Amazing Galapagos Islands

Published: July 22nd 2012
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The Galapagos or Enchanted Islands, are without doubt one of the truly amazing places we have visited. We visited seven islands, each unique. Some are rocky lava outcrops with active volcanoes, some with swamps, some sand dunes – the sand can be black, white, red or green. The animals are everywhere you look, and sometimes so close you struggle not to trip over them. We swam with sea lions, sea turtles and sharks, treaded carefully between basking iguanas, watched a 30 minute display of driving blue-footed boobies fishing in a school of gar with a heron and sharks, saw many of the 13 species of finch which were key to development of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and many many other fish and birds. You can tell from the text that we really got into spotting and identifying fish! Life on the boat was easy, and very welcoming. Our naturalist guide Morris, had that great scientific communication skill, and had been very well trained: he knew all the answers to our whacky questions! This part of the trip was organised through GAP.

Wednesday 18 July 2012. We arrived at the Galapagos airport on Baltra Island, a couple of terminal buildings very remote from any other civilisation. Apparently, before each flight the runway is manually cleared of iguanas warming themselves on the tarmac. We travelled by bus through the desert-like landscape to the waterway between Baltra and the Santa Cruz Is., then a ferry across the narrow strait. Luggage was thrown onto the top of the ferry. The uniqueness of the flora and fauna was clear straight away - pelicans and some seabirds feeding on fish just opposite the landing jetty, and iguanas on the rocks. Then across Santa Cruz to Port Ayura. The landscape of small, bare trees on the northern side, changes completely to lush green scrub land in the central highlands, because of constant irrigating sea mist. On to the dock and then onto the tour boat by dinghy (Rigid Inflatable Boats). “G4” was one of two names given to our 25m monohull with a high ungainly superstructure (also Xavier III).

After unpacking in our cabins, which were quite nice, we had the first of many nice meals. Then off to the highlands nature reserve to see Giant Galapagos tortoises, that were moving through the reserve as part of the annual migratory path from near the southern shore to the highlands for breeding. We saw dozens of tortoises distributed around the grounds, from very large 200kg ones to 15 year olds and a 5 year old with a shell about 30cm wide. We also saw many of the finch species which were key to Charles Darwin’s development of the Origin of the Species – the 13 different species had developed different beak shapes and sizes to fill ecological niches, and as the microclimates on the islands have changed, evolution has been observed across the centuries of human visitation. Bill was reading Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Ancestors Tale’ on the trip, which seemed fitting.

Next to a nearby lava tube / tunnel which was formed as the floe ran from the volcano to the shore, hardening on the outside while the inside continued to flow. The resulting tube was about 10m high and maybe 100 metres long. Back to Port Ayura where many tour boats and several private yachts were now moored. Even a yacht from Australia. G4 set sail for Rabida Is. at midnight.

Thursday. We woke at Rabida to the raucous noise of the anchor going down. Breakfast confirmed that all 17 passengers had some reason for a disturbed sleep - too much noise, too much movement, too loud an anchoring process. But all were in good humour, ready for the trip to really begin. During breakfast 4 pink flamingos flew past the boat, giving us a taste of things to come. At the stern large puffer fish rose and threatened to nip toes. We took the dinghies to the beach for the first wet landing - a red, quite granular coral beach on the southern side of the island. We immediately saw blue footed boobies perched along the shore half way up the cliffs, and Galapagos Mockingbirds flew surprisingly close to our feet. Sea Lions, Pelicans, marine Iguanas, and “painted” crabs (called Sally Lightfoot crabs after a dancer) were everywhere, a veritable wonderland of species. We walked past a small lagoon over to the bays on the NW side and went snorkelling from the dinghies. Here we came face-to-face with Sea Lions, Parrot fish, a small shark, Blue Surgeon fish, large starfish and many more fish. We then motored for about 3 hours to the northern coast of Santa Cruz Is, going past Daphne minor and major islands. During the trip Greg had a chance to visit the bridge, of course and we established the daily ritual of a snooze after lunch. Frigate birds glided and cavorted above us.

We moored off Las Bachas beach in about 7 m of water, which was relatively turbid. As we walked on the beach, flocks of blue footed boobies were making low “bombing” runs over the sand dunes and across the bay, not far above our heads. We popped over the top of the sand dunes to see a small lagoon. Amazingly there were nine pink (really pink!) flamingos wading in the lagoon, all honking to keep track of each other – sometimes honking with their heads under water. Often they stood on one tall thin leg and wrapped their long necks around their bodies to get the balance right. We crept up to within 10m of the closest one and just watched and listened. Magic stuff.

Back over the sand dune and we were treated to another spectacle. Bait fish not unlike Australian Garfish, were schooling across the bay. Large flocks of maybe 50 Boobies swarmed above the schools and when their prey was spotted, they would plummet down into the water to catch them. The flight angle was often 90 degrees, and their wings tucked for impact. We later realised they can drive themselves underwater by up to 2 m in these dives. Boobies floating above the schools put their heads down into the water and peered around to find more fish. Pelicans, Frigate birds, and even a heron joined in. Small white-tipped reef sharks cruised the shallow waters. What looked like Dolphin fish followed the Gar into the shore. The whole commotion lasted perhaps 30 mins. The BBC had spent 2 months in the Islands to get a similar display on film. Eventually we all got into the water but no one could swim directly around the diving Boobies. There were many schools of fish swimming at different depths and hence accessible to Boobies. The Boobies eventually retired to the rocks bordering the bay and waited for the next meal. We set off about 1630 and sailed further around the coast. We watched the sunset from the deck and were accompanied by at least one, but up to six Frigate birds. Some were so called “Magnificent” Frigate birds which have the red chest. They were mostly gliding on the updrafts surrounding the boat, but occasionally chirping and getting into dog fights. Also along the route we saw Elliot Storm Petrels, other seabirds like terns, and some saw whales. Morris (our naturalist guide) confirmed that whales are not uncommon at this time of year, in this magic place. We ended up mooring for dinner at Eden Isolet, and enjoyed dinner in the calm anchorage. We made it to 2130 with stimulating conversation. They set sail at about 11 and motored slowly to the next mooring. Not the same stress in the tone of the engines on this trip. We slept well enough.

Friday. Floreana Island. Woke at Point Cormorant (nth). Morning snorkel from the dinghies. Greg opted for no wetsuit again, even though the water was clearly colder, and Catherine stuck with hers for the whole trip. We motored over towards Devil’s Crown, which is an outcrop of rocks perhaps one nautical mile off shore. It was circular and had ragged eroded peaks perhaps 30 m high. Guano covering each peak of dark volcanic rock. The water was swirling around it was ebb tide. When we got perhaps 100 m off the rocks we dropped into the water and started swimming. It was more than 10 m deep. Catherine and others in the group saw hammerhead sharks immediately. We headed towards the first wall because the strong current could have dragged us into the crater per se. The bottom quickly came up to meet us and there were thousands of fish. Close to the edge the water was ebbing at three knots - very difficult to swim against. There was also a fair swell running. Along the edge there were large schools of small fish, including little red Cardinal fish. Also schools of Blue and Gold Snapper. We did not see any pelagics. We followed the outside edge closely and the current took us to the NW end of the crown. Hugging the steep edge we were able to slide up against the current into the crater itself. The current was so strong that many, including Catherine, were pushed against the rocks. Flat, pulverised corals and rocks inside – and warmer water, with less current. We saw a Moorish Idol and many other fish and bottom worms. We made a quick sprint across to the other side of the crater and down the other face where the water was clear and there was a rock garden effect. Then out the other end and into open water on the SW. The highlight was three or four Eagle rays riding the current, and Greg swam down with one, gliding beside it. Others talked about seeing Scorpion/Stonefish. No colourful hard corals but some soft coral bommies in the crater. Back to the boat for warm showers and a hearty lunch. The boat moved the short distance around to Post Office bay.

We headed out at about 1430 and directly across to the shore. Quite steep, green beach. Morris showed us the Olivine gems that are responsible for the colour, amongst all the course sand grains. We walked up the path to the actual post office box which has been present since something like 1790. Lots of letters in the post box for Australia. We picked up three interesting letters and posted one ourselves. Then past the spot where people had previously attempted to establish little communities. Just building stumps left now. Morris told us some truly fantastic stories about dentist who pulled out his own teeth, a duchess who brought three lovers with her, a group of Norwegians who really gave it a go. We walked beyond that and onto a dusty path to a lava tube. The entrance to the lava tube was steep and slippery; the railings and ropes rickety. Deep in the tube it was pitch black and surprisingly humid. Back to the bay where we donned our snorkelling gear. Dropping in the slightly murky water, we immediately started swimming with large turtles grazing on algae on the shallow rocks and playful sealions in the deeper water – about one metre away from each animal type. The rule was no touching the creatures, but certainly we were able to get really close and to watch their behaviours. We also saw Blennies – fish that had cod-like features around the head, but had a tail more like an eel. These guys were swimming across the top of the rocks and darting into the crevices when they saw divers. Back to the beach the planned soccer game with the other G-adventures boat was cancelled because no one bought a ball! We saw turtle nests and tracks from what must have been a cat – perhaps raiding the turtle nests. On the way back to the boat we saw turtles mating in the water. When they noticed us, they made loud flapping noises and were gone in a flash. Timid creatures!

Again we headed off at about midnight and made our way towards Espaniola Island. It was a relatively rough trip with the sea striking us on the bow quarter.

Saturday. Espaniola is the oldest and most south easterly of the islands, and so it is exposed to the full surge of the southern ocean. One of the guide books discussed this area as sea zone 4, being different from the others in terms of sea temperature and marine diversity. There was a small harbour created naturally behind a pile of rocks and the curvature of the bay. We were able to make a dry landing there because the parks people had constructed some concrete steps. Straight off the dinghies and onto the steps was the start of what was a great walk. There were marine iguanas all over the beach, lying across one-another, sprawled across rocks, lying on the sand sunning themselves. In some places it was almost impossible not to stand on them. These were bigger iguanas than we had seen on the other islands, and they had a clear red colouration –coming from the types of algae they feed on. Around our feet were Galapagos Mockingbirds looking for water from us. The sea lions were going about their business and trying to ignore us, but we were obviously disturbing their snoozing. We watched a Lava Heron catch and eat a small octopus. We picked our way between all the creatures and headed along the rocky path towards the southern shore. It wasn’t far before we came across our first albatross couple with chick. This time of the year (July) all the world’s albatross’ gather from wherever they have been across the southern oceans to breed and raise the chicks. The first couple were hidden amongst the small, stunted shrubs. There was no nest. The chick was out in the open with one of the parents overlooking it. Every now and again the adult would make a sound like, quark, quark, qua, qua, qua. Later the chick would answer in a very quiet voice but similar pattern. We sat there for a while just watching the behaviours and admiring these often inaccessible animals. We walked on and came to the “albatross international airport” - an open area, but still littered with large rocks. Many albatross pairs were spread across this area. We didn’t see any take-off or land, but we did get to see a full mating ritual between initially three, and then two birds. Lots of open mouths, duelling with beaks and rapid staccato clacking of beaks. Lovely display. There was another mating pair just near where we were standing and they had brought a full size squid with them to give to the chick. The final step was the southern cliff where we were able to see albatross’ take-off, as well as other gulls, Boobies and even hawks. Below the cliff was a little rock pool which allowed us to watch a sealion, marine iguanas, big fish and the violence of the ocean.

Back to the ship via the far western coast of the island where we walked directly past Nascar Boobies nesting on the ground. Those, and a full sized sea lion were completely accessible and unafraid. On the dinghy trip back to the boat, we saw marine iguanas swimming across the little channel to feed on algae at the low tide.

We motored over to Gardner Bay, a
Greg swimming with sea turtleGreg swimming with sea turtleGreg swimming with sea turtle

Thanks to Morton for this one.
long white sandy beach with turquoise water, hundreds of sealions and the occasional Mockingbird. We strolled along the beach watching the sealions frolicking. Spotted a Galapagos Ground Finch which was a bit unusual. Our dive was to a set of rocks about 200 meters off shore. Daniel the sailor, had told us there was a spot just off shore where sharks tend to sleep in a small cave. Danish tourist Morten found this cave almost straight off and then spent the next hour photographing himself in various positions beside the sleeping Whitetipped Reef sharks. There were three, 6 footers, sleeping under a rock ledge. Greg got down once to have a look, but swimming with sharks is not his favourite thing. We continued around the rock and saw another sea turtle, a large school of Blue and Gold Snapper, and a huge school of Black Striped Salema. This school floated above other fish like Pacific Dog Snapper. In other places we saw Mexican Hogfish grazing on algae and coral. Finally back to the beach and we spent quite a while simply marvelling at the scenery and action all around us.

Sailed for San Cristobal just after dinner that night. Sat up on the top deck and checked out the stars. This was a clear night so we could see the Southern Cross, Scorpio, as well as the Big Dipper. Hey this must be near the Equator!

Sunday. Woke up in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, which is the capital of San Cristobal. The harbour had a fair ocean surge with point surf breaks at either extremity. Lots of boats of similar size to the G4. We noticed sealions lolling around, over, under all the boats in the harbou. One of the boats was a so-called “bachelor boat” which was the favourite place for sealions who have not earned a harem yet. The interpretation centre had nice displays about sustainable development first, the backwards history, and then the natural history diorama. The displays filled out the stories behind the somewhat apocryphal yarns Morris shared with us a few earlier. There really was a baroness who came to the Galapagos with her three lovers. A noticeboard near the end of the museum journey warned of the files for trying to smuggle native fauna and flora out of the Galapagos – a German guy paid the price of two years jail!

The group split at that point and the Danes, Norwegians and Brits made their way to the airport. We (four plus Canadians Melanie and Jon) followed the coast back to the town and made our way to the internet lounge. Passed boat building on the beach, the scout hut and a small building that was the naval offices (Armada). We confirmed that Graham was OK, and sent out short “signs of life” emails to our families. It was clear that one very positive outcome of the restrictions placed around tourist numbers in the Galapagos, is that the streets are far from crowded. Very appealing really.

A new group joined us - 4 Australians, 2 French and one from US. At the official tortoise breeding centre we saw plenty of small juvenile tortoises in cages protected from the invasive species, including the black rats. We even got to see the first tortoise successfully bred in captivity: Genesis; #1. Half way back to the Port we stopped at a volcanic crater. Climbed to the top and enjoyed a great outlook across the island and down to Punta Pitt where we would visit the next day. The crater itself was filled with fresh water and is used as the village water supply. Frigate birds were dipping their wings and feet into the water to wash themselves. The crater was surrounded by a plantation of endemic plant, miconia.

A beautiful sunset over the harbour. We moved cabins to the upper deck - more motion, but balanced against significantly less engine noise. We played “500” with the Hausdorffs after dinner and into the evening.

Monday. Much quiter night but a fair bit of swell. No you can’t have it all! Woke to find the G4 moored close to the shore on the northern side of Punta Pitt. We could hear sealions barking and Grey Lava gulls squawking. On the cliffs of the bay, we were able to see Red-footed Boobies of two types: white and brown. Apparently different morphotypes. Sealions frolicked in the shallow water as we rode in dinghies above them. Nocturnal gulls were perched on the cliffs, the same ones that we saw circling above the boat several nights back. We were lucky to see two grey gulls fighting over a Sally Lightfoot crab. While they were busy squabbling, a frigate bird swooped in and took the whole crab. Morris explained how they are reknown pirates. We also saw two young sealion males practicing their fighting skills – within metres of us.

Off on a trek up to the hilltop of the point. A lunar landscape with bare earth and stunted shrubs. Lichens and Darwin finches. Down to the cliff edge facing south to see red coloured succulents, the deep blue ocean and the beautiful seabirds. When we got back everyone jumped into the refreshing water. At various points the guarding male sealion would charge one of us, presumably to scare us off predating or competing for them. Set sail for the Cerro Brujo on the NE of San Cristobal. On the way the water was calm and we spotted two humpback whales cruising along. A never ending panorama of life.

The next dive was off the beach - relatively murky but still good for seeing Mexican Hogfish, Blennies and Bill and Wendell saw a large ray. We walked along the quite steep beach with fine white sand. Up over the sand dune was a lunar landscape around a mangrove estuary. Relatively few marine iguanas. No Mockingbirds. Some pelicans and boobies nonchalantly dove into the bay. One pelican was constantly annoyed by a land bird (the invasive Annie bird) trying to take advantage of his fishing skills. Sitting on the beach, a young sealion waddled up through the group, simply expecting people to move out of its way. In the evening we motored past Leon Dormido (Kicker Rocks) and moved slowly around them as the sun set. Many young turtles around the rock. The water hundreds of feet deep close to the edge – apparently an excellent dive site. Entertained by jumping Manta rays on the horizon. We motored a full 11 hours overnight to the new mooring on the NW side of Santiago Island. The night sky was clear and spectacular.

Tuesday. Moored in Buccaneer Bay. First up we got into the dinghies and motored around the headland. Red dust cliffs which were a Tuff Cone of an old volcano. We saw Brown Noddies, Blue Footed Boobies, and a Straited Heron. We motored inside a cave under the cliffs. The water was crystal clear and turquoise with filtered light. Then back out to the headland for a great snorkel. Over to the wall to see the usual array of reef fish. Fifty metres along the wall a shark appeared out of the gloom. It took us a second to remember Morris’ words “Sharks don’t attack humans here in Galapagos – at least not very often”. We then continued a little more cautiously. He came back again for a second run and then headed off. No damage done. It is always hard to tell size underwater but it was probably a 7ft Blacktip shark – can be dangerous to humans if there is blood in the water!! No one else saw it, so we were privileged. Other features along the wall were some rock gardens, caves with sunlight coming in from the rear, ledges. In one rock garden we saw two Moorish Idols. Other highlights were: Giant Damselfish; Guineafowl Puffer (on a ledge about 4 ft down); Orangeside Triggerfish, Panamic Fanged Blenny; and like at the other sites Parrot fish in various forms.

The next stop was James Bay. Remains of an earlier attempt at civilisation at this site. An Ecuadorian entrepreneur had tried to capture the salt market during an El Nino (wet phase on the eastern Pacific). It failed after three years. We took a walk from the black beach around to some lava pools, which were connected to the ocean through sub-surface tunnels and chambers. In the rock pools leading up to these we saw a Whimbren and a Lava (or striated) Heron and chick. The pools were clear and surging. Three Galapagos fur seals were perched in crevices above the surface. Steep sides must make it a challenge for these animals.

Our dive went straight from the black sand beach. This turned out to be a great dive. Lots of exquisite little white starfish, sea urchins and anemonies contrasted with the dark sub-surface. This didn’t last long however, it soon turned back into stoney reef above a white sand bottom. Here we also spotted a Galapagos Sand Dollar. Almost immediately after reaching the off-shore reef we saw Giant Hawkfish sporting its blue on black hieroglyphics, and a rather ugly Flag Cabrilla which was an olive green to match the rocks and watched me suspiciously as a floated nearby. We cruised on the ocean side of the reef and dived down on a school of Blue and Yellow snapper. In a shallow water rock garden we saw a Galapagos Twin Spot octopus. It looked like a crumpled up colourful scarf. As it moved with the ocean surge it changed colour subtly. Someone moved more violently and the octopus streamlined himself and swam off a short distance. In this arrangement it was a dark blue. The stress brought out some bright aqua shades. At this spot we also saw some pelagic fish (maybe barracuda, or maybe Pacific Sierra), Panamic Graysby Cabrilla, Yellowtail Damselfish, Ringtail Damselfish and another turtle.

Perhaps 25 metres further out from the off-shore reef, there was a large male sealion popping out of the water. He was swimming down about 5 metres into the cave blowing up a storm of bubbles, swimming again to the surface, catching a breath and then diving down again. He was probably catching fish. The mouth of the cave was a frenzy of fish activity. All sorts of fish including hogfish, barracuda and many ebony colour reef fish were gathered to witness the spectacle. This display went on for fifteen minutes. We got back to the boat and headed off to the final island for dinner and some farewell drinks. The sunset emphasised the wild and open vista of the Galapagos Islands as we motored to Rabida Island for dinner. Back to Santa Cruz later in the night punching a fair swell.

Wednesday. The final visit was to the Charles Darwin Research Centre – which must be a mecca for naturalists – and where a large breeding program for giant tortoises and iguanas has been underway since 1956. The centre started in 1905 by the Californian Academy of Science. Lonesome George, the largest Giant tortoise in the world and the last of his species from Pinta Island, died 1 month ago at about 120 years of age. He was clearly loved by the staff for his history and spirit, and as an example of increased global awareness of species extinctions. Over the centuries perhaps 100,000 tortoises have been killed for various human purposes. Despite heroic efforts by scientists, including a young blond Swiss and a brunette Ecuadorian girl who extracted his semen, he left no offspring by either mating with the closest species or by artificial insemination.

We also saw Diego, who is alive and well at 150 y.o. He is a Saddleback Giant tortoise and has had significantly more success in breeding than did Lonesome George. Some 2000 progeny have now been bred in captivity, and later returned to the wild. Diego spent a considerable slab of his life in the San Diego zoo, but was returned on request. We also got to see the land iguana which was originally from Baltra Is. It was largely wiped out when Baltra was used as an airforce base by the US during WWII. Again some individuals were returned from overseas zoos and the species has been re-established on Baltra. So successful has been the program, that they have to clear iguanas off the runway prior to jets departing.

From the Centre we reboarded a bus and headed across Santa Cruz to Baltra. The highlands were covered in mist and it was actually quite cool as we transited. We reversed the process of ferry-bus-terminal and ultimately left the wonderful Galapagos Islands. The plane was obviously packed with tourists, many of whom had been on our GAP trips. Another opportunity to observe and marvel at the bizarre behaviours of tourists abroad.


22nd July 2012

Roger to that mate, Safe travelling, C/ya.
26th July 2012

Money well spent
G'day folks, Photos turned up great. Covering commentary very interesting.
27th July 2012

I had more time today to absorb the detail in your Blog. Very Interesting.
6th August 2012

Deleriously wonderful
I really appreciated the descriptions of the intense and proliferic wildlife on the Galapagos. Did you feel inebriated by the sheer wonder of it. While mild in comparison it remonded me a little pf several days spent pver 20 uears ago in a very remoteart pf Kangaroo Island. Regards Christone

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