Monday, April 25, 2016

Ecuador Adventure Guest Blog Series 4/8

Sternberg Museum of Natural History Education Director, David Levering, lead a spring break study abroad trip of seven Fort Hays State University undergraduate students to mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.  The students documented their adventures and explorations during the trip, and these travelogues will be featured here through a series of eight posts (with a finally reflection from David). Enjoy!

Day 4: Tortuga Bay and Giant Tortoises
Location: Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands
By: Audrey Baumbach

The trail to Tortuga Bay
On the fourth day of our trip, the group and I got to experience our first true island adventure. After breakfast at the hotel, we were quickly in our swimsuits and headed towards Tortuga Bay. With the prospect of seeing our first marine Iguana or Galapagos shark, the group was in high spirits as we climbed a large, stone stairwell leading to a forest. While it wasn’t as flashy as some of the Galápagos’ other tourist attractions, once one stopped to just look, there were many unique things there as well. Many small, multi-colored lizards skittered across the rock pathways and Galapagos mockingbirds sang in the trees above us. What I found most interesting were the cacti. With tasty, water filled fruits they had evolved to protect themselves from land iguanas by developing thick bark at the base of the plant. It was hard to imagine what Darwin must have thought, in the 1830s, looking at such a plant for the first time.

The trunk of a Galapagos prickly
pear with very thick tree-like bark
A female lava lizard
A male lava lizard

Tortuga Bay beach
Sally Lightfoot crabs
After the small trek through the forest, we arrived at a beach that seemed too perfect to be real. I had never seen sand that white or soft. It felt although it had the consistency of flour. We learned later on this type of sand was the product of Parrotfish poop and makes up a lot of the beaches on the Galapagos. Taking our time and making sure to snap many pictures, the group moved slowly across the beach to get to Tortuga Bay. On the way, we spotted several pelicans both flying, and floating on the water; we also saw orange and black crabs (Sally Lightfoot Crab) of numerous sizes moving across the rocks and tidal pools, and our first marine iguana. It was camouflaged so well into the black lava rock and kept still enough that I would have stepped on it had another group member not pointed it out to me. It was a smaller individual, black as the lava rock with small spines down its back. Further down the beach, large groups of them sat covered in sand next to dunes. Surprisingly, they were even well camouflaged there as well.

A Galapagos marine iguana blending in with
volcanic rocks
It took a while for me to be pulled away from watching the motionless iguanas, but after some prodding we walked past a few trees to finally arrive at Tortuga Bay. The waves were small and the color of turquoise, lapping slowly up onto more white sand.  Several species of finches hopped branch to branch of the nearby trees and left tracks in the sand. More iguanas laid in the shade of trees and bushes, hidden until one was only an inch or two away. It was a paradise we were thankful to have a couple hours in. Quickly, our group was in the water and enjoying the fish and cool water. We explored the surrounding rocks and were lucky enough to spot a marine iguana swimming back to land. Mangroves covered the outer edge of the bay where we all re-grouped. It was here we saw the sharks. It started off fun, spotting several small black tip reef sharks. There were many, more than we thought at first. When one disappeared there would be another quickly arriving in its place. Excitedly, we stood in a circle and watched them swim around us. This lasted for a few minutes, until another member had the privilege of being next to a White-tip reef shark as it swam by. Being a larger, more impressive specimen, we were all eager to catch another glimpse of it but unfortunately it disappeared into the mangroves. After realizing we weren’t sure where the White-tip reef shark had a gone a few of us were eager to swim back to shore.
Tortuga Bay on Isla Santa Cruz

Group photo inside the lava tube
The excitement of the sharks was not outdone for the rest of our time at beach. Some of us went bird spotting, while others dug in the sand and looked for small schools of fish along the shore. It wasn’t too long before we were packing up and saying goodbye to Tortuga Bay. We ate lunch at small restaurant by our hotel, enjoying local favorites such as papaya juice and fried plantains. It was a quick change of clothes and then we were back at it again. The lava tube located near Primicias Ranch was our next stop. I personally was unsure what to expect. While the idea itself sounded fun, I was skeptical. It turns out I was not disappointed. Avoiding spider webs while navigating a deteriorating staircase, we walked nearly straight down into a large hole in the ground. It was surprisingly cool compared to the humid air outside. Moisture dripped from the walls and squished beneath our tennis shoes as we explored the large tube. I tried to picture lava coursing through and bursting from one side to next. The vast amount that could fit in the large tunnel alone was enough to cause quite a bit of damage to the surrounding areas. It made one wonder what would happen to the wildlife and the homes of those close by if it were to happen again. Thankfully, we did not have to survive through a lava flow that day and explored the different patterns on the rock wall and climbed over those in our way. It was a muddy experience, especially because we had to crawl at one point through an opening no more than two feet high, but it was eye opening. I had never realized lava carved such vast tunnels. As soon as we began, we reached the end of the tunnel and turned to face our next adventure for the day.

Giant tortoises at Primicias Ranc
Practically next door, the tortoises at Primicias Ranch were waiting for us. We had seen giant tortoises before at the Charles Darwin Research Center, but these were closer and in a more natural environment. The sheer enormity is hard to describe in words when you’re only accustomed to seeing Box turtles. Slow and large, it was unexpected when we saw a female dart fairly quickly across a dirt pathway not far from where we were standing. It’s hard to believe these large, slow-blinking creatures could move as they did. It was then that Darwin came to my mind. In a modern world, it was amazing to see these creature. However, in the 1830s when an exotic creature was a colorful bird, one can only imagine what was going through their minds when they came across a five hundred pound tortoise. To view this place from their perspective must have absolutely unbelievable. If I had been in their shoes, I would have been concerned with people back home actually believing the things I saw. The tortoises were definitely one of a kind and it wasn’t hard to see why they were so easily hunted by sailors and whalers for food after they were discovered. I left that day with a new appreciation for the islands. The beauty of the landscape and uniqueness of the creatures I saw in one day was incredible. It left me eager and ready for the adventures to follow.
Galapagos Mockingbird
Group shot with a giant tortoise at Primicias Ranch

To continue the adventure, read about Day 5: Snorkling Trip.

To catch up on the adventure, read about Day 1: Exploring QuitoDay 2: Bike Trip, and Day 3: Heading to the Islands.

Watch a video with highlights from the Ecuador/Galapagos adventure!

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