MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “Galapagos Islands”

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.

Volunteering 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.

Another 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. Each 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. Despite 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. It 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. Aside 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. Currently 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. One 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. They 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. It 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

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. Just 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. It 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. The 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 lagoon had several ducks and stilts around it, and then every lagoon after that had flamingos. It was hard-going in the sweltering heat but totally worth it. I 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. Rather than go back to the breeding centre again, I walked past it and continued on up the road back to the quarry where again there were flamingos, before turning back and enjoying it all again on the return leg.

 

Following a beautiful lunch from a little kiosk shop, I found my way to a beach that I hadn’t even noticed last time. On 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. From here I could see thick clouds hanging over the highlands, but whilst they always threatened, they never quite made it over my way. I 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. This 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. It 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. I’d noticed on route that there were lots of little side trails off the main path, so on this day, that was my goal: to explore every inch of access on the trail. There 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. Pelicans 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.

 

Other trails took me to lagoons, or beaches where more marine iguanas lazed and nested. I 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. Another 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.

 

I 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. Passing the tortoises on the way back, there were yet more marine iguanas that had appeared on the main track near the beach, and 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.

 

I 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. After checking out, I passed the time reading a book on the beach until the incoming tide nearly caught me off guard. I 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. Eventually 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. I 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. In 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. I 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. Another 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. But 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. One 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. One 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. There 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, 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.

I 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. The destination was Isla Plaza Sur, South Plaza island, a small land mass to the east of Santa Cruz. It 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. On 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.

 

Plaza has hybrid iguanas, the result of marine iguanas mating with the land iguanas. They 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. The 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. They 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. Along 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. At 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. We 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.

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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. Amongst some beautiful shoals of fish that hovered around the various lava rock channels, there were several white-tipped reef sharks. Mainly 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. Averaging 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.

 

We 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. The 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. It 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.

 

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. There 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.

 

After 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.

 

From the centre, we drove to the opposite side of town and out to Playa Loberia for the first of many snorkelling trips. We 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. Unfortunately, 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. Our 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. Steep-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. There 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. Estimated 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. The 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.

 

Following 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. It was scorching by the time we reached the town. We 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. Below 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. Standing above it all is a large statue of a young Charles Darwin, and a short coastal walk leaves from here. Heading back into town, we bumped into some friends and grabbed a cocktail at a local bar, before 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. It 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. With just a few streets making up the town, it was quiet and subdued and it felt like we were the only tourists there. We were staying in little lodges by the sea, and from our patio we could see multiple turtles in the surf. There 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. We came across some caves and a rock carved like a face before having our first encounter with the famous Galapagos tortoise. Thanks 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.

 

Back 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. At 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. Back in the lodge we tried and failed to get the lodge cool enough for a good night’s sleep. But the morning heralded a beautiful day – calm sea, blue skies and another boat trip. Leaving 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.

 

For me, it was impossible not to fall in love with Isabela. The 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. That 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. On 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. The 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. We 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. We had a day of exploring ahead of us, and we 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 themselves. 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.

 

Just past the breeding centre, an old quarry was home to a few flamingos 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. We 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. Human 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. It 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.

Our 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. We 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. It 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.

In 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. It was just sitting at the side of the road and we stopped to take photos before negotiating the gravel road around it. There 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

 

Humpback Whale/Jorobada

 

Bottle-nosed Dolphins/Delfin Mular

Bottle-nosed dolphins

 

Killer Whale/Orca

Orca (fin tips just visible)

 

REPTILES/REPTILES

Galapagos Giant Tortoise/Galapago

 

Pacific Green Turtle/Tortuga Marino del Pacifico

Marine Turtle

 

Marine Iguana/Iguana Marina

 

Galapagos Land Iguana/Iguana Terrestre de Galapagos

 

Hybrid Iguana

 

Lava Lizard/Lagartija de Lava

Lava lizard

Lava LizardLava Lizard

 

Gecko/Geco

Gecko

 

BIRDS/AVES

Blue-footed Booby/Piquero Patas Azules

 

Nazca Booby/Piquero de Nazca

Nazca Booby

Magnificent Frigatebird/Fragata Real

Magnificent Frigatebird (Female & Juvenile)

 

Great Frigatebird/Fragata Comun

 

Galapagos Penguin/Pinguino de las Galapagos

Galapagos Penguin

 

Greater Flamingo/Flamenco

 

Lava Gull/Gaviota de Lava

Lava Gull

 

Red-billed Tropic Bird/Ave Tropical

Red-billed Tropic Bird

 

Swallow-tailed Gull/Gaviota de Cola Bifurcada

 

Brown Noddy Tern/Gaviotin Cabeza Blanca

Brown Noddy Tern

 

Smooth-billed Ani/Garrapatero Comun

 

Galapagos Shearwater/Pufino de Galapagos

Shearwater

 

Storm Petrel/Golondrina de Mar

Frigatebird (large) with Storm Petrel (small)

 

Semipalmated Plover/Chorlitejo

Plover

 

Whimbrel/Zarapito

 

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 FinchLarge Ground Finch

Finch

 

Yellow Warbler/Canario Maria

Yellow Warbler (Male)Yellow Warbler (Female)

 

Striated Heron/Garza de Lava

Striated heron

 

Yellow-crowned Night Heron/Garza Nocturna

 

Galapagos Mockingbird/Cucuve de Galapagos

Mockingbird

 

White-cheeked Pintail/Patillo

White Cheeked Pintail (Female)

 

Common Gallinule/Gallinula

Common Gallinule

 

Black-necked Stilt/Tero Real

 

Galapagos Dove/Paloma de Galapagos

Dove

 

Galapagos Flycatcher/Papamoscas

 

FISH/PECES

White-tipped Reef Shark/Tintorera

White-tipped Reef Shark

 

Stingray/Raya

Stingray

 

Spotted Eagle Ray/Raya Aguila

Spotted Eagle Ray

 

Blue-Chin Parrot Fish/Pez Loro de Barba Azul

Blue-Chin Parrotfish (Terminal Phase)Blue-Chinned Parrotfish (Initial Phase)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Streamer Hogfish/Vieja Ribeteada

Streamer Hogfish

 

Panamic Sergeant Major/Sargento Mayor

Sergeant Major

 

 

Damselfish/Damisela

Damselfish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Galapagos Grunt/Roncador de Galapagos

Galapagos Grunt

 

Razor Surgeonfish/Pez Chanco

Razor Surgeonfish

 

King Angelfish/Pez Bandera

King Angelfish

 

Bullseye Puffer/Botete Diana

Bullseye Puffer

 

INVERTEBRATES/INVERTEBRADOS

Galapagos Painted locust/Saltamontes de Galapagos

Painted Locust

 

Spot-winged Dragonfly/Chapulete

Dragonfly

 

Zig zag Spider/Aranha zig zag

 

Sally Lightfoot Crab/Zayapa

 

Fiddler Crab/Cangrejo Violinista

Fiddler Crab

 

Pencil Spined Sea Urchin/Erizo Punta de Lapiz

Sea Urchin

 

Chocolate Chip Sea Star/Estrella Chispas de Chocolate

Chocolate Chip Sea Star

 

Octopus/Pulpo

Octopus

 

Cockroach/Cucaracha

Cockroach on back

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