Galavanting in the Galapagos Islands
A honeymoon conjures images of white sand beaches, suntans, sun sets, sundowners – right? No. Think cool days, even cooler water and some pretty unflattering wetsuits! But the term ‘trip of a lifetime’ has never been better applied than here.
When the first explorers discovered Galapagos they didn’t even give it a name – The Bishop of Panama, back in the 1500s referred to the place as ‘hell’ (well, he did nearly die of thirst, and witnessed ‘monstrous’ animals he had never seen before crawling over lava!). Modern naturalists and travellers frequently apply the title ‘Eden’, a slightly ironic opposite referring to astounding concentration of varied landscapes and wildlife and its incredible ‘innocence’ when it comes to man. Either way it is very hard to write about these islands without applying Biblical terms or thinking in Biblical proportions… and I live next door to the Serengeti. As far as I was concerned, it was heaven (especially if you’d just been given a 400mm lens for Christmas!).
It was one heck of a journey (I’ll spare you the details but suffice to say it took almost a week just in days spent getting there and back, and involved going Mwanza-Dar-Zurich-Heathrow-stopping for a week in the UK with family-Birmingham- Amsterdam-Quito-Baltra and then the whole lot in reverse again!) and we nearly didn’t make day one… on the very last leg of our journey, just five minutes from landing our plane was told Baltra had a hole in its landing strip and we were being diverted to Quayaquil! Typical TIA Tale, I think! But all it meant was one more airport and a couple of hours delay, and suddenly there we were, standing at the tiny boat launch spot ready to hop on a Zodiac and be taken to our ship. And we were greeted not only by khaki-clad, smiling, Ecuadorian naturalists, but also by a Sea Lion and her pup! A great start.
So it turns out the main way to see the islands is by boat (well, duh!). There is one hotel on the inhabited island of Santa Cruz, and it is possible to take day trips on smaller boats, but to really get a feel for this extraordinary place, it’s all about the boat…or ship…whatever. Ours was the Xpedition – equipped with a Jacuzzi on top, the Darwin restaurant downstairs, a couple of bars and several small Zodiac boats to take guests over the islands. It was not in the leagues of the giant cruise ships, I am told, but it was certainly very comfortable and manned by a crew who have won ‘best cruise in the world’ for the past 4 years!
There are so many photos of each stage of this trip (I took a total of over 5,000) that I think I’m going to let them do most of the talking for the purposes of this blog (don’t worry, I’ve made a small selection – it’d take me a year to upload 5,000 with this internet speed!). I’m going to be writing more formal articles in a few magazines, so this is more a visual treat with captions. Please note that all these photos are very low resolution for uploading purposes so apologies is the clarity isn’t all that great, but it should give you some idea of our Galavanting in the Galapagos!
The Sea Lions are everywhere!
On our first morning we were taken to a sea lion colony (which thankfully do not smell at all, unlike the seal colonies of South Africa and Namibia which are quite staggering!). We jumped from the Zodiacs onto the shore with groups of them scattered about just meters away and with barely a reaction to our presence – they had not been taught to fear man. There poaching is zero. An extraordinary fact which made it hard to avoid imagining what Africa might have been like. I’m not suggesting leopards would have come over for a cuddle, but without fear things might be very different, and certainly more prolific.
In the end it was actually me trying to avoid the animals: Baby seals are frequently left alone for days, and even weeks, at a time on a beach whilst their mothers go fishing. Naturally they get hungry and ask loudly and repeatedly for food from anyone who is passing. Other sea lions have their own ignoring tactics, but when a little tiny sea lion flops up to you uttering groans of hunger it is very hard to turn them down. Of course we had nothing to offer and we quickly learned that we could not risk touching them. If they carried any of our human scent on them when the mother returned they could be rejected and left to starve. We found ourselves actively fleeing from the little pups when they came too close!
Sadly we did witness one sobering moment when our human interference does cause damage (skip this section if you’re a softy).
In fact, our influence has caused problems all over the islands over the years as early attempts at settlement brought dogs, cats, rats, goats and several other species that were not endemic and caused all kinds of complexities amongst the real locals – but the good news is a great deal of this is now being properly managed and several islands have actually been restored to their former balance. In the mean time excellent environmental management is working hard to ensure that we tourists have as little impact as possible.
And it wasn’t just the sea lions who were happy to get close. Everywhere we looked animals were simply doing what they do…
Introducing the famous Blue Footed Booby:
And the stunning Sally Light Foot Crab:
The Swallow Tailed Gull with it’s striking red eye-rim which is only a feature during mating season – make-up for birds!
Marine Iguanas are everywhere, and they have an oddly endearing habit of snorting salt out of their nostrils at regular intervals to handle the amount of sea water they take in! They’re supremely ugly and yet incredibly attractive with their bright colours and dragon-like crests.
Then there’s also the Land Iguana…
The bird life (I know I’ve mentioned a couple already) is so varied and vibrant it’s impossible not to become a bit of a ‘twitcher’ whilst you there (new term I learned on a safari recently – translation: bird spotting geek… only it’s far less geeky here in Africa and I’m pretty sure it’s not geeky at all in the Galapagos!).
And it’s not just the wildlife that’s spectacular
The geology proved fascinating, particularly as we were literally standing on the evidence… I could literally have published hundreds of landscape images here. These few will just give you a bit of a feel for the broad differences between the islands.
But we didn’t only get to see the Islands from the land, though. Perhaps the most thrilling perspective of this smile-generating environment is seeing it from under the water. Uh huh! We were actually allowed to snorkel with the animals! Sadly the frequently flash by so fast that it’s hard to get the photos – I missed penguins, marine iguanas, puffer fish and massive sword fish, but I did get sea lions and sea turtles:
Oh and do you know the story of the Galapagos Post box?
Well the custom is that anyone who visits the Islands can visit Post Office Bay and pop a postcard into the large whiskey barrel box that’s hidden just off the beach. No need for a stamp though! Each visitor is, instead, asked to sift through the pile and find a postcard addressed to someone who lives not too far from them. They must then hand deliver the card and actually meet the person it is addressed to (no cheating by sticking stamps on once you get home!). Of course we had to post a couple just to see if anyone manages to get them back to Mwanza, Tanzania (I’ll be seriously impressed if they do!) and we also took one addressed to a lady in Bath (near my parents’ place – we’ll deliver next time we’re in the UK) so watch this space for follow up stories on that one. I did hear one lovely tale of a guy who delivered to a girl near where he lived, they fell in love and eventually got married at the post box in the Galapagos! Ahhh!
Sharks off the back of the boat
The entire time we’d been in the Galapagos we’d been looking out for sharks. We’d been told there are several species there and were, understandably nervous about snorkelling the first couple of times – but the Naturalists just laughed it off and assured us they had no interest in eating tourists and we quickly grew used to hopping in and out of the water and stopped worrying. It wasn’t until the very last day, when a shoal of Jack fish came flying along the side of our boat that we really got to see them in action.
It was a pretty great final scene.
One other ‘development’ (sorry that’s photography joke!) since last year’s blogging days is the transformation of my old Canon camera into a fantastic new infrared camera. This is an experiment that I’ve always wanted to try out, but knowing I was off to the Galapagos turned my want into a need – look at the results! And this is before I’ve even learned how to use the colour element! (I’ll get to that!).
In just a week we had done so much, seen so much and made so many great new friends. We were very sad to leave.
In fact as Darwin wrote: ‘It is the fate of every voyager, when he has just discovered what object in any place is more particularly worthy of his attention, to be hurried from it.’ Too right!
we can’t forget Quito
Of course we were also in Quito before and after the Galapagos tour as it’s the main airport to enter Ecuador through. It perhaps ought to warrant its own blog rather than this little tag on. We were not expecting such a wide variety of things to see and thoroughly enjoyed the markets, the equator, old architecture, potted Histories, volcano views and musical instrument education we ended up experiencing. Here is just a tiny selection of pics from our days there.