miércoles, 23 de mayo de 2012

Las Islas Ballestas

A large, brown, galumptuous sea lion shimmies awkwardly up a sea boulder, its blubber wobbling and strange tailfins uselessly flopping. It makes it to the peak of the tiny, rock island and turns its fuzzy brown face to the sun, whiskers twitching. Its flippers rest on rock smeared with guano, the white, nitrogen rich substance used for fertilizing plants and known commonly as bird poop. Our sea lion now flops on its side, fatty muscles gliding into a twisted slump. Its head falls back and it rests almost upside down, head hanging off the rock, back glass pebble eyes following mine as I zip by on a motorboat.

This is reality. This is not a zoo. Around the sea lion and its friends, penguins, cormorants, black terns, red footed boobies, and pelicans sit, preen, swoop, and take off in clouds and frenzies. They cover every square inch of the rocks we're motoring by. They flood the sky like clouds of grasshoppers you'd imagine converging on Midwestern farmland. 

The craggy rock islands I'm looking at are Las Islas Ballestas, also known as the Poor Man's Galapagos. The Galapagos Islands are miles north off the coast of Ecuador, and are famous worldwide for their variety of endemic species, or species that are unique to a defined geographic location. As far as I know, the Ballestas Islands are compared to the Galapagos only because of their wide array of bird species and general concentrated wildlife. But while a tour of the Galapagos can cost thousands of dollars, our boat trip to tour the Ballestas Islands was only about $15. 

You aren't allowed on the islands; the tours just circle them in an open, 50 odd seater motor boat. We left early in the morning. The sky is gray and the sea choppy.

We speed past the Paracas Peninsula first. It's a spit of orange sandy undulating hills that bleed red into the blue gray Pacific. The Peninsula is a marine reserve that extends along the coast. It’s the only marine reserve in Peru, and it’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Aside from marine life, it is famous for the Paracas Candelabra Petroglyph. The giant candelabra, 600 feet tall, is etched into the sand on the north face of the peninsula ridge. After dating the pottery that surrounds the petroglyph to 200 BCE, it is estimated to have been made around that time, during the age of the Paracas culture.

The most exciting thing about the Paracas Peninsula is that it’s where Mr. Devries, my very inspiring geology teacher of senior year, has spent decades digging up marine fossils. I had been 15 minutes away from his center of geological study for a month and a half and hadn’t realized it until he sent me an email the other day. Amazingly enough, Devries and a team of geologists are coming to Paracas in early July, and I will still be in Peru.

Even more coincidental and astounding is the next story he told me. I will copy and paste the quote from the email he sent me.

“At 3:40PM on Aug. 15, 2007, a team of paleontologists (http://www.livescience.com/3390-great-white-sharks-grew-slower-fossil-shows.html; and also  http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/sciencestories/2009/fossil_shark.htm) passed by Pisco on the Panamerican Highway, on our way back from Sacaco, south of Nazca, where we had been looking for the stratigraphic position of a fossil shark skull, complete with teeth. We had found the shark pit in the middle of the desert (see linked photo) and were therefore heading back a day early. Through Nazca in the morning; through Ica and 2PM; through Pisco at 3:40; through Chincha Baja and Chincha alta at 4:10PM. We arrived in Lima around 6:10. We had barely settled into our hotel (and I was in a taxi on Avenida Petit Thouars on my way to visit my brother in San Isidro) when the quake struck.

If we'd been three hours later in our departure from Sacaco, we'd have been trapped in Pisco.”

And they would have been in the middle of the very earthquake whose affects I am still trying to help reverse. Amazing. Back to the Ballestas.....

We shoot across the gray waters and shady rock silhouettes begin to form in the hazy distance, floating amongst the faded blue skeletons of fishing vessels. As the islands sharpen and reveal their orangey brown hues, coves, arches and inlets, you are bombarded by cascades of diving and sailing birds. The rock is painted tan, splashed and sprayed with guano white, and dipped in a rusty red like easter eggs in red dye. The sea laps at a ring of black obsidian like mussels.

White foam sprays up around the birds, penguins and sea lions. They pose on their stone pedestals like statues; they lounge like models in a photo shoot, which is precisely what they are right now. Jagged boulders like horns jab out of the clipping waves, hard rocks jutting like crystals. They jut out in sharp angles, on whose faces sit more and more birds. 

The cormorant, also common in Puget Sound, is the most populous of the bird species on the Ballestas. Elegant and black, they pose on the rock with their wings unfurled and shake them dry for what seems like hours. Definitely enough to snap a picture. The red footed Peruvian boobies look like delicate and graceful seagulls, with quaint white heads, gray bodies and an aesthetic wingspan. In the months of January and February, blue footed boobies migrate from the Galapagos Islands down to the Ballestas. 

Near the end of the tour, the boat passes by several buildings. According to our tour guide, they are inhabited by workers whose job is shovelling the guano, the bird poop, and sending it to the mainland to be used as a fertilizer. When used with the proper concentration, the nitrogen in the guano helps plants grow. There is also high nitrogen content in pee, which is why there is a garden next to the compost toilets we're building in Pisco. 

After the tour our group of 12-ish PSFers lunched on the beach in the town of Paracas. Although touristy, it's a nice beach town and refreshing from the grimier Pisco, which is only about 15 minutes away. The Ballestas Islands are considered the best ecotourism trip off the coast of Peru (in all honesty I’m not sure how much more there is to do off the coast of Peru...) but I knew I had to squeeze in a trip to the islands before I left PSF. It was my last weekend, and a good way to finish off my desert coast experience. Maybe I will be back on the Paracas Peninsula, right before I catch my flight home to Lima with Devries and his team! It would be cutting it close, but it would be an unmatchable experience.

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