Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Galapagos, Exploring Floreana Part 1

Exploring Floreana: Part 1

Here we are for our first full day on the Archipelago. As on every previous day, Fernando is offering morning stretching out on the porch at 6:30am. And as on every previous morning, My Partner and I sleep in a bit and wish for coffee. She has brought some instant, and since warm water seems to be abundant, she mixes us some tall ones in the water glasses from our cabin.

More about the cabin is called for here. Currently called The Floreana Lava Lodge, this little establishment is about five minutes down the beach road from town. It consists of ten little one-room cabins running in a line down a raised plank boardwalk. Each cabin is big enough for two single beds, a night stand, and that is about it. There is a little bathroom with a little shower. I have already mentioned the non functional AC window unit. The strange thing is the general design. It is more like what I would expect to find in a snowy boy scout camp. A small window on the right side (as you enter), one on the back, and one on the front by the door. A very steep roof. Nothing up high to let out the hot air. My partner points out that it is good that there is no window on the left wall, because then we would be staring into our neighbors' rooms (and vice versa). Ok. I get that. But STILL. Wouldn’t it be nice to have big expansive windows and somehow pray for a breeze? There are chairs out in front of the cabins, and the ocean is only 40 feet away, down a lava rock embankment. The view is pretty spectacular. The sun sets right out in front of you (over what must be Isabela, although I thought it was Santa Cruz at the time) and off to the left is the bay where we are going snorkeling later on this morning. Down at the end of the boardwalk (toward the bay) is a covered, gravel floored meal area. Breakfast is at 7:00. Time to get going.

Meals tend to be somewhat predictable on the islands. I don’t know if this is the standard Galapagos way of life or something about our tour company or just how you treat foreigners to good food.

For breakfast we (always) had:
1) Granola (good granola)
2) Fruit Flavored Yogurt (very runny but good on the Granola)
3) Strong Coffee.
4) Toast made from great bread (Baked on Santa Cruz is what I think Fernando told me)
5) Marmalade (my impression was that it was from local fruit)
6) Scrambled Eggs (most certainly from local chickens).
7) Fresh Fruit. usually Banana, Mango, Pineapple, and Watermelon.

Plenty of food. no Meat.

The meals were always convivial. My partner and I would (usually) try to sit with different people at each meal. Try and get to know our fellow travelers. There are lots of interesting stories to hear. I am a little torn as to whether or not I should post them. I am thinking that they are personal stories and don’t belong in a public blog. So, while I will refer to interesting general observations that people made or perhaps talk about something that happened to one friend or another, I will keep things generic. By this I hope to avoid reading other blogs with comments like “That Jon, such a (something not so nice)”.

Our little row of cabins at the Lava Lodge. Is this the best picture I have?
Behind our hotel winds a little path marked as leading to the “Loberina”. Spanish for a Sea Lion Colony (or hangout?). Our group is going there for a morning of Snorkeling, Kayaking, and SUPing. Pablo described it as a 600 meter walk partially across sharp lava rock. He recommended shoes. We were also advised to wear our swimsuits and carry our mask, fins, and snorkel. I think I went a little overly boy scout on most of these walks because I would be loading up my backpack. And carrying my trekking poles. I was hiking in Oregon once wearing my really dark sunglasses and using my trekking poles and this young man (maybe 18) stopped me and said “Wow Man, you really inspire me. A blind guy like you out hiking like this”. Looking at some of the pictures of me on this hike, I understand the statement.

One this particular day, the hike really was very short. 15 or 20 minutes. William pointed out one new plant species, the Candelabra Cactus. Look at the branches! The bay is made by a lava flow sticking out into the ocean from the island. Crossing onto the lava flow is where the uneven sharp lava rocks are. A little hard on old knees to negotiate. A lot easier if you go slowly and use your trekking pole for balance. This is the first time of many times on this trip where the young men nature guides would stop and offer a helping hand to the old fogies (like, well, almost all of us). My partner really doesn’t like to be helped. She wants to do it herself. I have almost learned to leave her to it, though it does occasionally conflict with my gentlemanly/sexist training. The big thing here was getting myself to just let these young guys help ME. A couple of times I told them (sort of politely) to back off. But eventually, during the trip, I just got to the point where I grabbed their arm and let them assist me along. Less embarrassing in the long run than falling into the ocean during a boat transfer or breaking my leg on a ten mile hike. So much self learning…

The little lava flow peninsula has an ocean side and a bay side, with a sort of lava hill in the middle. We are are eventually going to snorkel on the bay side in the elbow of the lava arm. Right now, there is another group just finishing up in there (presumably from one of the other three hotels on the island). So, we will have to wait for our turn. Our guides take us to the end of the trail to see the sights. On the ocean side is a lava stone beach. These are big lava stones, like the size of a foot stool. We can see hermit crabs, sally lightfoot crabs (the red ones) and more small marine iguanas amongst the rocks. Pablo tells us to be looking out just beyond the little breakers. Look for little heads popping up. Those are sea turtles. The Turtles!! The Turtles!! Pablo is very enthusiastic about Sea Turtles.

Sea Urchin, before
Sea Urchin, After
The sand on the beach is made up of little white tubes. They are the arms of a local stubby sea urchin. Pablo says they are called “Pencil Sea Urchin”. Why? Because you can take their dried up arms (that are scattered everywhere) and use them to write on a lava rock. You can try it out. But don’t take any of them home in your pocket. You are not allowed to bring ANYTHING home from the islands (well, nothing natural). No shells, no rocks, no sticks, no marine Iguanas. editor's note: (no dirt in the tread of your boots). Nothing but Pictures and Memories and Friendships. And Injuries. We climb up the lava hill at the (mostly) end of the peninsula, thanks for the hand up, Pablo, and there is a wonderful view of the bay. Sweeping left we see the little inlet where we will snorkel (hey, a little sandy beach for a change) and then around to our little row of cabins and more around to the town and the landing pier. A number of boats are out in the bay, including some large dive boats that carry divers around the islands on a more marine based tour. One boat is a very nice looking 3 mast schooner. Was it named the Beagle? Must look it up.

Ok. Back down we go to our freshly abandoned snorkel beach. There are not very many places around this side of the island that you can access a sandy beach and get into the water without risking being slashed to ribbons on the lava rock. In this place we have like forty feet of sand access and a little ten foot gap between rocks to swim out into the deeper water for snorkeling. Our kayaks and SUPs have arrived across the water, paddled and/or towed by a couple of fellow travelers and this local guy that we have not been introduced to. I am going to describe him now in this moment of personal ignorance and general foreshadowing. He is a middle aged guy (say 50?), dark skin and hair, very fit, very good looking, wearing somewhat old fashion glasses and sporting a continuous huge smile. He didn’t appear to speak any English but is very happy to be helping everyone with their boats and getting in and out of the little surf on the beach.  Who is he? Why is he there helping us? I was sort of thinking that he worked for whoever owned the kayaks. I am not wrong, though I am wrong. Bookmark this image for later.

Some people are going out and kayaking, but my partner and I want to hit the water and do some snorkeling. Why? Because we are SO HOT. Did I mention that it is hot in the Galapagos? Hot and Humid. The best you can do is sweat efficiently. Well, the best you can do is to get into the Wonderful Water. The guides had said that the water was at the stage where we might not want wetsuits. We had brought along some 1mm jackets and shorts (in lieu of shorty suits) but elected to not wear the jackets today. On account of it being so frakking hot. The water was lovely. But the visibility was not as great as the temperature. Perhaps 20 to 30 feet. The bay was very protected, however, and though we tried to follow Pablo around, we didn’t always succeed. Pablo found us more turtles right away. “Turtles!! Come see the Sea Turtles. Look there. There is one!”

Sea Turtles!

See People!
More Sea Turtles!
And so there was. The animals were over a meter long and swimming along the bottom (at about 10 feet). (Notice how I can freely change from English to metric? It is so liberating.) They are slow moving and yet can still swim faster than a person. How do they do that? Well, by using their front flippers, of course. The back legs don’t move much. This is the same way that penguins swim, just using those front arms, sort of like wings in the water. The turtles mainly ignored us, though they did tend to swim away rather than hang around. We still got some pretty good pictures with our little underwater cameras.

There are some tropical fish on display here but not the gorgeous collections that you might expect from other, more warm water locations. Still, the snorkeling was fun. This was another chance, in controlled conditions, for our guides to check out the group's abilities and gauge what sort of things to expect from us later in the week when the things would be more challenging. My partner and I were having fun learning about our new masks and snorkels. We had bought them last week in Oregon but really hadn’t had a chance to try them out. I am a big believer in having you own mask. You can borrow fins and wetsuits and such, but if your masks leaks, you won’t be having a very good time. That is the important thing about a mask. Make sure it fits. Make sure it is comfortable. Make sure it doesn’t leak. If you hold it up to your face and suck in a bit through your nose, it should stick easily to your face. That should mean no leaks. I also like to have my own snorkel. I like the old fashioned simple black plastic tubes. That is what I used on the reefs off of Guam as a boy and I know how to use them. My partner got a new fangled one that we were told would not flood at all when you went underwater. So you don’t have to worry about clearing it. I was a little skeptical on that. I was probably channeling my younger self when at age 8 we had the drugstore bought snorkels that had a loop on the top with a little cage with a ping pong ball it it. The ball would (supposedly) block the hole and prevent leaking. They didn’t work worth beans and the loop meant you couldn’t clear the pipe by blowing. However, it turns out that progress on snorkels has been made over the last 50 years (who knew?) and my Partner reports that her snorkel worked perfectly (even when she swam upside down). So there you have it. I will ask her to put a link in here to the model she had. My snorkel looks something like this one:

My problem on this swim was fog. My mask just kept, quickly, getting fogged up. William had a bottle of some special “no fog” slimy stuff. I went back in and got some of that. But it didn’t help me either. I suspect that I needed to put the no fog on my mask before I got it wet, because I didn’t have this problem on later swims.

Later my Partner asked Pablo if he'd take some pictures of us. He took one of our cameras and then did some pictures while we frolicked underwater. They came out pretty good. It was fun to be swimming underwater, turning over upside down, bobbing to the surface in the salty water. Just remembering how much fun it can be to be skin diving. Makes me want to try a scuba diving adventure. Next time.

The 'Warrior'. She is so cool.
After we cooled off, we went in and grabbed some boats. My partner wanted another go at a SUP. She jumped on one and went out. I followed in a kayak for safety support. It was a little harder here because the ocean was not as calm as the lagoon. Still, not bad. William saw her and came over and started giving her a lesson. I had thought that this was just going to be a nature guide giving some second hand advice to a tourist, but it became evident that he had some skill in this and gave her some very direct instructions on balance and paddling that seemed to have some very quick and direct results. Wow. I was sitting nearby on one of the sit on top tandem kayaks that are the standard out on the islands and I captured some shots. At one time he directed her to place her paddle in front of her and take a 3 point stance and, what did he say? “pose like a warrior” or something. She did. Later she told me that learning that stance made a big difference because she then knew she could always go to that position when she felt unstable.

Some our friends coming back to the beach by the cabins
Well, time to head back. My partner and I volunteered to help take the boats back over to the little tiny (and tide dependent) beach in front of the cabins. It was a very short paddle and then a little bit of a wave ride on the beach. And then I was stuck on the sand with now shoes and no way to get across the lava rock barrier to the cabins. Dang. (ok, my partner brought shoes and I didn’t starve to death on the beach).

For lunch we went to a local restaurant down the street. There are two or three restaurants on the island. They are only open when a group books a meal, so I am not sure what you would do if you came out to the island by yourself. They are sort of like the eating place back at our hotel, a raised roof covering a large area with tables set up on a gravel floor. The kind of little sharp gravel that really likes to get inside of my new Keen sandals. What is up with that?

And now for the standard lunch/dinner.

1) Hot Vegetable Soup. (sort of a green thing. Broccoli?)
2) Chicken, Pork, or Fish (what fish? Wahoo/grilled/delicious)
3) Hot mixed Vegetables (called a “fresh Salad”)
4) Lettuce and tomato salad.
5) Rice
6) Plantain Chips (instead of potato chips).
7) Fruit Juice. (mango? Passion Fruit? Tree Tomato? Always Yummy)
8) Some sort of local vegetable, often Plantain, served in a traditional recipe.
9) Desert. (chocolate cake, I think, today).

In the afternoon, we are off to visit the other side of the island. We are picked up in one of the local mass transport vehicles called a Chiva or Chiva Bus. It is a half ton truck that has a 16 person bench structure built from wood on the back. 4 person wide, 4 benches, with a roof. You need to climb up 3 feet to get in. If you sit in the front row your knees hit the front wall and you have a view of solid wood (Jon’s hint number 12: don’t sit in the front row). This means head for the Chiva early. The Chiva ride and the word “bouncy” are synonyms in Spanish. Perhaps the sea sickness pills should have been advised.

Inside the Chiva Bus
Chiva Bus

Chiva Bus Emergency Brake
Our Chiva truck is driven by the same local guy that had helped us with the Kayaks. Perhaps he works for the tour company. Perhaps I get to use the word “foreshadowing” yet again in the same blog. Subtle Foreshadowing, at that.

Bump Bump Bump. Up the main (well, perhaps only) dirt road across the island. We are ascending in the the highlands. The vegetation is chiefly a local not-tree called scalasia. Scalasia is endemic to the Galapagos. Our guides told us this plant isn’t a tree at all because it doesn’t create large sees, like trees do. In fact, it is actually in the same family as the daisy or the sunflower. The infant plants look sort of like a sunflower stalk. The adults, however, look like trees to me. They are growing 10 meters into the air with branches shooting up in a way that somewhat resembles broccoli. Or at least it resembles broccoli to our guides.

Scalasia (Immature)
Scalasia (Mature). Note change in leaf size
We bump our way over a hill and the vegetation suddenly changes. Everything is big and leafy now. We are in farming country. Lots of Banana and Papaya, some sugarcane. A lot of Yuca. We continue to bump along until we come to the end of the road at a sign telling about a local Giant Tortoise project.


Tortoises are so dang friendly
At this point, our driver and kayak helper is introduced to us. His name is Claudio Cruz. He has lived his life on Floreana and is well versed in all of the plants and animals that live here. Tomorrow, we are going to go and visit his farm. Today, he leads on on a path telling us (in Spanish) about the plants he finds. Fortunately one of our guides translates.  After walking a bit, we come to a stone fence. A big lava stone wall really, there are steps over it in one place, with a gate on top. On the other side is a two hectare area containing something like twenty-eight tortoise. As far as I could tell, 2 hectares is around 5 acres. (by the way, my notes on this say 1 hectare but my memory says 2. Go figure). The tortoise that are there are two different species that occasionally interbreed to form sterile hybrids. The explanation was by Mr. Cruz and it was in Spanish with occasional broken translation from the guides, so take this with a grain of salt. What appears to be going on is that there were a bunch of these tortioise from other islands that had been brought to Floreana. All of the local species had been eaten by whalers and pirates. I'm unclear why these were brought here since they are not allowed to wander around, perhaps they are merely something along the line of a tourist attraction. Anyway, there were originally around 8 of them and now, 40 years later, there are nearly 30. Not a huge increase, but neither are they dying off. There is some talk about repopulating the island with the original native species. It was thought to be extinct but genetic tracing has shown that there still is original Floreana stock growing on the north end of Isabella island, mixed in the the local population there. These were probably tortoise that had been taken onto boats for food but later thrown overboard for one reason or another and floated to Isabella. We got to see some more mating couples. We tourists were much amused.

After the tortoise, we headed uphill a bit to find a rare thing in the Galapagos, a fresh water spring. A place where the rain water sinks down through the volcanic rock until it hits a thick ash barrier, and then it travels down to emerge sparkling and clear at this spring. And from here, it goes through a pipe across the island back to the town and eventually to our cabins. So this is our water supply.  Because of this, although there isn’t very much of it, the water on Floreana is actually better than the water available (in the pipes) on most of the other islands. Of course, if there were another 100 people living the island, this would never work.

After the spring, we hike a little farther and  come to a very interesting geological formation. It is these parallel lines of standing stones. They are described to us as the “Pirate Caves” but they are not really caves, just open to the sky areas between the large stone walls. There was a guy that was marooned on the island by his shipmates because he was such a louse. He was the first person to live on the island and he, of necessity, made his home near the only fresh water supply. Trying to piece all of this together I get the feeling that the Floreana residents really like the idea of everything being pirates. And, perhaps, from their point of view, a lot of these guys were pirates. But Spain and England were at war a lot in those times and it is perhaps more likely that a lot of the pirates were actually Privateers. What is the difference? The Privateers were commerce raiders with a license (A letter of Marque and Reprisal) from their government. This allowed them to “legally” attack and capture enemy nations shipping. But if they did pirates things, like attack non enemy targets or kill civilians unduly and such, and got caught, they would be hung as pirates. I mean, everyone who read The Aubrey and Maturin novels knows that.

The other thing that we were told during this history lesson is that the pirates had a special mailbox on the island. It was a place (still in operation called mailbox cove) where letters and information would be left by the pirates. Things like “The rape and pillage is especially good in Chile this month” or “please deliver this missive to my poor aunt Bess, oh, and the rape and pillage is especially good in Chile this month”. This seems very unlikely to me. First of all, if I am a cut throat pirate (or a fisherman) I will be damned if I am going to give hints on where the good stuff is to my competition. Second, if you really want to to get rich, you steal from the place where the riches are, and that would seem to be other pirate boats. So. Wikipedia says that the mailbox as used by Whalers to send messages home. If you were homeward bound and stopped there and saw a letter addressed to a place you were going, you would take it, and deliver it yourself, by hand, to the addressee. In fact, you can STILL leave a letter in the mail box and people headed to that place will still take it. Though they will probably just drop it in the local mail when they arrive. So, Pirates, perhaps not so much.
A Flock of Tourists in The Pirate Caves

Holes carved for poles for a fence
Muerto de el Pero

The next settlers that arrived also lived in this same “Pirates Cave” area (once again, the fresh water) and started farming and such. They carved slots in the rocks to put in fencing and even another floor and had a two story corral for their animals. There was one little niche that had been completely carved out of the rock that had a little stove and chimney and food prep area. And another place where a face had been carved in the rock. Myself and another traveler, who I am going to call “Bob” (Note: Jon calls everyone “Bob” in his blog) had gotten ahead of the group with Claudio. He told us the story of the rock face. It is about two meters tall and cleary done by just some person. Claudio told his story in Spanish. I think I followed it mostly. The other people from our tour show up and Bob tells them that this is a face of a German who lived in this area. I said “No, this is the place where a Boy and his family buried his beloved Dog, Kafi.”(OK, I don’t remember the dogs name, but we did learn it. I should have written it down. If anyone reads this and remembers the dogs name, please leave me a message and I will fix it) This is exactly how stories get confused. It turns out that the dog was a German Shepard. Perhaps I missed that part.

I was interested in knowing how (or perhaps why) they did all of that carving into the hard lava stone. Claudio showed me by taking me close and rubbing the rock. It wasn’t hard lava, it was a soft flakey thing. Easy to carve with a knife. Hell, easy to carve with a spoon. Must have been some compressed seashell composite or something.

Back on to the Chiva to go see the place where the Frigate birds go to get a drink. This is over on a farm that Claudio owns. He has lots of Pigs there. And some horses. No frigate birds. There was a little fresh water pond that the birds come to in the morning to get water. He said he would bring us back tomorrow around 10:00 to see the birds. Claudio is very excited about telling us about the local flora and fauna. The guides tell us that he does a lot or work conducting experiments with farming techniques and conservation work for the indigenous fauna. I understood that his son was up on the biggest volcano remnant on the island working to rescue the Floreana Stormy Petrel. They only live up on that one rock face and they are endangered by invasive rats and cats.

This is where the Petrels nest
The invasion of the Galapagos by Mammals was not a good thing for the islands' native wildlife. Giant reptiles just don’t hold out well against cat and rats. And the the goats just eat everything and destroy the indigenous eco-system. That is one thing that Claudio said had been fixed. In the last 10 years they had managed to eradicate all of the goats on the island. Getting rid of the Cats and Rats would be a lot harder. They are using poison and traps to try and protect the petrels, but that is difficult to do to an entire island. There is one very small little island where they did manage to poison all of the mammals and then re-introduce the indigenous fauna, but that can’t (currently) be done on something as large as Floreana.

Another half hour of bumping in the Chiva and we were back down on the beach at our cabin. Boy were we hot. We clambered over the (actually pretty smooth) lava rocks to the little bit of sand beach and went for a quick dip in the Pacific. Remember to Wear Shoes!! And my leg was only bleeding a little when we came out. But I was cool, so it was worth a little blood.

That night we went to a different restaurant and ate our Wahoo on different tables on a different gravel floor. The food was very good in a simple way. Except for the desert. It was really good and not so simple. We got to meet the proprietor. It turns out she is Claudio's sister. I guess on an island with around 150 residents, you've got to expect people to be related to each other.

Well, we are exhausted from our day of travel and you, dear reader, are probably exhausted just from all of this reading.  We had such activity, thinking and learning and sweating. Oh God, can we get the fan to blow directly on both of us while we sleep on our to single bed's pushed together in our little cabin? But first. A quick view of the night sky. Oh, the glorious stars. No light pollution. So bright and clear. And different. Southern Hemisphere stars, Orion high in the .... East? And there is the southern Cross. Much smaller than I would have thought. And with that, I will say goodnight, until next time (tomorrow, we climb a Cerro)

1 comment:

  1. You're doing a super job Jon. You have great notes. Don't forget the popcorn in the soup. Looking forward to the next entry.