Galapagos Sea Lion
The Galapagos Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus wollebaeki) is an endemic subspecies. It is common, and there is a population of about 50 000 Sea Lions in the Galapagos Islands. They can be seen in many places near the shores, on beaches, on the rocks or even in the towns (for example on a porch in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and at the Fish Market in Puerto Ayora). Don’t be surprised if you get surrounded by playful sea lions while snorkelling. It is absolutely fantastic!
The male Sea Lion becomes very large, up to 230cm in length, with a weigh up to 250kg. They have a dark brown fur, which almost looks black when wet and they have a thick neck.
The females are smaller and weigh up to 120kg. They have lighter brown fur, which looks dark brown when wet. There are many more females as only one tenth of the Sea Lion pups are males.
The Galapagos Sea Lions feed during the day and they mostly eat Sardines. They can be away at sea for days to hunt for fish. Sharks are natural predators of the Sea Lions.
The Galapagos Sea Lions form colonies which consist of a dominant male (bull) and up to 30 females (cows) with their pups. The bull protects its territory against other males and sometimes there are fights. As it is difficult for a male to be away feeding while protecting his territory he becomes weaker and he will then be replaced by a stronger male after a while. Males without a territory form bachelor colonies.
The females give birth to one pup each year, which they nurse for up to three years. Sometimes you can see two pups of different age suckling milk from their mother. When they are around five months the pups can start fishing for themselves though. The mother and child can recognise each other’s bark and thus find each other among the other Sea Lions in the colony.
In the photo a Sea Lion is waiting, together with Pelicans, for leftovers at the Fish Market in Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz. Looking through my photos I realise I don’t have any other photos of Sea Lions on Isla Santa Cruz than the ones from the Fish Market, even though I saw several.
Update 2013: I visited Galapagos Islands again and from this time I have got several photos of Sea Lions lying on benches on the pier in Puerto Ayora, and more from the fish market.
- National/State Park
Exploring a lava tunnel
A short drive from the Giant Tortoise reserve is one of a number of lava tunnels that can be found here in the highlands of Santa Cruz. These tunnels or tubes are formed when the exterior portion of a pahoehoe lava flow cools and hardens while the hotter interior lava continues to flow. Eventually the lava flow diminishes and there is not enough lava left to fill the tube, which is left hollow as a result. We had seen very small tubes on Santiago, but here on Santa Cruz some of them are large enough to enter. This particular one is accessed down a short flight of rocky steps, with a slightly rickety handrail. These lead you to the tunnel’s entrance, which is actually in the middle of it, as it has in the past collapsed at this point leaving one half exposed and easy to walk into, and the other half more or less buried in rubble (see photo four). More steps took us down to the bottom of the tunnel (photo three), which at this point was fairly smooth and easy to walk on. It even had electric lighting! If you didn’t know otherwise you would think that this were a man-mad tunnel, maybe dug as part of a mine or underground transport system. But no – this was all created by the power of volcanic activity.
After about 100 metres of walking we came to a point where the tunnel roof has crumbled in places and made the going a little harder. Eventually that roof becomes so low that it is necessary to crawl. We had the option at this point of continuing with Fabian or returning to the minibus. About five or six of us, me included, chose the latter – there was no way with a dodgy knee that I felt like crawling on stony ground! But Chris and some of the others opted to finish the walk through the tunnel, though he later told me that apart from the satisfaction of having done it I hadn’t missed much. In the event they had not so much crawled, as the ground was not only stony but also wet in places, but rather had gone on hands and feet, their backs almost scraping the roof!
Meanwhile I and my companions took a leisurely walk back through the tunnel, stopping to take more photos as we did so. Once we were in the minibus we drove the sort distance to meet the others, who had already emerged from the tunnel and were waiting by the side of the road. I confess I was relieved to see them, as it had occurred to me that if the tunnel had collapsed in the past it could do so again! But there had been no mishaps, and we all settled down in the minibus to return to Puerto Ayora and to the Angelito.
This was our last visit on Santa Cruz on this day, but we were able to see another side of the island on our final morning when we took a short panga ride in Black Turtle Cove.
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Charles Darwin Research Centre
The Charles Darwin Research Centre was set up in 1960 in order to promote research, conservation, and education in the archipelago. A visit here is included in just about every cruise, and it was the first place we visited on Santa Cruz, having transferred directly to the centre’s own jetty in the pangas straight after breakfast.
Fabian gave us a tour of the different pens used for the successful Giant tortoise breeding programme for which the centre is best known. We saw a group of male tortoises in one, females in another, and elsewhere met “Super Diego”, considered to be the centre’s most sexually active male (and therefore very useful to the breeding programme!) The latter is a Saddleback Tortoise, and Fabian pointed out how his shell shape differs from that of his cousins – a feature that demonstrates admirably Darwin’s theory of evolution. On the larger islands, such as here on Santa Cruz, the Giant Tortoises thrive in the highlands where there is plentiful ground vegetation. Here the domed shell is the norm. But on some of the smaller islands, where most vegetation is above ground and harder to reach, the tortoises have evolved to have this cut-away area of their shell, behind their heads, which enables them to stretch upwards to reach food.
As with all such places, the centre offers you a chance to get close to wildlife. However, after five days visiting the islands it was clear to us that, given how comfortable the animals and birds are around their human visitors, “getting close” is much less of a bonus here than elsewhere! But we did learn a lot about the Giant Tortoises, and I was also able to get a nice little video of one on the move.
One inhabitant we did not see however was Lonesome George, arguably at one time the most famous tortoise in the world. Sadly he had died a few months before our visit, in June 2012.
After seeing the adult tortoises we went on to visit the rearing house, where hatchlings are cared for, and the adaptation centre, where young tortoises are gradually accustomed to the conditions they will find on release to their home islands, which happens at about four years of age. Nearly 2,000 young tortoises have been released so far!
Here our tour with Fabian ended and we all went our separate ways, free to explore on our own. Chris and I walked back through the grounds, stopping to look at the various plants – the centre also maintains a native plant garden of species endemic to the Santa Cruz arid and coastal zones. We watched a Cactus Finch at close quarters in one of the Opuntias and then had a brief look inside the Van Straelen Exhibition Centre which has displays about the Galápagos Islands and the work of the Research Station. Near here we met up with another from our group, Ian, and decided to walk with him into Puerto Ayora
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Black Turtle Cove (Caleta Tortuga Negra)
Before going to the airport on the last day of the cruise with Cachalote (2011) we visited Black Turtle Cove very early in the morning, even before breakfast. The sun was just rising and the light was beautiful . It was a very calm and peaceful morning.
Black Turtle Cove is a shallow inlet surrounded by mangrove vegetation, situated on the north coast of Isla Santa Cruz. There is no landing site and it is only visited with a panga (dinghy). When we arrived into the cove we saw lots of Cattle Egrets sitting in the mangroves and as we came closer they all took off. It was a lovely thing to see. The Cattle Egrets come down from the highlands to spend the night at Black Turtle Cove, where it is warmer during the night than in the highlands. We also saw many pelicans and smaller birds following the pelicans in case it would drop a fish they could catch. In the water there were turtles, Golden Rays and also a few White-tipped Reef Sharks. The sharks were resting on the bottom and a bit difficult to see, but to my surprise you could see them better with sunglasses on.
Santa Cruz Highlands, Hacienda Mariposa
The vegetation in the highlands is very different to the coast. It is wetter, with green pastures and forests. There are many places of interest to visit in the Santa Cruz Highlands, like the Lava Tunnels, Los Gemelos, Cerro Crocker and El Chato Tortoise Reserve.
The only place In Santa Cruz Highlands that I visited in 2011 was Hacienda Mariposa, a cattle farm owned by Steve Divine. It is situated between Bellavista and Santa Rosa, near El Chato Tortoise Reserve. In the green pastures of Hacienda Mariposa you can see Giant Tortoises in the wild. It is only during the dry season that the tortoises are present though, because during the wet season, when it is breeding season, the tortoises move the arid zone.
It was on the first day of the cruise with M/S Cachalote, before we even went to the boat, that we visited the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz and Hacienda Mariposa.
Before we started our walk around the farm to look for tortoises we heard that there was a Barn Owl in a small shed by the house. We were allowed to go inside one at a time if we were very quiet, and we were not allowed to take photos using flash. In a corner on the floor, under a chair, there was a chick, all covered in white down. It made a loud hissing sound “shrreee”. While we went inside the shed one by one, one of the women in the group had gone to the bathroom. She was all excited when she came back and told us there had been an owl in the bathroom too. Welcome to the Galapagos!
We went for a short walk to look for Giant Tortoises and luckily we saw one, a juvenile, as it wasn’t that big. Then we went back to the farm and got some juice to drink and took photos of the shell from a very big tortoise. Besides the Barn Owl and its chick we saw Cattle Egrets, Smooth-billed Anis, a Yellow Warbler and a Darwin Finch during our visit. I don’t know which Darwin Finch it was as it was the first one I saw, the photo is very dark and I have only written Darwin Finch in my notebook. When we left the farm we saw a Short-eared Owl sitting on a pole next to the road. That was good luck! Now we had seen both species of owls that occur on the Galapagos Islands even before we had got to the boat.
- National/State Park
Charles Darwin Research Station
Charles Darwin Research Station is situated in the outskirts of Puerto Ayora, at the east end of Avenida Charles Darwin. It was established in 1964 and it is the headquarters of the Charles Darwin Foundation. Here more than 100 scientists, students and volunteers are working with research and conservation projects to protect the Galapagos ecosystem and endangered species.
At Charles Darwin Research Station there is a museum and information centre where you can learn much about the wildlife and ecology of the Galapagos Islands. There is a breeding centre and a house where baby-tortoises are incubated. The young tortoises are taken care of until they are old enough to be taken to their home islands and natural habitat. In the Galapagos Islands there are 11 different subspecies of the Giant Tortoise, and at Charles Darwin Research Station you can see several of them. The most famous tortoise here is Lonesome George. He is the only surviving Tortoise of the subspecies from Isla Pinta. Many attempts have been made to mate him with closely related females, but without success.
There are several enclosures with adult Giant Tortoises and in one of them you can go down to come close to the tortoises. There are also enclosures with Land Iguanas.
I visited Charles Darwin Research Station on the first day of the Cruise with M/S Cachalote (2011), so we got a very good guided walk around the area. However, it is easy to visit on your own. It is only a 15 minutes walk from central Puerto Ayora and around the Research Station there are several trails and information boards. It is free to visit.
Update June 2012: Lonesome George died on the 24th of June 2012. He was found dead in the morning by his caretaker and it is believed that he died because his heart stopped and because of old age. Lonesome George was between 90 -107 years.
In July 2013 I visited Charles Darwin Research Station a second time when I made another cruise with Cachalote (different Itinerary).
I also visited Charles Darwin Research Station on my own in July 2014. By that time they had built a new souvenir store. Unfortunately it was closed a couple of days after my visit and I heard it remained closed for several months. I hope it has got the permission to open up again, as the profits from it is funding many of the center's projects.
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There are 13 species of Darwin Finches in Galapagos Islands, and they are all endemic. The Finches are famous because the role they played in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution . When Charles Darwin visited Galapagos Islands in 1835 during his voyage with the Beagle he didn’t pay much attention to the finches, but more to the Mockingbirds which he noticed differences in, between the islands. He collected finches but didn’t record from which islands. It was not until he came home and talked to an ornithologist and others who had collected finches during the visit that he understood the significance of them.
All 13 Darwin Finches in Galapagos Islands have evolved from a species of finch found on the South American Pacific coast. When they came to Galapagos Islands they adopted to different habitats and food available there. The beaks have evolved to be suitable to the food they eat. To be able to specialize in feeding is good when food is scarce and there is more competition for what is available.
Interesting to know is that the Woodpecker Finch can use thorns or twigs as tools when they search for larva or other insects in small crevices. Ground Finches eat skin parasites from Tortoises, Land Iguanas and Marine Iguanas, and the Sharp-beaked Ground Finch on Wolf and Darwin is also called Vampire Finch as they feed on blood they peck from Nazca Boobies.
The Darwin Finches have a length of 10 - 16cm. Their plumage is mottled grey, brown, black or olive coloured. Some species are not difficult to distinguish, while others are more difficult to identify. Not only are some species looking alike, but there are variations within a species and there are also hybrids.
The Darwin Finches in the photos were seen in at Hacienda Mariposa, along the path to Tortuga Bay (photo 2 and 3), at Los Gemelos and at Rancho Primicias.
- National/State Park
Black Turtle Cove
On the final day of our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito we were again moored off Santa Cruz, this time in the channel to the north of the island that separates it from Baltra where the airport is situated. With only a few more hours left, we were all up early for a pre-breakfast final visit – a panga ride in Black Turtle Cove. This is a beautiful inlet surrounded by mangrove trees (three species – red, white and black). No landings are allowed here, and boats have to turn off their engines. The early morning light was lovely as Fabian steered us to a great spot where a small lagoon emptied into the cove. He grabbed a mangrove branch hanging out over the water to steady the panga, and we waited. We were rewarded by the sight of a succession of fish and other wildlife exiting the lagoon – several White-tipped Reef Sharks, Sea turtles and a couple of Spotted Eagle Rays. It was so tranquil there, just drifting slightly and watching these various creatures pass right by, or even underneath, our panga.
After a while though we had to leave, and headed back to the Angelito for breakfast. On the way we saw a number of birds – a Lava Heron, Brown Noddies, several pelicans and a Blue-footed Booby.
This is a rather different environment from any we had seen elsewhere in the archipelago and it was a special, peaceful spot in which to spend the last hour or so of a very enjoyable week aboard the Angelito.
This is my last tip about Santa Cruz. Click here to return to my intro page.
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Tortoises in the Santa Cruz Highlands
On the afternoon of our day on Santa Cruz we took the pangas across the small bay to the harbour pier and from there boarded a small bus, driven by one of the Angelito’s owners, for our journey into the highlands. It was great to have this unexpected opportunity to pass on our appreciation of the boat and crew to one of the owners. Until recently one of them apparently skippered the boat for every cruise, but they are getting on in age now and have wisely decided to employ a captain, so we hadn’t anticipated meeting either of them.
The bus drove through the outskirts of Puerto Ayora, giving us a brief glimpse of everyday life in this most remote of towns. As we left the town the road started to climb and we could soon see for ourselves how the vegetation of the arid and humid zones differed. The higher we went the more lush the greens, and we saw lots of pockets of cultivation – coffee, maize and fruit-bearing trees such as banana and papaya. There were cattle in some fields, and white cattle egrets.
We arrived at our destination, a reserve where the Giant tortoises are protected and allowed to live in peace in the wild – but not before already seeing a few in nearby fields and passing one right on the road! At the reserve there was a small demonstration area, where Fabian gave us a talk about these amazing creatures. There was an empty shell there, from a long-deceased tortoise, and some of us took the chance to climb inside and “play tortoise” – a silly, fun exercise, but one that gave us a good sense of just how huge these animals are. Oh, and I found a perch on the top, as you can see in photo four!
From here we went for a walk through part of the reserve. We saw quite a few tortoises on our route, including one enjoying a mud bath and several munching on grass and leaves. One came straight towards a small group of us, and we had to step aside and let him pass – he was clearly the boss and nothing was going to stop him reaching his destination. Sharing a narrow path with one of these enormous reptiles really does give you a sense of their size and strength!
We also saw a variety of birds on our walk – a Smooth-Billed Ani, White-Cheeked Pintail Duck and Yellow Warbler among others. The reserve has a small but densely stocked souvenir shop which we checked out after our walk – Chris and I just bought a postcard (50c) while some of the others got a t-shirt or hat, at what seemed to me to be reasonable prices. There is also a little café / bar, where we got a drink each (Sprite and moccachino), and sat with the others from our party who’d variously opted for coffees, beer, soft drinks and snacks such as empanadas. Four of the group had left that morning, and a new passenger had joined the group here, so it was a good opportunity to get to know Eli from Israel and welcome him to our happy band!
But soon it was time to leave as we wanted to visit some lava tubes on the way back to the Angelito.
- National/State Park
On Galapagos Islands you will find an endemic subspecies of the White-cheeked Pintail, also called Galapagos Pintail (Ana bahamensis galapagensis). It is quite common and it can be found both in highland pools and lowland lagoons and mangrove swamps.
The White-cheeked Pintail is a medium sized duck that becomes around 46 cm long. It has mainly got brown feathers, with patterns of light and dark brown. The cheeks and throat are white and the bill is very characteristic with a blue and red colour. The legs and webbed feet are grey. Males and females look very similar, but the male is slightly larger and has a longer tail.
The White-cheeked Pintail feeds on small aquatic plants and small animals in the water. It mainly gets the food by dabbling at the surface, but it can also dive in deeper water.
If the conditions are good the White-cheeked Pintail can breed throughout the year, and they build their nest near the water, on the ground, protected by vegetation.
The White-cheeked Pintails in photos 1, 2 and 3 were seen at a lagoon near Cerro Dragón on Isla Santa Cruz. The one in photo 4 and 5 was in a pond at Rancho Primicias.
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Galapagos Flightless Grasshopper
There is not a great number of insect species in the Galapagos Islands, but only something over a thousand. There are 22 species of grasshoppers and one of them is the endemic Galapagos Flightless Grasshopper (Halemus robustus), a small grasshopper without wings.
The Galapagos Flightless Grasshoppers are quite widespread on the islands, but their brownish colouring make it very difficult to see them. This Galapagos Flightless Grasshopper was sitting on a flower of a Galapagos Cotton bush so it was easier to spot it against the light yellow background. If it had been sitting on one of the branches instead we would probably have passed without seeing it. The photo is taken along the trail to Cerro Dragon, Isla Santa Cruz.
- National/State Park
The Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) is common in Galapagos Islands, but it is a migrant bird that prefers breading in the colder northern climates of North America, Europe and Asia. In the Galapagos it can often be found along sandy beaches, by lagoons and tidal pools.
The Whimbrel is a large wader with a long curved bill. The females have a longer bill than the males. The legs and neck are long and the plumage is grey-brown with a paler underpart than upperpart.
Whimbrels eat small crustaceans and marine worms they pick up from the muddy surface they walk over, and they eat small fish and insects.
The Whimbrel in the two first photos was seen at a small lagoon along the trail at Cerro Dragon, Isla Santa Cruz, and the Whimbrel in photo 3 and 4 was walking around at the shore by the pier in Puerto Ayora. The Whimbrel in photo 5 was bathing in the shallow lagoon behind the beach at El Garrapatero.
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The Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) is an introduced bird to the Galapagos Islands. It occurs in the highlands of Floreana, Isla Santa Cruz, Santiago and Isla Isabela and it can often be seen in open and semi-open landscapes.
The Smooth-billed Ani belongs to the cuckoo family. It is around 35cm long and it has a black plumage and a big black bill. The tail is long and gets broader towards the end.
It was not until the 1960s that the Smooth-billed Ani was introduced to Galapagos Islands. As they are not very good flyers of long distances over water they were probably introduced by humans. It is believed the Smooth-billed Anis were brought to the islands because they remove parasites and ticks from livestock. As they are introduced birds they compete for resources with the endemic and native birds.
The Smooth-billed Ani also feed on larger insects and Lava Lizards.
The same nest is used by several pairs and they share incubation and feeding. The nest is built in trees.
Photo 1: A Smoothe-billed Ani is standing on a tortoise at Rancho Chato 2
Photo 2 and 3: The Smooth-billed Anis were seen at Hacienda Mariposa.
Photo 4: A Smooth-billed Ani is in the shallow water of a pool at Rancho Primicias.
Photo 5: This Smooth-billed Ani has been run over and was lying on the road.
- National/State Park
Las Grietas, Puerto Ayora
Las Grietas is a long fissure in the lava rock. Here freshwater filtered down from the highlands meet salty water entering from the sea, making the water in the ravine brackish. It is a very nice place for swimming and snorkelling. The water is very clear, but can be a bit cold. Some people dive or make somersaults from the high cliffs. When you swim you can continue longer than you think, but you will have to walk over a few rooks and then you can continue the swim around the corner. I think it is a very beautiful place!
In the afternoon, I have heard, tour groups come here, so if you want tranquillity you should come early. It is easy to go here on your own from Puerto Ayora. Just take a water taxi ($0.60) from the pier over to Angemeyer Point and than follow the trail. After passing Finch Bay Hotel the trail becomes more rocky, so good shoes can be good to wear. Along the path there are several small lagoons were you might see migratory and coastal birds (for example I saw a Great Blue Heron here).
The first time I visited Las Grietas I hadn’t brought swimwear or snorkel equipment with me, so I came back the next day. I rented the snorkel equipment at Cabo Mar, near the harbour. It was $5 (July 2011) for the whole day and the equipment was good.
I visited Las Grietas only once during my visit in June/July 2013. I didn't bring my camera that time as I didn't want to leave it unattended while I went swimming and snorkeling.
July/Agust 2014: The trail to Las Grietas from Angermeyer Point is 662 metres long. The first part is easy to walk, but after you have passed Finch Bay Hotel it becomes rockier, and here it is good to wear good shoes, not flip-flops. However, I have heard that since August 2014 the trail to Las Grietas is closed for 4-5 months. And I guess it is because they are doing the trail easier to walk.
Along the way to Las Grietas you will pass several shallow lagoons where you might see some birds, like the Great Blue Heron or the Great Egret.
When I visited Las Grietas in 2014 I met several large groups on my way there, and this was before lunch. So, also in the mornings there can be lots of people there.
- Diving and Snorkeling
- National/State Park
Galapagos Barn Owl
The Barn Owl on Galapagos Islands is an endemic subspecies, Tyto alba punctatissima. It is quite uncommon and there are around 9000 Barn Owls on the islands. They occur both in the lowlands and in the highlands and can be found on Isla Santa Cruz, Isla San Cristóbal, Isla Isabela and Isla Fernandina.
The Barn Owls have a characteristic hart-shaped facial disk with large dark eyes. The facial disc works as a satellite dish and collects sounds to the ears. Around the facial disk there is a brown edge. The under part of the Barn Owl is whitish with black spots and the upper part is golden-brown with black and white spots.
The Barn Owls are nocturnal birds but they can also be seen hunting at dusk and dawn. They have excellent hearing and usually use sound when they look for prey. They eat rodents, reptiles and other birds.
Nests of the Barn Owl can be found in small cavities, in lava tubes, holes in a tree or in old buildings.
The Barn Owls usually don’t live for more than 1-2 years, but they are able to breed when they are about 10 months.
On the first day of the cruise with M/S Cachalote, before we even went to the boat, we visited the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz. That is where we saw the Barn Owl in the picture. It was inside a small shed at the farm we visited. We were allowed to go inside one at a time if we were very quiet, and we were not allowed to take photos using flash. In a corner on the floor, under a chair ,there was a chick, all covered in white down. It made a loud hissing sound “shrreee”. While we went inside the shed one by one, one of the women in the group had gone to the bathroom. She was all excited when she came back and told us there had been an owl in the bathroom too. Welcome to Galapagos!
The Barn Owl in picture 2 was siting in the roof of a lava tunnel at Rancho Chato 2, a place we visited on the first day the second time I did a cruise with Cachalote.
- National/State Park