Cultures Sauvages (Raw Cultures) is a radio show on Radio Eponyme, a local radio of Mulhouse. The show was created in 2017 and talks about culture and especially music and literature. Since October 2019, I’m doing a chronicle every month about my travels and I decided to draw something to illustrate my adventures!
The May 20th 2020 show was about soaring and was recorded in each of the team’s house since we couldn’t get together due to the Covid19 locked-down. You can listen to it -in French- right here:
WELCOME TO ISLA DE LA PLATA
Off the Ecuadorian coast, in the Pacific Ocean, the Isla de la Plata island is sometimes called “The Little Galapagos” ou “the Poor Men’s Galapagos”. Close the little pueblo of Puerto Lopez, this 14m² island holds a few treasures for the birds’ and sea creatures’ lovers.
This tiny island is inhabited and protected by some strict regulation because it’s part of the Machalilla National Park in which you can also find amazing secluded beaches, islands, sulphur lagoons and dry forests. That’s the reason why you can only set foot on Isla de la Plata through a guided tour. Most of the tour operators offer a day trip deal including the boat journey, snorkelling gear and lunch for about 40$ (more or less 35€).
Why is this island named Isla de la Plata? In Spanish, plata means silver, and by extension money. According to the legend, Sir Francis Drake, a famous British navigator from the XVIth Century, would have stolen a Spanish ship’s treasure close to Lima while on his world tour and had buried it on Isla de la Plata… The other explanation is much less glamourous because it’s also said that the island is called “silver island” because of the colour of the bird’s droppings. Indeed, the island is home to a big population of exceptional birds including the Blue-Footed Boobies.
THE SOUND OF WHALES
July 2018. On the Ecuadorian Coast, it’s rather the low season. It doesn’t really feel like Summer, the sky is often grey, there’s a lot of wind, and it’s even a bit cold sometimes. However, it’s the perfect moment to go to Isla de la Plata because between June and September, it’s the Humpback Whales’ season!
The one-hour boat ride between Puerto Lopez and Isla de la Plata is then enriched with the sight of several Humpback Whales (Ballena Jorobada in Spanish). We navigate close to groups of three or four individuals, maybe families. They’re not jumping out of the water, but I can spot their dorsal fins and flukes. Our guide informs us that the shape, the scars and the spots on the fluke of Humpback Whales are distinct to each individual. It’s a bit like their fingerprints.
I had already spotted a whale off the coast of New Zealand, a Southern Right Whale actually, and this sight surely had fascinated and exhilarated me in a way only natural marvel can. Now, I’m close enough to hear them breathing through their blowholes. Pschiiiiiiit. This is enchanting. Time stops, stretches until we can only discern few eddies far away in the horizon.
As the boat is reaching Isla de la Plata, our group is welcomed by schools of dolphins, then sea turtles which seem willing to escort us! I haven’t even set foot on the island yet that this journey is already way more magical than I expected!
On the beach where we land, red crabs are fleeing from my feet and we’re facing the only building of the island, the Conservation Center. A few tracks depart from here, around the island but also on the heights, the culminating point, Punto Faro, being 160m high. Our group is splitting in two, one with an English-speaking guide, and the other with a Spanish-speaking one. I choose the last one, even though my Spanish level is far from being fluent, but the group is smaller and my boyfriend at the time promised me he would translate everything I don’t understand. Off we go through the Sendero de las Fragatas, on the ridges, to spot some birds!
THE ISLAND OF BIRDS
The vegetation here on the island is very dry int his time of the year. We come across cactus with strange shapes and small trees. The landscape isn’t that pleasant, until… Some Blue-Footed Boobies appears on the path! The Blue-Footed Booby (Alcatraz Patiazul in Spanish) is a marine bird whose peculiarity is having turquoise feet. It’s called “Booby” because the English name comes from the Spanish word bobo, which means “stupid” in Spanish slang. They’re seen as stupid probably because they don’t really fear humans, and therefore were used to land on sailing ships, where the crew would catch them and eat them pretty easily.
They also have an awkward way of walking, they’re waddling like penguins because, like them, they only land to breed and rear young. The biggest population of Blue-Footed Boobies are living on the Galapagos Islands. The guide tells us that their feet get darker with age and the females can choose by eyesight a young partner to mate with.
It’s actually reproduction season at the moment, so some Boobies are hatching or taking care of their chicks. The not so little chicks still have their cloudy white fluff, but don’t you dare get too close! Otherwise, the parents will get excited and flap their wings very fast to protect their babies. They make peculiar sounds, those Blue-Footed Boobies, the males are kind of whistling while the females clatter like white storks. The more I watch them, the more I’m in awe. They’re so lovable with their waddling walk and their blue feet! The Blue-Footed Booby could almost dethrone penguins in my heart.
Further on the path, we encounter some other peculiar birds: the Magnificent Frigatebirds (Fregata Magnificens in Spanish). The Fregatas are also marine birds and their name comes from a flamboyant particularity: the males Fregata possess a kind of red bag on their necks (it’s called a gular sac) that they inflate like a balloon during the nuptial parade. When it’s tired to brag, its red sac just deflates and hang on its neck. When they’re all perched in the trees, their gular sacs inflated, it almost looks like red flowers from afar.
Isla de la Plata also hosts to other rare species like the Albatross or the Red-Footed Booby, but we haven’t met any. Back to the beach where we landed, the guide lends us some masks and fins to explore what’s underwater around the island. La Isla de la Plata and the whole Puerto Lopez region are renowned for their beautiful marine life: the island is surrounded by a coral reef home to numerous species. You can witness marine turtles and dolphins of course, but also the famous Ocean Sunfish also called Mola Mola or Manta Rays that gather there to feed in August.
Isla de la Plata is also called the “Poor Men’s Galapagos”, and that’s fair, considering how much it costs to get to the Galapagos and the numerous rare and amazing animals that may be spotted there. Isla de la Plata is definitely more affordable, and somehow might be a better choice than going to the Galapagos. The exceptional nature reserve is also suffering because of the tourism industry, even though the regulations are rigorous.
Hence, wouldn’t it be better to have a little day trip in the sea with a local agency and passionate guides who know and respect their Isla de la Plata? What I know for sure though, is that I came back in Puerto Lopez my dreamy head full of whales and their pschiiiiit, and colourful images of peculiar birds.
LITTLE REMINDER OF IMPORTANT POINTS TO RAISE IF YOU WANT TO SEE WILDLIFE (INCLUDING BOAT EXCURSIONS):
- Ask the cruise company about their policy. If they are chasing whales/dolphins, encircling animals, if there are many boats in the same zone, if the boats are overcrowded, if they offer you to feed the animals, touch them or to dive with them: that’s a big NO.
- While on an excursion: you’re in a wild environment, stay on the path, don’t touch anything, don’t speak too loud, don’t get too close to the animals, don’t feed them.
- Don’t throw anything on land or in the water.