We saw Boobies! (and they had blue feet)

The small island of Isla de la Plata, located 23 miles off Ecuador’s southeastern coast is sometime called “the poor man’s Galapagos”. Well, this could mean two things. Either it’s a less stunning version of those islands, or it’s a version that a person can actually afford. As we discovered, it’s a bit of both, but definitely worth the trip.

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The jumping off point for trips to Isla de la Plata is the small fishing village of Puerto Lopez. After some searching, we managed to find an overnight bus there from Quito, and arrived at about 6 AM to clouds, drizzle, and muddy streets.

It’s not a particularly charming place. Although right on the ocean, just hours south of the equator, it turns out that due to the inland mountains and weather patterns, from about March to November Puerto Lopez is mostly covered in clouds and is a bit chilly (though still quite humid). From December to March, it’s all sun and heat.

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Luckily for us, the weather out on the island does not mirror that on the mainland. We managed to get on a tour the same morning we arrived, and at 9:30 we met up with our fellow passengers and guide to start our adventure. But first, she took us down to the shore for a look at the fish market.

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Every morning, the local fishermen pull their boats up on the beach and sell the day’s catch right there. We saw a wide variety of fish for sale, from small tuna to large sharks and sailfish.

Many of these had been partially butchered, and there were crates of guts, fins, and heads lying around. I’m sure the town’s stray dogs are quite well fed!

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Boarding our small boat, we were told that the 23 mile trip out to the island would take about 90 minutes and that the water could get rather choppy. Basically, go throw up off the back of the boat, not inside it. Happily, no one had problems, though one girl was pretty discomfited by the constant crashing of the boat as it crested the waves. Also happily, this boat had two huge outboard motors, and moved at a decent clip, unlike the world’s slowest boat we’d ridden on Lake Titicaca.

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Unfortunately, our visit was in November rather than the June-September Humpback Whale breeding season. During those months, the whales move up from the Antarctic to equatorial coastal waters to mate. You can see whales everywhere, swimming and breaching in the shallow water between the shore and the island. It must be a spectacular sight, and I’d love to come back some day to visit in season.

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We eventually reached the island, waded ashore, and followed our guide as she led us inland and towards the top of the island. Several species of birds nest here, included Blue Footed, Red Footed, and Nazca Boobies, Magnificent Frigate Birds, and Galapagos Albatross. Some of these were rather rare though, with protected nesting areas, so we’d only be seeing a few.

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We we reached the top of the hill, we immediately met our first Blue Footed Boobies, courting each other in the middle of the trail. Our guide told us that they court for a few weeks while testing the fishing waters. If the food is plentiful they will then mate (but not for life), and begin to nest.

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Amusingly, it seemed that the preferred terrain for nesting is the middle of national park hiking trails, and we constantly had to walk around birds guarding eggs and chicks. It was amazing how close we were to them, though we were careful to avoid startling them as much as possible.

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Our guide explained that the chicks would learn to fly within a few months, but that it could be four to eight months before they learned to fish on their own. Because of low stocks, the chicks this year were small for their age, and many probably wouldn’t survive. Apparently they should be the size of their parents within a month if sufficiently fed!

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We hiked across the island, encountering more and more nests, and learning about the vegetation and dry/wet cycle. At one point, we encountered this cactus, growing like a tree. They have to be hundreds of years old to end up growing like this.

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As we reached the eastern side, we came upon the nesting grounds of the Magnificent Frigate Birds.

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While the Boobies are light enough to be able to launch from the ground, and thus nest there, Frigate Birds are large, heavier, and thus nest only in trees. And apparently in large numbers!

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Another difference is that the Frigate Birds don’t have waterproof feathers or webbed feet, and thus are not diving birds. Instead, they skim the surface, picking off shallow swimming fish, or they steal from other birds. Or from humans, as the huge flocks wheeling above the fish market that morning had attested too.

We wandered around, taking in the great island scenery and as many birds as we could, not to mention some small lizards and even a decent sized snake (Alina loved it, I’m sure).

We then headed back to the boat, where we ate lunch once offshore (no food on the island!) For a tour, we were pleasantly surprised by the the sandwiches, watermelon, pineapple, and even homemade muffins that we got to eat. As we relaxed with our food, some people ran to the sides of the boat, and we curiously looked over, only to see Green Sea Turtles swimming all around us.

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Our guide threw watermelon rinds into the water for them to munch on and the congregated around us. I love the way that they look like they’re flying through the water when they use their flippers.

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After lunch, it was off to the local reef for a bit of snorkeling. We were happy that the sun had fully emerged during our hike and now we were nice and warm, and ready to jump in the ocean. It wasn’t as spectacular as some of the other reefs we’ve seen in Malaysia or Hawaii, but there were still plenty of brightly colored fish to peer at.

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Finally, it was time to leave and we tried to rest on the bumpy ride back to Puerto Lopez, followed for a time by flocks of birds out for the afternoon hunt.  As they wheeled, dove, and skimmed the water around us, I was happy thinking this was a good way to end over a year of traveling around the world.

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