Arrived in Quito on 27/4 and it was pouring rain and freezing cold. Quite a change from balmy Cuba. Went to our travel agent to pick up our tickets for the Galapagos Islands only to find out that the tour operator had double-booked and stuffed up our reservation. To cut a long story short, the agent as a gesture of good faith changed our booking at their expense from the original 16-person tourist boat to a 96-person luxury cruiser, a difference of about US$500 each. The boat (Santa Cruz) was brilliant, the service was A-1, and the yummy food and cocktails were never-ending. We couldn´t believe our luck.
I can understand why people rave about the Galapagos. It has to be one of the most fabulous experiences ever. The rare wildlife are fairly used to humans, and it´s pretty hard to take a bad photo. To top it off, we had the best of the naturalist guides (Grace), plus being on a bigger boat we were able to go the the rarely visited western isles of Isabela and Fernandina. After 8 days & 7 nights on the boat (28/4 - 5/5), we didn´t want to leave. Even got a certificate
Who´s your momma?
The cutest baby sea lion
for crossing the Equator 4 times in all (very kitschy).
Every day consisted of different morning and afternoon activities such as land hikes, snorkelling, and panga (zodiac raft) rides. They even had a glass-bottom boat as an alternative. I went deep-water snorkelling a couple of times which was great. The coral was an uninteresting brown colour, but there were heaps of brilliantly coloured tropical fish. BRRR, lucky I had rented a wetsuit from our travel agent, as the cold currents had arrived from Chile/Antarctica. Also I had the opportunity to swim with sea turtles and sea lions - unbelievably cool. Mini stayed near the shore, and once whilst wading in the shallows had a sea-lion land in her wet-suited lap!
Went to the following islands and saw the following wildlife:-
(1) San Cristobal (1st island that Charles Darwin explored in 1835) - tons of loafing sea lions, marine iguanas, San Cristobal mockingbird & lava lizard (endemic), oyster catchers, blue-footed boobies, pelicans, and frigate birds. You are not allowed to step above the dunes as this is where the sea turtles lay their eggs.
(2) Espanola - More of the above, plus Nazca (masked) boobies, warbler finches, mockingbirds
(very curious & come right up to you), colourful Xmas iguanas (red and green skinned, and endemic to Espanola), swallowed-tail (nocturnal) gulls, paradise birds, and the largest seabird in the Galapagos - the waved albatross (good timing as these birds were absent in Feb-March). Most of the birds are nesting. Had to watch where you walked too as you could accidentally step on an iguana, sea lion (or their excrement), lava lizard, or nesting bird. They don´t move out of your way, you have to go around them. A lot of the animals live peacefully side-by-side. The natural predator of the smaller iguanas is the Galapagos hawk.
(3) Woke up early to watch the sunrise over Isabela Island - very peaceful and apocalyptic. This island is best known for land iguanas (yellow & tan skinned). These guys were a bit shy & not as prolific as the marine ones, but too slow to move away from our cameras. If finches are around, the land iguanas & giant tortoises may stretch out their necks for the finches to clear them of parasites and dead skin.
(4) Fernandina - tons of marine iguanas (black-skinned to match the lava rocks and
Male frigate bird
also to maximise the sun´s warmth), penguins, herons, and also the Flightless Cormorant (can´t fly, but can swim and dive like a penguin). Along with the black skin, the marine iguanas have evolved with flat faces in order to scrape green algae off the rocks; they need to feed up to 2 hours to get enough sustenance.
(5) Baltra and Santa Cruz islands - pink flamingoes and more land iguanas. Major highlight was a rare sighting of a squadron of blue-footed boobies diving for fish - totally amazing sight.
(6) Bartolome - the terrain was very volcanic and Mars-like. The obligatory Galapagos landscape photo is always taken from the summit, plus it was the location for the film "Master and Commander". Saw 5 white-tipped sharks, which were circling up and down and looking curiously at us standing in the shallows. They´re supposedly harmless. Along with Mini and I, there was only 1 other person to witness this spectacle - very special.
(7) Santiago - along with all the usual marine iguanas and sea lions, we also got to see the uncommon Galapagos Fur Sea Lions (much smaller and furrier), and a night heron.
(8) Genovesa &
North Seymour - the highest concentration of birdlife. Male frigate birds with their blown-up red pouches trying to attract the females, and red-footed boobies nesting in the trees (these birds fish over 200 kms offshore so are more difficult to find except for the outer reaches of the archipelago). Nesting, feeding, courting & mating birds everywhere you looked. And in the sea, we also encountered pilot whales and dolphins.
(9) Santa Fe - known for pale land iguanas. Practically albinos with red/black eyes and pale pink underbelly.
(10) Santa Cruz - Visited the Charles Darwin Research Centre which breeds giant tortoises in captivity before releasing them back on the islands when they are over 2 years old. The most famous resident is Lonesome George who is the last of his species (Pinta Island tortoise) now totally wiped out by bucaneers and whalers hunting for fresh meat & oil sources. A worldwide search has been undertaken to find a genetically compatible mate for George, but he won´t breed. Apparently they tried manual stimulation to try and get his sperm with no luck. Next up, cloning? Also visited a private farm in the very humid highland area where the giant
Partners taking turns to nest and search for food
tortoises are allowed to roam free. The name "Galapagos" means saddle, and thus the shape of the giant tortoise´s shell.
One can understand why Darwin was so fascinated. Quite a lot of the wildlife is only endemic to a particular island, and has evolved according to the environment.
AND I LOVE BOOBIES!!! Everyone gets put into 6 groups at the start, and we were in the "Boobies" group to start with (and then the Cormorants group at the end of the week). I believe they have the most character of all the birds. We were fortunate to be able to witness numerous courtship and mating rituals. The blue-footed booby courtship consists of dancing around, showing their feet, pecking & spreading their wings, which can last anywhere from 15-30 minutes. Then the mating only takes about 5 seconds. So I guess some people shouldn´t have anything to complain about, eh?
Got back to Quito on the 5th May, and spent the last couple of days going to the Otavalo Saturday Market by bus (2.5 hours each way), and exploring Old Quito town (lots of beautiful ornate churches). Our flight was delayed due to heavy fog so got put
up for the night at a 4-star hotel at the airline´s expense with all meals included. Very sweet deal even though we ended up losing a day in Cusco Peru.
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