The Galapagos Experience

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South America » Ecuador » Galápagos
February 23rd 2018
Published: April 28th 2018
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This is a long update, but it's the Galapagos and it's awesome. Photos are at the bottom if you don't care to read...

On the way to the Galapagos we spent one night near the Quito airport before flying to Baltra airport next to Isla Santa Cruz. Within seconds of disembarking from the plane we were met by a land iguana and within a couple hours in Puerto Ayora we saw sea lions, eagle rays, black-tipped sharks, sea turtles, marine iguanas, cormorants, pelicans and crabs. Simply amazing, and just a taste of our next 8 days. We arrived a day before our cruise started to spend a day in town for a taste of ‘mainland’ Galapagos. Similar to many backpackers we debated travelling around the Galapagos on ferries and staying on the islands vs taking a cruise around the islands. Though it appears cheaper on the surface to independently travel around the islands, you can only stay overnight on 4 islands and then you are limited to expensive day trips to get to the actual interesting areas. A cruise offers a lot of benefits including: access to further islands than are possible on a day trip, most travel between the islands is at night and all the guess work and decision making is done for you. We went on Yate Floreana's northern circuit over 8 (actually 7 total) days. We were most looking forward to the supposed close encounters you get with wildlife here though the prospect of swimming with sharks was a bit daunting for Becky.

The first day we met back at the airport/ferry/bus terminal between Baltra and Santa Cruz, got situated into our cabin and met the other guests and crew. We were then escorted to the El Chato Tortoise Reserve where we learned about and saw the amazing Galapogos Tortoises up close. They are so big that Phil even got to play in a shell skeleton!

We were then back on the boat for dinner and cruised overnight to the small Isla Genovesa (Bird Island). Upon awaking the next day, the tranquil horseshoe shaped island awaited us. Up first was a short hike along the cliff face and lagoon where we saw frigate birds, Red-footed Boobies, Nazca Boobies and sea lions. Then we went snorkelling and saw Whitetip Reef Sharks and lots of other fish, turns out the sharks don’t really care about you so not as scary as Becky anticipated! The second snorkel was along a cliff where there were many birds roosting and the water next to the cliff was thick with feathers and poo. Only in the Galapagos do you have be conscience of bird feathers and poo in your snorkel. We still managed to see many fish and another Whitetip Reef Shark. In the afternoon we hiked around the top of the island and saw thousands of Nazca and Red-footed Boobies, including many with young babies. Nazca Boobies typically have two eggs at a time and one is larger than the other and out-competes the smaller one for food, resulting in the small chick dying. The size difference of newborn chicks is really significant and it was really amazing to see the natural selection of life and death so close. We also saw two Short-eared Owls and were treated to a nice sunset before leaving for our next destination.

We woke at our next stop of Isla Santiago to find a volcanic lava flow and a beautiful sandy beach. First up was short hike on the lava, which erupted a few hundred years ago. The patterns of the lava and the young lava cactus growing in the cracks were really impressive. Once it started getting warm it was time to get off the hot black lava and go snorkelling with penguins. Well, really we only saw them from the dinghy since they were scared off by the few dinghies in the area. It was still a good snorkelling spot where the lava flowed into the ocean and we saw a turtle and a Whitetip Reef Shark. Next up was snorkelling along the adjacent small Isla Bartolome where we saw more Whitetips and had an amazing swim with penguins! A group of about 6 of them were frolicking in the water right under our noses for quite a few minutes. It's amazing how fast they can swim, necessary to escape speedy sea lions. One of them had dried bird poop on its back and was franticly trying to clean it off in the water, barely noticing we were there. After all the expectations, it was nice to finally tick off the close animal encounters. Prior to sunset we climbed to the top of Bartolome and had amazing views over the islands. Bartolome contains one of the most distinctive Galapagos features; Pinnacle Rock, which was apparently a normal shaped volcano until American World War II pilots thought it should be reshaped by bombing it.

Next we went a short distance overnight to Isla Sombrero Chino (because that's what it looks like) off the southeastern tip of Isla Santiago. We had our best snorkel yet in the channel between Sombrero Chino and Isla Santiago with penguins, sea lions and Whitetips in crystal clear water. Then we went ashore for a walk and got up close with sea lions, marine iguanas and even saw a Galapagos Hawk guarding a freshly killed marine iguana. We were amazed at how close we could get to this predator with a fresh kill. It really was not interested in flying off even though we were only 20 metres away. In the afternoon we had our first heavy rain which meant that we didn't go on the planned hike on Isla Santa Cruz and instead went for a short snorkel. Because of the rain, the visibility wasn't that good, but there were a few schools of hundreds of big fish and a few more, by now ubiquitous, Whitetips.

Our next stop was the southern point of Isla Isabela where we first visited Islote Tintoreras, home of thousands of marine iguanas. We really had to be careful not to step on them as the island was pretty much covered and they blend in with the lava rocks so well. Then we had a short snorkel in the lagoon and through a rock channel where sea lions swam twirling right underneath us. If the afternoon we went ashore on Isabela where we toured the tortoise breeding centre and a wetland area with many pink flamingos. Becky was as happy as she could be by finally seeing flamingos in the wild. A few minutes of observation and its clear they really are quite strange creatures.

Our next morning was spent walking around Espinoza Point on Isla Ferdinanda where we saw more marine iguanas, sea lions and finally flightless cormorants. They look so sad with their stubby wings you just want to help them somehow, but they have adapted to survive by fishing, so I guess that is ok. Phil tripped and fell on the lava (ouch!) while trying to look at a cormorant, breaking Becky's binoculars in the process. It remains unclear if Phil will be allowed to use them again. In the afternoon we had one of the best snorkels of the trip with crystal waters and many playful sea lions surrounding us and turtles and marine iguanas eating algae underwater. A lot of the snorkelling takes place surrounded by people, but in this case we were swimming alone with a sea lion and doing lots of flips and twirls. It's really fun when you do flips and twirls and the sea lions mimic your movements but in a faster more graceful fashion. We always seem to be last out of the water, maybe because we are so focused on the sea life we don't realize it's time to get out, but also our fellow guests seem to be in a hurry to finish the swim. It’s hard to understand in such a magical place knowing that something cool could swim by at any time. In the afternoon we went ashore in Tagus Cove on Isabela and hiked up to some lookouts where we saw a lake and some ancient lava flows. The afternoon snorkel revealed a turtle, an octopus and many nudibranchs clinging to plants.

Our penultimate day started with a hike on the west side of Isla Santiago at Puerto Egas, a former farming settlement. Here we walked along the cliffs and saw Galapagos fur seals (different and much smaller than sea lions) and some really cool rock formations and then went snorkelling from the beach. In the afternoon we cruised over to Isla Rabida where we snorkelled while looking up at blue footed boobies and pelicans chilling on the cliffs. Once again the other snorkelers swam off quickly leaving us to explore caves and swim with some really inquisitive sea lions. One adolescent was following us like a dog by swimming under and then ahead of us only to climb on the rocks to watch and wait for us. He did this a number of times until we reached the dinghy waiting for us to board. For our last trip we had the option of a hot walk on the island or a dinghy ride to see more of the wildlife along the cliffs and in the water. Recalling how hot a lot of our hikes were, we chose the dinghy ride. We were able to get close views of birds and the rock formations but the ultimate treat was a pod of 50+ dolphins that came and swam alongside the dinghy! They were in a very playful mood, swimming in front and jumping in spectacular displays. Our dinghy captain, James was as amazed as the rest of us and we stayed viewing the dolphins much later than the agreed time. James likely had to explain himself to a grumpy captain who had already lifted the anchor and was sailing the whole ship to find the rogue half of the guests, but we were really happy. It was the perfect final act to an amazing week.

For our final day we cruised around Isla Dauphine Menor a few times for a final look at Nazca and Blue-footed Boobies and sea lions. Then we were off to the airport and said goodbye to the awesome crew and our friends for the last week. We flew back to Quito and then quickly got in a taxi and then a bus to Latacunga getting in at about 8pm. We felt fortunate that the connections worked out rather than staying another night in Quito.

Additional photos below
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