Hello little sea star

Burst of color

The ocean, for all it’s vibrant life, can be a dreary place full of browns and muted blues and grays and dull reds.

This is a combination of factors: Where there’s not reef, there’s often only rock and sand and mud. Algae grow everywhere and not all of it is particularly colorful. Light is filtered out by water. By the time you drop to ten meters, already a large portion of the red spectrum is not visible.

So it’s always spectacular when something really stands out, like this wonderful sea star near Isla de la Plata. For the record, these guys are an important part of some finely-tuned ecosystems, so please don’t encourage trade in exotic underwater species by buying them on vacation.

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Humpback whales, up close and personal

Just dropping by to say hello

Well, sometimes up close. Meet the migrating humpbacks off the coast of Puerto Lopez, Ecuador. July, August and September are great times for whale sightings. The annual migration drives much of the tourist season here.

The whales play and frolic, breaching, slapping their flukes and fins and generally show off for the tourists. Every now and then they come very close to a boat to say hello. And as spectacular as seeing them: hearing them underwater sometimes kilometers away as you dive. Their high-pitched whine is a surreal treat in the underwater world where you can usually only hear your own breathing.

I was shooting with a point-n-shoot camera, so forgive me.

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The dumbest-looking birds you’ve ever seen

Silly, silly birds

Meet the Blue-footed Booby, one of the birds the Galapagos Islands (and in this case, Isla de la Plata) is most famous for. The bird’s vacant, surprised expression says it all. Throw in it’s odd walk and lack of fear of humans and they appear to be the dumbest bird alive.

But they’re also really beautiful (in a silly sort of way).

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Overcast but exceedingly pleasant beaches

Wide sandy shores

Los Frailes, a beach inside the Machalilla National Park north of Puerto Lopez.

It’s a tourist attraction mostly for Ecuadorians who set up tents, play soccer and frolic in what Westerners would shun as too-cold waters. The lack of sun notwithstanding, it’s a fine place to spend an afternoon.

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Now that might be sustainable fishing

Old man and the sea

This old man was fresh from his dinghy, which bobbed at anchor in the Puerto Lopez bay. As much as I think widespread fishing remains unsustainable, I’m supportive of small-scale local catches, particularly since the lives of so many poor depend on the sea.

The trick — and what I intend to devote graduate school study to — is finding that appropriate balance between commerce and conserving the planet’s cardiovascular system (i.e., the oceans).

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Highly evolved predator killed by highly ignorant predator

Bycatch

Here I go again railing against the ills of bycatch. Above is a closeup of the beautiful but dead juvenile scalloped hammerhead, a shark that has evolved over eons. Yet like most animals, it has not been prepared for the rapacious habits of man.

Becoming a diver made me appreciate the environment infinitely more, and close encounters like this, in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador, gave me the visceral push to become completely vegetarian and abhor the present trajectory of commercial fishing.

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Blue skies and silver bluffs

And now and then, clouds break

Isla de la Plata, the island of silver, is so named either because a naval giant stashed his treasure there, or because the guano covering the islands cliffs glints grey in the sun.

It’s also often referred to as the poor man’s Galapagos. It’s the only place in the world outside the vaunted island chain where you can find the three species of sought-after boobies: blue-footed, masked and red-footed.

It’s also home to sea lions and frigate birds and other rare wildlife both on land and in the fertile seas surrounding. It draws tourists from around Ecuador and South America for a glimpse at natural wonder without the price of a Galapagos visit.

I spent many and afternoon diving these waters. I revel now looking back at the beautiful cliffs.

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Cold, beautiful water

Brrrrrrr...

A rocky inlet of Isla de la Plata, a national park island off the northwest of Puerto Lopez. The waters are home to some of the best Pacific wildlife outside the Galapagos — manta rays, giant diamond stingrays, green turtles a plenty, even the occasional hammerhead shark.

The temps, however, mean wetsuits are a must. Low 60s, Fahrenheit.

Brrrr…

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Colors of winter

Isla de la Plata life

Ecuadorian winter on the Ruta del Sol, the southern coast, is a misty, bleak and windswept time. All but the hardiest greenery fades and shrivels. The coast turns a dusty brown without the lifegiving rains and sun. It’s actually quiet beautiful in its austerity.

Save for a few bright spots, like this flower from Isla de la Plata, off the coast of Puerto Lopez.

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Order the daily bycatch? Maybe you’re eating manta ray or shark

Rays accidentally caught, likely to be sold as trash

Many average restaurants in coastal Ecuador offer a fixed menu of fish dishes: pescado ceviche, pescado tortilla, pescado spaghetti, etc. What they mostly likely can’t tell you is what type of “pescado” you’re actually eating.

That’s because they might very well be using bycatch, the incidental catch of fish other than a targeted species. If a fishermen is angling for snapper or grouper, he is probably also pulling up loads of other species — from sharks to rays to sea turtles.

Bycatch is particularly bad with shrimp, where one pound of the prawns costs the lives of as much as 20 pounds of other fish.

At least the fishermen are trying to sell the bycatch and the local economy absorbs some of it. Restaurants and residents purchase bycatch sometimes as trash fish, to grind up into a generic meal.

Killing rays and sharks — animals far more valuable alive, either as tourist attractions and/or as vital parts of healthy, breathing ocean — makes little sense.

And in many other instances, other sea creatures pulled up aren’t even broad to market. They’re simply tossed — often already dead — back overboard, treated as competitors (for the record, manta rays don’t eat fish) by the fishermen themselves.

And some still wonder why fisheries are so depleted. See below to understand more.

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