Galapagos and Beyond: day 5 - boarding the Coral I tour boat

Published: June 28th 2018
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Up at the crack of dawn to catch the early morning flight from Quito to Baltra Airport via an hour stopover at Guayaquil Airport. Guayaquil is the largest and most populous town in Ecuador. As we flew over the Andean mountain range we saw perched on plateaux large towns linked to each other by single roads. These roads seem relatively modern from the air and one can only imagine that the earlier townsfolk must have walked up and down mountain paths to communicate with each other.

Eventually we arrived at Baltra where we passed through immigration and each paid our $100 nature park entrance fee. The Galapagos Islands are one big nature reserve and movement around the islands is very tightly controlled. Food security was exceedingly strict as we found out during our trip. Stray animals (rats, insects, etc) cause devastation to the ecology. For example rats had been introduced to the islands probably as escapees from the ships. They devastated the local animals and it was difficult to get rid of them without poisoning the local animal population. However, in 2012 a study was done on a chemical, Brodifacoum 25 to see what it killed. It was successful and was introduced to one of the islands and the rats were eliminated. However, it transpired that it could kill hawks. So when it was introduced to another island and hawks were killed, then the chemical poisoning was discontinued.

We were met by Hernan, who was to be one of our guides for the first three days of our trip. We were taken down to the dock to meet, what was to become my (Lesley's) nemesis throughout the entire week, the Zodiac. How to describe a Zodiac? It is a 15-16 person rubber dinghy with high rubber sides on which one has to stand to climb in and out. This tender is relatively rigid, but the big round rubber side tubes are a bit squishy and difficult to stand upon with stability. These sides are also too high off the floor to easily step over. Our yacht maintained a couple of these Zodiac tender boats. We used them each time we had to transfer on and off the yacht for every transfer to shore and back. But more about that during the course of the blog. Eventually I hauled myself onto the Zodiac and we were taken to the Coral I, our home for the week.

The Coral I yacht (along with Coral II, its sister ship) is described in the brochure as a “deluxe yacht”. Well the main lounge area was certainly cosy - the centrepiece being the bar. There we received a welcome and lunch. And this is where the fun began. Don had called the tour company ensuring that vegan and vegetarian food would be available. The vegetarian food was sort of available but the vegan choices were non-existent! Fortunately Caroline speaks fluent Spanish and during the course of a week she was able to direct the chef to what her and Max’s requirements were. Don and I also enjoyed some benefit from their special food productions.

After our luggage had been delivered to our miniscule cabins we changed and prepared for the first lecture of the tour - which was safety on board, safety and ecology protection on the islands and of course emergency drill.

Then we had our first excursion to the Charles Darwin Research Station and Fausto Llerena Breeding Center, in Puerto Ayara on Santa Cruz Island. The Galapagos is an archipelago of volcanic islands belonging to Ecuador. Santa Cruz is the second largest island in the Galapagos. During WWII it was a strategic point to control the Panama Canal.

The islands have a population of about 25,000 and in addition there are approximately 10,000 migrant workers. The first visitors to the islands were supposed to have been in 1535 when Fray Tomas de Berlanga discovered these islands on his way to Peru. There followed buccaneers to the islands.

The islands are incredibly saline and there is no fresh water. Giant Tortoises are able to sustain themselves on the saline water and vegetation and under their shells is a thick layer of blubber which the buccaneers used for oil and fresh meat, and the tortoise has an extra bladder which gave the buccaneers water. The buccaneers slaughtered the tortoises and in 1859 some 500,000 shells were recorded. There have been various attempts at trying to re-establish the community of tortoises. In 2012 Lonesome George, the last Giant Tortoise of a particular sub-species, died. With new DNA technology there is potential that it will be possible to re-establish his community if an ancestor in Africa can be found. Lonesome George’s body was sent to a specialist taxidermist to be stuffed. It took 2 years to complete the job and his body now resides at the Darwin Center.

So, off we set onto the Zodiac to Santa Cruz Island to visit the Charles Darwin Research Center. We were met by a vintage bus which was pretty dilapidated - but it worked! We passed many mangroves and cacti. All the natural flowers on the islands are green or white or yellow and all of the more brightly coloured flowers in people’s gardens and in the cemetery have been introduced more recently as non-native plants. Although the Amazonian forests are only 600 nautical miles away the plant life is extremely different as few plants can survive the salinity.

There are numerous iguanas - the land iguanas which are a brownish colour and the marine iguanas which are dark. However, about 20 years ago a pink iguana was discovered living in a volcano. We were also told not to touch the “apples” which were exceedingly poisonous but the tortoises love them.

At the research centre we saw baby tortoises being sheltered from the rats. They stay under cages in the centre until they are two and then at the age of five they are released back to the islands. You can tell the age of a tortoise by the rings on its back. When the rings (keratin) are very black and numerous and pronounced the tortoise is young. When the tortoise is 100 years old the rings disappear and the tortoise is fully grown. We then passed to the special room where Lonesome George is housed. It would appear that he shrunk in the taxidery process and is about 2/3 of his original size!

See more about these fascinating and protected Galapagos tortoises in our blog of day 8 "Santa Cruz island Turtles, Tortoises and Rays" when we visited the El Chato Tortoise Reserve in the afternoon.

We walked back to the town square to meet the bus. This was the last time we would see any shops for the next week. Don and I sat in the square looking at the wildlife - fur seals, sharks, Sally Lightfoot crabs, rays, Frigatebirds and gulls and many other birds. The fur seals climbed up on the jetty and lounged in the sun. They were totally unconcerned with the tourists taking photos of them. Months ago I had bought a book detailing the Galapagos animals, plants and birds, but Don forgot to pack it so he found a minimal replacement in one of the shops.

Once we were back on the yacht we met the other passengers including some who had already been on the yacht for several days. There were people from Australia, New Zealand, the US and two others from Israel. We all met in the lounge for a welcoming cocktail and a lecture on the program for the next day.

We were very tired so it was bed at 9pm ready for the 7am wake up call the next day.

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