“Love the earth and sun and the animals.”
~Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Early morning light was washing over the golden grassy landscape of Santiago Island, creating a soft and moody scene. Lava rock in wavy, striated sculptural formations lined the back side of the beach, with low-hanging branches spilling over onto the black sand. Our zodiac stopped near the shore – a “wet landing,” as they call it – requiring a quick roll-up of pant legs and a change of shoes before setting out on our hike.
Santiago is the fourth largest island in the Galápagos. Formed from a shield volcano, it was once a popular stop for sailors and pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries for gathering provisions. Charles Darwin visited Santiago in 1835, referring to it in his writings by its English name, James Island. The area where we were beginning our hike is called Puerto Egas, named for Hector Egas, who once owned a salt mine here.
Our naturalist guide Charley led us from the beach to a dirt trail lined with green and yellow grasses. He stopped a couple of times to point out Puerto Egas’ various plants and talk about its history, but mostly he was eager to introduce us to the birds and animals who live on Santiago. And from Charley’s enthusiastic demeanor, you would have thought it was his first time visiting the island!
The trail veered off toward the Pacific and onto a makeshift pathway of lava rock. Finely ground pieces of lava mixed with large boulders of every imaginable shape, creating a hauntingly beautiful landscape. Within a few minutes, we were treated to our first Galápagos animal sightings.
Sallie Lightfoot Crabs
These brightly colored red and blue crustaceans can run in all four directions, scampering over lava rocks with incredible agility. As the story is told, they are named after a Caribbean dancer. Sallie Lightfoots shed their shells as they grow, and if they lose a leg, they simply grow another.
I didn’t expect to be so captivated by these extremely distinctive-looking creatures, but I found them quite endearing. Endemic to the Galápagos Islands, they are the only sea lizards on the planet. Marine iguanas feed on algae along the shore and underwater and sneeze out salt from the seawater in order to prevent dehydration.
The Birds of Santiago Island
Not to be outdone by their animal counterparts, several avian species also made an appearance on our Puerto Egas hike. Charley pointed out mockingbirds and pelicans, and he literally stopped us in our tracks when he happened upon a female oystercatcher standing over her nest, her feet wrapped securely around two beautiful spotted eggs. The eggs so perfectly blended in with the lava rock surrounding her nest that it seemed this was the only place in the world they could possibly belong.
A Female Lava Lizard Goes Almost Unnoticed
With our hike almost over, we returned to the dirt path and headed back toward the beach. Shortly after passing a grove of prickly pear trees, a woman in our group called out to Charley. She had spotted a small creature clinging to the end of a low-lying branch, and we all gathered around to take a look. A female lava lizard peered out from the branch, perfectly camouflaged except for her bright red and yellow head and chest.
I couldn’t believe how close she was to us, and how she so thoughtfully obliged all of our photo requests before moving on.
* * * * *
Late afternoon found us back on board a zodiac, headed to Rábida Island. We would be cruising close to the island’s rocky shore in search of more wildlife and most especially those infamous birds I had traveled so far to see – the blue-footed boobies.
Rábida is known as the red island, born from lava rich in iron and magnesium. Its colorful red sand beach is surrounded by cliffs and steep slopes of volcanic cinder cones. Originally called Jervis Island, Rábida is one of the smallest in the Galápagos.
Galápagos Sea Lions
Nap time was in full swing when our zodiac cruised near a small colony of Galápagos Sea Lions. This endangered group breeds exclusively in the Galápagos and is considered the most abundant marine mammal on the islands. Draped over rocks above the Rábida shore, they appeared to be as unfazed by human visitors as the wildlife we had encountered earlier in the day.
The Galápagos Hawk
With only about 150 breeding pairs in existence, the Galápagos Hawk is a rare creature. Known for its sharp talons and strong beak, it is the Islands’ major predator. We happened upon this hawk perched high on a rocky cliff, and I was able to zoom in for a closer look before he flew away.
Blue-Footed Boobies at Last!
As our driver slowly maneuvered the zodiac around a bank of low rocks jutting into the water, they came into view. Pairs of sprightly blue feet, gripping the ground in all their fabulous-ness, ready to propel themselves into the air and dive-bomb into the water for food. I couldn’t get enough of these beautiful birds, and although I knew we’d have a chance to see more of them on other islands later in the week, I would have loved to linger a while longer.
Back at the Flora, it was time to get ready for dinner. Another lovely Galápagos sunset was starting to put on a show. And there would be another expedition early in the morning.