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 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!

The Next Lindblad Model?

Finally! Off the boat at last! It’s been a long two months down here in Costa Rica and Panama on the Sea Lion, but we made it through and now we’re in San Jose relaxing at the endearing Hotel Aranjuez (thanks, mom, for the recommendation). We left the Sea Lion just after lunch yesterday amid the turmoil of a new rotation coming in and an old one on its way out. It was good to see people I haven’t seen for awhile, but I was also ready to start my vacation!

This past week was actually a rather memorable one for me, though, in terms of Lindblad trips. I had a very light work week massage-wise (which I wasn’t sorry about), so I went on a few more outings than I normally do (I can go on any hike or Zodiac cruise I want to when I’m not giving massages, but I typically stay on the ship and work out or catch up on emails). It was a photography-orientated trip, so we had two guest photographers – Ralph Lee Hopkins, a National Geographic photographer, and Richard Maack, a professional freelance photographer from Arizona. The guests ranged from point-and-shooters to semi-professionals with two or more SLR’s strapped around their necks.

Towards the beginning of the week we stopped at a new beach in Coiba National Park that I’d never been to. The landing was difficult – our Zodiac drivers had to bring the Zodiacs in stern first on a rolling wave – so catching the Zodiacs when they came in was exciting and drenching wet. The beach was also home to massive hermit crabs and tide-pools that harbored strange-looking nudibranchs, sea stars, little fish, and snails.

For my last week I also got to lead the horse-back ride at Caletas, just outside of Corcovado National Park. There were about six riders plus myself and we had a nice morning riding along the rainforest trail and out onto the white-sandy beaches as the waves crashed into the rocks.

Later that day I was recruited by our National Geographic photographer – Ralph Lee Hopkins – to do a brochure photo shoot at the base of a waterfall at San Pedrillo. I’d never done a photo shoot before, so I was excited! He had me wear a bright blue top, black carpris and a safari-style hat with a chinstrap. Before taking the brochure photos (for Lindblad’s expedition catalogue, although the photos we took will probably never make the cut), he shot me doing some yoga poses with the waterfall at the background. It was so much fun! Maybe my next career will be a yoga model???

So now here we are, enjoying the expansive breakfast at Hotel Aranjuez, with no plans for the day expect to relax, maybe walk around if we feel motivated, enjoy a nice dinner and perhaps a movie. Tomorrow we board a plane that will take us to Ecuador and our mountain biking/hiking escapade and Galapagos adventure!

Island Time

Finally, something new! We deviated from our standard, unvarying itinerary today with a stop at Taboga Island located just off shore of Panama City. In fact, the island sits within eyesight of Panama City’s skyscrapered periphery and thus it’s also surrounded by massive freighters waiting for their turn to enter the Panama Canal. There are two reasons why we visited the island: 1) This week is a photo tour with two National Geographic photographers on board, so any extra opportunity for a good photo shot, we jump at. And 2) Our hotel manager, Erasmo, has an apartment on the island where he spent much of his childhood and he wanted to give everyone a private tour. So just after lunch we took the Zodiacs to shore and spent a few hours exploring the colonial streets. At first impression, the small town reminded me of the Caribbean. All the houses were painted in bright colors like blue, pink, yellow, and green, and the residents were complying with typical Caribbean attitude – that is, lounging around, chatting with neighbors, and overall, taking it easy. At the center of the town was a large white church, but I found the barber giving a gentleman a haircut in the street more photogenic. We followed Erasmo through the narrow streets, the photographers with 2-foot long lens snapping photos every step of the way, until we arrived at his three story, bright red apartment house. The first two stories belong to his relatives, but the bottom level – complete with an airy balcony overlooking the harbor – is his getaway from the bustle of Panama City. There we enjoyed cold lemonade while looking at the numerous sailboats in the bay and the larger container ships farther off in the distance. Then it was back to the ship because the Panama Canal Authorities basically dictate our schedule once we’re anchored outside of the Panama Canal. If we’re late for our appointment, we might not get another until the next day! And that wouldn’t be good…

Galapagos Here We Come!

Good news came in my mailbox today! C and I got a cabin on the National Geographic Endeavor in the Galapagos starting on the 9th of March and ending on the 17th. Wahoo! We’re so excited. I kind of knew that we were going to get a trip, but confirming it made it actually feel real. So… after we’re finished on the boat in Costa Rica (a week and a half to go) we’ll spend a few nights in San Jose and then fly to Quito. The Galapagos trip isn’t the only exciting news though… While looking online for things to do in Ecuador, I stumbled across the site of Arie’s Bike Company. It looks awesome, so we also signed up for a 9 day mountain bike and hiking adventure. Check it out here. We added a day to do some biking and bird-watching in the Mindo area as well as biking into an active volcano. After that trip we head down to Guayaquil to meet the rest of the Lindblad guests headed to the Endeavor and the next day we fly to the Galapagos for 8 days of fun. Can’t wait! C has to fly to Baja to get on the Sea Bird two weeks before I do, so I’m trying to figure out what my plans will be after he leaves… I’m thinking some nice hostel with good hiking, horseback riding, or more mountain biking. Any ideas?

I’ll definitely be blogging about our adventures in Ecuador, so keep checking back!


A New DER!

Here’s my Daily Expedition Report for the week. Passing through the Panama Canal. Again!

2 February, 2012
Gulf Islands and the Panama Canal

We left the tiny paradisaical islet of Granito de Oro in Panama’s Coiba National Park late yesterday afternoon and sailed a total of 190 nautical miles along the rugged Pacific coastline to reach the Gulf of Panama. We woke to a very windy morning as the National Geographic Sea Lion continued on her way toward our morning destination – the remote islands of Otoque and Bona. Due to a number of breaks in the mountain chains that parallel the Pacific coastline, trade winds are able to blow over the Gulf of Panama and as a result, they push away the surface waters. This allows nutrient-rich waters from below to up-well, bringing with them a high volume of essential food sources for marine birds and other wildlife. To the delight of many of our birders onboard, we had the opportunity to explore these islands by Zodiac, catching sight of a variety of species including magnificent frigate birds, brown pelicans, blue-footed boobies, brown-footed boobies, and even a predatory peregrine falcon, arguably the fastest animal on earth.

Once back onboard, we picked up anchor and headed deeper into the Gulf toward the colonial town of Panama City. Miles before we could see the cityscape, however, we passed by quite a few large ships carrying heavy cargo. They were either heading toward the Pacific entrance of the canal, like us, or had just finished their transit and were on their way to other destinations. As we waited for word from the Canal Authorities as to when our transit time would be, we enjoyed cocktails and ceviche on the aft bridge deck. Panama City was visible on the horizon and shipping vessels and passenger ships alike flanked us on all sides.

At last it was our turn to enter the Panama Canal. The pilot, mandatory for all vessels crossing the Canal, came onboard as did a dozen or so line handlers who would help ensure our safe passage through the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks. Despite it being a night crossing, the locks were well lit and the lights cast an almost supernatural aura over our proceeding. Dinner was a Central American buffet feast and many of us decided to enjoy it out on decks as we continued to make our way through the first two sets of locks in the Panama Canal.

Becky Timbers
Wellness Specialist

Coiba National Park DER

Another Daily Expedition Report from the National Geographic Sea Lion!

24 January, 2012
Coiba National Park

Sun and beach were the prominent themes for today. We spent the entire morning and much of the afternoon swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and sunbathing on a small island called Granito de Oro in the warm, clear waters of Coiba National Park. The park is one of Panama’s largest national parks and is the third largest marine park in the world, smaller only than the Great Barrier Reef and Galapagos National Park. In addition to being one of Panama’s largest protected areas, Coiba Island – the largest island within the national park – served as a prison many years ago and still houses several penal structures.

We went ashore at Granito de Oro just after breakfast and subsequently spent several hours enjoying its allure. We made available both single and double kayaks for guests to enjoy and the crystal clear water was more than ideal for snorkeling. A few of the varieties of fish that we saw included several species of puffer fish, yellow and black striped sergeant majors, bright blue and green parrot fish, Moorish idols, king angel fish, and even a white-tip reef shark. For those wanting a bit more activity, one of our naturalists led a longer kayak paddle across the channel from Granito de Oro and along the opposite shoreline lined with mangroves.

We returned to the ship for lunch and then had the afternoon to either shuttle back to Granito de Oro for more swimming and snorkeling, or to relax on board with a good book. It was also a busy afternoon for massages! Guests also had the option to stretch their legs on a nature walk along the Monkey Trail. Although there were no monkey sightings, guests heard their calls in the distance. Even more exciting was a glimpse of the unique mating dance of a male lance-tailed manakin, a small black bird with pale blue wings.

Tonight we will leave Panamanian waters and enter into Costa Rica where our voyage and adventures will continue. Tomorrow we visit the beautiful botanical garden of Casa Orquideas.

Becky Timbers, Wellness Specialist