A smooth arrival into Quito; the nerves of arriving into a new country long gone. This time I was the only passenger, other than those with pets, who was sent through without any X-ray of my baggage. I think the guy may have felt sorry for me when he saw the size of my backpack.
I literally arrived into Quito in the dark and left in the dark. My airbnb hosts, Bill and Rodolfo, were extremely helpful with my short turnaround; accompanying me down the street to get some US cash from the ATM and organising my early morning taxi back to the airport.
The flight across to our arrival point for the Galápagos Islands (Baltra Island) required a short stop in Guayaquil before landing onto the Island. Once all the flights of guests arrived onto Baltra Island we headed for our home for the next eight days, Floreana Yacht. I had to laugh when we received our instruction to get onto the boat, to which we all headed for the timber ferry-like boat only to be told “no please, that’s not ours” and to then see our zodiacs appear from around the back of the ferries. It was then clear that ours was more the Sea Princess than the Queen Victoria!
Floreana was small, compared to other yachts anchored nearby, but very comfortable for our small passenger group of 12, which comprised of Kristina and Willie from Switzerland, Johannes and Eva from Austria, Digna and Wiebe from the Netherlands, Jason and Stefan from the States, Diane from England, Wasi from India, Melissa from the Galápagos (her Dad is one of the owners of the yacht) and fellow Australian Marcus. Covered sun lounges for afternoon cervecas check, deck suitable for morning yoga check, at least one hot crew member check. I knew I was going to enjoy this trip!
We had lost time waiting for people to arrive onto the Island so were quickly briefed on the boat and then whisked off for our first dry landing in the Galápagos. We disembarked on Santa Cruz Island for a bus trip past some volcano craters and into the El Chato Reserve. We had noticed on our way into the reserve a huge tortoise hanging out with the cows in a paddock and thought it must have been the owner’s pet. We went for our walk down to the lagoon and started spotting a number of the ‘giant land tortoises” (some estimated to be around 160 years old – based on size and shell surface) – we were informed the one we had seen had just wandered into the paddock… as they like to do.
Whaling was stopped in the Galápagos by UNESCO in 1935. Ecuador declared the Islands a national park in 1959. Only 3% of the Islands are occupied by residents – the rest being reserved for the national park.
After a wander underground through some lava tubes created by the flow of hot lava we headed back to the yacht for dinner and an introduction to the crew.
We motored for most of the night to get to our destination, Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island. The bay is formed in an enormous volcano crater so is quite impressive once you appreciate the scale of the former volcano.
Our first trip for the day was to explore the beach. Here we saw fantastic displays of birds; never fancied myself as a bird watcher so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
The male frigates are very impressive – large black birds that puff up their red pouch to attract the female frigates. It takes them a couple of hours to get fully puffed up and the same to deflate – quite an effort of courtship on the part of the male of this species. The beach was also a bounty for Nascar boobies (black and white bird with a mask), red footed boobies, lava gulls, swallow tail gulls, hermit and red crabs (love the fact that they just crawl out of their shell when it becomes too small for them – hence you see what appear to be dead crabs all over the beach) and yellow crowned night herons, which we all concluded looked like the old men of the village.
The other standout on Genovesa was the sea lions – this variety are endemic to the Galápagos and extremely tolerate of visitors to their habitat. They just lie around on the sand all day conserving their energy for their night feeding. The marine iguana scramble over the rocks but are hard to spot with their black and grey colouring. Our first snorkelling of the cruise and we were treated with beautiful colourful fish darting in and out of the rocks.
The afternoon we had a dry landing up to Prince Philip’s Steps to spot some short-eared owls, which unlike all other owls are dinurmal – hunting and feeding night and day. It was then a snorkel off the zodiacs in the afternoon, which was wonderful – my first “uck” – think about having a mask and snorkel on when an unexpected sea lion shoots up in front of you! It was a wonderful experience; the sea lions were so playful – Eva even got a kiss on the hand from one. This was better than Seaworld!
Another overnight motor, this time arriving at Santiago Island. This Island pretty much formed as a result of volcanic activity before 1889; evident from the lava flow that has settled across most of the Island. The snorkelling off the sandy beach was wonderful with the opportunity to swim alongside the gorgeous little penguins – so cute, schools of brightly coloured fish and the not so lovely white tip reef sharks – more “ucks”!
The afternoon was spent snorkelling around the pinnacle rock of Bartolomé Island, with more beautiful fish and cute little penguins, before climbing to the top of Bartolomé for the fantastic views over the former volcanos.
We motored to the island referred to as Chinese Hat getting a great display from a manta ray along the way – it was leaping out of the water to clean the unwelcome parasites from its skin. From my vantage at the bow of the yacht I could see that the frigates were enjoying the cruise with us.
It was a fun evening on the upper deck of the boat with a few of us swapping funny stories about travelling and the experiences of dorm sharing. I also started to receive some encouragement from my buddies who had picked up on the attention I was getting from our Antioqueno sailor, Ricardo. What was that movie – Shirley Valentine?
Our first trip for the day was onto Chinese Hat after motoring the zodiacs alongside the cliffs on neighbouring Santiago Island where the penguins seemed to be having heaps of fun and the iguanas seemed to have come down to the cliffs for a bit of a look. The short stroll on Chinese Hat delivered us to a great vantage point to enjoy the open bays and rocks formed from past lava flows on neighbouring Santiago. It was then back to the boat for our snorkelling gear and a snorkel where we had spotted penguins earlier. Marcus and Stefan entertained us with jumps off the zodiac, which Jason cleverly filmed and edited for our later enjoyment. I was very jealous of all the underwater cameras these guys had – will need to sweet-talk my way to some copies!
After lunch we motored onto Whale Bay – Victor quickly quelled any expectations that we’d be seeing whales there! This little bay on Santa Cruz was where the whalers of the 16th, 17th and 18th century would camp to hunt for food supplies during their whaling activities. As a consequence of the over-hunting of giant land tortoises the Island was now established as a breeding ground for the tortoises – most are around 25 years old. The goats that had been introduced to the Island (along with the rats) are a real problem and so are being deliberately eradicated. Only one young tortoise sighted during our short wander around the Island – you could certainly see the difference in shell surface between this one and the old tortoises seen on the first day of the cruise.
A quiet night before a rather rough night of motoring to Isabela Island where we disembarked to see Los Tinterosa – a breeding area for the white tip sharks and the ‘kindergarden’ for marine iguanas – by the smell of it they were still being toilet trained!
We followed the land visit up with snorkelling off the boat where we got to swim with some more penguins and this time some green sea turtles. We also had a couple of sea lions keeping an eye on us from their deserted boat pontoon. The first spotting of blue footed boobies so far – you can imagine the lines we’ve been using about the abundance of boobies seen on this cruise!
We visited a tortoise breeding centre on Isabela Island to see the work being done to increase the population of land tortoises on the Galápagos Islands. They are kept at the Centre until they reach eight, at which time they are released back into the wild. Some real inroads seem to have been made in increasing the appreciation of this animal and it’s preservation – after almost having become extinct.
Diane and I signed up for a coco-loco – coconut opened, aguardiente poured in and then it’s ready to drink. Delicious but I can see how it got its name – I imagine a number of people have gone a little crazy on the stuff.
Again it was a night of motoring. This time heading for the other side of Isabella. I wasn’t so confident I’d be able to do my morning yoga/exercise routine with this level of movement of the boat – perhaps a morning off?
I was so glad I didn’t forgo the exercise – how can you get a better location for your gym mat than perched two metres above the sea where turtles are popping their heads up and sea lions are circling the boat – I wonder if I could convince Healthworks on the River to bring some in for their pool?
As this description suggests, our anchorage point was lovely – the water like glass. It was clear that we were in for a great snorkel today but a dry landing was in store before that.
Our landing onto Fernandina Island didn’t disappoint with us viewing the largest groups of marine iguanas found in the Galápagos. They are camouflaged so well you often only realise they’re there when the ‘rocks’ move. It’s quite cute the way they cuddle each other to keep warm after their swims to find food; the rock algae. The sea lions were frolicking by the rocks and green sea turtles kept bobbing their heads up to see who was around. There were also some new birds – the blue headed heron and the Galápagos hawk.
The hitch-hiking on our zodiac by one of the flightless cormorants (endemic to the Galápagos) got us a little concerned about the temperature of the water given the water birds that don’t fly don’t want to get in!
So, armed with wetsuits (for most of us) we headed for the rocks. It is quite an experience to snorkel with the turtles – they look as prehistoric under the water as they do above it. Having then experienced these lovely creatures in their natural habitat I was the first to succumb to the cold water opting instead for the comfort of the zodiac and a touch of sun baking.
The afternoon was spent having a zodiac ride along the cliffs to see a bit of blue footed booby love action. The male boobies whistle and then do a little hop from foot to foot to attract over the female boobies. The female shows her interest by drawing up her wings, the love-making is done and then, as our guide Victor says, “he goes for a smoke!”. We disembarked again onto Isabela Island where we walked up around a part of the Charles Darwin Volcano and Darwin Lake. Darwin had made a stop to this place during his four year journey on the HMS Beagle with Captain FitzRoy. Darwin was in the Galápagos for 19 days during the journey and it was here in Galápagos that it is said his theory on the origin of the species was borne and the notion that animals adapt to their environments.
I made the decision to sleep on the top deck for our overnight motoring back to Santiago Island. Armed with two blankets and my pillow I wrapped myself cocoon-like waking a few times as we hit some rougher seas. The sprinkle of rain sent some down to their bunks but I tucked in some more and enjoyed the cool breezes.
Our last full day of exploring the Galápagos. We visited an area of Santiago Is that had been used some 50 -70 years ago as a township for folk who were involved in the extraction of salt from a nearby volcano crater. Only some of the bricks of an old house remain and the introduced domestic animals have thankfully long gone through the eradication programs applied by the Ecuadorian government.
The walk along the rocks of the Island was spent watching the playful fur seals (which are really sea lions) in the rocky pools and the marine iguanas basking in the sun amongst the red crabs. We were treated to an exhibition of the fishing skills of the blue footed boobies – circling high in the sky and then diving commando-style straight at the fish below. This area also had some American Oystercatchers, distinguishable by their bright red beaks.
We snorkelled off the black sands of the beach to spot some new varieties of fish and this time some black-tipped sharks. Thankfully we were now away from the Humboldt Current (will be known to those who enjoyed Nemo) so the wetsuits weren’t needed.
We motored around to Rabida Island (named for its red rock) where we disembarked for our last snorkelling for the trip. As usual, the water was really clear allowing us to swim with beautiful schools of fish. A walk along the red sand for a spot of fur seal spotting and a walk up around the hill and we were finished exploring for the day. Everyone was noticeably pensive through the day; I think it was the realisation that this lovely cruise was coming to an end.
The last night was spent enjoying some cold beers and memories of the week that had been.
The abundance of sea and land life has been absolutely amazing. I’ve felt like I’ve had David Attenborough in my ear the whole time and know I have done nothing to match his skilful descriptions of this surreal place. It has been delightful to share the experience with such a lovely group of people. The memories of the cruise will be vivid for a long time (thanks in good part to the wonderful filming and editing talents of Mr Jason Kelly)…..and so will Ricardo….