“Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields…
Watch now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.”
~Mary Oliver, Why I Wake Early
For a moment, it seemed as if we were sailing toward a tropical island. Lucious-looking white sand spilling into turquoise-hued waters came into view as our zodiac approached the landing spot. A hazy sun was casting a warm glow over the balmy morning, creating one of those feelings that you want to grab hold of and soak in for a very long time.
We stepped into the Pacific and onto the shore of Las Bachas Beach, a mile or so stretch of sand and low-lying vegetation along the northern coast of Santa Cruz Island, the second largest in the archipelago. Las Bachas – a local variation of the word barges – was named for the American barges that had been left on the beach at the end of World War II. Remnants of a floating pier are still visible today.
Our walking route took us along the water’s edge, its beautiful white sand creating an easy, undefined trail. Lava rocks, prickly pears and patches of green plants dotted the landscape as well as unusual-looking indentations in the sand where sea turtles had been building their nests. Marine iguanas and Sallie Lightfoot crabs were moving along at opposite ends of the speed spectrum, and a new wildlife sighting for us – two Galápagos flamingos – were wading in a lagoon near the end of the trail.
At the end of the lagoon, we turned back to the beach, retracing our steps along the shore. Las Bachas was a wonderfully peaceful spot, and I would have loved to stay a while longer. But early morning was folding into late, and another island was beckoning.
* * * * *
Daphne Major & Daphne Minor
Before our next landing, the Flora cruised by two volcanic tuff cone islands known as The Daphnes. Daphne Major may only be visited by obtaining a special permit from the Galápagos National Park Service; visitation is not permitted on Daphne Minor. Twice a year for six weeks at a time, scientists set up camp near the top of Daphne Major to study Darwin finches. Princeton evolutionary biology professors emeritus Peter and Rosemary Grant began the study in 1973.
North Seymour Island
Although it lies just north of Las Bachas Beach, visiting North Seymour Island felt as if we had traveled to a completely different world. Our zodiac driver dropped us off at a boulder-strewn slope of a landing that led to the flat plateau-like top of the island where our hike began. Holy stick trees and smooth gray boulders dotted the sandy trail that wove along the coast past sleeping sea lions and dozens of birds darting overhead. Herb and I joked that we were walking into the Hitchcock movie The Birds!
The Great Frigatebirds
We left the sea lions and headed inland, following the trail past more dusty boulders and bare-branched trees. North Seymour is a paradise for nesting birds, and suddenly the distinctive red pouches of the great frigatebird began to appear amid the branches. Frigatebirds are called “pirates of the air” because they lack waterproof feathers and cannot dive for fish, requiring them to snatch meals from expert fishing birds like blue-footed boobies. Male frigatebirds inflate their bright, balloon-like pouches while making loud squawking sounds when they want to attract a mate, and we happened upon one who was putting on quite a show!
I was as fascinated by the frigatebird’s sounds almost as much as his inflated pouch and wingspan. Herb captured this brief video:
Blue-footed boobies build their nests on North Seymour as well. We had seen quite a few along the path, but our naturalist Orlando stopped us in our tracks when we came upon a “changing of the guard” between two parents taking turns sitting on a nest. As the male stood up and stepped away from the nest, the female replaced him and began poking at a small hole in the egg.
The changing of parental egg-sitting duties was a thoughtful choreography, and with our serendipitous timing of happening upon this pair, Herb was able to video the entire ceremony.
Galápagos Land Iguanas
North Seymour Island is home to about 2,500 land iguanas. Although they are not native to the island, they have thrived in this habitat since the early 1930s, when 70 land iguanas were moved here from Baltra Island to provide better conditions for their survival. This species feeds on cactus and other vegetation and seamlessly blends in with the environment.
Our hike on North Seymour had been so engrossing that the Las Bachas Beach walk seemed as if it has happened on another day instead of a few hours earlier. And when it was time to leave, I felt the same way I did when we had circled back to the landing spot on Las Bachas.
It was much too soon to say goodbye.