27.08.2010 - 03.09.2010 24 °C
Finally back on land and sitting in an atrium of our converted hacienda hotel, high in the Andean Mountains in Quito. Haven’t got my land legs back though. Periodically losing your balance when you move without thinking, or feeling the room sway while you are sitting, is a little disconcerting, not to mention very strange looking! Pretty sure people think we have had one too many cervezas! There is a wonderful thunder and lightning show going on outside and I thankfully have my pashminas doubled up. The changes in climate and temperature on this trip could not get more varied.
Sorry for the large post, but strangely, cruising around the middle of nowhere on the equatorial Pacific Ocean didn’t allow for easy internet access, so, this will be a combined update of our adventures in the Galapagos, or as we all referred to it, Paradise.
There was no easing into our adventures in Paradise. We flew into the island of San Cristobel by late morning and had our first sea lion encounter. A youngster greeting our group on the gangplank as we boarded the zodiac to take us to our boat, La Pinta. Of the 50-passenger capacity, we are a group of about 17 as the high tourist season winds down. Awesome! Carlos, one of our 2 naturalists, welcomed us aboard and after lunch, we had our orientation, info on how to jump ship in an emergency, and our instructions for the dry and wet landings into and out of the zodiac. Then came the hilarious kitting out of wet suits, snorkel and fins – just have to say, wet suits, not my best look :-)
Once that was taken care of, we were off for our first excursion, a trip to a bay off San Cristobal. Where we donned the beautiful wetsuit attire and entered the water. It was our first wet landing too, which just means jumping out of the zodiac into the ocean and wading ashore, trying not to get knocked over by waves, and trying not to notice how cold the water was that we were about to snorkel in.
A small herd of sea lions were on the beach and you can’t believe how close they let you come to them – seemingly oblivious. The whole of the islands are like this. Life is very hard on the for species to survive and the remoteness and isolation means that the only animals to make it there and adapt were reptiles, birds and seals. There are no land predators to speak of, so they are completely unafraid. I’ve never seen anything like it. Beautiful and strange birds nesting right by the paths you’re hiking through, going about their daily routines without a care and totally dismissive of the tourists gawking and taking pictures. It helps a lot that the government does a really good job of managing this special ecological resource. The numbers of visitors are strictly controlled, the routes taken carefully managed and well-trained naturalists are always present. First and foremost is the preservation of this singularly unique habitat. Only 3% of the islands are populated, the rest designated preserved parklands.
So day 1, and we were already hiking and snorkelling. The younger Galapagos sea lions doing drive-bys while we were in the water, coming so close to us we could feel the current of the water as they sped by. They’re especially fascinated if you blow bubbles from the snorkel, coming right up to you to investigate. A big sea turtle also came over to check us out, and countless weird and wonderful fish. This was mostly a learning day, but for all that, we had such great animal sightings. Frigate birds soaring all over the skies and dive-bombing the storm petrals dancing on the waves. Frigates look strangely like prehistoric flying dinosaurs when they’re in the sky. They’re the 2nd largest bird on the islands and fantastic fliers, but not very good in the water, so they make their living as pirates. Harassing other birds to drop their catches and sometimes sweeping down and plucking smaller birds, like the petrals, up for a snack. The aerial acrobatics were wonderful.
After cruising overnight, our first expedition in the morning was a dry landing and a hike over the volcanic rocks of Seymour Island. Pablo was our naturalist today and he had me demonstrating the blue-footed boobie mating dance with him – I think I make a rather good boobie! And after that, everyone on the boat knew my name!
The name Boobie means clown. An apt description! Their courtship rituals involve a lot of honking, dancing to show off their bright blue feet and elaborate back arching with wings outstretched. We saw lots of blue-footed boobies nesting, displaying, and with various aged young. The landscape was interesting with black lava porous rocks, large cacti like prickly pear and lots of varied low lying succulents. Also really cool white barked trees – the ever-present San Palo trees -- whose sap is a beautiful blood-red and smells like incense.
Back to the boat, into our wetsuits and off to our first deep-water dive. Cool!!! And I mean that literally as well. The waves were pretty rough so was a bit scared but turned out to be no problem, especially once your head was under the water. The parrot fish are particularly large and colourful. Also, they’re responsible for most of the white sand beaches. They eat coral and other calcium-heavy foods and consequently poop an average of 1 tonne of white sand each year! Makes you rethink white sandy beaches doesn’t it? Our dive had to be cut short about 30 minutes in when we started to run into increasing numbers of jelly fish. The water also became dotted with little round floating ‘pearls’ about 3mm in diameter. They looked like millions of eggs, but Carlos said they were dead jellyfish. So we started swimming and weaving through the water dodging, the little critters to get back on the zodiac. One of the group got stung, but not seriously – they had vinegar on the boat to reduce the stinging.
Next up, a 3km afternoon hike clambering over black lava rocks on Dragon Island. Named for the many land iguanas that dot the hillside. Land iguanas are about ½ metre long and wonderfully colourful, especially the larger males. It was mostly sunny for the first half of the trip, so very hot with the equatorial sun, but always breezy, which is good for the hiking. My Orissan cotton scarf proved to be a great head covering for the hikes here, providing a great covering that didn’t blow away in the wind and provided an extra towel on the beach, so a bit of India made it to the South Pacific. And, I have orders from the other folks on the boat for them.
After a wonderful dinner, we were standing on the back of the boat looking at stars and wishing per usual that we knew more about astronomy when we saw some shadows in the water. The crew turned on the lights and we saw 4 sharks swimming around, periodically chasing schools of flying fish. Long silver fish that skimmed the water in panic periodically as a shark got too close. The 4 sharks gradually turned into 7 and were joined by a large sea lion and the occasional pop ins of a sea turtle. We watched mesmerized for a few hours and when we finally decided we’d head for bed, a school of the fish came right up to the boat, and then the seal made a mad dash into the fish, and caught one! Chaos ensued. Fish flying everywhere and the sharks circled. Was rather like a fireworks show finale. Getting ready for bed, a smaller sea lion swam past my window. So awesome!!
On average, we would do at least one hike and one snorkel excursion a day, sometimes two. On the way to Floreana Island, we ran through a huge pod of bottlenose dolphins. At one point they seemed to be everywhere as far as the eye could see. The snorkelling was absolutely amazing but cold, strong currents that you could literally feel tugging at you. Still, we snorkelled for an hour and it was stunning. Schools of brightly coloured fish, swimming with waters teaming with schools of bright silver salema fish – we’d swim into a huge school and watch the fish part around you as one shimmering mass. As you’re swimming along the islet’s sides, it is a bit intimidating to see the sheer drop-off into the black abyss. These volcanic land masses have no gradual slope into the ocean.
After yet another wonderful lunch, we were off for a wet landing at Punta Cormorant beach and then back into the water to swim with the many giant marine sea turtles we saw grazing on the seaweed of the rocks. Punta Cormorant beach has a slight green cast and sparkles because the volcanic eruptions of that area created the semi-precious gem peridot during its eruptions, and you can pick small stones up off the beach pretty much anywhere.
On Monday we arrived at the largest of the islands, Isabella. This island is on the major hot spot of the Galapagos and has 5 active volcanoes. We hiked up to the rim of one that last erupted in 2005 – Sierra Negra – to breathtaking views of the caldera, the volcanic depression, which was 9km in diameter. Absolutely breathtaking, and not just for the view. After that meal, and my relative lack of hiking history over the last few years, it was a real workout. At the rim, we could see sulphur rising across the black lava flow basin of the caldera. The thought of all that volcanic pressure underneath us was a bit intimidating.
The seas are getting rougher and getting into and out of the zodiacs is quite a challenge in these conditions as the sea would rise and drop 5 or 6 feet. A rapid drop occurred while Ian was getting off the zodiac and onto our boat platform – good thing he has long biking legs!
Our next stop was at Santa Cruz, the most populous town, with 20,000 people living here. We started our morning with a visit to a tortoise breeding centre and visited massive domed tortoises. So strange, looking kind of like old men. Then a drive into the incredibly lush highlands to visit 2 twin pit crater formations – Los Gemelos. The forest surrounding had loads of canopy trees – scalesia forest – covered in mosses, ferns and orchids. Tres cool. Then off to visit lava caves, and then back to Puerto Ayora for lunch at the Finch Bay Eco Hotel. Best Pisco Sours so far. For the afternoon we visited the Charles Darwin Research Centre, which houses breeding programs for all the remaining species of tortoises, land iguanas and various flora and insects. Here we were able to see the saddle-backed tortoises for whome the islands are named. Galapago is Spanish for these tortoises.
Wednesday and another great day in paradise. Our first stop at Bartolomé Island had us swimming with penguins, and then hiking to the summit of a volcanic peak to see the surrounding amazing landscape.
The lava flows just opposite us were incredible. From an eruption 150 years ago, it flowed down into the sea in a mass sheet, engulfing a bunch of smaller islands forming new mainland. Very little lived on this new island but live was starting to establish – lava cactus, lizards and grasses had gained a foothold and started the cycle of life already flourishing on other islands.
It’s Thursday, and I couldn’t believe it was our last full day in paradise. This last day brought us to Espanola Island. What an amazing place but really tough trekking and climbing over small and large volcanic rocks and boulders. But all of that effort brought us past nesting blue-footed boobies, nasca boobies and billions of marine iguanas piled on top of each other to keep warm. Including “Christmas” marine iguanas. During their mating season, male marine iguanas start to turn bright red.
The piece de resistance of this island though, is the encounters you have with the largest bird on the islands, the waved albatross. What beautiful birds, nesting everywhere with ugly-duckling chicks and elaborate greeting rituals that resemble fencing match.
There were so many animals here it was a fitting end to our adventures. Seals with their pups, a dominant male showdown when we arrived, and a bachelor pad hangout for the poor males ousted from their prides. The surf was awesome and rocky landscape awe-inspiring, but as usual, the animals stole the show. You didn’t know which way to look and had to be careful you didn’t look when walking to avoid a broken leg. Carlos lost his walkie talkie somewhere on the island so we were all at the landing area jumping up and down and waving to the boat, as well as setting off our camera flashes. We had visions of being stranded on the island and wondering who we’d eat first! But, we finally got their attention and the zodiac came to get us.
Our cruise overnight back to San Cristobal for the departure back to Quito was the roughest journey yet. Ian set his GPS tracker thingy on for the 6 hour journey. He uses it to track the overall height he travels when biking, and for those six hours it said we ascended 1200 metres! That’s totalling the height of each wave the boat hit! I’m not sure I’ll ever stop swaying!!!
It was very sad to leave here, and we left with a desire to see more of these remarkable islands, so I leave yet another place vowing to return one day and explore further. And also with a new love, snorkelling and underwater photography. There is simply no time to work!!!
We’re off to the Amazon jungle tomorrow, which I imagine will be just as ‘unconnected’ as the Galapagos, so the next updates will likely be from Lima.