December 11, 2009
A delicious and bountiful buffet lunch aboard the cozy and luxurious Yacht Isabella II, followed by a strategic siesta time, to avoid the height of the sunshine and heat hours, ready us for a new outing, off to discover new and different features of the Galapagos… We disembark, one more “wet landing”, at a dark, almost black sandy beach.. Yes, by now we have learned that in Galapagos, even the beaches have diverse colors and compositions.. This one is evidently formed by pulverized dark lava particles, a bizarre color and consistence for a beach in the tropics, but of course, in Galapagos, everything is different….. We have landed at Puerto Egas, an uninhabited National Park visitors’ site, formerly the venue of an ill-fated salt extracting venture in the early 1960’s. The cove where we land is part of a large bay, James Bay, which covers most of the northwestern side of James Island…
At the northern tip of the beach, layered piles of volcanic tuff-stone (compacted ash) form some very scenic and capricious shapes, including a most photogenic arch… A shoal of lava rocks, just off shore, provide the venue for several families of Galapagos sea lions to play or snooze… The highlight of this afternoon’s visit is to see the less abundant and slightly shy fur sea lions, the southern cousins of the more abundant and northern borne Galapagos sea lions. A walk along the rocky shoreline, led by Lola, our naturalist guide, teaches us amazing lessons about the life and relationships between the elements, plants and animals of the zone… Along the lava terrain by the coastline we check on numerous small tidal pools, teeming with snails, small goby and blenny fishes, a short appearance of a small octopus scurrying away and scores of brightly red “sally light foot crabs” crawling all over the place… a bit inland, more sea lions attract us with their antics while relatively small sized and quite dark colored marine iguanas lazily crawl over the hot sand, looking for shade…. If that weren’t enough, two American oystercatchers, with their large and pointed red-orange beaks noisily try to distract the intruders away from their nest (the guides know where it is), but of course, they collaborate with the birds in keeping their guests from the birds territory.
Following the trail, we reach a maze of solidified black lava tunnels and caves, carved by the wave action into a fantastic complex of lava grottos, where the ocean swell penetrates deeply and flushes away incessantly, pounding back and forth forever………
This is the realm of the famous Galapagos fur sea lions… They were almost exterminated during the late 19th and early 20th century for their valuable pelt and their numbers are small. However, strict protection, once the islands became the first National Park of Ecuador and later, the first UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, have brought their population to stable figures and can be found at a few selected places, being the James Bay grottos one of the most popular and accessible ones.
Effectively, there they were: laying on the shade on narrow ledges along the grotto complex. Between Lola’s always interesting explanations and our own observation, we could instantly tell the difference with their relatives, the Galapagos sea lions… The fur sea lions originate in the cold Antarctic waters and arrived into Galapagos centuries ago, brought by the cold Humboldt current.
The fur sea lions are smaller in size yet much stockier in complexion than their cousins; their pelt is evidently much thicker and darker in color; the males have a particularly large and thick neck and all of them have bigger and prominent eyes… Their sounds are also different from the noisy barking of the “regular” sea lions…Those on shore simply basked on their rocky ledges, keeping a watchful eye on us, and a mother and pup duo provided us with touching sights of animal tenderness… Those in the water, instead, engaged on a water ballet, swinging along with the wave action and performing synchronized swimming shows, often leaving only one pectoral fin visible above the water, perhaps mocking the sharks… We had experienced one more unique feature, full of natural magic and, as we headed back on board, leaving a flaming sunset behind us, we couldn’t stop thinking of those magnificent yet fragile creatures, the fur sea lions, who gave us moments of joy today….