Surfing Sea Lions and Sneaky Surprises

Published: July 27th 2013
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17th - 29th June

Galapagos, Ecuador

Surfing Sea Lions and Sneaky Surprises

We arrived on the Galápagos Islands in the rain. We were full of big ideas and high expectations. We had heard tales of obscenely abundant wildlife, ridiculously sunny beaches and that it was affordable with a DIY approach. Unfortunately our first couple of days on Santa Cruz Island brought us grey clouds, lashings of rain and very few Kodak moment animal sightings. Hmmm, this was not what we had changed our flights and extended our trip for...

Determined as ever we soaked up the prehistoric-esque pelicans that looked as though they had just flown out of a Quentin Blake illustration, and began to tick off the 'must dos' on the island. If we couldn't find animals hanging around in front of us, we'd have to take the plunge and go hunting for them (in the nicest sense if the word). We donned our wetsuits, signed up with 'Nauty Diving' and scrambled our way to the front of our large group. The prospect of sharks, cold water and the over enthusiastic erratic fin kickers in our group made for a jumbled first dive with Charlie and I both running out of air! This slight hiccup was quickly remedied as we finished our dive and moved on to the next.

The afternoon brought with it distant hammerhead shark sightings under the water and a burst of sunshine on land. This called for a trip to a 'ranch' to visit the infamous giant tortoises in the wild. I have to admit I never thought I would be excited by the sight of a tortoise. However, there's certainly something about these massive moving wrinkly boulders that drew my fascination. They can weigh up to 150kg compared to their 8kg mainland ancestors, can live for hundreds of years, move surprisingly fast for something so large, and have feet that are related to those of the elephant. These were to become frequent sightings on our trip as they hung out on paths and sped around looking for sweet fruits to much on.

The Galapagos are so unusual because they are volcanic in origin with the islands being just the tips of vast submarine volcanoes. Since they were created they have been transformed from sterile lava flows into a habitat for complex vegetation and unique species. Everywhere we went we saw black lava rock, dry scrub land, giant indigenous cactus trees and evidence of volcanic history in the form of lava tunnels inland and out to sea. Every original plant and animal species journeyed hundreds to thousands of miles to arrive at the islands via sea, wind or on floating vegetation rafts. These accidental new world explorers were often rewarded with no predators and a habitat in which they could flourish and adapt to.

Unfortunately it wasn't long until humans got their sticky paws on the natural wildlife as Buccaneers, sealers and whalers hunted many species to near extinction. From then on the islands housed harrowing penal colonies, disastrous scandals involving the multiple lovers of a Baroness (who all ended up dead), and migrants from Europe looking for a better life but who couldn't deal with the barren conditions. Now as a national park the fragile ecosystem has been recognised and steps are being taken to try to minimise the negative human footprint on the islands from the 30,000 permanent inhabitants and tourists flocking by the hundreds of thousands.

Darwin plays a central role in the popularity of the islands with many people attributing his time there to the success of his 'Origin of the Species' book. Darwin only actually spent five weeks on the islands and only 1% of the book refers to the Galapagos Islands. However, this is a prime place to see first hand Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection. An example is that are 13 endemic species of finch called 'Darwin's finches' that originated from one ancestral species. The original finch eventually bred the modern species as better adapted survivors passed on favourable genetic traits.

We caught a 'ferry' over to Isabella Island which turned out to be more of a speed boat water taxi packed to beyond its limit. We should have guessed something was amiss when they were handing out sick bags like candy to the clambering passengers. This was not a smooth ride. We found ourselves at the front of the boat which, for future reference, is not where you want to be! The boat slammed over the swells as our bodies jarred and our stomachs soared. We soon learned that once the first person uses their goodie bag they all drop like flies. This did not improve with any of our 'ferry' rides and we always found ourselves at the front again holding on for our sanity.

As we neared Isabella the rocky outcrops were littered with the trademark blue footed boobies and mini penguins. We were greeted by sea lions at the port and we simply couldn't contain our delight. This day was the start of our good luck. Each day got better and better as the weather gradually improved and we were faced with more wildlife. We visited lava tunnels on land and in the sea where they made great motels for snoozing sharks, sun loungers for lazy sea lions and nesting spots for the eccentrically dappy boobies. In between group dive-bombing feeding sessions the boobies gather for tea parties on the rocks, unmissable with their stand out bright blue footwear. We stumbled across the salt spitting, black lava camouflaged marine iguanas playing squashed sardines as they wriggle over each other on their way to dip in the water for a seaweed snack.

After our fairly average diving experience we ditched the compressed air for snorkels and discovered the unforgettable under water wonder of the Pacific. We swam nose to nose with the sea lions as we intrigued them and they played with us, flipping and flapping and twirling around. Turtles of all sizes lazily floated by, popping up for air, nibbling on weeds, and snoozing upside down. Rays glided past us gracefully beating their wings like birds of the sea. Black and white tipped sharks hibernated under rocks whilst Galapagos sharks swam past in their packs of up to twenty. Even the dolphins came out to play as a pod of thirty or more massive mammals put on a stunning display around our boat and swam in our wake. This all surpassed our wildest dreams - it was totally ACE!

In between pinching ourselves that this was all actually happening there were some key moments when the surreal reality was taken to another level. When we snorkelled Kicker Rock the school of twenty or more sharks, in one go, at such close proximity pretty much took our breath away as we nearly peed our wetsuits with surprise. We also took the plunge and jumped into the open ocean from a boat to swim with giant manta rays measuring up to three metres across. This is not something I ever intended to do but I have to admit I got caught up in the excitement, was the first in the water, and was transfixed as I swam metres behind it. Suddenly realising I was alone, with a giant sea creature sporting a super stinger tail, I calmed my rising panic and sploshed my way back to the boat. We had to accept that these adventures were now the norm!

We managed to scout out cheap accommodation and ate local, deliciously divine, fresh fish in markets and people's back garages. Our sleep was continuously interrupted on every island by nocturnal cockerels over eager to crow at the moon rather than the sun. We were up at 6am everyday keen to search out the next adventure and hang out with the wildlife - something that one can become easily addicted to.

San Cristobal was our final island and it was literally littered with sea lions. They were like out of control stray dogs claiming benches, beaches and back doors. Pontoons have had to be installed in the harbour to prevent the sea lions from sleeping on the boats and sinking them. There are also slides on the pier to enable them easy access down to the sea - what a life! We spent our final days on white sand beaches, snorkelling, body boarding and watching the sunset over the lighthouse. We stayed in our nicest accommodation of our trip and our uber keen hotel owner offered advice and help left right and centre as well as the most unusual, jelly focused, breakfast we've had. He even acted as Charlie's accomplice for the sneaky surprise 'down on one knee' proposal that left us grinning from ear to ear for our final days.

After the most incredible couple of weeks, we ended our time on the Islands with long-distance calls home as we were leaving as an engaged couple! What a perfect end to a spectacular and memorable time. However, we couldn't get too carried away as we still had 6 weeks left of our trip and no clue what we were going to to in Central America (pretty standard by now)!

Additional photos below
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29th July 2013

Loved the Vimeo vid -- you should be a BBC travel presenter. Seriously. Galapagos sounds just amazing.. my favourite (of so may great pics) is Jo snoozing with the sea lions. xxxxx
1st August 2013

I was with your mum just after you called so I got the happy news - what a place to propose - you old romantic Charlie!

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