Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Under sail to Espanola

As the stern of the Beagle swung around the bloated sails spilled their load, flapping lazily in the warm breeze. The schooner looked majestic under full sail in the late afternoon sunlight but barely sustained a knot and and half without motor assistance. The heavy steel hull and utilitarian rigging was made for durability, not speed. It was noticeable how much smoother the crossing was under sail. The Beagle fell into step with the natural rhythm of the swell and the dulcet gurgling of the wake attracted a small band of petrels flitting around the surface, skimming plankton disturbed by the keel as it carved through the ocean.

This morning found us in EspaƱola the most southerly and easterly island and therefore, geologically the oldest. The island is renowned for it’s bird life and the unusual marine iguanas. As we made our way from the flat northerly bay to the cliffs on the south coast we passed numerous blue footed boobie and nazca boobie nesting sites. In some cases we could see young chicks, still covered in snow white down, flapping furiously to attract the attention of their mothers.

A salt spray pervades the air, a consequence of the blow hole at the base of the cliff. As the swell sets drift in from the open ocean the pressure raises until a super-set causes the pressure to release as a massive cloud of sea spray, several hundred feet into the air. The tropic birds appear to enjoy soaring above the blow hole waiting for the spray to blow them closer to the cliffs. As we round the headland we come across the sole remaining waved albatross. During the months of August to December up to 12,000 albatross, the only tropical albatross in the world, colonise the island before heading off again on their solitary wanderings of the deep ocean.

As we make our way back to the landing site we pass a pair of Galapagos hawks silently perusing the undergrowth for lizards and iguanas. These silent predators seem oblivious to our intrusion in their environment unlike the mockingbirds that seem to follow us in the knowledge that many tourists will drop tidbits or give them an easy drink of water. As we reach the shoreline again we can have to step over the proudest and most colourful resident of the the island the marine iguana. Unlike the marine iguanas on other islands, this sub-species is a brightly coloured green and red caused by the diet of red sea pursulane.

Our evening crossing will deliver us to our first inhabited island, Santa Cruz. Tomorrow we will be heading to the Charles Darwin Research Centre to see something of the conservation work that is being done to maintain the ecological integrity of this fragile ecosystem.

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