I had a fantastic week in the Galápagos Islands, 1,000 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador. I have never seen anything like it in my life before - the islands are packed with unusual wildlife, I didn't even have to make an effort to look for it, everywhere I turned I would see incredible scenes of animals in their natural environment. I was shocked by how unperturbed the animals were by the tourists - it was as if they didn't even notice we were there, they just carried on with what they were doing and never ran away from us. We could get incredibly close to them because many of the birds nested right next to the trails and, in the water, the sea lions and penguins came up and played with us. For most of the time that I was there the weather was very hot and sunny so I was always keen to go snorkelling to cool off.
My friend Monica wisely advised me to do an eight-day boat trip rather than the four/five-day trips that many people do and I'm so glad that I did - people definitely miss out if they only visit half the islands - eight days covering the north and south islands is necessary in order to see all the major wildlife attractions (even after eight days there were still more islands that I could have seen).
When I flew in to Baltra Island from Quito I was surprised by the hordes of loud annoying Americans (and concerned I would be stuck on a boat with them for eight days!) - it's rare to find them in South America. Thankfully the group on my boat was lovely - I was sharing with 4 Belgians (Noelle, Philippe, Hanna and Cristof), 4 Germans (Christian, Marco, Petra and Tom), 2 Swiss (Sabine and her husband whose name I don't remember), 2 (nice!) Americans (Meghan and Jeoff), 2 English (David living in the Cayman Islands and Matt living in Switzerland), 1 Dutch guy (Rob, who was my cabinmate) and a crew of 7. I was on a very nice boat named Eden, where I ate and slept, disembarking a few times each day for excursions. The boat would dock near the site we were visiting or the area in which we were going snorkelling and then we would take a small dingy from the main boat to the destination.
My first stop was Las Bachas Beach, on the way to the beach I saw a marine iguana swimming in the sea. I walked around the beach and saw some sea turtle nests - they bury their eggs under the sand; they are nocturnal so they come and go from the nests at night, leaving distinctive tracks in the sand. I visited a lagoon where there was a pink flamingo, some Galápagos ducks and another marine iguana swimming (it must have been a bit lost in the fresh water lagoon!).
Afterwards I went snorkelling off the beach and saw a few fish but my mask was letting in water so I couldn't stay out for long. Instead I spent a long time watching the many brightly-coloured 'Sally lightfoot' crabs on the rocks, they were great fun - they looked like they were dancing! The baby crabs are black and barely noticeable on the black rocks but the adults are multicoloured - orange, yellow, lilac and turquoise - very pretty. There were some more marine iguanas chilling out on the rocks and on the sand. They have a funny habit of flicking their head and spitting every so often - apparently to get rid of the salt from the sea water.
In the evening we had welcome drinks with the crew followed by a nice dinner (the food on the boat was always good and I ate too much!). Later we watched a video that our guide, Santiago, had made when he previously worked as a scuba diving guide - it showed some of the fascinating marine life of Galápagos including an enormous whale shark (unfortunately we couldn't see any of those guys while snorkelling!).
On the morning of Day 2 I visited North Seymour Island. I saw a few sea lions and a brown pelican along the shore on the way there. I was greeted by a family of swallow-tailed gulls when I disembarked the boat - they have a distinctive red ring around their eyes which helps them to see in the dark as they are nocturnal; the chicks are almost as big as the adults but they look very different. As I walked around the island I saw lots of land iguanas, some climbing in bushes looking for food; like most species, the males are more brightly-coloured and attractive than the females, they had yellow-ocre-coloured scales compared to the mainly black females.
I also saw some other small lizards and small birds, like the yellow warbler, but the main attractions on the island were the many frigatebirds and blue-footed boobies. Many of the male frigatebirds had their red throats puffed up - a mating ritual to attract the attention of the females. Occasionally they would break into their entertaining mating dance where they spread their wings and dance around making a funny noise - it was fascinating to watch. They are named after pirates' boats (frigates) because they are the 'pirates of the air', they cannot go in the water because their bodies do not make the oils necessary so they steal food from other birds, following them around until they drop their catch, and also sometimes steal their nests.
There were lots of blue-footed boobies, so-called because of their bright turquoise feet (the males' feet are more intensely blue than the females'). Many of them were hatching eggs, others hopped from one leg to another on the rocks (a funny habit that they have, I don't know why). Some of the males performed their amusing mating ritual of spreading their wings, dipping their heads and whistling. Apparently the female gives a twig to her chosen suitor as a sign that he has won her affection, which I thought was quite cute.
In the afternoon of Day 2 I went snorkelling near Santa Fe Island, there was good visibility and mixed warm and cold currents. I saw a green sea turtle and lots of fish - King angelfish (flat, black with orange and dark blue edges, yellow fins and tail), parrotfish (fluorescent green colour), damselfish (flat, navy blue colour with light blue outline), Mexican hogfish (strange protruding forehead), schools of razor surgeonfish (blue with yellow tails) and a trumpetfish (long thin fish with a tubular nose).
Later I went for a walk on Santa Fe Island and admired the comical sea lions with their pathetic-sounding yelps and awkward walk - they were so much fun to watch and the way they interacted with one another was adorable - constantly hugging and sniffing and seeking attention from one another. I also saw inquisitive little mockingbirds that hopped up and stood next to me. I walked through the 'cactus forest' and saw some more big land iguanas. I also saw Galápagos doves foraging for food with some little finches and some brown pelicans in the water.
On the way back to the boat from Santa Fe Island I saw lots of golden rays swimming along the surface of the water - it was amazing - and a couple of white-tip reef sharks (I don't know where they all were when we were snorkelling earlier!).
After dinner a few of us sat up on the roof of the boat with some beers, watching the stars - the sky was completely clear so it was beautiful. Unlike the first night, the boat was moving during night but thankfully I had no problems sleeping.
I spent Day 3 at Española Island - at Punta Suarez in the morning I saw more sea lions, marine iguanas, some small lava lizards and, the main attraction, the waved albatrosses nesting. Albatrosses choose a single mate for life and this species can live for more than 40 years! I saw one albatross egg that had been abandoned so sadly wouldn't hatch - they are quite big, probably a little bigger than a tennis ball. I also saw a Galápagos dove's nest with chicks and many Nasca boobies - cousins of the blue-footed boobies, these guys are white with black patches around their eyes that make them look like the Lone Ranger wearing a black mask!
There was a gorgeous view from the cliffs at Punta Suarez on Española Island and there were hundreds of marine iguanas basking in the sunshine on the rocks. It was here that I saw the 'blowholes' - a natural phenomenon where there is a huge tall spray of water that makes a loud noise when the waves hit the rocks.
I then travelled to Gardner Bay on Española Island where I went snorkelling with several playful baby sea lions - it was an absolutely incredible, unforgettable experience, I loved it - they would swim all around me and come right up to my face, looking directly at me - it was an amazing feeling.
In the evening I visited a beach at Gardner Bay on Española Island and saw more sea lions and crabs, including a hermit crab - I'd never seen one before - they live inside a shell like a snail and they can pop their legs and head out when they want to go somewhere then retract into their shell again. I also saw some marine iguanas eating algae on the rocks. Off the shore there were some blue-footed boobies flying and then diving down into the water at high speed from a great height to catch fish - they looked like kamikaze pilots!
After dinner in the evening a few of us watched the DVD of Run Fatboy Run on the boat before bed.
On Day 4 I visited Floreana Island, firstly to Cormorant Point where I saw a few pink flamingoes in a lagoon eating crabs. There was one young flamingo whose feathers were still white. However, it was hard to get excited about seeing these after having been to the lagoons in the salt flats in Bolivia where there were hundreds of flamingoes. I also spotted some more little yellow warblers.
The beach on one side of Floreana Island had white powdery sand and the beach on the other side of the island (only a 15-20 minute walk away) had black gritty sand with little green mineral pieces in it - the diversity in the Galápagos is amazing!
I went snorkelling at Devil's Crown just off Floreana - I saw a spotted eagle ray, a couple of white-tip reef sharks (one was quite big), a couple of green sea turtles and many many starfish on the seabed.
In the afternoon I went to Post Office Bay - there is a wooden box there where visitors leave letters and postcards and they can also take them away if they find one that is for someone they know or someone who lives near them - it dates back to a time when fishermen used the same system on this island to keep in touch with family and friends while on long journeys.
There are caves on the island but they were pitch black and our guide had not told us to bring our torches so we couldn't go far enough inside to see anything - apparently they lead out to the sea.
There is also a small football pitch on the beach and Rob and I played with our crew for a while, against crews from other boats, it was good fun though tiring in the heat!
Later, as we sailed towards Santa Cruz Island, we saw a whale from the boat and we followed it for a while - it would intermittently rise to the surface and I could see it's spray and its back which had a fin (a Bryde whale apparently).
Just before dinner I was disappointed to be told that I had to leave the boat first thing the next morning and move to another boat for the rest of the trip - everyone else in the group was finishing their trips the next day and there weren't enough new bookings to fill the boat for the following four days (apparently there has been a big drop in demand for the cruises due to the economic crisis).
After the last group dinner, we disembarked at the small town of Puerto Ayora - one of the few inhabited parts of the Galápagos. It seemed like a quiet, sleepy place. We went to the Limón y Café bar which was the liveliest spot in town with cool music and pool tables.
Early in the morning I visited the Charles Darwin Centre on Santa Cruz Island, where experts study the flora and fauna of the Galápagos and breed giant tortoises and iguanas for release into the wild to keep up the population numbers.
Back in Puerto Ayora town afterwards, I had some time to kill before I was picked up to join the new boat so I browsed the souvenir shops and bought some postcards. Annoyingly my pick-up was nearly an hour late, during which time I was sitting waiting alone at the port in the baking heat, so I wasn't in the best of moods when I arrived at the new boat, the Guantanamera (which is also a good boat though not as nice as the Eden). Then I discovered that my backpack, which had been transported separately, was soaked - all my clothes and everything inside was wet and smelled bad - I had to hang absolutely everything out in the sun to dry it off. And my shoes which had been attached to the bag weren't even there and had to be delivered separately later. So I pretty pissed off and not in the best frame of mind to meet the new people... However, Shaz, Stacey and Mick from Australia were lovely and welcoming, they had already been on this boat for four days. We collected a bunch of new people from the airport, including Tomas and Kim from Denmark and Yana and Melanie from Germany.
We all took a bus up to the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, which was quite different to the other sparse and dry landscapes of the Galápagos that I had seen - the highlands has a cool climate and loads of vegetation - I saw banana, papaya and coffee plantations. I visited Los Gemelos 'twin' volcanic craters which are filled with trees - they looked like something out of Jurassic Park.
We also went to a part of the National Park where we could see giant tortoises in the wild - they are huge, very slow and breathe very heavily and noisily. I saw quite a few, some of them eating greenery and Galápagos guavas; they occasionally sat in pools of muddy water. They seemed to be quite timid animals and would retract their heads inside their shells when they became nervous.
That completed my tour of the southern islands of the Galápagos and that night the boat set sail for the northern islands.
In the morning I arrived at Rábida Island. As I approached on the dingy I saw many marine iguanas and blue-footed boobies sitting on the rocks. The boobies were doing their amazing kamikaze fish-catching routine again. The sand on Rábida Island was red (every island is so different!). There were a couple of dead starfish washed up on the beach. I saw a few sea lions, including a mother nursing a pup, which was amazing to watch. I also saw some brown pelicans nesting and others sitting in the water in between flying and nose-diving to catch fish.
I walked up to a high part of Rábida where there was a beautiful view over the different sides in the island. There were many cacti with lots of fruit (there were no land iguanas on that island to eat the fruit). Back on the beach, I saw some American oyster catcher birds with their long thin red beaks that they bury in the sand to suck up worms and snails.
I went snorkelling off the island, played with some sea lions, saw some colourful fish hanging out near the rocks. The highlight was seeing an ENORMOUS manta ray, right up close, it must have been about three metres wide (the adults can grow up to six metres wide) and it had an oddly-shaped head - it was absolutely fascinating and I followed it for as long as I could.
Back on the boat, as we navigated to Bartolomé Island, we passed Santiago Island and saw the waves crashing on the rocks, creating blowhole effects. Bartolomé Island looked very beautiful as we approached - a weird volcanic landscape. I went snorkelling and saw many brightly coloured parrotfish and other types of fish and also swam with a little penguin! Galápagos penguins are very small, this one chased the fish around underwater and then bobbed back up to the surface; it could also swim along the top of the water like a duck.
Later I climbed to the summit of Bartolomé Island for a view of the extinct volcanoes - it is a barren landscape, with only a few lava cacti living there. The lava rocks were deceptively lightweight as they are mostly gas/air pockets.
It was another beautiful clear night to see the starry sky. A wounded sea lion hopped up to sleep on the back of our boat and another sea lion got into the dingy behind.
During the night we crossed the equator from South to North on the way to the outlying Genovesa Island. On Genovesa I saw great frigatebirds - at one point four frigatebirds, with their red pouches puffed up, were surrounding one female - the successful suitor spread his wings around her in a cute protective macho manner. There were also Nasca boobies, a rarely-seen short-eared owl hiding in a crack in the rocks and, my favourite, the red-footed boobies - they have very pretty rainbow-coloured faces and bright red feet.
I went snorkelling but the water was very cloudy as it had been stormy the night before - I couldn't see much so I was swimming very close to the rocks, trying to see if there was anything of interest on the rocks themselves, when suddenly two sea lions popped up next to me and scared the life out of me!
In the afternoon I visited Darwin Bay where there was a myriad of frigatebirds and red-footed boobies performing mating displays - there were so many that I didn't know where to look. I also saw a Galápagos heron and other small birds like finches and mockingbirds.
I went snorkelling again off the beach at Darwin Bay but it was still very cloudy so it was hard to see anything. I saw something that looked like a very small ray shuffling along the sandy sea bed.
Back on the boat we had a farewell cocktail with our guide, Camilo, and the crew. It was a clear night so we were in complete darkness with nothing but black sea as far as the eye could see in any direction (except the light of one lighthouse). The sky looked so immense and was completely decorated with stars, it was so beautiful, it made me feel very small in the vastness of the universe. I don't know much about constellations but apparently because we were close to the equator we could see stars from the Northern and Southern hemispheres - I could see The Plough and the Southern Cross (and those are the only two that I know!).
There were things in the water that glowed in the dark when touched (plankton life apparently, it could have been a number of different things), the boat was moving very fast so the water all around the front of the boat looked like it was filled with thousands of little lights, sometimes there were bigger things glowing in the water too, it was mesmerising - magical! It took me a while to figure out what I was seeing, I thought I was going crazy at first! I watched it for a long time (though I was a bit worried about falling overboard in the choppy water!). It was a very bumpy night, I was rolling all over the place in the bunk but I still managed to sleep well.
On the final morning I returned to North Seymour Island, where I had been on Day 2. Some of the blue-footed boobie chicks had grown bigger and other new ones had hatched - I saw one boobie that was sitting on one egg and one newborn chick - amazing. I also saw some baby frigatebirds, some land iguanas and lots of sea lions, including several babies suckling their mothers.
After that it was back to the airport and on to Quito.
The Galápagos experience was unique and unforgettable. It is a stunning place.
Galápagos Chamber of Tourism: www dot galapagostour dot org
Galápagos Conservation Trust: www dot gct dot org
Charles Darwin Foundation: www dot darwinfoundation dot org
Galápagos National Park Service: www dot galapagospark dot org