Galapagos Day 4, Chinese Hat & Whale Bay

Trip Start Nov 04, 2010
Trip End Aug 10, 2011

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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Day 4, Chinese Hat & Whale Bay

Locally known as Sombrero Chino, Chinese Hat is one of the smallest islands in the Galapagos but easily the most recognizable...aptly named due to it's gently sloping cone shape rising above the azure blue waters of the Galapagos.   

A long time ago, when the volcano on Santiago island erupted, it formed a "spatter cone", a mountain made of rock and lava. Over time, the ocean carved a channel between this spatter cone and the island of Santiago, forming the independant island of Sombrero Chino. Protected from the rough open waters by the larger Santiago island, the waters around 'Chinese Hat' are calm and deep, a great place to snorkel. 

It was a wet landing on the beautiful sandy beach of Sombrero Chino, on yet another sunny morning in the Galapagos. After a quick pat dry, boots on, we set off on our trail that took us past lava cactus peeping out from the cracks in the rocks, colonies of lazy iguanas, lava lizards, a gazillion sally lightfoot crabs and on this particular morning, fairly boisterous families of the endemic Galapagos sea lion. While mum was suckling her baby, papa was teaching the cubs to body surf. After a lot of barking from papa sea lion, the cubs finally got the hang of it. They were so good he barked at his wifey forcing her to take a look at her young 'uns. All the while, the sally lightfoots crept as close to our boots as they dared, oftentimes trying to climb onto them, scuttling away terrified at the slightest movement of our feet near them. We could have watched them all for hours but the sun was beating down on us and sure enough, it was time to cool down with some snorkelling. On this particular morning, amidst the plethora of colourful parrot and angelfish, we caught a white-tipped shark chilling under some volcanic rock and not far from it, it's cousin, the stingray doing nothing much but trying to camouflage itself on the sandy seabed below.

Chinese Hat is protected by the park service which severely limits the number of visitors to this island. The number of visitor ships is therefore but a handful to enable the park service to protect the fragile ecosystem on this very tiny of Galapagos islands. 

Back on board, we tucked into yet another wholesome 3 course meal before chilling out on the sundeck ahead of the afternoon's activities on and around Whale Bay. 

The afternoon kicked off with an hour's snorkelling around a tiny island to the north of 'Whale Bay'. The waters around here must be particularly nutrient rich as it was an hour packed with 'big game'. The first sighting was that of a mother white-tip with 2 baby sharks a couple of metres from a lone lurker that perhaps didn't fancy our company, as it wasted no time in stealthily swimming away. The disappointment was short-lived as a few seconds later we spotted our very first turtle. Shrieks of excitement escaped most of us as we tried to alert others of the little beauty swimming alongside us. Not long after, our guide Victor found a mother and baby sea lion frolicking in a little cove. This was our very first underwater encounter with these massive bods of blubber and yet it was them who felt a little intimidated as our group of 16 had them unintentionally cornered in their little cove. Their apprehension was immediately apparent as they quickly sought slightly higher ground staring at us above water. It was only when we slowly edged away that they came back in to play. The curious things imitated our every movement underwater from cartwheels to freedives, all the while maintaining eye contact with whichever human they were examining at the time. We could have stayed there all afternoon but with his eye on the clock, Victor pushed us along. 2 more circling white-tips covered by shoals of angel fish was the last game we saw before reaching the edge of the sheltered islet where rough waters were breaking over the rocks. The current was pretty stong here and not wanting to hang around, we were forced to swim across fairly deep water for a few minutes to our big boat - our zodiac drivers were clearly engrossed and didn't hear Victor's calls for them to pick us up to be ferried back to the Floreana.


Exhilarated from the afternoon's sightings, we readied ourselves for a couple of hours on the beach at whale bay. Located on the northern coast of Santa Cruz island, 'Whale Bay' is a navigational and historical landmark. As the name suggests, it is the site of one of the oldest whaling camps on Santa Cruz island and it was here that the giant tortoises were brought before the poor souls were loaded onto whaler and pirate ships. The crescent shaped beach at whale bay is fairly narrow, dotted with volcanic rock jutting out from under the sand every few metres and slopes downwards into the water - so we abandoned plans of a frisbee competition and settled on watching the flame coloured sally lightfoots in the nearby rock pool. Although we had seen these flame coloured crabs at almost every landing site in the Galapagos this was the first time we had taken the effort to observe their habits over a long period of time. Extremely nimble, the Sally Lightfoot crabs get their name from the way they scuttle around on tip toes. They can jump from one rock to another half a meter away with lightning quick speed. We even saw one scuttle on the surface of the water for about a meter! They have the uncanny ability to scoot up vertical rock faces and hide away in the tiniest of crevaces to avoid predators. Life isn't all that easy for these crabs, we saw an unfortunate Sally have one of her legs torn off by a rapacious lava gull who started devouring the leg on the beach in front of us. In a cruel twist of fate, it in turn was swooped upon by two pirating, scavaging Frigates which scared off the gull and left with the crab leg prize. If that wasn't enough, we watched on as an octopus used it's tentacles to swing from rock to rock like Tarzan trying to feed on an unsuspecting Sally. This time it was unsucessful and it slithered back into the sea, leaving the Sally's in peace. We arrived in mateing season and as we watched on we saw the strange mateing process which involves both parties lifting their shells and hugging for a few seconds. Once the process is over, both scuttle off into different directions and the female carries the eggs in her abdomen until they hatch.  

As the sun set, we were ferried back to the Floreana which this evening, raised it's anchor much earlier as it headed out for the long sail towards the southern tip of Isabela island, Puerto Villamil. Another solid day in the Galapagos...."U Can't touch this".
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