A Galapagos Cruise aboard the National Geographic Endeavor


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South America » Ecuador » Galápagos
June 17th 2012
Published: June 17th 2012
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sea lion pup at a beachsea lion pup at a beachsea lion pup at a beach

San Cristobal island
May 25 - June 3, 2012

As I waited in the queue for immigration at the Guayaquil airport, I was getting a bit apprehensive after getting a few longer than normal stares from security and other officials roaming around. Being one of the last few to exit from the plane, the wait became was a bit longer. I was part of a group of about 30 or so cruise-mates who had boarded this AA flight from Miami to Guayaquil. After passing immigration, we were to be transferred to Hotel Hilton Colon just 10 min drive away. I did not want to miss this transfer as Guayaquil is not a city where you would want to take a taxi on your own specially at night.

My number was next. After looking at my Indian passport, the official muttered something in spanish and I replied 'no habla espaniol'. He immediately left the counter and handed my passport to a dark skinned official who then asked me to follow him in an adjacent room. Then there was some discussion about the visa. I replied in English that no visa is required for Indian citizens coming to Ecuador. Having done my googling about a need for a visa and having enquired from Ecuador embassy in DC, I was sure that immigration should not be a problem. Everybody else in the flight seemed to be either from US/Canada or from Ecuador. Being the only one holding an Indian passport, I stood out and now I was standing in a room in front of these immigration officials.

I showed all documents including Green Card, email from DC embassy and cruise documents. They agreed that no visa was required. But then they shifted gear and started taking about a Yellow Fever Card. I was a bit clueless on this one. All I knew is that I do not need any vaccination for traveling to Galapagos. The dark skinned guy was doing most of the talking and he was speaking Spanish with one or two words thrown in English. I had no clue what he was taking about. But I got the impression from his gesturing that he wanted me to take a flight back to Miami and get a Yellow Fever Card or I would not be allowed into the country!! The lady seated in front of the computer started typing in spanish in Google Translate and pointed me to the translated text. It said, if I am from India then I need to have a Yellow Fever Card. Now it was not making any sense to me. If you hold an Indian passport, you need this card and if you hold a US or Canadian passport, you don't need one. Holy Guacamole!

The situation seemed too bad to be true. There had to be a catch somewhere! The dark skinned guy then sat down in his desk at the corner still blabbering about Yellow Fever card and about me going back to Miami. Finally the situation came to a head. The guy tore a piece of paper and scribbled something on it that looked like a number. The number was 200. Then he put a $ in font of it. I let out a soundless sigh! Staying a bit nonchalant about it, I reached out for my wallet and put ten $20 bills on his table. The guy who was to stamp on my passport was waiting right there in the room and I was asked to follow him. He then put a stamp right on top of an existing stamp. With somewhat bitter taste of corruption and bribery on my first landing in South America, I headed out to the exit. I completely ignored the security guy dressed in military camouflage uniform who was supposed to check my customs receipt before exiting from airport. I was stopped by two other guards and then the security guy asked me to open my bags. After rummaging through my luggage, and asking how much currency I was carrying, he let me go. I let out a heavy sigh.

It was well past midnight. I was hoping somebody from the hotel or cruise company would be waiting for me. And luckily there was this very nice lady representing the cruise company, Lindblad Expeditions, who I ran into. I told her the reason for my delay and she seemed a bit surprised. She checked with one official outside and told about my story. He then radioed and two other officials arrived. They heard my story and I was led inside the airport with one official holding my passport. An investigation ensued. These two gentleman spoke English so the communication situation was less stressful. I had to point out every person involved in the $200 sleaze. We came to the same room where the money exchange happened. I had to tell the incidents exactly as they happened. The questions were repeated. The main culprit also arrived. He showed his wallet and also showed his desk where there was no trace of any piece of paper with $200 scribbled on it. His wallet did not have my bills. Of course these guys have to be smart enough to cover their tracks. The investigating official left the room with the main culprit while the other official apologized for what had happened. After some time, the official came back with the main culprit and my passport was handed back to me. In it there were some $20 bills (I counted it the next day and there were only 9 bills!) . The official made the main culprit apologize by asking him to say 'I am Sorry'. He could not pronounce it cleanly and he was always grinning! I would say though that I was surprised that immigration officials took immediate action and performed an investigation there and then. I made a informal complaint in a complaint book. I was even offered a chance to file a police complaint but I just wanted to crash on my hotel bed. Too much reality for first night in South America and Ecuador!

I reach Hilton Colon around 2:30am. Next day I was to be woken up at 5:45am to be transferred to the Guayaquil airport again for the flight to Galapagos islands. After a 90 min flight, our group reached San Cristobal island. We hopped on to Zodiacs to be taken to National Geographic Endeavor, the ship that was to be our home for one week. Lindblad Expeditions had tied up with National Geographic Society a few years ago so all of their ships had been rechristened with National Geographic name. Before we could reach our cruise ship, we had already seen some sea lions resting in boats and sidewalks, totally indifferent to human traffic around them. Welcome to Galapagos.

The National Geographic Endeavor is classified as a luxury cruise ship in Galapagos and there are only a few of these cruising in Galapagos. A Galapagos cruise ship is not allowed to have more than 100 tourists on board. My cabin was small but bed was comfortable. It had a tiny shower. A lobby, a dining room, a bar, laundry service, 7-8 kayaks, a glass bottom boat, plenty of Zodiacs, 3 computers for relatively slow internet access, a Mac PC for viewing your pictures. The ship has plenty of amenities.


San Cristobal

Our first outing was in San Cristobal island at Cerro Brujo. It included a zodiac ride to small area surrounded by high walls of rock. I saw crabs called Sally Lightfoot crab that were present almost in all beaches and dry landing sites we visited. Later, we made a dry landing on a lava rocks to walk on a short trail. Witnessed more crabs, saw a few marine iguanas resting on the beach and saw a few sea lions that were also a common sight everywhere we visited.

These iguanas are cold blooded fellows who eat algae and seaweed. Vegetarians I mean. If they have been out in the water, they need to warm up when they come back to the shore. The sun heats their body. They were all pointing in the same directions. I saw a few of them sneeze. Sneezing is a mechanism to expel salt from their bodies that accumulated when they dive in salty sea water. Unfortunately I couldn't get a shot of it.


Espanola

The next island on the itinerary was Espanola. This island is famous for having the largest colony of waved albatross. Almost 12,000 nesting pairs and they are endemic to this island. I didn't see that many and I don't think all of them will be on island at the same time. On landing at the beach at the Gardner Bay, we were greeted by many dozens of sea lions basking in the equatorial sunlight. They look at you but they don't care about your presence. People who swim headed straight to the water. I just roamed around with my camera trying to get some shots of sea lions. With the sun directly overhead, taking good photos was a bit of a challenge. The whole day turned out to be sunny and that's not good for photography. One peculiar bird that started making rounds was the mocking bird. Fearless, it starts pecking at all objects and gear the tourists bring. Cameras, backpacks, shoes, everything becomes an object of interest for these small birds. I allowed one of them to come near my feet hoping it will peck at the sandals I was wearing. Instead it got my feet!

After spending a couple of hours at the beach, we made our way back to the boat in the zodiacs. After lunch, we had our second excursion of the day. This included walking on a trail, Punta Suarez, for couple of hours doing some bird watching. The birds we saw included blue footed booby, waved albatross, nazca booby, mocking birds and a few of the Darwin finches. Darwin finches, small sparrow like birds, are famous as Charles Darwin wrote his theory of evolution and natural selection after looking at the beaks of specimens of various finches he had collected during his voyage in the HMS Beagle. There are 13 of these finches in the Galapagos and they differ mostly in the size and shape of their beaks. The shape of the beak is related to the food a particular finch eats. All of these finches may have evolved from a common ancestor. Due to isolation from mainland and isolation between islands (the distances between islands can be big for these small birds), their beaks evolved over a period of time depending on the food sources available to them.

How the wildlife arrived in these remote islands is another interesting story. Various theories abound. Land mammals and reptiles could have floated to these islands from the mainland in rafts of vegetation. Some were carried by currents. Some swam all the way. Some flew. Some were seeking paradise! The sea lions here are supposed to be the descendants of the California sea lions. I guess they are leading a better life here in Galapagos!

Coming back to Espanola island's Punta Suarez trail, I got to see a few waved albatrosses. A beautiful looking white bird. I was hoping to see the full courtship dance of these birds. I had seen clips in youtube and it is funny to watch their courtship. The beaks touched, side by side, they looked at each other. Aware of tourists presence but still oblivious of them. The passion grew but never reached the dancing stage. Alas, they cannot put up a show for each group of tourists that pass by. Some get lucky and some do not. Saw some abandoned albatross eggs!

I also got a glimpse of Galapagos hawks mating. There was a blue footed booby sitting smack in the middle of the trail. We passed it by barely a feet away for her and she won't budge. That is something unique about Galapagos wildlife. It does not appear to be wild. The birds, reptiles and mammals are not afraid of people. They have evolved for millions of years without human presence and so they don't give us humans a damn! But interestingly, they don't seem to care about other species near them as well as long as they are not a predator. Hawks and owls are the top predators. I saw a sea lion resting on top of marine iguanas.


Floreana

The next day, the ship was anchored near Floreana island. The morning hike did not have much wild life to offer. Actually not all islands have a high concentration of wildlife. It was a wet landing implying that the zodiac comes within a few feet of the beach and then people have to get off into knee deep water. People were generally wearing Teva or Keen sandals for these wet landings. They are supposed to dry up quickly and you can hike in them. I saw a few very distant flamingoes, sally lightfoot crabs and some birds. All such walks are led by a naturalist. The Galapagos national park rules mandates this and also requires that the size of a tourist group not exceed 16. The rules are designed to keep the Galapagos ecosystem unaffected by ever increasing tourist number to the archipelago. What that implies is that you cannot go to any area of the national park system on your own. As a tourist, you can spend a maximum of 3-4 hours only at a particular landing site. That should be enough for some but not enough for most wildlife lovers and photographers. I felt a bit rushed sometimes on these hikes.

If you are not a snorkeler, the National Geographic Endeavor has options like a glass bottom boat tour or kayaking or just a Zodiac spin around some small island. I did a couple of glass bottom boat tours seeing among other marine life, a couple of reef sharks and sting rays.

The afternoon plan for Floreana included a zodiac tour and a visit to the Post Office bay. We saw a couple of Galapagos penguins. Galapagos penguin is another interesting example of a species adapting itself to its environment. We associate penguins with cold climate and here
Pelicans waiting for scrapsPelicans waiting for scrapsPelicans waiting for scraps

puerto ayora, Santa Cruz
they are enjoying their swim near the equator. At Post Office bay, tourists get to see a barrel where whalers from the early 19th century used to post their mails. These mails would be picked by any passing ship that was going to Europe or North America and hand delivered. This custom is still adhered to by the passing tourists.

Santa Cruz

Next day found all 90 or so of us from the Endeavor ship roaming around the largest and the most populous town in Galapagos, Puerto Ayora, in the island of Santa Cruz. First stop was the Charles Darwin Research Station. The scientist and researchers here advise the Galapagos National Park on conservation and management of natural resources in Galapagos. Main draw at this station is Lonesome George, the only surviving giant tortoise of its kind. Efforts have been made to make him a dad but have been futile so far. The station brought another male tortoise for the same purpose and he has been enjoying his role! Saw him busy with his lady pal during our visit!

Next stop was a hilltop restaurant. We were taken in buses to a restaurant in the Santa Cruz highlands. Afterwards, we got a chance to see 3 to 4 giant tortoises in the wild. Imagine being here in the early 18th century where more than 200,000 giant tortoises roamed these islands. During the late 18th century, whalers were attracted to these islands as the pacific ocean here was teeming with Sperm whales. Since a tortoise can survive without food or water for many months, it provided a fresh source of meat to these whalers. After the Sperm whale was hunted to near extinction, the whalers finally left. In their wake though, the giant tortoise numbers plummeted from 100s of thousands to just a few!!

We came back to the town of Puerto Ayora by buses. One of the more interesting sight to watch in Puerto Ayora is the spot where fisherman process their catch of the day. There were a bunch of pelicans and a sea lion fighting for scraps. They put up an entertaining show!

Later at night in the ship, some local musicians and dance artists boarded the ship and gave a lively performance. I also dance a bit!

Next morning too, the ship was anchored near Santa Cruz island but this time
Land IguanaLand IguanaLand Iguana

at Charles Darwin research station
near the northern tip. A hike next morning took us to Cerro Dragon where we saw a few land iguanas in the wild. More blue footed boobies, a solitary great blue heron, omnipresent sally lightfoot crabs and a few marine iguanas were also sighted. The remainder of the day was spent cruising around an island called Daphne Major. Darwin finches in this island were studied by a couple of biologists for nearly 20 years who published their observations in the Pulitzer prize winning book 'The beak of the finch'.

Later in the afternoon, we were treated to a sight of bottlenose dolphins racing near the bow of the ship.


Bartolome

An early morning hike or rather a climb on more than 300 steps took our group to an overlook from which I could see the view I had seen in some Galapagos book covers. The view of the Bartolome island and the Pinnacle rock. Nice view but we did not spend much time there. Back to the ship for breakfast. Afterwards, I took a glass bottom boat tour to see some marine life. Later I was dropped on the beach. Not being a snorkeler, I just roamed around the beach looking for crabs and lava lizards. After lunch at the ship, we boarded zodiacs to look for the wildlife on the volcanic rocks around the island. Brown Pelicans, blue footed boobies and sea lions were on our visual menu. On returning to the ship, I found myself going to another small beach. This time there were only 3 people with me. A couple and our naturalist guide. On the way to the beach, we did spot a couple of penguins resting on the black lava rocks. Taking good photographs from a rocking zodiacs is a challenge in itself. No time for composition or framing the shot.

On the beach, there were 4 sea lions. Of these a mother and a not so small pup stood out with their antics. The pup was bugging the mom. The mom was trying to take a nap and the pup was trying to suckle or just not letting the mom sleep. The mom did not seem to be in control as the pup was not obeying her at all. The mom just kept growling at the pup in between her 10 seconds naps for the whole duration I was
giant tortoisegiant tortoisegiant tortoise

at Charles Darwin research station
there!

Genovesa

Our last full day in Galapagos was spent on the island of Genovesa that is known as a birder's paradise. The ship cruised into the Darwin bay that was formed as a result of collapsing of the walls of a volcanic caldera. Frigate birds had already started circling over the ship. One or two even hitched a ride. There are two visitor sites in this island. One is Prince Phillips steps that are steps made to climb about 100 ft of the cliffs before you reach the trail. On our way in the zodiacs, I saw frigate birds, Nazka boobies, yellow crowned herons, swallow tailed gulls and fur seals. Our group was welcomed on the trail by a Nazca booby sitting on her eggs. I saw some Nazca booby chicks too. There were Frigate birds sitting on their nests with some having their red colored throat pouches inflated to attract the females. There were thousands of tropic birds and storm petrels flying around near the volcanic cliffs. This hike too felt a bit rushed. Birds birds everywhere, not enough time to see! We did land our sight on a short ear owl as well as some red footed boobies before leaving for the boat.

Our second excursion in the evening at a beach turned out to be a visual feast where the cast included the red footed boobies, Frigate birds, Yellow crowned herons, Nazca boobies and Swallow Tailed gulls. I finally got to see from a close distance, a male Frigate bird with his throat pouch inflated . Once the pouch is inflated, it stays inflated for some time. It can take up to 20 minutes to inflate it. With only 2 hours at this beach, I was not lucky to actually see any inflating going on but I did see these males flying overhead with their red throat pouches still inflated. These males were trying to attract females flying overhead by spreading their wings and moving their head side to side but they did not seem to getting lucky!

A large sea lion appeared on the beach. It looked a bit unhappy. Someone pointed out that there was a fishing line attached to the sea lions mouth. It was unfortunate to see this, specially in Galapagos. In Galapagos, commercial fishing is limited only to those fishermen whose ancestors have been fishing in these waters for generations.

The next day, the ship arrived at Baltra which has a small airport. Before disembarking, I came to the deck of the ship and witnessed a few boobies diving for fish. It is quiet a sight to see these birds gaining some height and then suddenly swooping down on the water with their wings drawn close to give their bodies an aerodynamic shape. They plunge into the water at great speed. Looking at their faces after emerging from their dives,I was not sure if they were catching any fish! I also spotted a couple of reef sharks circling our ship.

A 90 min flight from Baltra to Guayaquil and then a short drive in two buses saw our group back in Hotel Hilton Colon. I along with 6 others took a 2 hour tour of the city. In one town square near a church, I saw a bunch of land iguanas acting as a tourist attraction. People were touching them. Something not allowed in Galapagos. Our guide told us that they stay within the town square's limit as they could be squashed by traffic if they ventured out. Since there is no natural food source for them there, they are instead fed by the people! I thought, if you are a land iguana, it is better to be here than in Galapagos! There I saw the land iguanas feeding on leaves. In this town square, the iguanas feast on bananas!

So I got a glimpse of Galapagos. I say glimpse as a week does not seem to be enough time to take in the wildlife that inhabits these islands. A cruise seems a better way to see the wild life compared to land based tours. Also, starting 2012, the national park has created a new rule that does not allow a ship to visit a particular landing site more than once in two weeks. The intent, I guess, is to reduce the congestion in popular sites and to also make the cruise ships visit sites that are getting less visitation from tourists. And this implies that a few of your cruising days may not have much to offer in terms of wildlife watching. The best islands for wildlife are Espanola, Genovesa, Fernandina and Santa Cruz. San Cristobal and North Seymour also have a good concentration of wildlife. Fernandina has an active volcano. Isabela is the largest of all islands and has a few volcanic craters where you can see the giant tortoises.

Galapagos is an amazing place. I could imagine myself being here for weeks or even months photographing and watching wildlife and not have my fill. However a Galapagos cruise is not for everybody. You have to be a wildlife lover and maybe have a knowledge or a sense of its history and its role in Charles Darwin theory of evolution to appreciate what the archipelago has to offer. Otherwise it can just be an expensive cruise where you get to do some snorkelling, swimming, visit beaches with sea lions, see some peculiar birds and tick off an item from your bucket list! Even if you are a wild life lover, there is not enough time to do wild life watching as a visit to a site is limited to 2-3 hours. And if you are taking photographs, you need time to compose the shot, make adjustments to your camera settings based on light (which can be harsh) and wait for something to happen. Sometimes there is not enough time to even change lenses. I had taken a 70-200mm f/4 IS and a 10-22mm canon lenses and circular polarizing filters for these lenses. I did most of my shooting using 70-200mm f/4 as most of the wild life is very near so you don't need a longer lens.

Jan to April is wet and relatively warm season in Galapagos when rain can fall frequently and the islands are lush green. May is a transition month when I went. June to December is dry and cooler.
Other than the time of the year you visit, one other decision you would have to make is the ship you choose for your cruise. I chose a larger ship due to some concern about sea sickness as this was my first longer cruise. These 100 passenger cruise ships are not really large by cruise ship standards. Since the gigantic cruise ships are not allowed in Galapagos waters, you would have to make do with a few of these 100 passengers ships. Even these ones rock quiet a bit though you should get used to it after a while. If sea sickness is not a concern, a smaller ship could be a better choice. Some of these boats or catamarans take a maximum of only 16 passengers.

Adios to the enchanted islands. Hope to visit them again.


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a pelican flyinga pelican flying
a pelican flying

Nat Geo Endeavor ship at the background


18th June 2012

Wonderful Blog!
Stunning images abound in this fascinating narrative - there are so many beautiful photographs that it is difficult to even choose my five favourites! Pity that you had problems on entering Ecuador, it is such a shame that some passports and complexions are harder to travel on and with than others. Don't let those prejudices deter you - keep travelling, writing and photographing - and hopefully it is not another three years before your next blog appears.
19th June 2012

Thanks Shane. :) Yes, hopefully.
15th December 2012
Galapagos hawks pair

VERY NICE
29th October 2013
booby ready to dive

incredible photo
popped up on the home screen, that's a fantastic shot!!
27th November 2013

Wow, enjoyed reading your blog and looking at the beautiful pictures. My heart beats faster regarding that airport incident. An eye-opener for someone thinking a trip like yours.

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