Author: Delaney Nolin
Before our arrival in Galápagos, I had one last incredible experience on the mainland of Ecuador. For the first week of my second class, “Marine Life,” I had the opportunity to go with my class to the coast of Ecuador. We boarded another early morning bus and left the cool, dry climate of Quito for an eight hour bus ride to the hot and sticky coast. Despite the daunting travel time ahead of us, I was excited to be on my way to Esmereldas on the coast. Almost as soon as we left, I fell asleep and did not wake up until I suddenly felt like I was melting — we had descended greatly in altitude and were now in banana country. I peered out the window and small town after small town flew by, punctuating the seemingly endless forest of banana trees. It was such a different world than Quito, which now seemed like a modern metropolis next to this tropical agricultural land. Finally, eight hours, five sketchy gas station bathrooms and thousands of bananas later, we finally arrived at El Acantilado in Esmereldas.
The first thing I noticed when we arrived, besides the unbelievable view of the coast, was that there were huge iguanas running through the field in front of the hotel. They lurked in the tall grasses on the edge of the property and, every once in a while, would dart out and bolt to another hiding place. This was just a taste of the amazing organisms that we would see throughout the week, the star of these being the humpback whales we would study that week.
The first day we went out to study the whales, there was an aura of magic around us as we all tittered with excitement. We finally boarded the small boats and pulled out from the shore and into the open ocean to find whales. Our boat focused on bioacoustics, which involved recording the songs of whales. The recordings were monitored by our professor’s research assistant. The other boat, which hosted our professor, was focused on getting samples from the whales. Not 20 minutes into our survey, we saw a column of spray in the sky and all yelled “WHALE!” while keeping our arms in the direction of the sighting. As we approached closer, we began to see the huge still patches on the surface of the ocean that were the result of air bubbles the whales released underwater.
After a bit of patience and some expert boat maneuvering, we finally saw this huge grey mass arc out of the water, closely followed by a smaller grey arc. It was a mother with calf humpback whales. Despite the warning we had received before leaving, we could barely contain our excitement and all stood and moved to the side to try to get a glimpse of the whales, which were a mother and calf. Because only male whales sing, we did not try to get a song recording, but the other boat got even closer to try to extract a skin sample.
Even though we did not get as close, we were still unbelievably close, and it was incredible to see such awesome and colossal creatures so close. I could not believe that these huge whales swam so close to the shore, only maybe 500-1000 meters away from the beach where we began. We then moved on and the boats drove further away over the choppy sea, and we were all soon soaked from the sea spitting from the sides. Throughout the week we saw a number of other small whale groups, usually two or three individuals in each, but none captured the magic of that original sighting.
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