WEEK 14: ECUADOR Galapagos Islands

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South America » Ecuador » Galápagos
June 28th 2011
Published: June 28th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

Friday 3rd June - Friday 10th June

Making the decision to visit the Galapagos Islands was tricky but after hearing that there were 200,000 pairs of boobies on the Islands, it was not in doubt for Chris! After much umming and urring about which boat to take, we opted for the large cruise vessel, Santa Cruz, due to its stability in the water for our Galapagos experience, and what a great choice this proved to be for us!

Arriving at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno airport on San Cristobal island, we were greeted by friendly staff who escorted us down to the sunny pier where we would be boarding the boat for the first time. To our surprise, a lazy sea lion was camped out on a bench and when I sat beside him, he arched his back and gazed deep into my eyes, what a great welcome and a taste of what was to come!

When we arrived on the 90 passenger vessel we were offered a fresh juice and a cold towel to freshen up before being shown our cabin home for the next eight days. With a small porthole to see outside and a spacious room with ensuite bathroom we were happy as larry, and keen to set sail (or start up the engines).

I won’t list out our day by day activities but simply speak of some of the highlights of the days that followed…

Daily snorkelling trips were spectacular, and offered something different each time. On our first trip ‘rambo snorkelling’ (Chris was surprised that no one else turned up with a belt around their head!), we were dropped into the current at the bottom of the Devil’s Crown, a rocky outcrop just off Floreana Island, and carried around the island where we saw beautiful tropical colourful fish, which were curious and happy to come close. At one point I swam beside a big fish for about five minutes and I felt that we were sharing the sea together, as if we were part of the same shoal. This was also our first encounter with a white-tipped reef shark, which appeared about of the deep. It was fascinating to watch it circle effortlessly below, thankful that it was at a safe distance, even if they aren’t harmful to humans (so we’re told!). Then right when we were about to come out of the water, a young sea lion appeared, playfully swimming all around us catching a stick from a sea urchin in his mouth and then letting it go, over and over again. A beautiful thing to witness.

On other snorkels we swam with more sea lions that were happy to wind their bodies around ours, jumping in and out of the water. It was so cool to play with them, holding our breath and diving down deeper with them as they blew bubbles at us and bared their teeth if we got too close!

We were also lucky to share some time with a baby (two week old) fur seal, resting on the shore whilst his parents were out catching fish. My love of these creatures has certainly grown since we first saw them in Puerto Madryn, Argentina a couple of months ago.

We thought it couldn’t get any better than that but each time we entered the water, we experienced a different magical moment. Snorkelling off Fernandina Island, Chris found himself surrounded by about 18 sea turtles, all slowly cruising past without a care. On another occasion, much to our amazement, as we swam through a deep channel between rocks, a white-tipped reef shark appeared from behind and cruised past only a couple of meters below us. He was close enough for us to see the detail of his gills and his lurking swimming style took my breath away. On the same snorkel, penguins darted past us at dramatic speed hunting for fish, every so often pausing briefly to check out the humans who swam amongst them.

We also swam with a huge manta ray and watched pelicans dive for fish only meters away from us. I could talk about the snorkelling all day, as this was our favourite part, but being the Galapagos Islands, there are other amazing things to fill this blog with!

The sea birds were equally spectacular. The blue footed booby, not only a beautiful looking bird with striking blue feet and a great name, it also has an impressive hunting technique…. rising up above the sea (to a height of up to 30 metres) and then dramatically diving head first like a spear below the surface into as little as one metre of water, to strike an unsuspecting fish, all within split seconds. Their mating show is also great to watch…. The male dancing on his feet, making loud whistles as he spreads his wings and offering the female gifts (usually a twig) as she stands watching, pretending not to care. On many occasions, we were literally surrounded by boobies!

The boobies’ hunting technique is similar to the cormorant, however the cormorants we saw in action were flightless. With plenty of food in the waters below, the cormorants no longer needed to fly and so their wings evolved to their habitat in the Galapagos, one where swimming and diving is enough.

We were lucky to see the waved albatross, unique to Espanola Island, in mating season…. the males putting on a show to attract a female partner, the two of them jousting with their beaks in the natural way of determining a life long mate. A beautiful big bird, with a body too heavy to take off from the land, which needs to walk to the edge of a cliff, take a deep breath and jump off in hope of catching the thermal air current driving it into the air.

The frigates were striking to look at, the males with a huge red balloon that they inflate in an attempt to attract a mate were very impressive, but I couldn’t help feeling like it was all a bit ugly, especially when the balloon deflates and goes all wrinkly…..

Iguanas were ever present and played a vital role during our visit, mainly due to the amount of photos that Chris took of them, leading to hours of sifting through similar images to find the best ones. No but really, they were quite interesting. Marine Iguanas have black and red bodies and lie scattered all over the coastal rocks on various islands, making them hard to see and therefore nearly falling victim to many a tourist’s boot! They look like they have just fallen from the sky stuck in whichever position they landed, on top of each other, spread eagle, etc. We were lucky enough to see them in the water whilst snorkelling, feeding on algae and swimming past us on their way back to shore. Dancing along the rocks in between the iguanas were beautiful big crabs, red and blue in colour, like I’ve never seen before.

The land iguanas are larger and mainly yellow and black. On our island walks we saw them munching away on the vegetation and caring very little about the odd human beings that pass them. At one point, there was a standoff between us and a large male land iguana as to who had right of way on the path. Naturally, the iguana won out and we moved aside.

The islands themselves were pretty spectacular, all varying in formation and character from dry, rocky lava fields to red sandy beaches and lush, green vegetation depending on their location and age. As Darwin would tell you, the animals on the islands have adapted to their surroundings and each of the islands has its specific animals which live there.

We walked over the massive black lava field of Santiago, jumping over cracks and deep crevices, alive with cute, shy little lava lizards. On that walk, we also saw black and white dotted snakes slithering between the rocks. Surprisingly we weren’t scared of them and observed them closely. I wondered if this was because of the ‘Galapagos effect’… knowledge that each of these animals work in natural harmony with each other and pose no threat to humans as we are not part of their ecosystem.

By chance we celebrated our one year wedding anniversary on the 2nd night on the boat. Word quickly spread and were presented with a bottle of bubbly from a friendly couple who we had met on that morning’s island excursion. After the day’s activities I went back to the cabin and Chris had arranged a bottle of bubbly along with a lovely message which we enjoyed over dinner. Then after dinner the lights dimmed and the cabin staff came in with a cake with candles singing ‘happy anniversary to you’ in the birthday tune. Everyone joined in and it was a really lovely moment – if not completely embarrassing! Ha ha…
The night ended drinking champagne in the hot tub up on the top deck, such a great end to a memorable and special day for us both.

Other nights were generally spent enjoying happy hour beers on the sun terrace and relaxing with our books as the sun went down. A very easy life…..However, Chris’ favourite evening (after our anniversary of course) arrived in the form of the captain turning on the reflector lights at the sides of the boat. After a short while, huge Galapagos sharks (probably man-eating!), sea lions and rays came to investigate. We later heard they only turn the lights on when all snorkelling for the week is over so people don’t get scared of the water. Not us I tell you!

As each day passed, we were ticking off our checklist of our most favoured animals that we hoped to see, when on the last day cruising along the captain noticed a huge pod of dolphins heading in our direction. I hurried up to the top deck to bear witness to the largest pod of dolphins I have ever seen. Our guide leader estimated 200 dolphins in the group, with about 100 in view as they arched up to the surface of the water, swimming along at pace. Spectacular! … and check…. animal list complete.

However, our visit to the Galapagos Islands wouldn’t have been complete without a final trip to see the giant tortoises in the wild and the famous Lonesome George, the last of his kind, at the Charles Darwin centre. Big, slow and very prehistoric animals…. Chris just couldn’t resist giving it a go!

Aside from all the animals that we were able to see in their natural environment and at such close proximity, we learnt so much from the amazing, friendly and well informed naturalists who led us around the islands. Their passion for this place really enhanced our experience along with the great people we spent breakfast, lunch and dinner with over the eight days.

Each island we visited, Espanola, Floreana, Isabela, Fernandina, Santa Cruz, Rabida, Bartoleme, Santiago, Seymour Norte, Baltra and San Cristobal were special and unique from each other, some offering spectacular views from vantage points of the clear, blue water bays and white sands, to red sands, black sands and yellow sands. A true paradise, which I hope we can continue to preserve, respect and admire for years and years to come.

The Galapagos Islands… a magical, natural place.

K and C xx

Additional photos below
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28th June 2011

Absolutely amazing! You brought it alive Keri with your description of the place. Very envious, and now definitely on my list of places to visit. Incredible photos too!x

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