The next morning we visited Rabida Island, a small island of red volcanic rock surrounding a striking red sand beach. As we approach the island in our panga we see pelicans fishing from the red, red rocks of the cliff face.
The sun is bright and being in a panga on choppy waters crashing against the rocks is exciting, but not conducive to photography.
I manage a few shots I am happy with and then spot a group of marine iguanas clinging to a rock. They are marvellous creatures like miniature dragons or dinosaurs.
I am so excited to have seen these Iguanas in their natural environment, stoically clinging onto the rocks as the waves lap over them. Moving in slow motion they climb all over each other and barely seem to flinch at the intrusion. For them time appears to move slowly.
We land on the island and take a steep hike up the hillside to look back at the dramatic contours and contrasting colours of the green hill, red volcanic rock and sandy beach, the salt-water lagoon, and the cobalt blue sea. A view worth walking for.
Apparently the lagoon used to be frequented by flamingos but after the last El Niño in 1983, they have not returned. It is believed that the trade winds slowed the central and western Pacific causing the warmest water to shift to the east, which in turn results in major changes in atmospheric circulation around the globe, forcing weather changes throughout the world. This is known as the El Niño effect. When the warm water shifts east, the cold water thermocline layer near South America drops lower into the ocean. The surface water temperature rises significantly and the supply of colder, nutrient-rich water is cut off. This nutrient supply is what sustains the algae, tiny crustaceans and shrimp that the flamingos feed on. Although the waters in the lagoon are now nutrient rich the flamingos have failed to return to this island in significant numbers. No information is available to explain why they haven’t returned. The impact of the El Niño, almost certainly as a result of global warming, highlights the delicate nature of these unique ecosystems that have evolved isolated from the continent but still cannot escape the effects of the ‘progress’ of man and the impact we have on the planet.
Later in the morning we get to go snorkelling for the first time. Wetsuits are compulsory although the water is warm it is choppy and they do provide extra buoyancy – great for safety, tricky for diving and photography.
The fish are colourful but not the most plentiful I’ve seen in the world but there is so much more than just fish. The seabed is strewn with large fat colourful starfish bigger than dinner plates.
Just as I am marvelling at these a sea lion swims past and then doubles back to get a better look at me. I can’t believe my luck he swims round and round playing and creating a net of bubbles.
He is so fast and graceful. It is beautiful to watch. Now I am truly in love with the Galápagos.
After lunch we made our way to Santiago Island where the trail leads to tidal pools that are home to a variety of invertebrate organisms, including sea urchins, octopus and starfish.
Marine iguanas littered the volcanic rocks of the shoreline and we spotted some Galápagos fur sea lions basking on the rocks in the sun. The animals are fearless of humans and carry on soaking up the rays as I carefully approach them to take some close up photos. It is quite magical to be so close to these beautiful creatures without startling them. You can really feel like a part of their habitat and watch the intimate nuances of their behaviour. I notice my breathing slows as I relax in their presence and despite my excitement there is a wonderful sense of calm.
The Galápagos Islands are possibly unique in the world for the lack of human predation (not historically the case) and as a result the wildlife is fearless and generally unperturbed by our presence. It is such a wonderful feeling that I struggle to put it into words. On more than one occasion I have to back away as curious sea lions and other creatures approach me to check me out. There is no aggression, just curiosity, in much the same way as I am viewing them. It is a very enriching feeling.
With all this interaction our guides take great pains to stress to us the importance of keeping a reasonable distance and not to touch the animals for fear of disrupting their behaviour patterns, for example a young playful seal pup if touched by human hands could retain our scent and be rejected by its mother and starve.
Although these precious islands have become a popular tourist destination, they do appear to be well managed and at the moment conservation rather than money seems to be the key motivator, which is refreshing.