Got Fish?

Early on the morning of our fifth day in the Galapagos, eight passengers disembarked from our boat at Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island; their time in the Galapagos was over. Twelve new passengers were to come aboard at lunchtime but for now, the four of us who were remaining for a longer adventure had the morning to ourselves.

Yvonne and I walked down the dock, which was covered with sea lions and recently-arrived tourists. As the latter waited to board various boats, they excitedly took photos of the sea lions lazing about on benches and against railings. The two of us smirked condescendingly at each other, amused by these newbies’ innocent delight. We were once wide-eyed like them but after four days, we felt oh-so-cocky. Docile sea lions on the dock was so normal; this was nothing compared to what we’d seen in our vast experience of the Galapagos.

After visiting the Charles Darwin Research Center, we walked back to town and enjoyed one of the most remarkable experiences of our trip: The fish market of Puerto Ayora. Our tour itinerary simply said “The tiny town of Puerto Ayora offers some unique shopping opportunities and a fish market to check out.” No way did this description do justice to the amazing theater we were about to witness.

The delicious aroma of the morning’s fresh catch filled my nostrils. Worn, blue-painted wooden counters were covered with that day’s tuna, grouper, snapper, and other fish I didn’t recognize. A couple of big bins were piled high with live lobsters. The fishmongers served their plentiful customers, cutting fish to order on plastic cutting boards, or stacking lobsters on a scale to be weighed before stuffing them three or four at a time into plastic grocery bags.

Two big sea lions wandered about behind the counters next to the half-dozen men and women who constantly cleaned and cut fish. Though ostensibly wild, the sea lions acted like pet dogs, standing high on their flippers, noses resting on the countertops.  They’d climb up and steal a fillet when the workers weren’t looking. If they were caught, they’d be gently slapped on the head with the flat of a knife; the workers seemed amused, not upset, when a sea lion succeeded in stealing food. Someone opened an ice chest and a sea lion was there, politely begging for a taste of the aromatic bounty within. Most of the time, they just hovered hopefully. If the sea lions were well-behaved, they’d get fed scraps: guts, bones, and fish heads.

Meanwhile, nearly two dozen pelicans waddled around behind the counters, in front of the counters, and on the counters, trying to steal whatever they could. Sometimes they’d get lucky: One of the mongers would have some leftovers to give them. They’d crowd around, noisily jostling each other while waiting to get their share, then fighting over the guts or bony scraps thrown their way.

Beware the heron!

Beware the heron! There was only one, who self-importantly strutted around behind the counters. He constantly asserted his ownership of the fish market by squawking loudly and snapping his beak at lone pelicans who dared wander into his domain, angrily chasing them away. I rarely saw him actually get any food.

The market was a cacophony of sea lions barking, people chattering, knives clattering, and pelicans clamoring; punctuated by the screaming heron. A dozen frigate birds screeched overhead, wheeling and diving, trying to steal food from the pelicans, occasionally slapping me in the face with their huge outstretched wings as I stood there taking it all in. A huge stingray glided silently around the small boats in the water just off the dock.

As we enjoyed the show, an old man slowly shuffled up with his walker and sat down on a bench. In Spanish, Yvonne talked to him about the fish. Then, as she is wont to do, she drew out his life story. He moved to Santa Cruz island 50 years ago. He told her that the tuna cost $3/lb. and lobster was $7/lb., but they used to be much cheaper! His wife died some years ago; his grandson is one of the fishmongers and the old man loves to watch him at work.

sealionandbikeI sat down on an empty bench next to the one on which the old man was resting. A customer’s bicycle was leaning against the far end of the bench. All of a sudden, a sea lion decided to join me. It hauled itself up, shoving the bike out of its way, and settled itself down on the bench. Relaxed now, it closed its eyes, its head inches from my lap. I wanted to pet it but I knew better, and settled for amusing photos.

We reluctantly left to have lunch on board the boat and meet the new passengers. In the evening, after our group visited the highlands to see the island’s wild tortoises, we returned to town and watched as the locals played Ecuavoly. It’s basically “Ecuadorian Rules” volleyball with a very high net, and three typically short men to a team; spiking the ball was a rare event. There were a couple of hundred spectators sitting on bleachers, many of whom were not exactly passive; our guide told us that most had placed bets on the outcome of the game.

As the sun began to set, sea lions barked on the nearby beach and docks. Just another day in a small town in the Galapagos Islands.

Note: The first photo in this post, of sea lions on a bench, is not mine; for some reason we didn’t think to take one at the docks while we ourselves were wide-eyed with delight! This photo is courtesy of Nancy Herkness, who happens to be a romance novelist. You can check her out here.