The sands of Gardner Bay were dotted with Galápagos sea lions all along their length, as far as the eye could see. These were a mix of females and pups, as this is a favourite nursery site, and the pups ranged in age from almost newborn to almost full-size. I was intrigued by the buzz of activity here, as were we all, and I’ve put together a video of some of the highlights.
As everywhere in the islands, these animals were remarkably happy to be around people, and the presence of several groups of visitors on the beach at the same time didn’t seem to bother them in the slightest – indeed, some seemed to welcome us. One little pup was especially persistent in his efforts to make friends. He came right up to me and tickled my toes with his whiskers! He then gave my trekking pole a curious nibble, and proceeded to follow me along the beach. Lest I get big-headed with all this attention, he switched to another member of our group, Mele, and seemed to adopt her, as you can see in my short video about the encounter.
It wasn’t difficult to see why some tourists are tempted to get over-familiar with these young creatures and I had to resist the temptation to pat him on the head like a puppy! In fact, a tourist from another boat, who it seemed had either been less carefully briefed by his guide or (more likely) had chosen to ignore the rules, started to tease the pup a little, putting out his foot to be sniffed at, then pulling it away. It is one thing if an animal comes to you to play, but you should never approach them or try to draw them into a game, however willing they seem. We did remonstrate a little with the guy, but he didn’t take much notice. I don’t think on this occasion any harm would be done, but we were a little concerned at how he might behave around some of the other wildlife – hopefully his guide will have put him straight.
After spending time with the sea lions here on the beach I was hopeful I would see them on our snorkelling session.
If you can possibly plan your trip to include the breeding season of the waved albatrosses (late March to December), do – seeing these awe-inspiring birds was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. I'm so glad we went at the right time of year to see the albatross. When we originally planned to visit the Galapagos it was to have been in a January and they would have been far out at sea! My first sight of this five month old chick, already huge, will stay with me for a long time, and he seemed equally taken by the sight of us – happy to sit and pose on his nest for as long as we wanted to sit and watch him, which as you can imagine was quite a while!
Waved albatross are considered endemic not merely to the Galápagos, but to Española, where they nest in just two locations, Puerta Cevallos (which can’t be visited), and here at Punta Suarez, where there is a large colony here at the top of a sea cliff, to which the birds can walk and take flight simply by jumping off.
Waved albatrosses, like other albatrosses, spend part of the year at sea. They begin to return to Española in March, the males arriving first. They mate for life, so the male returns to the previous year's breeding territory to await his partner. Once reunited, they engage in a very lengthy, noisy, and complex courtship ritual, even if they are an established pair (although new pairs perform for longer). The dance involves bill-fencing, in which the partners bend, face each other, and rapidly slap their bills back and forth. In another step each faces the other in an upright posture, sometimes poising with bill wide open. The bills are then shut with a loud clap. Sometimes the birds will clatter their bills rapidly. The dance also involves bowing, and parading around one another with the head swaying side to side in an exaggerated sway, accompanied by a nasal "anh-a-annhh" sound. Although we visited towards the end of the breeding season, when pairs were already established and chicks hatched, we were fortunate enough to see a few of these displays as couples reinforced their bonds – or in one instance, it seemed, flirted with others – see my short video of one such couple.
Between mid-April and July the pair produces a single egg. They don’t build a nest, so the egg simply lies on the ground. The egg is incubated by both parents for about two months. Early in incubation, each parent takes long stints, as much as three weeks, but as hatching nears, the stints become shorter. For the first few weeks after hatching, one parent guards the chick while the other forages for food, but after that, the chicks are left unguarded, in nursery groups, while both parents spend longer times at sea looking for food – it was in one of these groups that we found our young friends.
By the end of December, the chicks have fledged, and they leave their nurseries with their parents and head for the western Pacific. Although their parents return to Española the following year, the fledglings remain away for five to six years, at which time they also return to the island to begin breeding for the first time.
As well as seeing the chicks, and the comical courtship ritual, we also sat for some time near the edge of the rocky clearing that is home to the colony. Here we could observe lots of waved albatross action, including birds in flight (graceful) and landing (rather less so). From the nearby cliffs we saw many more, wheeling in the sky above our heads.
It was a real privilege to be able to spend time with these birds.
This is my last tip on Española. Please click here to return to my intro page.