|PREVIOUS DISPATCH: Ecuador||NEXT DISPATCH: Machu Picchu/ Peru|
DAY THREE: Headed to The Galapagos Islands!
Our plane to the islands from Quito. We've never heard of Tame before, as it serves mostly routes within Ecuador. But, as we sit here writing this 36,000 feet above the Pacific eating a lovely lunch, we have to say we wholeheartedly approve of every aspect of the flight.
Aerial view of snow-covered Pichincha with a smaller volcano in the foreground as we climb out of Quito.
Our first glimpse of the Galapagos Islands!
The vessel we will call home for the next week, the M/Y (as in Motor Yacht) Yolita II. David is in the Zodiac pictured, I'm in the next one right behind. Our guide, Franklin, met us at the aeroport and had our bags transported, so we bypassed quite a few folks waiting to board other boats. That's great organization, and we appreciate every extra minute we'll have to explore these remarkable islands. -Veronica
Quick introductions, instructions and safety procedures are covered during the short cruise to our first destination, Las Bachas Beach on the island of Santa Cruz. The moment our feet hit the sand Franklin begins pointing out animals. Right at the shoreline, a brown pelican perched on an outcrop of lava rock, and a young stingray give us an unofficial welcome. This is going to be the best trip EVER.
A Marine Iguana, a species found only in the Galapagos, sunning himself near the water's edge.
Our fellow Road Scholar, Bill, captures his first sea lion! (Crazy about sea lions? click here for all the cute sea lion footage we took on this adventure!)
Sally Lightfoot (grapsus grapsus) crabs crawling across the jet black lava. They are one of the 100 species of crabs on the islands.
Another iguana considers a swim. Their fondness for water and diving ability, an adaptation they developed only here, separates these marine guys from all of their land based cousins.
A short walk inland leads us to a salt water lagoon where this Great Blue Heron is keeping an eye out just in case his lunch swims by.
One of the dozens of frigate birds that accompany us as we sail away from Santa Cruz toward our next stop, Genovesa.
After a spectacular sunset, we receive the first of our nightly briefings from Franklin. A quick recap of the day's adventure and a look ahead at tomorrow's.
We review all of our wildlife sightings and a question comes up about some small birds that have been trailing along in our wake, Storm Petrels, that leads to a great story about their name. The little guys fly just above the water and their feet skim the surface so that it looks almost like they are walking. Because St. Peter, (Petra) attempted to follow Jesus out onto the water, these were named in his honor.
Tomorrow we look forward to seeing many more of the water walkers, sea lions, perhaps a fur seal, the world's only owl that hunts during the day, and the largest concentration of Red-Footed boobies anywhere on earth. By morning we will be anchored in the water-filled caldera of the ancient volcano that forms Genovesa Island, the famous Darwin's Bay. Imagine Crater Lake, only in the middle of the tropical Pacific.
Galapagos visiting tip #1: Pack a battery powered or wind-up alarm clock. We had a bit of confusion this morning - the time didn't update on anyone's cell phones out here, so using the wake-up function was a lost cause.
DAY FOUR: Into the mouth of a volcano
We wake up anchored in Darwin's Bay on Genovesa Island. In reality the whole island is one-big crescent shaped bay formed by the remnants of a large volcanic caldera that just clears the surface of the ocean. The name is derived from Genoa, Italy and is in reference to the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. In fact the official name of the Galapagos is Archipiélago de Colón, in honor of the famous mariner.
Rules for Going Ashore:
- Always be at least six feet away from the animals. Stay alert, it's surprisingly easy to break this rule as the animals have little fear of humans - if an animal approaches and comes within the six foot barrier, the HUMAN is obligated to step back.
-No touching the animals (which is, of course, impossible if you are obeying the first rule #1).
-Do not bring any type of food onto the islands, only drinking water is permitted.
-Stay on the clearly marked trails.
-No flash photography.
All of these rules are for the protection of this fragile ecosystem. Painstaking efforts are made by everyone involved with our Galapagos experience to avoid contamination of the islands from outside influences. From the airplane being sprayed for bugs right before we landed in order to prevent introducing invasive nonindigineous insect species and insect borne diseases, to our shoes being cleaned everytime we board the yacht to prevent transferring any tiny creatures from one island to another, protective precautions are made by these professional people who obviously truly love these islands.
Male frigates doing their version of the singles bar scene. After all, what girl could resist a bright red inflated gular sac like that?
The title "the bird island" is certainly fitting. Considering the proliferation of the red-footed and Nazca varieties of boobies, booby island was likely the original idea for a nick name... someone must have thought better of that nomenclature. Here are a Red-footed Booby and a Nazca Booby watching over their eggs.
After our birdwatching walk we don our fins, masks and snorkels to hit the water. Road Scholars, Roger & Debbie, help each other into wetsuits.
Our afternoon romp begins with a Zodiac ride along the cliffs where we pull right up beside the rocks for intimate encounters with Red-billed Tropicbirds...
...and seal lions!
David with his new sea lion friend. (Want more sea lions? click here for all the amazing sea lion pics we took on this adventure!)
We arrive at what are known as Prince Phillip's Steps, a narrow path in a fissure, and climb to the top of the volcanic ridge that forms Genovesa Island.
Once we reach the summit we really see why this is called the bird island. Multiple thousands of our feathered friends have made Genovesa Island home.
WATCH: The most amazing, insanely exotic birds in the world!
Even when they block the trail, don't touch the boobies! (pictured is our guide, Franklin, and fellow Road Scholar, Janet)
Galapagos visiting tip #2: Bring comfortable, well worn, rubber soled shoes! They don't mess around with the terrain here!
A baby boobie. Like a puppy, he needs to grow into those feet!
A female frigate gets a bit frisky! And these two aren't sporting a throat pouch - go figure!
The highlight of this trek has to be spotting a Short-eared Owl eating a freshly captured Storm Petrel. These rare owls are diurnal, meaning they hunt during the day, and are the only owls known to exist that exhibit this behavior.
Franklin informed us of this owl's unique hunting method. The owl will watch a hole in the rocks until a petrel comes out, then instead of immediately attacking, will enter the vacated opening and lay wait for his prey, sometimes for hours. When the unsuspecting petrel returns he is ambushed in his own home. The whole thing struck us as somewhat ingenious, if not a bit criminal in nature.
DAY FIVE: Beautiful Bartolomé Island
In our briefing last night we learned about the geologic forces that created this volcanic archipelago, and that as one of the younger islands in the group, Bartolomé will offer us some fine visual examples of volcanic handiwork. Oh yeah, plus we might get to see a penguin.
We awake a stones throw from the equator with the sun rising in the east just as the full moon is setting in the west and feel really, really centered.
Our anchorage this morning is right at the base of Pinnacle Rock, "The Guardian of the Isles," just off the coast of Bartolomé Island.
We set out on the first expedition for the day, a hike to the summit of Bartolomé Island.
Easily observable evidence of recent volcanism surrounds us as Franklin points out lava bombs, flows and cinder cones.
A Lava Lizard, one of the few creatures willing to call this forboding environment home.
From the summit we can see for miles and Franklin points out about a dozen islands in the Galapagos chain.
Our next excursion involves a cooling snorkel journey directly beneath Pinnacle Rock. Just seconds from the shore of Bartolomé Island we spot this Chocolate Chip Sea Star.
Next thing we know, we're in the middle of a school of Yellow-tailed Surgeonfish, named for the scalpel-like scales along their tails.
A white tipped reef shark scurries out from under a rock and we were in too much awe to snap a photo, but we did capture this Hog Fish.
WATCH: Veronica is treated to several minutes of frolicking with a Galapagos sea lion.
(There's more! click here for all the amazing sea lion videos we shot on this adventure!)
Galapagos visiting tip #3: Keep a supply of large zip-type sandwich bags with you to keep moisture and sand out of your belongings and camera equipment.
On the way back to the Yolita II we encounter our first penguin. The Galapagos version are the only ones that live in the tropics.
Our afternoon adventure is a trek across the barren landscape of a very young lava flow on the island of Sanitago. Young meaning in this case about 130 years, which may sound slightly less than young, but geologically speaking is just the blink of an eye.
The molten rock flowing into the sea formed numerous types of mind boggling patterns and designs mostly depending on the speed of the cooling process.
Click here to learn more about the volcanic landscape of these islands!
Somehow, miraculously, life always finds a way.
Pinnacle Rock takes on a gravity-defying angle from Santiago.
Galapagos visiting tip #4: Have a supply of pre-moistened lens cleaning wipes for eye/sun glasses. Works wonders on camera lenses as well. Salt air is sticky!
The tropical sun on the black basalt flow takes a toll on Veronica.
We are happy to report that she survived to tell about another fabulous day.
DAY SIX: The Day of the Giant Tortoise
We've been so busy studying the amazing wildlife and terrain of these enchanting islands that we have neglected to mention the incredible food, service and attention to every detail that Captain Vincente and his crew have provided.
Every meal has been beautifully prepared and presented right down to the snacks and juice that await us every time we return to the ship from an excursion. A giant gracias to the fantastic crew of the Yolita II.
Our day on the island of Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos, will begin at sea level, rise above the clouds, and then return to the sea.
As we rise in altitude going up the Volcán Sierra Negra the scenery changes from dry, barren, lava flows to wet tropical jungle filled with exotic plants and birds, many we have never seen before.
Signs along the way warn drivers to slow down for the safety of the birds.
In a stroke of huge luck (and the amazing eye of our guide, Franklin) we catch a glimpse of the tiny, extremely elusive Vermillion Flycatcher.
Click here for more pics and stories of the birds of these fabulous islands!
From the bus we hike about two miles up to the rim of the active volcano which is playing hide and seek with the clouds. Often we are actually looking down on the clouds from above.
The floor of the caldera is covered with black, freshly hardened lava from the last eruption, in 2005, and is still hot, warmed by the massive magma chamber just below the surface. Photos can't capture the enormity of the situation!
Galapagos visiting tip #5: The flights into The Galapagos have a 44-pound weight limit for luggage and cabin space on the boats are tight. It's best to take less clothing and to plan on hand washing if the need arises.
On our way back down the mountain we visit the Tortoise Breeding Center of Isabela, home to over three hundred Giant Tortoises. The tour through the facility begins with an egg...
...then we see adolescents, twenty years old or so...
..then the full grown big fellahs, who can easily top 500 pounds and be over 100 years old.
WATCH: This is a breeding center, I guess we shouldn't be surprised to see some breeding going on.
From the breeding center we walk along the wetland trail and find a flock of Flamingos in a salt water lagoon.
Marine Iguanas seem to like hanging out on the boardwalk that leads through the wetlands.
The trail ends at the town of Puerto Villamil, a quaint tropical village, and one of the few human-inhabited places on these islands. After miles of hiking we were more than pleased to find this outpost of civilization and proceeded to wash down the trail dust with a chilled cerveza, Pilsner - Ecuador's most popular brew - at an open air cantina called La Choza. We were pretty happy since they provided not only frosty refreshment, but a pretty jammin' wifi signal too.
Rejuvenated, we climb back aboard the Zodiacs for the trip back to the Yolita II and found this guy lounging on a fishing boat in the harbor. (Want more sea lions? click here for all the amazing sea lion pics we took on this adventure!)
DAY SEVEN: Giant Tortoises & Massive Iguanas in the WILD and Swimming with Turtles
We take the dingy into Elizabeth Bay and immediately come upon dozens of Galapagos penguins diving and frolicking beside us while they catch their breakfast. Our second day on Isabela will be filled with close encounters of the rare species kind.
A little closer to shore we pull up to a rock where a few Blue-footed Boobies stake out an observation post.
Click here for more pics and stories of the birds of these fabulous islands!
As we motored deep into the mangroves we could see an unbelievable number of sea turtles swimming just beneath the surface, along with spotted eagle rays and a large school of mullets. Since they were under water it was hard to tell what sort of hair style they were sporting.
Galapagos visiting tip #6: Don't forget socks - we're finding we're going through quite a few pair. The hand washing of socks is happening.
During our usual tasty midday meal the Yolita II made her way north to Urbina Bay, also on Isabela. Just after lunch a pod of dolphins join us on our journey. They seem to love riding on the surge of water that the ship pushes out in front... surfing the pressure wave.
WATCH: Dolphins frolic in the pressure wave of the Yolita II
We make a wet landing, jumping out of the Zodiacs into the surf, on the black sand beach of Urbina Bay and begin our search for the Galapagos Giant Tortoise in the wild. The signs of them are everywhere, their tracks and droppings, and it isn't long before we find one of these magnificent creatures.
Not much farther along an enormous full grown male blocks our path. Eventually he let us by, perhaps because it seems he took a shine to Veronica.
WATCH: We were so lucky to see all of these massive reptiles near Urbina Bay - wow, just wow.
Most of the animals here in the Galapagos show no fear of humans whatsoever, as we see again just up the trail with this Land Iguana.
Maybe our giant tortoise friend does have a thing for Veronica because a few minutes after we make it back to the beach he comes plodding out of the brush to say goodbye.
The afternoon is complete when we snorkel out in the bay and find it swarming with huge Green Sea Turtles.
WATCH: Another exciting swim for Veronica - check out Green Sea Turtles - up close and personal!
DAY EIGHT: Talk About Wild Kingdom!
Our morning activities kick off with a dingy ride around Tagus Cove where we see several penguins perched on the tuff cliffs. Tuff is a sedimentary form of volcanic rock that forms when ash is piled up in layers over the ages and compressed into soft stone.
Because of its softness, tuff easily erodes into interesting and unique formations, like Pinnacle Rock that we saw a few days ago, and these ledges.
Within a few minutes Veronica spots a Flightless Cormorant eating a Tiger Snake Eel. In the blink of an eye (but sadly, not of a camera lens) a pelican swoops down and, after a mighty tug-of-war, steals the cormorant's prey and takes it to the sky. Talk about wild kingdom!
Then we disembark from the dingy for a hike up a short trail to Darwin's Lagoon. Along the trail we find not only one of Darwin's famous finches, but its house too.
When the first pirates and sailors first found this place they celebrated what they thought was the discovery of a big fresh water lake, but were terribly disappointed when it turned out to be salt water, even saltier than the sea. The water seeps in from the sea to fill the lagoon and is then concentrated by evaporation. From our vantage point, the lagoon looks much higher than the nearby ocean, but it's only an optical illusion. No wonder they were fooled.
Just before leaving the island for a quick snorkel dive we see this sea lion climbing out of the sea. (We've got video of this guy! click here for all the sea lion video we took on this adventure!)
In the water we find a couple of creatures that we haven't seen from an underwater vantage point before today.
The crazy fast Galapagos penguin...
... and the more leisurely Spotted Eagle Rays. We also found a bunch more sea turtles to swim with.
Galapagos visiting tip #7: Yikes! The sun is STRONG here. Bring sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses and a t-shirt for snorkeling. Don't forget to apply sunscreen to the back of your neck! Better yet, cover it up.
The Yolita II steams a short way to Fernandina Island and we go ashore on the youngest of the Galapagos islands.
The Galapagos Islands are the only place in the world to find Marine Iguanas...
...and boy did we find Marine Iguanas!
Fellow Road Scholars, Hub and Janet, take in the enormity of the situation!
These prehistoric looking guys are the only iguanas that can swim and dive.
They have adapted to eat seaweed off of the underwater rocks.
Their adaptation also includes the ability to filter the salt out of sea water, so they periodically spit, or more precisely sneeze, out the excess salt.
After dinner we head north and cross the equator as we briefly return to the northern hemisphere on our way around the top of Isabela Island. A few hours later we cross it again when we turn to follow the Southern Cross back down to tomorrow's destination, Santiago Island.
Back on board the Yolita II, a cry of "thar she blows" rings out, but the spouts are too far off in the distance for any photo ops. We choose to see the bright side though and celebrate the fact that we finally found an animal in the Galapagos that didn't want to stay directly in our path.
DAY NINE: We saw everything on our wishlist - and more!
We awake in Buccaneer Cove (Caleta Bucanero), Santiago Island, so named because it once served as a hideout for pirates before and after attacks on the Spanish Galleons hauling gold and silver out of Peru. The island is also known as James Island, in fact, all of the Galapagos Islands have old English names from back when the privateers were working these waters. This one was dubbed James no doubt in anticipation of our impending visit four centuries later.
Before moving on Captain Vincente gives us a spin around the cove, taking the Yolita II to within just a few feet of the sheer rock walls.
Galapagos visiting tip #9: Bring swim shoes! Wet landings are made quite frequently and swim shoes protect your feet and work well for beach romping.
The afternoon starts, after a quick jaunt over to Rábida Island, with our last chance to swim with the fishes. We snorkel up and dive in from the unusually red sand beach. For those who haven't been keeping score, we've seen white, golden, black and red sand beaches in the week that we've been here.
We see amazing things - sea stars, surgeonfish, puffers, sargent majors, angel fish, but also a new guy, a Blenny, "sitting" on the rocks atop his little fins.
Then Franklin calls out that he has spotted the last item on David's list of creatures he hoped to see swimming in the ocean... the Marine Iguana. Even though we saw several thousand of them yesterday, seeing one feeding under water, then swimming back to shore, really completed our Galapagos undersea experience.
WATCH: Marine Iguanas - so many of them - in and out of the water!
As we are coming out of the water a worried mommy sea lion is calling for its baby. Finally baby arrives and they have a ridiculously cute reunion.
WATCH: Mommy and baby sea lion find each other!
(Want more sea lions? click here to find out the difference between a sea lion and a seal!)
As the sun goes down we make our way back toward Baltra and the airport, but have enough daylight left for a circumnavigation around Daphne Island. This volcanic cone island holds a high standing in the history of research on The Galapagos. British scientists Peter and Rosemary Grant conducted an intensive study of Darwin's finches here, and lived on Daphne for over 25 years while compiling the information that led to their famous book The Beak of the Finch.
As we circle, Captain Vincente takes us in close for a look at the cave where the Grants stayed, including their children, during their time on the island.
DAY TEN: One last morning (sigh)
Our last morning on Yolita II begins early with a sunrise run to tiny Mosquera Islet.
Not much more than a sandbar in the straights between Seymour and Baltra islands, but a great chance to take in one last Galapagos sunrise.
Then we are off to the airport and even in this pristine place, one must exit through the gift shop. Yes, we fell under the spell of the swag sellers and made a goofy "I Heart Boobies" tourist purchase for Veronica's dad. We are fairly certain he will wear it in all its inappropriate glory.
|PREVIOUS DISPATCH: Ecuador||NEXT DISPATCH: Machu Picchu/ Peru|
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
We're traveling with Road Scholar - a not-for-profit organization - through Ecuador, Peru, The Galapagos Islands, Machu Picchu and much, much more!
YOUR TURN: Let us know what you think! Could these animals BE any cooler? Isn't the terrain wild?