"" Writer's Wanderings: May 2013

Friday, May 31, 2013

Galapagos Journal - Fernandina Island Snorkel

Dressed in dive skins and wetsuits, our snorkel gear gathered in our mesh bag, we boarded the zodiac for our deep water snorkel. It was a bit of a ride to the place where we were to snorkel and we bounced along at the front of the zodiac as it navigated the waves and wind coming directly at us. At least, I thought, it will be an easier ride back going with the waves as long as the wind doesn’t change direction.

 We had been warned that the water would be cold but nothing prepared me for the shock when mask and snorkel finally in place, I slid off the side of the zodiac and into the water. Our first deep water snorkel had been chilly. This one was down right cold.

It didn’t take long though to realize it was going to be oh, so worth it! The sea floor about eight to ten feet below us was carpeted in green—a perfect garden for sea turtles to munch on. Our snorkel guide shouted, “Ray! Ray!” and we all dunked our heads in the water to look in the direction he pointed.

A large blue gray sting ray glided swiftly along the rocks the edges of its body ruffling as though it were a gathered piece of trim on a skirt. It must have been about five feet across.

Lots of parrot fish chomped on the rocks munching on much of the greens that the turtles would enjoy as well. Big puffer fish flashed their large puppy dog eyes at us as they scurried past.

And of course there were the sea turtles. With the clear water and the sun shining down through the depths to highlight them, they were a spectacle to behold. Their shells gleamed in the sunlight and they exhibited amazing grace as they slowly glided through the water, stopping to sample the delicacies the sea garden had to offer.

Cold? No one noticed a whole lot until our zodiac pulled in closer to pick us up. Oh, yes, we thought, maybe we are cold but let us take one more look. This was a place we were not going to forget soon.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Galapagos Journal - Fernandina Island

Fernandina Island is the youngest and western-most of all the Galapagos Islands. It has also had the most recent volcanic eruption occurring in April of 2009. Earlier, in 1968, the caldera had sunk almost 1,000 feet but then the coast line at Espinoza Point was lifted some 9 feet just two years later.

We carefully climb off the zodiac. It may be classified a dry landing, but the tide is really low and the rocks are wet and mossy in places. Life jackets removed, cameras out, our fearless naturalist, Alexis, gets us all organized on a relatively dry spot before we look around. Suddenly he grabs his face with two hands (ala Home Alone) and yells, “Oh my gosh! There’s iguanas!” It’s his joke. We have seen so many iguanas now that every time we come upon another he makes the exclamation.

But here there really are a LOT of marine iguanas and the smell attests to the numbers. The shoreline was populated with hundreds if not thousands. They are so difficult to see with their black coloring against the black lava. With the low tide and the sun climbing, the excrement is fermenting. We pick our way carefully around iguanas which blend into the colors of the lava rock stopping to take photos of the absurd number of them gathered together here.

Occasionally we are startled by an iguana sneezing. They spend as long as 45 minutes underwater feeding on algae. The excess salt in their diet is sneezed out their noses. No snot. Just salty water. This morning the algae is exposed due to the low tide and several iguana are combing the rocks for their breakfast. There are many in the water swimming, using their tail as a crocodile or alligator does swishing it back and forth to propel themselves to the tasty algae morsels they seek.

While we saw some large iguanas, I don’t think we saw any that were a full four feet long which is the length they can reach when full grown. An amazing fact I find is that marine iguanas during a lean time with less food will not only get thinner but will shrink in length. 

Along side of a pile of bones, we stop for an excellent lecture on the skeletal structure of several marine animals including the backbone of a whale. After we’ve learned about which bone is connected to which bone and guess about where some of them came from, we move around a large area of soft sand where the iguanas lay their eggs. More iguanas? Will the island hold them all? It is said that there are about 200,000 to 300,000 in the islands and scientists have estimated that some concentrations of them could be about 4,500 per mile. 

We reach the other side of the lava where a beach area has been established with the breaking apart of the lava rock and the crushing of shells and urchins and I’m sure other things I didn’t recognize that contribute to the making of sand. Just a handful of it yields a host of different objects from the sea.
Suddenly someone shouts, “Snake!” I look quickly for the lady who has said she truly freaks out about snakes. I didn’t know there was someone worse than I am. But she is in another group not in ours. I stay a safe distance and take a couple of pictures but quit when my stomach begins to churn as one man lets the snake slither over his shoe.

To take my mind off the snake, I take more pictures of iguanas and driftwood and a couple of sea lions. 

As we make our way back toward our landing spot, we come across a Flightless Cormorant sitting on a nest.  It amazes me that she doesn’t flinch as we pass by so closely. I have learned that the Flightless Cormorant's wings are one third the size needed to fly. Still, it does quite well in the water feeding off of fish, eel, small octopus, and other small marine life. In between each venture into the sea, they have to dry their feathers and wings as they do not produce as much oil as other sea birds to to keep them afloat. They are the rarest of birds, only found in the Galapagos and their population is estimated at 1,500. 

Carefully we pick our way over the lava again and around the iguanas to get to our landing point. We don our life jackets again and ride to the Xpedition. The zodiac deposits us on the rear deck of the ship once more so we can don our wetsuits and snorkel gear for our deep water dive. We’ve been promised to swim with sea turtles. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Galapagos Journal - Isabela Island, Urbina Bay

The afternoon on Isabela Island is spent at Urbina Bay. It is a wet landing this time where we take off shoes and sandals and slip over the side of the zodiac into the waters and onto the soft sand. We leave our snorkel equipment and wetsuits on the beach and follow our guide away from the beach to see what wildlife we can find on our short walk which should be about an hour to be followed by a snorkel in the waters off the beach.

Alexis points out the trails left in the tall grass and undergrowth by the large tortoises or land turtles. While we stand to listen, a flock of finches lands nearby. When Darwin explored the Galapagos, he found somewhere between 13-15 different kinds of finches which he studied from samples he collected. It was his opinion and part of his Origin of the Species work that the finches had adapted to the area and the change in the beaks of the finches were the proof. I prefer to think that a Creator made the beaks that way so that they would survive in the environment in which he placed them.

A few steps more and we find our first land turtle. It is sheltering under some bushes but sticks its head out to see what the commotion is on the trail. This one is apparently a female judging by the smaller size. The giant tortoises are probably the most famous of the inhabitants of the Galapagos. There are eleven subspecies that exist among the islands. They can live well past 100 years and weigh up to 500 pounds. 

We stop by a tree to learn that it is a dangerous botanical specimen—a poison apple tree. Alexis warns us that its leaves can cause us a great deal of irritation should we brush by it and for some people who might be allergic, it can be more serious. There are little fruit on it that appear to be small apples but they are toxic to humans. I avoid it as I do poison ivy.

Suddenly someone shouts out and points to the path ahead. In the middle of it sits a large colorful land iguana. Its orange and yellow markings almost blend into the color of the sandy path. We approach slowly trying not to intimidate it not because it is dangerous but because all of the photographers in the group want a chance to get their pictures before it moves off.

Their are two species of land iguanas on the islands. They can grow to around 3 feet in length. The land iguanas live in the drier areas of the islands getting the needed moisture to survive from eating succulent plants such as cactus. They have a peculiar interaction with Darwin finches. Apparently they raise their bodies off the ground and let the finches pick off the ticks on their bodies.

The land iguana reaches maturity at 8-15 years and the female lays between 2-25 eggs in a burrowed nest in sandy soil. The eggs take 3-4 months to hatch at which time the little ones are responsible for digging themselves out. If they survive being exposed to the harsh dry environment and the predators, they can live up to 50 years. 

The male iguana we see is very accommodating. He sits long enough on the path and then along the side of the walk in the foliage for all of us to get some good shots. 

Further on, we find another female turtle nestled into a comfy hole she’s made. They often do this at night to conserve body heat. The females will travel long distances (in tortoise miles) to find a nesting spot in sandy soil when it is time to lay eggs. She lays between 2-16 eggs the size of tennis balls (ouch!). As with the iguana, the finches are also a means to rid the tortoises of insects.

The tortoises were pillaged during the 1600s by pirates and later whalers as a food source. They could take them on board the ship and they would survive for a long time without food and water making them a fresh source of food for the mariners. It greatly reduced their number as did the eventual settlers of the islands who unwittingly brought predators to the islands. Dogs, cats, etc. fed on the tortoise eggs or ruined nests. That's why there are so many restrictions now in the national park--to conserve these magnificent and unusual creatures.

A large meadow area contains several land turtles and orange land iguanas both. While we watch them moving about, I notice that the large bush next to me is busy with the wasps we’ve been warned about. For several planned landings we have been asked not to wear anything brightly colored as it tends to attract the wasps. One man in our group was stung—not a bad sting, painful but unless you are allergic, harmless. The naturalists all carry epi pens just in case.

We find several painted locusts which look like large colorful grasshoppers. They belong to the same group as locusts, katydids, and grasshoppers. There are 21 different kinds in the Galapagos.

More tortoises are sighted along the way back to the beach and another land iguana close enough to make the photographers’ hearts pitter patter. While Alexis explains how important poop is in tracking the iguanas and knowing where they are migrating or living, I snap this friendly guy as he’s enjoying his afternoon snack. Or perhaps it’s an early dinner?

Our short walk has been so fascinating that we have stayed too long to feel comfortable getting into wetsuits for such a short snorkel in waters that are already being shaded from the sun as it lowers into the horizon. We opt to get on the next zodiac and enjoy our stateroom’s shower instead and our own slide show of the day’s pictures.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sunday Morning Worship - Footprints of Faith

This past week a beautiful lady from our church took her final journey. I didn't know her long but in that short time it was apparent that she had a deep faith and love of Jesus. It was expressed also in the eulogies that came from friends and family.

When we travel, we are often reminded of the saying, "Take pictures. Leave footprints." (Except when we're diving it is "Leave bubbles.") Footprints of faith are made of love and are not like those made in the sand and washed away or even made on rock where they may not be visible. Faith footprints are what are impressed in memories, written on hearts, preserved as treasure that others might follow.

There is a song I love that expresses the importance of footprints of faith. The chorus goes like this:

Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful
May the fire of our devotion light their way
May the footprints that we leave
Lead them to believe
And the lives we live inspire them to obey
(Find Us Faithful, Steve Green)

As I listened to the wonderful memories Mervine inspired, I could only hope to do the same. Will the footprints that I leave lead them to believe? Will yours?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Galapagos Journal - Isabela Island

Isabela Island is the largest of the Galapagos Islands. It was formed from five volcanoes which are all still considered active. The last eruption occurred in May 2008. The place for our morning excursion is called Punta Moreno and is one of the least visited sites because of its remote location and access.

Our excursion is a zodiac ride and a walk. Our first sighting comes as the zodiac nears an outcropping of lava rocks. A Flightless Cormorant works at his morning preening. The Flightless Cormorant has no natural predators in the Glapagos. It is distinguished by its small atrophied wings. It is one of the rarest birds in the world and found only in the Galapagos.

It isn’t long before we see marine iguanas congregating on the rocks around us and swimming in the water. There are so many iguanas in Galapagos that it is impossible to not see some type of iguana no matter where you visit.

As we motor around the lava rocks along the shore, I notice the red ring of metal around the propeller of the outboard motor. It is there to protect the sea lions and other marine life from the blades. I wondered if that would be helpful to the manatees in Florida? So many are maimed by the propeller blades of motor vessels.

Soon we are among the blue footed boobies. Even from a distance, you can tell their feet are blue. Against the black lava rock, they really stand out. The blue footed boobie has a life span of 15-20 years. It fishes for its food near the shore but it can be seen diving (death defying if you ask me) into the water to go after a tasty tidbit. Sometimes the boobies will do a mass dive which really scatters the fish in a school and makes them vulnerable to the boobies. 

To attract a mate, the male blue footed boobie is said to dance. He brings his tail up, spreads his wings, and whistles toward the sky. Unfortunately we didn't get to witness this little performance. Perhaps we should have played some music?

As we near the lava rock where we will have a dry landing stepping on the rugged and often sharp lava, we are cautioned again on watching where we step not only for our safety but for the safety of the iguana that blend into their surroundings so well.

The lava is punctuated by clusters of lava cactus. The orange tips are the new growth. In the distance we can see candlestick cactus so named because they resemble candelabras.

We pass by a very green area that is actually a marshy tidal pool. To step in it would be like sinking in green quicksand. Continuing on, we come upon the tidal pool that is our destination. Tunnels from the sea lead into it and when the tide is high, marine animals find their way to the pool only to be trapped there during low tide.

Today there are four or five sea turtles swimming in the pool accompanied by three sharks. The largest of the white tipped sharks is about four feet long. We stand and watch their pacing as they make a small circle that gets wider at each pass and then the cycle starts over again.

Our group of 16 makes its way back along the trail we came on. The loose lava grinds beneath our shoes while the more solid places alternate between a smooth porous surface and waves of lava resembling melted chocolate that is cooling. Large pieces of lava that are loose make a sound as if someone has stepped on fine china.

Back on board the Xpedition, we enjoy cool drinks and a BBQ lunch. The air conditioning is nice but we find that sitting outside is pleasant. We have truly been fortunate with the weather so far. There has been a nice breeze and even though at times the humidity climbs, the heat has been bearable. As I watch the chefs cook over the charcoal grills though, I wonder how they can stand the extra heat. The food is wonderful: chicken, ribs, fish, and Galapagos lobster. A good lava walk sure builds up an appetite.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Galapagos Journal - Floreana Island, Post Office Bay

After our lunch, we were all invited to take a zodiac ride and an optional short walk to Post Office Bay. The zodiac ride took us around and between several outcroppings from Floreanna Island where there were different colonies of sea lions and a bachelor "pad” as well.

Our first area revealed a heron waiting patiently in a rock crevice as he anticipated a crab lunch. The crab seemed to be waiting him out as well. Neither one moved. Suddenly we saw another crab approaching the hidden heron and we expected there to be a successful hunt for the bird. Fortunately for the crab, he sensed something and stopped short. Unfortunately for the bird, it was probably going to be a longer wait for lunch—maybe even into dinner.

We found the sea lion bachelor colony to be very quiet. This is where the males go when they are done with their safety patrol for the young ones in their family colony and it's also where younger males grow until they are big enough and mature enough to go off to begin the mating process. They take time off and relax and rejuvenate by eating and sleeping. (Probably a lot of belching too.) When they are ready to mate and take on the next male who is dominating a colony, they head for wherever the females are and the battle for supremacy reigns.

This bachelor colony looked like quite a resort with large cactus growing everywhere and nice easy slides into the sea and a simple climb out back into the sun and shade. No fighting here that is unless, as our naturalist said, a female should meander by.

Just before we left the lagoon-type area, a brown pelican preened and posed for us then perched in a tree and watched us warily. Something just doesn't seem right about seeing pelicans in trees especially when the branches bow so much with their weight. Looked a bit precarious to me.We took the obligatory pictures and then headed into the beach to make our way to the Post Office.

The Post Office is a barrel (one of many that has replaced the original) where you can leave postcards or letters and have others deliver them for you. There is no postage of course. You deposit yours and pick up any that might be near where you live to deliver. 

The post office was established in 1793 by Captain James Colnett who placed a wooden barrel there and spread the word that those who stopped could leave mail or packages and then pick up others to be delivered as they got to their destination. It was a great way for whalers who were usually gone two years at a time to get messages home to family. The tradition has continued through the years although now it is just tourists participating.

We found two cards that were not far from our home and we hope to deliver them in a few days. It will be fun to see if the cards we left to be delivered to our grandchildren will find their way to them. A fun tradition to carry on. By the way, don't we look dorky in our expedition hats? Glamour played no part in this trip. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sunday Morning Worship Thought

It was a wonderful trip, our cruise of the Galapagos Islands. I feared I would be discouraged with a lot of talk of Darwin and his theories but that wasn't the case. As a matter of fact, except for lots of things named after Darwin, little was contributed to him in the way of explaining the plants and animals we saw. Or perhaps I just couldn't see past God's creation to see the natural selection theory supported by Darwin.

I kept thinking of the wonderful Psalms that praise God for his creation. After having snorkeled with the sea lions, I remembered the lines of Psalm 104:

O Lord, what a variety of things you have made!
    In wisdom you have made them all.
    The earth is full of your creatures.
25 Here is the ocean, vast and wide,
    teeming with life of every kind,
    both large and small.
26 See the ships sailing along,
    and Leviathan, which you made to play in the sea.

See them play!

Okay, I know they aren't huge sea monsters but they are pretty big and certainly are playful. Amazing characters these sea lions God created. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Galapagos Journal - Deep Water Snorkeling

Normally we don’t like to wear wet suits. We generally pick warm water places to snorkel or dive but we weren’t about to miss out on what we could see in Galapagos. We donned dive skins (our own) and short wetsuits provided by the ship. We had brought our own snorkels and masks and the ship provided swim fins and a bag to stow all the gear in.

Once suited up and life jackets on for the ride, we boarded a zodiac and headed for the drop off point. It was a long bumpy ride against the waves and into the wind. I kept hoping that wherever we were going would be out of the waves and wind.

The naturalist picked a spot that was relatively calm but did have a bit of a current. We donned our fins and snorkels and jumped in the chilly water. The plan was to start at one end of the bay area and drift with the current around to the far point. It didn’t require much effort and the reward was great.

The sea lions wondered what all this activity was out in the water and soon they were out swimming with us and around us. They would do flips and somersaults in the water and act like entertaining clowns.
Oh, there were some schools of fish around as well but they just couldn’t compete for our attention like the sea lions did.

One other thing of note, there were not any corals. There are some areas that have coral but it is difficult for it to survive in the Galapagos. The islands sit in the middle of five different currents which alternately change the water temperature. Add to that several strong El Ninos that brought warmer waters and the corals struggled to survive. The warm water during those times caused the corals to lose their symbiotic algae which caused bleaching and left them open to disease. I'm guessing these were different corals than what we would see in the Caribbean since those corals survive in a warmer water temperature.

All too soon, we were to the other end of the bay and Juan Carlos was calling us back to the zodiac. Few of us wanted to end our adventure. Cold water? We never noticed after the initial jump in and the chatter about all we’d seen warmed us on the long but much easier ride back to the ship. 
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