9/17/19 – 9/24/19
Views of Cotopaxi from the plane. Ecuador topography like crumpled paper. Staring at ridge line roads, dreaming of what we might ride. Quick stopover in Guayaquil. Descending to the islands. Half-moon remnants of cinder cones covered in seagull shit ceaselessly deconstructed by whitecaps. Million year old Isabela in the center of it all. Sixty miles long, shaped like a seahorse, six volcanoes, five active, equator running through it. Scrubby little desert islands, mountains covered in clouds and high jungle, and lonely piles of forgotten rocks that could disappear in the next storm.
Our guide Leo, is an early forties Ecuadorian who speaks good English with that Latin American flair. Clean shoes, smooth cheeks, slick hair. An internal clock precision tuned to 3 minute increments. An anesthesiologist’s attention to detail combined with military authority to ensure that there is never a spec of dirt on board or even a picture frame askew in the highest of seas. The perfect man to be guiding a luxury cruise. We gather in the parlor where he runs his briefing of the coming activities with executive exactitude
“Today is quiet day. We start boat, we go to beautiful little beach where you walk with Iguanas and see pink flamingos. Then you snorkel and we come back to boat for dinner.”
When I saw the overview of the next day I began to wonder if I needed to start putting event times in my calendar.
“Tomorrow we take boat early at six. We go to little island and you see some sea lions playing in water and maybe some sharks too if we’re lucky. You need nice shoes for this. Then we come back and breakfast from eight to eight forty five. We get in dinghy to snorkel at nine, back to the boat at ten fifteen and we go to shore for walk around. Lunch is at noon and we snorkel again at fifteen minutes past the one o’clock.”
Jake, Soph’s younger brother, turned to me and asked if I thought it would be this regimented the whole time. I looked around and noticed we were the youngest on the boat by at least twenty years.
“Old people Jake.”
“What’s that mean?”
Instinctively I went into my old New York Jew lighting salesman raspy voice with thumb and pointer finger pressed together in front of my face and palm upturned for added authority and said, “I wake up at six thirty. I drink my coffee at seven. I shit at seven thirty. Every day, like clockwork.”
His confusion alerted me that my Yankee-centric jokes could be lost on a boat of Brits and Aussies and I was overtaken with a fear that I would not have enough material for the week.
It is hard to overstate how special this place is. We land on a little white sand beach the first evening. After a walk to brackish ponds with pink flamingos and iguanas and little jumping non-native goats we snorkel in the cold Pacific and then watch sunset as shark fins circle the waters just off shore.
In our first hike the next morning we wander through a field of million year old volcanic glass covered in lichen and stare down into canals with fifty reef sharks laying on top of one another. On the edge of the rocks above them is a scrum of a hundred black marine iguanas. Some are sneezing a strange white phlegm from their noses which I later learn is their way of expelling the salt from the seaweed they eat. Seal splashes around the bay, while another waddles down the beach. One sits on display on a throne of stone. Turtle heads poke out of the water then plop back in. Little baby sea lions sleeping in the sand. An older one waddles past me and I step out of the way. Some hide in the mangroves just offshore but you can hear them rustling and shouting as you walk by. A lone stone bench is situated near where our little dinghy landed and a fat cub lays stretched across it.
We went snorkeling over a dozen times in eight days. September brings a cold water current up from the South. You forget that you can’t feel your extremities though as you watch baby seals learning to swim in tide pools and flightless cormorants and penguins diving for fish. The dinghy motors softly through baby volcanic archipelagos and sea lions rolling like logs down slick black pa hoi hoi lava into the sea. Shallow water as the tide goes out and we need to be careful of grinding the motor.
Briny oasis ponds with mullet fish that come in through tubes during high tide. Vulcan Cerro Azul and Sierra Negra in the backdrop like a soup bowl flipped over on a black walnut table.
We snorkel along a sea cliff that continues straight down forty feet below the surface of the water to a blue sandy bottom. Visibility is good, but not great. I grab Soph’s flipper and point to the silhouette of a shark.
“That’s a fucking tiger shark,” she tells me. Contrary to popular belief, most sharks are not dangerous and it is a divers delight to see them. Tiger sharks are an occasional exception. It disappeared from view. Our short range millennial attention spans quickly forgot about this and focused on sting rays and sea urchins and too many turtles foraging bits of food. Then the shark made a pass about thirty feet away. And another at twenty. I stopped and scanned the area. At the edge of my view, about fifty feet away, I could see the shadows of at least seven more. We decided this was sufficient and waved for the boat to pick us up.
Later we hiked to a mirador with a view of three volcanoes; Ecuador, Darwin, and Wolfe. Staring out several miles over a dead lava field was a little mangrove. It was no more than three acres in size. In that little mangrove is a Darwin Finch that exists nowhere else in the world, just in that little patch of trees. There are only about one hundred of them, making it one of the most endangered animals on the planet. Rats, introduced by humans, predate the eggs.
In comparison to a place like the Amazon, the islands have a relatively small variety of wildlife. What makes it all so special is the isolation which causes environmental adaptations seen nowhere else. Large, medium, and small finches. All with different beaks and flight capabilities depending on which part of the islands they thrive which makes some better at cracking nuts and others better at scavenging ground insects. Birds that have given up their ability to fly because of a lack of predators and an abundance of food underwater. Amphibious reptiles that can hold their breath for an hour.
This is all amazing but really not so unexpected unless you were taught that dinosaur bones were an attempt by the devil to divert your focus from the good lord. More incredible is the reaction to hominids by animals in a place that has only had people visiting for less than two centuries and in a strange exception to human nature have generally observed a six foot rule to encounters with wildlife as opposed to the usual strategy of mass killings in the name of agriculture, cookie cutter housing, dinner, and sport.
As Leo walked our group around a short peninsula on Fernandina Island, I found a little spot on an old lava rock to practice The Teachings of John Juan. I watched a sea lion slide into sea. Breaking and yawning every six feet along the way. Three cubs chase each other in circles around a small lava rock island in the middle of a tide pool. A baby chases a lava lizard around the rocks. Fumbling on paddle feet, it is quickly outrun.
Crabs that had scurried at my appearance now wander around me. Dozens of them. A big one chases a little one from its rock. Most appear to be in some kind of procession, wandering in a line across the rocky shore. Slow going. Scrambling down a three foot crevice that is only six inches wide and then climbing back up the other side. It reminds me of how we felt in the Andes of Colombia. They grab little bits of food in their pinchers and stick them in their mouths and make a strange clicking noise as they eat, like a hundred typists clicking away at a hundred and fifty words per minute.
Snorkeling again. Turtles and iguanas munching on sea vegetables. I watch a fish find a little crab in its home. Casually picking it up in its mouth and carrying it to the doorstep and gently setting it down on a flat bit of coral. Another nibbles at an octopus which changes from a light blue camouflage with the sand to red and purple as a warning before squirting a bit of ink and darting away.
Back on board we can see hammerheads, sunfish, and fifteen foot manta rays circling the boat. Soph jumps in like a little girl hoping to see them. I direct her from the top deck, but they all dive from view.
We take a dinghy ride along some cliffs and into a cave to see nests of Nasca and Blue Footed Boobies.
“Many people they love boobies. And here in Ecuador we love boobies too,” exclaims Leo. The Ecuadorians wear balaclavas at sea to protect from the sun. Leo’s was covered in little images of old bearded Darwin with the caption “Adapt to change,” below. You can see striations in the cliff sides where lava has pushed up against sedimentary rock formed by layers of ash. Occasionally there are dark veins of volcanic glass several inches to several feet in width that have pushed straight up through the rock during eruptions. Snorkeling along those same cliffs we saw a large Galapagos shark which was chased away by a sea lion.
Along Isla Santiago we pass Praying Man Rock, Pig Rock, Tortoise Rock, other rocks that resemble things but don’t have names so I christen them Boat Rock and Little Boy Sleeping in the Sand Rock. If you look at Elephant Rock from the right angle, chop the trunk off, and combine it with Bird Wing Rock, you can get Seagull Rock.
Another snorkeling excursion and a sea lion takes interest in the group. Rocketing in and out. Making little displays of spins, tight turns, and other impressive maneuvers. Barely clipping some people with flippers and then stopping and waiting as if there are expectations of reciprocity. Two more giant rays and another shark.
Back on shore for another nature walk. Stepping over yellow iguanas. Red crabs making sweet love by the sea. Seals in caves. Seals basking on rocks like happy legless dogs twisting around on their backs to scratch unreachable spots against volcanic rock. Mockingbirds staring at us from branches just two feet away making their little noises and staring curiously. Sunset turns the sea gold and we watch frigates and pelicans bombing and breaking the surface.
Red sand beaches, white sand beaches, black sand beaches, shell beaches, brown beaches. Galapagos hawk, Galapagos dove, Galapagos mockingbird. All of them with their own little specialties just for this place. Manta rays jumping out of the water and belly flopping back in to knock parasites off their skin. Deep red wine portulaca ground cover spilling down volcanoes like lava. Shameless penguins courting, dancing, and having sex on seaside rocks.
Every time we came out of the water we would find Harold, the bartender, waiting for us with a tray of hot chocolates. Crew members would tear our wet suits off and drape us in towels. Jake dropped a fork over dinner and it was caught before it hit the ground and promptly replaced by a freshly polished utensil before he knew it. Every morning our rooms would be cleaned and fresh towels folded into local fauna such as a penguin wearing Soph’s sunglasses.
We visited a tortoise reserve and watched century old three hundred pound beasts mostly do nothing.
“If you move slow you live long,” Leo said.
Apparently sailors used to keep them on boats for food. They can go months without food or water so it was an easy way to have fresh meat before refrigeration. You can also drink the blood in a pinch. They’re protected now.
I kept thinking about a Frederik Olmsted quote. “Respect this place.” The cost to visit makes it inaccessible to most of the world. This is unfortunate because it is something that we should all see, but fortunate in that hopefully it can be one of the few places where we don’t need to put the massive stamp of tourism with it’s concrete sidewalks and docks for folks that paid too much money to jump out of a little boat into cold water on the beach. Ed Abbey would shut the airport down and require intrepid sojourners to paddle their own boat from the main land. It is hard not to wonder what another fifty years of continued evolution due to isolation will bring along with an inevitable increase in human presence.
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