The Galapagos……….Ecuador Part 1

The Galapagos……….Ecuador Part 1

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Our plan for the Galapagos came together over dinner with dear friends almost a year ago. We had already decided that we had to include it in our trip, its on the bucket list for every nature lover.. We’ve known Margy and Henry for longer than 15 years. I worked for Margy for a few years, and during that time we became great friends with both she and her husband. We also realized that we had a love of travel in common; we even went to East Africa with Margy, Henry and their 4 boys 10 years ago. While talking about our trip over dinner one night, we said “hey…..want to meet us in the Galapagos?”….. they agreed 30 seconds later.

We met up in Guayaquil, Ecuador. They arrived from Quito, we had arrived the day before to do the usual airport dance; Customs, Immigration, parking, permits, a visit to the main airport office and setting a time for the following morning for yet more paperwork and to change Emcinco’s oil.

Our time together started with an evening walk on the Malecon in Guayaquil, with a drink at a rooftop bar and then a nice dinner. Our commercial flight the next morning deposited us on Baltra Island; we had arrived.

The Galapagos islands are almost mythical. Every kid hears about them in science class as the place where Charles Darwin made the observations that became the foundation of his theory of evolution.

We had booked a small boat for 7 nights. Some boats that tour the islands have more than 100 people on board. Our boat, the Reina Silva, had a maximum capacity of 12. We figured we would get good information from our guide, avoid big crowds and have more time on walks and other excursions if we were on a smaller boat.

Our guide met us as we arrived, our bags went to the boat and we went off to see the famous giant tortoises. Slow and completely unafraid, the giant tortoises that afternoon set our understanding of the wildlife on the islands. Birds, sea lions, lizards and every other land based wild creature show no fear of humans. The lack of fresh water on the islands prevented human occupation of the islands for millennia. The animals, having evolved in isolation without the presence of humans, never developed the ‘fear response’ that is normally seen.

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We boarded the boat in the afternoon. Introductions and safety drills completed, we were shown to our rooms. Margy and Henry were in a nice room on the middle level. Our room was beautiful, large, with a king bed and a nice large bathroom. it was also on the top level of the boat. Little did we know that sometimes the upper deck would rock and roll more than a 1980’s big hair rock band!

We knew that dinner that first night was a sign of good things to come, the chef turned out the most amazing food from a galley that was small and simple. We ate like kings. I don’t know how he managed to keep all of his fingers while slicing and dicing when the boat rolled side to side!

The boat sailed most nights to deposit us at a new island in the morning. Every morning we were woken up with music playing throughout the cabins, our ‘time to get up’ notification. It was worth waking up earlier than that, grabbing a hot beverage and taking in the view from the bow. Sometimes we would wake up to a view of a lone rock, sticking up out of the ocean. Other mornings, anchored near the shore- we would arise to a chorus of seabirds, or the barking of sea lions – or both!

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Our daily activities were sketched out the previous night by our guide. Throughout the week, we spent our time either snorkeling, hiking on the islands in the company of the guide, kayaking or hanging out on the ship. There were also occasional nighttime talks. Our guide was a Galapagos native, who was essentially raised in the park ( his dad was a ranger ) and had been working there for over 30 years. His talks were very interesting, to say the least! Geology, oceanography, evolution, climate change.. all of these topics and more were on the table.

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The guided walks every day were so interesting. We DID see the creatures everyone goes there to see. Blue footed boobies, but also Red footed and Nazca boobies. Waved albatrosses, penguins and diurnal owls that roost in holes in the rocks because they have no predators and there are no trees. We saw sea lions, fur seals, various species of iguana including iguanas adapted to feeding under water in the ocean, giant tortoises, Darwin’s’ famous finches and more. These daily hikes were wonderful. Great photo opportunities coupled with science based and experienced narration by the guide. Explanations of why each island has animals that look similar, but are completely different species, created over millions of years by the conditions of that particular island. He clearly understood what makes the Galapagos so special.

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A few of the walks were not ‘animal based’ but were geology walks. Our hike on Santiago island was all about geology! The Galapagos islands are volcanic, formed by eruptions over millions of years. Santiago’s last eruption was only 200 years ago. The new lava is called Rope lava, this “brownie dough” looking rock is sharp, shiny and fully intact. It looks like it stopped flowing yesterday. There is little life of any kind established on this lava. A few ‘pioneer’ tufts of grass, and an occasional perching bird, but thats it. No established life at all. The island is too young. It was so unfamiliar to us, it seemed like another planet. We came away feeling like we had seen the earth from its beginning, and from an ecological perspective, perhaps we had!

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Eventually we got over our amazement at how unafraid the animal and birdlife was and we began to take in the bigger ‘science nerd’ picture. For me (Sara) The 2 big concepts were:
How volcanic land is created, and what is needed to ‘develop’ it into land that can support life.
How species are formed by their environments. Big stuff!

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Everything works together. Geology, wind and marine currents, rainfall or lack of rainfall, plants and animals. Basic concepts like: animal life can’t become established if theres no food. Food can’t become established unless there is soil, then plants and insect life, then larger things that eat the plants and that become food for even larger things…and that nothing could get established there unless it flew or drifted there. Clearly it happens in sequence, over millions of years, with much trial and error. What was great about the trip was that we got to see it all; old islands full of specialized species, each adapted to its particular environment, and new islands, poised to become new environments- who knows what animals will live there millions of years from now!

It wasn’t just the land based environment that was interesting. To say that the snorkeling was good is an understatement, it was off the charts! This time of the year a wetsuit is recommended and we were glad to have heeded this advice, the water was chilly in places and we didn’t want to get out too soon, we might have missed something!

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Pic by Margy Dudley

The marine ecology of the Galapagos is unique. Cold currents from the south and west provide ample food for all members of the food chain, and allow ‘cold water’ species to thrive there. But… its also on the equator. So both cold water and tropical species are seen. For example, we saw both penguins (most live in Antarctica) , and parrot fish, a large multicolored tropical reef fish. The rocky coast line provided plenty of habitat: fish, sharks, rays, sea turtles, you name it. One of the first things we noticed was how different each location was from the last one. The water temperature varied a lot, the visibility would change from place to place and the sea life was in a constant state of flux.

It was immediately apparent that the sea lions would try to steal the show every time we went for a swim or were near the water. Gregarious creatures, the sea lions love to swim alongside you, weave in and out of the group, or just dart around with playful grace, twisting and turning in such a fluid way, clearly the water is was where they are most at home.

We thought that we might see turtles but we had no idea that our turtle encounters would be so amazing. While we were on board, it seems like every few minutes someone would say “turtle” and point. When snorkeling it was easy to get within 6 feet of them, and we saw lots of them! One bright sunny day we followed one for several minutes, as it cruised slowly, just a few feet below the surface, eating the algae that grew on the rocks there. The sun on its back really showed off its coloring. Brown, green, grey- warm colors that blended in well in all sorts of light. They swim with such ease, slowly with their eyes open, their mouths almost looking like beaks. It’s incredible to see them just going about their day as normal, not changing their behavior because we were there.

In some places, the current was pretty strong. We would come around a corner and suddenly we would be swimming hard and getting no where! Luckily, the guys in the dinghies were always close. Sometimes they would slowly tow us along to get out of a heavy current. Then we would resume our snorkel. We also needed to remember to look up occasionally. We would be happily swimming along, face down and would look up, and come face to face with a nesting bird, a smiling sea lion or a pelican’s big beak inches from our face.

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The word shark was often spoken. Most of us had little or no experience snorkeling with sharks and we didn’t know what to expect. We saw several white tipped reef sharks on this trip and the irony was that by the end of the trip, when anyone saw a shark and pointed it out, we all swam toward it, not away! Considered harmless and measuring up to about 6 feet- they were exciting for us.

We had shallow snorkels along rocks, snorkels over sandy areas populated with star fish (now officially called sea stars, since they are not fish) and snorkels over old lava tubes. We also had a memorable wall snorkel, on a vivid vertical rock wall teeming with fish, anemones and sponges, that fell away to nothing, the bottom so deep we couldn’t see it. It was all wonderful and easily seen without having to dive, yay for snorkeling.

We also got to play with sea kayaks. It was great to get out on the water, paddling along a rocky shore or beach. We could tuck the nose of the boat into a little cove to watch birds or sea lions, and feel the water lift the boat each time the swell would come in.The water was so clear that sometimes we could see tropical fish below us, and the sea lions would come over to check us out, spiraling and curving in the water, then darting away. One couple capsized after getting stuck on a rock. They laughed, righted themselves and kept going.

Sometimes the wind and current were pretty strong, and we had to work pretty hard the get to our destination.. I am a weak paddler….and there is so much to look at…..

It wan’t all elevated ‘science stuff’ on this trip. Lets not forget about boat time. It had everything we needed: beds, great food, comfortable lounging spaces, good people, a bar. We called it the ” floating cocoon of loveliness” Fully contained, it took us where we needed to go in comfort.

Occasionally there would be a short period of downtime during the day. We would laze around, reading, watching birds, checking out pictures or napping (what a delight). The hot showers were great after a long snorkel. There was lots of laughter, a few evening cocktails and time spent getting to know the other folks on the boat. There was a group of 4 from Minnesota, a couple from Boston and a couple from London. Lots of interesting conversations were had!

The guys on the boat were amazing, precision work with a smile. Every meal was a highlight. The chef looked like he was about 18, but he turned out fresh and delicious food, beautifully presented. The captain was so kind, always smiling and patient with our questions in bad Spanish! The night we crossed the equator, he invited everyone up to the bridge to watch the numbers on the GPS count down to zero: hard to capture with a pic- the numbers roll by fast!

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Pic by Margy Dudley

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Comfort is a relative term when you are at the mercy of the waves. We crossed some rough seas when moving from place to place, and on a couple of nights everyone was struggling to walk, much less do anything complicated. To move across a room you would have to use a wide stance and move from handhold to handhold. Silverware went flying, bread leapt to the floor and we all did our best.

Sleeping in our uppermost cabin was hard on those rough nights. The boat rolled significantly, we even changed our orientation in the bed to try to deal with it. Seasickness is pretty unpleasant; when you are really feeling it, the best word is miserable. But, we (me really) got through it. The lesson learned was to be proactive with dramamine and my trusty anti nausea pulsating wristband. The first night was the worst, then we adjusted by varying degrees and were fine. No landlubbers here! Walks on land were funny, you felt like you were still rolling back and forth.

Our trip would not have been the same without our “best mates” Margy and Henry. We all just get along perfectly. All 4 of us are goofy and silly and interested in wildlife and the environment. It is likely that some of our silliness may have been over the top, but… so be it! We laughed, joked and dealt with a 6 hour flight delay on our return to Ecuador’s mainland with good humor. We already miss them, and are trying to persuade them to meet us again somewhere else down the road….

One last observation- there is a real importance placed on preservation of the Galapagos. Tourists are only allowed to visit a fraction of the total area, and for good reason. Visits are tightly choreographed, people have to stick to designated areas in the company of a guide. Although the restricted access took a little getting used to, we came to respect and understand it. Rarely would groups from different boats intersect for more than a minute or 2. A concerted effort is made to ensure little impact on any one place at any one time. The boat schedules and landing sites are carefully controlled. Ecuador clearly understands the value of the islands, what they represent both for science, and for tourism. I hope everyone who visits the Galapagos has a great experience like we did!

 

Miles to date: 4110 NM