Summer Update from Galapagos: One Volcano, 201 Tortoises, and Wildlife Galore

July 20, 2015

The month of June was a busy one, and I spent most of it in Galapagos. It began in Quito on June 9 when I met the first two travelers on Galapagos Conservancy’s Annual Cruise – Alicia and Frances – from England. The next night, all but two of our group had arrived and we had dinner together at Hotel Colón. I could tell immediately that it was going to be a good group.

View from the Integrity.We traveled to Galapagos the next day and spent two nights at Galapagos Safari Camp – my first stay at that location on the northwest side of Santa Cruz, with a beautiful view of the lowlands and several islands. After two days in Santa Cruz touring the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center and the Tomás de Berlanga School, and meeting with several scientists whose work is funded by GC, we boarded the Integrity and began our week of adventure – the eastern route – which begins at Española. While I have done this tour several times, there are always new things to do and see. It was my first time ever to Punta Pitt, a visitor site at the eastern end of San Cristóbal with amazing cliffs and views, and so much green after all the rain this May and June.

At Genovesa, both Richard Polatty (Chief Naturalist on the cruise) and I commented on the amazing abundance of red-billed tropicbirds on the cliffs during the panga ride around the bay. Usually you have to search for the birds in holes in the cliffs; this time there seemed to be three and sometimes four in a single hole, fighting for control. They were everywhere – both on the cliffs and soaring through the skies. 

View from the Punta Pitt trail

The day after Genovesa was the most special. We traveled through the night to Wolf Volcano, hoping it would still be active following its eruption in May. Although there was no longer red lava flowing down the slope, a bright red cloud of ash hung over the caldera when we arrived at 4 AM – spectacular. 

From there we traveled to Bartolomé, where some went snorkeling from the panga and others from the beach. Two penguins were zooming along the shoreline in shallow water hunting for fish. I was standing in about two feet of water when something slammed into my leg. When I looked down, it was a black penguin floundering around to right itself. From me it continued on to David, one of the group members, and hit him in the chest. It then surfaced with a fish in its mouth. That was one determined penguin.  An active volcano and getting hit by a penguin on the equator – all in one day.

When the group departed, I traveled on to Puerto Ayora for a couple of weeks of work with Wacho Tapia, Director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI) in Galapagos. First up was getting the Galapagos Report 2013-14 printed and launched in time for the 56th anniversary of the establishment of the Galapagos National Park on July 4. The English version will available as a PDF shortly.

Tortoises bound for Santa FeMost fun of all was preparing the tortoises for release on Santa Fe Island – planned for Saturday, June 27.  On Friday, several of us gathered at the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center to put radio telemetry tags on 30 of the larger tortoises (mostly 10-year-olds). All of the tortoises had previously been marked with microchips, but we wanted some that we could be sure to relocate on future monitoring trips – thus the radio telemetry tags. 

That night, I slept onboard the Sierra Negra (the Park’s research vessel) to avoid having to get up at 3 AM.  Instead, I was awakened around 4:30 when some 25 Park rangers, 201 tortoises, and others came aboard.  As we neared Santa Fe, the sun rose in the east and a rainbow shown across the western end of the island. It would be a good day. 

While the Park rangers, Wacho and Andrés (a field assistant on the GTRI from Yale University), and a film crew hiked in the 3+ kilometers to the release site, I stayed on the beach to talk with any tourist groups that might arrive and watch sea lions, mockingbirds, and other Santa Fe creatures living out their daily escapades.

Sea lions on Santa Fe.

After a few hours, the group returned exhausted but happy to have participated in the first ever release of tortoises onto Santa Fe – the return of a tortoise population some 150 years after the native Santa Fe tortoise went extinct.  A great way to end my trip to these incredible Islands. 

All photos © Linda Cayot


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