MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the category “Wildlife”

Wildlife of New Zealand

When most people think of New Zealand, they think of grand vistas, towering mountains, reflective lakes and sweeping glaciers. But whilst it wasn’t top of my considerations when I first moved here 5.5 years ago, I’ve discovered that it is a country brimming with wildlife too, many of which is endemic to (can only be found in) New Zealand. The country has long flaunted its clean, green image, and whilst there are certainly those who would argue the truth in that, there is certainly no denying that this country is brimming with countryside, nature areas and untouched wilderness. Coming from the UK where every inch of the place has been conquered, owned and settled on, I still find it astounding that there are parts of New Zealand where people just haven’t and can’t set foot. Vast hectares of the southwest are like a jungle and many of the southern fjords remain accessible only by boat.

With no native land mammals, the native birds grew flightless, and in some cases large. Although the giant Moa and its hunter the giant Haast’s Eagle, have long since been made extinct by the arrival of man, New Zealand still remains an island nation of flightless and ground nesting birds. Unfortunately, the accidental and deliberate introduction of mammals and pest species has left some species extinct, and others critically endangered, but find the right piece of forest and the cacophany of birdlife in the canopy brings goosebumps. It is a bird enthusiast’s paradise here, and nowhere else in the world is there an alpine parrot, who’s cheeky antics are always a joy to watch.

With mile after mile of coastline, the seas around New Zealand are breeming with incredibly diverse marine life from the smallest plankton to some of the largest marine mammals in the world. On land, sea and air, there is always something to see if you know where to look.

MAMMALS

Sperm Whale

These behemoths are most consistently spotted off the coast of Kaikoura in the South Island. The 1200m deep Kaikoura Canyon just 500m off shore leads out into the Hikurangi Trench, a 3000m submarine canyon that skirts north past the North Island. This depth houses a submarine world that includes giant squid, the favoured diet of the 56-ton male sperm whales that reside here. Viewed either by plane where the whole body can be appreciated, or by boat where you can get up close to watch them idle at the surface then dive to the depths.

 

Bryde’s Whale

Similar in size and shape to the Minke whale, the best place to see these shy whales is the Hauraki Gulf near Auckland and the Coromandel Peninsula in the North Island.

 

Bottlenose Dolphin

These large dolphins are best spotted in the Hauraki Gulf and around the Bay of Islands in the North Island.

 

Dusky Dolphin

These playful and acrobatic dolphins are smaller than the bottlenose dolphin. Best spotted off the Kaikoura coastline in the South Island. Although difficult to spot in this photo, there are two dorsal fins poking up in this photograph.

 

Hector’s Dolphin

Like the almost identical Maui’s Dolphin, these are the smallest and rarest dolphin in the world. They are also unusual in having a rounded dorsal fin unlike other dolphins that have a pointed fin. They are endemic to New Zealand, found nowhere else in the world. The most consistent place to spot them is off the coast of Banks Peninsula to the east of Christchurch, particularly around Akaroa, although they can be seen up and down the eastern coast of the South Island.

 

New Zealand Fur Seal (kekeno)

Although they look fat and uncoordinated on land, they are acrobats and outstanding hunters in the water. Recovering from years of historical hunting following the habitation of New Zealand, they are abundantly spotted up and down the coastline of the South Island. Guaranteed places to spot them are the coastline of Kaikoura Peninsula, Banks Peninsula near Akaroa, Cape Foulwind near Westport and the outer coastline of both Milford and Doubtful Sounds in Fiordland.

New Zealand Fur Seal

 

European Rabbit

One of many deliberately introduced pest species, these non-native rabbits and hares are most easily spotted in open pastures. The Ministry of Primary Industries estimate their presence in New Zealand results in $50M of lost production and so there are multiple methods in place to reduce their numbers.

 

BIRDS

Kea

The world’s only alpine parrot, these immensely intelligent and fascinating birds are a much-loved sighting in the mountains of the South Island where they are endemic. They have easily become my favourite bird since moving to New Zealand. The most consistent place to spot them is around Arthur’s Pass on the west coast road in the Southern Alps. As they associate humans with both food and toys, they are more than happy to come right up to you, and have been known to work in mobs as decoys whilst they steal your belongings.

 

North Island Kākā

This vulnerable species is another endemic parrot species, living at lower altitudes than the Kea, in low-mid altitude forests. Infrequently spotted in wilderness areas, the Zealandia Sanctuary in the capital city of Wellington offers near-guaranteed sightings of these playful birds.

 

New Zealand Falcon (Kārearea)

The only falcon in New Zealand, they are more commonly spotted in the South Island, especially around bush or the high country. This particular bird was one of two that kept me company at the summit of Roys Peak by Wanaka.

 

Tui

Another endemic bird, they have a beautiful song which is a lovely accompaniment to a woodland walk. With their puffy white bib they have a distinctive look, and are more easily spotted in the North Island, although they are present in the South Island albeit to a lesser degree.

 

Bellbird (Korimako)

For me, this endemic bird has the most beautiful song of all the forest dwellers of New Zealand. I love listening to them when I’m out hiking in the bush. Commonly spotted in the woodlands of both islands.

 

House Sparrow

One of many introduced bird species, I’m used to these birds from growing up in Scotland, but I’ve been struck by how much bolder the New Zealand descendants are. Commonly spotted in rural and urban zones, they are a regular visitor to outdoor cafe tables in the city as they brazenly look for wayward crumbs.

 

Song Thrush

Another introduced species, these can be spotted in woodland areas and occasionally urban gardens.

 

New Zealand Fantail

These playful little birds love flitting through the trees as you walk by. The more common variety has a grey back and yellow belly, but there is also a colour morph in the South Island which is black.

 

North Island Saddleback

Even if you can’t see these birds, boy do you know if they’re around: they’re an incredibly noisy bird. An endemic species, they have seen a local resurgence at the Zealandia Sanctuary in Wellington after having previously been extinct on the mainland.

 

Yellowhammer

Introduced from Europe, this pretty little bird loves nothing more than a tree to perch on near open land to sing its song from.

 

Eurasian Blackbird

Introduced in the second half of the 19th century, the blackbird is now the most widely distributed bird in the country and is commonly seen in rural and urban areas.

 

Chaffinch

Another introduced and widely distributed garden and arboreal bird.

 

North Island Brown Kiwi

The species of bird that New Zealand is probably most globally famous for, these birds are actually very difficult to see in the wild and it is said that most human Kiwis (natives of New Zealand) will never see their avian namesake in the wild during their lifetime. The best chance of seeing a kiwi is actually in Stewart Island where they aren’t so strictly nocturnal. This particular bird was rescued following an injury and is now used for education at a wildlife sanctuary in Northland.

 

California Quail

Introduced as game from North America, they are established in pockets of the North and South Islands and are found fossicking around the undergrowth.

 

Takahē

One of many of New Zealand’s endemic flightless birds, originally there was both a North Island and South Island variety, but the former is extinct. Even the latter was thought to have been lost to history but surviving birds were discovered and thanks to intensive conservation efforts it survives. Most of the population (just 306 in 2016) survives on predator-free offshore islands, but it is possible to see them wandering in Zealandia in Wellington as well as in Te Anau in Fiordland where there is a captive breeding programme.

 

Pūkeko

Known by its Māori name in New Zealand, it is known by the rather less interesting name of Australasian Swamphen in other countries. I fell in love with this bird when I moved to New Zealand and love their comical look and walk. Easily found around wetland areas.

 

Spur-Winged Plover

Like their Northern Hemisphere counterpart, these birds are often sighted around wetlands, or pastures. Their call is quite distinctive.

 

Canada Goose

Widespread in the South Island, but localised in patches of the North Island, these large geese are best spotted on grassland close to waterways.

 

Weka

Another one of New Zealand’s flightless birds, I’ve often overheard tourists confusing these guys for kiwi. Spotted in a variety of habitats from woodland to the coast, mainly in the South Island.

 

Pied Stilt

A distinctive wetland or estuary bird.

 

White-Faced Heron

First spotted in the 1940s, these are a very common heron spotted nationwide around waterways.

 

Black Swan

Spending most of my life in Scotland, I grew up with white swans. Initially a novelty seeing black swans, they’ve quickly become my norm here. Evident in waterways in both the North and South Island.

 

Grey Teal

The largest concentration of these ducks is Canterbury in the South Island although they can be found in the North Island also.

 

Mallard

Commonly spotted in urban rivers and lakes as much as in rural regions, and present in both the North and South Islands. One of the game species allowed to be hunted during the shooting season. Hunting is very popular here with an estimated 500,000 mallards and hybrids shot every year.

 

Paradise Shelduck

Another of New Zealand’s endemic birds, I think they have the cutest ducklings of any duck species I know. Widely visible nationwide, including in urban parks. The fluffy ducklings are a common sight in spring in Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens.

 

Blue Duck (Whio)

If you see one of these, you are very lucky. Endemic to New Zealand they are Nationally Endangered due to both predation from introduced mammals and competition for resources. They have a preference for high quality water and reside in very small geographic pockets. I was lucky enough to spot this solitary whio in Tongariro National Park.

 

New Zealand Scaup

Found on the many lakes of New Zealand nationwide.

 

Variable Oyster Catcher

Commonly-spotted shoreline bird nationwide.

 

Pied Shag

Of the 36 species of shag worldwide, 12 of them are found in New Zealand. This species is the most commonly spotted, seen singly or in groups around coastal regions.

 

King Shag

Exceptionally rare (836 were recorded in 2015), these endemic shags only reside in the Marlborough Sounds and specifically on just 4 special rocky sites. They may not look anything special, but to see such a rare bird is a true privilege.

 

Spotted Shag

Another endemic shag species, mainly spotted in the South Island. In this photograph, the spotted shag are behind the king shag.

 

Stewart Island Shag

Another endemic species of shag, generally around the southern parts of the South Island and Stewart Island. There are two colour morphs, both of which are seen in the photograph.

 

Little Blue Penguin

The smallest species of penguin, these are the same as Fairy Penguins in Australia. The outer reach of Akaroa harbour on Banks Peninsula, South Island is one of the more reliable places to spot these little guys, but I also saw one whilst kayaking off the Coromandel Peninsula in the North Island. Otherwise, there are rescued ones on display at the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch, where a home is provided for injured birds that won’t survive in the wild.

 

Fiordland Crested Penguin

An endemic species of penguin, these penguins are localised to the south-west of the South Island and the coast of Stewart Island. Listed as vulnerable, I was lucky enough to see 6 of them swimming as 3 pairs whilst on a nature cruise in Doubtful Sound in Fiordland National Park.

 

Southern Black-backed Gull

Similar to their Northern Hemisphere counterpart, these are a common sighting around New Zealand’s coastal regions. Bigger than the other gulls they can be a bit of a bully.

 

Red-billed Gull

The most common gull sighting around the country, they are easily spotted nationwide.

 

Southern Royal Albatross

One of the two largest species of Albatross in the world, seeing these large birds is an awesome sight. Spending the vast majority of their life at sea, they come to land only to breed. Most of the world’s breeding sites are on offshore and uninhabited islands, but on the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin in the South Island, it is possible to visit the only mainland breeding colony in the world.

 

Australasian Gannet

Their Northern Hemisphere counterpart has always been my favourite seabird growing up in Scotland. Not as commonly spotted as in my native land, the best place to see them is Cape Kidnappers to the east of Napier in the North Island. Here there are 3 colonies that nest in the breeding season.

 

REPTILES

Tuatara

New Zealand’s endemic reptile, tuatara are the only surviving lizard of their order, which started 200 million years ago. In other words, there were tuatara around when the dinosaurs existed. They are exceptionally difficult to spot in the wild and are under threat from predators. Most people’s best bet of seeing them is at a zoo, however, Zealandia in Wellington has a small number that live a semi-wild existence, and if you are lucky, you can see them in the undergrowth when visiting there.

 

Green Gecko

There are multiple subspecies of green gecko that are endemic to New Zealand. Due to predation, they are now very rare. Seeing one in the wild would be a sheer fluke, but several wildlife centres have them on display. These guys were at Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch, New Zealand.

 

INSECTS & ARACHNIDS

Chorus Cicada

The sound of thrumming from these abundant endemic insects is one of my favourite sounds of summer. Found nationwide wherever there are trees, they are at their peak in January and February.

 

Brown Cricket

Crickets are a common accompaniment to hikes up mountains where the size and colour of the cricket can vary depending on the altitude.

 

Green Cricket

Smaller than the brown crickets, I have been regularly hit on the face by these as they jump away when I’m out hiking.

 

Squeaking Longhorn Beetle

Another creature endemic to New Zealand, they have long antennae, and are spotted seasonally from spring to autumn.

 

Huhu Beetle

The largest of New Zealand’s endemic beetles, they are capable of flying. They are best spotted in and around forests as their grubs love rotting wood.

 

Cave Weta

Another endemic insect, there are 60 subspecies of cave weta. Despite their name they are often found outside of caves in the forest, but I spotted this large collection down an old mine entrance near Wellington.

 

Stick Insect

Probably one of the hardest insects to spot due to their incredible camouflage, they are actually very abundant throughout New Zealand.

 

Honey Bee

Like many places, these guys are in decline, but due to the market for Manuka honey products, they are often farmed and seen easily in the summer months out and about.

 

Monarch Butterfly

Probably the most striking butterfly, they are found nationwide. I’ve ended up having to handle these loads because my cat’s favourite game in summer is to grab them, bring them inside the house and let them go.

 

Kawakawa Moth

Endemic to New Zealand and found nationwide.

 

Carove’s Giant Dragonfly

Endemic to New Zealand and found nationwide, although more commonly on the western half.

 

Glowworm

The most beautiful light in the darkness is that created by the larvae that cling to caves and forest walls and light up at night to entice their prey. The most famous caves to see these are those of Waitomo in the North Island, and the glowworm caves near Te Anau in the South Island is another pay-to-enter cave with guaranteed sightings. However, there are many places to spot them for free if you know where to go, just ask the locals. They are hard to photograph unless you are a professional with the equipment to match. These faint twinkling lights were seen at Abbey Caves near Whangarei in Northland.

 

White-tailed Spider

Introduced from Australia, there is a North Island variety and a South Island variety. They are bold spiders that hunt other spiders. They also move quickly and have been known to bite people and pets.

 

AQUATIC/OCEAN LIFE

Cave Lobster

I didn’t even know it was possible to see these in inland caves until I came across one whilst exploring Abbey Caves near Whangarei in the North Island.

 

Crayfish (kōura)

Similar to lobsters, the particular species found around New Zealand are endemic to these waters, with a separate variety between the North and South islands. They are a popular seafood to eat in the country, and the name of the town Kaikoura incorporates the crayfish, translating to ‘eat crayfish’. Best spotted on your dinner plate or if you are a scuba diver.

 

Cockles

Another popular seafood, these are often spotted in the tidal zone on beach walks.

 

Eleven-Armed Sea Star

The largest starfish of New Zealand.

 

Black Coral

Normally growing in deep water due to their preference for darkness, the tannin that leaches into the Fiordland waters creates a false darkness that allows the coral to grow relatively close to the surface. The internal structure is black (hence the name), but they appear white on the outside.

 

Fish

The waters around New Zealand are rife with life, with many fish species to be found if you are a scuba diver or a fisherman.

 

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Wildlife of Scotland

It is said that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. After spending over 28 years of my life living in Scotland, it took moving to the other side of the world to really appreciate some of my homeland’s special qualities. As brimming as it is with beautiful scenery, it is also full of wildlife, both urban and rural. Over the last few years I have become a bit of a bird enthusiast, and I’ve found myself paying more attention to the feathered creatures that flit about around me. Whenever I go abroad, I’m very conscious of the wildlife that lives in that foreign land, and now when I go back to Scotland, I see the wealth of wildlife with fresh eyes. From cities to lochs, and mountains to the coast, there is something to spot everywhere. Special mention goes to the otter, red fox, red squirrel, hedgehog, minke whale, harbour porpoise, bottlenose dolphin, basking shark, white-tailed sea eagle, buzzard, kestrel and osprey which I have had the joy of seeing but haven’t been able to photograph.

MAMMALS

Reindeer

There’s only 1 herd of reindeer in the whole of the UK and they roam the mountain tops near Cairngorm, many of them coming down daily to hand-feed from visitors.

Adult Reindeer

Reindeer calf

 

Red Deer

The ‘Monarch of the Glen’, the male deer in full antlers and rutting mode is a sight (and sound) to behold. Spotted in the mountains and moors.

Red deer in Glen Muick

 

Roe Deer

The shy and solitary member of the deer family. Much harder to spot than the other deer species. This one was spotted in Caithness.

Roe deer

 

Grey Squirrel

An introduced species that has played a major part in the decline of the native red squirrel, these guys are a common sighting in parks and gardens, and are easy to spot without even leaving the city.

Grey squirrel

 

Rabbit

Seen as a pest by some, rabbits are often easy to spot in farmland and open fields.

Rabbit

 

Common Seal

From a distance, the common and grey seal can look very similar. Usually spotted hauled out onto rocks up the west coast or on the islands.

Common seal

 

Grey Seal

Newburgh beach north of Aberdeen offers near guaranteed sightings of these seals. They usually haul out on the protected north side of the Ythan river there, and can also be seen swimming in the river itself watching the beach goers and dogs go by.

Grey seal in the Ythan river

Seals hauled up on the beach at Newburgh

 

Humpback Whale

A seasonal visitor to Scottish waters, they can be spotted for a very short time in the waters around the islands of the west coast.

Humpback whale off the west coast of Scotland

Humpback whale fin slapping

 

White-beaked Dolphins

Feeding pods can be spotted around the islands off the west coast if you are lucky.

White beaked dolphins in Scottish waters

White-beaked dolphin leaping

 

Common Dolphins

These deep sea feeders are my favourite species of dolphin. They can be spotted off the west coast if you are lucky.

Common dolphin

 

BIRDS

Pied Wagtail

These are commonly spotted garden and pasture birds and are widely spread across the country.

Pied wagtail

 

Chaffinch

The colourful male is easy to spot in gardens and green spaces. The female blends in more and is less distinctive, but the species is well spread across the country.

Chaffinch (male)

Chaffinch (female)

 

Blackbird

Another common visitor to gardens and green spaces. This juvenile was trying to grab the attention of its parents.

Blackbird (juvenile)

 

Wood Pigeon

This is the porky version of the common run-of-the-mill street pigeon that plagues city centres. Although they will occasionally be seen amongst their scrawny city-dwelling cousins, they are more usually seen in the suburbs or near woods.

Wood Pigeon

 

European Robin

The recognisable robin redbreast that adorns many a Christmas card is best spotted in gardens.

European Robin

 

Starling

A common and easily spotted bird in both urban and rural areas. These birds often flock together in mesmerising murmurations in the evening as they prepare to roost in large groups.

Bedraggled starling parent

 

House Sparrow

Another common and easily spotted garden bird.

House Sparrow

 

Song Thrush

These are the birds that I fondly remember from my childhood, singing away in the trees behind my parent’s house. They have a beautiful song, and are best spotted in areas with trees, but this includes many public green spaces and gardens.

Song Thrush

 

Carrion Crow

One of the county’s most diversely spread birds, they don’t seem fussy with their habitat and can be spotted in both urban and rural areas either singly or in groups. They are adaptable and have a varied diet, and are also known to be intelligent.

Carrion Crow

 

Swallow

Less spotted than the more common and similar-looking swift, these birds love to fly over high-insect zones such as farmland and waterways. They are exceedingly agile on the wing and are amazing to watch in action. It is also rare to see them on the ground and uncommon to see them perching as most of their life is spent on the wing.

Swallow

 

Common Linnet

This is a bird I never knew existed until I was going through my photos after my most recent trip home and wondered what it was. I’m certainly not aware that I have ever seen one before. This colourful male was spotted near the coast on Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands.

Common Linnet (male)

 

Mallard Duck

Anyone who has ever fed bread to a duck in a city park in Europe and North America has likely been feeding these guys. They are everywhere, and have been introduced to many other countries outwith their original range.

Mallard Ducks

 

Mute Swan

Another common occupant of urban waterways as well as coastal estuaries. I grew up knowing nothing but white swans, and remember a news story from my childhood about a black swan that appeared in the river in the town of Ayr south of where I lived. There is something very majestic about these creatures, although they can be very vicious if you get too close, especially when they have youngsters.

Mute swans on the farmland

 

Common Redshank

A lover of dampness, these birds are best spotted around marshes, meadows and lakes. Despite its name, its not as common as it used to be.

Common Redshank

 

Northern Lapwing

It is usually their cry that draws your attention to these birds. Although they are wading birds, they are best spotted on farmland and cultivated pastures. Unfortunately, population numbers are showing a decline and they are classified as a threatened species.

Northern Lapwing

 

Great Grey Shrike

I photographed this bird but didn’t know what it was at the time. Their preferred habitat is grassland with shrubbery, and it is uncommon to spot them. This particular bird was spotted near the coast next to some open farmland in summer time which is unseasonal as they usually migrate to breed elsewhere.

Great Grey Shrike

 

Pheasant

Native to Asia, the pheasant was introduced historically as a game bird. Many a painting adorning Scottish castles and mansions will depict dead pheasants hanging in a kitchen or off the arm of a shooter. Even today, these birds are still popular to shoot during the right season. To shoot them with a camera, they tend to be found in the countryside where they like to dash out in front of cars on rural back roads, and are occasionally spotted when out hiking in the glens.

Pheasant (male)

Pheasant (female)

 

Red Grouse

Another bird that is still shot in Scotland during the beating season. They are very difficult to spot, hiding in amongst the heather of the open moorland in the highlands and some of the islands. It is easier to spot them on a bottle of whisky where their image has had a worldwide audience thanks to the Famous Grouse brand. I came very close to standing on this little grouse chick that was easy to overlook and refused to move when I got close. I’ve never seen an adult in the wild.

Red Grouse (chick)

 

Eurasian Oyster Catcher

With their distinctive call, they can be the rowdy accompaniment to any beach walk and are one of many bird species that wander around the tidal zone looking for a meal.

Eurasian Oyster Catcher

 

Ringed Plover

These pretty little birds are another common sighting at the beach, feeding in the tidal zone, and often seen in small groups.

Ringed plover

 

Common Sandpiper

These migratory birds are only seen in the summer months but are beach goers that forage in the tidal zone, and are more solitary in their habits than the ringed plover who they share a habitat with.

Common sandpiper

 

Curlew

The largest wading bird in Europe, the curlew is sadly a threatened species. Usually seen on their own, they can be spotted either on the shoreline or inland.

Curlew

 

Temmincks Stint

One of many similar looking shore birds seen around the tidal zone.

Temmincks Stint

 

Common Eider

These large ducks are sea-dwellers, living along coastlines of Europe and North America. They are an easy spot in Scotland due to the distinctive colouration of the male and their size.

Eider (male)

Eider duck (female)

 

Red-breasted Merganser

This migratory diving duck breeds in Scotland, and this particular female was spotted in Loch Lomond cruising near the shore.

Red-breasted Merganser

 

Black-Headed Gull

A commonly spotted gull near the coastline.

Black-headed gull

 

Common Gull

As the name suggests, these are a common sighting, mainly on the coastline but can be spotted in cities and farmland. They are bigger than the black-headed gull but smaller than the black-backed gull.

Common gull

 

Black-backed Gull

The big bully of the gull world, there is no shortage of these gulls around Scotland and they will happily scavenge in urban zones as much as the coastline.

Black-Backed Gull (juvenile)

 

Fulmar

These birds are wanderers of the sea, only coming to shore for the sake of breeding. They are a loud and common sighting along many coastlines in the summer months.

Fulmar

 

Great Skua

Also known as Bonxie, these large birds are the robbers of the bird world. Why obtain your own fish when you can steal from another? They can be spotted at rest on land or more commonly seen swooping and mobbing at other sea birds in the air or on cliffs.

Great skua

 

European Shag

Shags and cormorants are terms used differently for different birds within the cormorant family. They are best spotted on rocks where they like to spread their wings wide to dry. This nest with juveniles was on Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands, but they are widespread along the Scottish coastline.

Shag parent with chicks

 

Gannet

This is one of my favourite sea birds and are most impressive when seen diving at great speeds from the air to catch fish. A flock of diving gannets can be a good way to find feeding whales and dolphins as they will often track feeding pods where the fish are pushed nearer the surface.

Gannets

 

Puffin

One of Scotland’s most special birds. Unfortunately their numbers are in decline as they are selective feeders. I remember seeing great flocks of these when I was younger, and now they are in small clusters. Despite their petite size, they spend most of the year at sea, returning to land only to breed where they nest in burrows. The cliffs on the west coast of Mainland Orkney, Faraid Head in Sutherland, and the Isle of Staffa are recommended places to spot them in the summer months.

Puffin

 

Guillemot

A similar size to the puffin, though much more populous, and often seen hanging around in the same places.

Guillemot

 

Razorbill

Another cliff-loving sea bird, they are often seen milling around near guillemots.

Razorbills

 

OTHER – THE OFTEN OVERLOOKED INSECTS, AMPHIBIANS AND FISH

Six-Spot Burnet

This pretty moth was spotted amongst the dunes on the Aberdeenshire coast.

bug at the beach

 

Hairy caterpillar

One of many reasons to watch where you tread. This guy was crossing the hiking path on the West Highland Way.

Caterpillar

 

Blue Damselfly

A pretty little dragonfly, their colour is mesmerising. Spotted near a loch in Sutherland.

Blue damselfly

 

Golden-Ringed Dragonfly

A beautiful and large dragonfly, I spotted this one whilst out hiking in Cairngorm National Park, although they are more widespread in western Scotland.

Dragonfly

 

Snails

Slugs and snails are a gardener’s pest but I like snails, and think the ground-dwelling creatures of the world are under-appreciated. This group of snails were hanging out on a post in Barra, in the Outer Hebrides.

Group of snails hanging out

 

Black Slug

The ugly slug of the slug world.

Black Slug

 

Brown Slug

The not-so-ugly slug of the slug world.

Mr Slug

 

Frog

The famously wet climate means amphibians can find plenty of habitat to choose from in Scotland. Unfortunately several species are on the decline due to predation, disease and habitat destruction. This frog came into a mountain bothy I was staying in whilst out hiking in the Cairngorm National Park.

frog

 

Blue Crab

One of many crabs that can be spotted on Scottish beaches. This one was at Faraid Head in Sutherland.

Blue crab

 

Sunfish

Also known as the mola, this is the heaviest boned fish in the world. It is really rare to spot these in Scottish waters, but they occasionally pop up due to the ocean currents. I was exceedingly lucky to spot this impressive fish off the coast near Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, many years ago.

Sunfish

 

Moon Jellyfish

One of the more common jellyfish in Scottish waters.

Moon jellyfish

 

Jellyfish

Another jellyfish in Scottish waters. To some people, jellyfish are horrible creatures, something to fear. Whilst I don’t want to swim amongst them, I certainly like looking at them move around the water.

Jellyfish

Northern Limits

On the shore of the beautifully serene Lake Mývatn, there is something to explore at every turn. I was disappointed to have run out of time to include a hike up the distinctive cone of Hverfjall volcano thanks to my misdemeanour with the tyre on route to Dettifoss but as much as the hours were marching on, the fact that the sun wasn’t setting till after midnight meant that there was still lots of time to explore the area before my bed called me. DimmuborgurNot far from Hverfjall was the mysterious world of Dimmuborgur, an area where a lava flow has hardened, cracked and peaked in a manner as to produce tall, spiky turrets and pillars of all sorts of shapes and sizes. Lava rocks at DimmuborgurThere are a selection of trails to follow and I chose the one that looked like it gave the best overview of the place. Lava cave at DimmuborgurUnlike the sites I’d previously visited in this area, the vegetation here was thick and widespread. Lake Myvatn from DimmuborgurThere was a cave that could be walked through on one section of the trail and on route back to the car park, a raised portion of the trail provided a good vantage point to look across to the lake and its far shore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After collecting some takeaway pizza from a popular local eatery, I headed to the south shore, to the little settlement of Skútustaðir to enjoy it whilst looking out across the lake. Lake within a lakeFrom here, a walk leads round a small lake within the main lake that is surrounded by pseudo-craters, as well as up onto and around a few of the larger craters. Waterfowl at Lake MyvatnThe lake had quite a few water birds floating around with their young in tow, learning how to dive and feed below the surface. Panorama of the lake within a lakeIt was a lovely place to spend the evening but the flies threatened to drive me a little insane. Pseudo-craterIt was a strange landscape with circular mounds sprouting up from the ground in many directions, and from the crater rim of the taller ones I could see across to the steaming vents of the power station to the east of Reykjahlíð. Pseudo-crater behind the lake within a lakeIt was incredibly peaceful, just a slight ripple on the water, and for the most part, I had the place to myself. Ducklings at Lake MyvatnOn the northern edge of the lake within the lake, some Icelandic ponies chewed on the grass which was plentiful here, before the path skirted some wetlands on its way back to the car park.Icelandic ponies near Skútustaðir

Wetlands near Skútustaðir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I drove round the circumference of the lake past the large wetland zones to the west that are perfect for bird watching. With more time here, I would have explored this region too, but now it was after 8pm and I had only one thing on my mind: the Mývatn Nature Baths. Myvatn Nature BathLike the Blue Lagoon to the south of Reykjavik, this is a popular tourist attraction in the area, but with the tourist numbers round this part of the country much less than in the overly popular Golden Circle, the experience here was a little different. Myvatn Nature BathsAs is commonplace at Icelandic geothermal pools, it is required to shower naked before entering. Myvatn Nature BathsUnlike at the larger Blue Lagoons, there was no privacy at these nature baths with just an open shower area before leaving the building. The pools themselves were also a mere fraction of the size, and having forgotten my GoPro camera last time, I took it out with me, only to quickly regret it, standing out from everyone else, with not a single other person having one. Once I rid myself of it, I was then able to relax and enjoy the warm water. There was a group of adolescents who were playing the fool and being told off by the guards regularly which marred the experience slightly, but otherwise it was an enjoyable experience, although I personally preferred the set-up at the Blue Lagoon.

I had an early rise to set off north and awoke to a light drizzle that got heavier the further north I went. I followed route 1 to the north west before splitting off to take route 85 north to Húsavík, the most northerly place I’d visit in Iceland, but indeed the most northern I’d ever been on the entire planet. Previously I’d only been as far as the most northern Scottish Islands, the Shetlands, so I was excited to be exploring this northern land, having previously done plenty of exploring in the lower reaches of the Southern Hemisphere. The constant drizzle made for a very overcast view of the town, and the clouds were low across the surrounding landscape. One of the main tourist draws here is whale watching, an activity that I will happily pay to do anywhere in the world. Aside from travelling, cetacean spotting is a massive love of mine. I have been immensely lucky to see many species in many seas around the globe, and this was my best chance yet of spotting a species of whale I’d never seen before such as a fin whale or blue whale.

On board, waiting to leave HusavikMy carriage for the day was a lovely old wooden frigate which could travel either under sail or with the power of an engine. Lundey islandThere are a few choices for whale watching trips here, and with a love of puffins too, I opted for the trip that combined a visit to a nearby island which was a prime puffin breeding site. PuffinSkjálfandi bay is expansive, and despite the gloomy skies, the seas were very calm. PuffinsWe sailed north to the island of Lundey and I revelled in the knowledge that with every passing moment I was going more north than I’d ever been in my life. Puffin about to take offEven before we reached Lundey, puffins began to be spotted in the air and on the surface of the water. First it was ones and twos but as we got closer to the island there were hundreds of them flying around us, and whilst it was hard to see many of them close up, it was certainly the highest concentration of puffins that I have ever seen in my life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We sat for a while watching them before heading west in search of whales. There is always great anticipation on these trips not just for what might be seen, but also whether this will be that trip where we see nothing. I’ve been lucky to see whales or dolphins on every whale watching trip I’ve ever done, but each time I worry that it will be the first time I see nothing. Humpback whale in front of our boatBut eventually that call came out that a whale had been spotted, and in the end we ended up in view of around 3 humpback whales. Humpback whale, IcelandI love humpback whales, they are my favourite species of whale, and this was the fifth country that I had seen them from. Humpback whale fluking as it divesThere was a part of me that was disappointed it wasn’t a species I’d never seen before, but these whales still put on a good show for us, coming very close to the boat on several occasions, including swimming right underneath us at one point. One of them had a very unusual fluke colouration which I’ve never seen before, and I still felt highly satisfied at the end of the trip. As we headed back to Húsavík, the clouds on the far side of the bay began to lift revealing the glorious snow-peaked mountain tops of the far shore. It was incredible to think these behemoths had been hidden the whole time, and it was spectacular to see them poke through the wisps of cloud.

 

Husavik from the harbourHúsavík itself felt like a fishing village. Church in HusavikThe harbour sat below the main street which was nestled below a lupin-covered hillside. Bird sculpture by Husavik main streetThe rain threatened to drop for the rest of Husavik kirkmy time there. After a wander around past the iconic church, I stopped for lunch overlooking the comings and goings of the boats in the harbour. Killer whale skeletonAs a cetacean enthusiast, I was keen to explore the whale museum in town which has an impressive collection of whale skeletons. Iceland is much more famous for its whaling activities than it is for its whale watching, and there was information within about the various species that have been sighted in Icelandic waters, as well as displays on the hunting of whales. Whilst a lot of information in tourism centres discusses whaling as a thing of the past, it is still very much a thing of the present too, and I had been warned in advance to expect to see whale meat on the menu in some eateries. Despite this, I had yet to see any physical evidence of present-day whaling since I’d arrived in the country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Female duck at the parkDespite the drizzle, I took a wander around a local park towards the back of town before leaving. House by the river in HusavikThere was a reasonable sized pond where some duck families were hanging out, and some statues and pretty houses lining the paths by the river bank. Statue in Husavik parkBut there’s not a lot more to see in Húsavík so before long, I was driving back south in the rain. GodafossOn reaching the ring road, Route 1, it was just a brief back-track to visit yet another of Iceland’s famous waterfalls, Góðafoss. The various falls of GodafossIt was raining constantly now, and I toyed with coming back the next day, but there was a good few people in rain jackets there too, and I joined them to follow the path from the car park up river to the viewing point for the falls. Mists of GodafossGetting close to the falls meant a bit of rock hopping towards the end of the path, and with the rocks wet under foot, everyone was taking extra care. Top of GodafossThis was not a place to fall over with nothing to stop you tumbling over the cliff edge. Arc of GodafossThe reward though was getting very close to the main body of the falls where the extent of the force of water could be heard and felt. Downstream from GodafossLike Dettifoss the day before, you could feel the immense power of water thundering over the lip of rock to the river below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cloud and rain kept me company as I followed Route 1 on its convoluted route west. Eventually the path swung over to a long fjord and followed the eastern bank south before descending down to the water level and crossing a causeway across to the city of Akureyri. This is the biggest settlement outside of Reykjavik, and it was strange being in a city again after days of small towns and villages. Akureyri panoramaA viewpoint across the fjord looks out over Akureyri which had a couple of large cruise ships in dock at the time. Cruise ship in AkureyriDown by the waterfront, a promenade provides a nice waterside walk, starting from the ferry terminal and heading south past a beautiful ship statue and beyond. Scultpure by the seaThe place was bustling with bus loads of people clambering about the steps up to the Akureyrarkirkja which dominates the city skyline. Akureyri skyline from the promenadeIt was strange wandering down a pedestrian street filled with tourist shops and packed full of tourists. Ship sculpture at the promenadeI shouldn’t have been surprised what with the cruise ships in port but it was a slight shock to the system after having felt away from it all for the last few days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Akureyri ogressHaving spent the night in the city, I had a lovely breakfast in a quirky little cafe surrounded by locals and tourists alike. Climbing the steps to AkureyrarkirkjaAfter perusing round the shops and ogling at some large ogres in the middle of the street, I headed up the steps to Akureyrarkirkja, the church which was built by the same architect that built Reykjavik‘s famous Hallgrímskirkja. Akureyri from outside AkureyrarkirkjaThe style is recognisable as being the same, although the size of Akureyrarkirkja is much smaller in comparison. AngelInside there is a beautiful organ which was expertly played by an organist whilst I was there, and as often churches are, it was adorned with some beautiful and striking stained glass windows. Bull stained glass windowOutside it has a distinctive look, and from nearby there is a view down over the roofs of the town and the cruise ships below.Lion stained glass window

Organs inside Akureyrarkirkja

Akureyrarkirkja from behind

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Floral display near botanical gardensA few streets back was the city’s botanical gardens. Building near Akureyri botanical gardensThere appeared to be some sort of pilgrimage here with a steady stream of people walking from Akureyrarkirkja through the streets to the gardens. Ship sculpture viewed from near the botanical gardensThey certainly weren’t the biggest of botanical gardens, nor would I class them as particularly pretty but they were still nice enough to wander around and by the time I was leaving, the sun had started to burst through the clouds. AkureyrarkirkjaFrom the nearby road junction I could look down on the ship statue below on the promenade walk and the Akureyrarkirkja looked even better with the sun shining on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whilst Akureyri certainly had more to offer than a few other places I had been, I wasn’t particularly fussed about staying much longer. My stop for the night was at a hostel in the middle of nowhere, and I had to carry all food supplies with me. Every other night I had eaten out at a local restaurant but this would be the first night I’d have to prepare a self-catering meal. I stocked up on supplies in one of the many supermarkets in the city, but then, having spotted something to the west to do on a whim, I decided to leave the city behind and bolt west across the landscape. I’d spotted a boat trip to do in Hvammstangi to a nearby seal colony, and decided I’d chance my luck by turning up without a booking. I was exceptionally tight on time to make the last trip of the day, and the landscape went by in a blur as I whizzed through it, past a few settlements on route. When I got to Hvammstangi, I arrived with just 5 mins to spare and then couldn’t find the turn-off to the harbour. When I got there, I was sure I would have missed the sailing but in the end it was all good.

The wind was whipping along the fjord making for a choppy sailing and a lot of spray. We got kitted out in head to foot waterproof jackets, and despite the weather, there was quite a few of us on board. Seal at HvammstangiUnfortunately the weather conditions also meant that there weren’t a lot of seals hauled out of the water, but we still managed to see a few. Sea eagle near HvammstangiWe were even lucky enough to see a sea eagle as well, and it was so far away and so blended in to the hillside that I was as much impressed with the skipper spotting it as I was with actually seeing it. SealBack in Hvammstangi, near the pier was a pillar of wood used to hang the day’s catch out. Fish carcases dryingThis was the image I had in my head of arctic village life, having seen photos of Inuit villages to the north with their fish and seal pelts hanging out to dry. Seal pelt dryingThe ticket for the seal watching trip also included entry to the attached seal museum. Fish skeletonsLike whaling, there is a lot of regional history to do with hunting the seals and the effect this has had on populations. It was a compact museum, but there was enough to occupy me until closing time, and I was glad I’d made the effort to get there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the south was my hostel for the night. I arrived just as the UEFA EURO 2016 match of England vs Iceland was starting and everyone at the hostel was glued to the television to watch the match. We were a mix of nationalities, none of us Icelandic and none of us English, but every single one of us were routing for Iceland to win. Iceland as a whole is not a football nation. In fact the team’s manager is a part-time dentist, and when speaking to the locals, they joked that all the Icelanders who liked football had gone to France to watch the games live. But because Iceland started off surprisingly well, the rest of the country began to get behind their team. It was a great atmosphere at the hostel that night as Iceland won the match, and I went to bed just a sleep away from completing my circumnavigation of the island, with Reykjavik in my sights that next day.

North Coast 500 – Wester Ross

I remember when I was young, sitting by the waterfront at Ullapool with my family enjoying some fish and chips, when a wasp flew inside my brother’s can of Irn Bru. This is one of a few memories from this place from my childhood, so when I reached Ullapool at the end of a long day driving from the north coast, I immediately felt happy. View from Ullapool's front streetThe sun was shining and the town was bustling. Ullapool's front streetAfter a much needed dinner and cider, I took a wander along the shoreline and round the coast past the caravan park to look for otters. Evening sunshine from UllapoolInstead I found midges: lots of them, and they drove me so crazy I had to abandon my plans to watch the sunset and head indoors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caledonian MacBrayne's MV Loch Seaforth berthed at UllapoolThe next morning was a little overcast, and after watching the comings and goings of the CalMac ferry making preparations for its sailing to Stornoway on the island of Lewis, I boarded a little boat at the pier bound for a cruise around the Summer Isles. Inside the seacaveA small archipelago sitting near the end of Loch Broom, the sea loch that laps on Ullapool’s shores, there are a few tour options to explore them via different company’s trips. We first went in search of sea eagles, drawing a blank, before crossing the loch to visit a sea cave and then moving on to motor around the islands themselves. We were briefly joined by a lone harbour porpoise, but there was plenty of bird life to grab attention for the rest of the sailing.

 

 

Frigate moored at Tanera MorTanera Mor is the largest of the island group, and our tour anchored here to give us some time ashore. Hiking Tanera MorClose to the pier, a post office-come-coffee shop provided sustenance for those who didn’t want to wander, but I made a beeline for the rough track that headed up the hill to a viewing rock which gave a great view over the rest of the island and the smaller islands around it. Summer Isles viewed from Tanera MorThe sailing back to Ullapool gave more opportunity to appreciate the rock structures of the region with more red sandstone slabs evident, and plenty of Lewis schist on display, similar to what I’d driven through the day before in the North West Geopark. Tanera Mor from the viewpoint with Scottish mainland on horizonIn a little cove we found some seals hauled out to dry, and as we headed back towards Ullapool, the sky tried hard to shift its cloudy cover.Returning to Ullapool

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Falls of MeasachAfter a delicious lunch at the West Coast Deli on a back street of Ullapool, I got back in my car and rejoined the North Coast 500 to continue my journey south. The A835 hugs the banks of Loch Broom, and then at Corrieshalloch Gorge, the NC500 turns onto the A832. Corrieshalloch GorgeNear this junction, a car park leads to a walk down to the Falls of Measach, a 46metre high ribbon cascade deep within the trees within the gorge. An easy-to-follow track leads to a few different view points of the falls and the head of Loch Broom.

 

Heading west, the road winds past Little Loch Broom, another sea loch, before joining the coastline near Gruinard Island, then cutting across a finger of land to Loch Ewe. Views on the North Coast 500It was overcast again, so I passed through Poolewe and arrived at Gairloch, my home for the next couple of nights. Loch EweThis had been a place that I’d struggled to find available budget accommodation in, eventually finding a bunkhouse at the Gairloch Caravan & Camping park in Strath. What I hadn’t realised was that I had booked the bunkhouse for sole use, which meant I had my own kitchen, bathroom and tv. After all the previous nights in hostels, I was actually more than happy with this arrangement, and as some rain started to fall, I settled for a quiet night in.

Due to a misunderstanding with a booking I’d made, my boat trip for the following morning was rescheduled till the day after. It was starting to feel like my good fortune with the weather had come to an end. Red PointOn another overcast day, I took the coast road past Badachro to Red Point at the end of the road. Red Point beachHere, the sand is a distinctive red colour, and I had the beach to myself to watch the bird life in peace. I was in no hurry, but eventually other people started to arrive, so I climbed the large sand dune behind the beach for a vantage point before heading off. Red Point from the top of the duneI stopped at another red sandy beach at Port Henderson, and then at Badachro, a place I remembered from another childhood holiday. BadachroAside from the midges, it was peaceful, the natural harbour providing a safe haven for boats to moor, and the waves were ever so gentle on the shore.Badachro

 

 

 

Flower at Inverewe GardensAfter lunch in Charlestown, I headed north a short distance past the little village of Poolewe to Inverewe Gardens, a Botanical Gardens belonging to the National Trust for Scotland. Flower at Inverewe GardensI hadn’t planned on going here, having been here before, but with my plans changed due to missing the boat trip, I found myself enjoying wandering around the woodland and various plant sections all the while overlooking Loch Ewe. Gate at Inverewe GardensDespite the grey skies, it was a beautiful place to be with the flowers in full bloom for summer, and lots of bird life both in the water and amongst the trees. Loch EweIt was a popular place to be that day but it didn’t feel crowded and still retained its peacefulness.Inverewe Gardens by Loch Ewe

 

 

 

 

Back in Gairloch, there is a beautiful stretch of beach at the head of Loch Gairloch. GairlochPast the church and up the hill, a small car park leads to a lookout and a path leading down to the sandy shore. GairlochWhilst not as red as the beach at Red Point, it still has a slight red tinge to it, and there was a mix of locals and tourists enjoying it when I got there in the evening. Mountain near GairlochI walked its length, and did a bit of rock hopping at the far end before cutting past the golf course back to the road and back up the hill to my car. Gairloch beachIt is such a calming place to be, with the coast well sheltered from rough seas by the deep natural harbour.Gairloch beach

 

 

 

My original plan had been to head off south first thing in the morning and have an enjoyable drive south past Torridon to Applecross, traversing the famous Bealach na Ba mountain pass and on to Plockton. Gairloch from the caravan parkHowever, my rescheduled boat trip wasn’t till lunchtime, and having to check out of the bunkhouse, I found myself forging new plans and sacrificing a section of the NC500. TorridonWith the morning at my beckoning, I left early to head down Loch Maree to Kinlochewe and took the single-track road to Torridon. Loch TorridonThis is a stunning drive, surrounded by mountains on either side. TorridonTorridon is just a small village beautifully set on the banks of Loch Torridon, and being a Sunday the place was shut up and deserted. Red deer farmI took a circular walk along the shoreline, enjoying the calls of the various sea birds. Near a bird shelter, the path cut up to a red deer farm, where the deer sat chewing the cud, not stirring as I passed. Where the path reached the end of the village at its junction with the NC500, an information centre gives information on local walks, flora and fauna. After a look around, I crossed the road to see a wild red deer doe break cover and immediately run away from me, disappearing into the trees as quickly as it had appeared.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loch MareeBacktracking the single track road towards Kinlochewe, I stopped at a couple of places along Loch Maree. Loch MareeHad I had more time, I would have relaxed here for a while. As it was, I took a short walk along the shoreline to admire the scenery before making my way back to Gairloch. Charlestown harbour, GairlochGrabbing a quick bite to eat, I was then ready and waiting for my trip. I’m a massive cetacean enthusiast, as eager to see whales and dolphins in the wild as I am to travel around the globe, so it was a no brainer that I was going to go whale watching in one of Scotland’s best cetacean viewing locations. I’d been following the viewing reports of the Hebridean Whale Cruises‘ Facebook page, and it had been a very good May and June, so I was hopeful for a fruitful day.

When I arrived, our skipper told us that humpback sightings had been good but it meant a long trip out to try and see them. I’ve seen humpback whales many times before in South Africa, Australia, and the Galapagos Islands, but it is very uncommon to see them in Scottish waters so everybody was more than ok about the long trip to get there. Kitted up in thick waterproof floaters, we set off on the zodiac boat, and I have to admit I got immensely bored and frustrated with what felt like a never-ending ride north. Gannets circle above some dolphinsI don’t even know where we ended up, and whilst I’m not sure of exact timings, I think it was a good bit over an hour before finally we slowed down near some small islands where gannet activity signalled the presence of fish. Humpback whale fin slappingWe came to a stop, waiting and looking around, and finally we got our reward: common dolphins, white-beaked dolphins, diving gannets, and finally, a lone humpback whale. The fish seemed quite deep so surface activity was intermittent and well scattered, but whilst other days had had better views, it was still enough to feel satisfied. Common dolphins are my favourite species of dolphin, and I hadn’t seen them for 11 years, so in the end, I was more stoked about seeing them than anything else.

It was into the evening by the time we returned to Gairloch and now I had a long drive ahead of me to reach my pre-booked accommodation. I didn’t linger, leaving Gairloch and Loch Maree behind and leaving the NC500 at Kinlochewe. This time, instead of turning towards Torridon, I stayed on the A832 before turning south on the A890 at Achnasheen and followed it along the southern shore of Loch Carron before turning off to Plockton. Ice cream at PlocktonIt was a long detour that I could have skipped but Plockton is another place from my childhood that gives me nothing but happy memories, so I was reluctant to miss a return visit. Tide out at PlocktonBy now hungry, I got fish and chips followed by the best whippy ice cream I can ever remember eating, and fought the midges away whilst wandering around the shore. PlocktonWhen the tide is out, it is possible to walk out to a small island via a muddy natural causeway, and I remember fighting off the large, nasty clegs (horseflies) here when I was younger. Island near PlocktonThankfully there were none to be seen, only some stubborn midges.Plockton at low tide

Plockton at low tide

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wished I was staying here the night as it is such a beautiful and relaxing place with opportunities to go kayaking and on boat trips. However, I’d booked my location where it was for a reason, as I had to get to Fort William early the next day. So reluctantly, I left Plockton behind, and managed to waste a bit of precious time by missing the correct turn-off I had needed to take. Eilean Donan CastleReaching Loch Alsh in the lowering sun, I joined the A87, pausing briefly at Eilean Donan Castle, one of Scotland’s most photographed castles. The road snaked past first Loch Cluanie, then branched down the side of Loch Loyne before twisting to follow the northern shore of Loch Garry. Loch GarryThis was my last stop, where a particular viewpoint allows a vista west over Loch Garry which from this very location, is shaped as the outline of Scotland itself. I ended up having to wait here a while as a wide-load with escort made its way up the hill, and I was rather disappointed to discover that the trees occluded a large part of the view so it was difficult to photograph the image that I’d seen loads online. Perhaps there is a walkway through the trees to see it better, but by now near 9pm, I was tired and wanted to walk no further.

When the back log of traffic cleared, I drove down the hill to Invergarry and checked into one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at, the Saddle Mountain hostel. Nestled amongst the trees up a track from the main road, it was recently renovated, and the hosts were exceedingly welcoming. Whilst I didn’t get the best of sleeps due to noisy roommates, I was greeted in the morning by the male owner acting as barrista, serving up fresh brewed coffee. I got chatting with him about my plans for the day ahead, and he voiced exactly what I had feared. With the previous two days being overcast, I had noticed that most of the mountain tops had been hidden by low cloud. Following the same road south, I was on route to Fort William for the one and only opportunity that I had on this trip to summit Ben Nevis, Scotland’s (and the UK’s) highest peak. The forecast for low cloud on the mountains remained and my host advised me not to go up. Gutted but hopeful, I set off for Fort William wondering what I’d find when I got there.

Musings of a Volunteer

I had wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Scotland, I was enthralled with the multitude of BBC nature documentaries on the television and David Attenborough has been a regular on my television screen for most of my life. As an adult, I have been able to combine my love of travel with the ability to spend more quality time in a place by donating my time and my skills where I can. I spent 3 months volunteering in South Africa when I graduated, and to this day, that trip still remains one of my life’s most defining times. Prior to moving to New Zealand, I spent a month volunteering in the beautiful pacific island of Rarotonga, the biggest of the Cook Islands, and this year, despite a lot of difficulties with visas, I finally got to live my dream by heading to Santa Cruz, the most inhabited island in the Galapagos, to volunteer for a month.

Government Office, Puerto AyoraVolunteering is an excellent chance to meet, integrate and work with people from different countries and cultures, and with everyone’s dates varying, the collection of fellow volunteers is an ever changing melting pot. There were 5 other volunteers for varying time lengths during my month stay there, and everyone was from somewhere different. Not only out of work, but in the working environment, it was interesting to learn new things from different people’s experiences. But in particular, I enjoy learning more about the local culture and politics than is usually possible as a tourist and am often fascinated by what makes the local town or government or community tick.

There are some talks amongst the people of Galapagos about trying to become independent from the country of Ecuador. I’m sure other islands or provinces in other countries can relate: their hard-earned money goes to a government far far away and in return they get only a relatively small percentage of investment and funding. Also decisions about their economy, their health and their education are made by people far far away, and it has led to many people in the Galapagos feeling short-changed. Whilst I was there, there was both a rally and a demonstration about some of these matters. One of the big things that I learned, is that when tourists book and pay for their Galapagos tours whilst abroad, through travel agents, that money goes into the financial pockets of mainland Ecuador. However, when tours are paid for whilst already in the islands, that money goes directly into the local economy. As the majority of tours are booked before reaching the islands, the majority of income generated from Galapagos tourism isn’t actually going to the people of Galapagos directly, instead it goes first to mainland Ecuador and then divvied up. Had I known this, and had I known how relatively easy it is to book a tour whilst in the islands, I may have booked my trip differently.

The growth of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San CristobalAnother thing that surprised me was the level of construction taking place on the island. There is little fresh water in the archipelago, so drinking water is shipped in bottled. There is one de-salination plant in the whole archipelago, and this means that there is a shortage of fresh water. Growth of Puerto Ayora, Santa CruzEach building is supplied water for only a few hours a day, which then needs to be stored in large tanks and rationed. The islands are very strict with recycling materials, but everything that is collected needs to be shipped back to the mainland. Growth of Puerto Villamil, IsabelaDespite all this and more, new buildings are going up left, right and centre. On one particular occasion, I spoke to an Ecuadorian man who pointed out that the new hotel next to where we sat was being built too close to the sea, and was not taking into consideration the higher tides and storms that can hit the region on occasion. Population & Visitor graph at the San Cristobal Interpretation CentreIt was a story I had heard before in Fiji when, privy to some local knowledge, we learned that a foreign investor was building a large reception hall on the opposite side of an island to what the locals recommended. The locals were fully aware of potential for storm damage on the southern side, but the foreign investor ignored them. Back in the Galapagos, it seemed that enthusiasm for the all-important sea view was over-riding local common sense. Both the local population is on the increase as well as tourism numbers, meaning more accommodation and support buildings and new streets are needed. With the exception of Floreana, all the other 3 inhabited islands’ towns have grown in size greatly in the last few decades. Two of the islands I visited also bare the scars from quarries that have been dug into what is supposed to be one of Earth’s untouched wonders.

These effects lead on to some conservation issues which I had my eyes opened to whilst I was there. Advertised as one of the few places on earth that is relatively untouched, and containing such unique wildlife, since the days of human habitation, there has been a lot of irreparable damage. Cute dog in Puerto AyoraAside from the earlier explorers eating the tortoises and sending several species extinct, they introduced mammals both accidentally and deliberately which not only challenged some species survival directly but also introduced disease. Cat wandering the streets of FloreanaCurrently there is a pox virus rampaging through some of the endemic bird species. Road kill is also an all-too-common occurrence. With the increase in people, there is an increase in vehicles and roads, and this has led to iguanas and birds especially, being hit and killed on impact. Restaurant named after the tick parasite, prevalent on Santa Cruz's dogsOne of the buses I was on, hit and killed a native bird whilst we were on our way to go on a boat trip to see some of the native birds. The irony was discomforting. But I was equally surprised by the attitudes of some of the locals. Many are so reliant on tourism for money, but as a vet volunteering at a free veterinary clinic, I was surprised by how many people didn’t want to neuter their cats and dogs who were just left to wander the streets, and in the case of the cats, were hunting the native species. Mural in Puerto AyoraThey didn’t seem to consider, or appreciate, or care, that these introduced species had a huge impact on the native species, which are what the tourists come to see. Ticks were a common problem, and these ticks carried diseases which were also a common problem. But some people relied on breeding dogs to sell the pups as an added source of income. Lonesome GeorgeIt is a conundrum. Thankfully though, with such public awareness to the wonders of this archipelago, there is no shortage of research work being undertaken there, and new discoveries continue to be made. There are also some of the islands which are off-limits to tourists and some parts of the national park are out-of-bounds unless accompanied by a park guide. With so much at stake, I for one am interested to see what will happen to one of the Earth’s gems in my lifetime. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will be resoundingly positive.

Life in Slow Motion, Part 3

It was my friend’s last day, and we awoke from our exceedingly late night with plans to chill out in Puerto Ayora. From the pier we jumped on a panga (water taxi) to cross to Angermeyer Point, an upmarket part of the island which has no road access. There is a well-marked path to Las Grietas, one of the island’s recommended tourist spots. Great EgretOn route, we passed a lagoon where a great egret and heron were perched, then we skirted past the already busy Playa Aleman and on past a salt lagoon. HeronAt the top of the canyon, we first followed the path along the cliff top which gave us a view down into the canyon as well as back towards Puerto Ayora and out to sea. Playa AlemanRetracing our steps, we then took the short branch down the steps to Las Grietas. LagoonA canyon in the rocks has trapped a deep saltwater basin with no apparent connection to the sea. Puerto Ayora from Las GrietasThere are a chain of pools to explore which are divided by previous rock falls which need to be scrambled over with no dignity at all. Looking out towards Santa Fe in the distance from Las GrietasThe entrance though was swarming with paper wasps, large creatures that don’t leave you alone. Looking down on Las Grietas canyonIt meant getting in the water fast, and once in, it was incredible. The entrance to Las GrietasWhilst not containing a lot of sea life, they are surprisingly deep, so it is worth snorkelling purely for that reason alone. Galapagos GruntThe final chamber does have a shoal of a reasonably sized fish, and whilst it’s not a good snorkel in terms of seeing marine life, I was really glad I had done it. Unfortunately my friend got stung by one of the wasps whilst we were negotiating one of the rock barriers, and with them flying around everywhere at the exit, we didn’t hang around long before leaving. Playa Aleman was busy with locals and tourists, but it was a great spot to relax and sunbathe the afternoon away, before catching a panga back to Puerto Ayora.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suddenly, it was my final week and it hit me that I was going to have to leave. Outside of work I was intent on seeing and doing everything that I could. Who knows if I’ll ever be back? The long walk to Tortuga BayI spent a few evenings playing tourist, wandering around the many tourist shops looking for memorable souvenirs, and on one of my lunch breaks, I made a last (and all too brief) return to Tortuga Bay, my absolute favourite part of Santa Cruz. Tortuga BayIt was in the blistering heat of the middle of the day, and I had to power walk to make it there and back in time as well as be able to take some photos. Marine iguana in the surfEvery time I’d been before I had not had a camera, and I just wanted to see it one last time. Gorgeous Ambas PlayaNormally an hour walk, I got there in 40mins, and then had nearly an hour to wander between Tortuga Bay and Playa Mansa, the sheltered beach through the mangroves. Ambas PlayaThere were lots of marine iguanas on the spit of land that demarcates the divide between the two beaches, and even a couple negotiating the surf. Marine IguanaEven though it was a week day, both beaches were busy, and I tried to soak it all up before I had to leave to get back to work. I was unbelievably sad leaving, having wanted to just kick back and enjoy it, but now I was just a few days away from leaving the islands behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My last day volunteering came and went and before I knew it, I had only a weekend before the start of my long journey home. I’d decided to head back to San Cristobal, the island that I started on, to try and snorkel with sea lions again. It had by now been over a month since my last visit there, and it was strange how unfamiliar it seemed at times. Getting up early to catch the boat, I was pleased to look at the sea and see utter calmness, the sure sign of a smooth ride. And for the first 45 mins it was, whilst we were in the shadow of Santa Fe. But when we hit open, unprotected water, the crests started and we became airborne again. For over an hour I had to grip onto whatever I could as we slammed onto the ocean surface from a free-fall again, and I fought hard to keep relaxed to prevent the shockwave damaging my spine. But inevitably my back had had enough, and about half an hour away from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, a shooting pain shot up my neck. It was jarring and repetitive, and my heart sank at the thought of having a flare up of my chronic back issues on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Puerto Baquerizo MorenoI arrived to sunshine and went in search of somewhere to stay. It was third time lucky before I got a room, and despite a slight Spanish misunderstanding, I got a really good deal without even knowing it. Darwin Bay from the viewing platformFollowing some refreshments near the waterfront, I followed the waterfront round past sleeping sea lions and Playa Mann, and up towards the interpretation centre and out the other side. Frigatebird on Frigate HillI took the direct path up to Cerro Tijeretas (Frigate Hill), and caught my breath for a while before deciding to follow the track onwards to the north. Very quickly it became obvious that not many people came this way as it was rough going and quite overgrown. I had only jandals (flip-flops) on my feet, and despite finding it uncomfortable, I pressed on down the far side of the hill and on across the lava landscape. On the way down I nearly stood on a Galapagos snake which thankfully disappeared into the bush before my foot hit the ground. I followed the track for about 40mins for little reward. The going was rough, and in places the path was not obvious or involved rock hopping. There was little to see and I never reached the promised beach at the end of it. Sweating in the heat of the day, I turned back and headed straight for Darwin Bay.

Marine Turtle in Darwin BayDarwin Bay is the place where Charles Darwin first set foot on the Galapagos in 1835, and the water is crystal clear. Notably though the sea was also very cold and despite the sun shining directly on it, I had to keep moving to generate some heat, snorkelling with an increasingly foggy mask clouding my view. Sea lion tugging on a marine iguanaIt was an awesome spot to snorkel. There were fish everywhere in varying sizes and colours; I watched a marine turtle feed for a while; and a sea lion swam up to me then past me. The same marine iguana once out of the waterI saw something floating on the water and realised there was a large chunk of blubber on the surface. I’d seen this once before near a dead whale, but I didn’t want to get too near as rotten blubber usually stinks, and I couldn’t see where it came from. Sea lion swimming at Darwin BayNothing was feeding on it, and it moved on the surface with the wind and the tide. After a while, I found some sea lions playing. They weren’t really interested in me, so they didn’t come particularly close but they circled and dived in front of me, and then suddenly one of them grabbed the tail of a marine iguana that was swimming to the surface. It would grab the tail then let it go before grabbing it again just to release it again. It did this repeatedly until the iguana finally got itself out the water and up on a rock. I’d heard about this behaviour before. The sea lions don’t eat the iguana, they just seem to like to play with it like a toy. I’m sure the iguana didn’t like it, but I felt lucky to witness such behaviour. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the last good snorkel I would have on the trip. I sat on the shore for a long time just soaking up the view and watching the sea lions leaping out of the water, whilst another one slept next to me on the rocks.

Charles Darwin statue above Darwin BayEventually I headed up towards the large statue of Charles Darwin that overlooks the bay. Coastline near Darwin BayFrom here the path follows the coastline round and down to Punta Carola beach. I hadn’t walked this section before, and from the viewpoint I could see sea lions fishing below me and had an uninterrupted sea view. Sea lion swimming in clear waterIt was just stunning. Further round there was an old armament from the war, and finally I came out at Punta Carola and nearly stumbled over some sea lions that were right at the end of the path. Sea lion mother and pupI loved this beach. Punta CarolaThere were sea lions everywhere, and they were noisy but it was amazing to sit and watch them going about their lives. Sea lion in the murky waterEarly on I got in the water to snorkel with them, but the swell here meant I could barely see my hand in front of my face, and I couldn’t see them coming. I gave up and went back to the beach to relax.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sea lion on Punta CarolaI spent several hours drifting between sleeping and watching the nearby goings on. At one point I was woken with a start to something tickling my bare foot and sat up quickly to find a sea lion staring at me from past my feet. It must have sniffed me and touched me with its whiskers. It ambled past me as if nothing was the matter. Sea lions on Punta Carola in the lowering sunLater on a group of tourists and a guide appeared. They were noisy and insisted on posing for photo after photo with every single sea lion they could find. There was a group of sleeping sea lions in a bush not far from me and that was where most of the tourists were standing. I tried to fall asleep again to block them all out when suddenly I got covered in sand. Again I sat up with a start to discover that one of the sea lions had run away from the group of tourists towards me. It looked as surprised as me with my sudden movement and then hobbled past me just inches from my head, kicking up sand as it went. I was immensely glad when the group finally left and peace and quiet returned.

Lowering sun over Punta Carola with Santa Cruz on the horizonI had nowhere else to be, so watched the sun set over the beach, during which time a mother and juvenile sea lion ignored the 2m rule that is advertised across the islands, by coming right up to where I was lying, sniffed my stuff then promptly lay down for a suckle. Juvenile sea lion on Punta CarolaIt was an amazing experience and I waited there as long as I could until the light level was dropping too low.

I walked back to town in the darkness where local girls were performing dances on the promenade. It was a lovely atmosphere and the evening was warm and welcoming. I had a lovely dinner before doing some last minute souvenir shopping in the local stores, and finally it was time for my second last night in the islands. I crashed out when my head hit the pillow only to be woken ridiculously early by the irritating chirrup of a cricket or locust nearby. The night before, the shops had been over-run with locusts, and the shopkeepers were killing them as quick as they saw them. At 4am, I couldn’t locate it, but I had to put the fan on just to drown the sound out in order to get back to sleep.

It was my last full day in the islands and I woke with a sore back, no doubt the result of the previous day’s boat trip. It was really windy and the sea was choppy, and I started worrying about the return leg and what further damage it might do to my spine. I tried to shake off the feeling and make the most of my last day, so I headed first to a local cafe and enjoyed some delicious fresh fruits and granola. Depiction of the islands at the Interpretation CentreIt was a grey day, and following the same well-travelled route I followed the shoreline and headed back to the Interpretation centre. We had visited here as part of my tour on my first day in the islands, but we had skipped sections and our guide had summarised sections, so now I wanted to read it all for myself. It is a really good place to learn about the geological history of the islands and the human history from its first discovery. Human habitation has a lot to answer for with regards to species eradication and introduction of pests and diseases. One of the most sobering sections was the future predictions for the island group, and the things I read there as well as things I had been privy to witness and learn about during my volunteering stint has left me sad for what may occur in these most wonderful islands. I can only hope that positive steps for conservation outweigh the negative steps being made to promote tourism.

Another murky underwater sea lionThe last hours on the island were spent on Playa Mann. Mother and juvenile sea lion on Playa MannI again tried to snorkel but again the visibility was poor, and with a heavy heart, I drew my snorkelling excursions to a close. Sea lion having a scratchWith fewer sea lions than Punta Carola, it was possible to get a bit more space to yourself here but there was still plenty of sea lions rolling around in the shallows to keep me entertained. Sea lion on Playa MannI was daydreaming when someone broke my reverie and I ended up chatting for a while with an Ecuadorian man who was there on a research trip. Mural at the pier of Puerto Baquerizo MorenoIt was interesting to get his opinion and views on what was going on in the country and the islands, as well as a fantastic opportunity to speak Spanish. The last sea lions to be seen in the GalapagosI came to realise that whilst my speech hadn’t improved much, my understanding of the language was much better and I found myself a lot more aware of what was being said to me, which was quietly satisfying. I didn’t always know how to reply, but at least I knew what was being said. We walked together back to the pier, from where he was heading to the far side of town to go surfing. By now though, it was time for me to bid San Cristobal adios for the final time. There was the usual organised chaos waiting to board the boat, and on the steps at the side of the pier, a group of sea lions were piled up for a sleep. They were the last sea lions I would see on this trip, and I boarded the boat satisfied yet sad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite the apparently choppy sea, the return leg was surprisingly smooth, and to top it off, we slowed down on the way to watch some bottlenose dolphins cavorting around the boat. Back on Santa Cruz, I had my final dinner with one of the volunteers, and then it was time to check my luggage for the last time and try and get to sleep. When I woke the next morning it was torrential rain, the worst rain I’d seen the whole trip which was perfect timing given that I had to wander the streets to hail a taxi. Thankfully it only took about 5 mins to find one, and it drove me to the bus station on the edge of town, where there was only a short wait till the bus left for the port on the north side of town. It was packed, full of both locals and tourists, and most of us got off and piled straight on the cross channel ferry. In fact all the transport ran so smoothly that I ended up catching the bus on Baltra straight away which got me to the airport with 4 hours to spare. I couldn’t even check in yet. There was nowhere to sit apart from a couple of stools in a corner, and I sat here daydreaming for as long as I could. I was hungry but there was nowhere to eat, and nowhere to leave my bag, so I was forced to ride it out. Finally after getting my boarding card, I walked through to the boarding area to discover a food court that I could have accessed pre-check in. I was gutted, because by then I had no time to order a cooked meal and eat it, so I was forced to go through to my departure gate and buy the only food I could find: potato chips and cookies.

Sitting on the runway at Baltra looking over to Santa CruzBut now it was over. I boarded the plane and took my window seat, and after 5 incredible weeks, I watched as first Baltra then Santa Cruz disappeared below us, and I settled in to the flight to Guayaquil that signalled bFlying over the Itabaca Channel between Baltra island and Santa Cruzeing homeward bound. There really is nowhere on Earth like the Galapagos Islands: a magical place full of wildlife and adventure. I will probably never return, but having managed 10 out of the 17 islands, I think I did good. I definitely have my favourite islands, but it’s hard to fault a place where the wildlife appears to be literally everywhere. I only hope the magic continues for generations to come.

Life in Slow Motion, Part 2

I was grateful to have as much time as I did, because I was able to explore so much of the Galapagos islands. Each island offered something different to see and explore, and there were so many opportunities for wildlife spotting it was nearly impossible to keep a smile off my face.

Another day trip took me from Puerto Ayora to the island of Santa Fe almost directly south. It wasn’t the sunniest of days on Santa Cruz, but thankfully on reaching Santa Fe, the cloud finally broke and we ended up in sunshine for most of the trip. Sea lions on Santa FeOn the far side of the island is a beautiful lagoon where we anchored and a dinghy took us to shore: a beach which was littered with sea lions basking. Sea lion on Santa FeI don’t think it is possible to get enough of seeing sea lions as they noisily shuffle around the beach, and plonk down next to each other, or roll around in the surf. Land IguanaWe watched them for a while before heading inland on an easy trek in search of land iguanas. Mockingbird on cactusWe found a few sunning themselves on rocks underneath cacti trees where they wait patiently for the fruit and flowers to fall. Beach at Santa FeWe gained enough altitude to have a beautiful view over the lagoon and out to the waves crashing on the coast. Like a lot of the archipelago, it was stunning and it was unique.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a dead sea lion on the small beach reached at the end of the walk. I’m as fascinated with dead things as I am with the living so I gave it a good close-up inspection. Our guide pointed out the shark bites on its side before we left it to nature to make use of such a good meal. Spotted Eagle RayBack out at the boat, we were dropped off at the lagoon entrance for snorkelling where the water was deep but still relatively sheltered. Lots of fishAlmost straight away we saw two eagle rays swimming towards us, and the depth meant there were large shoals of fish below us, bunched together in giant balls. Sea lion underwaterWe swam to the wall of the lagoon and followed it for some distance until we found some sea lions who promptly jumped in the water and played with us briefly, blowing bubbles and swimming loops in front of us. King AngelfishWe turned round to keep going and saw a shark swim past. Marine turtleWe were ferried across to the far side of the lagoon where we got back in the water where there were some marine turtles resting. Marine turtles under a rockOne swam past and away from us and the others were resting next to a rock on the lagoon floor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frigate birdWe had a 3 hour slow sail back up to the port on the north of Santa Cruz, and following another delicious lunch, I sat up top and sunbathed watching the large frigate birds circle above us. They joined us close to Santa Fe and thermalled above us the whole way, only leaving the boat when we moored at the end. A couple of them landed on the bridge briefly resting before taking off again. Up close these birds are huge. Known as the pirates of the sky, they steal food from the other sea birds rather than catch it themselves. With no webbed feet they can’t land on the water, and their feathers can’t get wet either or the weight will drown them or affect their flight. Despite these downfalls, they seem to be thriving with two species of frigate birds very prevalent in the region. Anchoring in the Itabaca channel, it was a short dinghy ride back to the port and then the long bus ride back to Puerto Ayora and my ‘home’ where a new volunteer had arrived.

My favourite of the day trips involved an early start for another long bus ride north to the Itabaca Channel. Joining the same crew as an earlier trip, we set off north-west on a long crossing to the island of Bartolome. Nazca BoobyFollowing breakfast on board, we passed the rock island of Daphne Major where some seabirds were nesting, and for the first time I saw some Nazca boobies, a similar species to the blue-footed boobies. The water was extremely calm so I climbed the side of the boat to reach the bow, and sat there almost the whole way scanning the horizon for life. I was secretly hopeful for spotting whales, but instead, I was treated to several sightings of various sea creatures. First, something large flapped out and slapped the water right by my side. It looked like the wing of a very large ray, probably a manta ray. Then to my complete surprise, a manta ray jumped out of the water and somersaulted before splashing into the depth again. It happened so fast I nearly didn’t believe it, but I later found out that they are known to do this to shed parasites from their skin. In the far distance, I saw a splash which was big enough to have been a whale breaching, although I never saw what caused it. Shortly after, what looked like a large shark fin was seen, and later again something that may have been a sunfish. By the time we reached Bartolome I was already wearing a huge grin and excited for the rest of the day.

Pinnacle Rock in front of SantiagoBartolome is a relatively small island that sits in front of the large island of Santiago. BartolomeBoth are very volcanic looking, and Bartolome especially is near barren, with only a smattering of hardy cacti growing in rock crevices. HeronSantiago in the distant past was multiple smaller islands close together that became joined up by a later eruption. Cacti on BartolomeFrom the top of Bartolome, the hills of the former islands stick up smartly above the flat ‘fresh’ lava that joined them all. BartolomeOn the far side of Bartolome we anchored in view of Pinnacle rock, a large pointy rock that sits at an angle like the leaning tower of Pisa. Santiago behind BartolomeWe were ferried ashore where a heron was sunning itself, and then it was a steep climb up the beautiful but stark volcanic rock to several view points. The most famous view in the GalapagosThe lava had hardened in flows, making for some visually stunning striations, and there were remnants of some fumaroles on the side of the main peak. Bartolome with Santiago's lava flow field behindThe higher we got, the more stunning the vista, and eventually we reached the point to overlook Pinnacle rock and the nearby bay, one of the archipelago’s most photographed views. I personally love volcanic landscapes, and to me the barrenness was simply stunning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the way back down we saw a track in the sand for a snake, although we never saw the creature itself, and on boarding the boat we took the short ride over to a sheltered bay on Santiago. I was exceedingly keen to go snorkelling because just a week prior my friend had been here and swum with lots of penguins. Marine TurtleI was keen to be in the water with them, and headed straight in on arrival ahead of everyone else in my group. The reward for my impatience was almost immediately coming across a marine turtle in the crystal clear water. There was nobody else around, and it seemed totally unfazed by me, going about its business whilst I watched. There is something so special about those moments that you have to yourself with nature, and I floated for some time watching it until it swam away. Lots of fishFollowing the rock wall at the edge of the bay, the water became deeper and larger shoals of fish were plentiful. By this point there was another group of snorkellers from another tour group who were intent on barreling into anyone else who got in their way. Even in the Galapagos, it can feel overcrowded. I did my best to keep my distance, hugging the rock wall until eventually a nearby boat signalled for me to go no deeper, and I turned and headed back to land. Streamer HogfishThere was not a penguin in sight and I came to the realisation that swimming with penguins was likely going to elude me. In the shallows a hogfish repeatedly charged me when I tried to swim to shore. I’m not sure exactly what it would have done, but it was a reasonable sized fish and I didn’t want a bite.

Santiago lava, old and newFrom the beach, I took a quick walk to the flat of the local lava field, walking barefoot on the lava and seeing it stretch for miles ahead. Lava on SantiagoNobody else came to see it, but there was little time to explore before we had to leave. On the dinghy to our boat, we found a penguin drying itself on the rocks, and although I didn’t know it yet, it would be the last penguin I would see on the trip. From Santiago, the spray was too much to sit on the bow of the boat, so I sat up top where it was easy to spot the multitude of manta rays in the ocean. Galapagos PenguinThey are huge creatures, and I lost count of how many we came across swimming near the surface. Daphne Major & Daphne MinorIn between, there was also plenty of marine turtles popping up to breath, and again I enjoyed the crossing as much as the islands themselves. Red-billed Tropic BirdA red-billed tropicbird lazed on the ocean near Daphne Major, and suddenly the captain cried out that he’d seen a whale. We were all up on our feet scanning the horizon, seeing nothing until as we approached the entrance to the shipping lane into the Itabaca channel, we all saw the distintive dorsal fins that signalled orca, and two orca broke the surface to breath. I was lucky enough to see a massive pod of orca in the north pacific off the west coast of Canada when I was 19, but my memories are becoming more vague and blurred and I’ve been desperate to see them again in recent years. They only came up in sight for 2 breaths, and whilst it was such a brief viewing, I was absolutely stoked.

My final day trip was to the very popular island of North Seymour. It is the most commonly visited non-inhabited island by tourists, and with good reason: it is the nearest and most accessible breeding colony of blue-footed boobies and frigate birds. Sea lion on North SeymourBy now I knew the drive to the Itabaca channel well, and from here it was a relatively short boat ride to the island which sits just north of Baltra island to the north of Santa Cruz. Blue-footed boobyImmediately we were overwhelmed with birds flying above our heads, and the path from the boat was partially blocked with 3 dozing sea lions. Juvenile frigatebirdAs much as I loved Bartolome, it was hard to beat being surrounded by hungry chicks and adults doing mating displays. Blue-footed booby and chickThere is a set path to stick to round the colony but there were plenty of blue-footed booby chicks to see and we were entertained with the whistle of the adult males as they tried to attract a female. Male frigatebirdsWe saw the famous blue-footed booby dance and even an actual mating. They are gorgeous.

Frigatebird chickFurther round we were treated to juvenile frigate birds of varying ages perched on the low-lying trees waiting for a feed. Land iguanaThe males were grouped together with their inflated red throat pouches desperately trying to lure in a female. There were two different species of frigate birds nesting there and no matter which direction you looked there was something worth seeing. There was even some land iguanas towards the back of the colony, and I was reluctant to leave at the end of the tour. I would have happily walked round again and again.

 

 

 

 

 

Marine turtleBut lunch and another snorkel called us, so we boarded the boat again and headed south. The food on all of the trips had been utterly delicious and plentiful, and that day was no exception. Marine turtleIn no time at all though, we reached Playa Bachas on the north coast of Santa Cruz where we landed. The water was very murky and quite cold making for a less than enjoyable snorkel, but having such poor visibility meant that on 3 occasions I almost swam directly into 3 huge marine turtles that were eating algae off the rocks. Brown pelicanI couldn’t see them coming and then all of a sudden they were right in front of me, about to be barreled down by my breaststroke. Pink flamingoEach time I had to suddenly back track to give them space and avoid touching them, but it was an exceedingly close encounter every time. Marine iguana on the beachThe cold eventually took over and I exited to an overcast afternoon sky. Playa BachasJust behind the beach, a single flamingo fed in a small lagoon, and with time to spare, I wandered along the length of the beach watching an iguana running across the sand, and looking at crabs in the rock pools. It was another satisfying day, and it was rounded off with dinner out and then dancing at Bongo Bar to see off my friend who was leaving soon. For me, my remaining days were also reducing fast…

Life in Slow Motion

It wasn’t quite the start that I’d planned. With a month of volunteering ahead of me, I hadn’t expected to find myself prostrate on the couch light-headed and dizzy on my arrival. The place was deserted and I drifted in and out of consciousness. It had been a rough night, and I’d thought I was going to have to have a doctor called. I’ve been hospitalised before from severe food poisoning and in the darkness of my misery during the night, I was recognising the warning signs that had led me down that slippery slope in the past. But after leaving the hotel behind and with each passing hour on that couch, I realised that thankfully I was over the worst of it. I wanted desperately to replenish my lost salts and sugars, and slowly trudged to the supermarket that evening when one of the other volunteers got home. It was a slow and draining process, topped off with nearly fainting in the shop. Not quite the best first impression I’ve ever given. But despite the torture of the night before being the most ill I’ve ever felt in my whole life (I’ll save on the gory details!), it was thankfully a short-lived illness, and within 48hrs I was feeling good, if a little hesitant about what food I put in my mouth.

Weekdays were all about routine. The workload was variable, and initially it was quite humid making for a rather sticky time to begin with. There were 2 other volunteers for the first half of my stay and we got on like a house on fire. The first week I was there, we got to sample some of Puerto Ayora’s night life. Although it is the busiest town in the archipelago, there’s only a handful of places to choose from for late nights, and despite having felt like I’ve grown out of the clubbing days, it was too tempting to sample the spot in town: Bongo Bar. Wednesday nights are salsa nights and the locals were showing off their salsa moves whilst I, never having done the dance, decided to utilise my well practised Zumba moves. It was the source of some amusement, but I think I faked it well. One of the staff members treated us to a fire dance on the balcony before we headed home tired yet satisfied.

The weekends were our own, and whilst the other two volunteers headed to San Cristobal, I headed back to Isabela, my favourite island in the whole archipelago. The public boats were different from the one I had travelled on prior, and we were packed in like sardines such that I ended up with both my shoulders being used as pillows by a local woman on either side. Sea lion swimming at Puerto Villamil pierJust a week on from my previous visit, and Isabela felt different. There were barely any penguins or blue-footed boobies – a stark contrast to the week before. My trip coincided with the beginning of the change in season denoted by a shift in sea currents from the warmer Panama current to the colder and nutrient rich Humboldt current. But the locals were full of murmurings about El Niño, a phenomenon where the warmer currents hold on, denying the normal flourish of food and decimating some of the local species. The last El Niño a few years prior had reportedly caused an 80% reduction in the number of Galapagos penguins, a decrease from which they were yet to fully recover. On land though, and the sun shone brilliantly over the gorgeous sands and the sea lions still happily floated around the pier, lazily watching the tourists who crowded around to take their photo.

I had a leisurely and lovely stroll through Puerto Villamil and out the far side and along the beach to my peaceful seaside hostel. Marine IguanaIt was only a stone’s throw to the start of a boardwalk which skirts through lagoons, vegetation, and lava fields on its way to the tortoise breeding centre that I had visited last time. Marine iguana swimmingThe start of the walk was littered with marine iguanas sunbathing, and through the red-coloured water, a large iguana lazily swam across to shore. The first lagoonThe first lagoon had several ducks and stilts around it, and then every lagoon after that had flamingos. Black Necked StiltIt was hard-going in the sweltering heat but totally worth it. Pink flamingoI saw flamingos fighting, flamingos flying and some other birds I hadn’t seen up close before, and the lava fields were littered with large cacti plants. Walking through the bushesRather than go back to the breeding centre again, Galapagos cotton plantI walked past it and continued on up the road back to the quarry where again there were flamingos, Quarry with flamingosbefore turning back and enjoying it all again on the return leg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of Isabela's beachesFollowing a beautiful lunch from a little kiosk shop, I found my way to a beach that I hadn’t even noticed last time. Grey heronOn the seaward side of the row of restaurants that line the main street in town, is a lovely white sandy beach where herons, pelicans and shore birds hung out. Whimbrel feedingFrom here I could see thick clouds hanging over the highlands, but whilst they always threatened, they never quite made it over my way. School of Sergeant MajorsI lazily walked along the beach to grab my snorkel gear and headed to Concha Perla, the sheltered lagoon near the pier where I’d gone with my group the week before. StingrayThis time though it was packed with locals and it was very noisy. As a result, there was not a penguin in sight, but once I got away from the crowds in the cold water, I stumbled across a massive stingray resting on the bottom and then hung around the rock channels watching shrimp and shoals of colourful fish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I woke the next morning to discover that the clouds had finally blanketed the whole island. Frigatebird in flightIt was overcast and windy but that wasn’t going to get in the way of my exploration. 5km out of town lies the Wall of Tears, a remnant of an old penal colony, that I had biked out to last time. Sleeping marine iguanaI’d noticed on route that there were lots of little side trails of the main path, so on this day, that was my goal: to explore every inch of access on the trail. Pile of marine iguanasThere was 1km of beach to walk along to reach the head of the trail, and above me, groups of large frigate birds and the smaller blue-footed boobies would appear over my head. Striated heronPelicans skimmed the tidal zone, and then on the first branch of the trail, I stumbled across a large colony of marine iguanas that were draped across the path. They literally will flop down anywhere, and often on top of each other, and there were so many that they blocked the path in two spots. Skirting round them, I found myself face to face with a striated heron in the bushes.

 

 

Iguana nesting areaOther trails took me to lagoons, or beaches where more marine iguanas lazed and nested. Tree tunnelI found myself back at the lava tunnel which was part-filled with sea water and thus had its own marine ecosystem there, which included an octopus. Giant tortoise wandering through the national parkAnother trail led me through a tunnel made of trees to a peaceful mangrove lagoon where a sea lion played, and on the main track itself, the so-called Camino de las Tortugas, I came across 5 wild giant tortoises simply out for a meander. They seemed unfazed by the regular passing of people, and 1 even tried to race me along the track for a bit.

View of IsabelaI didn’t go as far as the Wall, but instead stopped at a viewpoint which offered a beautiful vista over the coastline and back towards Puerto Villamil. Marine iguanaPassing the tortoises on the way back, there were yet more marine iguanas that had appeared on the main track near the beach, Pelican at the beachand I was thrilled with the constant wildlife exposure that Isabela offered. Snorkelling again at Concha Perla, I saw another stingray and a giant parrotfish, before heading out for dinner and getting caught in a downpour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Relaxing on the main stretch of Isabela beachI awoke in the night to discover a cockroach on my pillow in front of me, its antenna taunting me. I suspect it had tickled me in my sleep. Isabela's main street near the hostelAfter checking out, I passed the time reading a book on the beach until the incoming tide nearly caught me off guard. Puerto Villamil's main streetI moved nearer town and sat under a palm tree, where another tourist seemed awfully concerned about my safety should a coconut decide to fall off. Sea lions on the boardwalk to Concha PerlaEventually I headed to Concha Perla to discover that the tide was strangely very high, and the sea had flooded it, submerging the lava walls that demarcated the normally protected snorkel area, and flowing deep into the mangroves. Communal lazinessI hung out at the pier with the sea lions and marine iguanas until it was time to get back on the boat to return to Santa Cruz.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my 32 years of living and my many adventures, I’ve been on a lot of boat trips on several oceans and seas and in varying sizes of boats, but that trip from Isabela to Santa Cruz was the roughest trip I’ve ever done. Just 5 mins out from shore we hit the open ocean and the captain pushed down the throttle and we literally became airborne. The speedboats in the Galapagos have only a padded bench seat lining each side of the boat which faces internally. There are no individual seats, no armrests, and no seats facing the direction of travel. There is nothing to hold on to, and with several weak-stomached passengers needing the back of the boat, I found myself near the front which has the most movement on the sea. As we ploughed through the water, I could feel the boat rise up on the crest, and going at such speed the boat would take off over the top and free-fall for a second or two before slamming down on the trough that followed. The seconds of free-fall were enough to leave your stomach in the air, and it felt like hitting concrete as the force repeatedly shot through my spine again and again and again. I wasn’t worried about my stomach, but with chronic back problems, I was terrified of the damage that could be inflicted. I tried to reposition myself in an effort to save my back from taking the brunt, but packed in as we were, it was rather difficult. My bruise from the boat tripIn the end, my lower shoulder was thrown against a bar on the wall of the boat so many times, that by the evening it was swollen. For over an hour of the nearly 2.5 hr boat ride, I played a game in my head to guess how long the free fall would last, unable to sleep due to the constant jolting and shimmying. On the few occasions that the captain slowed the speed down, I knew with dread that it signalled the ensuing drop would be a big one, that even he knew maintaining speed was a risk to capsize the boat. I held dear to the thought that these captains were very experienced in these conditions, but I’m not ashamed to say there was a very brief spell near the start when I was actually terrified. Reaching Puerto Ayora, I transferred onto a panga (water taxi) for the short ride to shore, but the waves were rolling in high, and at the last minute, our driver naively turned side on to the wave which breached the boat and drenched several of us. I headed home dripping wet, confusingly coming back to emptiness. In the darkness of the night, the other two returned home having had quite a dramatic boat trip of their own from San Cristobal. What should have been a 2hr trip for them, had turned into a 5hr calamity, and we all found ourselves with a story to tell.

Puerto Ayora offered lots of choice for food. The main street of Avenida Charles Darwin was full of tourist-orientated restaurants and the side streets offered a half-way house between local dining and tourist fare. Mochachino at DeliI was introduced to a cafe called Deli hidden down a back street which had some of the best ice cream on the island, and we all became such regulars here after work, that one of the staff became quite amused by us. They did great food too, and we ate out here a few times. Chocolate cake from Il GiardinoAnother regular was Il Giardino on the main strip which had a reputation for their desserts, and a couple of other places on this street were frequented too. Ice cream sundae at Il GiardinoBut one of the volunteers and myself were keen to go more local. I had already eaten twice at the street kiosks and enjoyed the food but paid the ultimate price with food poisoning on the second visit. Delicious cevicheOne lunch we went to a little restaurant down a side street which was run by a lovely woman who made ceviche, a dish of raw seafood cured in citrus juice. It was absolutely delicious, and well worth the wait of having it completely prepared from scratch. Her kids entertained us with their nosiness whilst she put together squid, octopus, shrimps, and pieces of white fish amongst a salad. Shared between the two of us it was a huge portion and fantastic value for money. On another occasion we had breakfast at a local open-air food court style venue. We stuffed ourselves on bolon, an Ecuadorian dish made from plantain that was served with stew, rice and eggs. Kind of like a dumpling, they are pretty big and the whole dish is very filling. We ate it that day knowing we weren’t going to get lunch, and it didn’t disappoint, satiating us well into the afternoon. Another favourite was heading to the market a few streets away from where we were staying for some lovely warm morocho, a drink made with corn and milk, and sweetened with sugar and cinnamon. With a strong emphasis on seafood, rice and plantain, the Ecuadorian cuisine was certainly one to tuck into and enjoy.

My second weekend volunteering, I stayed on Santa Cruz. Local fruit and veg marketOne of the volunteers left us early on the Saturday morning, following a night at Bongo Bar for more salsa dancing. Myself and my remaining friend visited the large fruit and veg market a few blocks away, which occurs every Saturday morning in a large open-sided shed towards the back of town. Local band at fruit and veg marketThere was fresh fruit and veg for rows, and near the front, large fish and octopus were chopped up for sale, and towards the back, local food was served and a local band played music to entertain the crowds. There were a few tourists, but mainly it was locals and it felt so far away from the very commercialised and touristic front streets by the waterfront.

Following breakfast we took the long walk to the stunning Tortuga Bay to the west of town. I’d visited here previously with my tour group to go kayaking, but this time we had no plans and no time limit so it was fantastic to just relax and enjoy the sun, the sea and the sand. I tried snorkelling here but the water was so green it limited visibility and there were few fish in the main stretch by the beach. Flanked by mangroves though, and it was well known that rays and sharks hung about on the edges. After spending most of the day sleeping on the sand, we hired a kayak and went exploring. We came across a large stingray on one bank, a marine turtle came up to breath near us when we were out towards the breakline, and eventually we found a cluster of white-tipped reef sharks very close to shore, resting in the roots of the mangroves. We didn’t have long back on the beach before the patrol whistled the time to leave. The beach is closed to access after 5pm as it is within the National Park, and with a long walk back to the gate, the guards were keen to get people moving.

Blue-footed boobies dive-bombingI had an early start the following morning, being picked up at the front door and driven across the island to the port on the north shore at the Itabaca channel. When we arrived, there was a massive flock of blue-footed boobies dive-bombing into the channel for fish, and our dinghy negotiated through them to take us to our boat for the day. Santa Cruz cliffs at the Itabaca channelThe destination was Isla Plaza Sur, South Plaza island, a small land mass to the east of Santa Cruz. Sally Lightfoot CrabIt was a peaceful and relaxing slow cruise down the varied coast of Santa Cruz, and we spotted two marine turtles catching a breath on route. Swallow-tail gull & chickOn arrival at Plaza Sur, we were greeted by some exceedingly loud sea lions cavorting in the waves, and near the arrival steps, a gull chick waited to be fed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hybrid (Marine x Land) IguanaPlaza has hybrid iguanas, the result of marine iguanas mating with the land iguanas. South Plaza IslandThey are not fertile, and as a result, the population will eventually die out, but there were plenty of them out and about sunning themselves, a mix of black and yellow markings making them less camouflaged than each parent counterpart. South Plaza IslandThe path took us up to a clifftop from where we could watch large flocks of Galapagos shearwaters, a cousin of the puffin, flit about and skim the waves. Cliff of South Plaza Island with Santa Cruz behindThey were so fast it made it difficult to photograph, but amongst them, our guide pointed out a red-billed tropicbird, a beautiful seabird with a rather fancy tail. Red-billed tropicbird chickAlong the clifftop path, we were able to peak into a nest hole which contained one of their chicks who looked out at us with crazy eyes. Bull sea lionAt the far end, some sea lions lay at the top of the cliff, and we wondered how they had gotten so high up. But just as we started to head away, one of them started to head down to sea and we were able to watch him negotiate the rocks until he hopped into the sea with an incoming wave.

Iguana skeletonWe passed more iguanas on the way back to the boat, including the skeleton of one who looked like it had died asleep on the rock, still in the classic iguana pose as if it was still trying to catch some sun rays.

 

 

During a delicious lunch on the boat, we slowly headed back to the Itabaca channel where we stopped near a sheltered bay to go snorkelling. White-tipped Reef SharkAmongst some beautiful shoals of fish that hovered around the various lava rock channels, there were several white-tipped reef sharks. Tropical fishMainly they were sleeping, but with plenty of time to swim and explore, on a couple of occasions I was caught off guard by one suddenly swimming past me. Large stingrayAveraging 1.5m in length, they are a relatively docile shark (although I feel it is always prudent to give any shark respect), and during the day they tend to spend most of their time resting, choosing to hunt mainly at night. I saw the most sharks on this snorkelling trip as well as a stingray and tons of colourful fish.

 

 

 

 

 

Laguna de Las NinfasWe returned to town early enough for me to head to Laguna de Las Ninfas, an unusual feature near Puerto Ayora where a fresh-water pond mixes via a stream with the incoming seawater nearer town. MockingbirdThe water was a brilliant green colour, and a short and easy walk takes you around the pond through the bushes and to the far side. Striated heronIt was a great place to spot herons and mockingbirds, and it was so peaceful considering it was just a couple of streets away from the town.Laguna de Las Ninfas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By this stage, I had seen so much already, but I still had several weeks on the islands ahead of me…

 

Island Hopping

It was the trip that I thought was never going to happen. It was supposed to be simple enough. The flights, though expensive and drawn out, were easy enough to book, as was the tour I’d signed up for at the beginning of the trip. But when all I’d wanted to do was help out and do some voluntary work, the Ecuadorian Government seemed intent on making things especially difficult for me. First, there was only 1 visa. Simple enough, and organised on my behalf. Then suddenly the rules changed and a second visa was demanded, and this proved very complicated to get, especially when nowhere in my home country of New Zealand could issue it, and it was insisted that it had to be applied for in person. But after making some enquiries, and nervous at letting it out my sight, I packaged up my most prized possession, and sent my passport to Australia, unsure if it would return to me in time for my trip to Bangkok earlier in the year, and whether it would contain the much needed visa. It took 6 months of phone calls, emails and waiting to finally be in possession of both the visas I needed, only for 1 week prior to my leaving for Ecuador, to be told that I no longer needed the visa that had been so difficult to obtain. And so it was, that I found myself no longer looking forward to the trip, having been so frustrated with the build up.

Following a day of soaking up Ecuador’s Capital city, Quito, and an early morning rise to head to the airport, we flew south to Guayaquil where we sat on the runway for what felt like forever, before taking off again and finally heading west over the Pacific Ocean. San Cristobal airportThere was little to see for most of the trip, but finally some land appeared in a break in the cloud and we touched down at San Cristobal airport, not far from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, our first stop. There were giant bugs in the terminal building whilst we waited to go through passport control, and out the other side we were picked up by our guide and taken to our hotel. Finally, my Galapagos adventure was beginning.

Sea lion sleeping in Puerto Baquerizo MorenoAfter lunch in a local restaurant where we were introduced to the Ecuadorian habit of adding popcorn to soup, we walked as a group along the waterfront, past sleeping sea lions, basking marine iguanas and a plethora of crabs. To my excitement, I saw my first ever marine turtle. Within such a short time, we were all so giddy and excited with the wildlife spotting. On the outskirts of town is an Interpretation Centre which is free to enter, and gives a really good overview of the geographical history of the islands and also a human history of the islands. Soberingly, at the end, it also highlights the potential future concerns for the islands, as a result of increased tourism, population and construction.

Marine iguanasFrom the centre, we drove to the opposite side of town and out to Playa Loberia for the first of many snorkelling trips. Pup suckling at Playa LoberiaWe stumbled upon some large marine iguanas on route to the beach, and then the beach itself was littered with loud and smelly sea lions. It was interesting to see that there were security guards in place, ensuring that people respected the 2m rule that is widely publicised on arrival, to prevent people disturbing the wildlife. Sea lion sleeping on the park benchUnfortunately, this turned out to be one of the few places it was enforced, as so many tourists (including myself ashamedly on one occasion) get overexcited and eager for the (sadly) all-important ‘selfie’. Even after dark, it was easy to spot the wildlife as the sea lions hauled themselves ashore, and often found their way to one of the many park benches that littered the promenade in town. It made for an amusing wander to and from dinner to see these large creatures sleeping under the street lights.

The following morning was the part of the trip I was dreading. Having grown up in a country where swimming is limited to a pool, I don’t have a lot of confidence with swimming amongst waves or out at sea. In fact, I have a moderate fear of drowning in the open ocean, so when the itinerary included a trip out to sea to snorkel in deep water, I was quietly terrified. Blue-footed boobyOur group had been split up due to numbers so 3 of us headed off on an earlier boat up the west coast of Santa Cruz where we saw our first blue-footed boobies, to Kicker Rock, one of the archipelago’s most well-known landmarks. Kicker RockSteep-rising cliffs jutted out of the water, and the choppy sea rocked us as we prepared to get in the water. I love snorkelling, but I can feel uneasy at the best of times if I’m out of my depth, and here I was expected to jump in the water with only the depth of the sea below me. I failed miserably to get in on my first attempt and ended up banging my elbow when I eventually swung in, and straight away I had a mild panic attack. I started swallowing salt water and couldn’t clear my snorkel to breath properly. One of the boat crew who spoke no English tried to calm me down and encouraged me to breath slowly and then stick my head under water to have a look below. I did and this only upset me more as there was nothing but darkness below me. My instinct was to swim fast back to the boat and get the hell out of there, but with the help of my companions and the crew, I forced myself to calm down and stay in.

Between the rocks is a channel well known for hammerhead sharks and turtles. Also the walls of the rocks below the surface offer a hold for many algae, lichen and other organisms which in turn attracts fish. This was our promised reward for doing something crazy. Unfortunately, the sky was slightly overcast, and the water rather murky, which limited the visibility quite dramatically. Despite this, I had a private moment with a marine turtle which appeared briefly out of the gloom, swam below me, and disappeared again. Kicker Rock cliff-faceThere were large shoals of fish visible at depth too, and as we rounded the far side of the rock structures, the sun broke through and illuminated the underwater life. Nobody saw any sharks, but we all managed to swim into an expansive swarm of miniscule jellyfish. Stung from head to foot, the little zaps were like little static shocks, and eventually we all got out the water because they were driving us crazy. In the end I was proud of myself. The visibility had been a little disappointing but I had made myself stay in the water and I had kept myself sane after the initial panic. That was a big achievement for me.

But the trip didn’t end there. On our way to a beach spot we came across a humpback whale mother and calf. Humpback Whale mother and calfEstimated to be a few weeks old, the mother lounged at the water’s surface while the calf lazily swam around her. We must have spent an hour with them, which as a cetacean fanatic was incredible, but at the same time, I felt slightly irked by the captain constantly circling them with the engine on. It will always be a conundrum: letting people see wildlife in their own environment whilst not getting too close nor disturbing them. Humpack whale near the coastThe whales didn’t seem bothered but we literally spent the hour going in an arc around them, and when finally we did stop it was for the totally wrong reason: two of the crew jumped in the water to go and swim with them. I was not impressed. In many countries this would be illegal, and I was not sure what the legality was in the Galapagos but given the 2m rule signs everywhere else, I doubted it would have been encouraged. The mother whale herself said it all, as she made it very clear that enough was enough. Taking an extreme back arch, she slapped her tail below the surface and sent a shock wave behind her, as she barrelled away from us. The calf followed suit, delighting the other passengers by breaching several times. When the two crew got out the water, they were grinning from ear to ear, and one proclaimed it as a bucket list item checked off. She had been right behind the tail and was lucky she didn’t get knocked out.

Beach on San CristobalFollowing a delicious lunch, and some time on a nearby beach which in the sunshine looked so tropical, we headed back towards Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and happened upon a pod of bottlenose dolphins who joined us for a while frolicking by our side and bow. Bottle-nosed dolphinsIt was scorching by the time we reached the town. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno viewed from Cerro TijeretasWe had the afternoon to ourselves, so myself and one of my companions took a walk around the coast to Punta Carola, a beach full of sea lions and marine iguanas, before heading up the hill to Cerro Tijeretas (Frigate Hill) which overlooks Darwin Bay, the spot where Charles Darwin first set foot on the islands. Darwin BayBelow us, people snorkelled in the pristine bay and we could see a turtle come up for air and some sea lions frolicking around the people. Marine turtle in the clear blue water of Darwin BayStanding above it all is a large statue of a young Charles Darwin, and a short coastal walk leaves from here. Charles Darwin statue above Darwin BayHeading back into town, we bumped into some friends and grabbed a cocktail at a local bar, Street food, San Cristobalbefore venturing to a local restaurant for some Ecuadorian cuisine, followed by a walk along the promenade to see the sleeping sea lions at the beach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We left early the next day for an interesting 3 hour boat ride west to Floreana island, the smallest of the four inhabited islands. Under the cover of a large speedboat, there wasn’t much to look at, so I attempted to sleep the journey away, but it was a bit rough for some people in the group who did their best to grit their teeth and get through it. Marine iguanaIt must have felt forever for them, and even at the other end, we had to jump on a panga (water taxi) to get to the pier. There was a good swell by this point, and it took a few attempts for our panga driver to time it right so we could get off. Again, there were marine iguanas, sea lions and crabs everywhere, and we watched them being lazy whilst we waited for everyone to be ready.

Puerto Velazco Ibarra is very different from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Zig-Zag SpiderWith just a few streets making up the town, it was quiet and subdued and it felt like we were the only tourists there. Painted locustWe were staying in little lodges by the sea, and from our patio we could see multiple turtles in the surf. Lava lizardThere were insects and lizards everywhere and it was hot and humid outside. We got a ride in a Chiva (truck) up into the highlands where we took a walk through the vegetation whilst learning about the history of the island. Floreana is an island steeped in human history with a good bit of mystery and intrigue to add, thanks to the mysterious disappearance of some previous inhabitants. Carved rockWe came across some caves and a rock carved like a face before having our first encounter with the famous Galapagos tortoise. Galapagos tortoiseThanks to early settlers, there are no native Floreana tortoises left in existence, but an enclosure contains some introduced San Cristobal tortoises which we could wander amongst as they went about their business of generally doing nothing or munching on the vegetation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunset on FloreanaBack in town, a few of us waited for sunset at the pier surrounded by iguanas and sea lions. We added our postcards to the self-mailing mail box, and swung in hammocks at the restaurant before dinner time. Sally Lightfoot CrabAt the restaurant we were introduced to the delicious snack that are chifles, a salted snack made from plantains, that I found myself munching on for the rest of my trip. Sleeping sea lionsBack in the lodge we tried and failed to get the lodge cool enough for a good night’s sleep. Hundreds of blue-footed boobiesBut the morning heralded a beautiful day – calm sea, blue skies and another boat trip. Sea lion at IsabelaLeaving the iguanas and sea lions behind we endured another 2 hour ride on the same speedboat, heading west to Isabela, the largest and one of the youngest islands in the group. There were lots of sea birds as we passed the neighbouring Tortuga island, and as we motored into the sheltered port of Puerto Villamil, we were surrounded by blue-footed boobies, large frigate birds, and to everyone’s delight: penguins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Galapagos penguins swimmingFor me, it was impossible not to fall in love with Isabela. Blue-footed boobiesThe water around the pier was crystal clear and full of wildlife, and there was a serene calmness about the place that just sucked you in and chilled you out. Galapagos penguins and chickThat afternoon, we headed out to Las Tintoreras, a group of islets not far off shore that were made up of ‘aa’ lava, a type of rocky lava that juts up sharply in spikes. Juvenile heronOn route, we passed hundreds of the beautiful blue-footed boobies, saw the pirates of the sky, the frigate bird, soaring above us, and watched penguins sunning themselves on the rocks whilst a juvenile heron spread its wings on its nest. Marine iguana sunworshippingThe lava had created some marine channels which white-tipped reef sharks liked to rest in, and we saw one from the shore, as well as being surrounded by lava lizards, and marine iguanas. Night HeronWe were even lucky enough to spot a night heron amongst the bushes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But what beat all of this was the snorkelling. We started off in the deeper water, before heading into the more sheltered and shallower water around the islets.

I was excited to see several marine turtles up close, including a couple who ignored the 2m rule and swam right up to me and past me right in front of my face. There were tropical fish everywhere, and the highlight for me, and indeed all of my snorkelling trips, was the inquisitive sea lions.

Like puppies, they are playful and inquisitive, and love interacting in the water. They would blow bubbles and spin, and swim towards you before changing direction at lightening speed at the last minute.

The rest of my group had swam ahead and I found myself alone with 3 juveniles who seemed as keen to play with me as they were with each other. It was utterly magical, and I stayed for a long time enjoying the moment before eventually my guide called on me to catch up. Even with multiple snorkelling trips after this, that day remained my favourite snorkel of the entire trip.

The main street of Isabela is sandy and low-key with a scattering of restaurants and bars. A few of us headed to a pizza diner where we were amused by our waiter who somewhat endearingly managed to cock-up our order multiple times, before we spent our evening relaxing in the hammocks in the garden of our hotel. The neighbourhood dog joined us for a while and seemed to love the attention. Somewhere nearby there were roosters who proceeded to crow from an early hour and wake us up far too early. Giant tortoisesWe had a day of exploring ahead of us, and headed first to the tortoise breeding centre out of town, where there were hundreds of tortoises of varying ages. With introduced predators on the islands, those tortoises younger than 25 years were at risk of being killed, so eggs are now routinely collected and the youngsters are reared in captivity until they are big enough to fend for themBaby tortoise and a tortoise eggselves. By the age of 25, they are usually of a size when they can be released. It was a chance to get up close with the tortoises and see some very small ones that were only a few weeks old. The small ones were very active and capable of moving quite fast, but the older ones were very sedentary in comparison.

 

FlamingoesJust past the breeding centre, an old quarry was home to a few flamingoes which we were able to see on our way to the highlands. It was misty, damp and muddy for our 1hr hike up Cerro Negro, an active volcano. Volcan NegroWe followed the ridge line a little way which gave time for the mist to lift and we were lucky enough to see the full extent of the crater rim, and the black crater within. The last eruption had been 10 years prior and we could see the site from where it had occurred. Just a couple of months prior to my trip, one of Isabela’s other volcanoes, Wolf, erupted, a reminder of the archipelago’s origins.

After lunch near an orchard, we gathered our rental bikes and set off along the beautiful expanse of Isabela’s main beach and headed west to the entrance to the National Park and the start of the track to the Wall of Tears. Wall of TearsHuman habitation on this island had begun as a penal colony, and the prisoners had been forced to build a large wall of lava rocks, which now remains the only remnant of the prison. I don’t think a single one of us had a decent bike, and through flat tyres and poorly functioning gears, we laboured our way along the 4km winding track before coming across two wild giant tortoises. Up till now, every tortoise we had seen was in an enclosure of some kind, but finally these were ones in the wild. I’m ashamed to say that I broke the 2m rule to get a photo of one, and was told off by my guide when he spotted it. Leaving our bikes at the end of the track, we walked to the large wall, and headed around and up past it to reach a viewpoint. Lava tunnel heading out to seaIt was rather overcast which limited the view but we were surrounded by vegetation and birdsong, and finally got to see the Galapagos Mockingbird, a particularly beautiful-sounding bird. Heading back to civilisation, a few of us stopped at a lava tunnel by the sea, before it was time for more food and relaxation.

Concha Perla is a small lagoon near the pier that offers protected snorkelling and we headed here the next morning before leaving Isabela behind. The reward was a very large stingray, getting close up to a penguin on a nearby rock, and tons of colourful fish and starfish. With the Panama current switching to the Humboldt current, the water temperature was dropping, and being further west in the realm of the penguin, it was noticeably colder in the water. For the first time, I started feeling cold, and after spending a good time exploring the lagoon and the surrounding lava channels, I had to get out. From here, we had a 2.5hr boat trip east to the most populated island, Santa Cruz, my base for the next month. It was a bumpy ride and one of the engines failed on the way, but everyone felt relatively good, and we turned up to the busy port of Puerto Ayora hungry. I wasn’t the only one who was excited to see our restaurant had a barista and several of us enjoyed our first decent coffee in several days.

The Galapagos' best breeding male tortoiseOur hotel was near the waterfront and we walked from here to the Charles Darwin Research centre which lies just outside of town. Quite compact, it houses a small collection of giant tortoises of various species as well as a couple of land iguanas, a rather yellow version of their black cousins, the marine iguanas. Brown PelicanWe had plenty of time to ourselves to explore the overly commercial town who’s front street is an array of tourist shops, restaurants, travel agents and the local fish market which drew a crowd of birds and people. Puerto Ayora fish marketIt was so very different from the other islands, and with little wildlife near town, I was missing the peace of Isabela already. But at least we had options. Keeping away from the tourist restaurants, we headed to a back street which was lined by food kiosks where we settled amongst a mix of locals and tourists to enjoy some delicious Ecuadorian street food.

 

 

 

 

Finally it was our last morning as a group. From town we took the hour-long walk to my favourite spot on Santa Cruz: Tortuga Bay. Walking through vegetation swarming with paper wasps, it feels like forever before the path breaks out at a beautiful surf beach. Past blue bottle jellyfish that lined the long sandy beach, we headed to the far end and through some mangroves to come out at a beautiful sheltered lagoon where we went kayaking. Hugging the mangroves first down one side and back along the other we saw rays, a white-tipped reef shark and a marine iguana swimming in the sea, the first time any of us had actually seen one in the water. Although slightly overcast, we enjoyed a bit of relaxation on the beach before heading slowly back to town.

Galapagos TortoiseIn the afternoon, we drove out to Rancho Manzanilla, one of a few ranches in the highlands offering up close encounters with semi-wild tortoises. On the long drive there, we came across the largest giant tortoise that I saw on the whole trip. Soy una tortugaIt was just sitting at the side of the road and we stopped to take photos before negotiating the gravel road around it. Wearing an exceedingly heavy tortoise shellThere had been rain recently and we needed to wear welly boots to negotiate the muddy grounds, but it was a nice wander around amongst the vegetation and there were many tortoises of various sizes hanging out around mud pools and bushes. In the main building, we had fun trying on tortoise shells for size. Climbing inside them, they were surprisingly heavy and it was a struggle to try and stand up with one on my back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the ranch, we stopped at a large lava tunnel on the drive back to town. Caused by the external lava cooling quicker than the deeper lava, it was like a large cave that we could climb down into and walk along for a short distance. It was another reminder of the island group’s volcanic origins. As it was our last night together, most of us went to a nearby hotel for some cocktails before heading back to the street of kiosks to sample something different. It was a lovely night, and despite them all leaving me behind the next morning, I promised to get up early with them to say my goodbyes. It was not to be though. For the third time in my life, I was struck down with the most horrendous food poisoning which robbed me of any sleep and made me feel absolutely miserable. Feeling guilty for disturbing my roommate in the night, I was finally able to separate myself from the bathroom and crawl back into bed at 6.30am when she was getting up. I was touched to have some of my companions for the past week come by to say adios before leaving, and I found myself alone in the hotel waiting till the last possible minute before check-out. Struggling down 2 flights of stairs with my luggage feeling weak and dehydrated, I negotiated a taxi and set off for the rest of my Galapagos adventure…

Wildlife of the Galapagos Islands

I am fully aware of how lucky I am. I have been able to travel many times, and in different countries have had, with just a few exceptions, such thrilling experiences with the local flora and fauna. But in my opinion, there is nowhere in the world that can come close to the experience I have recently had in the Galapagos Islands. Magical. Surreal. Fantastic. Whatever adjective I choose, it cannot adequately sum up how the place makes me feel. After 5 weeks visiting 10 of the 17 islands (and the seas in between!), I saw so much wildlife that I just had to share some of my excitement.

MAMMALS (English)/MAMIFEROS (Spanish)

Sea Lion/Lobo Marino

Sea LionSea lion underwater

Humpback Whale/Jorobada

Humpback Whale mother and calf

Bottle-nosed Dolphins/Delfin Mular

Bottle-nosed dolphins

Killer Whale/Orca

Orca (fin tips just visible)

REPTILES/REPTILES

Galapagos Giant Tortoise/Galapago

Galapagos Tortoise

Pacific Green Turtle/Tortuga Marino del Pacifico

Marine Turtle

Marine Iguana/Iguana Marina

Marine Iguana

Galapagos Land Iguana/Iguana Terrestre de Galapagos

Land Iguana

Hybrid Iguana

Hybrid (Marine x Land) Iguana

Lava Lizard/Lagartija de Lava

Lava lizardLava LizardLava LizardLava Lizard

Gecko/Geco

Gecko

BIRDS/AVES

Blue-footed Booby/Piquero Patas Azules

Blue-footed Booby

Nazca Booby/Piquero de Nazca

Nazca Booby

Magnificent Frigatebird/Fragata Real

Magnificent Frigatebird (Female & Juvenile)Magnificent Frigatebird (Male)

Great Frigatebird/Fragata Comun

Great Frigatebird (Juvenile)Great Frigatebird (Male)

Galapagos Penguin/Pinguino de las Galapagos

Galapagos Penguin

Greater Flamingo/Flamenco

Flamingo

Lava Gull/Gaviota de Lava

Lava Gull

Red-billed Tropic Bird/Ave Tropical

Red-billed Tropic Bird

Swallow-tailed Gull/Gaviota de Cola Bifurcada

Swallow-tailed Gull

Brown Noddy Tern/Gaviotin Cabeza Blanca

Brown Noddy Tern

Smooth-billed Ani/Garrapatero Comun

Ani

Galapagos Shearwater/Pufino de Galapagos

Shearwater

Storm Petrel/Golondrina de Mar

Frigatebird (large) with Storm Petrel (small)

Semipalmated Plover/Chorlitejo

Plover

Whimbrel/Zarapito

Whimbrel

Sanderling/Playero Comun

Sanderling

Wandering Tattler/Errante

Wandering Tattler

Ruddy Turnstone/Vuelve Piedras

Turnstone

Great Blue Heron/Garza Morena

Great Blue Heron

Cattle Egret/Garza del Ganado Bueyera

Cattle Egret

Great Egret/Garza Blanca

Great Egret

Brown Pelican/Pelicano Cafe

Brown Pelican (Juvenile)Grey Heron (Adult)

Finches/Pinzon

Small Ground Finch