Trip Start Sep 03, 2007
220Trip End Jun 17, 2009
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From Quito it's a 160 mile, just over half an hour flight to the port town of 'Guayaquil', although they manage to serve us a drink and a couple of tiny pasties (empenadas) before we land. The 737 has to be refueled for the 600 miles to the airport of Baltra on the Galapagos. We stay on board during refueling but are told to sit with our seatbelts unfastened, presumably in case we have to do a 'runner!' After an hour we're off again into cloud and 2 hours later land on the runway at Baltra. The runway is surprisingly long because it was a US base in the second world war, its purpose was to provide air cover for the Panama Canal from the south. A small terminal is all that is there as all remnants of the US base have been removed, the only visible signs are a few foundations and the overgrown road layout. We pay our 'Galapagos National Park" fees of $100 each and receive our permits to enter, before boarding an old coach to a ferry, that takes us from 'Isla Baltra" the 200 metres south to "Isla Santa Cruz" and another old coach
The 20 mile bumpy ride south across the island to the port of 'Puerto Ayora' passes through a few small towns and large areas of trees and vegetation. It is the start of the warm, wet season when the dead' trees, which have no leaves in summer, spring to life and take advantage of the rains. Puerto Ayora is a town of some 11,000 people and has grown on the big tourist business that is now Galapagos. I was surprised that there were any people living on the islands at all, as my concept was of a completely controlled nature reserve, although building and immigration to some extent is limited by the National Park Authority.
As we waited to be transferred to our boat, from the jetty in the harbour, I noticed dozens of bright orange crabs with spectacular coloured patterns, crawling all over the rocks and harbour walls, whilst several Blue Footed Boobies were dive bombing for fish nearby. We are taken out to our boat, amongst the many in the harbour, by a small 'Zodiac' type inflatable, which was to be our main means of transport from the ship on our shore trips. It was early afternoon and we dumped our bags in our small upper cabin, were introduced to our National Park guide, Luis and set off in the coach again to 'The Highlands Farm'. This was originally a cattle farm and although there are still a few around, it is now a tourist centre, based on the giant Galapagos tortoises that migrate there during the hot summers, because it retains water and grass for them in the (cooler) highlands
We reached the farm and as we walked round the intensive woodland we came across the Giant Galapagos Tortoises, some of them over a metre long and nearly a metre high. There are two main activities for the tortoises, sleeping and eating (with the odd bout of difficult sex thrown in). As it was getting later in the afternoon they were slowly becoming active, like enormous, half barrel shaped, ultra slow motion lawnmowers chomping their way across the grassy areas. Intriguing beasts, as they live up to 200 years old.
Back to the boat, hot showers (!!!!) and then a cocktail reception to properly meet our fellows and the crew of 7, who between them do everything that needs doing
Up at 6am (I was too tired for the 'I'm on holiday' bit) for breakfast, after watching Boobies and Pelicans feeding in the early morning whilst Frigate Birds wheeled over us. Then off by zodiac at 7am, we landed at 'Cero Dragon' on the north side of Isla Santa Cruz. Climbing up the lava rock shore we saw our first Marine Iguanas, warming themselves in the sun. They were about 2 feet long and I was surprised at their size, as I had the impression from the TV nature progammes, that they were a lot bigger. We trekked inland and saw Land Iguanas (slightly bigger, lighter coloured and shorter tails, as they don't swim like the marines), Galapagos Fly Catchers - the male was a gorgeous bright yellow, Galapagos Dove - the size of a Blackbird but beige with black markings and white eye circles, tiny grey, white and black Lava Lizards on the round amongst the trees, shrubs and cactus.
Back to the boat for lunch, yes - we're on three meals a day, during which we sailed to 'Puerto Ergas' on 'Isla Santiago' in the north, for the afternoon tour. This was to be a 'wet' landing on a beach, where we walked the last few metres through the waves from the zodiac. The beach was filled with sealions of all sizes, who paid no attention to us at all. We climbed off the beach and along a rocky lava foreshore to see more sealions, hundreds of Marine Iguanas, many of them 'sneezing' the salt out of their noses after an underwater grazing session. They feed on weed on the rocks underwater and can go to 14 metres deep for an hour. The coloured crabs were everywhere and there was a rock formation known as 'Darwen's Toilet', a large hole that filled and emptied from the surging tide below. Back to the beach and a tricky boarding in the now surging surf. For me, the two Galapagos animals I wanted to see were the Giant Tortoises and the Marine Iguanas and I had seen them both in the first 24 hours. Dinner and then another early night to catch up on sleep, thankfully undisturbed as the captain had sailed to tomorrow's first location during the evening. On the way to cabin we went forward to the upper deck and looked up at a myriad of stars. We found 'Orion' but anything else was lost in this overwhelming astronomical display.
We were on the east side of 'Isla Santiago', in a bay where 'Isla Bartolomeis' is joined to the main island by a narrow isthmus of sand. A 'dry' landing onto rocks and as we walked along the coast, we watched Boobies diving into the sea and two penguins swimming in a sheltered cove, that also contained the ringed outline of a volcano, just showing above the sea level. It's amazing that there are Penguins on Galapagos as they are a cold water bird but a (very) few have managed to settle here. The island is marked by a tall rock pinnacle, created by aircraft bombing practice and its overall barrenness. We climbed the 365 steps, installed by the National Park, to the top of the hill that dominates the island and were rewarded with a fabulous view of the bay, the isthmus and the adjoining island. Parts of the area are just as barren and rugged as a lunar landscape.
Returning to the boat, we changed into swimgear and were taken by zodiac farther round the coast to snorkel back. We dropped into about 5 metres of water and saw seven, two metres long white tipped sharks dozing under a large rock. After the initial shock, we could carefully look at these sleek, impressive creatures, who were not bothered about us at all. The wild life on these islands certainly has a 'nonchalance factor' I've never seen the like of
The afternoon tour is to "North Seymour' island. We are greeted by the site of enormous, blue surf breaking onto the lava rocks at the end of the island. We pass a small colony of seals, who are dozing on the rocky ledges and I watch one mother pick up a tiny cub, by the scruff of the neck and carry him up away from the incoming surf. As we walk round the shrub area we see Frigate Bird big chicks, sitting on their scruffy clump of twigs nests, waiting to be fed. Frigate males have a red pouch on their necks, which is normally flat but to attract a female he blows it up like an enormous balloon. Further on is a colony of Blue Footed Boobies and yes, their feet and legs are bright blue. There are several females sitting on nests, which are just a saucer shaped hole in the ground but the females are half crouched so that the one or two eggs are shaded but a breeze can blow under her to cool the egg(s). Fascinating. In another part of the colony the mating ritual is taking place where the males 'dance' to attract a mate. The dance consists of lifting each foot alternately and occasionally spreading their wings wide whilst uttering a big whistle
Back on the boat Norah saw a big Sting Ray leap out of the water, dolphin style and then fall on his back in the sea. This was done three times and it seems it is to clean parasites off the rays
In the evening there was a cocktail 'goodbye' for our fellows who were on the 4 day tour. Dinner ended with an enormous, iced, chocolate sponge cake. After dinner Luis, our guide, showed us a video that he had taken of the volcanic eruption on the nearby island 2 years ago. It erupted for 6 days and thankfully was contained inside the caldera (volcanic rim) of a previous eruption, thus saving a nearby town
As we went to bed there was a solitary Pelican circling the boat, like an unofficial night watchman.
In the morning our 'night watchman' was still on guard but as the light grew he flew off to find his own breakfast.
We had sailed a short distance in the evening south to 'Turtle Cove' on 'Isla Santa Cruz' and were in the boats at 0730 (What holiday ? - this is expedition stuff worthy of David Attenborough). We entered a lagoon that was less than a Km long, 100 m wide but narrowed into short passages that the zodiac could just get through and all surrounded by thick mangrove trees. Where's the 'African Queen' when you need her? Once we were well into the lagoon the outboard was stopped and the boatman paddled. We had been told that this was a resting area for wildlife, hence the 'silent running'. We saw dozens of turtles all round us, playing a game with the cameras of 'over here', 'no - over here', as they came up fleetingly for breath and then vanished. I wouldn't like to guess how many photos of a set of ripples on the water were taken that morning
Back to the boat and them sail the short distance to Baltra channel, where our departing party were taken the short distance to the airport. The ship was refueled and provisioned whilst we waited for the new arrivals.
Minimal introductions, lunch and then on to 'Mosquerias', an ominously sounding spit of sand and rock, that we had seen near North Seymour yesterday. A 'wet' landing, to impress our newcomers, which was accompanied by the constant barking and attention of a big bull sealion, that we had to keep an eye on, as he saw us as invading rivals. The many sealions swimming outside the breaking surf, were doing the usual stunt of swimming along sideways with one fin out of the water, which from a distance looked like a shark fin. I donīt know the reason for this but it sure fooled us at times. The whole island was a sealion colony with several individual groups, each with their own territory and consisting of tiny pups up to the big bulls. They were everywhere and we were having to walk round them or wait whilst they crossed our path
Supper and another welcoming cocktail from Luis, the crew member who ran the bar, (OH YES!) on the upper deck. Although since coming on board I have drunk only (lots of) water and the odd cup of coffee.
The captain had motored south during the evening and we were at 'Isla Santa Maria' or 'Floriana Island'. Adjacent was the remnant of a volcano caldera that had been battered and broken by the sea, until it resembled a crown - called 'The Devil's Crown'. A wet landing and then a hike to an inland lagoon, where over thirty pink Flamingos were feeding. There were several black Galapagos Finches in the trees around the island, lots of black wasps and we walked over a large strip of sand onto another beach, where we could see turtles and rays swimming in the bay
Back to the boat, changed into swimgear and then the zodiacs dropped us off in the sea down the coast for a snorkel. The water temp up till now had been, I guess, around 20deg, but this was decidedly cooler and there was a slight current running, which made for an energetic fin. We must be getting fitter with all this walking and snorkeling! We saw many bright coloured fish, a couple of rays on the bottom and then a white tip shark. Luis, our guide, was hoping to see hammerheads but there were none about. On the way back to the boat someone shouted "Dolphins", so we bundled back on board and rushed to the front decks as the captain put on speed to reach the area. We spotted a group of dolphins on one side of the boat, then the other, then behind and realised we were absolutely surrounded by them. There must have been over a hundred all over the sea, constantly charging forward and surfacing in all directions. The captain kept his speed on and soon the dolphins zoomed in on this plaything and crowded round the bow, where they raced in front and interchanged places in the bow wave, occasionally surfacing for a quick breath of air and then back in this race game. I saw one dolphin ride the bow wave and then do a complete roll over, like a sleek, aquatic jet fighter. Mesmerising. This continued for about 20 minutes, until they either became tired of the game and went off to find something new or they didn't want to stray too far from the main pod
The afternoon was a wet landing on 'Post Office Bay', so called because in the 1700's an English sea captain had left a barrel on the island as a sort of mail staging post. Any boat coming out from England would leave letters, maps, etc. for other ships and ships coming home would pick up any mail from outgoing sailors. The word soon spread and is still being used today. You leave a card or letter and someone will pick it up and eventually it will be delivered.
We trekked further into the island and came across another lava tunnel, only this one was a scramble down three steep wooden ladders, through a one metre wide hole and then into a tunnel, 5 metres high and 4 metres wide. We had brought torches but the blackness swallowed the light from them. After about 100 metres we entered seawater that slowly rose, after another 100m, to thigh depth. Here an enormous rock had fallen. On one side was an underwater tunnel entrance, cenote style and on the other the cave roof slowly descended into the water, At this point we headed back to the daylight.
During the evening we had a long, 6 hour sail to the next island so it was not too relaxing a night, as there was a long swell which made the boat pitch and roll around a bit.
Up early (not for a change) and I watched many fish around the boat, including the ever present brown Puffer Fish and today a solitary Blue Puffer. The, by now usual, 7am breakfast and off in the zodiacs by 8am. We were at 'Isla Espanola' and were landing at 'Gardner Bay', a gorgeous, long, white, fine sandy beach with turquoise blue water in the bay. The usual reception committee of dozens of sea lions, of all ages, awaited us and as we walked along the beach we saw a tiny pup that still had an umbilical cord, so he must have been less than a day old. We had left our bags at one end of the beach and as we explored we were accompanied by Hooded Mockingbirds, grey and black, the size of a thrush, which quite brazenly approached us and were looking for the water bottles. The Marine Iguanas on the rocks were changing colour, from their all black to a mixture of reds and even some touches of blue, as the mating season was starting. There was a pair of Oyster Catchers with a tiny, fluffy, five day old chick sheltering in the rocks. On the walk back we blasely got too close to a young male, who decided this was the moment to use his testosterone and he charged us until we had run far enough away to satisfy his ego
Back where we had left the bags was a young sealion, who had decided that mine made an excellent pillow and as he was quite comfortable, thank you, he made no effort to move, no matter how close we dared to approach. We carefully removed one bag from behind him and as he whipped round to see what was happening, I stepped in and grabbed mine, causing him to lie back on the bare sand with a most disgusted look on his face! What happened to the dumb animals bit?
We had brought snorkel gear and as we walked into the sea there was another young sealion playing, by zooming around us. We snorkelled out over the white sand and rock bottom and with the ever present show of fish there were two stingrays sheltering. A little further I saw a big, just under a metre wide, ray 'flapping' its wings and digging a hole in the sand, where I think he was searching for small crustaceans. We reached a large rocky outcrop, 200 metres out and were buzzed by a juvenile sealion, before we saw more stingrays, including one very big one who 'flew' away over the sandy bottom. Dropping over the rocks there was a shoal of dozens of young, 40cm long Barracuda in an underwater sheltered 'bay' in the rocks. There was an enormous cloud of 10cm silver fish whose upper half had bright scarlet, longitudinal stripes and this was an amazing site. I have given up trying to identify the dozens of different fish that we have seen
The afternoon was at the other side of the island at "Punta Suarez', where a dry landing involved coaxing the sunbathing sealions off the small jetty before we could land. A big bull was shouting his prescence and the path was strewn with Marine Iguanas. On the rocky beach all sizes of sealions frolicked or dozed and on our rocky path inland, it was necessary to pick our way, as Blue Footed Boobies were either nesting, with eggs or chicks, or 'dancing' in their courtship ritual. We were followed by the Hooded Mockingbirds and saw the tiny Darwen Finches and a bigger species of Lava Lizard
At a high cliff point on the island we saw a 'blowhole', caused by a fault in the rocks, shoot spray from the incoming surf up into the air. There was a small group of Tern like birds with long tails, who whirled noisily in the air and in the distance a large Albatross chick was waiting for his parents to come back and feed him. We had just missed the Albatrosses, as they had left the island, which was a shame but there was plenty of other wildlife about.
Our path round the island had been mostly over large rocks and this was quite tiring in the hot, I guess high 80's, afternoon sun. We reached the jetty and the incoming tide had enabled more sealions and Marine Iguanas to spread out on the jetty, which created a strange obstacle course and also allow the ever present bull to get closer to us, causing us to enter the zodiacs carefully and quickly.
We were now to sail north back towards 'Isla Santa Fe' and at our nightly briefing we were told that this would be a steady haul, as we were only able to run on one engine. Even with the constant throb of the engine, I had got used to the quite pleasant sensation of being 'rocked' to sleep
Breakfast at 0630 and in the zodiacs by 7 (no - am!!!) Surely David Attenborough didn't have to be up this early? We were in a small, narrow bay with the island (Santa Fe) on one side and a long, thin rocky outcrop on the other. The sealions were already (noisily) awake and a squadron of Boobies were wheeling and dive bombing for their breakfast. The weather was cloudy and a bit cooler, or was it cos it was so bloomin early? The boat was surrounded by fish again and we wet landed on a small beach. A couple of cute sealion pups came to greet us, obviously figuring that as we had come from the sea, we must have something to feed them with. On the rocks were Marine Iguanas, Pelicans, Boobies and a solitary Great Blue Heron.
We hiked inland, walking round dozing sealions on the path and as we progressed onto rocks, we reached an area of many large cactususes (cacti?), some collapsed ones showed the cellular internal structure that enables them to store water. There were Santa Fe Land Iguanas here, larger than the ever present Marine Iguanas and very light coloured. They only feed on the plants around them and in the hot summer season have a quite a lean time. A return to the beach, where the two little pups had found three playmates and were romping round like puppy dogs
Back to the boat, quick change and then a zodiac ride to be dropped off into the water, at the end of the point, for a last snorkel. It was still cloudy and there was a slight feel of rain in the wind. Dozens of fish, including a new 10cm one that was a spectacular blue with irridescent light blue spots down the side. Snorkelling along the rocks, passing the Pelicans, Boobies, crabs, marine Iguanas and few sealions. There were no juveniles wanting to play, only a smaller youngster, who was a bit overawed by the size of these 'strangers' and kept his distance. A stingray 'flew' across the bottom, occasionally stopping to feed and here were several blue Puffer Fish around. We snorkeled back to the boat, sad that this was our last time in the water.
During lunch we sailed to 'Islas Plaza' and another long lava strip protected bay. We landed on the jetty, stepping over the usual dozing sealions and followed the rocky path inland. There were a lot of large cacti on this island and many of them were blooming in pretty yellow flowers. Sitting under the cacti were, larger than the Marine Iguanas, light coloured Land Iguanas, waiting for the flowers to fall, so they could eat them. During the four months of really dry season they have nothing to eat and anything that falls produces a panic scramble and a rugby scrum
On the far side we came to high lava cliffs, where Grey Gulls and Shearwaters were nesting on the rocky ledges and zooming out around the cliff tops. A steady trek back in the hot afternoon sun and as we reached the jetty we noticed the large male bull, who had settled on the path and was not for shifting. After some serious goading and him retaliating when our guide tried to persuade him, he eventually moved just to the side of the path, causing us all to have to run the gauntlet, to get to the waiting zodiac. What an end to our last island visit.
In the late afternoon we sit on the upper deck bar area and have drinks while we are heading back to port. I glimpse a large ray leap out of the water in the cleaning activity. We have the last briefing and goodbye cocktails with the crew and then another good dinner with the official celebration sponge cake. The meals on board have been very well done with everything being hot and fresh and plenty of veg, salads and fruit. I think this impressed me most.
Guess what? Yes - early start
Reflection - This has been an absolutely fabulous tour and we've loved every minute of it - even the getting up early! It's been hectic, tiring, exciting, fascinating and we've seen some incredible animals and scenery. I feel we've seen everything that we would have wanted in this amazing week.