My wife and I were fortunate to have been able to visit the Galapagos Islands recently. We were based on a small ship called Celebrity Xpedition. The Xpedition only has 98 passengers but does give you a little bit of luxury whilst circumnavigating the Islands. The crew are all Ecuadorean and looked after us very well.
As well as the usual ships company that you would expect to see there were a team of naturalists on board who were there to answer any questions that you may have about the Galapagos Islands flora and fauna but also more importantly they were your guides when visiting the Islands, each Naturalist is also a Galapagos National Park Ranger. The rules are very strict when it comes to movement on and around the islands, itineraries for any visiting vessels are strictly controlled by the National Park Authorities. There are set locations that are allowed to be visited on each Island (if landing is possible) and you have to be accompanied by a Naturalist. At each of these locations areas and trails are clearly marked and all have to keep within these. Due to each of the Islands being at a different ecological stage contamination was taken very seriously, when leaving an Island and boarding the ship you had to make sure that you completely clean off your feet, shoes, cloths, bags and anything that may hold sand or organic material. This practice occurs even prior to landing in the Islands, your bags are checked for anything organic, seeds, fruit ect as to not introduce anything to the Islands. The head Naturalist on board told us that seeds turn up in all sorts of ornamental pieces, they are used to make patterns on peoples t-shirts amongst other things, all of these items are prohibited on the Islands. This of course means that you are not even allowed to remove a shell or a stone for a keepsake, if you were found to be in possession of anything from the Islands you faced getting into serious trouble. This in my opinion was a very good practice as the areas that were available for visitors were very small relative to the rest of the Islands and would have been picked clean if every visitor took something home. This meant that what you were seeing is probably what other visitors saw years prior to your own visit. This was evident in some of the skeletons that were present in that they had not been touched and lay as bleached bones or decomposing the very spot where the bird or animal had took its last breath. We saw skeletons of various birds and some bones of a sea lion, needless to say if you were allowed to remove them they would have made a great addition to the Woodlife Table of Death (those that have read my previous posts will know what the Woodlife Table of Death is). There is also the 2 meter rule, you not allowed to approach and get within two metres of any wildlife. Now the reason I say “approach and get within” is that if you happen to be standing or sitting still and something decides to walk within inches of you then that is its choice and is ok.
In most parts of the world if you want to get close to wildlife you normally have to employ tracking or field craft skills, in the Galapagos this all goes out of the window. The wildlife has no fear of the human and close encounters are certain. In most areas you are certain to see native and endemic species to that particular area or Island. That said I still feel observing from a distance is still better (for more natural behaviour) as although the wildlife does not fear you, you can tell that it is aware and watching your every move.
The graphic above shows the route of our journey around the Islands and below gives a brief outline of each days itinerary and the wildlife that we observed on each island.
Day 1 – Baltra Island & Daphine Major
We landed at Baltra Island (South Seymour Island) so called by the locals due to the Island previously being home to a US Airforce Base during World War 2 with its code name of Baltra . We were transferred to a pontoon where we boarder Zodiacs that took us to the Xpidition that was anchored someway out to sea. Whilst waiting to board the zodiac at the pontoon we saw our first glimpse of Galapagos Wildlife, a Blue Footed Boobie, two Marine Iguanas and a Sea Lion swimming around the pontoon. After boarding the Xpedition and the usual safety brief we circumnavigated Daphine major with lots of Frigate Birds flying above and landing on the mast of the ship. We watched them challenging each other in flight for food. In the evening after dinner we went out on deck, it was dark at this point but from the lights of the ship we watched dolphins, a turtle and a sea lion swimming around the ship.
Day 2 – Santiago Island & Rabida Island
We boarded the zodiacs and made our way to Puerto Egas on Santiago Island for a wet landing. This site used to be the location of salt mining operation until the 1960s when it was closed. The only evidence we could see of this was a hut just above the shore line. On landing at the beach we were presented with Sea Lions, Marine Iguana, a Great Blue Heron, Yellow Crowned Heron, Sally Lightfoot Crabs and Blue Footed Boobies. We started along the trail and the first thing we saw was a Mocking Bird. Further along the trail we saw Lava Lizards, Spiders, Butterflies and Finches. We arrived at another part of the coast line which was made up of black lava rock. Here we saw Fur Seals basking on the rocks, Lava and Yellow Crowned Heron. Further on we saw Marine Iguana, Pelican, Sally Lightfoot Crabs and various birds including the American oyster catcher (although there are no oysters in Galapagos) Fly Catchers and a Galapagos Dove. One of the Fly Catchers became very curious by the lens on my camera and flew up and hovered right in front of the lens hood, I can only assume it could see a reflection of itself in the lens and wanted a closer look. From here we made our way back along the coastline to the landing spot to catch the Zodiacs back to the Xpedition.
Back onboard and Xpedition made its way to Rabida Island for a wet landing. Apart from the trees and plants everything about this Island is red. The contrast between the red Island and the blue sea was stunning. At the landing spot there were three sea lions basking in the sun. We walked along the marked out trails but due to the heat we didn’t see as much as the morning trip had offered. But we did see mocking birds and finches including cactus finch and ground finch. We also saw a lone Sea Lion tucked away in a crevice in cliff along with some Marine Iguana.
Day 3 – Isabala Island
The first trip of the day saw a nice relaxing Zodiac ride around a lagoon at Elizabeth Bay on Isabela Island. As we approached the entrance of the lagoon we saw Galapagos Penguin feeding in the sea, these guys are were a lot smaller than I had imagined. As we quietly made our way around the lagoon we spotted a Striated Heron perched on the mangrove just above the water watching and waiting when suddenly it thrust its self forward into the water to retrieve a fish, it wasn’t until I looked at the photograph afterwards that you can see other fish jumping out of the water trying to get away. We sat and watched the Heron fishing for sometime and as with most wildlife in the Galapagos it was not phased by our presence whatsoever. Also in the lagoon were a number of Galapagos Green Sea Turtles that majestically glided past the zodiac and playful Sea Lion that was swimming about us. On exiting the lagoon we made our way to some rocks that were protruding from the sea where we saw Blue Footed Boobies, Flightless Cormorants and Pelicans, oh and did I mention the crabs?
The afternoon stop was another part of Isabala Island named Targus Cove this required to Xpedition the move further along the coastline of the Island. En-route we were treated to sightings of Bryde’s Whales. The Captain stopped the ship so that we could observe these great creatures feeding for a good half an hour until they eventually went on there way.
The activities at Targus Cove included a zodiac ride along the coast line, this was the only day that we were rained upon. In-fact it was quite nice and refreshing as the temperature for most of the trip was in the high twenty’s to early thirties °C. On the zodiac ride we observed Galapagos Penguin, Blue footed Boobies, Flightless Cormorant, Lava Gulls, Marine Iguana as well as other sea birds. After the zodiac ride we headed for a dry landing where we then climbed 150 steps to reveal a fantastic view over Darwin Lake. Here we saw mainly Finches but also Lava Heron and Pelican.
Day 4 – Santiago Island & Bartolome Island
This mornings activity was a 1.5 mile walk over a Lava Field that was created during a volcanic eruption in the 1900’s. The lava was in all shapes, jagged edges, smooth flat areas, rope like shapes (Pahoehoe Lava Flow), Iridescent swirls and popped bubbles, at one point the Naturalist showed us something that looked like a foot print that was actually two popped bubbles of lava side by side. There were some other interesting shapes where some branches had fallen into the lava at a stage where they didn’t instantly burn up but over time had broken down to leave an imprint in the skin of the lava. Its not until afterwards that you realise “Wow how often would you ever get the chance to walk on a lava field” . There was little vegetation here and what was here was not very green do to the lack of rain in the Galapagos so far this year. The small plants that were there were growing out of small cracks in the lava, each year as the plant breaks down it provides itself with more material for new plants to grow in the following year. This starts off as single plant on a newly formed Island and over hundreds of thousands of years builds up to create an organic layer that exists on the older Islands supporting flora and fauna.
Bartolome Island is a very small Island right next to Santiago Island, it is so close you could swim across to it. This Island host one of the most photographed views of the Galapagos Islands from its peak at a height of 374ft which you can reach by climbing its 380 steps and some long walkways. The only inhabitants of this small Island were Lava Lizards. From the top you have a great view of other Islands in the archipelago and the famous view across the Island encompassing the Pinnacle Rock on the Island itself and a view across to the lava field on Santiago Island.
Day 5 – Santa Cruz Island & North Seymour Island
A wet landing on Bachas beach so named from the mispronunciation of the word “Barges” by the local population during the 1950’s when some World War II barges broke their moorings on Baltra and ran aground on this beach. The barges were never removed and became a permanent feature on the beach. At certain times of the year remains of both barges can be seen sticking out of the sand on the beach. The was talk of once removing them but it was decided they are part of the local history of the Island and should therefore remain. Wildlife seen here included Sally Lightfoot & Ghost Crabs, Marine Iguana, Lava Lizards, Yellow Crowned Heron, Lava Heron, American Oyster Catchers, Pelican, Lava Gull, Yellow Warbler, Galapagos Pintail Duck and Flamingos. We moved along the beach and could see Turtle nesting area along the top of the bank, we were asked to keep away from these area but we could see tracks to and from the banks and were also lucky enough to find some egg casings. The casings were unlike a normal egg shell but more of a flexible. As we walked further along the beach a pair of American Oyster Catchers came strolling through two groups of people without a care. We made our way to a lagoon where we found Galapagos Pintail Ducks and a solitary flamingo, after this we were given some free time to explore the beach or go for a swim. I decided to take the opportunity to get away from everyone and go for a zone in further up the beach. I found another lagoon that revealed another two Flamingos a lava Gull and some more Marin Iguana. It was great to sit here on my own for 20 minutes and zone in. Even though the usual rules of wildlife watching don’t really apply in the Galapagos, the zone in allowed me to see more birds, the bugs all started moving about again and the background noise filled with bird song and bug noises. Feeling quite immersed I took a slow walk along the beach, I wanted to get some pictures of the Ghost Crab. These little buggers tend to dart down a hole as they are approached so I sat down on the sand and waited and sure enough after a while a couple appeared. I watched them moving down towards the waters edge away from the bolt holes that they had emerged from and then along the waters edge between some rocks I managed to get some nice close up shots. Now when I say close up this was with my lens at 400mm so its not like I was able to get that close to these illusive little buggers. Further down the beach I was sat watching a Lava Heron fishing along the shoreline when a Marine Iguana emerged from the water and started walking up the beach towards me. It came within inches of my feet stopping to give me the once over and then carried on about its business. You might say well its the norm in the Galapagos but never the less you still get that great feeling when wildlife comes that close to you of its own accord. Just out to see the Pelicans were diving into the see catching fish, flying they look quite graceful but when they dive and hit the water it looks really quite clumsy. They filter the water from there long beaks which leaves them with a mouthful of goodies but if they are not careful they could loose their snack to the Gulls. I watched as the Gulls stood on the head of the pelican during the filtering process ready to snatch the food straight from the Pelicans mouth if the opportunity arose. Whilst waiting for the zodiacs to arrive I took a shallow paddle in the water where lots of little fish could be seen along with some reasonably sized Puffer Fish.
That afternoon we had a dry landing onto some rocks at North Seymour Island, this was to be one of my favourite locations. Hear we saw lots of Blue footed Boodies, some engaging in there mating ritual dance. Lots of nesting Frigate Birds, some with chicks and males with there bright red distended throats (sac). There are two types of Frigate Birds in the Galapagos, the Magnificent and the Great. The way to tell them apart in the males is by the Green feathers on the back of the Great Frigate bird ( Green = Great ) and with the females the Magnificent female when in flight has an M shape on her breast (M shape = Magnificent). Here we also saw our first Land Iguana’s that were yellow /orange in colour compared to black colour of there cousins the Marine Iguana. We came across a Land Iguana feeding on a large dead eel, there was also a Lava Lizard here but it wasn’t interested in the eel but rather the flies that were landing on it. As a fly landed on the eel the Lava Lizard projected its self forward at full speed to catch the fly. We made our way around the marked out routes where we saw lots more Frigate Birds and Blue footed Boobies. Land Iguana reaching up into Cacti to retrieve the fleshy parts of the plant. Finch nests could also be seen safely tucked away within the cacti. As we made our way back to the zodiac we came across a pair of pretty looking Swallow-Tailed Gulls.
Day 6 – San Cristobal Island & Kicker Rock Circumnavigation
The first trip of the day was to the small town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno where we were to vistit an Interpretation Centre. The centre basically explains the natural history and evolution, conservation and the human history of the Islands. After this we had the opportunity to have a look around town and sample the local wares. The Sea Lions made themselves at home here sleeping on the benches and playing on the water slides that were installed for the children.
In the afternoon we had a wet landing on a beach of fine white sand called Cerro Brujo. Hear we observed the usual Sea Lions, Pelicans, Lava Gulls, Ghost Crabs and Lava Lizards. This was basically a couple of hours chill time on a very nice beach. Back on board Xpedition, a cold beer later and we were circumnavigation Kicker Rock. The rock was named Kicker Rock because at a certain angle it looks like a shoe.
Day 7 – Santa Cruz
A visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station in the town of Puerto Ayora (the largest of the towns in the Islands) was our first stop of the day. Hear we saw lots of captive tortoise that were part of a breeding program from very small to very large in size. We saw the enclosure that one housed Lonesome George who sadly passed away on 24th June 2012. Remaining in the enclosure were his two female companions. Due to local rules the bus was only allowed to drop us off at the station and was not allowed to wait or pick people up so we had to walk back into the centre of town. This took us pass a small area where the fisherman prepared and sold the fish that they caught. Of course this attracted some attention from the local wildlife. In the immediate area there was a Sea Lion, Marine Iguana, Lava Gulls and lots of Pelicans. The Pelicans were constantly trying to steal the waste from the fish preparation and fighting with each other when one of them managed to steal something. I say steal as the Fisherman are not allowed to feed the wildlife. Even though we were in the town we also saw a Great Blue Heron, a Yellow Crowned Heron, an Egret and of course a lot more sea Lions.
The afternoon and sadly our last trip out took us to the Highlands. Here we visited a Ranch that enabled us to se the Giant Tortoise living in the wild in its natural habitat. It seemed fitting that these were the last creatures that we visited in the wild on the islands as Galapagos in Spanish translates to Tortoise. After some refreshments and a last half hour to take in the surroundings it was back to the Xpedition for the Final leg of the journey back to Baltra Island where we were to catch our flights back to Ecuador the following day.
Getting too and from the Galapagos Islands involves a lot of traveling. From the time we left for the airport in London to arriving in the hotel in Quito was in excess of 24 hours and if like me you cant sleep when flying it gets very boring and tiring by the time you reach your destination. We flew from Heathrow to Madrid and then onto Quito. Here we stayed for two nights and a day before flying off to the Galapagos. The journey home was even longer which included another stop in Guayaquil where we had to leave the aircraft and re-board it an hour later. That said, I feel privileged to have been able to visit the Islands and no amount of traveling matters once you arrive and experience the Islands and all that they have to offer.