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Thursday 2 Jan 2014
Isla Santa Fe, Ecuador

Snorkelling with sea lions

The second half of our week’s voyage had some more strenuous land excursions.  Fortunately, Ailsa’s foot was getting better by the day, though she still had some interesting bruising.  We awoke this morning at Isla Santa Fé and headed to the shore for our first proper interactions with sea lions and the Santa Fé land iguanas.

As we landed the pangas on the beach, we were greeted with barks from the dominant male sea lion swimming along the shore.  One bull takes charge of the harem, guarding the pups on the beach while the females rest or go out fishing.  Young pups depend on their mother’s milk for around six months.  The females can be impregnated again two weeks after giving birth, but they have a clever system of delayed implantation for up to 3 months.  This means they will give birth exactly one year apart to allow them to wean the first pup before having the next. Young males are allowed to stay in the harem until they are three, when the dominant bull will kick them out.  They will live in the bachelor’s colony until they’re about seven and can challenge the bull for dominance.  He will lose up to 20% of his body weight over six weeks or so, chasing off the interloping males and defending his territory, until he’s lost too much weight to win the challenge.  Then a new bull takes over and the losing male is banished to the bachelor colony and the cycle starts again.

The beach was littered with sleeping females, squirming and scratching occasionally in a vain attempt to rid them of the persistent flies.  Sadly, inbreeding has caused problems like lung disease and conjunctivitis.  The new pups were gorgeous, playing with each other and coming over to investigate us.  They start off on the beach, before moving on to the nursery pools among the rocks at the water’s edge, where they frolic about and chase each other.  I watched one pup reuniting with its mother, both of them barking happily as they waddled across the rocks to greet each other with nuzzles and affection. 

We followed a trail up on to the cliff edge to look for land iguanas.  These are fewer in number than the marine iguanas because the food supply is less generous.  In the drier months, much of the scarce vegetation on the island dries up, so the iguanas will spend the whole day at the foot of the cactus tree waiting for a leaf pad to fall.  The cactus trees have vicious spikes to protect themselves from the iguanas until they are old and tall enough to develop smooth hard trunks at the base.  During the mating season, the land iguanas develop gold scales along their backs and sides to attract females.  Like the marine iguanas, the dominant male gathers a harem of females around him and chases off aggressors with a head-nodding display.  As interesting as they were, though, it was definitely the sea lions who captured our hearts today.

Our snorkel trip was in the same place, swimming along the rocky wall that made up the edge of Barrington Bay.  We saw a few sea lions swimming past us in the water and an enormous shoal of dark striped fish (never did find out what they were called) that seemed to go on forever.  As we neared the beach, the rock wall petered out and left an open channel with a strong cold current flowing through.  On the other side, there were big groups of angelfish, surgeonfish and huge parrotfish coasting back and forth in the current. 

We’d swum back along the other side of the rock wall for a little while, when I heard a shout from Ailsa.  The next thing I knew, I had a playmate in the water with me.  A young sea lion darted and rolled around me, swimming back and forth and daring me to try and keep up with him.  At one point, I found myself kicking in a circle as fast as I could while he cruised effortlessly around me.  He kept disappearing and returning before I had finished spinning around to look for him.  I had my GoPro and somehow managed to keep him in the shot for almost 5 minutes of the most amazing video footage.  I am certainly no expert, and I will be calling on my friend Christina to edit it into something far more professional, but even now I can’t believe how lucky I was to get such a personal interaction with such a beautiful creature.  That I happened to have the camera there at the time is just the icing on the cake. I’m grinning at the memory of it while I write.  When I think back to last January and my dismal attempt to swim with dolphins in Paihia, I’d never have believed it was possible to experience something like this…

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Zoe's Big World Adventure Part II - #3 Ecuador and Galapagos Islands

Travel blog by zobeedoo

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This is the big highlight of the year. Joined by my parents and reunited with Ailsa, we'll spend Christmas in Quito, then travel to Galápagos for New Year, celebrating in style with a week on the Queen Beatriz catamaran visiting the southern islands.

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