Seeing the world, one country at the time

Lava Fields Forever


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The black sand squished between our toes when we disembarked at Isla de Santiago, also known as James Island or San Salvador, for our morning walk. The odd detail on this island was the house on a cliff top, which had belonged to the boss of the local salt mine, a leftover from the days before this became a national park and the inhabitants were scratching a living from the natural resources. In the 1950’s and 60’s a stockyard was built for the workers of the salt-filled lagoon of a volcano. James Island’s salt is still extracted for local use.

Three skulls adorning the start of the path belonged to a goat, a donkey and a sea lion; all representative of James Island’s history. The sea lions have always been here and still are. The donkeys were brought to the island to carry heavy loads at the salt mine. The goats were brought here as food for inhabitants and visitors to the island. The first tourist boats were fishing boats, which fished lobster and hunted goats to have fresh food. The goats ended up multiplying until they took over the island and were destroying the natural habitat through grazing. A thousand donkeys and 100,000 goats lived on the island until last year, when a concerted effort to rid the island of the pest was completed and the last remaining goat was apprehended.

Pottery shards are strewn along the path, supposedly Incan. They are the remnants of a pirate raid on a Spanish ship sailing from Peru. Galapagos was a great hangout for pirates and they stashed many treasures here. We spot several birds as we are walking and JC calls out their names: Whimbrel, Wandering Tattler, Yellow Warbler, Brown noddy, Oyster Catcher. The Oyster Catcher eats the Pencil Spine Sea Urchin, because it has friendly, rounded spikes and doesn’t prick. It lies everywhere on the sand, little pins that eventually get ground up into the sand itself.

After a little while, we start to see the familiar faces of iguanas and sea lions. The iguana’s desalinization technique is to sneeze salt. Little white streams exit their nostrils now and then. It makes me laugh. At the water’s edge we happen upon a field of baby snails. Lars walks all over it, not realizing that these granules resembling rocks are thousands of snail children. Nearby, we spot the “mac daddy” snail, looking over his brood. A little further on, a lava lizard grabs a grasshopper and has a feast, as we stare on in morbid fascination. The natural world has become our playground and our hands-on Discovery Channel.
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Iguana fights are bloody, with lots of head-bobbing and some frontal and flanking attacks. We sit and watch two alpha males battling it out, grabbing from behind and pulling each other into the sea, or just rushing another face on, like bulls locking horns. Iguanas do have mini horns above their eyes, and we spot one with bloody stumps where his fighting horns had been. This is survival of the fittest, and the reward for being king of the hill is a harem of female iguanas. The next exhibit are the grottos where dozens of seals bask in the sun and lava tubes sound like flushing toilets as the white water rushes in and is sucked out. The flushing water looks like whipped cream or shaving foam. We turn and head back to the beach for snorkelling before lunch. When we arrive back at the beach, the boat crew is playing soccer on an abandoned field of the old miners’ residences. This is surely one of the world’s most remote soccer fields.

The black sand is surprisingly soft under our feet as we change into our snorkelling gear and find a safe place for our gear, far from the poison apple tree in the middle of the beach. Its sap is acidic and will burn your skin if you touch it. The water is cold, but we get in anyway, despite the omnipresent small jellyfish that the crew warns us about. We should have heeded the crew’s advice. No sooner are we out in the water, than we find ourselves surrounded by hundreds of the creatures. I feel like Nemo’s Dad in the jellyfish chasm. It seems that no matter what direction we try to swim in, there is no opening in the maze of jellyfish. Exasperated, we decide to simple pick one direction and swim for it. But escaping the jellyfish is an impossible task and soon I feel the sting of threads brushing my face. We spot two small sharks and several schools of fish, sea urchins and a variety of anemones. With the sighting of a seal, we consider it a day and head in towards land.

The crew, who have finished playing soccer, tell us to keep going to the other side of the beach for better marine life.
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This time, we take their advice and sight another shark and two seals who swim with us. After no time at all, the dinghy comes to tell us to go back. Frustrated, we reply that instead of climbing back in the dinghy, we’ll swim, to have more time underwater. Just then, we see another seal and try to follow it when out of nowhere appears a sea turtle! This is our highlight. We follow it, as it slowly flaps its fins, nipping at a jellyfish and hanging out. It pops its head out of the water and we just keep following it, happy as larks, going farther out to sea, until finally the crew calls us and we have to rush back.

Once back on the beach I feel my cheeks burning, so I rub sand in them like my friend Christina once taught me in Thailand when it happened to her. Everyone on the boat laughs at me when they see my black freckled cheeks, my war paint. It doesn’t help much and for the next few days I have red swollen streaks down my cheeks and chin. We get back on the boat for our hose down and cookies, tea and a hot shower to relax and warm up. The cold wasn’t too bad and that turtle was worth everything, even annoying everyone for being late.

While we chow down our lunch, the boat sets course for Bartolome Island for a second round of snorkelling. The island is recognizable by its impossibly large, straight monolith. The impression is very dramatic and adorns most postcards. Immediately we see a Marbled Ray, then a Spotted Eagle Ray. The first one is rounder, flatter and flutters. The second is beautiful with a maze design underneath (white and black lines) and black and white dots on top. It flaps, like a bird and has a large, more triangular body. There are countless Panamic cushion starfish and chocolate chip starfish as well as sea urchins, large shells and schools of fish, especially among the rocks. Above the waterline were sea lions lounging on rock walls. We swim through piles of lava rocks around the monolith and near the next beach, we see a penguin on the rocks. This was our goal for the swim here, so we are ready to go back, this time we are uncharacteristically on time.

In the afternoon, our walk is on Isla Bartolome. It is four to five thousand years old and is covered in aa lava, one of two types found in Galapagos. The climb to the top seems never-ending. In stark contrast to the abundant sea life just below the waterline, the landscape seems barren, empty, dead.
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But there is life beyond the cinder cones, if you look for it. There are tequilia plants and lava cacti, which grow only on lava, not on ash. As for fauna; Mockingbirds, Darwin’s finches, Lava lizards and Galapagos snakes live there. This island is actually very fertile, all volcanoes are. But there’s no water, like in New Zealand or Hawaii. So it remains quite barren. On Santa Cruz, which has rain, you can grow tomatoes from just volcanic rocks and water.

From the top of Bartolome, we can see the lava field on James Island. At the time of the eruption, volcanic flow spread far out into the water, probably annihilating the tortoise colony that lived there. There is a record of a colony, but there are none today. Bartolome island is covered in Piedra Galleta, the volcanic rock from which houses on Santa Cruz are built. It’s quite light, so even large stones are easy to lift. We walk down, trying not to mess up the perfect cinders, looking like grey, new-fallen snow. Alas, on Galapagos, the days end much too early and today is no exception, as we reluctantly start on our way back. Back on board we climb up on the top deck and are offered delicious snacks. As we stuff our mouths, we sail by James Island’s strange and vast lava flow and check out all the birds and marvel at how “dead” it seems. The dinner, being our last with our friends on Tip Top, was solemn.

After dinner we have a briefing regarding the next day when the new people are coming on board to replace half of us who are leaving. To our dismay, we find out that we can’t stay on, though we had asked to. Galapagos trips are just that popular. We are truly really sad to know we have to leave. It puts a damper on the rest of the evening to know we have to say goodbye to our new acquaintances. They are such a great group, and it has been a really unique experience. It is possible to bond with a couple of people in a group, but to enjoy the company of each and every one of the twelve aboard, that is both a privilege and a rare treat. At least we get to spend the next day with them, through lunch.