Scarlet rock crabs dotted the rocky lava cliffs. We climbed out of the boat and up to the cliffs above, then jumped across black rocks and made our way around thorny bushes and prickly pear cactus to the other side of the island.
Near shore, we saw our first sea lion. Terry and I went wild taking pictures of his little black head sticking out of the water—not knowing we would be seeing hundreds of them covering the beaches later on. He bent back his thick rubbery neck, hoping to catch a recognizable scent. He seemed as curious about us as we were about him.
We hiked over the rugged lava surface above the bone white beach. Eddy caught two marine iguanas for us to hold by the tail. They looked dignified even upside down, and kept snapping at us to show their contempt.
It would be dark soon, so we zigzagged through the forest of cactus to Eddy’s dinghy. On the way back to Academy Bay, we cut across a school of manta rays, white undersides and black tops, 15 to 18 feet long. Some swam under the dinghy. It was exciting, yet frightening, because they have been known to tip over boats.
Back on the Cristobal Carrier, we awoke to another day and another world as we anchored near Islas Plaza. Sea lions sprawled on the lava rocks. Most were asleep, some on their backs, others stretched out on their sides or curled up. A few were sitting up.
I walked around, gingerly petting some of the mama sea lions so Terry could snap a photo. I picked up a sweet baby. He was soft and furry with the funniest feet. He seemed perfectly comfortable in my arms. Only when he heard his daddy arp-arping in the water did he struggle to free himself.
We took photos, approaching the females for nose-to-nose close-up shots. They were too lazy to make a fuss, or to even care. But when the Daddy Bull caught our scent during his patrol, he barked a few orders, awoke his harem and sent them scurrying into the water.
Round-leafed cactus jutted up from the flat plateau. Three or four species of it are found on the Galapagos, but no two species are found on the same island. The prickly pear cactus reaches heights of more than 30 feet. Tortoises, iguanas, and other animals eat them, spines and all. The thorny bushes that grow over the lava crusts are well named: “Unas de Gato” (cat claws).
Islas Plaza extends a long finger into the sea, patched with a brilliant red shore plant found only on the Galapagos. Graceful gulls glide above the crashing white breakers.
We walked in another direction that led us through a forest of tall barrel cactus until we came out on another side of the beach. I nearly stumbled over a medium-sized sea lion that blended in with the well-worn rock she was lying on.
At the tip of this island finger, guano-streaked lava rock was the favorite resting place of pelicans. They perched on various levels of the rock, but favored the higher places. Others circled overhead to make a landing on the rock.
Bartolome Island is what one might imagine the surface of the moon to look like—all lava and volcano craters. The golden lava gave the appearance of hot molten liquid, not solid crust, although the last reported eruption was in the 1890s. We walked gingerly over the fragile bubbles of lava. With each step, a thin layer of lava crust crumbled and tinkled like glass. When it broke under our feet, we would sink a foot or two to the next layer, cutting and scraping our legs.
An occasional delicate fuzzy cactus (the first plant to grow in new lava fields) was the only vegetation to break the endless expanse of lava. These hardy plants are found only in the poorest environments. We walked to the bay, where we swam with sea lions in water that was clear and crystal green. Sand on the beach was the color of cinnamon.
Isabela (also known as Albemarle) is larger than all the other islands combined. It has the highest mountain in the Galapagos, Cerro Azul (5,540 feet), and the most wild cattle and flamingos. About 450 people lived there.
Rodriguez and his sister, who arrived with us on the Cristobal Carrier, were on vacation from university in Quito. They invited us to their home. Their father settled in Isabela, accumulated a little wealth, and now owned a large part of the island. We expected to see a lovely home. Instead, we saw an old wooden shack with a baby swinging in a hammock in the front room, which doubled as a living room for the large family as well as a store for the town.
The father was thin and old, looked sad and hard-working, as did their mother, although she was charming. She had lunch prepared for all of us from the Cristobal Carrier—humitas, tamales made from sweet corn.
After lunch, we took a long hike to the salt ponds where hundreds of flamingos gathered. Later, Jake Lundh took us to some channels, “A bedroom for sharks,” he said, “where they can relax in peace.”