On my recent trip aboard Yacht La Pinta in the Galapagos Islands (I think it’s my 847th by now), I had the pleasure of meeting a group of Aussies, a couple from South Africa, a fun group sponsored that had been sponsored by a US zoo, plus some other great explorers from various origins. We were also treated to the fact that, on this trip, in particular, we got to explore the islands around the same time that Charles Darwin visited them back in 1835.
Like most trips, we saw plenty of wildlife from the BIG15 list of iconic species, but unlike most trips, we witnessed a true oceanic show of survival. We got to see the strategies both predator and prey – a real luxury that happened right before our eyes!
The end of October coincides with the very last days of the dry season, but they can also be interpreted as the very first days of the hot season. This is when strange natural events tend to happen, as some key seasonal species occasionally overlap and magic happens. These transitional “mini-seasons” occur towards the end of October, all throughout November, and early December; then followed by another period of mini-seasons that happen in late April, all of May, and early June. With that said, October had some great wildlife encounters in store for us aboard Yacht La Pinta.
On this day, we went ashore for our usual outing over at Punta Suárez on Española (Hood) Island and saw a large group of very young Galapagos sea lions, probably born within the past week or so. Following that, we came across an awesome colony of marine iguanas, these of which are uniquely colored on this island in particular (oftentimes covered with strange-looking reddish blotches; some even had a bit of aqua green as evidence of their mating season that set to happen just weeks from now). We explored the rocky shoreline and came to the nesting area of Nazca boobies with their cool neighbors – the blue-footed boobies. A few Galapagos albatrosses are now left on the island, but some were hovering right above us showing off their stunning aerial maneuvers. To wrap up this visit, the endemic hawks had a nest near the trail; while mockingbirds, finches, and doves rounded out the visit. No wonder why this remote island is always a highlight in everyone’s experience of the archipelago.
Our skiffs picked us up, and with our eyes fixed right upon the horizon, Expedition Leader Daniel Muñoz saw a nice pod of dolphins that required some open-water navigation in order to approach them. Yacht La Pinta remained within the vicinity and, after weighing anchor, the Captain and those onboard spotted the dolphins too. All of us were now fully focused on observing the bottle-nose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in the middle of the ocean, and nothing beats seeing the first ten, then about thirty, then maybe twice as many as that, and then suddenly being surrounded in every direction! It seemed that the entire surface of the ocean was erupting with dolphins! WOW!
It was unbelievable, the excitement that we felt than simply cannot be described. Video footage and hundreds of pictures were taken during this period. And then, just when things seemed like they couldn’t get any better, out of nowhere and with no previous warning, the pod of dolphins quickly began fleeing the scene, all of them apparently spooked. There were splashes everywhere and the pod began heading in a totally different direction. We all thought the show was over, and we were thankful for the opportunity to witness such great natural events… but the movie had only just begun!
A loud and massive puff of air was heard and our Naturalist Guide yelled “an orca!” We all turned around and larger spouts were spotted until the largest dorsal we’d ever seen came out of the water, probably about 20-30 yards (18-20 meters) away from our small boat. Orcas (Orcinus orca) were suddenly right next to us! And they were busy and hungry. Most importantly, we would soon find out that they were there on a “training mission” of sorts. After an extensive visual evaluation of the orca group, we managed to identify the male leader, along with two adult females and a beautiful little orca calf. What a show! Our guests noticed that the orcas were quite busy diving, surfacing, splashing, and going one way and then the other.
Suddenly, a little splash happened right in front of the group of orcas – a baby dolphin had been cornered off by the orcas from the larger pod! Now we understood why the Dolphins took off so quickly: its top predator was in the vicinity! And their “training mission” was actually focused on the orca calf. Everyone thought the fate of the little dolphin would involve its demise… but such is the way of nature, which constantly works like an on and off switch: either you’re caught and killed, or you claim the trophy of the day and survive. These are the survival strategies that predator and prey will endlessly perform, and these have been developed and refined throughout their evolutionary history by means of natural selection. In just a few minutes, we had all seen a condensed chapter of Charles Darwin’s masterpiece “On the Origin of Species.” It all happened right in front of our eyes. Nothing beats a daily dose of wild encounters, right in the middle of the Galapagos Islands!
Yacht La Pinta & Yacht Isabela II explore this area of the Galapagos Archipelago on their Eastern and Southern Islands itinerary, respectively. These are 5-day expeditions that run all year long and can easily be combined with other rewarding natural programs in Ecuador, such as Mashpi Lodge, which is located just a few hours away from the stunning city of Quito!
Text, Photography & Video by Francisco “Pancho” Dousdebés – Galapagos Expert
Punta Suárez, Española (Hood) Island – GALAPAGOS, October 23rd, 2017 :: Lat: 1°36′58″ S / Long: 89°27′35″ W