Monday, November 19, 2007

The Galapagos Islands - 11th November - 18th November 2007

Is this the Galapagos? Yep I think so!!

So the Galapagos Islands - where do I start?!
I think first by saying what an absolutely amazing trip it really was and what an experience from start to finish!

Tour wise I opted for a cruise around the islands rather than a land based trip cause that really is the best way of seeing things and of course you can go so much further by motoring overnight and while eating etc.

It says in the guide books that you can properly get on a last minute trip by waiting till you arrive in Ecuador before booking, well I'm not sure when the last time they tried was but right now it is super busy. I started looking when I was still in Peru and contacted a few places with varying degrees of success. There was one company, Happy Gringo, which had good reviews and I tried with them to sort out a trip but in the end, add together a national holiday, their offices closed on a weekend and the non-immediateness of email and it wasn't looking great!

In the end I found Galapagos Options on the web who were using instant messaging and who were fantastic giving me immediate information and assistance. As it was so close to when I was wanting to depart there wasn't a lot of options left and of course even then I had specific requirements that I wanted to cover on my trip! Namely lots of snorkeling, swimming with iguanas, penguins and seeing the odd shark, only the odd one though I'm thinking! I also wanted to visit Genovesa island which is renowned for its fantastic lava formations and hammerhead shark sightings, it is also a long way north, just over the equator line and as such is not regularly visited by tour boats.

Cecilia at Galapagos Options managed to find me a place on the Eden boat, a First Class motor boat (!!!) carrying 16 passengers and 7 crew, the price was certainly First Class (!!) but it was going to be so worth it, a trip of a lifetime.......right?!

A bit of information about the boat can be found at

Our boat!

A couple of days before the trip an Iberia aircraft coming from Madrid crash landed at Quito airport (apparently it was a burst tyre which saw them flying off the end of the runway!!!!), anyway it shut the airport for a couple of days and it was touch and go whether I would be able to fly from there or have to bus down to somewhere else but fortunately at the last minute (well the night before) they managed to move it off the runway and we were set to go!

So bright and very early Sunday morning I was at Quito airport attempting to locate the rep I was due to be meeting, failing this (maybe I was too early) I presented myself at the TAME airlines desk to be told I didn't actually have a reservation on any flight at any time that day!!!!!!!

Now that was news to me and my bank account, and slightly concerning I might add! Here I was having paid $????? into some bank account somewhere in Ecuador having actually not even met anyone from the company yet (it was all done by email!) and I was being told I had no reservation! Mmm!

Fortunately with the assistance of a very helpful information guy, my rep was located and we headed off to check in, for her to then be told I don't have a reservation!

It turns out that the Galapagos boat owners buy up a certain amount of flight tickets, in any name, for how many passengers their boats can carry then as they sell places on the boat they change the names on the flight tickets, or at least that is what is supposed to happen. I guess booking my place so late in the week didn't help neither did the South American urgency factor, or lack of! Anyway no problem, I was on the flight and on my way to the Galapagos Islands.

Day 1

On arrival at Baltra airport I located the guide of the boat who was waiting along with the other passengers that I would be joining with. There is just 14 of us on the boat, 12 have come from Sweden in an organized group, then there was me and a guy from Belgium. Because myself and Jean-Marc (the Belgium chap) were traveling alone and because we were two passengers down we both had a cabin to ourselves, my own cabin, my own bathroom, my own space and my own electricity plugs (now thats another story!) what a treat! Having spent the most part of my trip in mixed dorms it was nice to have some space to myself and by the end of the week to be honest I'm not sure they could have fitted anyone else in there, the way I managed to spread myself out!

On board we were all introduced to the crew, who did an amazing job throughout the week to make our trip enjoyable and comfortable.
The crew.

And then introduced to each other, the other passengers are all extremely friendly and despite English not being their first language make such an enormous effort to include me and Jean-Marc in their conversation throughout the whole week and I even managed to learn a couple of Swedish words! Fortunately Jean-Marc didn't speak Swedish either so it wasn't just me!

Shortly after we got underway for our first island visit to Las Bachas beach on Santa Cruz Island.
Our arrival at Bachas Beach involved a wet landing from two pretty small inflatable dinghys, they say that the first wet landing is likely to be the most lethal of them all as you're not used to the procedure and someone almost certainly always manages to fall in! Great! Well we head off all prepared but are obviously much more able than other passengers they've had and all make it to the beach with just wet feet.

This was our initial introduction to the islands and the first wildlife we saw (apart from the birds overhead) were Sally Lightfoot Crabs, bright red and rather large crabs placed very dramatically all over the jet black volcanic rock leading into the water.

Sally Lightfoot crabs.

We headed off to a small lagoon inland and were lucky enough to spot a (singular) flamingo very close by in addition to a couple of marine iguanas sunbathing. At another lagoon a few meters down the beach we saw another flamingo, again alone and wondered if it was in fact the same one that was keen on a modeling contract from all the pictures we took of it!

Because it was our first sighting of the famous Galapagos wildlife we were all snapping away on our digital cameras like there was no tomorrow, fortunately on this trip there were several tomorrows and everyday the wildlife increased in both abundance and amazingness!

The flamingo and a Galapagos heron.

Back on board we were treated to a banquet of food, then the others from Sweden retired for a early night having only just arrived in Ecuador late the night before, while Jean-Marc and I chatted for a little longer before heading off ourselves.

Sunset from the boat on our first night.

Day 2

This morning our journey took us to North Seymore, separated from Baltra by a channel it is an uplifted island where we saw the amazing and extremely cute Blue Footed Boobies, they are somewhat of a celebrity here in the Galapagos, seen on many of the islands as well as on many of the souvenirs you can buy to take home.

The blue Footed Boobies have an amazing mating ritual which involves dancing of the couples and hopping from one blue foot to the other flashing their feet with their heads and bills upraised and their wings crooked. The male then offers gifts to his wife which she then either declines or accepts and if shes not interested she just turns her back!

The Blue-footed boobie and a pair of Blue-footed boobies.

If the male is on the look out for a mate he stays on the ground with his wings outstretch and continuely scours the skies for passing females, as soon as one goes by he calls to them trying to get their attention, sometime with luck and of course sometimes with none!!

A male Blue Footed Boobie on the lookout for a mate!

Here we also saw our first sighting of the Frigatebirds. These birds are quite large and jet black, apart from the females which have a white underbelly, during the mating season the males have an inflatable red-coloured throat pouche called "gula pouches", which they inflate to attract females, the males can also have a wingspan reaching 2.3m.

A male Frigatebird hitching a ride on our boat and two juveniles biding their time!

Our next stop, Sante Fe, was our first introduction to land iguanas and the massive opuntia cactus, the leaves of which they feed on. Its quite strange really that they would feed on these as generally the cactus here are over 10m and the iguanas don't climb the plant so they have to wait until the leaves fall off, I'm thinking that this isn't terribly productive way to eat but it seems to work for them and has done for erm a few years, give or take a few thousand here and there!

The massive opuntia cactus and the guy who eats the leafs with friends!

A little further along the track and we came across this new mum with her baby. Jorge, our guide, thought that she had probably given birth just in the last few hours and as her baby couldn't really move too far she was carrying him to safety and away from prying cameras!

The new mum and her baby.

Santa Fe was also our first real start with snorkeling as yesterday there wasn't too much to see. Today we had the promise of sharks, sea lions and turtles.

We set off from the dinghys with Jorge as our snorkeling guide as well as land guide and with the two dinghys on standby for when we had had enough. We saw plenty of parrot fish and a couple of very huge turtles just lounging on the bottom of the bay taking it easy. Then we made our way round to a very busy sea lion colony, unfortunately it was also busy with tourists and while there were some of the sea lions in the water they weren't too interested in us and just played amongst themselves rather than with us! I guess, for them, the tourists are pretty boring compared to all the other things you can find to play with in the ocean!

A relaxing turtle.

Back on board we were treated once again to a spectacular meal and headed off for another welcome early night.

Day 3

Espanola Island is the most southerly island in the archipelago and is rarely visited by boats on shorter cruises so we were fortunate that it was on our itinerary.
Gardener Bay on Espanola Island is described in the guide books as a potential mine field of sea lions when you land on the beach and they're not kidding!

A mother and baby.

We had to be careful as some of the sea lions had decided to lay over the pathways and the male sea lions really aren't to be messed with.
Here we saw several tiny baby sea lions and Jorge told us that a lot of the babies are actually abandoned by their mothers and jus
t left to die for one reason or another, its pretty sad to see it actually happening but at the same time it's nature and who are we to interfere huh? We've done enough of that already I think!!

This little chap certainly wasn't abandoned and was looking fit and healthy while awaiting his next meal from mum!

A baby sea lion having a stretch and a look around while his mum was out fis

Espanola is also the location of the Waved Albatross an absolutely huge bird and a pretty clumsy one at that! We headed off in search of the Albatrosses runway which they need in order to make their very clumsy takeoff! From March until about now the island is apparently heaving with Albatross but right now it is coming to the end of the season for them and a lot of them have moved on elsewhere. We were very lucky on this occasion though and were fortunate enough to see two adults heading off on their journey in addition to two juvenile birds which were just hanging out until they were big enough to test the runway for themselves.

An adult Albatross making his way
down the runway for flight!

The runway!

A baby Albatross - just biding his time till he's big enough to take a walk (or stumble) down the runway!

Espanola island has some spectacular and dramatic landscapes and coastline where numerous birds come to land, rest and attempt their first takeoffs and landings.

Coastline of Espanola.

Espanola is also a great place to see the Galapagos Hood Mocking bird.

The Hood Mocking bird.

Back on the beach a couple of us headed off for a short walk before snorkeling and in the real shallows of the water we saw sooooo many turtles just kicking back and relaxing in the sunshine it was quite surreal! I have never seen so many turtles in one place just swimming around completely unaffected by the human presence on the beach.

There was no way we could pass up such an fabulous experience and hurried back to where we had left our snorkeling gear and got ready to join them. Even with us in the water they weren't terribly bothered, at one point one of the turtles was coming straight for me, I think they were just curious!


Day 4

Last night we motored overnight to arrive at Floreana Island. When we went to bed last night we had just set off and the water was beginning to get a little rough! This is the first time I have ever been on a boat on the open water for long periods of time and especially staying over night on one and especially when its moving at high speed in the pitch dark!! I have to say though it was good fun and the movement of the boat although not great for attempting to stand up in or perhaps practicing standing on one foot (!) but it was great for sleeping through! And I got a great nights sleep.

Each morning on the cruise we had breakfast at 7am, which was a bit of an early start for me but after the first morning I was always awake by 6.30 anyway!! I know unheard of usually with me huh, unless of course it's for work!

This morning when we went to board the dinghys we fouind we had received a little visitor in the night, apparently from when we arrived in the bay at about 2am a sea lion had jumped on board and was taking a rest on the landing platform at the back on the boat! Apparently we were very lucky he hadn't gone on more of an exploration of the boat and found our box of shoes because these have become great toys in the sea lion world!!

Our sea lion guest!

Our first landing this morning was at Punta Cormorant which has a greenish beach due to the olivine crystals (just up my street!), a short walk took us to a lagoon with a couple of flamingos feeding, we were very lucky to have seen the ones we did on the first day as these were much farther away, although perhaps they were the same ones again!!

Another short walk form here took us to the other side of the islands where no one is allowed to swim or snorkel as its very common to see both mating turtles, which we did, as well as many many stingray right on the waters edge in just centimeters of water. Now call me cautious but after the incident of Steve Irwin and his encounter with one particular stingray I am really quite wary of them now!

The stingrays on this beach are only about 30 - 40cm across and if you paddle very carefully in the shallows they will just glide over your feet having a little nibble as they go, but lets face it, even though I'm never gonna get as up close and personal with them as Steve did, as an experience it was still something I really wasn't up for!! Although if I'm honest I did give it a little go, just not for too long!

Back at out landing site we headed back to the boat to make our way out to the Devils Crown for snorkeling. Now this I really was looking forward to.

The Devils Crown is the remains of a half submerged volcanic cone poking up out of the ocean a few hundred meters from the beach and is a truly amazing marine site.

We snorkeled in and around the crater, the water was very choppy which wasn't too comfortable to begin but we soon got used to it or as some of the others did, got out! On this snorkeling trip we saw some fantastic underwater rock and lava formations with patches of coral here and there and tons of fish, this is also where we saw our first sharks!

They are white tipped sharks and the ones we saw were pretty big, about 2 meters! Ok if I'm gonna be honest they don't come anywhere near you really and are probably more frightened of you than you are of them (just like spiders huh?) but when you're in the water with them they are huge and when you get back on the boat they've amazing doubled in size, they really where about 2 meters though!

The Devils Crown.

Snorkeling with Sharks!

The afternoon had us venturing off to Post Office bay further along the coast.

This was another place I was really looking forward to, (as well as just about everywhere else if I'm honest!) there is a barrel there just back off of the beach where the whalers used to leave their mail for home which then sat there waiting the arrival of another ship to come past, pick it up and take it home for them.

The tradition still continues today but now its the tourists and postcards that have taken the place of the whalers ships and letters home! The idea is though that all the post cards are delivered hand to hand, so at the same time as leaving your postcards you also have a look through the present collection to see if there are any that you could hand deliver on your return home.
I found this very exciting and got ready a small collection of
post cards to leave while hoping there would be a couple for
me to take away with me. I managed to find two postcards
to bring home, one for Uckfield and one for Bexhill, I wonder
how long my post cards will take to get back!

The whalers barrel at Post Office Bay.

Post Office Bay is also the location of an extremely large lava tube which again was right up my street and very exciting. To descend into the lava tube we needed torches and the assistance of a rope but once within the tube you could really see the immensity of it all and how powerful these islands once really were. The tube was about 30 meters in height and seemed to go on forever, after we reached seawater though we decided to head back to daylight once more and back to the boat to motor off to Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz is one of the main islands and where tomorrow we are going to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station.

Entrance into the lava tube on Floreana.

Day 5

Today is a very different day to all the others, each day up until today had been just us, the tourists, on very uninhabited islands with hundreds of animals on land, in air and in the sea, but today we're on Santa Cruz and in the largest and most developed town in the Galapagos archipelago and it is a little bit of a shock to the system!

The main town of Puerto Ayora is really very pretty, as we motored in last night all the lights of the harbor were just coming on and all the other many, many boats that are moored in the harbor were also turning their lights on, the bay just looked beautiful. As we motored in to the harbor I saw the National Geographic ship moored up and really, it was all I could do to stop myself jumping off and swimming over to beg for a job or at the least a guided tour! But unfortunately no!

Our first port of call was the Highlands of the island where we were going to get our first sighting of the Giant Tortoises (on the way though we visited further lava tubes of differing sizes and completeness).

A lava tube on Santa Cruz Island.

At a private ranch in the highlands we headed off in pursuit of the giant tortoises, the ranch is also part of the national park so like all the other animals within the Galapagos Archipelago the giant tortoises are protected, good job really as in the day of Charles Darwin they used to eat them!

Giant tortoise.

Evolution on islands especially the Galapagos has always been an amazing and incredibly interesting topic of conversation, a recent development though which I was really interested in was that of the origin on the giant tortoises.

I'm a giant tortoise not a turtle........ really!!

The Galapagos Islands have never been joined to the mainland of South America and are a result of volcanic activity created by a hotspot deep beneath the surface of the planet.
Due to the remoteness of the Galapagos (1000km from the mainland) there have been theories as to how both the bird and animal life reached the Galapagos in the first place.

A much simplified theory is that it is thought that the sea birds reached of course by sea, the land birds reached the islands by being blown there and that a lot of the other animals reached the islands by means of vegetation rafts.

The recent information that interested me is that through DNA testing they have been able to determine that the closest relative to the giant tortoise that they have discovered is in fact a small tortoise that is found on the mainland of Chile and that due to the tortoises having no know predators for such a long time they grew in size to become what they are today, a phenomenon seen in other island ecosystems and one in which I also saw in the Seychelles when I went there 3 years ago.


After lunch we headed off across the harbor to the Charles Darwin Research Station.
Here there is a large breeding program ongoing with both the land iguanas and giant tortoises, the aim being that once they reach a suitable size and age they are then released back on to the islands where they parents have come from.

In the past the station has come under a lot of fire in the form of protests from local fishermen, restrictions have been made by officials in order to prevent overfishing in the area and the conflict is (like in many places around the world) that in doing so you are taking away the fisherman's only livelihood. It is a very difficult situation indeed to be in with many compromises on both sides needing to be taken.

Jorge, our guide told us that at the present time, and only since this summer, standard tour boats in the Galapagos are not allowed to conduct scuba diving trips anymore and that out of the 90 boats cruising the islands only two still hold a current diving license.
From December fishermen, if they desire, will have the opportunity to convert their boats to accommodate diving trips in order to fill this huge, currently absent gap.
Hopefully this will be a move in the right direction for both parties.

Up close and personal with the natives.

Day 6

Another overnight motoring had us arriving at Santiago island which once again sports some incredible landscapes.

A swimming iguana.

A short walk along the black volcanic sand beach and we happened upon one or two marine iguanas!! What a sight they all made, they were either heading off into the water or warming up in readiness for their cold water swim, we were even lucky enough to see one of the iguanas coming out of the water, quite a sight indeed.

One or two marine iguanas!

A little further along the coast we came across a fantastic sight of two young sea lions playing with a couple of the Sally Lightfoot Crabs, it was great fun to watch and made such a good movie too.

Sea lions chasing Sally lightfoot crabs.

After an exploration of the islands we jumped in the water in pursuit of playful sea lions and to swim with iguanas and see them feeding on the algae. We did see a swimming iguana but by the time we saw him he was heading back to the shore to warm up and had already done all his feeding for the day! Maybe next time!

Back on board and after a well deserved delicious lunch we headed off to our next port of call, Bartolome Island.

Pinnacle Rock.

As we arrived at Bartolome island we could see that the landscape and scenery was again spectacular, it all just keeps getting better every day.

The aptly named Pinnacle Rock is magnificent in size and stature and is where apparently during World War 2 American fighter pilots that were based in the area used to fly over and practice their gun aim on the rock face! Oh yes they did!!

This is where we were really lucky in seeing the first of many penguins, they are really cute and so tiny at just 35cm in height, the second smallest penguin in the world. There are only about 300 pairs in the whole of the Galapagos and sometimes tourist groups don't see any, so we really lucky, and we just got luckier!

Very cute Galapagos penguins.

A few of us headed off in pursuit (like we had any chance of keeping up!!) of these speedy swimmers and were rewarded around the other side of the Pinnacle Rock by about 6 penguins coming and finding us and spending a few seconds trying to work out what exactly we were! It was lovely and I got some fabulous video of the event, which hopefully you will be able to view here.

Snorkeling with Penguins!

After a very satisfying but exhausting swim we headed back to the boat for a bit of a warm up before we attempted the hike up to the summit of the island, the path to the top is through dramatic lava landscape and is reached along a wooden broadwalk and stairs that have been put in place to protect the environment as well as to aid us walking to the top!

On our way along the path we came across this very well disguised lava lizard, and of course where better to find him than here on this huge lava mound!

Lava lizard.

The summit of the island is just 114 meters high but the view from the top is amazing and so beautiful, below us and just below the water surface you can just make out the remains of a parasitic crater which was rea
lly interesting, at least for me!
You could also see on land several other remains of parasitic craters. We made the most of our time there waiting at the top until the sun had gone down enjoying and savoring every last detail of what was before us.

The beautiful views from the summit of Bartolome Island.

Day 7

This morning we awoke to find we had sailed actually into the volcanic crater that is Genovesa island. Genovesa is an outlying island and very far north, across the Equator even (!), and as such is very rarely visited by other boats, it was in fact one of my criteria when sorting out a trip as the island is renowned for its beautiful.

Genovesa - at the top of the picture you can see the opening on the crater that allows us to sail right into it.

Before we landed on to the island we headed off on a dighy ride along the cliff edge spotting all the different types of birds that were nesting there. We saw Galapagos Gulls, Red and Blue footed and Masked boobies, Red-Billed Tropicbirds, Frigatebirds, sea lions and fur seals. The Frigatebirds have an interesting way of feeding, they steal food literally from the mouths of other birds, we saw them on a couple of occasions clasp the Tropicbird by its long tail and swish it from side to side midair in order to get it to regurgitate its food! Clever huh?! Not too tasty but clever all the same!

A cute fur seal and a small family of Galapagos Gulls.

We got up on to the top of the crater rim via Prince Philips Steps, they aren't real steps just blocks of stone that make it easier to reach the top and named due to a visit by the man himself some time ago.

Here we saw Red-footed boobies as well as Masked boobies, the Masked boobies had even made their nests right next to the pathways where tourists pass by everyday, it is so strange how they are so uninterested and unbothered by us being there, although I wonder if sometimes they might be thinkin
g 'surely thats enough pictures now huh?!!' I guess we'll never know!

How two species really can live together!

Red-footed boo

A Masked boobie and her very young chick and a pair of masked boobies grooming each other.

After taking our fill of extremely cute baby Masked boobie pictures we head back to the boat to get kited up for our hammerhead shark search! This crater is well known for good shark sightings and although of course a little nervous, I was really looking forward to this and had the underwater camera at the ready!
There was another boat which was just coming to the end of their snorkeling trip and had been lucky enough to see 4 quite good sized ones, it was getting very exciting!
We got into the water which was really choppy making it difficult in places, unfortunately even after 20 minutes of searching we were unlucky and didn't see any, Jorge told us that they are actually pretty shy animals so probably headed off after the first boat had clocked them. Oh well, I have been so lucky with a lot of the other wildlife!

Another short trek after lunch highlighted to us the exact positioning of the crater in relation to where we were, it is almost a perfect circle, of course apart from where we sailed into!

Tonight is our last night on board the boat and the crew have prepared a special dinner for us with cake and cocktails before then telling us we were getting up even earlier in the morning, 5.40am!!! And I still had to pack!

Day 8

This mornings early call was a bit of a shock to the system, in addition to which last night we had motored all the way back to Baltra and the seas had been really rough which was fine when you were laying down but not so great when you're trying to pack all your gear and generally just try and stand upright!!

I managed though and was ready for our, before breakfast, visit to Black Turtle Cove in search of (of course) turtles and black and white tip sharks. We didn't land anywhere on this trip but just sailed around amongst the mangrove forest spotting the underwater wildlife from the comfort and warmth of our dinghys!

Back on the boat we had our last breakfast said our goodbyes to the crew before heading off to the airport for our flights back to Quito.
Jean-marc from Belgium was heading straight off into the jungle for a few days the next day, while Eva, Jan, Christer, Margaret, Olle and all the others in the group headed off into the mountains for a few days before they headed home. Me, I just had two more days in Quito before I too returned home!

It has been a truly amazing week away at a destination that I have always wanted to visit and which is as unique and as amazingly special as all the BBC documentaries make out!

A truly magical place.

Some more Galapagos wonders.

A baby sea lion and a Pelican.

A beautiful flower I thought was rather nice!

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