Animal Shenanigans: a Case of the Mondays

“Hey. Hey wake up. It’s 7:30 and you’ve got that meeting at 8:15”

“I…uh…What? What time is it? Like, where am I even? Is this real?”
I have a meeting. Right…meeting…okay, I’ll get up…
Yeah, up…getting. Yeah…yeah…yeahnoooooo I can’t do it. I just can’t.
Look, can you call them up and tell them I’m sick or something? I’ve, uh, got flipperitis. Of the flipper. 
And now I’m at the hospital and everything is terrible, and that I’m sorry I couldn’t make it, but please ask for their thoughts and prayers as I go into the surgery room for flipperitis….oh, it’s so terrible…
….think they’ll buy it?

I feel you, sea lion.

Animal Shenanigans: Awkward Booby Says Hi

The blue-footed boobies have it rough. After all, they’re called boobies, and they got that name from the Spanish for their ineptitude while on land. (So, uh, thanks Spain for a 100+ years of boobies jokes.)
But what if you’re not only a booby, but the awkward booby? Well, we found him and this what his* life is like.
Ok, ok. These are the cool birds. I just gotta act real smooth and say hi. Then they’ll think I’m cool,  right?
Ok, just turning my head slowly. Act cool, act cool…ok, ready?
“HI GUYS!!!”
I give him points for trying, at least.
*In this case I CAN say with high confidence that this bird is a guy. Turns out you can tell a booby’s gender by the size of the bird’s pupils, so bring that to your next dinner party conversation.

Fifteen Photos: Life on the Galapagos

Bonus post! While digging through the landscape photos that went up here, I also put together an album of life on the Galapagos, from animals, to people, to patterns in the nature here. Enjoy!


A blue-footed booby on North Seymour Island
A curious mockingbird on Isabela Island
A tortoise on Isabela Island
A lava lizard on Santa Cruz Island
A marine iguana on Fernandina Island
A dead marine iguana mummified by the sun on Fernandina Island


The blue sky over Floreana Island
The pink-orange waters in a salt flat on Santa Cruz Island
Anemones partially buried in sand on Floreana Island
The skeleton of an Opuntia Cactus ear on Santa Cruz Island
Coral and a sandscape on North Seymour Island


Swimmers at Las Grieats, Santa Cruz Island
A lava cactus and a tour group at Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island
We stumble on a local hangout spot, Santa Cruz Island
A distiller demonstrates the purity (and flammability) of his alcohol, Santa Cruz Island

Our 14 best landscape photos from the Galapagos

This is the end of our time in the Galapagos, which despite tourism has been one of the wildest, most beautiful places we’ve ever seen. Here are the fourteen best landscape shots we took while on the islands:


Salt water is dried to create salt crystals in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island


Waves crash on the rocky shore of North Seymour Island


A frigatebird flies in the early evening sky at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island


The moon rises over the Palo Santo trees at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island


Green lowland scrub and Palo Santo trees against the backdrop of blue sea and cloudy sky at Urbina Bay, Isabela Island


Ripple patterns in the sea in Tagus Cove, Isabela Island


Ripples in a hardened lava flow reflect the afternoon sun at Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island


Silhouttes of Palo Santo trees against the cloudy sky at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island


A volcanic hill overlooks the marsh at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island


Isabela Island rises behind the Santa Cruz II at Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island


Champion Island, an extinct volcanic cone, rises from the ocean off the coast of Punta Comorant, Floreana Island


The sun sets over Fernandina Island


Ancient volcanic hills and vents in the sunset at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island
Sunset on the beach at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island


Now we’re off to Cusco, Peru! See you there.

Natalie flaps farewell to the Galapagos

The Captain’s Seat

The view from the bridge of the Santa Cruz II
At the beginning of our cruise, the guide who introduced everything mentioned that they had an “open bridge policy”. Having never been on a cruise, I had no idea what he was talking about and was grateful for the sentence that followed. “That means that you’re welcome to visit the bridge whenever you like, as long as we are not executing a maneuver at that time,” he explained. My following thought was, “This. Is. AWESOME. I’m gonna get to see how they DRIVE a ship!” *(I suppose the correct word is steer, or operate, but I’m pretty sure my brain went with “drive” in that thought.)
But in the following days I was so occupied (and exhausted) by the amazing cruise itinerary that I just couldn’t find the time to go. When I woke up early in the mornings I would pad up to the ship’s library, which had hundreds of books and stunning views of the misty ocean mornings. In the evenings after dinner, I would be so tired that all I could manage was brushing my teeth and making it to the bed. And in between excursions, it was wonderful to talk with other guests, people from all over, from New Zealand to New York. But this might be the only cruise I ever take, so on the final night I resolved to wake up reaaaally early to visit the bridge.
Waking up early has its benefits, like sunrise
The next morning my phone alarm went off at 5:30 am, and I rolled/tumbled/dragged myself out of bed. After grabbing a cup of tea from the library (yes, this is also where the complementary tea and coffee/latte/hot chocolate machine was stashed, also explaining its popularity), Stoytcho and I climbed the stairs to the bridge door. At first we weren’t sure whether or not to knock, but Stoytcho leaned on the door and it swung inward, so we let ourselves in; the first mate welcomes us on the other side.
A mouse-shaped compass on the bridge
The bridge was totally different from the rest of the ship, in every way. While all of the guest areas were immaculately clean and white, the bridge floor and walls were almost entirely black. The control panel spanned the whole front of the room, sitting before wide glass panels that overlooked the ship’s bow. And unlike the guest part of the ship, the bridge looked actually lived in. Coffee cups were scattered across the flat surfaces and hand-written notes and reminders for were taped on the vertical ones. There was a desk with a giant printer, decorated with a few baubles and chains of tinsel, a reminder that Christmas happened only a week ago. Some of the crew spent it here, instead of with their families.
Dials on the bridge that control the speed of the ship backward or forward
Switches on the ship’s bridge
We spent a few minutes looking around on our own but we were constantly drawn to the vast control panel, with all of its screens and switches. There seemed to be so many for just one ship. Using our broken Spanish, we asked what the more interesting looking ones did. The first mate humored us, explaining that this screen showed our location based on GPS, these switches controlled the power to different parts of the ship, and there were three ways you could steer the ship. Yes, three, including a wooden maritime wheel, a more modern-looking black wheel, and a joystick-type thing on the dashboard. We asked which one served as the main steering method and got an amused look. “It’s based on personal preference and the situation,” the first mate said. “Oh, so they’re basically the same?” Stoytcho replied. “Yes,” replied the first mate, “like a lot of these switches. There are two of every button on the bridge, in case one of them breaks. There are also two different GPS navigation systems.” That explained the overabundance of switches, buttons, and screens on the bridge; they were redundancies needed for us to get home in the event something failed.
The three steering mechanisms for the ship: the two wheels and the joystick between them
The sun was beginning to peek over the horizon when we finished our tour. By this time the captain had come in, coffee in hand, and joined the first mate in answering our questions. We learned that it takes a LONG time to become a captain, and captains-in-training can serve on ships for decades before they’re promoted to captain and get their own ship; it took our captain a decade. The captain told us he’s also served on shipping freighters, where the cargo complains less but schedules are tighter–goods often have deliver-by dates. We were starting to get hungry, so we thanked the first mate and captain for their time and started for the door when the captain stopped us. “Don’t you want a picture in the captain’s seat?” he asked. I thought “What? I can DO THAT?” and I replied “Uh, sure!” I walked up to the captain’s seat, a shiny black leather chair suspended by a pole, and hopped on. It was insanely comfortable, and I leaned back and tried to look comfortable too.
So if you’re ever on a cruise, ask the crew about the bridge policy. It’s an amazing chance to see how the ship you’re on actually works and it’s a chance to get to know the crew who help make your cruise experience possible. They’re people too, and they’ll appreciate it.
Dawn over the Seymour Islands

Our last island in the Galapagos

Sunset over Isla Floreana

Day five of our cruise is drawing to a close, after visiting Post Office Bay on Isla Floreana and snorkeling away the better part of the day. It’s time for our last excursion onto land, this time at Punta Cormorant in search of the American Flamingo. It’s already around 3 pm when we arrive on the shore, removing our shoes for a quick water landing and wading the last few feet to the beach. A trail leads us from this beach inland, past the now familiar Palo Santo trees and dry brush. We walk though the volcanic hills, home to the now familiar lava lizards, finches, mockingbirds, and land iguanas. Then it winds down to the edge of a long, flat marsh, where the flamingos live.

The moon rising early over the Palo Santo trees and brush


The viewing area is fenced off from the rest of the marsh, and today the flamingos have decided to graze all the way on the other side of the marsh, half a mile away. They’re nothing but pink dots on the horizon, and even with my camera’s zoom I can’t see much detail. Someone in our group was smart and brought birding binoculars, so we pass them around. Using these I can make out the birds, standing on one leg, gracefully dipping their heads along the water’s surface to feed. I try to take a picture with the camera pressed to the binocular lens, but no luck. Sometimes this happens; in the Galapagos and elsewhere, nature does what she pleases and not what we want. But that’s part of the thrill.

Fickle flamingos favor feeding far from us

After squinting at the flamingos for several minutes, the guide leads us on a continuation of the trail in a pass between the hills. We emerge into a sandy white bay, the kind that we’ve seen all over the Galapagos. Our guide asks us to walk only on the shore, and not on the dry sand or in the surf. The former is a routine request, because sea turtles nest on these beaches and a single misstep could crush a whole nest. But the latter request to stay out of the water is new. Our guide leads us to the water’s edge to show us why: stingrays and skates, dozens of them, cling to the sand under the pounding surf. Occasionally a rough wave will dislodge one, sending it swimming off in search of a calmer part of the beach.

A ray swims off after a particularly rough wave

We’re turned loose to explore the beach, and Stoytcho makes a game of burying his feet in the loose wet quicksand at the water’s edge. Then the two of us walk over to the tidepools, where we meet with Sally Lightfoot crabs, anemones, and a sea cucumber. We’ve spent so much time snorkeling and chasing the rare megafauna of the Galapagos that we haven’t had a chance to explore life on the rocky shoreline. Between the animal life and the algae on the rocks, it reminds me of California and many other Pacific Coast beaches.

A sally lightfoot crab; alright, they do have brighter colors than the Californai variety
Sand-snowed anomenes wait for relief as the tied comes in.

Finally, it’s time to head back to the cruise ship one last time. Our guide calls to us, and we straggle back along the trail to our boat, stopping often to take pictures of the scenery and the sky. The sun is low now, a brilliantly blazing ball of orange in the sky, overshadowing everything else. In the distance, we can make out old fumaroles and volcanic vents, once molten hot and orange of their own accord, now still and dark against the horizon.

Extinct volcanic vents and fumaroles at sunset

Our feet meet the soft sand of the beach one last time, and just before we board the boat, someone asks if Stoytcho and I want a photo together. So with lifevests donned and and bare feet, we pose for our photo.

Bidding farewell to the Galapagos

Puerto Ayora and Santa Cruz Island, Take II

A tortoise ambles by a sign at the tortoise farm
For day 4 of our Galapagos cruise, we’re back to Santa Cruz Island, where Stoytcho and I spent our first days in the Galapagos. This may not seem like the best choice for a high-end cruise, it means that the local community here gets a share of our tourism revenue and we get to see who the locals actually are. The Charles Darwin Research Center is also here, serving as a base for much of the conservation work in the Galapagos.
We start with a morning visit to the Charles Darwin Research Center, a place which emphasizes how much work it takes to keep the Galapagos as a near-pristine ecosystem. The researchers here do everything from breed tortoises to develop plans to restore damaged ecosystems, and we are given a tour of conservation efforts on the island and the animals kept here for care and breeding. This is famously where Lonesome George the Pinta Island tortoise spent his lonesome days before passing away in 2012. It’s also where we meet a less famous but more successful tortoise, Super Diego, who has fathered more than a thousand offspring and helped save the Española tortoise species.
Diego (back right, I think) with a friend in his enclosure
A land iguana, looking kind of bored
A lava lizard, not actually on display at the research center because conservationists don’t seem too concerned about them. They’re a bit underappreciated.
After our visit at the research center, we’re turned loose for an hour of free time. Stoytcho and I spent it exploring the rocky shoreline behind the research center, reached by a bike path near the gift shop.
A marine iguana rests just out of reach of the pounding surf
One of Darwin’s finches searches for seeds
A hangout place for locals, or marine iguanas? We stumble on a cluster of pallets in the underbrush.
Our next activity is a bike in the highlands to a local distillery and coffee farm. We meet back at the docks and catch a bus to the edge of town, where the guides have prepared mountain bikes for us. Those unwilling to bike continue on by bus. The rest of us, uh, bike. And bike. The slope is nearly flat at first, and then switches to gentle hills, but there’s always more uphill than downhill. The final stretch up to the distillery is a steep slope up, so Stoytcho and I huff and puff in the lowest gear setting to reach the top. We stumble off our bikes and are given water, then a tour of how the farm turns sugarcane juice into hard liquor known as ‘fire water’ in Spanish.
Pressing sugarcane to extract the juice
Our host demonstrates why the booze here is called “fire water”. And yes, that is the still, a system under pressure, engulfed in flames. The researcher in me was silently screaming and desperately searching for a blast shield at this moment.
Finally, it’s back into the bus and off to a tortoise farm in the highlands, where we get lunch, explore a lava tube, and watch the tortoises here roam free and happy.
We wander among the tortoises
Just not that into you: a male attempts to mate with a female and she rejects him, crawling away rapidly.
Another of Darwin’s finches, this one resembling a small dinosaur
Taking an afternoon mudbath

Urbina Bay: Searching for the Galapagos Tortoise in the Wild

The textures of Urbina Bay

Our afternoon hike today is through the lowland scrub in Urbina Bay, and now we’re getting serious about our search for the Galapagos tortoise. There were signs of tortoises at Tagus Cove earlier in the day, but only trails through the grass. Our guide suggests we might have better luck here in the lowlands of Isabela, where many more tortoises can find food to sustain them between the dry and wet seasons. But nature is not beholden to a human schedule; we’ll have to wait and see.

A hibiscus flower, nearly identical to one found in ornamental gardening

The lowland scrub along the trail here is greener and denser than in the highlands, likely thanks to more abundant water sources. Some plants also look familiar. In the thickets of woody bushes and small trees, I spot a yellow hibiscus in flower, a native species of hibiscus that looks much like the ornamental plants in so many gardens. The trees give way to a large clearing, and the guide gives a shout, “Hawk!!” Far off in the field, a Galapagos Hawk stands nonchalantly on a log. It’s larger than the hawks I’m used to seeing back home.

The Galapagos hawk, from hundreds of feet away and a lot of camera zoom

The other interesting things in this field are skulls, horned and lining our path, on rocks, and perched atop signs. These are goat skulls, left from the extermination of the animals from the islands starting in 2001. Goats were introduced to many of the islands in the Galapagos in the early 1900’s, as this Nature article describes with deadpan anti-humor, “successfully”: they ate everything in sight, threatened rare native plants and denuded whole areas, which led to erosion and the starvation of many native species, including tortoises. With the situation dire, conservationists created an ambitious (and sordid) program to rid the islands of goats that was nearly 100% successful, as Radiolab details in good scientific drama. At the end of the program, only a few sterile goats were left on the islands, and the skulls of dead goats now adorn trails and landmarks in many places, a morbid reminder of what sometimes must be done to save a unique species, a singular ecosystem. They are the death of the few for the many, the unquantifiable price we put on the continued existence of a species.

A goat skull purches atop a sign warning visitors not to stray from the trail

It’s getting late and so far we haven’t spotted the fabled tortoise, though. We’ve seen depressions in the dust where they burrow down to rest, and tracks in the dry leaf litter in the underbrush, but neither shell nor scale of a tortoise. It looks like it’s going to be an unlucky day until our guide hears a crackle over the radio: one group has spotted a tortoise! We race to their location on the path and find a massive animal, a moving-hill-of-a-creature, something that looks like it could have cohabited the Earth with the dinosaurs. A Galapagos tortoise.

At last, the Galapagos tortoise

Like all the animals we’ve seen so far, the tortoise shows little interest in us and is intent on fulfilling his day’s chore: filling his belly. Given that this tortoise is the size of a small washing machine (but turned on its side, sprouting a head, legs, and a tail), that’s no small task. Galapagos tortoises subsist on nearly any green fare they can find, including grass, cacti, leaves, and fruit. This particular fellow has found himself a treat: a poison apple, or la manzanilla de muerte ( While the fruit is toxic to humans and most animals, the tortoises here consume them with gusto and without ill effect. Like the rest of the harsh, dry, volcanic, windswept Galapagos environment, the tortoises have found a way around the problem. They’ve adapted.

A toxic treat: the tortoise eats a poison apple with gusto

And though harsh, I’m slowly realizing how beautiful and mesmerizing the environment of the Galapagos is. There are inexplicable patterns in the scenery that melt into one another, tapestry of landscape, sea, and sky, embellished with the creatures that have managed to survive here. The grass is windswept and dense, forming feather-textured, miniature hills and valleys in fields. Thin, pointed brushstrokes of trees jut into a storm-gray sky, framed by a smattering of green leaves and lowland underbrush. It all looks so uncurated, untouched, so natural. This is what makes the Galapagos so unique; it’s a rare place unchanged by human hands, sculpted only by the forces of nature.

The texture of grass in the Galapagos
And as usual, a perfect sunset

Tagus Cove on Isabela Island

Ripples on the water of Tagus Cove
Our morning walk on the third day of our Galapagos cruise is at Isabela’s Tagus Cove, a quiet inlet that has offered refuge to travelling ships for centuries. The visitors of yore have included pirates, whalers, and travellers, most notably Darwin himself, who devoted a great deal of his writing on the Galapagos to this site. And these visitors have left their mark, quite literally, in the cliffs along the shore. Everywhere the rough sandstone is hewn or painted with the names of ships and dates. Though the formation of the National park technically put an end to this practice, there are inscriptions from as recently as the late 80’s. And if you look closely enough, you can find carvings from as far back as 1836.
Inscriptions left on the rocks of Tagus Cove from ships past
Our trail leads uphill, away from the shore and into the dusty, dry terrain of Isabela. It’s steeper than our previous hikes, though after all of the walking on our travels I’m hardly winded, so I take the chance to enjoy the scenery. Unlike the terrain we saw on the first day’s hike (North Seymour Island), Tagus Cove is covered in dense shrubs and grass, although it’s still mostly dry and brown. The trees here are the same as those on Seymour, the palo santo, but they grow larger and taller, less stunted by the environment. Even so, at this time of year they are also gray, leafless skeletons of trunks and branches. The rain has not yet come to Isabela.
Leafless palo santo trees brushed onto the landscape of Isabela island
Despite the sparse greenery, animal life continues. We spot a couple of land iguanas browsing through the grass, their dusty orange skin blending in with the surrounding landscape. They eye us warily and plod away into the underbrush, wanting nothing to do with our group. More curious is a Galapagos mockingbird that flits by, curious enough to eye us from a branch for several seconds. It’s enough time for me to get a decent picture, and then the bird is off, hunting for grubs under tree bark. A guide last night told us that these mockingbirds, and not finches, that Darwin actually studied and brought home to England to help develop his ideas of how evolution worked. Though I read On the Origin of Species in college, I cannot remember a mention of either bird. Evidence online suggests Darwin studied both, albeit somewhat haphazardly, which I take to be the actual truth because that’s how pretty much everyone starts any kind of research.
A curious Galapagos mockingbird
We finish our upward climb at the top of a ridge overlooking Darwin Lake and further out toward sea. We can see our ship, the Santa Cruz II, drifting lazily in the current around her anchor. Below, the blue-green of the lake dazzles, but offers little relief to the life here–it’s brackish saltwater. The volcanic cone that comprises the lake’s basin is highly porous, so rainwater that collects here mixes with the ocean’s water, creating a brackish mix that sustains only algae and bacteria. I ask the guide if he’s ever seen fish in the lake, and he replies that he hasn’t.
Darwin Lake and Tagus Cove, with the Santa Cruz II in the distance
After a lining up to photograph the lake and sea, our group turns around and heads back down the trail. We’re moving faster now, passing through areas we’ve already seen, but I spot a plant that looks surprisingly familiar: cotton. This is the Galapagos cotton, a smaller cousin of the mainland plant. It made its way to the island before human colonization, either in the feces of birds or borne by ocean currents. And while not harvested commercially, the birds here use the cotton puffs to line their nests, much like birds on the mainland use yarn, string, and mainland cotton.
A tuft of Galapagos cotton
As we return to the boat, we’re treated to one last animal sighting: the Galapagos penguin!
This penguin is the only species to live north of the Equator and is the rarest penguin species in the world. Here in the Galapagos, they have a unique problem: they get far too hot, and require cold water to reduce their body temperature and avoid becoming roasted penguin. As such, most of the birds live in the western Galapagos, where the frigid Humboldt Current is strongest and provides an effective means of cooling down.
While land here might be a bit toasty for them, they seem to have few problems in the water. Our guest penguin torpedoes through the water near our boat, first in front of us, then gone in a second. He resurfaces again a moment later, off to the side. He’s gone for another moment, then he pops up in a new spot, this time with two friends. Then the three of them disappear for good.
A penguin in the waters of Tagus Cove

Galapagos Marine Iguanas Are Underappreciatedly Awesome

The Galapagos marine iguana, in all of his glory
They’re everywhere in the Galapagos, on every island, hanging out on the beach, clinging to rocks on the shore, and scrabbling up steep cliffsides. They collect in the hundreds, sunning their gray-black bodies between trips to the water’s edge to munch on the algae that sustains them. Darwin famously called them “imps of darkness”. People think they look ugly and stupid. And few come to the Galapagos specifically to see them. They’re the Galapagos marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus), and their unpopularity is totally unwarranted.
The Galapagos marine iguana’s appearance doesn’t do it any favors, but it looks this way because of the harsh Galapagos environment. The marine iguana’s snout is short and stout compared to other lizards, a change that helps them eat their primary food, marine algae. The iguana’s skin has also darkened to deep green, grays, and blacks, enabling it to absorb more heat from the sun’s rays after swimming in the frigid Galapagos ocean. And the iguana has developed long, sharp claws; these help it cling to rocks on the shore, against  in the face of pounding waves and merciless surf. So despite the consequence of appearance, the marine iguana is a highly capable creature adapted to life in the Galapagos.
Post meal food coma iguana. If you look closely enough, you can see some leftovers on his face.
Besides winning in the ‘surviving the Galapagos’ contest (which by the way, humans have frequently lost), these iguanas also have some adorable quirks. As you walk by them on the shore, you’ll hear brief hissing noises, like someone incredibly tiny blowing their nose. This is the marine iguana sneeze. Like saltwater crocodiles, these iguanas have to get rid of the excess salt they pick up in the ocean and the algae they eat. But unlike crocodiles, who cry ‘crocodile tears’, iguanas have opted to sneeze it out. So don’t worry, they’re not suffering from the flu.
“*sneeze* Ugh, Candice, I’m dying. This flu is kiiiilling me.” “Stop it, Anna. You don’t even have the flu.”
You’ll also often see iguanas wobble their heads up and down, as if they were some sort of living bobble-head. This is the marine iguana signal that it’s time to mate, a sort of “Hey bby :)” for the females and a “GTFO” for other males. Smaller males will take the hint and leave, but if the males are the same size, the other male will challenge the first with his own head bobble. Then the two iguanas will sit there for a few minutes, bobbling heads at each other, until one of them finally gives in and leaves or (very rarely) a serious fight goes down.
Two large males compete in a game of ‘bobble head’
Then there’s the basking, which takes up more of the iguana’s day than eating, sneezing, mating, and fighting combined. Because the water of the Galapagos is seriously cold, the iguanas spend most of their days either preparing to go into the ocean or recovering from swimming in it by basking in the sun. They’ll do this for hours, while sitting alone or socializing together, sitting up awake or collapsed napping on the sand. Most reptiles do some variation of this, but have you ever seen one look so happy to feel the sun’s warmth?
Haters gonna hate, but the Galapagos marine iguanas are happy nonetheless.
Happy iguanas, and not like that. They tend to crawl all over each other for warmth.