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Kayaking, Snorkeling with Sea Lions, Turtles, and Sharks

We woke up at 5:45 am. The sun comes up early here and we had a good sleep, so we woke up refreshed a full 45 minutes ahead of our alarm. We got ready (skipping showers as we would be kayaking and snorkeling first thing today) and headed out to town. The morning light was gorgeous, and we didn't see many people around. We walked through the nicely landscaped park which had a fountain with representations of the various islands of the archipelago. We visited the sea lions on the beach and saw our first marine iguanas sunning themselves on the rocks near the pier. We also saw some Sally Lightfoot crabs, some of which were carrying the carcasses of their own dead. We wondered if they were cannibals or if they were just giving their comrades a respectful resting place. We saw some birds on the beach with long stick legs and long skinny beaks. They were either some sort of stilt or plover.

We headed back to the hotel for breakfast at 7:40. The restaurant was on the upper floor, and we had a table with a very nice view overlooking the ocean. It was open-air with a tent-like roof. There was a very pleasant breeze, and the gorgeous weather made us very eager to start exploring. We drank fresh tomato tree juice, which was quite tasty. Despite its name, it is a totally separate fruit from the tomato. We ate scrambled eggs, cheese and ham, and two rolls with butter and jam.

We met Sebastian slightly before our appointed time of 8:30. We went up to get the kayak gear and then headed down to Playa Oro. He said that there was the possibility that Pedro wouldn't be able to make it today because he was taking a naturalist test. If he was unable to make it, his brother would accompany us instead. We had really enjoyed Pedro's company and expertise yesterday, and hadn't had a chance to say a proper goodbye, so we hoped that he would show up after all. Sebastian gave us a quick refresh of kayak safety. As he was demonstrating, there was a slapping noise from the ocean behind him. We all looked and saw some spotted eagle rays swimming, flapping their wing-like fins so that we could see their white undersides. At first I had thought they were sea lion fins slapping on the water's surface.

We got into the hard-sided plastic double kayak, Craig in the back and me in the front. At first the paddling was easy and relaxing. The weather was very warm, and if water ran down the paddle onto you, it was refreshingly cool. We looked up to see Pedro following us in a small motor boat. We were thrilled that he had made it! Behind him was a young man namedOswaldo, captaining the larger and faster Wave Hunter. If we were in immediate need, Pedro was our support vessel, and the Wave Hunter would be our transportation to our next site after we were done kayaking.

We had to head further from shore at one point to avoid some breaking waves. Once that happened, Craig and I were never able to really get back on track. Between the current, the wind in our faces, and our tendency to be stronger paddlers on our right side, we were continually drifting left, away from shore. We passed Frigatebird Hill and could see our viewing platform way at the top, as well as yesterday's snorkel site at Darwin's Bay. We saw the top of a turtle shell crest the water, followed by a little head peeking above the surface right in between Sebastian's kayak and ours. It looked a little bit like that famous photo of Nessie. We saw frigatebirds with fully inflated ruby red throat pouches, along with blue footed boobies.

At one point, the current totally had us in its grip. No matter how hard we paddled, we made absolutely no progress. If we stopped for even a second (to try to take a picture or even hear what Sebastian was calling to us) we actually drifted backwards. We paddled and paddled, but succeeded at nothing but exhausting ourselves. We could see our destination, but it never got any closer. Craig and I were worried that we were burning daylight. We knew there were a lot of other things on today's agenda, and we decided not to waste any more time here. Sebastian gestured to Pedro, and we pulled our kayak up alongside his boat. We climbed from the kayak up onto the larger boat. That was definitely a feat to avoid flipping the kayak! Pedro pulled up alongside the Wave Hunter and we climbed aboard.

Sebatian pulled out some snacks (chocolate!!) and we took the opportunity to refuel our bodies. As we approached Isla Lobo, we could see small sea lion pups frolicking in the water alongside our boat, fully keeping pace with us. Oswaldo stopped the boat and Sebastian announced that we would be snorkeling with the pups here. Our excitement was palpable. Here were a bunch of mother and baby sea lions in their breeding grounds, sheltered from predators. We hopped over the side of the boat into the water and almost immediately we were surrounded by sea lions. Some had already been in the water; others followed our lead and slithered into the water from the rocks.

There were so many of them. They all seemed to want to come over to us to check us out. They would come very close to you, swimming around you in three dimensions. They would blow bubbles into your face, and stare at you with their limpid, lamp-like, Gollum eyes. They were quick and agile, seeming to be on a collision course with you, only to effortlessly contort their body at the last possible minute to result in a near-miss.

Unlike the Caribbean, the water is not crystal clear here. The cool Humboldt Current brings with it organic debris which contributes to the biodiversity of this archipelago. But it also reduces visibility. The sun lit up the water to produce a turqoise glow. At some points the sea lions looked as though they were in front of a blue screen. They glided past submerged lava. They had surprisingly large pointy teeth which they bared when they opened their mouths right in front of your face, as they asserted their dominance. It was a bit startling at times. They nipped at one another in play, and it crossed our minds that although they were being extremely friendly, such a love bite, to a human, looked like it would be quite painful. We kept careful track of our appendages.

At one point I felt something touch my ankle. I expected it to be Craig trying to direct my attention somewhere, but when I turned around, there was nobody there. I think a sea lion had touched me with a flipper. As they swam they sometimes made a gutteral noise which interspersed with some clicks which reminded me of the chattering noises our cat sometimes makes when watching birds out the window. This and the sound of bubbles whooshing past was all that we could hear when submerged.

As time went on, we were less of a curiosity and the number of sea lions in the water decreased, though there were always some around. Pedro dove down deep below them. One sea lion was toying with a sponge. He kept it under his flipper for safekeeping, he would then toss it and wait for it to float to him, catching it in his mouth. Another had a large white shell in its mouth. It was so amazing playing with them and swimming with them. They were so interactive! It reminded me of our mountain gorilla trek in Rwanda.

After about an hour of frolicking with the little guys, we got back onto the Wave Hunter and headed over to the iconic Kicker Rock (Leon Dormido). It was an awesome sight, two sheer rock faces made of compacted ash and rising straight up out of the ocean. There were a few boats next to it and they were absolutely dwarfed by it. As we circled in the boat we saw masked boobies and lava gulls tucked into the craggy rock faces. We put on our snorkeling gear and hopped into the water.

The water was cool in some spots and warm in others, depending on the currents. The temperature differential was quite noticeable to us as we swam. The Humboldt and Cromwell currents bring cold water rich in minerals and nutrients from the south and west. It fuels the growth of plankton which attracts fish which in turn attract sea birds. The cool waters also sustain penguins, which otherwise would not be found as far north as the equator, and sea lions. The Panama current provides warm pockets which sustain the growth of coral, which provides food for fish adapted for warmer water.

The rock walls plunged deep down into the water, and urchins and other creatures were clinging to them. In the sun, the water was clear on the surface. But in the shade of the rock it was black and murky, and a bit disconcerting. Pedro had an eagle eye and would always draw our attention to things we would never notice on our own. He would point to an area and we would strain our eyes to try to see something, and seconds later it would emerge from the shadows. He pointed out a green turtle that totally blended in with the deep green water. As it approached the surface it seemed to materialize out of nowhere. These turtles can swim the 800 miles to continental South America, and can grow to weigh over 400 pounds. They eat so much green algae that their body fat even turns green, which is how they get their name. Pedro pointed in a particular direction, and I swam that way, not knowing what I would find. I saw a Galapagos reef shark below me, and as I studied it in awe, about 10 more appeared and they patroled the area about 10 feet below me. It was mesmerizing.

We wanted to swim through the channel between the two rock pillars, but the current was quite strong. We got back into the boat, and Oswaldo drove us to the far side of the channel. We hopped back out again and swam through from the opposite direction. At one point we saw two sea turtles swimming below us and all of a sudden a Galapagos reef shark swam into the picture. It was surreal, as if we were in a Jacques Cousteau documentary. The shark kept to itself, as did the turtles. We saw some puffer fish, which were black with white spots. They had very bulgy eyes, and when viewed from above they looked very wide and had a bizarre shape. At the surface there were some tiny transparent shrimp-like organisms that would come in and out of focus as we swam.

Unfortunately, throughout all this, the underwater camera refused to work. It was disappointing, as I wanted to get some photos of the reef sharks and turtles. It kept turning itself off and behaving as though it had no battery power. I supposed that I could have used up all of the batteries with the sea lions, but it was too risky to open it up and change the batteries in such a moist environment. Oh well.

After that, we got back aboard the Wave Hunter. I played around with the camera and noticed that none of the snorkeling pictures from Kicker Rock had come out. We were disappointed, but relieved that the sea lion photos and videos appeared to be intact. As we sped back toward Puerto Baquierizo Moreno, we munched on M&M's and enjoyed the scenery. We saw the spray and fin of a whale not far from the boat. Sebastian thought that it was probably a sperm whale. It started to really rain as we approached town. When we got to the pier it was a full-fledged downpour.

We ran back to our hotel room to put on some dry clothes and then met Pedro and Sebastian at the hotel restaurant. The rain was pouring onto the patio. We were seated under the tarp so we weren't getting wet, but the water collected in massive puddles on the floor and we had to watch our bags to make sure they didn't end up submerged.Thehotel staff was sweeping the puddles off the endge of the patio with a broom. Anyone standing out front on the curb would have gotten a big surprise as bucketsful of water would have drenched them. Lunch was Asian chicken and vegetables with rice, french fries, and lemonade, with watermelon for dessert.

The shwoer was brief and was just about done when we were finished eating. It was clearing up as we stoofd outside the hotel while Sebastian found us a cab. We piled into one of the ubiquitous white pickup truck taxis. Sebastian sat in the front and Craig, Pedro, and I squeezed into the back seat. We took a 40 minute ride to Cerro Colorado. Along the way we passed the 3 large windmills of the Galapagos Wind Farm. Sebastian told us that it was a bit of an embarrassment during the grand unveiling of this technology, as it was a completely still day and none of the three were turning at all.

We arrived at the Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado, a giant tortoise breeding center. Although giant tortoises have no natural predators, introduced species now threaten their survival. Tortoises are vulnerable to small predators such as army ants and rodents for their first two years of life. Feral goats strip vegetation bare, leaving tortoises with little food. There are programs in place to eradicate the introduced species, but in the meanwhile, tortoise eggs are hatched in the breeding centers.

As soon as we entered the grounds, there was a tortoise right in the path, as if to greet us. This was not a full grown adult, but it was still pretty large. Sebastian pointed out that the tortoise had a concentric ring pattern on each plate of its shell. These markings demarcate the regions of the shell which will grow, indicating that the tortoise is still a juvenile. Rings are no longer visible in adult tortoises. It was our second day on the island, and our first glimpse of the legendary creatures. We marveled at its wrinkly ancient-looking skin.

The tortoise was a bit wary of us and retreated into its shell. It produced a deflating sound as it did this. As we wandered around the grounds on a gravel path, we saw three more tortoises cooling down in the mud. One of them stared right at us. A while later, a tortoise came lumbering through the underbrush. Their footfalls are very soft, like that of an elephant. Their species name is "elephantopus" which reflects their similarities.

We arrived at the area where the babies are kept in shallow trays with cage wire on the top. First we saw the very smallest of the lot. They looked like perfect miniatures, and they would easily fit in your palm. Most of them were stationary, but all of a sudden one started to bite at another's foot. The victim tried to get away, but was wedged in between some others and was facing a wall. He retreated inside of his shell, but this didn't stop the other one from continuing to bite at his shell. His little pink tongue was so cute as he opened his mouth. Finally the victim had enough, turned himself around (it was a tight space so he needed to do a 3-point-turn to get out), looked the perpetrator stright in the eye, and walked away.

We saw some older babies as well, including Genesis, the only survivor from the first batch of tortoises hatched at this center in 2005. The cages protect them from army ants and rodents. After they have reached the critical age at which they are no longer vulnerable to predators, they are allowed to wander the grounds of the breeding center. This particular center has 14 babies and 25 older tortoises. They will eventually be released into the wild, once the feral animals who have been threatening their survival by eating the vegetation are eradicated.

There were educational signs throughout the nursery area. one was particularly funny, showing a caricature of a gender-confused tortoise. It is impossible for people to tell the sex of a tortoise until it is mature (12 - 20 years!) The sex of a tortoise is determined by the temperature at which the eggs are incubated. A higher temperature produces females, while cooler temperatures produce males.

We said goodbye to the adorable babies and walked along the path, seeing one more larger tortoise before we left. Then we drove a short way and climbed a set of wooden steps to a Cerro Colorado lookout point. The steps were built into the side of the hill, and they were damaged in spots, which meant we had to watch our step. We could see the coast and the white sands of Porto Chino from the lookout platform at the top of the hill. A cheeky little yellow warbler (which looked rather like the gold finches that we have at home) was interested in us, and almost landed on Pedro. It kept us company for a few minutes while we admired the view.

Then we drove back to town. When we arrived back at the hotel, we said our goodbyes to Pedro, who had been a wonderful naturalist. We went to our room to freshen up, and then headed out for our last evenng on San Cristobal. We ran into Sebastian next door having a beer. He treated Craig to a Pilsener and me to a pina colada. We had a nice chat with him, and when we were done with our drinks he headed over to a friend's house. We went to the few gift shops on the coastal main street. Almost all of the shopkeepers were watching television. Several were watching English language action films, and a cacophony of expletives spilled out of the shops into the still night. We were a bit embarassed by the extreme profanity in these U.S.-exported films as we bought a few small souvenirs.

We then sat at an outdoor table at the "Cafe Bar Tongo Reef". It was a good place to people-watch. Not many foreign tourists appear to stay in hotels on this island, but there seemed to be a fair share of Ecuaadorian families staying here, as well as some locals who were just out for the evening. We saw some good looking burgers at the next table, and decided to each order a burger with fries. Craig had a Pilsener and I had fresh thick naranjilla juice which was served in a very cute little glass pitcher. We were still hungry and decided to order an empanada. This one was very different from the one we had had in Quito. It was like airy fried dough with a bit of cheese inside. It was very good.

After eating, we went across the street to watch the sea lions on their night beach. They completely covered the beach, and it looked very interesting in the glow of the sodium lights. I walked back and forth getting photos from various angles. The mother sea lions were once again lounging on the beach. They would snuggle together, resting their heads on one anther. It was very sweet. The babies would bleast, searching for their mothers. All of the sea lions were very vocal, and Craig recorded them with his mp3 recorder. One sea lion kept getting closer and closer to Craig. It hoisted itself up the step and onto the sidewalk where he was standing. It kept getting closer, but only moved when he wasn't looking. I went over to it, kept a distance, and took some photos. It was curious and we were checking each other out.

Just then a noisy group of tourists came over and startled it. It came closer to me and its whiskers grazed me. Then it retreated. Some smaller babies were up on a sloped part of the sidewalk. The tourists went over there and crowded one in, being very loud and eventually touching its hind flippers. We couldn't believe that they were being so disrespectful, causing the poor baby emotional distress, and perhaps even doing damage by getting their scent on it. We shouted that they shouldn't touch it or its mother might reject it due to the scent. They pretended they didn't hear us, but they at least stopped their behavior.

Despite this maddening distraction, Craig and I continued to be mesmerized by the sea lions, and felt a special kinship with them after our lovely snorkeling experience this morning. We could have stayed there all night observing them. At one point a baby came over to me and tickled my foot with his whiskers. Craig was enthralled by one particular baby which had a racoon-like pattern around its eyes. We could have stayed here all night; enhralled watching these fascinating creatures. But tomorrow morning we would be heading to Santa Cruz island, so at 10:45 we tore ourselves away and headed back to the hotel. We took showers and I wrote in the journal. We went to sleep at 12:03.

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