Thursday, May 1, 2008

Tortoises, lava tubes, enjoying Santa Cruz

2008-04-27 to 05-01
Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands

Puerto Ayora is quite the tourist town.  Almost 70% of the economy of the Galapagos Islands is derived from tourism, another 20% from exporting wahoo and other fish to the mainland and nearly 10% from agriculture.  In recent years Santa Cruz has experienced 7% population growth annually with a total population of around 12,000 to 14,000 today.   Approximately 120,000 tourists visit here each year.  Each person who visits the Galapagos Islands is supposed to pay the $100 park fee, whether they arrive via airplane or boat.  The waters surrounding the islands comprise the Galapagos Marine Reserve and are protected.  It is illegal to remove any marine wildlife.  Guess the cruisers better hope they don’t get caught trailing fishing lines while sailing through this area.

The $100 park fee is distributed as shown below:
Galapagos National Park – 40%
Galapagos Marine Reserve - 5%
Quarantine and Inspection Service – 5%
National network of Protected Areas – 5%
Ecuadorian Army – 5%
Galapagos National Institute – INGALA – 10%
Galapagos Provincial Council – 10%
Local Authorities (Town Halls) – 20%

Some cruisers have the mistaken idea that they are not required to pay this park fee unless they participate in an organized tour.  Not true; the entire Galapagos Islands area is inside the designated national park; some parts are called reserve but it is all part of the park.  This is such a unique environment that paying $100 each to visit should not be considered a burden, especially since the largest portion of the fee goes to protect the environment.  So much of the local environment has already been destroyed and they are doing their best to preserve what remains.

Yesterday we did what is called the Highlands tour.  Rancho Primicias is private property but of course is located inside the national park.  It is owned by one of the older families of Santa Cruz.  Our guide was wonderful.  His name is Dario Morales and he speaks English exceptionally well.  Dario plans to become a private tourist guide in 2010.  He hopes to specialize in the Galapagos Islands since this is his home but also provide unique tours in remote areas of mainland Ecuador.  Dario’s mother is of indigenous heritage from mainland Ecuador and his father was of Spanish Ecuadorian ancestry.  Dario was born in Santa Cruz in 1985, but he has visited relatives and has friends in many remote areas of Ecuador.  Dario speaks English, Spanish and one of the rare indigenous languages.  He is intelligent and has studied and knows the geography, history and environment very thoroughly.  He should make a wonderful personal guide.  If you are planning to visit Santa Cruz anytime soon, we would highly recommend Dario Morales as a guide.  He can be contacted at or his cell phone is 091262874.  Sorry, I don’t know the country code or area code and do not know if additional prefix numbers are required to call internationally.  Dario also works at Ida Mario Yacht in Santa Cruz, work phone number 02526117.  Guarantee you that he is the best guide in the Galapagos Islands.

The Highlands tour is very simple – we just walked around the premises of Rancho Primicias looking for giant tortoises and then walked partway through a lava tube.  Dario pointed out various plants and animals along our route.  Unfortunately, this is the time of year when most of the male tortoises migrate down to the lowlands to mate so there was not the abundance of tortoises that one might find at other times, but we saw a total of five.  We did spot one very large tortoise cooling himself in a pond filled with green algae.  A tortoise must maintain his body temperature between 15C and 35C or he will die, so they require ponds for this purpose. 

The shell of a male tortoise displays rings inside each section which indicate his age – sort of like the rings inside a cross-section of a tree trunk.  But the rings do not change past the age of 80-90 years.  So you can tell if a tortoise is 90 years old but cannot tell much after that age.  It would be impossible to tell if a tortoise is 170 or 120 years old based on the rings of his shell sections, only that he was older than 90 years.  The shell of a female tortoise has smooth sections; no rings.  The female is also considerably smaller than the male.  Lonesome George is a tortoise believed to be about 175 years old and is the last of his species.  The researchers have tried to mate him with the most similar species but he has shown no interest whatsoever.  Sorry we missed old George but not doing that long walk in the heat again just to see him.

The 2 primary reasons of death of adult tortoises are a result of mating mishaps.  When the male mounts the female to mate, he places his front feet on the shell of the female on each side of her head.  The shell actually curves up at these places so nature made allowance for this practice and put perfect footholds in the correct positions.  However, sometimes the male will lose his balance and a foot will slip out of place on the female’s shell.  When this happens the entire weight of the male drops down onto the female’s back and splits her shell and kills her.  The second problem is that sometimes the male loses his balance when dismounting from the female and turns over towards her side instead of backing off towards the rear.  When this happens then the male ends up turned onto his back.  If a park guide or a guard finds the tortoise soon enough then they can turn him over and he will be fine.  But most times the tortoise will be left on his back and he will die of starvation or excessive body heat.  We were fortunate to see both male and female tortoises during our walk around Rancho Primicias.

I said in our last log that each island in the Galapagos has a different species of giant tortoise.  This is also true of the land iguanas.  Isla Isabella was formed by several volcanoes.  The area near each volcano has a different species of land iguana and they cannot successfully interbreed.  Sometimes the iguanas do mate between species but the baby iguanas of mixed species do not live beyond 2 years.  Maybe this will change over the centuries and eventually produce viable offspring and a new sub-species, but for now the baby iguanas of mixed species all die.

Next was a quick stop at the snack bar and gift shop where we bought the obligatory tee shirts for our grandson and granddaughter.  Since we have no idea when we will see them again we bought 7-year-old Zach a size mans small and 6-year-old BeBe a ladies small.  Hopefully they won’t have outgrown those sizes before we see them again!

A short drive later brought us to the lava tube.  This was what I have wanted to see for years.  A lava tube is formed when part of the lava has cooled and hardened but a stream of hot liquid lava still continues to flow beneath it.   The result looks like a man-made tunnel.  This particular lava tube is very large, ranging 10 to 20 feet high and 15 feet wide.  Water continually drips down from the ceiling of the lava tube so it is muddy inside.  This lava tube is approximately 2 kilometers long and is partially collapsed at the far end.  It is passable but is only about 4-feet high at the final section.  Neither Bill nor I were keen on crawling through mud to exit the lava tunnel and there was no way my knees could squat and duck-walk through there, so we opted to walk half-way and turn around and exit from the main entrance.

As we exited the lava tube were treated to a small tree filled with Darwin’s Finches.  Like all wildlife in the Galapagos Islands, these birds exhibited no fear of mankind.  We stood right next to them and they weren’t bothered by our presence in the slightest.

Several days ago we attempted to visit the Charles Darwin Research Center to see Lonesome George and the land iguanas, but we never found the center.  Supposedly we were within a block of it but couldn’t find it.  They have no signs here.  It was hot and we were hungry so decided to blow it off and went back to town for lunch. 

BTW, the red-footed booby that visited our boat several hundred miles before we arrived here was something special.  Most people here have only seen the blue-footed boobies.  Dario explained why.  The blue-footed boobies feed near-coastal so are commonly seen all around the shores of the Galapagos Islands.  The red-footed boobies, OTOH, are native to the small northernmost uninhabited islands of the Galapagos.  And the red-footed boobies feed on squid way offshore.  That also explains the black stains all over the foredeck near where the booby sat on the rail – squid ink.

Isla Isabella is the largest island in the Galapagos and is located west of Santa Cruz.  We do not have permission to go there.  Could have taken a tour from here but would have had to leave our boat for 3 days.  FREE SPIRIT offered to watch our boat in our absence, but we just would not feel comfortable leaving our boat on anchor like that.  There are penguins on Isabella and the second largest volcano crater in the world and many species of land iguanas and many other interesting things to see, but guess we will be giving Isabella a miss.  There are boat tours available to go to another smaller island to see fur seals but we will skip that also.  Galapagos would get a lot more of our tourist dollars if they would allow us to take our boat to these various places.

Tomorrow a diver is supposed to come clean the bottom of our boat.  The scum line around the boat is filthy and really bothering me.  We have no idea of the condition of the actual bottom of the boat or the prop since we can’t see those, but want it all cleaned before the next long passage.  There are many sharks around our boat but that isn’t the reason that Bill and I aren’t doing this job ourselves.  We aren’t afraid of the sharks bothering us (they are NOT white-tipped sharks).  Bill would have to kit-up with his diving gear in order to clean the bottom of the boat and that would mean finding a place to re-fill the air tank that he would use, because we want to leave here with both air tanks full.  Plus, this water is cold and Bill detests cold water.  Simpler to pay someone else to do it.  Diesel also will be delivered tomorrow to top off our tank and jerry jugs.  The agent will clear us out and bring our final bill. 

We plan to leave Saturday morning for the 3,000 mile passage to the Marquesas.  This passage could take 18-30 days, depending on wind and current.  It is the longest passage we will ever make; longer than crossing the entire Atlantic Ocean.  BeBe is in great shape and we think we are physically and mentally up to the passage.  We both know that the boat is a lot stronger than we are.  Our biggest challenge is likely to be boredom.  If the SSB signal is good we will try to send a few updates along the way and have our son Trey post them to the website while we are enroute.  But SSB is not always reliable so don’t worry if those updates don’t get posted.  Next posting to this site might be a month away.

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