that ceramics may have made it there at a later date, perhaps at the hands of corsairs, after plundering the South American coasts. But it certainly remains an interesting possibility.

After the buccaneers, came the whalers who mercilessly depleted the noble leviathans, and the sealers who almost drove the fur seal to extinction. Both stocked on the peaceful land tortoise. Of the original 14 subspecies of this placid, venerable creature, only 10 survive today. It is believed that during this whaling boom easily more than 100,000 were killed. It was during this period that Herman Melville (Moby Dick) visited the islands aboard a whaler. But it probably wasn't man himself, but his animals including his "best friends", which have done the most damage. Goats for instance have been responsible for overgrazing, out competing the placid land tortoise for the sparse vegetation.. Dogs have been found to hunt marine iguanas, cats have been preying on the islands unique bird life. Domesticated animals gone ferile have been the major cause for the sharp reduction in native species

Just as a beautiful lady, the Galapagos were coveted by England and the United States alike. But before anyone could lay claim to these, the newly formed Republic of Ecuador promptly took possession of them in 1832. It was during these years that the young Charles Darwin first set foot on these islands and formulated his concepts of Natural Selection. Of the islands he wrote in 1845: "The archipelago is a little world within itself, or rather a satellite attached to America, whence it has derived a few stray colonists, and has received the general character of its indigenous productions..."


Swept by the powerful Humboldt Current originating in the Antarctic Seas, it is to the Galapagos, what the Gulf Stream is to the West European coast. Lying flat on the Equator, it’s anything but tropical. The notable exception are the years when "El Ñino" ocean current, also known as the ENSO (El Ñino Southern Oscillation) takes its toll on the native marine wildlife, while inland it becomes a lush exuberant tropic land and land species flourish. Located 1000 kms. west of Guayaquil, on the same time zone as Guatemala, and New Orleans. The isles took up travelers from the most diverse and distant places: sea lions from California, the fur seal from Chile, the iguana from Central America, the flamingo from the Caribbean, the penguins from the Antarctic.

The Galapagos during the 1983 El Ñino (NASA)

Today’s Status

The Galapagos are a National Park since 1959, centennial of Darwin’s "Origin of the Species". In 1979 they were declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and its coasts up to 15 Nautical miles were declared Marine Resources Reserve in 1987. The Park comprises 97% of the islands territory, the remaining 3% are where its towns, villages and farms and its rapidly increasing 15,000 inhabitants are located. Actually in the last 10 years, there has been more than 100% increase in population, mostly from the mainland seeking the islands higher standard of living originating in tourism. Last year alone there has been more than 50,000 tourists spending an estimated $100 million on the island economy. There have also been pressures from outlaw fishing trawlers from Europe and Asia on its pristine ecosystem. Today the Galapagos remain the prime testing ground for the world’s conservation policies everywhere.


View of the Galapagos during the 1997 El Ñino (NASA)

Monday: Guayaquil, San Cristobal Island

Our journey began on February 3rd 1997, after arriving to Guayaquil the night before. We flew into San Cristobal Airport where, long lines after long lines, we were picked up by Mr. Miguel Pazmino, our guide for the next week. We made it to Port Baquerizo Moreno and our yacht Dorado. That evening we sampled the first taste of the Galapagos with a visit to Loberia Beach. There we got to see a lonely sea lion. Someone "urfed" and this placid 600 lb. bull immediately took after us. Fortunately we were faster, but we had learned our lesson. I could only hear my guide saying, "you see I told you so, do not bother the sea lions".

Tuesday: Española or Hood Island, Gardiner Beach

Sea lions with colorful marine iguanas, Española Island (Oscar Sogandares)

On Tuesday we set out to Española Island (Hood). The only spot on this earth where the waved wing albatross (wingspan 2.5 mts.) nests. Unfortunately they had already parted. Although we did see one solitary unhatched egg (left behind by their parents). But we did see blue-footed boobies or "piqueros", the colorful red and green marine iguana (only here do they assume these startling colors). swallow-tail gulls and of course our friendly sea lions, although we did not see the land turtles here. All of these with the spectacular "blow-hole" in the backdrop.

We finished off the day with a cool swim off the boat to Gardiner’s Beach. Where we swam with the sea lions, although we got to see reef sharks and rays below us. Our guide jokingly said that these only feed on "palms" and "plants", although we knew that sharks weren’t exactly vegetarian. But due to the superabundance of fish even the sharks here were "friendly" and seem to be in a "lethargic" mode. Crewmember Nacho Avila would recount how they would dive to pull on the tails of these "sleeping " predators. But before dusk, after levying anchor one of those rare occurrences (too bad I was in the process of changing rolls at sea, it was the picture that got away), a school of no less than 30 dolphins were playfully escorting our craft on our port side, along its way.

Wednesday: Santa Cruz Island, CDRS, The Highlands

On Wednesday we were off to Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) Island and Puerto Ayora visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station. There we saw Lonely George, the last of his kind (subspecies from Pinta Island). He is always accompanied by 2 females from Wolf Volcano (very similar species) and his hormonal level is continuously monitored in an effort to breed him. We also visited the Van Straalen Center with the complete Natural History of the Galapagos.

After a pleasant stroll through Port Ayora’s main avenue, where we purchased T-shirts and sent off our post cards back home, we visited a lava-tunnel, which was created by soft basaltic lava flowing through an already solidified basaltic lava core. The core is all that remains. Not everyone was fond of caves. but for those who were it reminded them of Utah, Arizona or New Mexico. Later that day we toured a farm in the highlands , where we were greeted by a lively vermilion flycatcher who proudly posed for us and saw even more tortoises in their cool moist pond setting. Afterwards we were treated to refreshments. We ended the day with a visit to the native "scalesia" cloud forest and the spectacular Twin "Pit" Craters (Los Gemelos).

Thursday: Rabida Beach and Bartolome Island

Dr Petersen photographs our stealthful Galapagos penguin, Pinnacle Rock (Oscar Sogandares)

Thursday I consider was the peak of our tour starting with a visit to Rabida Beach. From here we could also make out volcanically active Isabela (Abermarle), this blue 60 mile long volcanic island off the horizon, waiting for us on another tour. As in a Martian landscape, at Rabida this was really red sand, plus marine iguanas and more sea lions. We were hoping to see flamingos. But they just weren’t around today. But after watching the industrious Darwin's finches, one imperviously feeding on cactus flowers at almost an arm length, and the rare Galapagos dove, we did get to see the huge Galapagos Hawk.

After we levied anchor we were navigating off the barren lava fields interspersed with spatter cones in this vast "moonscape" of James Island, its rugged coastline smashed by the emerald green surf. Probably the most scenic part of our cruise. We could really hear the cameras clicking now. We were past "Sombrero Chino" Island when a "lava gull" landed on our boat. Just as someone said: "one of the most rarest birds in the world and its landed right on our boat". Although, while on deck, two more gulls alighted on our hand rails. Everyone was taking pictures now.

Slowly our craft steered around a rocky bend and Bartolome Island with Pinnacle Rock swept into full view. I caught Pinnacle Rock from every angle, this slightly inclined jutting "tower of Pisa" of the natural world, framed by the masts of visiting boats and catamarans. Then we were off to a strenuous climb to the top of Bartolome. The symmetrical rows of tiquilia nesciotica and the hardy lava cactus were all the plants that grew on this water deprived volcanic slope. At the top we were buffeted by the cool breezes from the sea. I had to make sure my newly acquired Panama hat would not suddenly blow off the summit, into the vast azure ocean below us . Then it was a visit to the green turtle’s colony and finally a refreshing swim off this "natural" volcanic "tuft" projection (Pinnacle Rock). Where we mingled with our stealthful penguin hosts in their cool , wet, rocky habitat.

Friday: Baltra, Seymour Islands, Ithabaca Channel

Our "prized specimen", North Seymour Island, Galapagos (Oscar Sogandares)

On Friday we were refueling off Baltra Island, previous US Military outpost during W.W.II. Then we were off to North Seymour Island to watch the great frigate bird colony and a chance for a good picture of the males with their inflated red pouches, our "prized specimen". Later we observed the breeding activities of the green turtle in the turquoise green marshes of Black Turtle Cove. Afterwards we landed on the beach and hiked toward a lagoon, where finally we got to see the lone flamingo of our journey. It was well worth it.

After a spectacular equatorial sunset, we slowly entered Ithabaca channel between Baltra and Santa Cruz (Indefatigable). From here we could see the docks which are served by the interinsular ferry service between the isles. On this precise moment we also watched a plane taking off toward the continent. Soon it was evening and dinnertime, as soon as we were anchored in this calm mooring. I noticed a lot of insect activity including one huge red and green Galapagos locust (shistocerca melenocera). Perhaps another "stray" traveler from afar, maybe caught up long ago in a sandstorm from Africa?

Saturday: Plaza Islands, Santa Fe or Barrinton Island

Saturday caught us off to the Plaza Islands and Santa Fe or Barrington. The Plaza Islands are actually inclined planes above the water, product of uplifting, in contrast to the other islands, volcanic in origin. Ending in an abrupt 100 mts. drop into the ocean, prolific breeding spots for countless sea bird species, including the rare red billed tropic bird with its two prong tail, so exquisite it is considered the "quetzal of the seas", a true "bird of paradise". The islands are also home to our friendly land iguana. So tame that photographers literally poke their macro-lenses up their puzzled gaze. Where they feed off cactus pads and as red carpets, are surrounded by the flashy red sesuvium vegetation, which distinguish the island.

That afternoon caught us at a sheltered cove at Barrington’s Island (Santa Fe). The very same cove where pirates centuries ago found "that tranquillity which they fiercely denied to every civilized harbor"(H.Melville). This natural harbour offered us a chance to snorkel in its cool turpentine waters, with sea lions, sea turtles, and manta rays. We watched how the sea lions dealt with the surf as underwater torpedoes. We caught a glimpse of the rare "moorish idol" (seen only occasionally off the Indian Ocean), flanked by huge schools of parrot fish, busily feeding on the abundant red algae off the rocks, the elegant blue dotted damsel fish and the graceful angelfish. But most incredible were the manta rays, as if monarchs, followed by their royal entourages of symbiotic fishes (remoras), while flapping along the sandy bottom.

Later that day we saw the island’s own land iguana subspecies, too busy feeding on its juicy prickly pear cactus pad, it hardly paid notice of us. We also saw a mockingbird manufacturing a makeshift nest from a fallen cactus pad, a truly resourceful bird. In Santa Fe as well as the Plazas we observed brain coral skeletons well inside the islands, evidence of much recent uplifting. As we waited for the boat we posed with our young sea lion pups. That evening we left the sheltered cove, leaving behind the familiar "urfs" of the sea lions, which we’ve gotten so used to by now and have now become such a part of us .

Sunday: Point Pitt, San Cristobal Island and Kicker’s Rock

On Sunday we were back to San Cristobal Island (Chatham), at its easternmost point (Pitt), named in honor of Wm. Pitt, the first earl of Chatham. The main attraction were the red footed boobies, which only nest on branches, and our only chance to view them. Although blue footed boobies were also nesting on the ground, distinguished by their unmistakable whistling sound. Dramatic Island geology was also evident like an open book, countless layers of successive eruptions, visible in the exposed strata. On the way back a rare Galapagos snake was seen hiding under a rock, where they feed on lava lizards. Just as we were going down, I heard alarming shrieks from the boobie nest and thought something was terribly wrong. But actually it was the red footed boobie mating ritual, initiated with a loud shrill by the male.

We resumed cruising and spotted some spatter cones on the isle, as on James, and passed under the shadow of Cerro El Brujo. Finally, out in the open ocean, we came upon Kicker’s Rock(which we had first seen from the plane) or "El Leon Dormido" (Sleeping Lion), and which seemed like the huge "Rock of Gibraltar". But before navigating its massive walls, we witnessed something fresh out of the pages of Melville. Below the rocky ramparts we watched numerous types of pelagic seashore birds of different kinds: boobies, pelicans, frigate birds, petrels plunging all together, by the hundreds, into the vast blue sea, into a slowly migrating school of fish, taking part in the frantic feeding frenzy. We had arrived to a place called Creation.

Part I of this article appeared in the Tropic Times on December 19, 1997

New! Latest Volcanic Eruption at Isabela Island.
New! The Special Law for the Galapagos
G See my GALAPAGOS DIARY for a more detailed account of my journey
G View the February 26, 1998 Solar Eclipse which covered the Galapagos and Panama.

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