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Published: June 18th 2010
100-150 years old, weighing about 400 pounds
June 11 - 17, 2010
The Galapagos Islands have for centuries captured the interest of people from all over the globe. Having majored in biology, I have always wanted to witness firsthand the uniqueness of the Galapagos ecosystem. It has been called a naturalist's dream and often described as a "living laboratory of evolution." Until the discovery of the Islands in 1535, the flora and fauna of Galapagos evolved in isolation, producing strange and marvelous island species, as Charles Darwin found when he visited the islands in the 1800s.The isolation and inaccessibility that make these volcanic islands so unique also make it difficult and expensive to visit, however. They straddle the equator in the Pacific about 800 miles west of Ecuador, and only about 145,000 people visit annually. Nonetheless, the effort and money required to experience the unique wildlife and lava landscapes are truly worth it. (Note: Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands were the 100th countries Bill and I have visited!)
We used Continental frequent flier miles to purchase round-trip, first class tickets to Quito, Ecuador, and chose Canodros S.A. as our ecotourism operator. We were met at the Quito airport by Canodros agent Carlos
and driven to the lovely Dann Carlton Hotel for an overnight. The next morning at 7:30 after a huge and delicious breakfast buffet, we were driven from the hotel back to the Quito airport for our 9:30 a.m. flight to Guayaquil and then on to Baltra on Ecuadorian TAME airlines. Just before arrival on Baltra, the flight attendants opened all of the overhead bins and sprayed a sanitizer into each one to keep unwanted critters from accompanying us to the pristine isles. After going through a security checkpoint, we were taken by bus across the island to a dock where we were met by a reception committee of sea lions and boarded Zodiak boats, called pangas by the locals. The pangas would be our mode of transportation several times each day during the cruise as they carried us from our ship to the island we were visiting.
A 10-minute panga ride brought us to the Explorer II, our 100-passenger luxury cruise ship. We checked in and located our suite, a large, beautifully-appointed room with queen bed, sofa, television, marble bath, and vanity dresser. Sliding glass doors and a balcony ran the length of the room. The ship is
These little "clowns" were hilarious to watch.
gorgeous and seems to be a miniature version of the large ocean cruise ships, with similar facilities and amenities, but on a smaller scale. There is a conference room, piano bar, library, game room, boutique, 24-hour snack bar, medical center, wildlife observation deck, stargazing deck, Jacuzzi, massage room, and Internet center.
After lunch, which was the first of many delicious, elegant meals (among other delights, I had something called pil pil shrimp and passionfruit mousse), we were given an orientation of the ship, advised of Galapagos National Park regulations, and had the obligatory emergency drill. We learned during the briefing the basic schedule on board: wake-up call over the ship loudspeaker at 6:30 a.m., followed by a breakfast buffet at 7. At 8:00, disembark for the morning excursion, returning at about 11. At about 11:30, snacks would be served, followed by a naturalist lecture or video and a delicious buffet lunch. Around 2:30 or 3 p.m. we disembark for the afternoon excursion, returning to the ship by 6 p.m. The briefing for the next day began about 7:45, followed by dinner and then an evening activity, such as stargazing, shark-watching, Karaoke, piano bar, etc.
He blows up his red air sac to attract females.
also trained in the regulations of the Galapagos National Park Service, as 97% of the territory's 3,000 square miles is a protected area. Some of the strictly-enforced rules include: do not remove anything from the islands--not even a rock, take no food onto the islands, do not litter, stay with your guide at all times, and do not touch the animals. However, they may approach you or run into you by accident because they have no fear of humans!
After the briefings, we hit the ground running with our first nature walk, which was on Santa Cruz island. We boarded the pangas in groups of 12 - 14, each group having been given a name of native Galapagos wildlife; our group was the "Boobies." A 10-minute panga ride brought us to Santa Cruz for a dry landing. A dry landing is made up against a natural dock of lava rocks and is a bit tricky because the panga is moving with the wave action, and the rocks you step onto often are slippery. In fact, Bill slipped and cut his shin open in three places, and he had to go back to the ship so the doctor could
bandage the cuts. It was probably just as well that he missed the upcoming walk, which proved to be extremely difficult.
With our guide leading the way, we began the strenuous trek to Dragon Hill. The walk took us past a hypersalinic (saltier than the ocean) lagoon, then up a winding, extremely rocky trail to Dragon Hill, which offered a great view of the bay. The island serves as a nesting site of land iguanas, which can get as big as 4-5 feet long and weigh as much as 25 pounds. Once nearly extinct, there are about forty on the island. We saw several medium-to-large sized males and females on our walk and were amazed that they showed no fear of us. Other unique flora and fauna included several species of Darwin's finches, holly trees, Galapagos mockingbird, and the giant Opuntia cactus, some of which were 40 feet tall with a tree-like bark and diameters of up to 4 feet. The entire walk lasted about two hours and was over very difficult lava rock terrain. Several people in the group wanted to turn back but couldn't because visitors must remain with guides at all times. Because of our
late start due to the flight delay, it was nearly dark when we returned to the "panga dock" for our return to the ship, which had a mystical quality under the darkening, star-lit skies.
We quickly dressed for the captain's welcome cocktail party and a magnificent seated dinner (my main course was "giant Ecuadorian shrimp" that were HUGE, tender, and tasty!), followed by a briefing about Sunday's activities. After the briefing, we wandered to the sun deck on the stern to watch an exciting "performance" as dozens of sea lions and sharks were feeding on the smaller fish in the wake of the boat. The captain had turned the lights on, which further enhanced the feeding. Often, a shark would actually come out of the water to try to snatch a flying fish. It was an incredible sight, which we watched for almost an hour before going to bed.
Just as promised, at 6:30 a.m. the ship's naturalist coordinator Billy Chiquito gave us our wake-up call over the ship's intercom, and at 7 we were at the ample breakfast buffet. This morning's excursions included several choices, including a high-difficulty walk to the highest point of Bartholomew
"Baby" sea lion nursing
Baby sea lions nurse from their mothers until they are as big as she is--about 3 years.
Island. Since yesterday's walk was rated as a medium-difficulty walk, I was hesitant to try this one, so I opted instead to join Bill on a glass-bottomed boat tour of the waters surrounding Bartholomew. Snorkeling was an option following both of those choices.
From the glass-bottomed boat, we saw sea lions, adult and immature pelicans, starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, many colorful sergeant-major damselfish, mullets, yellowtail surgeon fish, and clownfish (like Nemo). We chose not to go out with the snorkelers, so after the boat ride, we sat on the Jacuzzi deck enjoying coffee, tea, and delicious snacks of lobster salad, fried cheese, and other tasty treats. At noon, Billy, who is a marine biologist, gave a lecture titled "Save the Oceans." Among many interesting facts, we learned that 80% of the world's oxygen comes from the first link in the food chain, the phytoplankton found in oceans, rivers, and lakes; only 20% is produced by forests.
There were choices from among many dishes at lunch, and I tried the octopus soup served with popcorn. It was fantastic! I also had sea bass and fried plantains, also great. After lunch, we participated in a "cocoa presentation,"
where we learned about Ecuadorian chocolate and had the pleasure of tasting it in a dip for fruit, cookies, and breadsticks. We learned that most of the world's finest chocolate, i.e., Swiss, Belgian, is made from Ecuadorian cocoa beans, known for their rich and well-balanced flavor.
The volcanic landscape of Santiago Island was our afternoon destination. After a wet landing, the 2-hour hike was of medium difficulty. A wet landing causes a degree of apprehension in some visitors, but it is actually a much easier method of exiting the panga. It is used when the panga cannot make it all the way to shore without damaging the propeller and fouling the engine, so we would swing our feet over the side and step into the water, which could be anywhere from a foot to two feet deep. There is no slipping on rocks because you wade onto a black-sand, volcanic ash beach.
The trail started at the black-sand beach and took us past an array of captivating colors and shapes along the coast, some of which was created by volcanic eruptions just one hundred years ago. All around were tidal pools filled with bright green algae,
The male booby clears the ground for a nest, then creates circular starbursts of guano around the nest to mark his and his mate's territory.
which are eaten by marine iguanas. Galapagos hawks, lava lizards, Sally Lightfoot crabs, sea turtles, oystercatchers, Darwin finches, yellow warblers, and pelicans were among the fauna sighted, but the high points of the island were the marine iguanas and the fur seals.
The Galapagos species of the marine iguana is endemic (native) and is the only marine iguana in the world. It is descended from a land iguana from South America that most probably reached the Galapagos via vegetation drifting on the surface of the ocean and then had to adapt to a strictly vegetarian and seafood diet. Over hundreds of thousands of years, it evolved a thinner body for more efficient swimming and can be up to four feet long, most of which is tail. They come onto the lava rocks to regain their body heat from the sun, and while basking, spit out salt through their nostrils, often as far as 2 feet. They bask in colonies, often lying on top of one another. The rocks along the shore were packed with them, often piled two or even three layers deep. They were really an unusual sight, one seen nowhere else in the world.
At the end of a level sandy trail that roughly followed the edge of the island, was a area of three aquamarine potholes formed from lava flow that went out to the open sea. The tops have caved in, making an open pothole to look down into, but leaving a bridge of black lava connecting them. Named the "fur seal grottoes" or "Darwin's pools," this is where we encountered the fur seals. Like most species in the Galapagos, the Galapagos fur seal is found nowhere else in the world. It seems out of place on the Equator, but it is thought to have made its way north from Antarctica during an Ice Age and then became stranded when the ice melted. We spent a delightful 30 minutes or so just watching them play and snooze. We heard shouts from another part of the island and were told that on Sunday afternoons, the Explorer II crew plays soccer on a makeshift soccer field on the island.
Some people stayed to snorkel, but the rest of us returned to the ship to get ready for the evening's activities: hors d'oeuvres, briefing about tomorrow's activities, another fantastic dinner, and the unforgettable
stargazing afterwards. After dinner, about twenty of us joined one of the guides on the very top deck, where only crew are usually allowed. Stargazing in the equatorial sky of the Galapagos is a unique experience because there is zero artificial light pollution and, being right on the equator, you can see constellations from BOTH hemispheres. The stars looked like flashlights--they were so big and clear! Against an inky black sky, the sweep of the Milky Way was more clearly visible than I had ever seen it in my life. Our guide had a laser pointer that seemed to reach the stars as he pointed out the Big Dipper, Southern Cross, Leo, Northern and Southern Crown, Sagittarius, Scorpio, Gemini, Orion, the False Cross, Mars, Saturn, and Venus. After enjoying the stars on the upper deck, we retired to our balcony to continue stargazing and to watch sea lions feeding along the ship as it sailed to Fernandina Island.
After the usual routine the next morning (wake-up call, breakfast), we visited Fernandina Island with a dry landing. Fernandina is considered the most pristine island in the archipelago. The one-mile shore hike was described as medium-high difficulty because of the
rocky terrain, but our guide took it slow, which allowed us to watch our footing and also enjoy the impressive landscape and wildlife at the same time. I was the first to spot the indigenous and rare Galapagos snake, which slithered silently near us. While not high on the "photo-op" list or the "want-to-see" list, they are nonetheless quite fascinating and harmless. They are constrictors, and their slender bodies can reach lengths of 5 to 6 feet. This one was shorter, but one we spotted later could well have been about 5 feet in length. He came up out of one hole and back down into another hole about 4 and 1/2 feet away, and we never saw his head and tail at the same time.
Later we watched a young sea lion playing with a Sally Lightfoot crab. It was like watching a puppy play with a toy. The sea lion would toss the crab into the air and try to catch it, or it would throw it into the water and dive after it, or it would play hide and seek with it. Sooo cute! Then at one of the lagoons, we were watching a crab
at the edge of a rock in the water, when a long, white, slithery arm suddenly reached up out of the water, grabbed the crab, and pulled it underwater! It was an octopus making a meal of a careless crab! Another highlight was seeing the nesting grounds of the flightless cormorants. The flightless cormorant is the only grounded cormorant species in the world, and being endemic to the Galapagos, is one of the rarest birds in the world. Without any predators on the islands, the wings of the cormorant had become useless, so they gradually exchanged their ability to fly for stronger legs and a streamlined body to enhance their swimming/diving prowess. These were not random changes that died out after a few generations; these were long-term adaptive modifications and are a good example of evolution at work.
Interesting flora on Fernandina included the lava cactus, which dramatically stand out against the barren fields of lava, and the mangroves in and around sheltered lagoons.
Snacks and cold beverages awaited us on the Jacuzzi deck when we returned to the ship, and then we listened to another naturalist talk by Billy titled "Marine Mammals." Among my selections
from the lunch buffet were pork chops with peach sauce and vegetable ceviche served with popcorn. Both were delicious, and I intend to Google for similar recipes.
Two boat excursions kept us busy this afternoon as the ship dropped anchor in Elizabeth Bay near the west coast of Isabella Island. This is a Marine Visitor Site, and landings are not permitted, so we had three "water" opportunities to view marine mammal and bird life in the sheltered cove: deep-water snorkeling, glass-bottomed boat, and panga tour. We chose the latter two and first went out in the glass-bottomed boat, from which we saw many sea turtles, playful sea lions, and lots of mullets, parrotfish, triggerfish, and surgeonfish.
Next, we went out on a panga ride that began with a visit to a secluded cove lined with large red mangrove trees. We entered a water cave that took us under the island for about a hundred yards or so. After exiting the cave we then quietly watched sea turtles, blue-footed boobies, nazca boobies, sea lions, fur seals, iguanas, terns, and frigatebirds for about an hour. Two particularly fascinating sights on this tranquil outing were the diving boobies and
the nursing sea lion. The boobies circle around, anywhere from 30 to 100 feet above the water, and then suddenly without warning, straighten their bodies like an arrow and dive straight down like a missile. They usually eat their prey while still underwater. Quite an unusual and rare sight! Another fascinating sight was two sea lions on the rocks above the tide line: one was apparently a female and the other was nursing from her; however, they were both the same size! We were told that baby sea lions stay with their mothers and nurse until at least two to three years of age, when they are as large as she is.
The panga then moved to a few rocky islets where a pair of nesting penguins could be seen. Galapagos penguins are the smallest and most northerly of the penguins. They can be found only on the Galapagos Islands; in fact, they are the only penguin species to cross into the Northern Hemisphere. They were brought to the Galapagos Islands by the Humboldt Current, which brings cold waters and nutrients north from Antarctica. They mate for life and choose to breed only when the food conditions are
Endangered Land Iguana
This one was about four feet long.
right, anywhere from three times a year to none.
We returned to the ship in time for the 6 p.m. "crossing the equator" celebration on the Jacuzzi deck. We actually crossed the equator line four times during this cruise, but this was the one with the best "timing" to party! Billy had a GPS and counted down to the exact second we crossed, when we all toasted for good luck. A briefing about the next day's activities and another fantastic dinner followed. The food has been incredible and a marvel to behold in its creative and elegant presentation.
The days just get better and better, and today was perhaps the richest wildlife adventure yet, with blue-footed boobies, magnificent frigatebirds, and giant tortoises! North Seymour Island was our destination with a dry landing on slippery lava rocks and a brown pelican welcoming us ashore. A trail about a mile and a half long took us along the rocky coast and then inland. Sea lions often draped themselves across our paths and we had to negotiate around them, but soon we came to our first nesting area of blue-footed boobies. The derivation of their name most likely comes
from Spanish sailors, who, between the birds' silly behavior and funny-colored feet, decided they truly were clowns (bobos).
We encountered several nests about a foot or so off the trail, and as is the case with so many of the animals in the Galapagos, they do not move away when approached. After mating, the male clears an area of ground, making it perfectly smooth, and creates circular starbursts of guano around the nest, marking their territory. The female lays the eggs (usually two), and they take turns sitting on the nest.
Nearby, several male boobies were performing their courtship dance, for which they are so well known and which is so entertaining to watch. The ritual lets the male flaunt the source of their pride--their trophy-blue feet--which will ultimately determine their fate with the ladies. They prance around, looking up at the sky, tilting their heads to one side and then the other, while the feet are lifted in sequence, pointed out at a 45-degree angle to show off their azure color. The ones with the prettiest feet quite definitely have an "attitude" as they whistle and strut. As we continued on the trail, these little
clowns treated us to fantastic displays of all stages of the courtship cycle from courtship to mating to females on nests to baby birds.
Boobies share their nesting grounds with the "magnificent frigatebird" (that's its official name, as distinguished from the "great frigatebird," which is a separate species). One of the most sought-after sights in the Galapagos is the bright red inflated balloon-like sac of the male. During courtship, the males "on display" sit on shrubs with sacs inflated to look like red balloons shaped like a heart. When a female passes by overhead, the males turn skyward, shake themselves in a frenzy of invitation, and loudly call attention to themselves. The female soon accepts an offer by landing next to her chosen mate, and nature takes it from there.
Other wildlife spotted on North Seymour included swallowtailed gulls, Darwin finches, herons, lava lizards, and Galapagos dove, and flora included the incense tree (which had a wonderful smell), carpet weed, and salt bush. We concluded our 2 1/2-hour walk with a family of swallowtailed gulls--mom, dad, and baby--who would have let us stroke their feathers had the naturalist guide not been watching! Galapagos National Park rules
are very strict about staying at least 2 feet away from all fauna.
Back on the Explorer II were waiting snacks, towel-folding lessons, and Billy's presentatiion on Galapagos penguins before lunch. My choices today were red snapper and shrimp with a to-die-for dessert called Torte Mille-Feuille, made of caramel and pastry. A tour of the commanding bridge by the captain was given to about ten of us who had expressed an interest, followed by our afternoon excursion on Santa Cruz Island from 2 p.m. until 6:30 p.m.
Santa Cruz Island is one of only four Galapagos Islands out of the thirteen major islands that is inhabited. About half of the Galapagos population of 20,000 live in or around the island's main town of Puerto Ayora, where our panga docked. We boarded buses and headed for the Highlands of Santa Cruz, the moist, lush habitat at an elevation of about 3,000 feet. The scenery continuously changed as we ascended through all seven vegetation zones of the Galapagos en route to our first stop, a lava tunnel. There are many lava tunnels in the Galapagos Islands due to the volcanic origin of the islands. A lava tube or
lava tunnel is formed when lave pours down from the crater of a volcano. The outside part of the lava flow, exposed to the cool surrounding air, cools and solidifies first. The lava trapped inside, however, continues to flow. It continues down until it spills out onto the surrounding countryside, leaving a hollow tube behind. The one we visited was about 20 yards in diameter and extended for over a mile and a half.
Our next stop was Rancho Primicias, where we hiked in search of the iconic giant Galapagos tortoises roaming freely in their natural environment . The walk is gently rolling at first but then descends gradually into the reserve, where we immediately began coming upon the giant, dome-back tortoises. Seeing these magnificent beasts is unforgettable. Adults can weigh over 600 pounds, and although we didn't see any quite that huge, we did see several that were at least 400-450 pounds and estimated to be over 150 years old, according to the "age rings" on the carapace, or shell. They seem to lead a peaceful, lazy life that centers on grazing, relaxing in the sun, or wallowing in water puddles.
The Galapagos tortoise once
teetered on the brink of extinction after 19th and 20th century whalers decimated their population from 5,000 to about fifteen. The sailors discovered that the tortoise could live in the hold of a ship for up to a year without food or water and thus be a source of fresh meat on long trips. An aggressive conservation campaign worked to restore their numbers, estimated around 1,500 today.
As the incredible day grew to a close, we got back into our buses for the 45-minute ride back to the dock, where we boarded our pangas to get back to the ship. A disembarkation briefing was followed by another excellent dinner of Galapagos lobster.
Our final day in this fascinating archipelago was spent on the sedentary island of San Cristobal in its beautiful port, Puerto Baqueirzo Moreno, where we had our first opportunity of the entire cruise to shop! First, however, we visited the new Interpretation Center, a state-of-the-art facility that tells the natural and human history of the islands with stunning and colorful displays. Another couple of hours was spent shopping in the town, population about 5,000, before departing for the airport and our one-hour-forty-minute, 1:15 p.m.
flight to Guayaquil and the subsequent 30-minute flight to Quito. We were met again by a Canodros representative, Fausto, who drove us to the lovely Dann Carlton, where we were upgraded to a luxurious suite that we enjoyed for the remainder of the evening and night. We arranged room service for 3:45 a.m., a huge breakfast of eggs, pastries, bacon, sausage, and fruit, after which Fausto transported us to the airport. After going through five different security checks, we waited in the VIP lounge until departure at 6:45 a.m., arriving in Houston at noon (same time zone).
The Galapagos archipelago is an enchanted place; its very nature is powerful and inspiring, peaceful and magical, and above all, unique. It is a Unesco World Natural Heritage site and home to dozens of endemic species found nowhere else. There is perfect harmony among the many species that is found nowhere else in the world because there is no competition for food and no predation by man. It is also one of the few places on the planet where you can actually see evolution happening in real time.
There are many ways to cruise the islands, from the luxury, 100-passenger cruise ship we enjoyed to 8-passenger luxury yachts. Eighty boats and ships have permits and itineraries approved for one year at a time to operate in Galapagos waters. Packages from 3 days to two weeks are offered. A cheaper alternative for the young and adventuresome is to fly to one of the inhabited islands, like San Cristobal, stay in a local hotel, and arrange your own boat rides to the islands with local operators. I must say, however, that I can highly recommend Canodros, S.A. as a tour operator. We received royal treatment and travel assistance every step of the way by friendly, capable agents and guides, and their Galapagos Explorer II luxury cruise ship had all the amenities of a larger vessel plus the advantages of a smaller vessel. Whatever mode of travel you choose, you will have an unforgettable experience.
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