So it´s about time I got to writing this. I returned from magical trip to the Galapagos Islands last Thursday and I´ve been trying to work out how I´m going to put my experiences into words ever since. I realised that it was doubtful that I´d ever be able to explain it fully so I´m just going to do the best I can...
I had been toing and froing in my mind for some time about going to galapagos. It had always been my aim to try to make it happen but I had serious doubts as to whether my budget could stretch to such an expensive trip. In the end I came to the conclusion that I had to go no matter what. Who knows if and when I´ll be in this part of the world again so I decided to seize the opportunity while I´m here... so expect to see my left kidney up for auction on ebay very soon!
I was in quito with a couple of travelling buddies who were all trying to go as well. We went out together to try to find a last minute deal. It became apparent that their budgets were going to allow for a much more lavish trip than mine so they took the first offer they got on a luxury boat and left the following day. I decided that I had time to wait a while in quito, shop around and see if anything better deals came along. A day or two later Ben (my colombia boat friend) and I spotted a poster for a last minute deal for an 8 day trip on an economy boat at a different travel agency. It was more than $500 dollars less than we had seen it elsewhere so we went along immediately to see what it entailed... the lady read out the itinerary to us and within half an hour of seeing the poster I had myself a trip to galapagos! Ben hadn´t planned to come but seeing the deal I got he decided it was too good to miss so the following day he booked himself a place too. We arranged our return flight for 4 days after the end of the cruise so that we could go to an island that wasn´t on our cruise itinerary and do a few things independently from there. With the tickets in my sticky mitts I could barely contain my excitement and regularly burst out in to random bouts of skipping/jumping/singing! We parted with our final wad of bucks, packed our swimwear and flew the following day...
We landed in galapagos airport and the first thing that struck me was, considering we were at sea level on the equator, it was bloody cold! This was to be the first of many wondrous galapagos discoveries I was to scratch my head over. We landed on Baltra which was once a military base built by the US to protect the Panama Canal during the second world war. Needless to say this small island is now entirely devoid of wildlife save for a few vocal, boisterous Darwin Finches whose twittering bird song was to welcome us from the rafters above as we were filtered through the airport and paid our national park entrance fee.
Once done with formalities we were met by our guide, introduced to our fellow boat buddies and boarded a bus to the nearby dock. At the dock was a family of sealions who had seemingly appointed themselves the galapagos gringo welcoming committee! And a stinky sneezy bunch they were too! All my life an avid fan of david attenborough documentaries I was obviously extremely excited to be here but I hadn´t prepared myself for the bodily functions and general stink of wildlife! For anyone else without scratch and sniff TV I can tell you that sealions bloody stink of fish guts... and they snot out the seawater and phlegm that they got stuck up their nose on the last fishing trip (usually carefully timed for when a tourist gets too close!)... fairly obvious I suppose but it still took me a bit by surprise. We loaded our bags and ourselves onto a small speedboat and were ferried over to our awaiting yacht, Yolita. On the way we witnessed our first display of boobies... the blue footed variety... (now now!) falling from the sky like darts and masterfully spearing fish in the shallow clear water of the dock. All aboard Yolita we were greeted by the crew and sat down for lunch and our first briefing from our guide... a funny little Galapagonian man who spoke in comical broken english. First of all he began to allocate the rooms to us by establishing the couples in the group. Tired of the fact that people always assume that Ben and I are a couple, when it came down to the two of us Ben tried to indicate that we came together but we didn´t necessarily need to share a room... but it didn´t really come across exactly as planned and instead of the group assuming that the two of us were a couple they ended up assuming that we were a couple who hated each other! ...which amused me enormously and we were given a room together along with some titters and funny looks!
Our guide then briefed us on dos and don´ts on the islands and with the wildlife and gave us our itinerary for the week which went like this:
Sunday PM- Bajas, Monday- Isla Plaza (south) and Isla Santa Fe, Tuesday- Isla Española- Punta Suarez and Gardner Bay, Wednesday- Isla Floreana- Punta Cormorant, Post Office Bay and Devils Crown, Thursday- Isla Santa Cruz- Puerto Ayora, Charles Darwin Research Centre, Friday- Isla Rabida and Isla Sombrero Chino, Saturday- Isla Bartolome and Turtle Cove, Sunday AM- North Seymour.
So we were given our room numbers and set about moving in. One of the crew members took my bags from me and carried them downstairs to our cabin. On the way down the stairs he accidentally dropped my camera, which was in a case but not a very good one. He looked at me a bit panicked and apologised. I picked it up and checked and couldn´t see any damage so I said not to worry... this was to be my little canon´s first brush with bad luck/carelessness! Ben and I were more than chuffed with our little bunk bed cabin and private bathroom. It may well have been economy class for the couples and families holidaying for a week in galapagos but for us budget backpackers this was like 5 star luxury! Clean sheets every day with no fleas or bed bugs? Wowie! And 3 delicious hot meals prepared and served to us... you mean I don´t have to fish a chicken foot out my soup? I was waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me I was in the wrong place!
All settled in we set sail for our first destination. The sun had come out those of us not feeling queasy from the sea (I´ve got my sea legs now after the boat trip to Colombia!) sat up on the boat´s top deck to catch some sun. We were joined by a group of Frigate Birds who flew along with the boat occasionally swooping down to our level. I grabbed my camera to try and snap them as they flew close. I picked up my camera and noticed that the back had in fact come loose when it was dropped by the crew. I saw it and panicked thinking that my camera was done for on day 1 of my galapagos trip. How gutting would it be to come all this way and not be able to take a single picture. I settled my nerves and with some delicate manipulation I managed to click it back into place. Everything seemed to be functioning as normal although the back was still loose and there was now a distinct gap in the casing. I thought ok, I´ll just be extra careful with it while I´m here and get a new one on my insurance when I get back to quito. That was to be my second camera induced heart attack!
It was not long before we arrived at our first destination. We had already seen some wildlife but it was to be just a taster of what was yet to come. At first glance nothing seemed that unusual about the island we were about to visit. But then when you looked a little closer you started to notice the strangeness of it. A look of the prehistoric that still remains with the landscape, vegetation and wildlife. Even from the boat we could see flocks of strange looking birds (Boobies, Pelicans and Frigates) flying in formation back and forth along the shore which was made of jet black volcanic rock formations dotted with bright orange and red crabs, pearly white coral sand set to a back ground of volcanic landscape and ghostly looking leafless white trees. All of this we were quickly going to become accustomed to seeing but never stopped seeming unusual and amazing.
So we hopped in our speedboat and made our way ashore for our first island visit. This is how each day went. We´d get up early each morning. Land ashore for a couple of hours at the allocated visitor site. Then snorkel for a couple of hours, move to our next destination and land ashore once again. Although we saw much of the same wildlife at each destination every different place had something unique and special about it and the wildlife was always equally fearless of us. Here´s a beast by beast account of what I encountered:
Boobies and Other Big Birds
There are 3 types of Booby in Galapagos (and endless Booby jokes of which I will spare you as I´m sure you can guess!) Blue Footed Boobies, Masked or Nazca Boobies and Red Footed Boobies. We saw Blue Footed and Nazcas in abundance. Unfortunately the island where you can see the Red Footed was not on our itinerary. Both Nazca and Blue Foot are beautiful and fascinating and not in the least bit bothered about us humans which was great because we were able to witness close up the romantic and slightly comical courtship dance of the Blue Footed Boobies. On Española, right in front of us like a true latino a male started to dance to try to impress a female that he liked the look of. He slowly lifts his left then his right foot with his head bowed coyly down to demonstrate how lovely and blue his feet are... then he splays his wings out behind him and whistles a note which starts high and drops down low as if to show her how splendid he will be at diving for fish for the family... the girl booby watches his display and if she approves she´ll begin to dance too and for a moment they´ll stand opposite each other slowly padding their feet up and down which really is the sweetest sight... the boy we were watching got rather excited when his girl began to join in and his next task was to clinch the deal by bringing her a gift. If she likes the gift she will accept it by gently taking it from his beak into hers. This indicates to him that she wants to mate... so he foraged around looking for a suitable looking twig, perhaps to symbolise what a lovely nest he´s going to build her... he finds his perfect twig, pads up to her with his lovely blue feet, eyes wide and hopeful he extends the girt out to her in his long beak... she looks at the twig... looks at him... and looks away! Nooo! Surely we´re not going to witness poor Mr Booby get blown out at the last hurdle! He drops the stick and quickly sets about to find another one. Certain he´s got it right this time he pads up to her once more and presents the new and improved version... she looks once again... reaches her beak out to his and gently takes it from him! Hurray! We took this as our cue to move on and give the love birds some privacy. We saw Boobies everywhere we went in Galapagos, in flight, diving for fish, resting on rocks but Isla Española was the only place we saw this lovely dance.
We also saw many Nazca Boobies nesting on Española but they don´t make such a song and dance about finding a mate like the Blue Foots... however they are incredibly indifferent about human presence and I found myself sharing a rock with one whilst we sat and watched the sea crashing against the rocks below us. We sat and looked at each other. He grew bored of me faster than I did of him and soon started to give himself a groom paying me no mind what so ever.
Other big birds we saw in abundance were Pelicans. They were every where scavenging at every turn! Not unique to Galapagos of course but still worth a mention as the islands would not be the same with out their strange pterodactyl looks!
We saw many big heron foot prints in the sand but the only heron I saw was the little black Lava Heron. I popped my head out the water one snorkeling trip to see one inches away from me perched on the rocks scouring the surface for fish. He stopped to look at me for a moment seemingly not in the least bit bothered that I had just disturbed his fishing area then shot his beady eye back to the water.
Snorkeling at Sombrero Chino I had the most magical encounter with a bird of Galapagos. Ben and I had split off from the group for a moment and swam into a small secluded bay in the hope of an underwater encounter with a playful sealion and we got more than we bargained for... ahead of me 3 dark shapes splashed into the water from the surrounding rocks and began to dart towards me... it took me a moment to work out what they were. They clearly weren´t sealions, fish or turtles so what were they. As they came closer I saw three little beaks in the bubbly mist... Galapagos Penguins! They swam around us, giving us the beady eye for a moment and just as they did we were joined by an equally inquisitive sealion. For a moment Ben and I were alone with these 4 incredible creatures darting and playing around us illuminated through the crystal clear water by shards of sunlight... then as quickly as they appeared they disappeared. Penguins are masterful and mighty fast under the water and we couldn´t even tell which way they went. We joined the rest of the group again watching fish and periodically the penguins would join us then dart away again with out a trace. Magic.
I think perhaps my favourite of all though was the Waved Albatros. These seagull-like oversized cartoon birds perform a comedy sketch of a courtship dance which had me and the rest of the group in stitches! I took some video clips on my camera which I will try to put up at some point but in the meantime try to find a clip on the internet because to describe it in words just wouldn´t do it justice. It makes the Booby dance look positively sensible. Galapagos is the only place on the equator where they nest and we saw them on Española.
I thought these cheeky little sprites deserved their own category because they were so distinctly different to the bigger birds of Galapagos. The small birds who featured the most were the various types of Darwin Finch. Looking very similar to the finches we have at home only with differing colours and beak size and shape. Their beaks have evolved to deal with the unique vegetation on Galapagos, e.g. the Cactus Finch with his big strong chisel of a beak. Another distinct difference of course is that they´re utterly fearless of humans, regularly landing right next to you carrying on about their business. They´re particularly boisterous at the airport cafe, eating out the sugar bowls on the table as you drink your coffee, perhaps even snatching a scrap of bread off your plate if you let your attention wander for a second!
Another fearless little one is the Yellow Warbler who you can regularly see hopping around the rocks on the beach and trying their luck perching on a sealion... rarely succeeding as the sealion swats them off like a fly! The first one we spotted was on Bajas. My heart jumped as Ben nearly stepped on one not seeing that he was hopping around his feet. As this was our first stop we were not yet accustomed to the tameness of the wildlife, we thought the bird might be sick. But then as we watched him a bit more we realised he was just too busy going about his birdy business to care about us.
The Galapagos Nightingale was so tame they´d come sit right next to you and eyeball you looking expectant... of I´m not sure what!
My favourite though was a bird that we saw out at sea. The Wedge-Rumped Storm Petral looks and flies a lot like Swallows or Swifts. Amazingly they spend most of their lives out at sea skimming the surface of the water with their feet in order to create mini currents and bring food up to the surface. They only come to land in order to nest. We saw them constantly when we were out at sea.
The star of the Galapagonian reptile show for me was the Marine Iguana. They are mostly black although on Española they are black and red or black, red and green. They have cuter snubbier noses than their land cousins. The boys don a splendid black mohican of spines like some sort of aquatic punk/goth. They blend in so incredibly well with the volcanic rock that you can look at the rocks and see nothing but rock... but if you stare long enough the rocks become like a Magic Eye picture and out of nowhere they start to appear in your vision and you realise that the rocks are alive with them! They look a little clumsy as they high step their way into the sea but watching them graze like cows on the algae under the water is quite special. On land they splay themselves out on the hot rocks to soak up the sun´s rays then huddle together to conserve warmth... really they don´t seem to give too much of a stuff about each other, stepping on each other´s heads in order to find a warmer position in the pile! They are also another member of the Galapagos snot snufflers! If one iguana is startled by another as he takes his sunny nap he snuffs a little sneeze of sea water out his nostrils which sprays one or more of the other iguanas in the huddle, which in turn startles them so they snuff their own salty sneeze thus starting a domino effect of startled, snotty, snuffling iguanas! It´s like setting a banger off in a box of bangers! It made me laugh every time I saw it!
On Isla Plaza we saw Land Iguanas. They were cool of course but perhaps not as much fun as their aquatic cousins. They find sustenance by munching cactus fruit and fallen cactus leaves.
A smaller and dartier dinosaur beast was the Lava Lizard. They scoot in and out of the holes, tunnels and cracks in the volcanic rock and as quick as you see them they´re gone again. If they did stick around for you to take a closer look you got to see their lovely red necks as they bopped their heads up and down in what I assumed to be a signal to say w*** off or I will!
Tortugas - Giant Land Tortoises and Sea Turtles
Of course no Galapagos trip is complete without catching sight of and marveling at the giant land tortoise. These magnificent creatures live for up to 250 years and roam wild on the islands of Galapagos. Our first encounter was with captive tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Centre at Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. The centre is home to a number of friendly old tortoises and an ever renewing clutch of babies who are being bred and released back into the wild as soon as their shells are tough enough to see off predators (at about 5 years). There are a number of different types of giant tortoises in Galapagos. Although they are technically the same species they differ depending on the island that they originate from. The vegetation is different on each island so the shape of the shell has evolved in each location depending on whether they need to reach up to munch leaves or simply graze on the grass beneath them. One variety has a shell in the shape of a saddle which is where the name Galapagos originates from (galapagos meaning saddle).
The most special inhabitant at the Research Centre is an old chap called Lonesome George. He has a distinctive double hump on his back and he was discovered on Pinta Island in the 1970s. Due to hunting (tortoise meat is apparently very tasty) every other member of his kind has been wiped out and he is the only one left. For years conservationists have been trying to get him to reproduce with other tortoises but he`s just not interested. Cloning will only be considered as a last resort if all else fails due its expense and failure rate. For now he enjoys the penthouse suite at the Centre which he shares with two lovely girl tortoises and all the privacy he needs should the mood take him... so far it hasn´t! There´s hope though as this special man is still a spring chicken... he´s only in his 70s so he´s got a few more decades in him yet! Time enough for the invention of tortoise viagra!
Whilst the Research Centre is obviously an important conservation project for the tortoises I wanted to see some of these lumbering beasts out in the wild. Sadly the human population of Santa Cruz has meant that farm land and introduced animals such as pets and cattle have encroached on their natural habitat. However, the National Park protects enough of the island for them to still roam free and a visitor site in this area was our next stop. So we walked quietly through woodland and began to see them peacefully grazing on leaves and grass. These guys were just as old and wizened as their captive relatives but they were understandably more shy. Any noise or rapid movement (let´s face it anything faster than dead is rapid for a tortoise!) and they´d sink back into their shells until they felt safe enough again to reemerge. It was so wonderful to see them out in the open dotted around as far as you could see, grazing and contemplating like herds of buddhist cows!
It is believed that they originally arrived in Galapagos by floating on their backs from the mainland. Quite amusing to imagine and it makes you wonder who was the first curious tortoise adventurer to flip on his back and set sail for unknown lands... and how did he convince others to follow suit. Maybe their was some kind of depressed tortoise cult, bored with the monotony of 100 years of leaf munching who attempted to commit mass suicide only to float to Galapagos and be doomed to another 150 years of monotonous leaf munching! With no real predators on Galapagos they were able to achieve such longevity of life and grow to such a great size. The only real threat to their life would be to get themselves wedged between two trees in pursuit of a bit of juicy fruit! That was of course until humans came along. People remain the biggest threat to these beautiful animals. As well as the various destructive animals introduced by humans, such as goats, which have been allowed to go wild, they are also still poached on the more remote islands by sailors despite the protection of the National Park... one of the tortoises in captivity at the Research Centre clearly had a lucky escape as he still sports a number of bullet holes in his mighty shell.
After our cruise was over, Ben and I went to Isla Isabela for a couple of days. We had hoped to hike one of the volcanoes which is home to many more wild tortoises. Unfortunately the hiking trails were closed to allow the National Park to cull the goats who have been introduced and allowed to go wild. The cull is costing the park millions but is necessary to stop the goats decimating the tortoise´s habitat.
Next of course are the incredible sea turtles. There are a couple of varieties found in Galapagos but the most commonly spotted are the Green Sea Turtles. On Bajas we saw their giant nests where they lay 100s of eggs. Only 3% of the babies survive as they make their treacherous journey to the sea. For the ones that make it though, this journey is vital as in years to come they will have to make this journey back to nest themselves. We saw these giant beasts on many snorkeling trips and often we would see their heads pop out the water´s surface when we were on the boat. There´s something really majestic about them as they glide along under the water. Snorkeling at the Chinese Hat we had a particularly close encounter with one. I tried to get my swimming stroke in time with his as he glided beneath me and after a few minutes in synchronicity with him I felt myself drift into a peaceful almost meditative state... so much so that I even forgot about my Bull Shark paranoia!! ...it soon came back though. More about Jaws in a minute...
Perhaps our most incredible turtle moment was in the secluded mangroves of Turtle Cove. Unable to swim here we had shut off the engine of our speedboat to sit quietly and watch the wildlife in the shallow waters amongst the mangroves. In the distance appeared a shape on the surface of the water that was a little hard to distinguish. So we made our way closer and saw that it was in fact two shapes, a male and female turtle mating. This was incredible and unexpected as it was not quite mating season yet. These two obviously couldn´t wait! During mating the female supports the weight of the male in the water, doing all the swimming as he hangs on to her back. Sometimes they dipped under water for a few minutes and then resurfaced a few metres away, taking enormous gasps of air as they did. We watched for about 20 minutes as they tussled and gasped, then after one prolonged dip under the water they resurfaced one last time. However, this time they were no longer entwined but swimming off in opposite directions! Charming!
As the name would suggest Turtle Cove is a great place for spotting turtles. We lucked out with the mating couple but when we went deeper into the isolated lagoons amongst the mangroves we saw many just swimming and gliding around in the shallow water. Very beautiful.
Sealions, sealions and more sealions! That´s what we saw. They were everywhere like naughty playful labradors of the sea. And I loved them best of all. I suppose they´re an obvious favourite as they interact with you the most and their behaviour is as adorable as their snuffly little snouts. It was an incredible time to be in Galapagos because it was pupping season for the sealions and there were mothers giving birth and babies everywhere. Whilst the proud mums took care of their new little bundles of furry joy the males´ terratorialism went into over drive as they not only had their harem to protect, they had a whole litter of pups to watch over as well. A Bull sealion can have a harem of up to 25 females depending, of course, on his ability to not only impregnate them but defend them from would-be opponents. If another dominant male fancies his chances he will attempt to gain more wives by fighting another male for his... They will rutt and butt each other´s heads in a vicious looking duel of teeth, flab and muscle... the winner´s trophy is all the women in question along with a whole lot more responsibility! We mostly saw the Bulls patrolling up and down the shore barking out the signature sealion "arf arf arf" whilst his women rest on the beach after a night of fishing, the teenagers play and the newborns suckle. Females, once sexually mature, are destined for a life of non-stop pregnancy and breastfeeding. Giving birth twice a year they are pregnant again just 3/4 weeks after giving birth! What with all that AND fishing for the family the girls really have their work cut out for them. Whilst this is all going on the dominant males fight, patrol and impregnate and the non-dominant males split off, shunning the pursuit of the female trophies, and form all male ´bachelor´groups!
Every beach we landed on we were greeted by a family of sealions and I became so accustomed to awaking to the arf arf arf of the dad of the family I began to wonder what life was ever like without a sealion alarm clock!
While snorkeling we were regularly joined by a curious female or a group of playful adolescents. On land sealions appear somewhat lumbering and clumsy but under the water they are sheer grace. The young ones play with you by swirling around you popping their snouts out the surface for a second to refill their lungs before dipping down deep underneath you giving your flipper a playful nip on their way and then peaking up at you to see your reaction. Mothers would often swim with their young ones clinging ot them, showing them the ropes I suppose. We even saw one mum trying so hard to encourage her little one into the water as he dug his fins into the sand and wailed like a kid who didn´t want to go to school... "waaaah, no mum you can´t make me, waaaah!" I felt for that little chap - a sealion who doesn´t like the water!
I had a couple of particularly incredible encounters. The first few being at Santa Fe. The first was lovely, a group of females playing together, chasing each other´s tails making beautiful swirling shapes in the depths below. Occasionally coming up and having a nose at us before chasing each other back to the bottom again. The next was rather a surprise. I was a little bit away from the rest of the group, distracted by some particularly pretty fish. I hadn´t noticed but I had accidentally swum into the territory of a dominant bull. We had been warned to stay away from them as they are particularly aggressive at this time of year... and they´re bloody big w***s! Unbeknown to me he had spotted me in the water from his look out point and jumped in to size me up. The first I knew of it was when he appeared directly beneath me, his giant body in line with mine, his face an inch away from my mask. I froze! Just as he´s not particularly designed to move well on land I´m not particularly designed to move well under water and I knew he had absolute power over me should he so want it... my heart was in my mouth for a moment but he must have known I was no threat to his girls and he just swam ahead keeping his eyes on me as he went. Phew! I went back and joined the group for a bit of safety in numbers!
Then just when I thought that was it for this snorkel I found myself with one or two other people from the group in some shallow waters near the rocks with a female and a couple of youngsters... this was the first time I was properly included in sealion playtime! I was grinning from ear to ear as the tussled with each other and then swam up to me and snuffled their noses on my mask and then dipped down to bite my flippers! At first I jumped back when they came towards me as I thought I wasn`t supposed to be so close to them... plus they`ve got big sharp dog like teeth! Then I started to realise that they were approaching me, and they were clearly enjoying being mischievous with me and my other human companions. So I just stayed still and let them tease me! It was incredible. I was so swept away with it I hadn`t noticed that the rest of the group were now on the speedboat calling us to come back, nor that I had cut my knee to shreds on the rocks! I then a few a too many metres to swim back through the depths to the speedboat with a bleeding knee giving me far too many minutes to recall scenes from Jaws!! Santa Fe was an emotional roller coaster of a snorkel stop for sure!
Next up was a snorkel trip at Isla Española around Gardener Bay. I should say that my one and only complaint about the cruise I took was that they had really crappy wetsuits and not enough to go round which was pretty bad seeing as they charged us an extra $50 in rental for them and the snorkels. Wetsuits are absolutely necessary at this time of year in Galapagos because the sea is freeeeezing! I had a shorty one, which meant my legs and arms were bare, it was too big so it just let cold water stream through it AND it was full of holes! So you could say it was about as much use as a chocolate teapot and after an hour of snorkeling I was completely blue and boarder line hypothermic! Often we were in shallow waters so it wasn`t so bad but on this occasion it was quite deep and I was frozen by the time we came to get back on the speedboat. This was normally bearable because we were usually taken straight back to the yacht to warm up and have lunch but this time we were taken to a different spot to visit some fantastic sea caves. We went with the boat around the rocky cliffs and drove into the caves to see the volcanic rock formations... those who could brave the cold for a bit longer jumped in and swam in the dark blue depths of the cave. I did get in for a moment but the combination of the water`s chill and spooky obscurity made me get back into the speedboat with the other shiverers pretty sharpish! The few people brave enough to snorkel remained in the sea and swam along with the boat as we backed out of the cave and made our way slowly back along with the line of the cliffs. The rocks were dark and jagged and there were plenty of shelves which made perfect resting places for sealions... we spotting many posing majestically with their noses pointed skywards. Some that we passed had obviously spotted some potential fun to be had with us and our boat so they jumped in and swam around us. We stopped the boat and Luis our guide picked up the rope used for mooring the boat and threw it into the water and the sealions immediately started to play with it. One took the end of it while the others tussled trying to get their share of it. Luis gently pulled the rope back in and they chased it through the water like dogs chasing a stick. Then Luis picked it up once more and threw it back in the fun started all over again! Then they also started to play with the couple of snorkelers still in the water. We all sat in the boat watching with delight as they played around our boat. I saw how much fun the people in the water were having as the sealions played around them... I wanted to get in so badly but I was shivering uncontrollably and my lips had gone blue. For a moment I thought I´m far too cold to get in. There´ll be other opportunities to swim with sealions... then I thought what am I doing? When am I going to be here again? This is a special moment and I´m not going to miss it just because I´m cold. So I put my snorkel back on and jumped in. I immediately forgot about the freezing water as the beauty of the moment was so overwhelming. This group of sealions were in full throttle misbehaviour as they switched back and forth from wresting each other for the rope to speeding up to us and greeting us with the usual mask snuffle and flipper nip! Every so often I´d pop my head up to the surface and a sealion would follow taking a peek at my face in the open air. We´d sit almost nose to nose in the surface for a second and then she´d dip back down and I´d follow to witness her next streamline bout of mischief! (You can see the pics of this moment at bottom of the batch taken with my camera before I broke it...) When the time came to go back they had to drag me back on to the boat as I had literally no strength left in my frozen limbs, I was delirious from cold, tiredness and sheer excitement at what I had just experienced. Unsurprisingly this manifested in a couple of minutes of non-stop babbling to my unfortunate boat mates! What I was trying to say was that was pure magic but what actually came out was "...and then, and then... this happened, and then that happened... and and then she came right up to my mask... and then swirled around me... and and... then she chased the rope and then there were two of them play fighting... and then... and then she nipped my snorkel... and and..." Silly me! But I´m so glad I changed my mind because, whilst we did have more underwater encounters, none were as incredible as this one.
I had a slight fright from a sealion at the end of our trip. Not a bull but a female this time. We were at Bartolome and it was our last snorkel. We hadn´t seen an awful lot apart from fish and I was getting chilly so I swam back to shore... I had seen a couple of people from the group in the shallow waters but hadn´t thought anything of it. I swam and saw nothing but clear water ahead of me. Then bam! Out of nowhere came a hard thump and a clamp on my thigh... I thought it was someone in the group playing a trick on me knowing that I have bad shark fear. But I looked around and it wasn´t a human prankster but in fact a mother sealion. When I got to shore I learned that one of the girls that I had seen in the water ahead of me had got a little too close to her baby with her underwater camera so she bit the girl´s hand quite hard and then swam along the shore line biting other swimmers. And quite right too! Bloody nosey gringos! There was no harm done really. My wetsuit protected my skin from any puncture wounds. The same for everyone else who got bit apart from the girl with the camera who had a couple of cuts on her hand but it looked more like a warning shot from a protective mother than real aggression. The mum soon got over it though as she started to leap around our boat playfully as we were getting back on to leave... as if to say "come back in and let me bite you!" She even leapt up and stuck her nose over the edge of the boat as if sussing out if she could maybe get in with us!
The boisterous Sealions also have a cousin in Galapagos who´s actual numbers are not that far off the sealion but they are considerably more shy so you don´t see them so often. They are the Fur Seals who hide out in the rocky cliffs away from sight. They are actually a Sealion too but they are deepsea divers so that have a thicket of oily fur which puffs up into a mane around their necks and instead of the broad snouted labrador face they have pointy little pixie noses. We were lucky enough to spot a family of them on Rabida. Unfortunately they are hunted illegally for their fur so they understandably tend to keep away from humans. We had to drive the boat slowly and quietly around some rocky cliffs to find them... not to mention squint and stare to distinguish their camouflaged bodies from the rocks around them. It was funny as well because as soon as we stopped to look at the Fur Seals some Sealions came along and tried to upstage them by leaping out the water in front of our boat as if to say "look at us, look at us, look at us! Don´t look at them they´re boring. They´re just lying around. We jump out the water like dolphins for crying out loud! Arf arf arf!!!" Little show offs!
...and Other Sea Life
Well there are too many to name really. A rainbow of tropical fish and corals, giant starfish, sea cucumbers, anemones and urchins. We saw many rays; a school Eagle Rays at Santa Fe distinguishable by their long tails and spotted bodies, a fever of sting rays (that is actually a collective noun used for sting rays!) feeding along the shore at a beach on Floreana. They were so well camouflaged in the sandy waves it made my heart race a bit to imagine how easy it would be to go running in for a swim in the turquoise water and get your feet stung to s***! That´s probably why they call it a fever of sting rays... I suppose nausea and searing pain wasn´t quite so catchy! Another amazing unexpected sighting was when we were in the speedboat on our way back from watching the fur seals. Some metres away from the boat, clean out the water jumped a giant Manta Ray! I didn´t even realise they could jump, but clearly they can... to quite a height s well. Then it leaped again for those in the boat who missed it the first time. Incredible.
Next up sharky sharkies! there are a number of different sharks in the waters of Galapagos and whilst they terrify me I´m also fascinated by them and was keen to see some. The islands are home to Hammerheads, White Tips, Galapagos Sharks and Bull Sharks. Sadly the big sharks like the incredible and surreal looking Hammerheads are hunted and killed illegally for their fins and sold and eaten as a delicacy mainly in China. Only the dorsal fin is taken. The rest of the body is discarded. A female´s gestation period is about 10 months meaning that she can only give birth once a year and babies are slow to reach maturity. This means that can´t reproduce fast enough to keep up with the rate that they are hunted and their numbers have significantly decreased in recent years. It is now becoming increasingly difficult to spot hammerheads in Galapagos. We certainly didn´t see any and we were snorkeling in places where they had previously been abundant. One or two big sharks were spotted when we were sailing. I saw one but I only spotted the Jaws like dorsal fin sticking up out the water. I could see the length of its body but not which family of gnashers it belonged to. We did see many white tipped sharks... a few snorkeling, a school coming out to hunt at dusk along the shore at Santa Fe and in abundance from our speedboat at Turtle Cove. Whilst they do get relatively big (about 2m) I wasn´t too afraid of them as they are generally not agressive towards humans ... they tend to swim away or hide under rocks and they are also very beautiful as sharks go with decorative white points on their fins and long slender streamline bodies which glide gracefully through the water. We also saw a few Galapagos sharks were also a non scary variety. Luckily for my nerves we did not spot any Bull Sharks whilst snorkeling. These big bitey beasts are known for unprevoked attacks against humans and are probably the most aggressive sharks in Galapagos. No matter how hard I tried I couldn`t relax 100% when in the water and would swim as close to my boat friends as I could without getting on anyone`s nerves, regularly looking over my shoulder or into the depths just to make sure...!
So I think that´s about it from the beasties. There´s so much more I could write about the creatures, crazy plants and landscape but I think I´ve covered quite enough! Overall the cruise was incredible, worth every penny. Remember I told you about my two friends who had more money to spend than me so booked themselves on a luxury cruise? They spent about a grand (in pounds not dollars) and their boat broke down meaning that they had to take day trips from Santa Cruz! You can do that independently for a fraction of the price! And some girls we met in Quito had trouble on their boat which was held up by everyone else complaining about pointless things. We were lucky as to have had a really great group on the boat. Everyone was laid back and easy to get along with. We all had the same level of interest and respect for our surroundings. It was also great to spend a few days in Isabela independently walking and soaking up some real island life.
Oh yeah, one last story to tell. The eventual fate of my poor camera! So if you remember the back had popped lose when the boat guy dropped it on its head. I´d fixed it sufficiently and as you can see it worked for a while... I even snorkeled with it with no problems. I have two trusty water proof cases one of which has a clear screen so that you can take underwater pictures and the other is black and is just to protect your electronics from the wet. Both are waterproof up to 5 metres and have never failed me... so it is very sad for me to say that I managed to break my camera in a wet cave at Post Office Bay. It was dark, I hadn´t noticed that I had allowed a small amount of water to get into my case while it was open. I put my camera back in its case and water got in through the loose casing! When I took it back out again and saw the small stream of water escape from the casing my heart sank into my shoes! I left it alone and tried to leave it to dry in the warm sunshine... but it was no use. It died a death on day 4 of my 11 day trip! I was heartbroken. I have insurance for this kind of thing so getting a replacement is no problem but to break it in Galapagos of all places! Where wildlife is fearless and abundant and camera shops are non-existent!! Apart from the occasional pang of frustration and regret though I decided that all I could do was look on the bright side (what ever that was!)... I hadn´t lost any pics as my memory cards were still working, I´d already taken incredible pics of most of the wildlife. The only animals I missed were the tortoises and penguins and I had my friend with me to take pics for me. And actually I started to enjoy watching the wildlife a little more free from the pursuit of the perfect picture! Especially when was snorkeling... I was watching with my eyes rather than through a lens. My only real regret was missing the penguins swimming around me. But hey, how wonderful to swim with penguins. I´ve got pictures in my mind that will stay forever!
So number one experience in latin america so far? Galapagos wins first prize for wildlife encounters flipper down! Arf arf!!