Creation and Destruction

Trip Start Jun 12, 2011
Trip End Oct 22, 2012

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Flag of Ecuador  ,
Monday, July 16, 2012

Aaaaah, the mystical islands of Galapagos where giant tortoises roam, sea lions lay around on beaches and park benches alike and all sorts of creatures have evolved differently to their ancestors on the mainland causing a eureka moment for Darwin and his infamous theory of evolution. It's always been a dream of mine to go there and I didn’t really think it was possible on a backpacker budget, but if you can stretch the budget slightly it really isn’t that expensive when you are there and there is no need to do expensive cruises unless there is a particular far off island or creature you want to see because most of the wildlife is accessible by a short stroll from your hotel. 

We decided to do the islands independently partly due to money restrictions but also after hearing that most of the cruise ships are foreign (mostly American) owned and as a result only a tiny percentage of the income from them goes to the islands and the islanders, who despite living on islands that are expensive to visit live in relative poverty. Many people simply visit the islands being picked up at the airport going on a cruise and being dropped at the airport.  This is a shame on so many levels.  The islanders themselves are lovely and not spending time staying on the islands leads to little interaction with them and means little or no support for them or their families or businesses.  In the past many of the inhabitants didn’t respect the wildlife on the islands mainly because they didn’t see any benefit from doing so.  However, in recent years more and more independent travellers have come to stay on the islands, bringing new income for them and with that incentive and understanding of how important it is to protect this rare environment that they live in.

Of course the other problem that faces the islands is sustainability.  More tourists means more impact on the islands and so this needs to be strictly monitored.  The park itself has realised this and monitors the situation, also issuing limited passes to each of the non-populated islands to ensure even spread of tourists.  Tourists can help by respecting the environment around them of course but there are always idiots like the German tourist who was recently caught trying to smuggle 2 rare endemic land iguanas out in his luggage. The flip side of taking things away is adding to the environment either by polluting plastics and litter or by introduced species.  A few of the biggest pests are: mora bushes (blackberry) which are growing everywhere spread by birds that eat their fruits and grow suffocating the endemic plants which as a result are becoming endangered; introduced rats which were probably brought by pirate and buccaneer ships in the late seventeenth century and sporadically by subsequent colonization and carry diseases and eat the berries of plants and are linked to the extinction of several flora as well as the Galapagos mouse; also ants, goats, pigs and other insects flora and fauna, although eradication programmes have now successfully removed some of these pests and there are NGO organisations that continually work to try to eradicate them. 

Extinction isn’t a new thing for Galapagos and many species have already ceased to exist, the most recent being the Pinta Island Tortoise, a sub-species of the Galapagos Tortoise, the last of which was Lonesome George who died on 24th June 2012.  Other species of tortoise were eradicated back when the islands were settled by whalers and convicts as they were fair game for food and often killed so that their body fats and oils could be used for street lamps. Currently there are many other species that are at risk of extinction.  Another huge contributing factor is the El Nino monsoon, accompanied by warm currents, winds and rain and which has a dramatic affect on the environment.  In 1982 the El Nino came with so much rain that plants that had never been seen before appeared as there wasn’t enough water previously to germinate them.  Unfortunately, although the land flourished, much coral reef that was over 400 years old was also destroyed as the water temperature rose and the flamingo population also dwindled.

As far as inhabitants go, the islands have seen a fair share although thankfully folklore kept numbers to a minimum.  Historically whalers came to the islands before explorers and scientists set up camp here, there were also prisoners held under the most awful conditions and the USA had an army base on Baltra during WW2. Most famously of course is Charles Darwin and his team who sailed the islands in 1831 on board the HMS Beagle, Charles never finding his sea legs and suffering terribly from sea sickness the whole time.  It wasn’t for another 30 years that he published his 'theory of evolution’ but his study of the wildlife in the Galapagos was pivotal in his understanding of evolution.  Here is an island where Cormorants have no predators so no need to fly and hence evolved as flightless birds, tortoises feed off cacti and so grew to become giants with long necks to reach their food, iguanas learned how to swim and feed off algae on the bottom of the sea, and the list goes on.  The islands are too fascinating and there is too much to learn and observe that I can’t possibly go into it all! 

So anyway, our journey around the Galapagos.... (apologies for the detail but this is also our record for the future and I don’t want to forget what we did here)

We spent our first afternoon doing some research into day trips and we managed to find ourselves a bit of a bargain on a short cruise instead.  We were also really pleased to find out that the boat was Ecuadorian owned and so we would at least be supporting local economy and not American wallets.

We had 4 days to kill before the cruise and so we spent our first full day on Santa Cruz chilling on the beach in Tortuga Bay.  Although no turtles to be found here, the walk there takes you along a lava stone lined path alive with lava lizards and along another beautiful white sand beach and around a headland covered in cactus forest and mangroves where you find tonnes of marine iguanas chilling out in the sun spitting away (they spit salt water out of their noses using their salt glands), blue footed boobies chill out on the rocks and if you’re lucky you can frolic in the rock pools with the sea lions. After spending the afternoon relaxing we took some free bikes from our tour agents and cycled to the Darwin Research Centre where Lonesome George used to be.  It’s a bit zoo like but the Interpretation Centre there is interesting.

Our second morning and a hike along a rocky path to Las Grietas, a canyon where you can jump into crystal clear waters.  We then took the afternoon ferry to Isabella Island as part of a bargain land tour package we booked from the same lovely ladies who sold us our cruise. 

The third day, an early start to see the flamingos and then a long and muddy hike up Sierra Negra volcano.  Isabella is the largest of all the islands and also the youngest as the volcanic hotspot is to the west of it.  As such there are barren volcanic landscapes that make you feel like you are on mars.  You can see the way the rock would have flowed and still evidence of its liquid form in red and orange formations.  The more liquid lava forms formations which are spikey and painful to walk on and so have been called the Hawaiian name of A’a (Ah Ah) lava – because it makes you go ah ah when you walk on it.  The caldera of Sierra Negra is said to be one of the biggest in the world and in the same category as Yellowstone National Park, i.e. a ‘supervolcano’ measuring 7.2 x 9.3 km. On the way we spotted yellow warblers, and Galapagos mocking birds as well as endemic plants.  After hiking the volcano, a break to change at the hotel and then off on boats to Las Tintoreras to see ‘shark alley’ full of white tips chilling out having a kip, and a tour around the island, spotting Galapagos sea lions and Galapagos penguins, visiting a marine iguana kindergarten and spotting sally light foot crabs, Galapagos herons and oyster catchers.  We then jumped into the water (in our wetsuits – its cold water, brr) for a snorkel only to be joined by two oh so playful sea lions who followed us and played with us for 45 minutes.  It was a totally amazing experience.  Whenever we ducked under the water they would follow and swim around us to play.  AMAZING!!!!

The next day was an independent day so we moved hostels early and then headed off on our tour of Los Tunnules, which is where the lava tunnels meet the sea.  It was a pretty hairy boat journey to get there but it was totally worth it.  More beautifully clear but cold sea, this time teaming with green sea turtles and one spot where you find white tip reef sharks.  We snorkelled through the tunnels and also spotted perhaps the biggest stingray I have ever seen, must have been 2 meters diameter at least.  We also walked over the arches formed by the lava.  Fascinating and other worldly scenery for sure.  On the way back we spotted 3 huge manta rays from the boat – one of them must have been 6 or 7 metres across if not bigger, it was HUGE!  That evening we joined our Canadian friends who were on the tour with us for dinner and a beer as well as taking a stroll around the beach at sunset and soaking up the atmosphere from the local football tournament. 

Next day was back to Santa Cruz to catch our boat and meet our cruise buddies.  Our boat Galapagos Vision was a small catamaran, we had done our research on the boat and managed to get the best cabin, front starboard side. Everyone on our cruise was lovely and our crew totally awesome.  I think the crew were quite pleased to have a boat that consisted of 9 women and one bloke and I didn’t hear Will complaining about that either.  We started with lunch on the boat then headed off to Los Gamales, huge pockets where gas had previously formed and caved in now creating massive craters in the landscape, unfortunately now over run with mora.  We then took a stroll through some huge lava tunnels before visiting some Giant Tortoises on El Rancho Reserve.

The next day we woke up in the north of Santa Cruz at Cerro Dragon (dragon hill), went to another flamingo lagoon, saw more marine iguanas and land iguanas.  In the afternoon we went snorkelling off Rabida Island, spotting white tip reef sharks, tonnes of starfish, including chocolate chip starfish, marine iguana under the water, sea lions and green turtles.  We then took a stroll around Rabida Island, with its beautiful red beach littered with sea lions and headed back to the boat just as the sun was setting. 

Next stop, Bachas beach where second world war barges are buried under the sand.  We chilled out on the beach and sunbathed for a couple of hours.  In the afternoon we headed to Sombrero Chino (China Hat) an island shaped as you can imagine, like a Chinese hat. Snorkelling we saw tonnes of Galapagos penguins, some in the water and loads chilling out on the rocks and we swam right up to them and as is typical of the Galapagos and its wildlife, there were totally un-phased by our presence so we just sat there watching them until the water got too cold and we had to get out. We strolled around the lava landscape before heading back to the boat.

The next day we visited Santa Fe Island in the morning and South Plazas in the afternoon.  We spotted Masked Boobies, Sea lions, Galapagos Gulls, and snorkelled off Santa Fe, spotting a sea lion who was playing with a shell like a puppy would a ball in the shallows.  We sat and watched him for ages.  Our last day we headed to Los Lobos beach on San Cristóbal.  All in all the cruise exceeded all of our expectations.  The food was great (thanks to Verge the chef) the company great and the crew awesome, especially the Captain and Carlos our dinghy driver.  We even got free booze on 2 nights, perhaps the crew were trying to get the 4 Irish girls a little tiddly but whatever the reason it was a nice touch.  Our last night was accompanied with free rum and a huge pod of dolphins that played in front of the boat and jumped out of the water.  Just as they appeared a manta ray also jumped clean out of the water – awesome!  Being a smallish boat we were so close to the dolphins you could almost touch them – amazing!  Our guide Yazmany was also great, really knowledgeable and a really nice easy going guy.  Seemingly he was actually on his holiday and one of our team was his girlfriend ‘undercover’.  He even sat up one night to make us a film of our cruise with his pictures and videos but alas his computer had a virus so we never got it :(.  Thanks anyway Yazmany!

We rounded off our trip with 4 days relaxing on San Cristóbal, strolling around in the evening spotting all the sea lions sleeping on benches and in the kids playground.  We chilled on its beautiful beaches covered in sea lions, hiked up to Frigate Bird Hill and snorkelled in a beautiful bay underneath it.  Our last day was a diving trip to Kicker Rock, stopping first for a check dive where sea lions were playing around us.  The dives themselves were hard work for me.  There was a lot of surge on the water surface which was quite off putting and the coldest I have dived in before is 27 degrees – here the water is 19-21 degrees... brr!  Having said that, we wore 7mm wetsuits and the dives were 100% worth it.  The first was in the channel in the split in the rock where the bottom is at 30 metres.  Here you look up and can see something like 20 sharks (Galapagos sharks and Black Tip Reef Sharks) hanging out on different levels in the channel – nuts.  Around a corner and you find white tips sleeping.  The next dive was around the outside of the rock (no bottom to be seen here) but we did find hammer head sharks!!!! Tick :)

All in all a totally amazing experience, I urge all and any to go there but try to think about your footprint there and chose a sustainable way to visit the islands.  I only wish we had the time and funds to stay longer and help with the conservation here.... maybe next time!
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Ma on

OMG, how absolutely amazing pics. What a wonderful experience. So lucky. x

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