Expedition to Galapagos

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Part Two - Week One

Back to Galapagos
6 Feb. 1999, Saturday

I’m in the air, heading from Washington, D.C. to Quito, Ecuador, and then to Galápagos for another six weeks of filming. I have such mixed emotions about returning, primarily because of the anxiety and sadness related to losing two of our crew members on the last trip. It took me, and I’m sure the entire crew, a long time to come to grips with the tragedy. Of course the up side of the coin is that I am so exited to be going where I love being the most – in, on, or near the sea – and no place I’ve traveled has captivated me from a biologist’s perspective more than Galápagos. So ready or not, here I go...

We’re flying over the Carolina beaches right now. I can see white patches scattered over the surface of the sea. I know they’re white caps and indicate rough water below; yet, from my perspective way up high, the ocean looks completely calm. I suppose this would be an appropriate analogy for many things, e.g., details vs. the "big picture" in science; change on small vs. large time and space scales; even personal issues that might not seem so intense from a distance...

7 Feb. 1999, Sunday

A very long day of traveling yesterday. Our 5 p.m. flight from Miami was canceled, so we came on the 7:15 which didn’t actually leave until 8:15. Didn’t get to the hotel Alameda until after 1:00 a.m. Had a short sleep, and now we’re off to Galápagos. I’m traveling with Producer Dave Clark who also lives in the D.C. area. Al Giddings’ group will arrive in Quito tonight and will travel on Tuesday with all the gear to Galápagos on a military C130! Dave has told me that we will all be returning to Quito from Galápagos on the C-130. Another new experience to look forward to.

8 Feb. 1999 - Monday, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos

Arrived here yesterday afternoon. It is HOT -- much higher temperatures than last summer. A representative from the travel agency, Raoul, met us at the airport in Baltra and helped us make the transition from plane to bus to ferry to his truck. It was all pretty painless, although making sure you get your luggage and yourself on the same overcrowded bus to the ferry is interesting. Stuart MacFarlane and Russell Bowie, IMAX camera support crew, were at the Hotel Galápagos when we arrived. It is wonderful to be reunited with these friends from the summer. They arrived Saturday and are doing camera tests before we leave on the DAPHNE (this is the same tourist vessel that we rented during the summer; the SEWARD JOHNSON will not make the return trip for the reshoot). The four of us had dinner together and later, after Dave had turned in, Stu and Russ and I had a long talk about safety on this trip. As close friends of Noel Archambault, they were very concerned about making the return trip but are encouraged by all the steps Dave has taken regarding safety. We all promised to look out for one another and for any unsafe conditions.

I slept only about five hours last night. Just woke up too early. Went for about a 5.5 mile run at 6:15 a.m. By the time I was finished, it was already very hot outside.

It’s now 8:30 a.m., and I’m sitting on the step outside of my room drinking a cup of coffee and watching... a WEDDING! No joke. A couple is tying the knot right in Jack Nelson’s (hotel owner) patio area on a Monday morning in February in Galápagos! The bride has just walked in full wedding attire from Room #4 down the sidewalk to the patio. Amazing...

As we approached Galápagos in the plane yesterday, I knew I’d made the right decision to come back. I looked out and saw the clear blue/green water, and my heart started pounding. I couldn’t wait to dive in! Dave let me test the satellite phone yesterday with a call to Camille. She’s fine, and I’m really hoping this time that she will make it down.

I’m off in a bit to the CDRS to obtain an extension of our summer scientific collecting permit. The Park Service is now requiring scientists to pay $200 for a permit. Although scientists as a rule hate to cough up this kind of money, I think for Galapagos, it’s a good thing.

After taking care of the permit, I hope to get to the beach and plunge into the ocean. Jack has warned us that the ultraviolet rays are very intense right now and that we should be careful to keep sunscreen on. We are all "winter white," so this is good advice.

Well, the vows are finished... pop!... there goes the champagne.

9 Feb. 1999 Tuesday, Puerto Ayora

After the wedding yesterday morning, I took the first steps in securing my collecting permit. Poly, assistant to Director Bensted-Smith, is a gem. So polite and helpful. I also obtained some full-strength formalin from Adalaide in the marine biology lab. The lab jefe, Rodrigo Bustamente, is away until Thursday, so I was not able to visit with him. Later in the morning, I went with Dave to a farm up in the highlands, where he hopes to film tortoises later in the trip. We only saw one, and it was really dry up there. It does have potential, nevertheless, as owner Steve says there are as many as a dozen tortoises around the area now. There’s also a beautiful Acacia tree in bloom that would be nice to crane down on. Back in town, we had a late (and customarily very long in this town!) lunch of baccalao (grouper) ceviche and pesce con salsa isla – fish with a French style white wine sauce with octopus. We then met with Parque Nacional officials to finish the permit business – for both collecting and for filming. Got to swim late afternoon at the little public beach at the CDRS. The water is cool but not as frigid as I remember it being this summer. Although water temperatures are supposed to be colder now that the effects of El Nino have largely dissipated and upwelling has resumed, the higher air temperatures and the fact that I was in a shallow area probably explain the discrepancy.

Had a great time in the early evening with the wedding party. The whole group (bride, groom, bride’s parents, bride’s sister, photographer) went all over the island during the day in their wedding clothes. Seriously, we ran into them at Steve’s farm in the highlands, and the bride and groom had hiked down into a field in tux and gown to be photographed with a tortoise. They will definitely have some memorable wedding pictures!

The bride and groom, Sarah and Roger, live in Venice Beach, CA, but they’re both originally New Yorkers. Sarah’s sister, Rachael, was along, as were their parents, Joan and Jim Sanders. None of them had ever been to the Galápagos before this! Imagine trying to plan a wedding in a place you’d never seen... and then convincing any of your family to make the trek to join you. What troopers. They had a great time, though, and invited us to join the evening celebration. An Ecuadorian band with dancers entertained them, and the hotel had prepared a feast of lobster, shrimp, fish and a lot of champagne. Later a group of us stopped into the wonderful little salsa bar on the island, the Galapason, for some good music and the cool, South American lime drink, the caipirinha.

Dave’s gone to meet the C130 and Al’s group. I am to return to the CDRS to try to secure the film permit for Dave, which wasn’t ready yesterday. We hope to set sail tomorrow evening, but possibly it will be Thursday. Stu and Russ found some problems with one of the camera lenses that Al likes to use, so they have been working long hours to fix it. I believe the plan now is to have another lens sent down from Toronto – someone will fly it to D.C., and Dave’s production assistant, Peter Coan, will fly it to Quito. Always something going awry in this business...

10 Feb. 1999, Wed., Puerto Ayora

Had the day pretty much to myself yesterday. Did some reading (Beak of the Finch - excellent book), went back to CDRS for permits (got mine, but the film permit is still not approved), washed some clothes, went for another swim, and then met up with "the boys" after their return from Baltra. All went well with the unloading of the C130, and everyone is in good spirits. Had a nice visit yesterday evening with Jim and Joan Sanders, parents of the bride. They travel to D.C. from New York at least once a year, so I gave them my address and will take them to see the film when they come this fall. One of the things I like best about traveling is meeting interesting people.

I was thinking yesterday that the film could be entitled "Galapagos: Islands of Change." A lot has changed in the six months that we’ve been away. After the heavy rains of El Nino, it is now about as dry as it gets. Local naturalist Godfrey Merlin told me yesterday at CDRS that this dry spell following El Nino happened in the severe 1983 episode as well. One extreme to the other – truly a tough set of circumstances for the animals and plants. So now, the finches are not nesting, the vegetation is dying (although the Acacia trees are simply brilliant with their masses of orange or yellow flowers), upwelling has apparently resumed leading to large growths of algae (we shall soon see for ourselves), and the marine iguanas are looking nice and fat! Got a good picture yesterday of a marine iguana on the rocks outside my hotel room. I had just read that one species of finch acts as a "cleaner" of marine iguanas – during cleaning, the iguana apparently stands on all fours like a cat. When I got close enough to the iguana outside my room to get a full-frame shot, there was a finch hopping around on him and picking up things, presumably parasites. This lifestyle of "cleaners" has evolved many times it seems – at least in birds and fishes. While it’s fairly easy to understand how such a relationship between a finch and a vegetarian iguana formed, it’s much more difficult to conceptualize the events that led to e.g., a small fish being able to swim safely inside and "clean" the mouth of a large, fish-eating fish!

The whole crew got together for the first time last night at the Four Lanterns restaurant for dinner. Randy Wimberg, Jon Dodson, and Ray Day are back, and we now have Mitch Skaggs (rebreather technician and someone I know from dive-related meetings). One newcomer – Tony Ballew – Al’s "do everything" guy and chief top-side lighting man on this trip. Al is in great spirits, and we’re all keeping our fingers crossed that this trip will be both safe and successful. We are to check out of the hotel this morning and set sail this evening. The new plan is to sail to the west side of Fernandina first to film marine iguanas underwater. This is a much shorter trip than to Wolf and Darwin and will give the guys a chance to test the system before making the trek to the north. Peter Coan is due to arrive in Quito this morning with the new lens, and Al is relieved he’ll have the 30 mm lens – his favorite apparently.

As we were leaving the restaurant last night, I was hit with severe stomach cramps and chills. Got pretty sick for a while there but feel a little better today. Definitely one of the down sides of traveling to foreign countries...

11 Feb. 1999, Thursday, on board DAPHNE, en route to Cabo Douglas, 8:30 a.m.

Ugh, what a tough 12+ hours I’ve had. The slight reprieve I felt yesterday morning from the stomach cramps was just that. I began feeling awful again during the day. Got to the ship just after 4 p.m. and went straight to bed. I was so sick that I couldn’t even muster any feelings of guilt over not helping load the ship. Waves of chills, severe stomach pain, fever, headache – the whole works. My room is right above the cook’s space, and smelling the fried food he was preparing for dinner was torture! Imagine getting on a ship, sick with fever and chills, feeling as though you’re dying, and knowing as the ship leaves the dock that you’re going to be out there on the seas away from any medical help for weeks. Scary! I missed dinner but fortunately started feeling a bit better during the night. Anyway, I’m up this morning and am beginning to think I’ll live...

Left my room this morning about 6:00 a.m., and it was extremely foggy out. It’s still pretty misty right now, and everything in my room is damp (no air conditioning on this ship). We will soon be in Cabo Douglas, where we hope to film marine iguanas underwater. The big news this morning is that we have Mathias Espinosa on board with us a naturalist guide instead of Juan Carlos Naranjo. Juan Carlos didn’t show up as scheduled in Quito, and Al finally decided to go with Mathias. Word has it that Juan Carlos may be having some health problems, and I am hoping that he is ok. Juan Carlos was our savior last summer when we were conducting the search for Noel and Bill. It seemed he was always on call because of his fluency in Spanish and familiarity with the people and customs in Ecuador. I certainly hope the stress of the summer experience didn’t permanently hurt him.

Anyway, Mathias [pronounced mah-TEE-us] is the dive instructor and co-owner of Scuba Iguana in Puerto Ayora, and his assistant told me that he’s the safest diver in Galápagos. Mathias is part German, part Ecuadorian, and he is most definitely a bit more on the stern side than some Ecuadorians.

12 Feb. 1999 Cabo Douglas, Fernandina - 8:00 a.m.

Arrived here late yesterday morning and immediately saw hundreds of marine iguanas in the water and rocks covered with bright green algae. What a relief! Also, there are a lot of sea turtles in the water, blue-footed boobies on the rock ledges, and sea lions. Got to see the blue-footed booby doing its sky-pointing mating dance. The beak points upwards, the tail points upwards, and each foot is alternately lifted high off the ground. Presumably, the bird is showing off its blue feet to a bird of the opposite sex, and after one of a pair does it, then the other does it. You absolutely cannot look at this and not laugh! I get the same feeling from watching marine iguanas basking on rocks and spitting salt crystals. Nature can certainly be humorous.

It is amazing how well the algae has come back. The return of upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water works miracles. It’s equivalent to fertilizer for land plants. Al et al. scouted the area for a suitable place to film yesterday afternoon. There is a pretty strong surge close in to the rocks (where the iguanas swim), but he’s hopeful that he can work here with the camera. Al is so thrilled about the algae and believes it, in itself, will make a nice shot, swaying in the surf.

I started feeling much better yesterday, especially after a lunch of sopa de pollo con arroz (chicken soup with rice) – just what the doctor ordered. Took a swim in the afternoon in towards the rocks. The water is cold! I am better prepared this time for diving in the cold water and hope to test my heaviest outfit for weight today. The 80 cc scuba tanks that I used last time weren’t packed for this trip, so I will dive with a 100, which will add a bit more weight. This will load me down on land, but I’ll be fine in the water.


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