Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Aboard the Beagle

Against the backdrop of a starlit sky I can see the silhouette of a magnificent frigate bird gliding along in the rigging of the 
Beagle. The shearwaters are darting playfully left and right just above the surface of the sea. The gentle lilt of the boat is accompanied by the soft hum of the engine as we make our way from our first anchorage on the Leeward shore of North Seymour to our overnight anchorage. The warm, moist breeze is tinged with salt and the cushions feel damp to the touch. It is a world away from my exertions on Cotopaxi and a perfect tonic after the hustle, bustle and pollution of Quito.

Our home for the next week is the Beagle, an English built schooner that plies the waters of the Galapagos. Having embarked at Baltra and received a briefing from our National Park guide Camillo, we were soon cruising North for our first ground excursion to North Seymour. After the cool equatorial highlands, the humidity and sunshine of the Galapagos is a pleasant change. Cumulus clouds hover above the far horizon seemingly motionless. The waters change from cobalt to azure blue as we approach the shore and the low shrub cover island play host to courting magnificent frigate birds (Fregata magnificens) and blue foot
ed boobies. The cliffs are peppered with glorious swallow tailed gulls, easily distinguishable with their ring of intense red around the eye and bright red feet.

The grey rigid inflatable shuttles us from the Beagle to the promontory, where we are carefully deposited on the shore. The red ochre volcanic rock covers the entire island, a slab of laval flow, uplifted by tectonic movement tend of thousands of years ago. The island of North Seymour now plays host to abundant small, shrubby Palo Santo trees and sweet smelling Daphne. As we approach the end of the dry season the trees are still bare of leaves leaving on the ghostly white trunk and branches where the Frigates nest. The male Frigates tilt back their head and inf
late their blood red throat to the size of a melon, opening their beaks and displaying their plumage. In addition to the magnificent frigate we come across a few great frigates, klepto-parasitic birds that chase other birds and force them to drop their catch. As they soar in the sky the look like pterodactyls scanning the sky for their next prey.

As we cross the island, descending the slab to the beach on the north shore we pass the circular nesting sites of blue-footed boobies. Like the frigates, the boobies are courting; the males hopping from one leg to the other and extending back their legs whilst opening a wing. As the females respond they come together and touch their beaks lightly. Female boobies sit in a self-marked circles incubating their eggs, intermittently rising and falling to keep the eggs from overheati
ng in the late afternoon sun. The eggs rest atop their turquoise feet as the vibrate the feathers on their throat and open their beaks wide to regulate their body temperature.

As we approach the beach on the north side of the island the Palo Santo trees give way to blanket swathes of red sea Pursulane, a low growing succulent that thrives on the saline spray. As we approach the volcanic rock debris we can hear the barking of sealions, the last of our hosts on the island. Basking in the weak sunlight of the early evening they intermittently reach forward with their tail fins to scratch their fur.

Judging by our first experience of life touring these abundant islands, we will have a mesmerising week ahead.

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