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The Best Six Days of Our Lives: The Galapagos Islands

ECUADOR | Sunday, 14 August 2011 | Views [2333]

Galapagos Islands - famed for Darwin, fauna, huge volcanoes and a history of pirates, whalers and convicts. All of our lives, we’ve been intrigued to see the islands about 1000km off the coast of Ecuador, to see what it was that inspired Darwin. In short, we had high expectations.

Even as we booked our tickets, things were a little freaky. Walking through the streets of Quito, our itinerary in hand, we chanced upon an old workmate of mine from GHD – Megan Dilley. I last saw Megs at a café in Fremantle, Australia, where she was preparing to embark on a trip to cycle from Alaska all the way down to Ushuaia, the southernmost tip of South America. I hadn’t heard from her at all, but out of the blue ran into her in the streets of Quito! To make things stranger; a little while after I received an email from my mum. When she was fresh out of teachers college mum had travelled around Africa as part of a large group. In that group was a lady named Jo Dilley. My mum’s email mentioned that Jo’s daughter Megan was at the Galapagos. Apparently Megs visited us when I was young. Never has the world seemed smaller.

But onto the Islands. We had managed to get some nice cheap last minute tickets for the Galapagos Odyssey – a first class motor yacht that could sleep 16 guests. We were 2 of 11 people on the yacht, the other nine consisting of two New Zealand couples and a family of 5 from Argentina, all of them lovely and great company for the 6 days. It was actually a really great thing seeing the young kids there, I can only imagine how life changing it would be seeing the Islands at that age! They had a ball. The yacht was the most luxurious accommodation we’ve had on the trip. A private bathroom with hot water and good pressure, potable water on tap and a spa on the top deck, with loads of lounges for sun baking in the rare times that weren’t spent doing excursions or eating. The meals were incredible, served by the bar-tender who made great cocktails with panache, and at the end of every expedition a carafe of iced tea and snacks was waiting to be devoured. Our guide Tatiana was a top-level guide, and it showed. She was informative and knowledgeable, spoke perfect English, and was approachable, hard-working, funny and very clever, great to chat to in the evenings.

There are worse ways to enjoy a sunset

Day one was spent getting to the Islands, travelling to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, meeting our fellow passengers, crew and settling into our quarters for the 6 days. We had an afternoon excursion back to the island to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station, home to the huge Galapagos tortoises (including Lonesome George, the last one of his sub-species*), terrestrial iguanas, cacti and the like. At the dock, we came face to face with our first marine iguanas, and we later on saw some Darwin’s finches (these little guys formed the basis of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution!) and mockingbirds.

Really quite big. Also quite lazy.

Overnight, we cruised to Isabela Island, the largest of the 15 main islands. A light snack for pre-breakfast, and we were off to Tintoreras Island. From the boat, we could spot hundreds of blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas and a handful of penguins. In a large crevice, a white-tipped reef shark (a tintorera) was napping in the shallows. The island was awash with sea lions, who seemed almost deliberately to block the paths around the island, and bellow at passersby, before chasing the dinghy playfully back to the boat. After a huge breakfast, we headed to Isabela, where we spent a few hours on the beach, stalking iguanas and their tracks, and watching pink flamingos snack away on brine shrimp in a small salt lake. The afternoon was spent hiking up Volcan Sierra Negra, which has the second largest volcano crater in the world – around 11km circumference! As we arrived, the cloud that was blocking out the crater almost completely cleared – woo! The hike was great, spotting vermillion flycatchers and a few other bird species.

After a night motoring around to the other side of Isabela Island, I woke early and was rewarded with the sun rising at the same time the moon was setting, a great start to the morning. We took a panga to the mainland after breakfast and hiked across the lava flows (cooled ones) to a series of lagoons. The ride took us past more blue-footed boobies, penguins, flightless cormorants and sea lions. Within a tidal lagoon I could have thrown a rock across, there was a spotted eagle ray, green turtles, puffer fish and a tintorera. Nearby, we saw a Banded Galapagos snake and a Galapagos centipede, and a separate lagoon with a small flock of pink flamingos. Before lunch, we headed in for a snorkel – our first one and a real highlight. We got to see a bunch of turtles and fish. A sea lion came up and had a quick play swimming around us, and right up face to face with Bron, before deciding we weren’t quick enough and shooting off to catch some fish. The sea lions look so cumbersome onland, but they are masters of speed and agility in the water, so beautiful to watch.

Bron has a close encounter with a playful sea lion

The afternoon was spent floating around in a mangrove, spotting turtles and penguins, and then watching a sea lion pup suckling noisily from its mother on a rock. A mound of marine iguanas piled up on a rock sticking out of the water, whilst in the background a sea lion rested. Flightless cormorants splayed out their degenerated wings as they dried off in the afternoon sun, penguins marched into their caves to rest out the night, pelicans and boobies fought for the prime sleeping spots. It was a pretty magical moment. Finally, we returned to the boat for a great sunset, cocktails and a pod of dolphins making a mockery of gravity.

Overnight, we left Isabela Island and cruised to Fernandina Island, the youngest and most volcanically active of the Galapagos, situated right on top of the ‘hot spot’ in the tectonic plate that gave life to the islands. I woke early again, and El Capitan pointed out some whales off our port bow.  It was Bron’s first ever whale sighting.  What a way to wake up in the morning. After some brekky, we made our way towards Fernandina Island, via cruising up for a better look at the whales cruising past. Fernandina Island was populated by thousands of marine iguanas, sea lions and the brightly coloured Sally Lightfoot Crabs. A couple of large Galapagos Hawks were feeding on a dead sea lion pup, whose remains a couple of Sally Lightfoots were fighting over. Turtles meandered around the shallows, while flightless cormorants, lava herons and great blue herons hunted for fish, and a racing snake scared one of the kids in our party. The skeleton of a Bryde Whale looked a bright white on the dark lava rocks.

Galapagos hawk

The boat continued through the pass over lunch, and a pod of Bryde’s whales started surfacing around us. After a typically huge and incredible meal, we headed out snorkelling for the afternoon. It was an incredible snorkel – loads of fish and turtles. I spotted a marine iguana anchoring itself to the sea floor to have a snack of algae. I was pretty stunned when a turtle then swam up and was floating over it. The whole scene turned a little ‘A Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ (sans Portugese acoustic covers of David Bowie) when a Galapagos penguin took the chance to shoot past, chasing a school of fish. A moment later, a flightless cormorant zipped past to my left. The rest of the afternoon was spent hiking around Isabela Island, which has graffiti from pirate ships and whalers dating back to 1826. From the tip, we were afforded a great view over the islands. We had to get motoring at this point, so we settled in to watch the sunset coupled with dolphins and giant sunfish. On route around the northern reach of Isabela Island we crossed the equator – twice!

Marine iguana chowing on algae, whilst a turtle swims past. A moment later, a penguin zoomed by too!

Our last full day started with an island trip to see turtle trails (they’d been laying ‘false’ eggs to distract predators), ghost and fiddler crabs and birds hunting in the shallows. It was great watching the boobies dive bomb into the water to pick off fish. We had a snorkel from the beach, lots of starfish, fish and sea cucumbers – it almost felt like a letdown! From the island, we cruised past Buccaneer’s Cove – a mooring place for pirates and one of Darwin’s landing areas. Nearby a rock made home to a large group of masked boobies.

Post-lunch, we sailed to Ega’s Port, home to some incredibly acrobatic (and rarer for all the worst predictable reasons) fur sea lions. We stood amazed as they did flips, twists and rolls playing chasey in a rock pool not more than 2 metres wide and 10 metres long, gripping stuff. The island was also home to Galapagos hawks, marine iguanas, lava lizards and Galapagos sea lions. We saw one pup a few hours old with its exhausted mother, and another nearby maybe a day old. After the hike, we went for our last snorkel – white tipped reef sharks, sea lions and dozens of turtles (Bron did her best to blend in, imitating their graceful swimming motion) were the stars of the day. As we were coming in, I spotted a well camouflaged sting ray, hiding in the sands. As the boat headed off, we saw manta rays jumping in the distance!

Bron playing follow the leader

Our last day was a short one, heading for a quick dinghy ride to spot red throated frigates displaying, nesting boobies and more sea lions. We were feeling pretty melancholy at the thought of leaving the islands – they were really incredible. It is impossible to explain how teeming with life the islands are, and how unfussed they are by people moving around them. The islands felt like a prehistoric crucible of life, but are paradoxically so young in geological and evolutionary timescales. We had countless moments that I’ll never forget. If you enjoy nature spotting, head for the Galapagos. Amazing stuff, and our best 6 days ever.

Sea lion shows off its speed in a game of chasey with the zodiac

*Probably. They’ve been trying to breed him, but have had no success.

Tags: ecuador, galapagos, wildlife

 

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