Journey to the Galapagos...

Published: May 13th 2013
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April 10 – 14 … Home in Calgary for a few days. It was just long enough wash everything in my pack, pick out some different clothes to take on the next leg of my trip and get the tax returns I needed to complete done and filed. I was also able to catch up with a few friends and family. Tom the cat has been very well taken care of in my absence – I think I was just a temporary disruption to his usual routine for the few days I was at home but at least he didn’t shun me! I wasn’t unhappy to leave – it snowed on the 14th, quite a shock to my system, which had been used to warmer temperatures for the prior few months.

April 15… Off to Quito, Ecuador with my sister, Michele, and her daughter, Marla. The trip to Quito (via Houston) was uneventful but still a full day’s journey. The new airport, which opened in February, seems very nice but it is a long way from the center of things – even at nearly midnight with limited traffic, the taxi ride took nearly an hour. We stayed in a small bed and breakfast with a resident rabbit named Brownie.

April 16… A free day in Quito. I was here in 1999 – in fact, it was the last place I visited in South America at the end of my previous leave of absence. I never made it the Galapagos Islands then, which I had always regretted, so I was happy to be back. Michele had arranged a guided half day tour, primarily in the old town, which was a pleasant way to spend a few hours. We visited a local market – I don’t think Marla was too impressed with the fresh meat, including the various internal organs, on display but she enjoyed the fresh fruit and flowers much more! It was good to get out, do some walking and get some fresh air. Later in the day was the pre-departure meeting for the Galapagos trip – we met our travel companions and did paperwork! Three of us (Laura, Meagan and myself) are spending 7 nights on board the boat, the remainder are onboard for the first three nights, and then there will be new people joining us in San Cristobal for the remaining four nights.

April 17…
Tortoise CollageTortoise CollageTortoise Collage

by Marla Wheeler
a 4:15 am wake-up for breakfast and 5 am departure for the airport to catch the flight to Baltra, one of the three airports in the Galapagos Islands. There were 16 travelling in our tour, and there was a second group of the same number travelling on a different boat so it was a bit hectic leaving the hotel. There is a separate check-in area at the airport for people travelling to the Galapagos and bags are checked and tagged to prevent unauthorized materials from being introduced into the Islands. The flight stopped in Guayaquil, so we didn’t actually arrive on Baltra until midday. After our arrival and payment of the US$100 park fee, we were met by our guide William. It was a short bus ride to the ferry to Santa Cruz, then another hour until reaching the harbour in Puerto Ayora, where the Daphne was moored.

The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of approximately 120 volcanic islands and islets which lie approximately 1,000 km off the west coast of Ecuador, in the Pacific Ocean, straddling the equator. The Islands are not as tropical as you might expect given their location at the equator, since the water temperature
Hammerhead SharkHammerhead SharkHammerhead Shark

photo: Laura Jarchow
is influenced by three different ocean currents – the Humboldt Current from the Antarctic, the Panama Current from Panama and the Cromwell Current at the equator. Total landmass of the Islands is less than 8,000 sq km (within 47,000 sq km of ocean) and the total population residing on the various islands is approximately 25,000 people.

The Islands were named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978, recognizing their unique ecosystem and biodiversity. Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos during the 1830’s while voyaging on the Beagle, and his research from the Islands, as well as other stops in his voyage, became the underpinnings for the theory of natural selection and evolution.

After settling into our cabins (pretty tiny with bunk beds and an attached toilet and shower) and having lunch on board the boat, we headed back to Santa Cruz to visit giant land tortoises at Rancho Primicias. The tortoises were so big and moved faster than I expected them to. We saw a handful during the visit to the farm. The largest was maybe 275 kgs (600 lbs). You can tell the relative age of tortoises by the condition of their shells – the smoother the shell, the older they are. Very cool experience and the first indication of how close we were going to be able to get to the wildlife during the trip.

After the ranch, we went back to Puerto Ayora to wander around until it was time to return to the boat. After dinner, it was time for an early night.

April 18… Overnight, the boat moved from Santa Cruz to Floreana. After breakfast, it was off in the zodiacs to do a cruise along the shoreline before heading to the beach to snorkel for the first time. While on the zodiac, we saw (smelled first actually) our first large gathering of sea lions on the rocks and in the water. Sea lion colonies are nearly as malodorous as the penguins in the Antarctic! As well, we were fortunate to see a few Galapagos penguins swimming nearby. The first snorkel was okay, but nothing special as the tide was bringing in a lot of sand in the water, so you really couldn’t see too much. Apparently there were green sea turtles but I never saw them.

We moved after lunch to be closer to Point Cormoran, which we visited later in the afternoon. This area is known for its flamingos as well as a nesting spot for green sea turtles. However, there was only one lonely flamingo in the lagoon. As we walked to the turtle beach, it started to pour rain (not a good thing for expensive camera equipment but I had a plastic bag for protection). The rain and dark skies, while unwelcome, were probably the reason that we were blessed to see turtle hatchlings race from their nests to the open ocean. What a fantastic encounter, as they usually try to make their escape at night when preying birds are gone. The turtles are tiny, no bigger than my hand, and it was enchanting to see them hustle out from their nests and scramble madly across the sand. Pretty cool!

April 19… We visited Espanola today, the southernmost island in the archipelago. At the zodiac landing point, we were greeted by sea lions and marine iguanas lounging on the rocks. The weather turned to rain again during the visit to the island but we still saw lots of wildlife. The highlight for me was seeing the waved albatross, which come to this island to mate and nest. This was also where I saw my first blue-footed booby, possibly the most famous of the Galapagos birds. The coastline on this side of the island is very rugged, with lots of nesting birds.

We did a second snorkel, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The highlight had to be seeing a hammerhead shark – in nearly 200 dives, I had never seen a hammerhead but today I saw one snorkelling! We also saw Galapagos reef sharks, green sea turtles, spotted eagle rays and much more. It was a good site, but had fairly strong currents at the surface, which made snorkelling difficult. I was very proud of Marla, who did a great job in the water.

In the afternoon, we visited Gardner Bay. Once again, lots of sea lions resting in the sand, and the water visibility was great for snorkelling. There were sting rays in the water, as well as lots of fish. It was a great way to spend a sunny afternoon.

April 20… We woke up at Kicker Rock, near the island of San Cristobal. We were in the water just after 6 am, as this was the final opportunity for the
Waved AlbatrossWaved AlbatrossWaved Albatross

Punto Suarez, Espanola
first group to get in a snorkel before heading back to Quito later in the morning. We had another hammerhead shark sighting, and there were numerous of reef sharks circling about too.

I said goodbye to Marla and Michele midmorning, as they were heading back to Quito. From Quito, the two of them went to a lodge in one of the cloud forests for a couple of days before heading back to Canada. They left from the airport on San Cristobal, near the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. The new group members arrived to the boat around noon. After lunch, we went back onto the island and spent a few hours at La Loberia, a sea lion refuge. Not many sea lions to be found but the coastline was beautiful.

April 21… Overnight it was off to Santa Fe, a small island near Santa Cruz. We saw our first land iguanas here – they are much more colourful than their marine counterparts. The highlight of the morning (and perhaps the entire trip), had to be swimming with the sea lions – what a rush! They are such graceful and curious creatures in the water, and some of them are pretty big. Going nose to nose with a sea lion was incredible. Thanks to Laura for letting me borrow her camera for the snorkel!

We also stopped at South Plazas Island, where we encountered more land iguanas, lots of nesting birds and an unusual cactus forest.

April 22… The overnight transit to Genovesa was pretty bumpy, which did not make for a particularly restful sleep! We moored in Darwin Bay and went onshore to see numerous mating and nesting frigate birds, red-footed boobies and assorted other birds. Frigate birds inflate a large red 'balloon' that lies on their chest when they are looking for a mate and the males are responsible for building a suitable nest for the female. The snorkel in the bay was disappointing, as there was lots of sand in the water, so there wasn't too much to see.

April 23… Today was the final full day on the boat. We visited Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island, which was fascinating because of the weird black lava flows, which were formed by the last volcanic eruption near the end of the 19th century. We spent some time walking across the lava field, then hit
Marilyn and Marla and Sea LionMarilyn and Marla and Sea LionMarilyn and Marla and Sea Lion

Gardner Beach, Espanola
the water for a quick snorkel.

We then moved over to Rabida Island in the afternoon. What a different place – the island's red sand beach was very unique, resulting from all of the iron in the soil. Once again there was a small colony of sea lions lazing about and we also saw some nesting pelicans. We were able to do our final snorkel here, where we saw a reef shark and a fair number of fish. I missed the spotted eagle rays but apparently there were some of those as well.

Once back on the Daphne, we were treated to a school of manta rays swimming near the surface. It would have been great to have been able to get into the water with them but we couldn't.

April 24… It was an early morning as we headed out in the zodiacs to Black Turtle Cove, on the north side of Santa Cruz. Again, I would have loved to have been in the water instead of the zodiac, as we saw numerous turtles, reef sharks, eagle rays and a huge school of golden rays. It's just not the same when you're in a boat instead
Sea Lion PlayingSea Lion PlayingSea Lion Playing

photo: Meagan
of the water!

Many thanks the great crew on the Daphne, who worked hard to ensure we had the best experience possible!

We disembarked on Baltra and headed to the airport to catch the flight back to Quito. We finally arrived back at the hotel in the late afternoon, tired but in a good way.

April 25… I left Quito and flew to Bogota, Colombia, where I'm studying Spanish for a couple of weeks. Going back to school has been a challenge – it’s been a long time since I last spent time in a classroom!

Final thoughts… The Galapagos Islands are a pretty special place and I feel privileged to have been able to visit them and revel in their uniqueness. I'm glad that I was able to share the experience with one of my nieces – life looks quite different through the eyes of a 12 year old!

Additional photos below
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Quito 3

in the market
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Quito 8

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Quito 9

raw cocoa beans

13th May 2013

Your journies
What an amazing journey you have had this year - & thanks for sharing it with us. History lessons never hurt! Your photos are wonderful & your descriptions make us really feel we are on the journey, too. Keep well & enjoy.
13th May 2013

Thanks Again
Love your story and pics. Gives us itchy feet !
13th May 2013

Such wonderful photography and adventure. Thank you for sharing with me. Always looking forward to your blog.. Love and hugs Auntie Barbara

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