National Geographic Endeavour makes a rare visit to Urbina Bay

Isabela Island from the Endeavour en route to Urbina Bay

Galapagos Journey Log: Day 4

Urbina Bay Hikes, The Long and The Short of Them

Lindblad’s National Geographic Endeavour will spend the entire day at Isabela, largest island in the Galapagos Archipelago. Less than a decade ago, this island was overrun with feral goats and pigs brought in by settlers. Their continued destruction of the endemic flora and fauna threatened the survival of the land iguanas and giant tortoises, prompting the National Park Service to undertake the world’s largest ever ecosystem restoration mission in a protected area.

Known as Project Isabela, the eradication actually involved eliminating the goat populations not only on Isabel but also Santiago and Pinta Islands. On northern Isabela alone, the goat population numbered 100,000 animals when the eradication project began in 1997. It was a costly, high-tech endeavor that included using helicopters for aerial hunting and GPS tracking with radio collars placed on sterilized “Judas goats” released on the islands to seek and pinpoint any existing herds of feral goats. The project was a complete success, ending in 2005. Land iguanas and giant tortoises are no longer threatened with extinction.

Linda’s Hike: Our day begins at Urbina Bay (also known as Urvina Bay) on the western shore of Isabela. This is a famous location where in 1954 almost one square mile (1.5 km) of sea bottom including a section of coral reef was instantly lifted 15 feet (4 meters) above water by a geological uplift. Records indicate that sharks, lobsters and fish were left on land — some even found in the trees — by local fishermen who noticed the strong stench coming from the area. Uplifts occur in the Galapagos frequently, but this is one of the most dramatic ever witnessed. Almost 60 years later, ocean bottom has blended with the landscape and everything looks normal, but I can’t help but wonder if another sudden uplifting could be on the calendar for today.

I quickly remove that thought and start feeling excited about the possibility of seeing huge tortoises in the wild, our first chance for such an encounter. The Endeavour is offering two morning hikes, a longer one along the beach over large boulders that goes inland and covers almost two miles (3 km). A shorter, half-mile version covers only the inland portion.

I choose the shorter walk because climbing doesn’t over boulders doesn’t seem like the thing to do since I have a touch of motion sickness. It’s not that the Endeavour rocks and rolls that much; I have an inner ear problem that makes me especially susceptible to the motion of a rough Zodiac ride. The high waves yesterday at Isabela were too much like a roller-coaster ride and I’m still recovering..

The long hikers leave at 8 a.m. and we follow at 8:30. As the departure times grow closer, I become hesitant about doing the short walk because I don’t want to miss any great photo opportunity but the guides have assured me we will see the same wildlife.

Galapagos bottlenose dolphins

The Zodiac trip over has an awesome surprise. A group of bottlenose dolphins escort us from the ship to our wet landing site on the beach. Because our hike is short, naturalist Walter has the Zodiac driver follow the dolphins for 15 or 20 minutes. Once on the beach, we are greeted by five juvenile Galapagos hawks. One hawk tries to tear open a bright yellow mesh dive bag that a hiker left on the beach. What a terrific photo opportunity! I am thrilled with my short hike decision so far.

Galapagos hawk trying to figure out the gear bag

Ambitious Galapagos hawk trying to figure out how to fly off with gear bag

As we depart the beach and head inland, we split into different groups (a maximum of 16 persons in a group). My naturalist today is Jeffo again, our guide yesterday on Fernandina Island. The first thing Jeffo shows us is a species of cotton that is, oddly enough, called Darwin’s cotton. Although its an endemic species, it still seems out of place to find something as common and ordinary as cotton in the Galapagos. Closely related to cotton found on the American continent, scientists believe a cotton seed arrived here from South America either blown by the wind, washed in by the sea or dropped by a bird.

Darwin cotton

Jeffo slows down to point out several large iguanas hiding under the trees. It’s a clear day and everything seems to be hiding from the sun. We do spot two giant tortoises: a young one hiding in a hole with only part of its shell visible and a fully grown one sandwiched under thick tree limbs to keep cool.

When we arrive back at the beach, the hawks are still patrolling and taking their photo is easier than taking candy from a baby. Several people in our group brave swimming in the cold water as sea lions watch them from the rocks. I decide to just sit on the beach and watch a couple of eagle rays glide through the water as sea turtles bob their heads above the water for a quick gulp of air. Only in the Galapagos can I have this kind of experience. It’s extremely pleasant.

Land iguanas are large and colorful

The best part of this morning’s walk: we were never rushed in the least; unlike some other hikes. I wonder how Tim is doing photo-wise on the longer walk.

 

The Long, Long, Long Beach Walk

Tim’s Hike: You would think the first groups ashore for the long walk would see more critters than those who come later. Not necessarily so. Our Zodiac is the first to encounter the bottlenose dolphins and they are close, just yards away from us. They are having fun, porpoising first on one side and then the other. No one is sitting in the bow, which would allow photographing them from both sides, so I claim it and begin firing away.

Because we’re on a schedule — our panga drivers need to go back to get the late-comers — we don’t spend much time with the dolphins but go directly to the black sand beach where a Galapagos hawk is sitting high in a tree, watching us. The bird seems as curious about us as we are about it, so I’m able to move as close as I need to for my telephoto lens. Any closer and there would be branches in the way because I would be looking straight up at the hawk.

Having to climb lava rocks deterred many from the long hike

I’m so intent on taking hawk pictures I don’t realize how long we’re spending on the beach to begin our long hike. No one else is taking hawk photos. I’m surprised to notice it’s 8:30 a.m. before we start our walk. Hikers for the short walk already are starting to arrive.

There are two directions for the long hikes to take. From the beach, most hikers going right are starting by walking inland. Ours is one of two groups walking the lava rock beach. I notice that as we’re starting, the only other group to take this direction is very far ahead of us. I’m about to understand why. Our naturalist leader is an excellent naturalist but is a little too obsessed about telling us about everything we see; some of which we’ve seen before.

The steep beach at Urbina Bay

We do see many interesting things on the walk, especially observing clearly the steep incline of the beach where the shoreline was suddenly extended a half-mile due to the uplift. We also come upon a remarkably colored male iguana starting to glow with his mating colors.

However, we are just leaving the beach when we start encountering hikers who have spent almost two hours exploring and photographing the shorter inland area where most of the animals are said to be located. It’s already 10:15 and we’re supposed to be back on board at 11:15. Several of us hope we can pick up the pace if we leave the beach and begin the marked trail inland.

Almost immediately we encounter the cluster of boulder-sized coral heads located several hundred yards from the coastline. Corals generally grow only about an inch a year. Some of the coral boulders are shoulder to chin high or even well above our heads, monuments to decades, if not centuries, of development.

Coral moved inland by the uplift of the sea bottom in 1954

I would like to spend more time at this location but the remainder of the trail beckons, which several of us continue to pioneer for our group. The pathway here is more overgrown than any other we’ve ever traveled, an indication of how infrequently it is used.

 

Some of the Galapagos’ largest land iguanas are supposed to live here and we find many of them resting under tree branches as well as the burrows where they retreat to from the sun. We also encounter a large tortoise that has pushed itself well back into a dense thicket to escape the sun. The only photo angle available: turtle butt.

The inland path emerges at our landing point. Not surprisingly, the other groups left well ahead of us. We finally reboard the Endeavour a half-hour behind schedule.

A story is circulating about how the efficiency of our life jackets. The waves were strong at the landing site and it seems one Zodiac was partially flooded by a wave, which caused all the life jackets resting on the Zodiac’s wooden floor to inflate. That’s a sight I’m sorry I missed.

Giant tortoise: The only photo angle? Turtle butt

The moral of this tale: the naturalist guides can enhance or hinder your shore excursions. All of the other naturalists have been excellent, and I find it surprising to encounter one so out of step with the rest. But that’s easily remedied: I’ll pay more attention to which guide is in charge of a particular Zodiac. And act accordingly.

I certainly saw more than Linda did on her shorter walk; but she enjoyed hers.

 

 

 

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