The Galapagos Day 7: San Cristobal & Leon Dormido

This is the second of two posts I put up today. Check out the first!

Our last full day in the Galapagos! This week went by extremely fast, but at the same time it feels like we’ve been on the boat for weeks. Maybe it’s because we spend most of our time on boats… Anyway, we spent the morning on San Cristobal Island where we went for a nice hike along a rocky and relatively steep trail and eventually found ourselves at a lookout point with a great view of the beach below and the Endeavour anchored just off shore. When we first landed on the beach we were greeted by several male sea lions who had no interest in us and were content playing in the waves or rolling in the sand to ward off buzzing flies.

From the lookout point, we continued on down to the trail to a flatter and more open part of the island. Behind us were tall jagged cliffs that made up the remains of a volcano and all around us we could see the blue ocean. In addition to its beauty, San Cristobal Island is also well known for its colony of nesting red footed boobies. I’ve seen blue-footed boobies, brown-footed boobies, and Nazca boobies, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen red-footed boobies. And guess what? Their feet are red! We saw several of them sitting on their nests made out of twigs and grass and one even had a baby chick it was sheltering beneath her wings. Others were perched on the cliff walls along with Nazca boobies and frigate birds.

Back at the beach we had some time for swimming and sunbathing before returning to the ship for lunch. Then around 3:00 we had our final snorkeling outing at a barren rock island called Leon Dormido. The island is the only remaining evidence of an ancient volcano that erupted thousands of years ago. As always, we snorkeled from the Zodiacs, staying close to the walls of the island and diving down to see what we could see, since there was no bottom in sight. The walls were incredible. They reminded me of miniature apartment complexes because there were small pockets carved out of the coral and in each pocket lived a different creature. Some had sea urchins, others were inhabited by fish, barnacles, and sea stars. But the highlight of the snorkel was a narrow channel between the larger rock island and another smaller piece that at some point had broken off. In this channel we were pretty much surrounded by sharks. It was eerie, a little bit frightening, and absolutely incredible all at the same time. Watching the sharks emerge from the blue waters in front of us and lazily swim beneath our floating bodies is something I’ll never forget. We mainly saw Galapagos sharks, but we also caught sight of several hammerheads as well. Once through the channel, we continued on around the island. There were so many green sea turtles that I wish I had kept count, but I would guess that we saw at least 30. At one point, while trying to swim around a corner, the current was so strong that I had to swim as hard as I could and it didn’t feel like I was gaining any ground. We made it though, and our Zodiac picked us up almost at the same place where we had started. All of us were so excited about the sharks that our Zodiac driver dropped us off at the channel again so we could swim though one last time. It was just as amazing as the first pass through! It was a great way to end the trip.

It was a pretty mellow last evening on board. The captain took the ship around Leon Dormido while the sun set and C and I relaxed out on deck, enjoying the cool air and nice breeze. After dinner it was time to pack and tomorrow we say goodbye to the Galapagos!

Galapagos Day 6: Santa Cruz Island

What’s with these early mornings when you’re on vacation? We had a 6:30 breakfast this morning and then we were all shuttled to shore at Santa Cruz Island (population 20,000) via Zodiac. As I mentioned yesterday, we were reentering civilization today for a tour of the Charles Darwin Research station, which is home to the giant tortoise breeding program. Giant tortoises nearly became extinct due to over-harvesting for food by pirates and other mariners who visited the islands in the eighteen and nineteen hundreds. Now, though, thanks to the breeding program, their numbers have risen dramatically and scientists know much more about the reptiles than when they first began their program. For instance, each island has its own species of giant tortoise and those tortoises have adapted to the conditions on each specific island. The shape of their shell is an indicator of where they came from. You may have heard of Lonesome George, who is the last and only known living tortoise from Pinta Island. The researchers are trying to get him to mate with other females (from different islands), but it took him 12 years to finally befriend one of them (he’s somewhere between 90 and 120 years old), so progress is slow. Nobody knows exactly how old giant tortoises can live to be, but estimates exceed 200 years old! Here he is:

Our guide gave us a tour of the research station, starting with the baby tortoises in their nursery and moving on to the older ones who, for some reason or another, can’t be reintroduced into the wild. Some of them are GIGANTIC. Like over three or four hundred pounds. I couldn’t get over them and snapped photo after photo. They’re so slow and sedated, so it’s fascinating to watch them.

After the research station, C and I walked through the town Puerto Ayora, which is the largest town on the island. Both sides of the street are flanked with souvenir shops and cafes and typical tourist haunts. C and I picked up a fresh coconut each and slurped down the sweet water while wandering downtown. Everybody met at a restaurant called The Rock and there we boarded buses that would take us into the highlands. Our first stop was at El Trapiche where we learned how they processed sugar cane into just about everything. They press the cane into sugar cane juice, fermented it into strong (and barely consumable) alcohol, boiled it down into molasses, and evaporated it into sugar cubes. It was really interesting. We also saw how they processed coffee beans by smashing the pods, fanning away the husks, and roasting the beans over an open fire.

Once we had our fill of sugar can juice and coffee, we boarded the buses again and continued up the road to our next destination: lunch. The place we were eating at was tucked away on a dirt road without much of a sign directing you there. I’m not sure who eats there when we’re not in town, but it was beautiful. It kind of struck me as belonging in a rural setting somewhere in Tuscany. There was a pool and gardens, a volleyball net and several tiers of open-aired dining rooms. The food was ok, not great, but I’ve been spoiled on board anyways.

After lunch we got back on the buses and headed even further into the highlands. We were in search of giant tortoises in the wild. At our disembarkation spot, we divided up into smaller groups, each with a naturalist, and set out to see what we could find. We walked for about 2 hours and I think we came across 4 or 5 in total. All were massive and happily munching on green grass. I liked how our guide said that we should take tips from them if we want to live longer: eat vegetarian and exercise a lot. It doesn’t look like tortoises exercise much, but carrying that heavy shell around day and night is quite demanding, I’m sure.

After our walk, we returned to Puerto Ayora with the option of staying in town to do more shopping, or returning to the boat for a nap. C and I chose the boat (although we didn’t nap). I can’t believe tomorrow is our last full day in the Galapagos! It feels like it’s flown by, but we have seen some awesome stuff and been some incredible places. Hopefully tomorrow will bring more of the same!

Galapagos Day 5: Santiago Island

It was a packed full day today (or not, if you decided not to do some of the activities). We started the day off early with a sunrise hike on Santiago (or James) Island, which is special because it’s Lindblad’s adopted island! We didn’t see much in the form of wildlife, but we did see a few birds including two Galapagos hawks, and this little guy who was very kind to stay still while I stuck a camera in his face.

Then it was back to the ship for breakfast and a change of attire. After we ate (and digested a bit), we hit the warm water around James Island. Most of our snorkeling excursions have been what Lindblad calls “deep water snorkeling”, meaning that we snorkel right from the Zodiac without stepping foot on land. Today was our deepest deep water snorkeling experience yet and it was awesome! We swam along the perimeter of the rocky shoreline, mostly following the steep coral walls that make up the edges of the island. At times we couldn’t even see the ocean floor because the wall dropped down so steeply. Among a plethora of tropical marine life, we saw some parrot fish, surgeon fish with razor sharp barbs on their sides, starfish stuck to the rocky wall, several sea lions, white-tipped reef sharks, slow, graceful, speckled manta rays, and my favorite a view of a fishing pelican underwater. If you’ve ever laughed with a snorkel and mask on, you know it’s rather difficult, but I couldn’t help myself when watching this pelican stick his beak under water to catch passing fish and seeing his throat pouch blow up like a balloon. It was amazing and ridiculous at the same time. I wish I had had an underwater camera. After about an hour I was starting to feel a little queasy from being in the rough, surging water for so long, so we got back in a Zodiac and promptly had a nice view of some mating sea turtles in the water. It looked awkward and uncomfortable.

Back on the boat, we had some time before lunch to relax and then after lunch we could either go snorkeling again (as C did), or stay on board to do as we so pleased (me). We all went ashore around 4pm to do another walk – at a different location – on James Island. I almost didn’t go, but I’m sure glad that I did! The first half of the walk was on a dirt path through some low green vegetation and a volcano off to our left. We saw several birds, a few lizards, and lots of spiders. Then we emerged onto the ‘beach‘, which was actually a fusion of coarse white sand and solid black, ropey lava. We walked over the lava portions and stood gazing in awe at the giant ocean-carved grottos filled with swirling sea water. The water inside was crystal clear and laying on the warm lava rocks surrounding the grottos were sea lions, fur seals, and limp marine iguanas. We even saw a sea turtle slowing paddling its way through a grotto and underneath a natural bridge leading out to the ocean.

I could have stayed there all day, but we had to move on. Making a loop, we headed back to our landing beach via the shoreline and had more opportunities to photograph iguanas, sea lions, and birds. We even saw two mom and pups pairs, the pups frantically nursing milk from their moms. One lone pup came right up to a woman in our group and started sniffing her to see if it was his mother. He was disappointed, I think, because he made a plaintive bleating noise and dove into the ocean. The sun was setting and I got some great shots with the beautiful light.

For dinner, the galley and hotel staff set up a BBQ dinner on the aft sun deck. Of course it was mostly meat, but they’ve been treating me very well here. I almost always get my own plate of food delivered to me for lunch and dinner (vegan-style). And tonight was no exception. I don’t know how they managed to get seitan and tofu dogs out here, but they did!

Tomorrow we enter back into civilization. We’re headed to Santa Cruz Island to visit the Charles Darwin Research Center and see some more giant tortoises!

Galapagos, Day 4: Urbina Bay & Tagus Cove

Today we entered into the world of giant tortoises. And they were giant! Our entire day was spent either on or around Isabela Island, which is the largest island in the Galapagos. We went ashore this morning at Urbina Bay and after only a few hundred meters of walking, we ran across this:

They’re enormous! And they can live up to at least 180 years old, probably even older. The early pirates and mariners that came to the Galapagos in the 1800’s used to take the tortoises on board for food because they can go a year without eating. Amazing! Once almost extinct (due to over harvesting), now their numbers are well beyond several thousand. We saw at least a dozen on our walk this morning, some ranging from normal tortoise size (the babies) to others weighing 200 pounds. The walk took us into the scrubby, green interior of Isabela and then out along the shoreline where we had to pick our way over and around large, sharp lava rocks. It kind of reminded me of Hawaii. We also passed by huge dead pieces of brain coral from when the islands were still underwater.

After lunch we had yet another opportunity for snorkeling. After yesterdays cold water I wasn’t too keen on getting in the ocean, but one degree warmer actually made a difference! The visibility was pretty murky, but we did see several sea turtles, a sea lion, flightless cormorants (who were courting each other. How cute!), and my absolutely favorite – the Galapagos penguins. I couldn’t help but giggle when then zipped by us in the water. They’re like tuxedoed torpedos. I could watch them all day!

We only had a few minutes to rinse off and change before we headed back to land for a hike at Tagus Cove. Even before we stepped on shore we saw some names written on the sides of the steep cliff walls. Most people were disgusted with the graffiti, but when our guide explained that the writing was from pirates and even the crew on Darwin’s ship, The Beagle, dating back to 1846 they all whipped out their cameras and took pictures. Sometimes the pretentiousness of people really gets to me…

Anyway, the walk was nice. We climbed up to a viewpoint where we had a nice look at the Endeavour in the bay below. Farther up the trail we came to a lookout point that surveyed the sloping sides of several volcanos extending down to a flat basin. This view reminded me of Africa. Then it was back down the trail, onto the Zodiacs, and back to the ship for another evening of recap and delicious dinner. Not sure what’s happening tomorrow yet, but I’m sure it’ll be great!

Galapagos, Day 3: Fernandina & Isabela

Holy iguanas, sea lions, turtles, and penguins. I’ve never seen so many together in one spot in my life. It was like being in a zoo, but without the cages.

This morning, when we went ashore at Fernandina Island, one of the newest islands in the Galapagos archipelago and also home to one of the world’s most active volcanos, I felt like I was transported back in time. The entire island is basically made up of cooled lava. We could see the path of the lava flow as it oozed down the flanks of the volcano thousands of years ago immortalized in ropes and ribbons of black, porous, rock. As soon as we stepped off the Zodiac and onto Fernandina, we were greeted by hundreds of spiny, leathery marine iguanas just chilling out in the middle of the trail. Since they’re cold-blooded reptiles, they need the sun’s warmth to get them moving in the morning, so they were taking full advantage of the early rays. We gingerly picked our way over and through them only to find another colony basking on the lava flow a few hundred feet away. Throughout the island, there must have been thousands. Marine iguanas are unique because, well, they’re marine (meaning they swim), but also for another adaptation that we soon came to find out. In order for them to clear the salt out of their systems, they blow it (forcefully) out of their nostrils. Projectilely. It was disgusting, but hilarious. Moving on from the iguanas, we came across several lazy sea lions nestled into the sand and others rolling around in the shallow tidal ares. Some of them didn’t pay us much attention as we snapped photos a few feet from their heads, but others were playful and curious – turning circles in the water and popping their noses out of the water for a quick look at us before diving back down.

Among the iguanas and sea lions, which were the stars of the morning, we also saw flightless cormorants (who, obviously, have lost the ability or know-how to fly), a hawk, and some sea turtles.

Our second outing of the morning (this is all before lunch), was a snorkel excursion around the lava flows of Fernandina. The water was much colder than yesterday, but I jumped in regardless, and I was glad I did! I had another awesome moment with a sea turtle – I swam along just above him for a few hundred yards – and we got some play time with a young sea lion. I’ve swam with sea lions before at Los Islotes in Baja, but I never get tired of it! They’re so funny and mischievous. When I was thoroughly freezing, I climbed back into the Zodiac and went to warm up with a hot shower.

After lunch, we had a few hours of rest time. I took a nap (I think I’m either finally decompressing from boat time or catching up on sleep from interrupted nights on the road). But by the late afternoon, I was refreshed and ready to go on a Zodiac cruise around Isabela Island, the largest island in the Galapagos. The wind had picked up and the swells were huge, making our Zodiac bob around like a rubber ducky and the occasional wave to crash over the sides, soaking us all. It was a lot of fun though, and the tall red and green cliffs climbing straight out of the ocean were stunning. One thing that has struck me is that all of the islands are so different in terms of looks as well as inhabitants. We also saw hoards of playful young sea lions surfing the waves as well as more flightless cormorants, blue footed-boobies, Nazca boobies, brown noddy’s, and too many sea turtles to count. I think we even ran over a few (don’t worry, they dive way below the surface before they hit the engine). But my favorite were the penguins! My goodness, they’re cute. We saw a few sharing the top of a tiny rocky island with a sea lion and several others were being swirled around in the foamy, white water below. I was amazed that they didn’t crash into the rocks. It looked like they were in need of rescuing, but then we saw one swim and he was like a bullet in the water. They’re so fast and graceful! Tomorrow we might have a chance to swim with them. I hope so!

So iguanas, sea lions, penguins, sea turtles, boobies… I’d say it was a successful day in the Galapagos. Stay tuned for tomorrow!

Galapagos, Day 2: North Seymour & Rabida

Wow, what a full day! It’s only a few minutes past six and I’m already exhausted. Let’s see… a few things that we saw on our first full day in the Galapagos:

– A ton of frigate birds, many of the males with their bright red pouches inflated
– So many iguanas and lizards that we had to watch were we stepped
– Blue footed boobies with bright blue feet waddling in the middle of the path
– Green sea turtles swimming within ten feet of us
– White-tipped reef sharks
– Ginormous parrot fish
– A blue spiny-looking lobster
– Countless other fish that I couldn’t identify
– Playful sea lions turning circles in front of us in the water and blowing bubbles up to the surface
– A stingray slowly making it’s way along the bottom of the ocean floor

Welcome to the Galapagos! We started our day off early with a 7am breakfast. Then it was a Zodiac ride ashore to North Seymour island where we went for a three hour, mile and a half walk along a well-trod path (we stopped a lot). The island is flat with small, scrubby trees, and green because of all the recent rain. When we stepped off of the Zodiac and onto the wet rocks, there were two baby sea lions waiting for us. They could care less that we were only three feet away!

Another 15 feet brought us head to toe with a large land iguana basking in the sun. Of course everyone was ecstatic and snapped photo after photo, but after about 20 iguanas later, we all had enough lizard shots. The frigate birds, too, were sitting in just about every tree and flying high above our heads. Some of them had their red mating pouches inflated and were trying to attract the females by spreading their wings and making clacking noises with their beaks.

We also saw this little guy waddling down the path. He was quite happy to show off his blue feet for us.

We returned to the ship at around 10:30 and had an hour to rest before Paula (our Expedition Leader) gave a great talk about the geology of the Galapagos Islands while the ship repositioned to our afternoon destination. Basically, they were created by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago and there are still hotspots where the islands continue to be formed. After lunch it was time to get in the water. We took a Zodiac out to the edge of Rabida Island, then jumped into the water and let the current carry us along the rocky shoreline. As I mentioned above, we saw a ton of marine life. Unlike the Caribbean or Great Barrier Reef, though, the Galapagos isn’t known for its beautiful coral. Despite its lack of bright blue, green, pink, and red coral life, though, the Galapagos makes up for it with large schools of fish and a huge diversity of marine critters. C had his underwater camera, so he took some shots, but the battery died before we finished snorkeling. I had a magical moment when a green sea turtle swam straight toward me and when he was within four or five feet, the sun shone through the water, illuminating him with sunlight. Unfortunately that was after C’s camera battery died.

After snorkeling, we had 15 minutes to rinse off, change, and stash our snorkeling gear on the sun deck before we headed ashore to Rabida Island for a late afternoon walk. Rabida is unique because its soil is fiery red due to sand made from lava with a high iron oxide content. The walk was easy, but we had beautiful views of the green sloping hills of the low volcano and I stopped to take pictures every few feet of lizards, cacti, spiders, birds, etc…

As the sun set, it was time to head back to the ship for recap and dinner. Tomorrow will be more snorkeling, hiking, and a Zodiac cruise!

Galapagos, Day 1: Baltra & Santa Cruz

Well, it’s time to act like sheep. I guess we were kind of shepherded around by Arie during our biking trip as well, but with Lindblad the feeling of being part of a herd is even more so. We woke up early this morning after a great night’s sleep at the Hilton Colon in Guayaquil, put our bags outside the door (which we wouldn’t see again until we were on the ship), and went down the elevator for some breakfast. The buffet spread was enormous, but I’ve been craving fresh fruit (after too many days of white bread!), so that’s what I had. Then we, along with 90ish other Galapagos-bound Lindblad guests, were herded onto three buses and away we went, back to the airport. We got our boarding passes on the bus (I’m not sure how they finagled that one) and then we were guided through security and, after only a few minutes in the waiting area, onto our plane. It was the fastest I’ve ever been in and out of an airport for a flight. From there it was only an hour and a half jaunt to the Galapagos! We landed on the tiny island of Baltra, which is flat and veiled in a ground cover of green vegetation. There were buses waiting to take us to the dock where we were greeted with a sign saying “Welcome to the Galapagos” and from there we boarded a Zodiac that whisked us off to the blue and white National Geographic Endeavour anchored several hundred meters offshore.

C and I were shown to our cabin (212) and after a quick inspection we set off to explore the ship. One of the first things I noticed was that the carpet is the same as on the Sea Bird and Sea Lion! There are so many small things – like the carpet – that remind me of the ships I work on, but a lot of things that are very different. The size, for one thing, is quite a bit bigger than the comparatively tiny Sea Bird and Lion. Not that the Endeavour is huge by any means, but it carries 96 passengers to the Bird and Lion’s 64. There’s also a lot more outer deck space including two sun decks (one with a pool), the bow, and several outer walkways. Trying to find our way around the ship is sort of like a maze because there are numerous doors and passageways and we have yet to figure out how they all connect… Maybe we’ll have it down by the end of our week on board….

We eventually found our way to the lounge where our Expedition Leader, Paula Tagle, welcomed us aboard and went over a few necessities and logistics. We also reunited with Brian Christiansen, a former deckhand on the Sea Lion that C and I had previously worked with, and has since been promoted to Video Chronicler. It was great to see him again! Then it was time for lunch – green salad and veggies! –  before we had our first shore landing. This was very foreign for C and I because we never do a shore landing on the day guests arrive because they usually board in the late afternoon/early evening. But here in the Galapagos, last week’s guests get off around 8ish and new guests get on around 10! That’s an incredibly fast turn around and I have no idea how they manage it. On the Bird and Lion we typically have five or six hours to get the ship ready and people are still scrambling to get everything done.

The first place we visited was called Las Bachas on Santa Cruz island. It was a nice sandy beach with a path through some lava rocks and low, green vegetation. We divided into groups and off we went with our naturalist guides. On the path we saw some lizards, turtle tracks and hollows in the sand where they laid their eggs, a few birds (don’t ask me what kind), and hundreds of bright yellow, red, and blue Sally Lightfoot crabs. I’ve seen the crabs before in Baja and Costa Rica, but never so close up. I expected them to scuttle away as soon as I approached, but they were fearless! They aren’t joking when they say Galapagos critters aren’t afraid of anything.

Back at the Zodiac landing beach, we had our first opportunity to get in the water with our snorkel gear. The visibility was horrible, but we’ll be snorkeling every day here, so it was more just to get wet than to see schools of fish.

Then it was time to return to the boat where we met the captain and crew at cocktail hour and had our first dinner on board. Lots of healthy options to choose from! Tomorrow is a full day of more walks, snorkeling, and hopefully Galapagos wildlife. Stay tuned!