Ecuador, Pt. 2: The Galápagos Islands
“It was one of the few times in my life that I was fully aware of being on the brink of a great experience. And not only aware but grateful, grateful for being alive, grateful for having eyes, for being sound in mind and limb, for having rolled in the gutter, for having gone hungry, for having been humiliated, for having done everything that I did do since at last it had culminated in this moment of bliss.”
-Henry Miller, ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’
In my last post, we had just completed our four-day Ecuadorian train ride from Quito to Guayaquil and were gearing up for the main event, a three-night cruise around the Galápagos Islands.
For those that are after a little background information on the Islands, here are the basics:
The Galápagos Islands, part of the Republic of Ecuador, are an archipelago of volcanic islands distributed on either side of the Equator in the Pacific Ocean surrounding the centre of the Western Hemisphere, 906 km (563 mi) west of continental Ecuador. The islands are known for their vast number of endemic species and were studied by Charles Darwin during the second voyage of HMS Beagle, as his observations and collections contributed to the inception of Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection.
There are only 116 visitor sites in the Galápagos: 54 land sites and 62 scuba-diving or snorkeling sites. Small groups are allowed to visit in 2- to 4-hour shifts only, to limit impact on the area. All groups are accompanied by licensed guides.
There have been thousands of books written about the Islands and pretty much every website related to them has an extensive history of the area so I’m not going to do it here. I will, however, add more information later about the particular islands we visited and the wildlife species we saw. If, in the end you still want to know more, probably the best starting point would be the series Galapagos with David Attenborough (also known as Galapagos 3D), all three episodes of which can be watched here, free of charge.
Our entire Ecuadorian adventure had been based around this leg of the trip. Anna, Roshini, and myself had always been fascinated by the Galápagos Islands and had forever wanted to visit. Pat, who, as I mentioned last time is terrified of animals, was initially excited too, until she did a little research. My guess is she first thought this was going to be the type of island holiday Anna usually goes on with her friends, this time in South America. However, when she dug a little deeper and found out where she was really going, terror struck. “It’s all animals,” Anna said Pat’s first educated, yet frightened response was. “Mainly lizards!”
This was going to be even more fun than I first anticipated. There were three different cruises aboard Royal Galapagos’ Natural Paradise yacht to select from:
- An eight-day cruise consisting of 16 different stops,
- A five-day cruise consisting of nine different stops, or
- A four-day cruise consisting of six different stops,
We had chosen option three, which meant we would be following the route on this map:
Saturday, February 17, 2018
We left our comfortable hotel in Guayaquil and made our way to the airport for the 10:00 am flight, our destination; Seymour Airport, located on the island of Baltra. Once we arrived on the island, we went through the proper channels and were transported by bus to a ferry dock connecting Baltra to the island of Santa Cruz, the second-largest island in the Galápagos, via the Itabaca Channel. Our luggage was all sorted for us so we hopped aboard the ferry and sailed to Santa Cruz and paid a visit to the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center, where we were to encounter our first native species, the Galápagos giant tortoise:
The Galápagos tortoise complex or Galápagos giant tortoise complex are the largest living species of tortoise. Modern Galápagos tortoises can weigh up to 417 kg (919 lb).
The Galápagos tortoises are native to seven of the Galápagos Islands. With lifespans in the wild of over 100 years, it is one of the longest-lived vertebrates. A captive individual lived at least 170 years. Spanish explorers, who discovered the islands in the 16th century, named them after the Spanish galápago, meaning “tortoise”.
Shell size and shape vary between populations. On islands with humid highlands, the tortoises are larger, with domed shells and short necks; on islands with dry lowlands, the tortoises are smaller, with “saddleback” shells and long necks. Charles Darwin’s observations of these differences on the second voyage of the Beagle in 1835, contributed to the development of his theory of evolution.
We were led around among the tortoises while our guide, Elmer, mistakenly kept referring to them as “turtles,” a completely different species altogether. Tortoises are a land-based reptile, while turtles can swim and, although this could be put down to mistranslation on his behalf, knowing what animal you are teaching people about is a vital part of working in a sanctuary for them. He was also open to questions, particularly about the age of the animals but still didn’t really seem to know what he was talking about, prefixing every answer he gave with, “It is possible _________.” Brilliant, but saying something is possible doesn’t make that information factually accurate, it just sounds like you’re making shit up! If I said that it was possible that a tortoise switched gender every time it yawned, it wouldn’t be untrue. Tortoises do yawn, therefore it is possible, but it is also extremely unlikely and almost certainly bullshit.
Besides our guide, this part of the breeding centre was great and we could get right up close to the tortoises. We then had some lunch at the island and were ready to get back on our bus to go to the Charles Darwin Research Station, but a giant tortoise decided to make itself comfortable beneath our wheels.
Some of our first sights in the Galápagos Islands:
Our next stop was the Charles Darwin Research Station, operated by the Charles Darwin Foundation. We still had our terrible guide, but it was possible this would be the last we would have to put up with him (and by ‘it was possible,’ I actually mean that I am 100 percent certain beyond a shadow of a doubt!). We were shown around the facilities, encountering more giant tortoises, as well as land iguanas and other species of reptiles outside, while learning about the breeding process for tortoises and seeing skeletons of dolphins and whales inside.
Once we were finished at the Research Station, we were taken to the main part of town so we could have a look around for a few hours before it was time to travel out to our yacht. There were some nice stores and some cool bars, as well as some beautiful stretches of coast so after exploring the town, we pulled up a seat and had a beer until it was time to make our way to the dock to be taxied out to the yacht.
Our home for the next three nights is described on the Royal Galapagos website as:
Elegant and comfortable, the Natural Paradise is the newest yacht in Galapagos. Four of her nine cabins feature private balconies and the main deck suite can be converted into a triple room. Her social areas include a beautiful teak sundeck with Jacuzzi and a cozy al fresco dining. On the main deck you will find a spacious lounge and dining room. Snorkelling equipment, wetsuits and sea kayaks are available on board.
This yacht didn’t disappoint, either! Anna and myself were staying in Cabin 7, a suite with a king-size bed and private bathroom, as well as its own private balcony:
It was nice to not be living out of a suitcase for a change after our constant changing of hotels during the train journey. Instead, we could leave clothes out, not feel the need to pack every night, and live a relatively stable existence for the next few nights. I can’t say the same for Roshini, however, as she became violently seasick and spent most of the first night in the bathroom, vomiting. It wouldn’t be a constant problem though, as it was nothing some medication and a special bracelet couldn’t counter.
After we had settled into our rooms, we went down and had dinner before being briefed by our brilliant new guide, Peter, on the following days activities and then had a few quiet drinks and got to know the nine other people we’d be hanging out with for the next couple of days, a younger crowd than on our train trek.
As had been the case up until this point, we were still jet-lagged so we had a relatively early night ahead of another early start and the rocking of the boat combined with calming effect of the sea definitely makes it easier to drift off. On the other hand, it can make showering a little tricky.
A bit of what we saw during the latter part of the day at the Charles Darwin Research Station, as well as around the town and on the yacht:
Sunday, February 18, 2018
Our suite on the yacht had no curtains so getting up wasn’t a problem, both of us being awake and actually feeling somewhat refreshed before the alarm went off. We went down and were served breakfast and then we were to go by dinghy to our first stop of the day, El Barranco on the island of Genovesa:
Genovesa Island, named after the Italian city of Genoa, in honor of Christopher Columbus, (referred to in English as Tower Island) is a shield volcano in the Galápagos Islands in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The island occupies about 14 square kilometres (5 sq mi), and its maximum elevation is 64 m (210 ft). The horse-shoe shaped island has a volcanic caldera whose wall has collapsed, forming the Great Darwin Bay, surrounded by cliffs.
This island is known as Bird Island, because of the large and varied bird colonies which nest here. There are an abundance of frigatebirds and it is among the best place in the archipelago to see red-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, storm petrels, tropicbirds, Darwin’s finches, and Galápagos mockingbirds.
Prince Philip’s Steps is an extraordinary steep path that leads through a seabird colony full of life, up to cliffs that are 25 metres (82 feet) high. At the top, the trail continues inland, passing more seabird colonies in a thin palo santo forest. The trail also provides overviews of a rocky plain. Storm petrels here are different from any others in the world because they are active during the day. To avoid predators, they only return to their nest holes at night.
So, for this part of the trip we would be doing a lot of bird watching, the main species’ we’d encounter being frigates, red-footed boobies, as well as a surprising number of short-eared lava owls. We also saw large groups of sea lions just laying around:
As I mentioned in the caption for one of the pictures, here is an interesting fact the Nazca Booby:
Like many seabirds, the species has a long lifespan combined with low annual reproduction and long periods of development in the young. Clutch size is one or two eggs, due to the low hatching success, however when 2 eggs are laid and they both hatch, it is common for only one of the chicks to survive.
Yup, they just ditch the other one, but such is life. Anyway, Anna is terrified of birds, but even she got into it, most likely because mankind has never really threatened these birds so they are reasonably tame and don’t particularly see us as a predator.
We went back to the boat for lunch and while we had been out in the morning, a fishing boat had dropped off some fish for dinner that night. The chefs onboard the boat were gutting and cleaning them on the side of a small boat next to our yacht and there were birds everywhere, just trying to get some of the guts being tossed overboard.
When we had finished eating, we got back in the dinghy, bound for Genovesa again, this time landing at Darwin Bay in order to go snorkelling. When I was hanging out in Bangkok with my mate, Owen, back in January, I had asked Anna if she wanted anything while I was in town. At first she hadn’t been able to think of anything, then she suggested waterproof phone covers for this particular trip in the hope that we might be able to capture underwater footage of a marine iguana. We wouldn’t get quite that lucky, but we would see some cool stuff while snorkelling. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to take photos while underwater because the phone is unable to detect your finger touching it at the time. Instead, the only option is to film the entire time you are snorkelling, which is what I opted for when I realised the photos weren’t going to happen. During this particular one-hour swim I got quite close to a hammerhead shark, saw a school of manta rays go past and saw many cool looking fish, both large and small, sometimes simply joining a school of them and just swimming along, just going with the flow. The video came out a bit blurry, but it also wouldn’t be our last time snorkelling so there would be plenty of opportunities to get it right. Also, the videos are quite long, tend to make some people feel a tad seasick when they watch them and get a little boring after the first few minutes. Still, one day I might load them onto my Youtube channel, perhaps even edit all the good bits into one video, but that will take some time.
After snorkelling, we went back to the boat to dry off and get changed, and then we were off to Darwin Beach to hike through mangroves filled with more birds, gradually making our way down to some tidal pools where we would get to see sea lions again, this time just hanging out and playing. A bit more about Galápagos sea lions:
The Galápagos sea lion is a species of sea lion that exclusively breeds on the Galápagos Islands and – in smaller numbers – on Isla de la Plata (Ecuador). Being fairly social, and one of the most numerous species in the Galápagos archipelago, they are often spotted sun-bathing on sandy shores or rock groups or gliding gracefully through the surf. Their loud bark, playful nature, and graceful agility in water make them the “welcoming party” of the islands. They are the smallest sea lions.
Slightly smaller than their Californian relatives, Galápagos sea lions range from 150 to 250 cm (59 to 98 in) in length and weigh between 50 to 250 kg (110 to 550 lb), with the males averaging larger than females. Adult males also tend to have a thicker, more robust neck, chest, and shoulders in comparison to their slender abdomen. Females are somewhat opposite males, with a longer, more slender neck and thick torso. Once sexually mature, a male’s sagittal crest enlarges, forming a small, characteristic bump-like projection on their forehead.
When wet, sea lions are a shade of dark brown, but once dry, their color varies greatly. The females tend to be a lighter shade than the males and the pups a chestnut brown.
They sound like they could be fun to have a look at, which is exactly what we did. That description might be able to help you differentiate between the males and females:
Galápagos sea lions are often described as ‘playful’ and that is definitely an accurate description, but it makes things a little difficult when you’re not allowed to touch them, but they approach you, seemingly wanting to make contact, as this one did to me:
Anyway, when we got back to the yacht, that fish we had for dinner was so good and afterward we had a nightcap and chatted with some of the others in our group before letting the sea rock us to sleep again.
Monday, February 19, 2018
We were up early again for breakfast, Roshini feeling substantially better because she had taken some medication the previous evening to counter the effects of seasickness.
Today was to be our last full day in the Galápagos and it would also turn out to be one of the best, packing in as much as possible on Santiago Island:
Santiago Island is an island of the Galápagos Islands. It is also known as San Salvador, named after the first island discovered by Columbus in the Caribbean Sea, or as James Island. The island, which consists of two overlapping volcanoes, has an area of 585 square kilometres (226 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 907 metres (2,976 ft), atop the northwestern shield volcano. Marine Iguanas, sea lions, fur seals, land and sea turtles, flamingos, crabs, dolphins, and sharks are found here. There are a large number of goats and pigs, animals which were introduced by humans to the islands and have caused great harm to the endemic species. Darwin Finches and Galápagos Hawks are usually seen as well as a colony of Fur Seals.
Puerto Egas, south of James Bay and west side of Santiago, is one of the best sites. There is a long, lava shoreline where eroded rock formations house an excellent variety of wildlife. Marine iguanas bask in the sun. The tide pools contain many Sally Lightfoot crabs, which attract other types of hunters. Following the trail Fur seal lions are found. Puerto Egas is not only a good spot for taking pictures but also perfect for snorkeling and seeing many species of tropical fish.
Being a volcanic island, the sand is quite dark, yet still very smooth to the touch. We landed in the Buccaneer Cove area of Santiago island, which was once a refuge for British pirates. They used to anchor in the protected bay to make repairs and stock up on tortoise meat among other things, whereas we just spent our morning watching sea turtles such as this one:
After looking at turtles for a while it was time for snorkelling again. The previous day I had forgotten to put sunscreen on a small patch on the back of my left arm, just above the elbow, which in turn got very sunburnt, but I also noticed another area that was getting a little scorched as well; the top of my head. Singapore is essentially right on the equator, just like the Galápagos islands, but we noticed two major differences — The Galápagos isn’t anywhere near as humid as it is in Singapore, but the sun was far more intense! I wear a cap almost all the time in Singapore, but I don’t wear sunscreen, yet I hardly ever get burnt. Put me out in the sun for 10 minutes during Summer in Australia and I look like Dr. Zoidberg from Futurama, and the same was the case here. I’d lather up thickly with sunscreen, yet there was nothing I could do about my scalp, which was directly facing the sun every time we went snorkelling. Still, it wasn’t going to stop me, only today we would be going twice. The first snorkelling trip was in Buccaneer Cove just before lunch, the second in Puerto Egas immediately after we ate. We saw similar stuff to last time, but on these two trips we also encountered white-tip reef sharks and had fur seals swim up to us, all of which I filmed, which was a good thing because I had a problem with my mask constantly fogging up both times, no matter what I did to prevent it.
After our second snorkelling expedition of the day, we finally got to encounter what we had come halfway around the world with the hope of seeing — The marine iguana:
The marine iguanais a species of iguana found only on the Galápagos Islands (Ecuador) that has the ability, unique among modern lizards, to forage in the sea, making it a marine reptile. This iguana feeds almost exclusively on algae and large males dive to find this food source, while females and smaller males feed during low tide in the intertidal zone. They mainly live in colonies on rocky shores where they warm after visiting the relatively cold water or intertidal zone, but can also be seen in marshes, mangrove and beaches.
Researchers theorize that land iguanas and marine iguanas evolved from a common ancestor since arriving on the islands from Central or South America, presumably by rafting.
Marine iguanas can dive as deep as 20 m (66 ft), and can spend up to one hour underwater.
Marine iguanas have several adaptions that aid their feeding. Among these are flattened tails for efficient swimming, blunt heads (“flat noses”) and sharp teeth allowing them to easier graze algae off rocks, powerful limbs and claws for climbing and holding onto rocks, and compact limb bones compared to the land iguana, especially those from the front limbs, providing ballast to help with diving. As a sea reptile, much salt is ingested. The salt is filtered from their blood and then excreted by specialised cranial exocrine glands at the nostrils, expelled from the body in a process much like sneezing. The head may appear white from encrusted salt.
So not only have these reptiles evolved to be able to swim and eat algae, they have also adapted to their new diet by developing a special gland to help them expel salt, unique to them and no other reptile. Again, if you want an explanation as to why these animals are so fascinating, I recommend watching that David Attenborough series that I mentioned at the beginning.
We definitely weren’t disappointed because we were absolutely inundated with wildlife as soon as we set foot on the island. There were sea lions, fur seals, red rock crabs, and what we were hoping for, marine iguanas, at every turn, but unfortunately I couldn’t get a picture or footage of one ‘sneezing’ out the salt, although we saw a few of them doing it. Here’s how it looked while we were walking along the beach:
The fur seals were more than just a little bit tame. At one stage, I was sitting on the edge of a rock pool with my feet in the water, just watching a couple of pups playing and swimming around. The water was quite warm so I wasn’t really aware that I was moving my feet a bit and wiggling my toes, when suddenly one of the seals nipped at my toe the way a puppy does, clearly mistaking it for a small fish. The seal barely even reacted when I jumped back, pulling my feet out of the water as fast as I possibly could. It just went straight back to playing with its mate:
We then had to take the dinghy around to an area that was less beach and more volcanic rock, tidal pools, caves, and caverns. Here we encountered plenty more marine iguanas and crabs, as well as a lot more sea lions and fur seals, but it was also coming over a little stormy:
If you’re wondering what it looks like in live action while you’re there, I was filming some of the marine iguanas hanging out with the crabs when a sea lion swum behind them. Pretty much everything in one shot:
There was, however, one event that upset the girls a little as we were about to leave — We saw what I initially thought was a sea lion, but turned out to be a fur seal (it is difficult for the layperson to differentiate, so don’t worry if you’ve been having trouble while looking at the pictures) feeding a pup. While doing so, another pup approached her several times in order to feed. I filmed the first encounter as the adult seal barked and then attacked the pup, but according to Anna, on the second attempt, which I missed, the adult actually bit the pup quite violently, the younger one waddling away in agony. It turns out that is not out of the ordinary and here‘s why:
Galápagos fur seals have the lowest reproductive rate reported in seals, and it takes an unusually long time to raise seal pups to independence. Females bear only one pup at a time, and she remains with her newborn for a week before leaving to feed. She then periodically returns to the pup and stays to suckle it for a few days before leaving on another hunting trip. Females recognize their own pups by smell and sound, and pups also learn to identify their mothers by the females’ “Pup Attraction Calls”. Mother-pup recognition is crucial because females exclusively nurse their own pups, often violently rejecting strange pups that approach. Orphaned seal pups usually try to sneak up on sleeping or calling females to suckle, but stealing milk is not enough to sustain the pups, and they usually die within a month.
I guess this footage is probably among the last anyone will see of that particular pup:
It was a bit of a downer to end such a fantastic day in a way so depressing, but that is just the way nature works.
We took the dinghy back to the yacht for our final night, where we had dinner, some drinks, and exchanged details with people that we would like to remain in touch with the following day. We were forewarned that the sea was going to be rough that night so many people were taking their seasickness medication and wearing the bracelets to counter the effects. Me? I slept like a baby, and I don’t mean waking up every two hours, crying and shitting, either.
Tuesday, February 20, 2018
We were flying out today, first from Seymour Airport in Baltra again, bound for Guayaquil, spending a few hours in town, and then fly from Guayaquil to Amsterdam, Netherlands, where we would kick back and relax for a few days. That didn’t mean that there was nothing to do before our flight back to the mainland; on this cruise they try to pack in as much as possible and that meant there was still an adventure to be had before our morning flight — We were going to spend our last couple of hours in the Islands by soaking up the sights around Bachas Beach, back on the north shore of Santa Cruz.
We landed on the shore of what is mainly a swimming beach at about 6:00am and walked around, taking in the sunrise and watching flamingoes, iguanas, pelicans, and crabs. What was also interesting is that there are still remains from the US presence in the Galápagos during World War II, particularly part of an old floating pier:
We went back to the yacht to have breakfast and get our luggage ready, before heading to the airport. To be honest, we all thought that our early-morning jaunt around Bachas Beach was the perfect sendoff following our three nights cruising around the Galápagos Islands, but that was actually still to come at the airport.
When we arrived at the airport in Baltra we paid the relevant taxes that are expected when you are leaving the Islands and then waited for our plane. As we were sitting there, I noticed this guy just staring at me; yes, a land iguana about a metre (3’4″) long, a little rough around the edges, but completely unafraid. Myself and Alejandro, an American-based Peruvian that we made friends with on our tour, approached it and we took our last photos in the Galápogas Islands:
Now that was the perfect sendoff, a giant iguana waiting at the airport. We made our two-hour flight, landing safely in Guayaquil Airport and then took a taxi into town. We had a few hours to kill and Anna, Pat, and Roshini had really liked the Panama hats they had seen in Ecuador, plus Anna needed a new hat anyway, so we got in a taxi and our first stop was Ecua-Andino Hats for Anna, Roshini, and Pat to get one customised each.
After their hats were ready, the taxi took us back to the waterfront area of Guayaquil. We were looking for somewhere to eat and in the process ended up having a good look around the area, just roaming the backstreets and alleys. Here is what we saw of this beautiful part of this colourful and vibrant city:
We struggled to find somewhere to eat in the backstreets, besides some local ice-cream, so we opted for a large commercial place on the waterfront for lunch. Before long it was time to taxi it back to the airport and fly out to Amsterdam, a trip you will be able to read about in the third and final part of this saga when I get a chance to write it.
This was hands-down the best holiday I have ever been on and will be a difficult one to top. That doesn’t mean that I won’t enjoy future travels and fully embrace upcoming experiences, but I doubt that anything will ever come close to this vacation, especially when you include the Ecuadorian train trip that preceded it. Even Pat enjoyed it, despite all of the lizards!
A big thank you to Royal Galápagos for putting this leg of the trip together, as well as all of the crew aboard the Natural Paradise for your service. An extra-special shoutout has to go out to Peter Freide, our guide from the moment we got on the yacht, we really appreciate your help, your knowledge, and your sense of humour. Thank you for helping make this the greatest time of my life thus far!