May 18, 2008
Adam’s adventure in the Galapagos began with his dive and the mishap of our underwater camera, while mine began with a solo hike out to Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz island where we were staying before boarding our yacht for our eight day cruise.
I began the hike just after breakfast and after Adam went off on the dive boat. The islands get very hot and steamy during the day, so any activity has to be done early in the morning or in the evening. Adam’s dive master drew me a map of where to go, so off I went. I walked up the asphalt road only for a short while before I came to where the paving stone trail began. At the trailhead there was a large school group of ten to twelve year olds on an outing, so I began hiking very fast in order to get ahead of them. Once I had walked for about an hour, the trail opened up and a beautiful, pristine beach was in front of me. The water was a deep blue aqua that contrasted very nicely with the white sand. I immediately saw blue-footed boobies dive- bombing into the water. These birds are so interesting, on land they look rather goofy with their bright blue feet and duck like bodies, but when they are flying over the sea hunting they are incredibly graceful, and then once they spot their prey they turn themselves into a missile and dive head first into the water, barely displacing it at all. I watched this go on for quite awhile, sometimes the boobies would dive on their own and sometimes they would fly in groups and dive in together. After awhile the brown pelicans came in and the boobies left.
Seeing the boobies leave gave me an excuse to explore further down the beach. As I walked I came across some black lava rocks amongst a long beach of powdery white sand. It wasn’t immediately obvious but on those rocks sat marine iguanas that were just as black as the rocks. They like to pile up on top of each other to keep warm. Also on the rocks were dozens of Sally Lightfoot crabs. Some were red to an orange color, and the juveniles were a blue-purple to black.
On one end of the beach was a small trail that was covered with marine iguanas, some of them rather large ones. I stopped to take some video of a particularly large iguana and as I began filming, he began approaching. On down the trail, I came to Tortuga Bay, what did I see right away swimming around in the water? A tortuga (or turtle). He was a big one, at least three feet wide. He would swim gracefully around for a while and then come up for air every couple of minutes. I also saw a small heron like bird in the same spot. There was a small beach on Tortuga Bay, so I decided to stop and sit down to enjoy the scenery for a while. Just as I was sitting down the school group arrived to go for a swim and there were plenty of screaming little girls so I didn’t hang around long. It was beginning to get pretty hot by this time anyways, so I made my way back into town for some lunch.
The next day we checked out of the Hotel Castro, went to find disposable underwater cameras, and then at three pm caught our taxi back to Baltra to board the Lammer Law, our home for the next eight days! When we first arrived on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos, we went to the boat’s office to make arrangements regarding catching the boat on the 17th (the first day of the cruise). The captain of the Lammer Law happened to be in the office when we were, and offered to have us come on board one night early. We thought this was a fantastic idea and gladly accepted. Once we arrived in Baltra a dingy (the locals call them pangas) from the Lammer Law was waiting for us at the dock to take us to our boat. The Lammer Law was quite a ways out so it was not immediately visible when getting in the panga, but once we got on the other side of Baltra she was visible and we have to say very pretty and impressive to drive up to on a panga. The Lammer Law is the second largest trimaran in the world. We were shown to our cabin on board right away, which is very comfortable with an in-suite bathroom, and comfy bed. After getting our bags into the room we headed up to the upper deck right away to enjoy the pleasant evening on the boat that we had to ourselves, and the crew that evening. As we relaxed in the lounge chairs, frigate birds circled in the thermals above our heads. We also spotted a turtle out in the water and watched him for a while. Our guide, Estevan, came on board about an hour after we did and we had dinner with him on the back deck. The boat chef made a delicious meal for us (even though it was only the three of us). The boat has a good selection of books regarding the Galapagos, Charles Darwin, and evolution so we read those for several hours before making our way into our comfy bed. About the time we laid down for the night we started moving to San Cristobel Island. This wasn’t an entirely smooth ride, so we really didn’t get to sleep until about one in the morning when we arrived at San Cristobel and were anchored again.
In the morning, we arose to a beautiful day on San Cristobel. We had a lovely breakfast and were told that the chartered flight that held the rest of the boat’s passengers was getting in early, so our guide needed to go meet them right away. We decided to go on shore to look for some more sunscreen (we are on the equator and the sun is extremely intense, that is the reason for many pictures with dorky sun hats), and to check email. Because of a miscommunication with our guide we ended up getting back to the dock about a half an hour after we were supposed to, so once we got back on the boat all the rest of the passengers were there and getting settled into their cabins. The Lammer Law holds 16 passengers at its maximum capacity and we have 14 on board, so it is a good size group. After seeing a bunch of old ladies in high heels board the boat before us we were a bit apprehensive about what our group was going to be like. We really lucked out though- most people were similar in age, and everyone was very fit and active.
Our guide began at this time getting all of the snorkeling equipment out and taking orders for wetsuits. Adam and I put our order in for a wet suit right away as we both hate being cold in the water. Once this order of business was taken care of we had some yummy lunch and then suited up for a snorkeling session with some very friendly sea lions.
After disembarking the panga and immerging ourselves into the ocean, we immediately had four or five sea lion friends come up to us in a very playful manner. Sea lions are built a bit like a slug, and kind of move that way while on land, but when they get themselves into the water they move in a very graceful and elegant fashion. We figured out that the sea lions when we would dive down towards the ocean floor would like to come right along side of us and come back up to the surface with us, as well. Adam also tried to copy their movements, as they seemed to like to play the mimicking game, particularly the younger ones. We still think that they must think that we are a very uncoordinated, strange variety of sea lion. They also will often times come very close to you and seem to look into your eyes, or will come speeding over your shoulder out of nowhere and scare the living daylights out of you. Everyone had so much fun with these creatures, nobody wanted to stop the interactions, and everybody couldn’t wait to do it again.
Once we got back on the panga, we knew our trip was off to a great start. We went back to the Lammer Law for some snacks and fresh juice, and then got ready for our afternoon hike on a small island off of San Cristobel. Once we got off of the panga our guide had to encourage the beach master (with our guides Latin accent it made beach sound a bit different, but was still descriptive in what the beach master is) get off of the main path so we could walk through without having a 300 pound sea lion attacking us (they feel more vulnerable on land and can be a bit more defensive- particularly the males). He did manage to talk the sea lion into moving off of the path, and we got to walk through safely. Immediately, we noticed that the island smelled a lot like a barnyard with the numbers of animals inhabiting the place. It was quite a noisy place as well, with the beach master spending quite a bit of energy howling at the others. Our guide pointed one sea lion out who was bearing his chest at us and commented that this how they challenge each other, so this particular sea lion was challenging us! Some of their chests had many war wounds because in the sea lion world, those scars are used to display how much fighting experience they have. On down the trail we ran into a blue-footed boobie couple with their chick that hatched just two weeks before. This chick was nearly the size of his parents, and had a beak that was already the same size. He was still white and fluffy though and did not yet have his blue feet and won’t until just before his first birthday.
The frigate birds were the next attraction on the island. The males were sitting on the scrub brush showing off their bright red pouches under their necks to the ladies. Every once in awhile a female would dive down to check one of the males out. The red pouch on a male frigate bird is used to get the attention of the females, and apparently the female frigate birds think it is pretty darn sexy!
We were then finished with our tour of San Cristobel Island and went back to the boat for our first dinner all together. The food on the boat is very fresh, balanced, and wholesome. AND there is always desert, even for lunch!
That night while we moved onto our next island, Espanola, it was quite rough and sleep only occurred between the big waves hitting the boat. We woke up a bit groggy, but still excited to see what the day had in store for us. Our first stop was to hit the beach for a bit of walk around some sea lion territory. We ohhhed and ahhhed many of the cute little ones and took some pics laying next to the sea lions. I think everyone who goes to the Galapagos takes pics like this and we weren’t about to be the exception.
After taking our compulsory photos, we crawled into our wetsuits, put our snorkeling gear on and made our way out into the water. Visibility wasn’t very good close to shore, but a ways out it got a bit better. We saw a sea turtle resting in some kelp about fifteen feet down. We dove down and got a pretty good look at it, after awhile he decided to come up for some air and swam around us for a while, at one point swimming right in between the two of us. We saw some tropical fish and a few sea lions here, but it wasn’t the most impressive snorkeling that we have done. After leaving this site we went to another one that was a bit better and that also had a cave to go into, that was a bit creepy.
Lunch was delicious, as usual and after the feast we went out to see the wildlife on the island of Espanola. We had heard that if we were lucky we would be able to see some Albatrosses. We headed up the trail and our guide pointed out some flying off in the distance. Further up the trail we saw one nesting in some bushes and considered ourselves pretty lucky to see what we were seeing. Once we took all of our pics of the one in the bushes, we headed off to see that there we many others nesting right out in the open. These birds were beautiful, impressive, and docile. We were able to get right next to many of their nests, and they didn’t mind at all. We then made our way to “the airport”. Waved Albatrosses can only take off by jumping off of a cliff under the right wind conditions, so they’ll often walk a long way from their nesting sites to the cliff. Next to the cliff is an open section that is relatively smooth and grassy. They’re such big birds they can’t fly very slow, so often they’ll circle the landing strip for hours before coming in for a bumpy landing.
This day was also Adam’s 31st birthday, so we came back from our morning hike that day with a bottle of champagne sitting on our dresser. That evening after we had finished our dinner the lights went out and the chef walked onto the deck with a beautiful birthday cake. On the cake it said, “Feliz Dia! Adam”. It was really sweet of the crew to do this for him and the cake tasted great too!
The next morning was another early riser, and our first excursion of the day was a wet landing off the pangas to the island of Floreana. This was the island that Adam had dove from a few days before, so he was pretty excited to go back as he had liked it so much before. When we landed on the island our guide first showed us the “green sand”, not really so green but when you took a handful of it you could see little green crystals in it, very pretty. Next, we hiked over to the salt marsh where the flamingos live. Our guide mentioned to us that they are the pinkest flamingos in the world, because of their plentiful diet.
From there we walked to the other side of the island where many sting rays congregate in oxygen rich waters. We carefully shuffled along in the water amongst them. We were often surprised when one would emerge from the turbid waters and be only inches from our feet!
Before lunch we did a snorkeling trip off of the pangas at a rock formation called “Devil’s Crown” for some spectacular snorkeling. This was the best visibility of the whole trip, often approaching 20 meters! We saw many sharks, huge schools of surgeon fish, and a beautiful, sleek, and colorful tuna. Towards the end of the session we saw four sharks down at the bottom under a ledge about 25 feet down. Adam decided he wanted to get an even better look, so he dove down to a little notch in the ledge. He was really surprised how close he could get to the normally shy White Tip Reef Sharks without noisy scuba gear, so he decided to do it again but this time the guide was watching. As soon as Adam began his dive our guide began to yell for Adam to stop, of course he didn’t hear him, but once Adam got back up he got a scolding for getting so close to them (unlike oceanic white tips, white tip reef sharks are seldom dangerous, and then only when provoked). Snorkeling later, several other white tips joined the others at the ledge, along with two enormous stingrays.
After the snorkeling excursion we landed back on Floreana to visit Post Office Bay. Post Office Bay was opened hundreds of years ago by the whalers; they would drop a letter in a barrel and if someone was going to that location on the earth they would pick it up and hand deliver it. Today it works in a similar fashion, but people generally use post cards. Unfortunately, there were no post cards going to New Mexico or the Portland area, so we didn’t take any with us to deliver, but we did leave a few to be delivered. Since this blog is normally our replacement for post cards, these are the only cards we’ve mailed the entire trip.
On the same excursion we visited a lava tube. Inside it was massive, but as we continued further into the cave it became a lake so we waded back into it, until we reached a small cramped tunnel. When we emerged through the narrow tunnel there was a large room full of water that was mostly neck deep for Adam and had spots where Shawn couldn’t touch the bottom. It was crazy to be back there with only the light from our flashlights to see by! It was also pretty cold so once we had the thrill of being there we turned around and came back. Really fun though!
Today we returned to Santa Cruz to do a tour of the Charles Darwin Research Station. Since we saw this the day after we arrived in the islands, Adam booked another dive day rather than see it again. Shawn went ahead and joined the group for the tour and also to visit the highlands where she had the chance to see the Giant Galapagos Tortoise in the wild.
The Darwin Station is used as a base to replenish the population of the tortoises on the islands. There are tortoises of varying ages and most of them stay at the center until they are five years old, when they are released into the wild. Shawn was very shocked to hear that for the five year period at the station, each tortoise runs up a bill of $10,000. Repopulating the islands to their original population of the tortoises is a long process as the Galapagos tortoise does not reach sexual maturity until they are 35-40 years old. The center also contained many historical photos of the destruction of the tortoises. The sailors that came to Galapagos regarded them as a dream food source, as they require no food or water for a year at a time. The sailors had plenty of fresh meat this way.
It is also home to several tortoises that were 100 to 120 years old and were easily three to four hundred pounds each. When Adam and I visited the center we had the opportunity to watch a feeding of the females. What messy eaters they are! Absolutely, no manners!
After leaving the center the tour took a bus up into the highlands. Here we had the chance to see three of the tortoises in their natural habitat. We even got to see one walking through the forest, which doesn’t happen too often as they are incredibly sedentary as well as shy.
We were then served an amazing BBQ lunch up in the highlands, and were surprised to see that our chef and server who were with us on the Lammer Law, where the same guys who put on an amazing production way up in the highlands.
Overnight we sailed across the equator to the remote Genovesa Island- a place few of the tours make it to. The island is “U” shaped because it is a collapsed caldera with an entrance for ships to sail in to. Since this place never had tortoises it is practically untouched and absolutely loaded with birds. Because of the lack of reptiles, the prickly pear cactus on this island had thorns that were as soft as hair! Frigate birds, often with enormously inflated pouches, were everywhere. Red footed and Nazka boobies were all over the place, too. Frigate birds are unable to land in the water, so they survive primarily off of stealing from the boobies. That, and their dark, jaunty look earns them the description of “pirates of the air”. They’re interested in stealing anything a boobie is carrying, even if it is just a stick. Once on the ground, however, the boobies and frigates will nest right next to each other, as though they’re friends when ‘off the clock’. This was also a nesting place for the beautiful Swallow-Tailed Gulls. They’d let you get incredibly close, even if they were with a chick.
(Swallow-Tailed Gull fledgling)
We went snorkeling in the lagoon, which is said to have a lot of hammerhead sharks. That may well have been the case, but visibility was only about 6 meters, so we never saw any.
After snorkeling we landed on the other side of the lagoon to watch the storm petrels. They are small black-and-white birds and were absolutely EVERYWHERE- all over the sky. Scattered along the ground were their dismembered wings, signs that their elusive predator, the Galapagos Owl, was about. We looked for owls for hours but didn’t manage to find any. While waiting we did see a pod of dolphins in the distance making enormous leaps out of the water. Very cool.
Eventually, Adam sat down right next to a Nazca boobie and just hung out for quite a long time. This bird was indifferent to slightly curious about him. It is amazing how docile the animals here are. We think most wildlife watching from this point onward will be a little disappointing. Boobies get most of their moisture from fish and sea water. Like many of the Galapagos birds, they’ve adapted to this problem by secreting concentrated salt water from their nostrils. The brine then flow down channels in their beaks and drips off. We were able to stay close to this bird long enough to get some pictures of this. We also managed to get some Schnufel pics with him.
Genovesa has to be one of the most isolated, pristine and peaceful (although desolate) places we have ever been to or probably ever will go to. It was wonderful sitting on the shore with the docile animals like this for hours. Unfortunately, The next island, Fernandina, was on the opposite side of the archipelago. It would be a 16 hour crossing to get there, so we had to leave at about 2:00 P.M. This voyage was assisted by sail power for a change. Unfortunately, the crew didn’t know much about sailing, so they promptly ripped the Genoa sail (the one that attaches from the mast to the bow, and gives you the most power). Fortunately, one of the passengers (Ben, from England) is an avid yacht racer and took over the helm to get as much as we could out of the remaining two sails. He managed to increase our speed by about 20% over motor power alone.
After a rough night (literally), we arrived at Fernandina Island. This place is also very remote, and not part of most itineraries. It is the youngest and most volcanically active island, and underwent a huge pyroclastic (lava) eruption in 1975. This blanketed much of the island in glassy slag-like lava rock., covering a once beautiful beach. Interestingly, the beach used to be home to a boat wreck from the 1940s. The lava flow burnt the remains of the boat, but carefully parted around the old decaying engine, leaving it as the only reminder.
Besides having enormous numbers of black marine iguanas, Fernandina is the home of the Flightless Cormorant- the rarest of the Cormorants, endemic only to the Galapagos. Since it had no predators, and since the best food sources were under the water, this bird’s wings evolved to mere vestiges. With it’s smaller wings and larger feet, this bird has become a very sleek and efficient deep water swimmer, but it looks a bit ridiculous on land with it’s puny wings spread to dry.
We also encountered the remains of a whale on the lava field, likely a juvenile sperm whale. The stark white bones on the dark black lava made for a striking contrast.
After lunch we crossed the channel to Isabella island. We stopped along a cliff edge that reminded us of photos we’ve seen of the Na Pali coast in Kauai. We took the pangas to the entrance of a huge sea cave for some snorkeling in “refreshing” water. We both decided to wear our long underwear from Nepal under our short, thin wetsuits. There were sea turtles everywhere. One particularly docile one even brushed against Adam a couple of times, and one surprised us by swimming right between us! While swimming along the wall towards the cave we saw Flightless Cormorants probing the rocks for crabs. Then, we were startled by a couple of Galapagos Penguins rocketing through the water. These little (about 1’) guys are also endemic to the Galapagos, and are the northernmost penguin species in the world. They’re adorable and awkward on land (with a really strange call, too), but in the water they’re so fast and agile that they’re hard to keep up with.
Back in the cave it was a little dark so we didn’t see much at first. Adam decided to go to the back of the cave and let his eyes adjust. When he turned around, the light from the cave entrance revealed the silhouettes of 10 sea turtles! These would also let you get extremely close. After leaving the cave we swam to a nearby cove which, again, was loaded with turtles. After getting back into the pangas we were able to see about 20 turtles- and those were just the ones near the surface. Unbelievable!
After lunch we headed north and quickly reached the equator- our first daylight crossing. Everyone had to get a picture of the GPS reading all zeros. We were going to swim across, but the seas were a bit too rough to allow this.
That night at dinner, we were treated to lobster. We turned in early for another long night.
Another rough overnight crossing brought us to Bartolme Island. This island features a large pyroclastic volcanic cone, which we started climbing at 6:00 AM to beat the heat. Although this is one of the older islands, the lava fields and volcanos look relatively new. Due to the high magnesium concentrations of the soil almost nothing grows in this soil, giving a stark, but colorful, martian-esque landscape. The top of the volcano had beautiful panoramic views.
After breakfast, we had our last snorkeling trip. The water was extremely rough, and the visibility wasn’t so great. Nevertheless, we managed to see quite a few sharks and penguins. We also encountered tons of beautifully iridescent starfish and the flamboyantly colorful Pacific Boxfish.
From here, we cruised back to the island of Baltra to refuel. Along the way we passed the cone of Daphne Major Island. The biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant spent decades here documenting the evolutionary changes in Darwin Finch anatomy and published their results in the Pulitzer winning surprise best-seller “Beak of the Finch”, which Shawn and Adam both read about 10 years ago. It’s amazing were still learning from the very species that inspired Darwin’s big discovery.
After refueling we noticed about an acre of white water roughly a kilometer off. Every bird in the vicinity rushed to the area and began a feeding frenzy. I asked the Captain, Javier, what was going on. He said a school of tuna were feeding on a large school of fish, which were trying to escape by jumping out of the water (which often landed them in the beak of a pelican or boobie. The unlucky fish had nowhere to go.
Next on the itinerary was our last hike on N. Seymour Island. This place was loaded with Blue Footed Boobies, most of which were doing their ridiculous looking mating dance. This was accompanied by their vestigial nesting behavior. Boobies carefully select twigs suitable for building a nest. The quality of twigs is also important in attracting a female. The birds will carefully move these twigs around, but in the end they just have a useless pile of twigs and lay their eggs on the ground next to them. They have no use for nests anymore, but still have a bit of the nesting instinct left in them. We stopped for a while to watch an indecisive female walk in circles between three males, trying to decide who was the best dancer and who had the best pile of sticks, not to mention the best whistle (the males sound like musical whistle toys, while the females sound like ducks)
Female (big pupils) checking out the pile of twigs
Further down the path we encountered a Galapagos Land Iguana. These are much more colorful than the all black Marine Iguana. The one we saw had especially bright color on the head. Their entire bodies will turn this bright color during mating season. We ended the day by watching a beautiful sunset along a beach full of sea lions.
The roughest night yet brought us back to San Cristobal Island. We spent the morning at an interpretative center and then headed to the airport for our flight back to Quito.
While a bit expensive, this was a wildlife experience like no other. We’re spoiled now- we think we’ll be somewhat disappointed viewing wildlife in the future since we won’t be able to get nearly as close to the animals as we were here. Since we’ll be home in a few weeks, the Galapagos Islands were a fitting grand finale to our around the world trip!
In a few hours we’re off to Peru to see Machu Pichu, and then back to the ole’ US of A after an 8 month absence.