A blog post I wrote in July 2013 after a visit to the Galapagos Islands with Mark Todd, a good friend who I have known all my life.
Waking up at 4.30am proved difficult for the two of us, although we managed to roll out and be downstairs for our taxi at 5am. No one had to know that we went for a cheaper taxi than the one we had ordered, it came first, it would have been rude not to.
Waddling around the airport with wods of cash stored in our bulging fanny packs, we soon realised that getting to the airport 3 hours early was highly unnecessary and our Sunday afternoon stress of searching to print of an immigration form could have been avoided, as they looked at me silly when I said that we hadn’t filled it in and would it be a problem? Of course not,we’re in Latin America, nothing is done in advance.
Stocking up on a hearty English muffin breakfast, which was more of a cheesy omelette between a stiff, stale muffin, we waited for our gate to be announced. I’m following the ways of Mark and not of my dad. Dad would have had us hanging around the gate printed on our passes one hour before departure, not even allowing us time to get a take out coffee just so he can be the first on the plane. But why? Why do you want to sit and watch and wait for all the incompetent people who can’t figure out where their seat number is or stuff their bag in the overhead storage. Why not just casually sip on a cafe con leche while people squeeze on to the buses and sit in a stuffy plane you’re planned to be on for the near future.
Our concern was who was going to be joining us on our cruise. The average age was around 55, but not counting the 30+ school kids in their matching mahogany school trip uniforms, clearly all American teenagers emerging from puberty. We were promised a 12 man boat, who would be the fortunate 10 accompanying us? I hoped none of the people present on this flight. Stopping at Guayaquil we prayed for newbies, fresh and younger faces. Instead more Ecuadorean old, fat, balding businessmen.
Arriving to Baltra, we found our guide, Giovanni and Jimmy, the ‘panga’ boat driver. News: people had missed their flight, therefore there would only be 3 of us. Not ideal, as our other passenger was a grey haired outdoor adventurist from Alaska. Turns out he’s actually quite interesting to listen to, but thinks he knows a little too much than he actually does.
We see our Archipello 2 boat bobbing in the murky water. We’ve been greeted by clouds, but Dan the American assured us that because he had such good weather scuba diving here over the last few days, we must get some sun…right? We greeted our crew, picked out a brooding hotty already and were told two others were coming, to make us a group of 5. Relief! Not sure how long exactly me and mark could have been entertained by Dan.
We are in the ‘Penguin room’ which suited mark well. Everyone in Quito now knows of the famous penguin riding a uni-cycle tattoo, after revealing it in a John Lennon themed bar. The two other girls arrived and are lovely, Jamie is a bit in your face, but can humour Dan’s bullshit, so respect. And Jackie is the opposite, very quiet and sweet. They create a lot of atmosphere on this large boat!
After all the normal initiation meetings, our first excursion began. We were Snorkelling off North Seymour island. It took some courage to get into the water as Luigi has already seen a shark when he got in. Somehow the idea of jumping into water where you know a shark is lurking, was not appealing.
However I made it into the water, first seeing a beautiful floating sea turtle, the first one I’d ever seen that close up. Dan got excited that he’d spotted a small sting ray (rayo del sarten), this didn’t impress me too much. In the back of my head I was waiting for this shark to reappear.
I swam within schools of fish, feeling them glide against my leg. Mark got the fright of his life when a sea lion sped past him, shouting ‘shit’ through his mask! I was thrilled to be this close, the sea lion was rapid and making circles round me, sometimes slowing down to take in what he was seeing.
Me and Mark
In the afternoon, near to sunset we went for a walk around the island. Just chilling on the lava rocks, being splashed by the waves, lay a few black marine iguanas. They were a lot smaller than I had imagined. The males have longer spikes along their spine compared to the females. With the marine iguanas there is only one species but 7 races. These change colour depending on the type of seaweed they eat which changes on each island. They also vary in size. The one we saw today is a lot smaller than the ones compared to western Isabela.
We also saw laying in the middle of the path was a long orange land iguana, a bigger species to the marine one. These are more endangered and kept in research stations to be introduced to Baltra on Santa Cruz island.
North Seymour was an island where blue footed boobies nest. We saw a flat piece of land where they were many of these birds. Some were with their new chicks, and some bachelors were still trying their best to woo a lady one. To attract a lady bird, they have a dry whistle sound and they always lift their blue padded feet and spread out their wings. The ladies respond with a deep ‘waaa’ – like those annoyingly whiny Hornbills in Africa.
The male boobies have smaller pupils than the females and usually darker feet, but this is not always true.
Flirting male Boobie
Friggits were another type of bird that are common to the Galápagos Islands. Giovanni told us that there are 2 types of this bird, which you can distinguish by the colour of their feathers behind their head. Ones with a green tint, white face and brown chest are called Minor friggit birds and the Magnificent boast a purple tint and white face and chest. These birds don’t dive to catch fish as they don’t have the oils in their feathers for the salt water. They climb to 2,000 metres in the clouds to clean their feathers with the water vapour. They swoop down and elegantly scoop the fish in their beaks.
Our last animal to see on our walk obstructed our path, something these creatures are seen doing throughout the island. Sea lions can be seen everywhere here. These are different to seals, which I continuously mistook them for. Firstly sea lions have ears which seals do not. Also sea lions have two front flippers which enable them to waddle around the town and climb up to the piers. The alpha male makes the most noise, where as the pups will ‘bah’ likes lambs. Other male sea lions will attempt to fight the alpha to take control of their area. The fallen hide in coves to recuperate and wait for the alpha male to weaken so they can fight once more and take control.
Back on board, taking a shower on a rocky boat is very difficult. Luckily they provided us with rails to cling on to! If you suffer from sea sickness, a small catamaran is probably not the best idea. For someone who didn’t even know they suffered from this, I’m sure anyone would suffer nausea when eating prawns and being jolted around. 8pm came along and all we could do was go to bed.
Feeling like I’m on a real boat now as we’re woken by a bell that alarmed the entire catamaran at 05.45. Quick turn around and we’re on the panga bobbing around Bartolomme island. A newer island formed by an erupting volcano; when I say new, I mean less than 1 million years.
So 25 million years ago the old Galapagos got pushed down under water when the Nasca tectonic plate submerged. Forming volcanoes to rise and create islands; the new Galapagos. On Bartolomme you can see the lava tunnels that have collapsed and the lava flows. One had been crushed by tourists when there wasn’t any set paths in the past. These trails are really good for preserving the surface and you can see all the untouched animal trails.
The new Galapagos now is only 5 million years old, San Cristobal being the oldest one. The islands became part of Ecuador in 1832 and Darwin arrived in 1835, staying for only 21 days, discovering all different kind of species. The Galapagos now as a national park is only 54 years. Before then there was much more of a civilisation, but now only 25,000 people live on the islands, helping together to conserve this magical and extraordinary place.
But in the 1500’s pirates found the islands and anchored here after they had stolen gold from Peru, probably from the Incas. They introduced species from the mainland such as rats, cows and goats. To feed, the pirates hunted the cows and goats. The rats were easily exterminated but the new species caused a disturbance to the endemic ones: such as the penguins – there were 14 endemic species, but now there are only 10. One of which we saw today, the smallest; Galápagos penguin.
On the island we saw a red faced lizard, a small snake curled up under the stairs and seal poo, which Dan walked in after being warned a million times. We reached the top of the trail, offering us a stunning view of the pinnacle and Santiago island. We also saw a collapsed volcano which was a round circle of dark rocks. Coming back down, you could imagine the lava pushing its way down the island, destroying and fossilising anything in its path, leaving a dull and rusty collapsed crater in its way, making way for new species to create a home.
After a satisfying breakfast, bread and lurpack butter being a luxury, we were ready to be thrown back into the water. Luigi, the owner of both Archipells assured us we would see sharks. I felt excited but not too over keen to be sharing their waters. I was once again the last one to jump in, but for other reasons than the water being cold. It’s the jumping into the unknown, the deep darkness where anything can be waiting for you.
We were in the water for maybe 15 minutes when Luigi shouts SHARK. I’m anxious to find it and when I do it’s fast approaching me. It stares at me with its googly eyes and slithers its way towards me. I’m saying “shit shit shit” but i know any sharp movements and I’m brunch. I freeze and he just glides away, unbothered by our presence and he’s gone. That was the highlight of today’s snorkelling. The rest were schools of fishies and an abundance of multicoloured starfish. Once getting out of the water we see a sea lion playing with a boobie but its the stalking hawk that Giovanni wants to follow.
Foolishly I didn’t put on my flippy floppies to avoid the burning sand. None of us did and we whimpered like little girls, skurtling up the sand banks. We come to the sea turtle nesting ground, freshly stocked with eggs. We see some remains of broken egg shells where the awaiting hawk lingers for any more to appear.
My attention was on the 10-15 tintoneras – black tipped sharks surfing the waves in ankle deep water. A dead fish floated beside them but they weren’t interested. Their fins broke the waves revealing how many there were. I edged a little closer towards them until one suddenly sped up near me, shaking my confidence. I could have watched them all day, I was almost tempted to grab a snorkel and join them.
I have soon tested the theory that the sun is stronger at the equator as the rocking motion of the wind with the boat sent me to sleep in the sun. However the tan is topped up but with a little red face.
Our next excursion was to Isla Santiago where we followed the story of a lava flow. From what I understood/remember, the lava came from a broken tunnel of the volcano and erupted, spilling tonnes of lava 2 metres deep, therefore not leaving any ash remains on top of the lava as it did not come from a main eruption. The lava has formed over the older island, destroying any vegetation. The lava did not reach everywhere on the island and around the edge is what used to be there thousands of years ago, such as broken oxygenated lava rocks, sediment and ash from the previous eruption.
The most recent eruption here on the island was 1890, so the surface of this island is still very new and no vegetation has yet grown, except for the lava cactus, which grows on top of a previous one. The lava has cracked due to the pressure from underneath. Under lies flowing lava and on top of that are older layers of solidified lava, too heavy to be supported by each layer, causing pressure to crack and separate.
Once the lava stopped we came to the beach where we had an amazing snorkelling experience. With a nippy wind and freshly cold sea water, we were a little reluctant to go snorkelling. Once Mark had spotted a penguin swimming around we were definitely going in. At the start it was just me and him searching for marine life when the others joined to watch a very curious sea lion.
We had been with this sea lion for a while. He stared at us intently, we feared he might attack but in reality he was just as curious as we were. With the last few shots of my disposable camera, I captured the moment of us floating around with a grazing sea turtle and energetic sea lion. Being cheeky we dipped under water to lightly touch the turtles flipper, another animal to add to the list.
We then spotted the penguin as he caught air and we were off to follow it. One last shot on the camera, this one was for Mark. We hung around while he dipped and dived catching the occasional fish and being chased around by a clingy Parotfish for any failures he might make. He sped off in the distance, with the cling-on fish as his shadow in the depth.
Suffering another batch of sea sickness, we took some Dramamine, supplied by Jackie and our drowsiness took over and 8.15pm was one of our latest nights.
Another brutal wake up call at 05.45. I was so tempted to keep curled up in my bed, but we both slowly got up to get ready for our morning walk. We got into the panga to get to Isla Tintoreras (meaning white tipped shark). We were greeted by a sleepy sea lion which didn’t budge when we landed.
Here we saw a lot of coral pieces on the ground. These were washed up after they died when the sea water temperature rose to almost 30C a hundred years ago. They break down and erode into pieces of sediment which make up the sand and therefore beaches. Volcanic beaches are made up of broken up lava rocks and coral pieces. You can see the start of a beach on the east side of the island where a heap of marine iguanas were chilling and sliming on top of one another. There are still whole coral pieces which look like mini bones and you can see where they have started to erode and become tiny sand granules.
A few grumpy sea lions lay in the way of our trail. Being the sacred Galápagos Islands, we can only stick to the designated paths as to not disturb any habitats or possible nesting grounds but in this case it was safer to go around rater than try and get too close. One gnarled and showed its teeth….he wasn’t smiling.
On this island was a sheltered cove and a channel where resting tintoneras hid. A playful sea lion bit one of the sharks tails but got no response. I’d like to see the response if one of us was to get in! This area was also a kindergarten for baby marine iguanas, where an eager stalk waited for one to slip.
Round by Isabela, the ocean is a tranquil turquoise, inviting us in to swim with the animals that enjoy this clear water. After breakfast we slid in to some shallow waters hidden in another cove. I was slightly apprehensive to go in when a little puckerfish started to attack my ankles. I suddenly felt unwelcome. The little bugger left a couple of marks on my legs! Nevertheless I went in alone, always on the look out for sharks. Singing the jaws theme tune in my head to syke myself up for when the time came. This is since Mark told me he did it just after we had seen one, its been stuck in my head ever since. Along with “vamos a la playa…a mi me gusta la“.
I followed a prehistoric looking Iguana, slithering along the water like a mini crocodile. Although they only eat seaweed, I still felt threatened. Giovanni was in search for some resting sea turtles which apparently had been in our area but we missed them. God knows how we did that as these ones were huge. I however didn’t miss the speeding by sea lion that made me jump out of my wet suit.
This cove is where the sea turtles come to rest. I’m not sure how much rest they get as tourists come splashing by disturbing them. Can’t say we weren’t the same, as me and mark crept up behind them to feel their flipper, its pretty slimy. In this spot lay around 12 turtles, some were ginormous. The male sea turtles have long thick tails, which look like a third leg. The females don’t have this. Following them up and down, catching a breath as they brought their head up to the surface was a magical moment. As well as floating a long side them as they rested. Mark spotted one whose behind had risen before its head with the current, lifting his back end in the air. Laughing in snorkels echoes through the water so you can always follow something that’s funny.
This water was one of the coldest so we didn’t stay in for much longer. The current that is flowing in the Galapagos at the moment is the Humboldt current, bringing over the cold water and with it more marine life, including sharks. On the west side of Isabela there is the Cromwell current, supplying the perfect conditions for whales.
In the afternoon we went to see the Giant tortoises. In the past there used to be 14 species on the islands but after constant hunting there now only remains 10. Lonesome George was the last of his kind, a unique species on Pinta island, and was found by rangers and in 1972 he was taken to the Charles Darwin research station.
He was put in a pen with 2 females from Wolf volcano but the eggs were wrong and didn’t hatch as the hybrid breed couldn’t survive. He was the last of his kind and died in 2012 aged around 150 years old.
Out of the 10 species the biggest type is the ‘Dome’ tortoise which are found in the highlands of Santa Cruz. Then there are ‘Intermediate’ in San Cristobal who can be found roaming wild.
The ‘Saddlebacks’ are the smallest of the tortoises. This translates from “galapago“, which is an old Spanish term for horse saddle. It is a term that came from a Spanish bishop who was sailing from Panama to Peru. He got lost and found the Galapagos. From the ship, he only saw the saddleback tortoises who were grazing in the lowlands. The term ‘galapago‘ gives the name to the archipelago of islands.
Any new hatches are under inspection by birds who prey on them. Many eggs are brought to the centre and kept there for 2-4 years. The tortoises that are kept in captivity are generally the Domes. They will be released in the lowlands where they were collected from at around 5 years old and they will start walking upwards to the highlands to live there and breed when they are 25 years old.
We’ve said our goodbyes to the crew with a friendly picture of the gang and headed over to Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz to see more tortoises….
500 years ago pirates and sailors killed over 200,000 tortoises for meat and oil. The males weighed 250kg and females 150kg so they collected more females and young ones as they couldn’t carry the heavier ones. Any eggs left in the nests were eaten by rats, diminishing the population.
Now in the centre they keep the eggs at 29,5C which is the temperature for females. To grow males they are kept at 28C. 90% of eggs are females to breed with Diego and the other males of the research station. In the adaptation pen 1,300 young tortoises are mixed together. The different species were kept together but they are released when they are 5 years old so before they try to breed later in life. The rings on their shells keep growing which expands the shell. When they are older it no longer needs to grow and the shell is then smooth.
This was the last stop on our tour, saying our goodbyes to Giovanni we were now to make it on our own…
Our original hostal, Los Amigos was full up, so we have resorted to the next cheapest looking one we could find…Hostal Elizabeth. First impressions were bleak, but for the price of $20 we have separate rooms with a double bed each, a private bathroom and I have the luxury of a TV. The appearance of the hostal doesn’t bode well for the owner but for something cheap it does the trick. N.B cheap being less than $50 for a b&b.
We have visited every single souvenir shop of the first block in search of family gifts. Everything seems to cost around the same, t-shirts being $15 and playing cards being $5. When skimping on the accommodation, it means we can splash on last minute gifts I haven’t managed to do in the last 4 months!
As we had the afternoon free, we decided to do an activity of our own. Less information to be given, but enough to be told that the first beach we were aiming to go to was unswimmable. 2 km away from the town, we find Tortuga Bay. A hidden paradise, a lagoon tucked behind deadly currents and vicious waves, we lay down our newly stolen towels from the boat and find this guy next to us…
We had adopted an American/Puerto Rican guy who is coincidently staying at our hostel and he accompanied us to the beach from the entrance to the trail. He has taken out a kayak in search of what has become a novelty for us…the marine iguana. He is a very excitable guy on his own adventure around Peru and Ecuador, collecting fellow travellers on his way and enjoying recounting each others stories.
We left him to trek back home as we had missed our usual three course lunch and were feeling peckish. I found some chocolate milk and a breaded plantain stuffed with fish. After rebooting, we took to the shops. We did all of them. Starting from the end of the main avenue, we checked in each store that sold the exact same thing, only varying in colour and size availability. It took us a while to be successful, but after trailing around I treat myself and mum and dad. Elliott has been the problem. Is he too old to be wearing ‘I love boobies’ t-shirt? I didn’t think Dad was…
Throughout the day we had spotted a local fish market; the locals included a handful of pelicans and 2 hungry sea lions…
For spending the day with Adrian, he wanted to treat us to a kids train ride around the city. We were quite excited to end the night on a giant catapillar train, a huge difference compared to a luxury boat. Unfortunately it was a late night for us and for the train which had already left. Making 22:30 the latest night of the week.