With a curious twist of fate I was off to visit one of the most remarkable islands that has changed modern science as we know it. Extremely hungover I had to get up at the crack of dawn to meet my group and fly to the Baltra island where our cruise would start.
Touching down in the Galapagos we were greeted with warm muggy air, and perhaps one of the smallest airports I have seen this trip. With our luggage collected, we waited to greet our guide who was a local from the islands. We then had to get a bus from the airport to cross the Baltra island before getting a tiny ferry boat over to Santa Cruz, which we would then have to cross to meet our cruise boat. On the ferry I was amazed by the wildlife and nature I could see. On a tiny mangrove island in the water sat a pelican, then on the docking area lounged sea lions and huge red crabs. It was the start of things to come.
The journey across Santa Cruz started off extremely barren and you could see quite distinctly the way the islands have been made from volcanic rock. White trees with no leaves lined the road and stretched far into the distance. With little rain there was no greenery. But then as we crossed the island and entered the highlands, we hit rain and it all slowly started to change. Trees started to sprout leaves and it became extremely green. It was amazing this change all on one island.
We eventually reached the port where a tender took us over to our lush cruise boat. There were only 9 of us on the boat so there was plenty of space to spread out. After settling in our cabins and a spot of lunch, we headed back to Santa Cruz and the highlands to see the giant tortoises. After a few minutes we came across a giant male munching on the green grass. Estimated to be about 130 years old, he was incredible and did not seem to care about people wandering around him. He just steadily munched on, occassionally moving to a tastier patch. He was huge and resembled something from a time gone by. Leaving him to it, we wandered on and found another cooling in a pool of water and then one that clearly did not like people as had hid the whole time in his shell! Soon we spotted a lady tortoise (a lot smaller in size) who was also quite happy munching her grass. The walk continued and every few 100 metres there would be another tortoise. It was quite amazing. We saw them in the grass and in the water, some out of their shells and some hidden. We saw one that was estimated to be about 160 years- just think Darwin could have seen him. Quite a surreal thought.
This area had once been developed for coffee before the locals found it more profitable to look after the tortoises and, in between the trees, were untended coffee plants. Our guide showed us the beans and explained the roasting process. Finally we decided to head back but on the way we came across 2 tortoises mating. The giant male had managed to heave himself on to the top of the female and was there rocking and grunting away. The tourists, as you can imagine, were crowded round in amazement taking pictures. I must admit to taking a couple myself before leaving them in peace.
On the way back to the boat we stopped at a lava tube. Carved out from the island that had once been an active volcano, this massive cave had been formed by lava that had cooled and went for miles up the island. In the entrance, barely noticeable due to its camouflage, was a tiny barn owl. The tunnel was fascinating but eery and it was good to get back out into the warmth. As we headed back to the boat huge black Frigate birds flew overhead and would continue to do so for the rest of our trip. And so ended day one of my Galapagos adventure.
Day 2 dawned early as the boat moved to the island of Santa Fe. This browny volcanic island would be our exploration for the morning. As we set off for the island the boat took us around a rocky outcrop creating a natural marina. Here sea lions lazed in the sun, along with red crabs and pelicans. It was a great sight.
The boat eventually landed on the yellow sand and we were greeted with over a dozen sea lions basking on the beach and playing in the water including a male sea lion with his mate and baby sea lion. The latter was the cutest thing ever. The great thing about the Galapagos was that you can get very close to the animals without them getting scared. The sea lions were no exception. We could photograph them and stand close without them batting an eyelid. More sea lions were playing in the surf, including babies. It was great to watch.
We wandered up the beach and then inland, where we were greeted by an allusive Santa Fe iguana - eating poo! Again we could get really close and examine in detail his markings and colourings. The path took us away from the iguana up volcanic rock, past some massive catcus trees that could grow up to 10 metres tall. They were incredible and unlike any other cactus I've seen before. We could see by some dead cactus that the inside of the catcus was made of mesh like material. Strong but light. As we wandered through the island we saw several more examples of the unique Santa Fe iguana plus plenty of tiny lava lizards, so called for the red flame on their neck. The path ended up running along the cliff edge and from it we got a view of the beautiful coastline framed by the large catcus trees. Lush.
As we headed back we were greeted by more sea lions, iguanas and even some blue foot Booby birds! We ended our tour of Santa Fe with some snorkelling in the calmish waters. I am not a snorkelling fan but I thought I would attempt this and see how it went. I was glad I did as I managed to see whole schools of fish including cornet fish and what looked like a swordfish. Alongside where we were snorkelling, birds bombed into the water to get the fish and the occassional sea lion rolled off the rocks into the water near by. Really incredible. We then swam round some rocks where there was an opening allowing the tide to roll in. This made snorkelling a bit unpleasant and it was time to get out.
During lunch, the boat sailed to the South Plaza Island. This island was covered in ice plants, some green and some red, laid out like a carpet and making this island lot more colourful than the previous one. As we landed, more sea lions dominated the coastline. One sea lion had great fun chasing a lizard over the rocks- almost like a game of cat and mouse! Both seemed to quite enjoy it. On this island we had the opportunity to compare the differences between land iguanas and marine iguanas. The two can mate, producing a hybrid but unfortunately we did not get to see any of these. There were plenty of the iguanas under a cactus though and again they allowed us to get close. Nearby in a cactus sat a catcus finch, a yellow canary looking bird. It was quite a display.
We then followed a path around the island, which gave us plenty of opportunity to see examples of the species native to that particular land mass. On the coastline we could see a whole variety of birds feeding for the day from shoals of fish which could be seen very clearly below the surface. I must admit to not being a bird fan, so do not really remember the names of them! It was a beautiful island to explore and the red of the ice plants contrasted brilliantly with the volcanic rock and jade coloured sea. Bliss.
Our third day in the Galapagos took us to the island mainly known as Dragon Hill, so named for the hills shaped like an iguana, and which the past was known as a dragon. In contrast to the other two islands, this was dominated by reddish rock and white sandlewood trees, quite a sight! Here we got to see larger land and marine iguanas. The iguanas had more of a yellow colour and definitely resembled dragons. The path on the island took us to a stunning lookout where the white of trees, red of rock and blue of water created a perfect picture. The path was relatively new, cut through the trees and shrubs. We had to climb and stumble over rocks to get down to the beach again but it was worth it. Pure white sand greeted us with jade green and turquoise water lapping along its shore line. The sea was so clear, you could see the fish swimming around and it was great to escape the heat of the sun into the cooler, but pleasant, water.
Next stop was Bartolome. Compared to the other islands this was more about appreciating the volcanic landscape rather than its inhabitants. Despite this on the dock sea lions were lazying in the sun and did not seem particularly keen to move to let us through! There were 375 steps to the top of the island. In geological history, this island is relatively new and you could see evidence of volcanic activity from the lava runs down the hill to the rock formations. From the top of the island you got a stunning view. In the sea just below was evidence of an underwater crater, with sea lions swimming in it! The water was a perfect colour,and you could see how the land shaped to form the island.
We stayed here for a while before proceeding with a boat tour around the island to look for penguins - the only ones this far north of the antarctic. We managed to find a couple hiding away behind some rocks, but it was still clearly feeding time and the rest were out at sea. So we took the opportunity to go for our second snorkel and, pushing aside my fears once more too the plunge. It was outstanding. I saw eels, Spotted Cabrillas, Flag Cabrillas, Rainbow Basslet, Parrotfish, Wrasse, King Angelfish and a huge shoal of Razor Surgeonfish and Black Striped Salema. There were a variety of Damselfish and a massive field of giant starfish. The colours were incredible. From bright purples to pinks to spotted brown and turquoise, it was a never ending wonder. I saw 2 white tipped reef sharks, including one eating little fish. The creme de la creme was when a male sea lion glided right past me in the water. Really incredible.
The day was capped by a visit to Bainbridge, the remains of a volcano. In the crater was some blue water and pink dots of flamingos. The pink was so bright it was hard to believe it was real. The sun was also setting and just as it went behind the horizon, caught the fluffy clouds with a lovely pink tint. Just perfect.
My final full day in Galapagos started with a visit to Rabida. Going round the islands we had seen yellow sand and white sand - it was now time for red sand. As we walked around this island we saw more of the marine and land iguanas, blue footed Boobies, pelicans and sea lions (including a baby feeding). We even got to see the allusive fur seals, who are perhaps the only creatures to shy away from humans in the Galapagos. Along the way we saw a shoal of dolphin fish jumping out of the water. Our guide collected some hermit crabs with which we had a race. On the beachwere some young sea lions that were adorable. One was only a few weeks old and did not mind us getting close. Finally we had the option to go snorkelling but as the fish would have been much the same as the day before, I headed back to the beach to see if the baby sea lions would come in the water. Unfortunately they chose not to, but there was a larger male swimming about so I went as close to him as possible. He didn't seem to mind and began to play. He kept swimming in the opposite direction and as I was looking to see where he was, a pelican landed in the water and swam within touching distance. There were one or two of us and he started to follow us in the water and got so close he was able to take a nibble one of the lady´s toes! The sea lion seemed to sense he was missing out and came closer so that we were able to see him clearly under the water. It was a magical experience.
Believing it would be hard to top this, I was quite unprepared for James Bay on Sanitago Island. This was one of the places where Darwin stayed for a few weeks and there was still Darwin´s house, chair and even toilet! This island was the black sand island and was such a contrast to the others. As we wandered along the island black volcanic rock dominated the shoreline. Lazing on the rocks and in the water were hundreds of iguanas chilling out along with red crabs, lava herons, oyster catchers and of course the sea lions. Sanitago was known for its blow holes and as I watched a huge wave coming in, it got funneled between the rock then blown out inland at a tremendous rate, completely soaking me. It was very impressive. Further along, another blow hole but this time the water just flushed in a rush back out to sea - very near Darwin's toilet!
We also managed to get closer to some fur seals before they moved away. They were very cute, and together with the sea lions were my favourites of all the island animals. This and the island itself really topped my Galapagos adventure. The water was of a stunning colour contrasting wonderfully with the black rock, and of course the obvious ferocity of the sea pummeling through the blow holes was such an added bonus.
We tried to go snorkelling again but the current was too strong and we were unable to see much though I did see a shoal of fish just being pulled back and forth by the tide. It was interesting to watch them almost suspended in the water, only being moved by the rush of water washing them back and forth. The sea lions loved the waves but played further away from where it was safe for us to snorkle. All in all, this was my favourite day of the entire trip.
On my last day, we got chance to visit one more island before heading back to Baltra to catch a plane. This was Black Turtle Cove. Completely different to the other islands, this island was all about the mangroves. Mangrove after mangrove they could only be viewed from inside the tender. It was a lovely sight and, although the water was murky, we got to see plenty of turtles in the water. It was mating season and quite a few were getting on with the business. I had seen plenty of turtles in Australia whilst working, but never so close. They popped up beside the tender attached to their mate, grabbed some air before diving down and carrying on! There were also other fish about including a golden stingray floating on the water top. It was a perfect end to a magical trip.
I had always imagined the Galapagos to be teeming with animals like the Ballestas Islands in Peru were and I must admit to being disappointed that it wasn't. I had also brought Darwin´s Origin of Species to read expecting many reference to the Galapagos, but in fact he did not seem to mention it at all. However, despite this, the Galapagos adventure was incredible. Each island I visited was so different to the one before both in landscape and characteristics. It was great that the species on the islands were very tame and did not bother with humans at all (except the fur seals, which given were nearly brought to extintion by humans, is understandable). You could study them for hours in their natural habitat.
Others on the boat were going onto longer cruises but the 5 days I spent there gave plenty of insight into this amazing range of volcanic islands. It was a dream come true and worth every penny.