Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.
10.12.2010 - 17.12.2010
It is difficult to describe how I felt to have arrived in Galapagos but it sure was a special feeling. I have made it, a dream come true. After a chaotic check in at Quito airport with Aerogal (so many queues for various checks, stamps and fees), a couple of hours flight across the Pacific to these enchanting islands in the middle of nowhere. I simply could not contain myself, I thought I would literally burst with excitement. The Galapagos Islands straddle the equator in the Pacific Ocean about 1000 miles West from mainland Ecuador. In total there are 18 main islands, each with distinct and unique fauna and flora.
So this is where it gets interesting. The situation of the Galapagos, so far away from the mainland, and the spread of each of the islands has enabled the evolution of unique wildlife that has inspired fundamental scientific theory. On his famous HMS Beagle voyage of the early 1800’s, the biologist Charles Darwin noticed that the finches on each of the islands were different and seemed to have adapted to the specific environment. There are 16 sub-species of these finches in total, some for example have adapted to live off the cactus growing on some of the islands, some have adapted different beaks to feed off the ground, there is even a ‘woodpecker finch’ that has evolved the ability to use twigs to extract bugs and grubs from trees! Unique to the Galapagos, these birds, now known as Darwin’s finches, led to the development of the theory of natural selection and evolution, revolutionising scientific thinking and is still highly influential in modern biology and molecular evolution.
As if seeing diverse and unique wildlife is not enough, the animals here have some extra special personality traits too! As they have been left alone on these remote islands for millions of years to evolve away from hunters and predators, they are not scared of people and are certainly not shy. Actually, the opposite is true, the animals here, the iguanas, the giant tortoise, the frigates, the boobies, they want to check out these strange homo sapiens visiting their land. They come up to check you out ‘ooohh aren’t you a funny looking thing, interesting’. This place is the ultimate dream for nature lovers. No need for the big zoom lense here, the animals, many rare and unique, just come right up to you and carry on their daily business regardless of you being there. The best way to describe it is like actually being in a nature documentary, seeing everything close up for yourself but with reality thrown in. Overwhelming numbers and diversity of wildlife, the sounds, the unusual volcanic landscapes, the smells!! Oh that special ‘eau de Galapagos’ will always stay with me, you certainly get to know when you are nearing a colony of sealions or marine iguanas (smelly bastards!) The atmosphere was thick with wild instincts, survival of the fittest, the air thick with emotion... I was just so happy to just be here in this parallel universe where the wildlife rules.
I arrived to the tiny airport at Baltra wanting to punch the air. I MADE IT!! It was one of those tiny open-air airports that still make me laugh when your luggage is brought out by hand, no fancy carousels here! I am met at the airport by Pato, who was to be our guide for the 8 day cruise around the islands. I also met some of my fellow ship mates, a group much younger than i expected, and was very happy to find that I would be sharing a cabin with Ling from Hong Kong, about my age, a solo traveller herself and excellent fun company. Actually, many of the people on the boat assumed we had known each other for years as we very quickly built up a friendship. A brief ferry trip across from Baltra island to the main island of Santa Cruz was followed by an hour on a bus to the South of the Island to find our cruise ship. We get to see our first giant tortoise in the wild on the bus journey across santa Cruz. These guys are EVERYWHERE, even in people’s gardens. I am amazed!! Five of the islands in the Galapagos, including Santa Cruz, are inhabited by people. Approximately 40,000 people live in this remote wilderness in total. Population numbers, including visitor numbers, are carefully controlled in order to preserve the delicate natural balance. All visitors need to be escorted to the islands by a registered guide, who must be from Galapagos Islands, and strict schedules of timing must be adhered to so that numbers of visitors to each of the islands is not excessive. Some of the islands are reserved purely for research and some areas are completely off limits. It is a real privilege to be here.
Our boat, The Treasure of Galapagos, is beautiful, real luxury. Ling and I run around like kids checking out the various different decks, the huge dining area and OUR ROOM!! WOW! We are just about to go and check out the room for the first time and Ling, like me pretty used to hostelling it, turns round and asks me ‘Do you mind if I have the bottom bunk?’ Haha we open the door and we have separate beds, a lounge area, wardrobes, our own bathroom and a balcony with chairs. We cannot quite believe we are here! A visit to the Charles Darwin Research station to see many amazing giant tortoise, and we are off VAMOS!! The giant tortoise that we saw at the centre were representative of many different species that are found on the various islands. This included a single tortoise named ‘Lonesome George’ who is a bit of a celebrity as is the sole survivor of his species from the island of Pinta. Scientists are trying to revive the species by finding a mate for George but so far no success. Lonesome George, at the ripe age estimated between 60-90 years old, is in the Guiness Book of Records as the rarest creature on the planet!! Yep, only one of him. He looks quite sad for himself, his neck bent down at a weird angle ahhhhhh.... No one has really worked out the life expectancy for giant tortoise but they can live to over 150 years old! These guys live a slooooow life and die old!
A typical day on board the treasure of Galapagos went something like this... We generally travelled overnight to a new island so when we wake up at around 6.30am the first thing we did was go out to the balcony to check out our new surroundings with much excitement, taking in the fresh clean air. The best way to wake up! We would have a HUGE breakfast at around 7am then leave on the zodiac boats around 8am to make a landing, dry (onto rocks wearing shoes) or wet (into the sea near a beach not wearing shoes). Pato would then lead us through a morning trek, explaining about the different wildlife and making up some funny stories as we went along, usually involving fighting over females and things ‘in front of the kids’ very funny guy, a great guide. Back to the boat for more eating before a snorkel then another hike or trek then more eating. I have never snorkelled with so many turtles, rays and sharks before, awesome. Actually, in many of the bays we visited you just need to look around the boat to see huge Galapagos sharks, and turtles circling us. I have never swam before with a school of eagle rays either, beautiful graceful creatures. From a volcano trek on Bartolome island we could see manta rays jumping out of the sea all around us, for as far as we could see. So basically our day was spent eating, trekking, snorkelling, and eating some more. I loved sleeping on the boat. Actually I have never slept so well before in my life. Apart from one or two rough nights, generally the gentle rocking of the boat sent me off to a lovely sleep, to wake up in a new and exciting land to explore.
My ship mates were a fantastic group of people from Germany, Spain, Holland, Hong Kong, Switzerland US and Philippines. There were 16 of us on the boat and about 11 crew members looking after our every need, who were also a lot of fun. Halfway through the trip, at San Cristobel island, some people left us to be replaced by some new people. We are joined by Pia, a crazy funny lass from Holland and her husband Wolfgang. Pia was one of those straight talking to the point funny ladies who provided a lot of entertainment. Everyone was fantastic really apart from one annoying guy from US who was doing the cruise with his mother. As his mother was not fit enough to do the trekking he came alone and always walked off on his own everywhere we went. This was a problem as we needed to be escorted at all times and to stick to paths, so we had to constantly look out for him and wait for him. Very arrogant and annoyed the hell out of us..
I will let the photos do the talking on the various wildlife but to quickly point out some highlights.. Seymor island on the first day for the red puffy chest mating display of frigates at EXTREMELY CLOSE quarters. No matter how much you try and mind your own business, leave them in peace, the animals have none of it and come up to you! Every island had thousands and thousands of iguanas, both land and marine varieties sharing habitats. They differed between islands with regards size and colours. Santa Fe had the most colourful bright red iguanas which contrasted beautifully with the barren volcanic and cactus landscape. Swimming with sealions was an amazing experience. Seeing these graceful animals under the water so inspiring, then funny when they try and pull off your fins, like they are mocking you under the water! I loved the sealions so much and still miss them terribly! They are so humorous to watch, they sleep absolutely everywhere and flap about honking and pooing and establishing territory. We had a couple of scary encounters with male sealions, the most scary when we trying to snorkel off Isla Floreana. I was in the sea with Ling putting my mask on when this huge male came from nowhere, honking at us, swimming aggressively towards us ‘Oiii get off my territory’ Scared the hell out of me.. They can give a nasty bite! The best island for sealion action was without a doubt Espanola. Beautiful white sandy beach, turquoise seas and sealions lazing around and posing everywhere! This island really was the greatest hits of the Galapagos, sealions, marine iguanas, blue footed boobies, albatross, all in beautiful surroundings, including incredible blow holes from the swell of the ocean. We also watched the sealions doing a spot of surfing in the waves. I fell in love with these fellows big style!
Apart from being chased by the paranoid male sealions, another hairy wildlife encounter was with the stingrays! Ohhh I will never forget this one that is for sure! We were attempting to do a wet landing onto Floreana when we saw that there were hundreds of stingrays partially hidden in the shallows exactly where we were about to tread with bare feet!! We had already been shown how to wade rather than step when there are stingrays to avoid being speared but we had to step off the boat right onto them YIKES!!!!!! Just as we were contemplating the problem, a huge wave came in and crashed over our zodiac, causing the motor to fail! Pato commanded us to ‘sit down’ ‘no stand up’ ‘no sit down’ !! What the hell! Giggle giggle oh this is what you call FUN!!! Well, there was nothing for it, another wave came crashing over and we were SOAKED, then a bit of calm so we went for it, just praying that we would not be speared by one of those huge scary guys lurking below us. We were fine, we were fine, cue much laughter and relief. Pia turned to me and said ‘well that is what you call a wet landing!!!’ We had landed in Post office Bay on Isla Floreana. Here, on this isolated island, there is a little post box where you can post letters home. This was originally set up by European whalers in an attempt to get messages home from this remote location. The idea is that when tourists come along, they go through all the letters in the box to see if there are any posted to near where they are from. If so, you take the letter with you and hand deliver it! I posted one home and took one that was addressed to Canary Wharf in London, fun huh??
Our final morning, in Isla Isabela some of us felt too tired to do another volcano trek so it was party time! We went into town and bought a big bottle of rum and some coke and made up a cocktail back on the boat. We shared this with the other people on the boat that were not trekking as well as all the crew members. This was not really permitted, bringing your own alcohol on and getting the crew drunk but what the hell!! We were drinking and dancing on the deck, all the time keeping an eye out for the captain! This ended one of the best weeks of my life and a dream come true. Galapagos is a unique and amazing destination but is not without its problems. Similar to what i saw in NZ, the arrival of man has introduced new species, new predators and pollution. The environment is ever changing and some species are extinct or, as in the case of lonesome George, nearly extinct. The people of Ecuador rightly take the conservation of this world heritage site seriously and carefully control visitor numbers and visitor access but when there are still species in decline, albatross eggs being abandoned it is very sad. Local Galapagos people must have a resident pass to live there and numbers are controlled. However, the lure of many tourist dollars brings Ecuadorians to work in the islands and they find a way somehow to get there! There is talk of limiting the numbers of tourists even more and I agree, even though this would push up prices and maybe deny the pleasure of visiting for many, we have a duty to preserve our natural heritage. I was very sad to leave this enchanting world. Very sad. I was heading back to Quito and then onto Peru, my Galapagos dream was over and it was nearly Christmas. I couldn’t help wondering what people were up to at home and i had strong pangs of wanting to go home.. Fortunately this wasn’t even an option as snow in Europe had closed many of the airports, including London Heathrow, and the country was at a standstill! Oh well, Peru for Christmas it is then...