Penguins make everything better

We’re getting closer to the end of our stay in the Galapagos but there are still so many things we want to do before we leave. We need to finish various boat jobs before our next stint at sea. It will be the longest single journey at sea that Bob has ever done (at least since Alex has owned the boat) and we need to make sure she is well prepared. On top of that, I’m keen to get the analysis work done for my voluntary work at the Research Station. There’s also one island left to visit – Isabela, which is the final destination we’re allowed to go to as a cruising yacht. It’s the largest island in the archipelago and was originally formed from lava flows of six major and numerous minor volcanoes that have uplifted and joined over millions of years. Some of the volcanoes are still intermittently active. We’ve heard fantastic things about Isabela from other sailors and it had always been on the top of our list of places to visit whilst we’re here. So we decided to set sail for Isabela last Sunday and spend some time exploring the island we’ve heard so much about. It’s much more tranquil, less built up than Santa Cruz and San Cristobal and is home to the infamous Galapagos penguin and Greater flamingo – both endemic to Galapagos.

After a 10 hour sail through the night, we arrived at about midday last Sunday (23rd May). Although we had absolutely no wind for the sail and motored the whole way, the weather was glorious when we arrived. The wind was calm, not a cloud in the sky and the water was shallow and perfectly clear. A flock of probably 200 blue-footed boobies were torpedo diving for small fish schooling under the surface. They would fly in a group, all mimicking the path of the school of fish underneath them before torpedo diving in unison into the water. As we were setting anchor, Alex was concerned that there was a major problem with the windless because it appeared to be jammed and not letting out any chain. Whilst attempting to release the anchor chain by hand and loudly cursing the windless in the process, a curious penguin swam right up to us at the bow of the boat to see what was going on. “PENGUIN!”, Alex shouted whilst excitedly pointing at the water. They are so incredibly cute and I know that my brother have loved to see one (penguins being his favourite animal)! We stared at it for a few minutes before laughing at how amazing it was to see a penguin within 5 minutes of arriving in port, before we’d even finished setting anchor. Suddenly, the windless didn’t seem to be nearly as big a problem and we’d first thought.

One of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had came a few days later when we decided to go for a snorkel off the boat just as the large flock of boobies started their daily fish hunt. It was an absolutely incredible experience to be in the water whilst hundreds of birds were torpedo diving all around us hunting for fish. They are so precise that there was no worry of being impaled by their beaks should they miss and accidently hit us. Still, it’s easy to forget that fact when a hundred sharp beaks are plummeting rapidly from the skies towards you, but the thrill of it all was absolutely exhilarating. All the birds would surface at the same time and take off right over our heads for another round – I could have touched them if I simply held out my hand. At the same time two adult sea lions were also fishing nearby. They would mimic each other’s swimming patterns and as we viewed them from the surface, they looked like synchronised swimmers – mirroring each other’s actions. They were good fun to play with and as Alex tried to imitate their movements, they would come closer to us to investigate what we were doing. Another occasion I had a green turtle swim right up to my face, it hovered in front of me looking at me for a good minute before slowly swimming away and going about its business. The wildlife here is just incredible and I would recommend a visit for anyone with an enthusiasm for nature, there’s nowhere else in the world quite like it.

We’ve also been for a walk to see some of the wild greater flamingos in a brackish lagoons just outside the town which was very nice. There are some really nice walks here which take you right through opuntia arid zones, salt lakes, lagoons and give you the chance to see lots of interesting wildlife in some really unusual habitats. There’s also a fantastic giant tortoise breeding centre here with what appears to be thousands of tortoises, all at different stages of development and a really good education centre.

Of course no place can be 100% perfect and Isabela has its downfalls just like anywhere else. The lack of development means that finding things you need is difficult and the internet connection is practically non-existent – so I might have to wait until we’re back in Santa Cruz before I post this (which I have ended up doing so apologies it’s 2 weeks late!). Also, there seems to be a problem of theft from small dinghies at the small floating dock outside of the town. Although overlooked by a relatively busy pier, anything that is not locked down to the boat is at risk from being stolen. Apparently, even outboard engines have been stolen if not locked down. We have been the unfortunate victim of the theft here too, but luckily just an inexpensive metal clip that was attached to the end of a line that was cut away. It was a subtle reminder that you can find not-so-nice people even in the nicest places. We’ll definitely be locking everything down from now on!

Well, I think it’s time to do something productive. Today’s to-do-list mainly consists of doing some jobs up the mast. I’ll hoist Alex up on some lines while he does the work that needs doing, if he’s nice, I might even let him back down again….

Blue-footed boobies diving in unison into the water

Blue-footed boobies diving in unison into the water

IMG_0628

Greater flamingo seen during a hike we did just outside of town

Greater flamingo seen during a hike we did just outside of town

Tiny baby tortoises at the breeding centre in Isable

Tiny baby tortoises at the breeding centre in Isable

 The wall of tears - the final destination of our bike ride. The wall was built by prisoners in the penal colony during the mid 1900s. It's been left as a reminder of the horrible suffering endured in the past. Many of the people now in Isabela are descendants from the penal colony.


The wall of tears – the final destination of our bike ride. The wall was built by prisoners in the penal colony during the mid 1900s. It’s been left as a reminder of the horrible suffering endured in the past. Many of the people now in Isabela are descendants from the penal colony.

Cephalopod-Related Toilet Problems

Probably not the sort of the thing you see every day. It’s incredible the sorts of problems that cease to amaze you once you’ve been living on a boat for a little while:

So, I was pumping away the other day flushing the head when I felt some resistance. It cleared (thankfully) but then the water coming in turned grey/black. I pumped some more, it cleared, I shrugged and thought nothing more of it.

Two days later I woke up and went for a pee. As soon as I opened the door to the head compartment I was affronted by a very obnoxious odour. ‘One of us must have forgotten to flush properly’ I thought, peed, and pumped away vigorously thinking the whole thing was done and sorted. Not so. Sarah went in there a couple of minutes later and the smell was back. I attempted to find the source.
Following vigorous pumping, the source was kind enough to reveal itself. Or a bit of itself anyway. Two long, limp tentacles extended down into the bowl. Attempts to extract the deceased owner failed. It would have to come out the other way……….
We detached the intake hose and filled the bowl in the hope that the water would run in reverse and flush it out. No luck. After some brief discussion, a plan was formed. One of those plans that Baldrick might have described as being fox-like in the magnitude of it’s cunning. We employed the services of a wet/dry vacuum cleaner. Strategically-placed kitchen towel around the inside edge of the bowel maximised suction in the area that our resident was occupying. The ‘thunk’ as it was sucked through the hose and into the vacuum cleaner was wonderfully satisfying.
Upon close inspection of the contents of the vacuum cleaner, it appeared that a small octopus had taken up residence in the inlet hose for the head. It didn’t turn out well for either the octopus or us but I feel the octopus received the worst end of the stick. Imagine being happily settled in your new home only to be sucked up into someone’s toilet!
We had a good chortle about it afterwards. I’m sure there must be a website somewhere where one can type in a problem they are having with their toilet and an ‘online plumber’ will respond with a solution to the symptoms they are experiencing. I’m sorely tempted to find it if such a thing exists and see what their advice to ‘octopus stuck in flushing system’ might be Smiling face with smiling eyes.
The moment when the situation began to reveal itself:
Tenticly Toilet
The cunning Plan:
low_toilet hoover
The unfortunate (for the octopus) result:
Head Octopus in Vacuum

Bumper Boats

Sarah has recently expressed concerns that she doesn’t think she is learning all this nautical mumbo jumbo fast enough. I disagree wholeheartedly, and I think the events of two nights ago demonstrate this beautifully.

It was about midnight and we’d just settled in for a lovely night of blissful unconsciousness when our still semi-conscious minds were dragged rudely back to the world by the sound of a boat letting go it’s anchor at a range that sounded like it could well have been into our own bunk.

“That sounds very close”, said Sarah.

“It does indeed”, I agreed.

At this point Sarah performed a meerkat manoeuvre and stuck her head out through the forward hatch to take a look. A local dive charter boat was dropping their anchor about 20 feet off our port beam.

“But if the wind comes around to the North, won’t they hit us?”, said Sarah.

“Yup”, said I.

At this juncture I considered it prudent to have a delicate word with the captain of the dive boat and, without getting too agitated, try to explain that in my opinion his choice of anchoring spot was less than ideal. I went up on deck to the cockpit and called out to one of their tenders.

“Senor! Habla Ingles?”, was my first enquiry, which was met with a vague sound which suggested not.

“Tengo dos anclas” (I have two anchors), “Uno aqui y uno ayi” (one here (pointing to the bow) and one there (pointing to the stern))*.

“Si! Es bueno!”(Yes! It’s fine!), came back from the guy in the boat.

In my opinion it was not fine, but I wasn’t going to make a scene and make the locals angry, so I waited a few minutes to see if they might re-consider. If they set a stern anchor like us, then all would be well and there was no cause for concern. Perhaps they were planning to do so.

A few minutes past and it appeared that they had finished with whatever they were doing. It couldn’t really be described as anchoring. As Sarah pointed out,

“But they haven’t let out any scope at all! And they haven’t even set the anchor, they’ve just dumped it on the bottom with the chain in a pile! Did it even reach the bottom?!”

I decided to nip over and have a chat, this time with someone a little more willing and able to appreciate my concerns. El Capitan. Fortunately he spoke a little English. With his bad English and my bad Spanish I managed to convey my concerns such that he was aware of them. I explained that since we had two anchors out we would not move with the wind. I also pointed out that he was very close to us (there was absolutely no need for this – the anchorage was almost empty and there was plenty of room elsewhere). He dismissed my concerns.

“I be here. I watch.” he said.

I felt there wasn’t much more I could do. Maybe I was wrong (I often am) and my concerns were unfounded. After all, this guy does this every day doesn’t he?

I returned to Bob, told Sarah what had transpired and we went to sleep. Not for long. There was a noise. One becomes incredibly sensitive to odd noises when living on a boat. It’s really quite phenomenal. One has no trouble at all sleeping while the boat is moving up and down 6 feet every two seconds, heeled over 15 degrees and there are all manner of things banging around, wind whistling through the rigging, a block on deck banging, lines creaking and sundry items in the cabin throwing themselves from one side of a locker to the other every time the boat rolls. But the minute there is a sound that does not belong, however faint it may be, the music changes and one wakes with surprising sprightliness to determine the cause of the change, for change at sea (or even in an anchorage as in this case) can have dire consequences if one is unprepared (such as when asleep!).

In this case, the noise was a light thump. I was on deck sharpish, and all manner of ‘not wanting to piss-off the locals’ went out of the window. I picked up the nearest hard object (a paddle; plastic unfortunately) and whacked the hull of the charter boat with it repeatedly, while shouting loudly and angrily in an attempt to garner the attention of the skipper. No luck. The skipper was on shore somewhere having a few drinks (not ‘watching’ as he had promised), but I did succeed in raising one of his minions, who immediately jumped into their workboat and, having already untied it, tried in vain to start it’s engine while drifting off into the night. Sarah and I had limited sympathy for him. We succeeded in pushing the boat away from us to avoid further damage to Bob and then stood and scowled at the man while he tried all sorts of things to get it to work.

Unfortunately, it did work in the end. I had rather hoped that we might be required to save him, but alas. With his workboat he pushed the charter boat away from Bob and then made a phone call to ‘El Capitan’. By this point it was about 2am. I had a rum and watched. ‘El Capitan’ took a while. Once he turned up, they did what they should have done in the first place and set a stern anchor, then went back to shore and left the minion on his own again. Bob sustained superficial scrapes to the gelcoat, plus a scrape through the bottom paint and barrier coat beneath the waterline, but no structural damage. No apology. No explanation (there couldn’t have been one anyway) and no attempt to reconcile anything with us. I learned an unfortunate lesson though, and that was probably worth a scrape or two. Next time, be more persuasive.

*Here in Santa Cruz the wind dies out at night, but the swells continue to come in through the mouth of the harbour and into the anchorage. A monohull sailboat rolls abominably from side to side if broad-side to a swell when at anchor, so we had set a secondary anchor off the stern in order to keep Bob facing the mouth of the bay (and into the swells) at all times. This means that the boat does not move with the wind (if there is any) but instead stays in exactly the same spot at all times. This is unlike a boat which is anchored only from the bow, which moves around with the wind always facing into it.

Here is a picture of our not-so-friendly neighbour. Photo courtesy of their website:

Our Not-So-Friendly Neighbour

We’re still here

  We’re back in Santa Cruz and a great deal has happened since my last blog post. I completed my diving course back in San Cristobal and I’m now a fully qualified PADI Open Water diver, woohoo! Although I must admit, it wasn’t without complications and my confidence as a diver isn’t quite at the level it should be. The course itself turned out to be very interesting indeed! The instructor ended up being a bit of a cowboy and didn’t teach me all of the skills I should have learned. Out of those I did learn, most were only repeated once and I never got chance to practice and really get a grip with those skills I struggled with. Another unfortunate event happened after the last dive of the course when the instructor decided to make an advance on me whilst we were waiting for the taxi to pick us up. Of course the first person I told was Alex and he made sure I was never alone with him again. I suspect it was pretty obvious to my instructor the reason Alex was sat right next to me during my theory lessons the next day. Overall it was quite amusing really, if a bit awkward, but I learnt a lot in the end. The Galapagos Islands really are an amazing place to dive and I got to see some amazing wildlife including sting rays, golden rays, green turtles, sand eels, moray eels, giant puffer fish and at one point I had a sea lion pup playing with my fins – pretty amazing! Also, later on in Santa Cruz we bumped into some friends of ours. Apolline (the French girl I mentioned in some of my previous posts) and Marc (who is the captain of a boat called Pilas, who Christian [the Italian guy who came with us through the canal] was on). Incidentally, due to various office politics, Apolline and Christian switched boats so now she is with Marc on Pilas and Christian moved to the French boat. Aaaanyway…. Apolline is also a diving instructor so she took me for a dive at the anchorage so I could practice some of the skills I felt less confident with – it helped a great deal. There is also a random boat out there somewhere in the world with pictures of flowers, fish, stars and Apollines phone number sketched into the growth on their hull. Before we left for Santa Cruz we spent some time being proper tourists in San Cristobal and took a taxi to see some of the sites. El Junco

The lagoon at El Junco - the largest fresh water reservoir in the archipelago

The lagoon at El Junco – the largest fresh water reservoir in the archipelago

Stunning view of a lake at El Junco

Stunning view of a lake at El Junco

Greater frigate bird (female) - seen during our walk at El Junco

Greater frigate bird (female) – seen during our walk at El Junco

Male small ground finch - seen during our walk at El Junco

Male small ground finch – seen during our walk at El Junco

Female small ground finch - seen during our walk at El Junco

Female small ground finch – seen during our walk at El Junco

El Ceibo

The largest Ceibo tree in the world located in San Cristobal with an amazing tree house built in it. THe tree house come fully equipped with a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom (with working toilet and shower) and a balcony.

The largest Ceibo tree in the world located in San Cristobal with an amazing tree house built in it. The tree house come fully equipped with a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom (with working toilet and shower) and a balcony.

Oh - and you're very own emergence exit in the form of a fireman's pole

Oh – and you’re very own emergence exit in the form of a fireman’s pole

A good view of the tree from below, you can see Alex climbing it and the tree house up high

A good view of the tree from below, you can see Alex climbing it and the tree house up high

A trek near Playa Mann

A view overlooking the coast of San Cristobal during our trek from Playa Mann

A view overlooking the coast of San Cristobal during our trek from Playa Mann

View of the beach and lighthouse from the beach at dusk

View of the beach and lighthouse at dusk

The sail back to Santa Cruz

I was trying to play around with some long exposure shots during the sail - I quite like how this one turned out

I was trying to play around with some long exposure shots during the sail – I quite like how this one turned out, despite the messy cockpit

Back in Santa Cruz we spent a lot of time with Apolline, Marc and the rest of their crew, as well as making some local friends. As Marc and his crew can all speak Spanish it was easy for them to make friends here and therefore, easy for us to poach them 🙂 Although now they have left the Galapagos Islands, communication with the locals is a little harder. Pilas set sail for the Marquesas Islands a few days ago and although we are heading for Pitcairn and the Gambia Islands before Marquesas, Marc is keen to take his time so I hope we’ll see them again in a few months.

Pilas and her crew leaving for Marquesas

Pilas and her crew leaving for Marquesas

The trials of being 32 years old are taking their toll on Alex already and a few weeks ago he badly injured his neck simply by turning over in bed and he could barely move for two days. In an effort to compensate for the reduced movement in his neck, he overused the muscles in his back and sure enough a week later he was paralysed once again. On the plus side – I’ve become very strong over the past few weeks as it’s been my job to do all the rowing in the dinghy, most of the manual labour on the boat, carrying bags and lifting all the heavy things which Alex would normally do. I’ve even become a seasoned mechanic and did a lot of work on the main engine whilst Alex was incapacitated, which seems to have more-or-less fixed the leak problem. I say ‘more-or-less’ because it still leaks a little, but the leak has now reduced from a continuous dribble of liquid leaking about a pint of oil every 6 hours to just 1 or 2 drops per minute. We also have a spare attachment so if the leak gets worse again we have something else we can replace it with. In fact, the entire engine has had a bit of an overhaul recently with an oil change, new throttle cable, new belt and a serviced fuel filter so it should (hopefully) now be much happier. Unfortunately, the mechanic supplies in the Galapagos are very limited and we’ve had to come up with some innovative solutions to get what we need. This is less than ideal because jobs are taking much more time than they normally would, cost more money and in some cases, not fully fixing the problem. Still, we’ve done all we can and hopefully the engine will run smoothly from now on. Alex’s back and neck now seem to be 95% better, largely thanks to the skills of a Thai masseuse whose services were expensive, but were worth every penny given that Alex is no longer paralyzed! The timing has worked out well because I’ll soon be starting some volunteering with the Charles Darwin Research Station and Alex can occupy himself once again with boat work, although he’s banned from doing anything too strenuous for a while! I met Gustavo, a scientist at the research station, to discuss how I might be able to help them. He coordinates a really interesting project doing population monitoring of three native or endemic bird species (Galapagos penguin, flightless cormorant and waved albatross), and the project has many parallels to ones I’ve been involved with in the past. He uses capture-mark-recapture techniques where he marks the species with PIT tags (similar to the tags used in your pet cats and dogs) to individually identify them. He also takes measurements such as weight, sex, breeding condition, heart rate, body measurements and takes blood samples for genetic testing and parasite monitoring. He is mainly looking to see how the population changes over time and also between different islands where some are pristine with little human influence and others are affected by the introduction of pest species. This should give some really useful information on how pest species are affecting the local wildlife, and over time, the effects of climate change. This in turn can be used to advise on intervention measures which will best enable the native wildlife to thrive. He has some surplus data from his project where he has collected records of all the vertebrate species encountered on the surveys. It is this data that he wants me to have a look at and do some statistical analysis on. If it all goes well, he is keen to share more data with me so we can analyse the effects of other variables. This is a really good project for me because I’m one of those strange people who really enjoys statistics. I find the project incredibly interesting, I think it’s nice to do something which I’m actually good at and also be part of a worthwhile cause. I can do the work from anywhere so I can continue to volunteer even after I leave Galapagos. Also, Gustavo is happy to list me as one of the authors of the papers he publishes as a result of the work – which is very very cool! I hope I get chance to do some field work with them before I leave as well, but if not, I’ve got a foot through the door and maybe it will lead to more opportunities in the future. One final thing to note, unfortunately my beautiful hot pink IPhone is no more. It went in the water during a dubious dinghy ride to shore a few weeks ago when a wave caught us by surprise and flipped us over. Apologies if anyone has tried to contact me via WhatsApp as I won’t have received those messages. If anyone wants to get in touch please email me or send a Facebook message and I’ll pick it up when I’m next online. I think that covers just about everything… other than crabs (in the kitchen sink), an octopus in the toilet and a collision with a dive boat…