20 April 2011

Islas Ballestas - You're Fulla Guano

Worst address ever. The flaming bag of poop prank totally does not work here.

Las Islas Ballestas, or "The Poor Man's Galapagos," are located a few miles off of the coast of Paracas, near Pisco. Because I have ethical issues with visiting the famed Galapagos, I jumped at the chance to go and have a look at these guano covered rocks.

Ancient peoples, tripping balls.

After waking up at the ungodly hour of 5:30am we set out from Ica and arrived at the boat about an hour later, pushing just after sunrise. The first sight along the way was the "Candelabra," a 200 metre long geoglyph etched into the side of a hill and visible miles out to sea. Some say it looks like a decorative candlestick, a South American Sea-God's trident or a masonic symbol. Others claim it depicts jimson weed, a hallucinogenic cactus found in California. Guesses on its age date to 200 BC, and it is not related to the Nazca Lines 200 km away. It was, to say the least, a surreal sight that early in the morning.

I've gotta say that the whole hallucinogenic weed thing sounds the most plausible to me. Two thousand years ago it would have been pretty hard to understand that those bright colours, lucid visions and strange noises when one injests a hallucinogen (not that I have, ahem, experience... ahem) are just that - a hallucination and not, say, messages from a trident wielding sea monster god guy. Taking jimson weed probably would have been a disturbingly vivid and excitingly addicting experience in a world otherwise dominated by, well, sand. But I digress.

Where's Tippi Hedren when you need her?

After leaving the candelabra I instantly dozed off due to my remarkable (even awe-inspiring) ability to sleep on any moving vehicle (an automatic defense mechanism to protect me from my ever-worsening motion sickness - I miss out on scenery but also on vomit. It's a decent trade-off). I woke about 20 minutes later, just as we were approaching a cluster of small islands. Two things hit me right away: the cacophony of squalling birds and the smell - a huge, loud smell; a smell of ammonia, urinals and wet dog. "We must be here." I said queasily.

The sky was dark with birds, swirling and dancing in the sky above our boat. These islands are home to dozens of species of birds (some migratory and some permanent residents) including blue footed boobies (hee!), Peruvian pelicans and Humboldt penguins.

Only Ms. Violet Dear could connect pelicans to Brando in one creepy degree.

For me, the pelicans were the most surreal (seen here with bitsy little penguins), especially when flying directly overhead in a V formation. These guys are so strange, so bizarre - their huge pouches jiggling under their beaks, their off kilter dimensions - I felt like I was watching some kind of sci-fi "Island of Doctor Moreau" type movie. Which led me to my ever-unwholesome thoughts about Marlon Brando, so I had to snap out of that pretty quickly....

Every inch of island covered in birds.

This was my first experience seeing penguins in the wild (I had previously seen them in Syndney's Taronga Zoo), and it exceeded my hopes. The little fellows tottered around, hopping from rock to rock like little puppety muppet things. The Humboldt penguin is tiny, only a few feet tall and adorable as all get out. I wanted to hug them.

Oh, what the hell.

The rocky bases of the islands are covered with brightly coloured orange and purple crabs, which our guide informed us have a "very bad, bad taste." It makes sense - in nature, most things that are really eye-catchingly bright are coloured as such to warn predators. "Listen, I'm either poisonous or just plain yucky. Fuhgeddaboutit." Hm. That's really too bad. I like crab. Kind of. Well, ok. A lot.

Home, sweet ho... oh, who are you kidding?

No one is actually allowed to set foot on these islands. See, the tens-of-thousands-of-probably-millions of birds? They, erm, excrete. A lot. So much so that the guano, the Spanish word for bird poop, can reach 50 metres deep and all of the islands appear white. This cache of smelly treasure was actually Peru's largest export in the 19th Century. Huh. No wonder the place smelled.

Once every 6 years the government sends in a team to collect it, using this dock to alight. Worst of all? The two permanent security guards that live here, in isolation, for 4 month stretches. Alone. Nothing but birds, guano and potential guano thieves - a confusing (and confused) bunch if there ever was one. "Stop! Put that shit down! Literally!" Is there any point in punishing these thieves? Hasn't life punished them enough?

Tough job, but someone's gotta do it.

The Ballestas islands are home to a few other notable species - two types of endangered turtles, dolphins and sea lions! These guys mugged nicely for my camera, and moments later a mummy and baby splashed past me in the water, the wee babe's head mere inches from my fingertips.

Walk. Away. Slowly.

But nothing prepared me for this eerie sight as we turned into a small bay. The beach was covered with hundreds of sea lions, collectively emitting a wailing, moaning sound that reminded me of a pack of wolves baying at the moon. They waddled from the beach to the water, swimming past us in alarming numbers and adding their individual calls to the group baying. Despite the morning sun beating down on my head I felt strangely chilled by the sound (you can hear it here in this 6 minute video surveying the island). *shudder*

Mr. Chubbs welcomes you.

The one hour trip around the islands was fascinating - a completely different (and more pungent) coastal landscape than the ones I am used to visiting, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Guano - not just for poop freaks anymore!

1 comment:

Teresa said...

Amazing! Thank you for sharing! I assume everyone on the boat wears hats?