Saturday, June 6, 2015

Into the Wild

The lava pebbles crunched underneath my feet. The air was warm and redolent with the smell of mud and green plants. Birds sang among the trees, and flowers sparkled against the green grass and leaves lining the pathway.

The view from the pier at Puerto Ayora.
We had caught a cab from Puerto Ayora and taken it to the highlands, to a place called El Chato Tortoise Preserve. Along the way, the tangled web of cobbled streets and low-slung cement brick houses had slowly given way to wide green fields bordered by giant elephant ear plants and jewel-toned impatiens. The air temperature had dropped noticeably, and the occasional herd of cows chewed complacently behind barbed wire fences.
On the road headed up to the highlands.

The Beatles’ “Yesterday” came on the radio as we drove, and all five of us, even the cab driver, sang along. Turning into the National Park area, the road changed to dirt, and the driver slowed as we bounced along the track. In a muddy ditch to the right of the car, I caught sight of our first tortoise, rounded dome of its shell rising above the grass that surrounded it.

Another few hundred yards along the road, and another enormous tortoise appeared to our right: hunched contentedly in the shade, wide mouth chomping at the plants around it, it was oblivious to our wondering presence. The driver slowed to a stop, allowing us to snap a few photos from the vehicle, and then continued on to the parking lot.

We paid a small fee, bypassing rows of rubber boots and a gazebo with giant empty tortoise shells, two teenage girls wriggling backwards into them, arms and legs akimbo, to pose grinning for photos. And now we were on the lava pathway, scanning the trailside for tortoises.

The muddy trail at El Chato.
Quickly the manicured lava rock trail gave way to a muddy mess. At first, we attempted to pick our way around the worst parts, veering into the vegetation and balancing across wooden planks, but after a few minutes we surrendered to the omnipresent mud. I was in sandals, and knew they’d hose off with little trouble. I squished and slurped and slogged my way down the trail, stopping occasionally to photograph flowers and bugs and the tangled jungle landscape.

The guide called to us in Spanish: he had spotted a huge tortoise to the left of the trail. We veered off the path into the weeds, gasping and laughing in amazement. The tortoise was munching on plants, an overturned bathtub with legs, so big it was hard to believe. 

We observed the 2-meter rule, squelching our impulses to get closer, to touch it. Here, the ground was not as muddy, but we quickly found ourselves covered with biting ants. They found their way beneath the straps of my sandals, and bidding our new friend goodbye, we beat a hasty retreat.

The tortoises are drawn to the springs for the water and vegetation.
Working our way down the muddy trail again, mud sucking at our feet, we paused for poor Lydia, who blew out her flip-flop in the muck. Once again we were singing, this time making up new mud- and tortoise-themed lyrics to Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville.” Small yellow birds flitted in the bushes along the trail, and an unseen bird made a loud monkey-like call somewhere off in the distance.

Coming upon a large muddy spring, we spotted a medium-sized tortoise lazing in the sun. It was turned toward us, its head barely breaking the surface, large dome of its shell rising above the water. Dragonflies buzzed among the reeds, winged scarlet rubies darting and diving. From up ahead, the guide called to us once again: “¡Tortuga grande! ¡Ven aquí!” Julye had ventured up ahead with him, and was already on the other side of the spring, filming it as it plowed its way through a large patch of grass.

I squelched my way in their direction, raising my camera to get a photo of Julye filming the tortoise from across the water,  when suddenly I found the world shifting beneath me, and I fell with a splat, flat on my bottom in the mud. Thankfully, my instincts had kept my camera out of it as I fell, but now I found myself deep within a dilemma: with my legs splayed out in front of me, I had no way to get up without sacrificing my camera hand to the mud, or swinging one of my legs underneath me, getting even dirtier in the process. I laughed heartily along with my companions at my predicament, and waited as Emil and our guide worked their way back to me to help me out.

The guide took my camera, and Emil both of my hands, propping his feet against mine to help me up. I coated his arms with mud, struggling to get a good grasp before I let him pull, afraid I would yank him down into the muck alongside me. He extracted me successfully, and I made my way to the edge of the spring, doing my best to wash my hands and arms of the mud that coated them. They could only get so clean in the murky water, and I now used the front of my shorts to wipe my hands as clean as I could get them. The guide came over to deliver my camera, handing me two tiny napkins to clean up. I smiled at their uselessness but thanked him graciously.

I posed quite happily for the obligatory photos of my muddied bottom, knowing it would make a great story. And I wasn’t hurt, not even my pride. When the group started improvising new lyrics to our new “Tortugaville” song to celebrate my venture into the muck, I joined right in.

Working my way (carefully) around the edge of the spring to where Julye stood filming, I shook my head and sighed again with wonder at the size of this creature. He was lunging lustily at the grass, mouth gaping wide, just mowing it down with great gusto. We nicknamed him “Hungry Harry,” a nod to Lonesome George, so celebrated here on the islands.

We could hear Harry breathing, a great hissing sigh that made me think of steam engines and dragons. His movement was painfully pendulous. Great step left, great step right, heave forward, settle into the muck, sigh. This tortoise was enormous, even bigger than the first one, a VW beetle with a snakelike neck and a prodigious appetite.

He made tremendous gulping noises as he assaulted the grass. We stayed with him for several minutes, filming and snapping, laughing and singing and joking, retreating as he advanced. A pintail duck landed with a splash in the water behind him, sifting through the muddy water. 

The guide beckoned us onward, and reluctantly, we left Hungry Harry behind. We spotted two more tortoises on our way back to the parking lot. Once again on the lava pathway, I suddenly felt taller: small chunks of lava rock embedded themselves in the mud caked to my sandals. Laughing, we made an assessment of our muddy feet. “Hashtag: shoulda got the boots,” Emil cracked.

The one-mile trail to Tortuga Bay.
Driving back into town, the guide told us that there are about 1,000 tortoises that call this area home, but that this time of year, they are in the process of migrating toward the coast and back to lay their eggs. It’s warmer down there, he explained, and it takes them about a month in each direction. July and August are the best months to see them, he said, once they have returned to the preserve. We marveled at the tremendous effort it must take to complete this annual migration, as the driver swerved to avoid some chickens wandering in the street.

He dropped us at the end of a road at the edge of town, at the entrance to the pathway that leads to Tortuga Bay. Our next adventure promised us a white sand beach and marine iguanas. It started with a set of steep stairs carved into the rock and paved with the ubiquitous stones cut from lava. A small park office squatted at the top, where we registered with park officials and studied the map. 

Lava lizard (Microlophus indefatigabilis)
From there, a very long lava stone pathway wound through the native forest, cactus and vines and trees flanking each side. Brightly colored lava lizards scurried along the wall, doing push-ups and eyeballing us warily. Birds flitted in the branches above us, a pair of them advancing curiously as we stopped to photograph them. A small lizard darted between me and the approaching bird, and the bird stopped, cocked its head, and took a small hop forward. We held our breath. Suddenly, the bird lunged forward at the lizard, but it darted away just in time, fleeing across the pathway and up and over the opposite wall. The bird pursued, but the lizard scrambled into the thorny underbrush. Defeated, the bird fluttered back over to us and its companion. We consoled it on its loss and continued on our way.
The incredibly fine white sand and clear blue waters of Tortuga Bay.

After a while, we could hear the crashing of the surf. And after what seemed like another eternity, we finally caught a glimpse of the aquamarine water, gleaming through a gap in the trees.

Emerging onto the fine white sand, we stretched and shed our backpacks, shoes, and electronic devices. Finding other members of the Corps of Exploration, we left our things up high on the dry sand and twining plants that comprised the leading edge of the dunes (other members of our party had learned the hard way just the day before that large waves can sweep the beach with great ferocity on the verge of the incoming tide). 

Mangroves at the point.
Although I had taken more than a little delight at the laughs and smiles of various strangers we’d encountered, who obviously harbored great curiosity regarding my muddied legs and backside, I gratefully plunged into the surf with all my clothes on. Scrubbing my bottom with both hands in the salt water, I got most of the clumps off, but lost hope that I’d get my shorts anything close to clean without soap and a good scrubbing. I resigned myself to more smiles and curious nods on the walk back to town.

Julye and I dried off a bit, gathered up our gear, and trudged down the expanse of fine white sand toward the point where the marine iguanas preferred to sunbathe. It was rough going, and Julye’s check of her step counter revealed that we were already at 15,000 steps for the day.

The tide was coming in, concerning us a bit about the long walk back, but we persisted onward. Approaching the point, we saw our first iguanas, sprawled all black and lumpy on the fine white sand. A large hermit crab, seeing us approach, skittered nervously away, climbing over the back of a large iguana in its panic. The lizard only cracked one sleepy eye at the intrusion.

Clumps of mangroves clung to the shoreline on the left, and to the right, a cactus forest decorated the point. Clumps of dozing iguanas lay heaped like puppies beneath the spreading limbs of the mangroves. Out on the point, clusters of dozing iguanas lay in tangled piles on the black volcanic rocks. The white sand gave way to a jumble of shells and large rounded urchin spines; larger lava boulders formed a rough border that prevented further passage out onto the rocks.

Behind us, the sun sank lower in the sky, casting a warm golden glow on the sleeping iguanas. A park naturalist walked over and told us the park would be closing, and we would have to leave now. Reluctantly, we turned and headed back down the beach, pausing occasionally to snap a few more photos, and breathing a sigh of relief when we made it back to the head of the trail without getting swept away by the incoming tide.

The rest of our party had already headed back into town, and the long walk back down the lava stone pathway was made quicker with jokes and songs and impressions of the native fauna talking to us in funny accents. We paused again at the park station near the entrance, buying some frozen fruit pops that made the descent down the steep stone stairs and the walk into town a million times more pleasant. 

We found other members of our group eating dinner, and joined them, swapping stories of the day. Veteran members of the group shared tales of past expeditions, marine exploits and triumphs, discussions of science and technology and history. A steady stream of people flowed past us on the sidewalk, and yet another parade marched by in the street, this one silent and only made of about three dozen barefoot girls dressed in native garb, smiling and swishing their skirts in unison.

Marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) and Sally Lightfoot crabs (

Grapsus grapsus)

Finishing our dinner, some splintered off to head back to the ship, and Julye and I stayed behind for more shopping. Once all our required purchases had been made, we also found our way back to the ship, hopping aboard a bright yellow water taxi, this one piloted by a very distracted young man who thrice paused to take a phone call, idling the motor as we bobbed on the black and choppy water.  Exhausted, I ached for a long deep drink of water, a shower, and bed. I held my tongue and gazed across the surging water toward the twinkling lights of the port.

Two pelicans awaited our arrival at the ship. After a scary moment making the transfer from water taxi to the ship, we were finally back aboard the Nautilus, and gathered once again with some comrades in the mess, laughing and swapping jokes and movie quotes before I surrendered to the call of the shower.

The day was capped with more fishing sea lions off the side of the ship, now joined by an athletic pelican. Up on deck, a brown and gray moth with a body as long as my thumb buzzed around the lights. Capturing it gently in my hand, I noticed its body and underwings were streaked with pink. Its eyes gleamed red in the light emanating through the window to the mess hall.

I had come to the Galapagos with very low expectations regarding time spent ashore. Today and yesterday had far exceeded my greatest hopes. I have used the word “magical” many times over the past several days. But it is insufficient to describe this place. There must be something better, something stronger, to describe it. I have not discovered that term yet.

Skip to the next blog post by Melissa: World Oceans Day

This is part of a multi-part series . Melissa Baffa, Vice President of Program and Volunteer Services for GSCCC, is part of the Corps of Exploration aboard the E/V Nautilus this year on the adventure of a lifetime. This blog series will chronicle her dive into the Unknown.

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