Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Penguins and Flamingos...Sea Lions and Tropical Fish

What an unbelievable place! In just two days here – and without getting into the water – we've seen so many unusual animals, it really is a magical place.

We're anchored near the town of Villamil on the island of Isabela. It is the largest of the islands in square feet and kind of looks like a giant sea horse on a chart. The anchorage is small and we are in the company today of four other sailboats (one of which is a large charter "pirate-like" boat that will probably leave tonight or tomorrow.) There is also a majestic older large 150 foot or so motor yacht – also a charter we suspect. There are also lots of smaller dive boats, fishing boats and launches around as well that take out tours. But it is a small cozy anchorage surrounded by a lava rock reef – and the anchorage is in the center. It almost looks like we are in a volcano crater. The good news is that it is very, very calm.

We look out over black lava flows along the shore and see several volcanoes in the distance. This island is known for all their volcanoes. The whole archipelago of Galapagos are rather "young" islands that are volcanic in origin.

Discovered in 1535 by accident (like many island discoveries), the islands had been used in the Seventeenth Century as a restocking stop for pirates and whalers. The islands have been called Isla Encantadas (Bewitched Islands) for many years because the currents that make this such a unique environment tricked navigators and made the islands appear and disappear unpredictably. When Charles Darwin, serving as naturalist on the British ship "Beagle" came here in 1832, the islands had already been depleted of many of the species of whales and fur seals and the famous giant tortoises were being taken by shiploads for food.

Today, the entire island group is a national park supported by the Ecuadoran government, UNESCO, The Charles Darwin Foundation and many other organizations to try to keep this place as special as it is. Everything here is protected. Birds, reptiles and marine mammals are all protected. Many species seen here are unique in the world.

Around our boat there is a constant parade of sea lions that are quite entertaining to watch. We've seen the little penguins rocket through the water by our boat and when we're in the dinghy. A flamingo in flight was spotted and there are dozens of varieties of sea birds with amazing diving abilities. We've watched huge marine iguanas on land – yet to see one swimming by, and seen lots of smaller lizards on our walk to town. Sea turtles that are very large and beautiful eagle rays can be seen in the clear water as we dinghy ashore. The howler monkey calls we loved in Panama have been replaced by the howls of the sea lions.

In order to do just about anything here, you need to go on a tour or hire a naturalist. You can do a few things alone, but we'll decide which of the tours we want to do. There are caves, tunnels, volcanoes and islands to choose from and each offers something unique to see. Plus, we'll probably at least get on a dive once or twice.

The El Nino Current from the north and the Humbolt Current from the south mix and create a Darwin soup of interesting creatures when the converge.

We feel really lucky to be in this unique place and look forward to the next few weeks we are allowed to stay here. We did clear in with the Ecuadoran Navy and Port Captain today and handed over some huge fees for being here (with more to come from the Park and our agent). We'll hopefully be able to take full advantage of our time here to enjoy it.

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