Our new guide was Julian, and he was knowledgeable and friendly. We were still in good hands! Our group disembarked by a small lighthouse. Walking the path was made even trickier because mother sea lions and their cubs saw no reason to give us passage. Not that we minded much. But our guide never wanted to put us or the animals in a situation where they felt trapped or put upon—that is how a tourist could get bitten. The path led to a beach alive with activity. There was a nursery group near the water, where ten or so babies entertained each other while their mothers fished. The moss-covered, rounded rocks made for an awkward playground, but they made the best of it! Occasionally a mom would come in, wet and refreshed from the sea, and amble through the youngsters, barking and nosing each one to locate her offspring. Then it was feeding time for the little guy!
Sea lion facts: Babies join the nursery at about one month, and go into the sea at about one year. Adults can hold their breath for about 10 minutes. When sea lions dive, their heart rate drops, their vessels constrict and their lungs begin to collapse. The blood flows less to non-vital organs, and they can actually pull oxygen out of their muscles. Their eyesight and hearing is sharper underwater. They spend 15 hours or more foraging in the ocean, often at night. For more facts and art from my last trip, click here.
The beach was lovely soft sand, with deposits of abandoned shells and needle urchin spines scattered about. A Yellow-crowned Night Heron and a Great Egret picked their way over the lava flows, in search of food. Swimming iguanas left and returned from feeding under the waves. The coloration of the iguanas here are unique to Espanola—the turquoise and red patterns rival the finest in women’s handbags, and only get brighter in the breeding season. It comes from the type of algae they eat here.
Zoologists think there are about 50 subspecies of marine iguana. Each island seems to have its own characteristics. (Facts and art click here) I also found out that diving iguanas don’t hold their breath. They actually empty their lungs of air. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be able to sink. A male’s heartbeat slows from 45-50 beats per minute on land, down to 8-9 bpm after about 15 minutes underwater. After that, it slows to 4-5 bpm and blood is only circulated to the brain. Dives can go longer than half an hour. They also live entirely on seawater.
A hike inland revealed what I was looking forward to on this island: the albatross. I read that the word 'albatross' is derived from the Spanish word 'Alcatraz', which means 'pelican', or 'strange bird'. The word is of Arabic origin, 'al-gattas', which means ‘the diver’. A fitting name for the creature. They are the largest of the sea birds, and they give quite an impression, with their expressive eyebrows and bright yellow beaks. One pair nestled side by side, grooming each other.
Another glided in on its 8 foot wingspan, and met its mate with characteristic beak-clacking. (If you have never seen it, look for an albatross courtship ritual on Youtube. It’s quite an extravaganza of dance and exuberance! In fact, it is the most elaborate courtship display among seabirds. Other quality courtship displays are the blue-footed booby and the flamingo, if you are interested.) Albatross will keep the same mate until one dies. Their average lifespan is 50 years or more. There was an egg left in the area, which showed the immense size of even their unborn. Apparently, they just lay the egg on the ground, and have been seen rolling it around, as far as 150 feet! It produces healthier chicks, but scientists don’t know why. Albatross only come to land in order to raise their young. The island must be an impressive sight when all 12,000 breeding pairs are here at once! It is said the entire world’s population of waved albatross only breed here on Espanola. They will travel up to 60 miles out to sea to hunt fish and squid. They convert it to an oily substance that they feed to their young. The chicks might wait 10 days in between meals, and can take in a ½ gallon of the oil at a time! Because of their wingspan, they can’t take off from a solitary position. They must walk to the cliff face and dive off to get airborne, or get a running start. In fact, the chicks only have one chance when they finally take flight—they will launch off the cliff and not return to land for about six years! We waited several minutes at the cliff edge, hoping to catch one in action, but they were content to hang out with their partners on land. I have to admit, I was hoping to see more than just a few pairs. According to my research, they should have laid eggs up until June, and the chicks fledge between December and January. Where was everybody? I am not sure, but maybe this was a side-effect of El Niño? Maybe they chose not to breed here this year because of lack of food? I never did get a satisfactory answer to that question. I was glad we got to see at least a few representatives of the species. A rare treat, with a rare bird. Of course, an artist's inspiration.
The view was lovely, and the iguanas entertained us. We also got to see the blowhole in action. (I read occasionally a poor iguana can get caught up in the current and will be blasted out of the blowhole! Must be quite an experience!) A Galapagos hawk graced us with an up close encounter, landing in a bush eye-high and posing for photos. We later watched it meet up with its mate, and listened to them shriek at each other. Galapagos hawks appear nowhere else on earth. Sometimes 2 to 3 males pair up with one female, and they all defend the territory and raise the young together, year after year. They have no natural enemies.
Can't help but be inspired by that!
The view along the cliff was staggering. Sun-billed tropic birds came in to their nest sites from the sea. Nasca booby couples fussed about, adding twigs to their nests and serenading us (or rather, their mates) with their whistling, hollow song. One solo bird proudly displayed a shell in his beak, probably hoping to catch a female’s eye. For art, click here.
Here we snorkeled along the cliff wall of the island. There were these grottos and little inlets that cut into its face, and the sea lions used them for hide and seek. Three of them enjoyed chasing Jillian, and catching rocks he threw ahead of them. One got a little enthusiastic about the game, and ‘caught’ my GoPro! I heard the crunch as she went in for a taste! (Video link--Watch to the end!) Fortunately, they are well built housings and it survived without a scratch, but I will say the whiskers are a funny sight in the footage! Sometimes I likened the playful sea lions to golden retrievers. I also saw a strong resemblance to ballerinas, the way they would pirouette and arch effortlessly. We spied a few shy Green sea turtles, and there were many fish, sponges, anemones and urchins. One larger cave invited exploring. It was interesting and a little scary to watch the ocean surf fill it over half way while we were still inside! We rounded a corner and entered a sheltered cove. There I observed several sea lions diving down and disappearing under a ledge, about 30 feet down. I can only assume they were entering tunnels formed by lava tubes.
On our dingy ride to Gardner beach, we came upon sea turtles mating—a male and female locked together and a second male hanging around, hoping for an opportunity. We landed at the beach, which was absolutely stunning. We were greeted by a couple of competing gangs of mockingbirds. They proceeded to have a turf war right in front of us. Even our guide had never seen that behavior before! I had to remind myself that no one was bleeding and at any point, they could fly away if they wanted to. They would posture and call and flick their wings and then tussle! It went on for several minutes then someone declared the winners and losers and they went back to their normal bird musings, I suppose.
Then two American Oyster Catchers flew onto the beach, and mated. We also witnessed two hermit crabs squaring off and doing battle. A whale skeleton rested in the sandy shallows. Gardner beach has been renamed, in my mind, as Love and War Beach! Quite an eventful visit! Lingering as long as possible, the group explored the beach, as it glowed golden in the late afternoon light. Each moment is breathtaking.
Back on the boat for delicious food and moonlit conversations up top! It became our habit to grab a beverage and catch the sunset every evening from the upper deck. Boating is a magical experience for me. To watch the patterns of light play across the water, to sway with the waves as we travel to our next adventure, had a very tranquil effect on my senses. I loved imagining all of the amazing creatures that were living their lives below the water’s surface. An awesome mystery I could stare at for hours. It is a peace that is difficult to describe. Even watching the video footage has the ability to invoke a quiet stillness in my soul.