Galapagos Islands, Ecuador - February 11 - 13, 2015
Tomás De Berlanga, Ecuador
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador - February 11, 12 & 13, 2015
February 11 was what I will call an investment day. It's like sacrificing something good and worthwhile in order get a better pay back in return. Our investment was a whole vacation day spent on a plane. Our flight was scheduled for a 6:30 am departure but was delayed three hours due to weather . . . a little fog. We had a scheduled stop in Guayaquil but we suffered a delay there too. We had consumed so much fuel in the delay at Quito that we had to refuel here before we could proceed. Heck, in the time it took to get to Baltra, we could have flown back to Atlanta.
But like finding a rainbow after a storm, things have a way of improving quickly once the worst is over. We landed in Baltra on the coast, took a quick bus ride to a rubber-raft dinghy for a quick shuttle to our yacht. Yes yacht. The Coral II sleeps 36 guests -- from all over the world, but mostly Great Britain, Australia, Canada and then there are a few of us guys from the US. Its sister ship, the Coral II follows the same itinerary and is always in sight but this ship is smaller, sleeping only 12 guests. All passengers on our yacht speak English. Guests on the Coral II are predominately Spanish speaking. I would not call the yacht a "luxury" yacht but it is certainly adequate and quite nice. We slept like babies last night - even if in twin beds.
Because our group was so late arriving, the crew rounded us up quickly for a hike on Ballena Bay on the Santa Cruz Island. Even though this is wet season, the land was arid and very, very dry. We learned that many plants and animals here are not unique species here but are yet unique from any place else in the world because they have adapted to this harsh environment and can thrive. Almost immediately after beginning this first hike, we saw nests where sea turtles have recently laid up to a hundred eggs about 10-15 inches under the surface of the beach.
As we began to walk, we passed a thicket of brush under which was a cavern-like space. I told Stan I thought it might be a turtle hut. It was late in the day but we saw Galapagos Mockingbirds which due to their adaptations look a little like a cross between Mockingbirds we know and roadrunners, but they do not sing a variety of melodies like our variety of Mockingbirds. We saw Galapagos Fly-catchers. They were cute and curious little creatures who were not afraid of us. The colorations of most birds we saw on the walk prepare them well for blending into the landscape. It takes a close, observant eye to spot them. Then what we all came for . . . a giant tortoise!!! (Galapago) There she was . . . on the first DAY!!!
Land tortoises lay many fewer eggs than Green Sea turtles as their young have a much greater chance for survival. This mamma had traveled down from the highland to the lowland to lay her eggs in the dirt. As we walked on, we saw another and another. And guess what, we found one all cozied-up in one of those "turtle hut" bushes!
When we returned to the boat, dinner was ready to be served. We met a few of our fellow shipmates while we ate and then went up to the top deck to see stars. Stars are miraculous; they remind us of how vast this world outside earth truly is, how un-comprehendably old "existence" is and how insignificant we are. I could look at the stars for hours—if I could stay awake. It was so serene up there, feeling the gentle rock of the yacht, the hum of the engines below and lying on a lounge flat on our backs gazing at the sky that I completely relaxed. Downstairs, sleep was deep and restful, perhaps the most I restful I've experienced in a long, long time,
February 12, 2105
Wake-up was at 7 am, breakfast at 7:30 and in the water for snorkeling at 8:30! We walked outside and oh, what a sight! Our yacht had sailed through the night to Vincente Point on Isabella Island.
The sun had just come up and the water was a beautiful shade of blue. We were anchored just off shore and the face of the rock cliff was just a short distance away. Breathtaking.
What a great morning for snorkeling! Almost immediately we saw a giant sea tortoise. We saw colorful fish, mullet and puffer fish. We saw red crabs climbing on the rock walls, and found many turtles under water-- some huge, some just babies, perhaps 15-20 years old. They like to congregate with other turtles and they walk around the bottom of the ocean as if they were walking on land, coming up for a gulp of air only about every 30 minutes. Sometimes, they swim on the surface of the water to sun themselves and regulate their body temperature.
Stan and I have vowed two things. One, we are going to invest in a good under-water camera and two; we are going to take more snorkeling trips.
After snorkeling we took a ride in the dinghy along the coastline where we saw black marine iguanas - some were sunning, some were grazing on water algae and some females were digging nests in sand high on the hillside - the dust from their digging looked like smoke from small fires. We saw sea lions (light brown) and fur seals (black) playing and soaking up the sun on the rocks. We saw Blue-footed Boobies, Flightless Cormorants who swam right up to us as if they wanted their heads scratched, Frigate birds soaring above us, and small Galapagos Penguins standing on the rocks. These birds are the second smallest penguin in the world; the smallest are found in Australia; we actually saw them two years ago. Some people on our boat are on 7-day cruises and began their trip three days earlier. Even they said this was the best day yet for finding and viewing the animals up close.
After lunch we had a nice siesta to prepare for the next adventure. We took a dinghy to the Island of Fernandina. Before I go much further though, I simply have to talk about two thoughts that bear on my mind here. First, I wonder what this experience might have been like for our friends and neighbors from St. Charles, Missouri, Dean and Marlyn Wilcoxen, who visited this place in probably 1991 or so. It must have been like visiting another planet at that time. Then I keep thinking about Mindy, our niece who when she learned we were here said, "Galapagos? That's definitely on my bucket list." I just hope it is still pristine, natural, and among the less-traveled tourist spots in the world by the time she and Cliff get here.
I never knew there were so many Iguanas! This morning on our dinghy cruise, we'd say, oh, look, there is an iguana on a rock - which rock??? Then we'd zoom in with cameras and binoculars trying to find it. Well, this afternoon we found them. On Fernandina Island, there are zillions of them. You can smell the iguana poop as soon as you reach the dock!! But these creatures are so cool. They have adapted themselves to feeding on algae in the water and then coming ashore to warm themselves and rest. They are reptiles, of course, so as they find food on the rocks in the water, they lose precious body temperature so they eat once a day then sun the rest of the day to warm themselves and to produce enough enzymes to digest their food. Interestingly, marine Iguanas drink salt water; their body processes it and then they sneeze out the salt reside. When they do this, it looks as if they are spitting. The iguana's only predator is the Galapagos hawk. However, the hawk concentrates on prey it can carry, so babies and females weakened and tired from digging holes to lay their eggs are targets. Larger Iguanas are too tough and far too ugly for virtually anything to eat. Thus, we saw literally thousands of them on our hike today. Aside from the Iguana, we absolutely delighted in watching the sea lions, especially the young ones who are left in a pleasant-looking tidal pool for the day while momma goes out to sea for food gathering. These tidal pools served as spa-like day care centers for the young. They are free to play and sun, but also are protected there from sharks or killer whiles who might otherwise grab them for dinner.
And boy did we see crabs! Red crabs! Perhaps the prettiest crabs we have ever seen. They are called Sally Lightfoot crabs. Even these colorful guys have to watch out - they virtually walk on water to avoid being grabbed by an octopus lurking under the rocks in shallow water.
Our sail to the next island is said to be short, so the captain decided we'd stay put for the night. No engines, no rocking. After dinner we went to see to the upper deck to view the stars again. The sky was a little cloudy so a full sky view like we had the night before was not available. It was amazing none the less. Some of the stars seemed so close you'd think you could reach out and touch them.
Later, as we went to the deck below, people called to us to come see! Aft the ship, sea lions were putting on a show, swimming up close to the ship chasing flying fish that were attracted to the lights of the ship. The sea lions zoomed just under the surface chasing and ultimately catching the fish. Some sea lions held their fish high in the air as if to show their catch to us.
February 13, 2015
Seems one day is almost better than the other. We visited Isabella Island and did a 1 1/2 hour hike. This area of the island has more vegetation than any we have seen so far. We found more giant female tortoises that had come down from the highlands to lay their eggs, and we saw quite a good number of baby tortoises still in low lands because they are not old enough to make the long trek to the highlands. We got great photos of land iguanas which are quite different from the marine iguanas we saw yesterday. Their coloring is yellow while the marine iguana is grey or black, and the tails of land iguana are much smaller than the marine varieties since they don't have to use the tail for swimming. Also, the land iguana lives more solitary lives than their marine iguana cousins. They don't need the group for protection from predators or to conserve body heat marine iguanas lose while swimming for food. We saw another male Galapagos Hawk, mocking birds and Darwin finches.
After our hike we had time for snorkel time in the bay. There were long, long streaming schools of tiny fish being chased by penguins. A little deeper, just below the tiny sardine-like fish were larger ones. It was the penguins that stole the show though. They were so cute! Imagine swimming along when suddenly a penguin would dart past in the water under or beside you. Sometimes one would quickly turn here, then there. One swam all around Stan, over and under and all around while Stan never knew. I'm sure my giggling through the snorkel might have sounded funny surface side.
We found a giant green sea turtle swimming along munching algae on the rocks. All around were pelicans diving for fish nearby. I never got an under-water view of a pelican diving but I'm sure the sight would be fantastic.
Life on the yacht is nice. Our schedule is not nearly as hectic on this trip as the last few weeks have been. It's actually fairly relaxed. Typically, we wake at 7 am, have breakfast at 7:30, and then head out for a hike and lecture or snorkel adventure by 8:30 am. We usually re-board the yacht about 11:30 am and have an hour's rest before lunch. Alter lunch it is siesta time for an hour or so and start the afternoon's adventure about 2 pm until 5 pm or so. Dinner is at 7:30 and we are all usually in our cabins by 10 pm. Not a bad life. And the food on board is fresh, and delicious. Varieties of fish dishes are featured quite often, and I've not had one bite of anything that did not taste wonderful.
In the full 36 hours we have been on this boat, we have met so many nice and interesting people. Meeting from all over the world people is one of the great bonus benefits of travel. The intriguing thing about this particular trip to the Galapagos is that every single passenger we have met is well-traveled. This group of people has been everywhere. Stan and I have been to many places; some that others have not, like Bali, for example, but many of our fellow shipmates have been to more wonderful places already than we can ever hope to see in the rest of our lives. It is great fun to share travel tips, and itineraries. It's the very best way to learn about where you'd like to travel next. Today we've learned that we should plan on putting Panama on our must-see list, and we received reinforcement to our long-term dreams of seeing Viet Nam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma. I hope and pray we remain strong enough and well-enough to do it all.