Setting: The magnificent archipelago known as The Galapagos Islands. Some 600km west of the Ecuadorian coast, this myriad of lava rock islands is home to some of the most diverse and unique wildlife in the world.
Scene: 15 tourists from around the world disembark the yacht Daphne to explore Bachas, a northern beach on the island of Santa Cruz – the first of several to be visited.
Cue Blue Footed Boobies and an intense feeding frenzy as they dive by the hundreds to feed in the shallow water! Cue Sea Lion pups frolicking playfully amidst the rocks! Cue baby Sea Turtles – huddling near the top of their nest and only hours away from their frantic run to the sea! Cue Pink Flamingo flying just overhead and settling in nearby lagoon!
“I paid an extra $5 for the perfect timing of that Flamingo,” said our guide Charlie as we set off down the beach.
That statement was almost to be believed. Day after day, outing after outing, we were all constantly stunned by the abundance and close proximity of the wildlife we encountered – Charlie joked that he had all of the animals under contract to show up at the exact times we were arriving. After awhile, we weren’t sure if he was joking or not. It was a wildlife experience like none other. And for four jam packed days and nights, we were well guided on our exploration of the islands of Santa Cruz, The Plazas, Santa Fe, Española and Floreana.
There are several ways to explore the islands, and people could easily spend weeks here trying to see it all. Wanting to see as much as we could in a short time frame (and on a small budget!), Pete, Margaret and I booked a 4 night tour onboard the Encantada – a highly recommended sailboat in the “tourist class” level of boats. We were quite happy with the last minute deal that we secured and were set to sail on Wednesday morning.
We flew to the islands on Monday morning to explore a little on our own. Upon arrival we roamed the town of Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz and talked to different tour agencies about the possibility of supplementing our cruise with other day tour options allowing us to take in even more of the islands (we did this on Tuesday, with a half-day tour of Santa Cruz that introduced us to the unique plant life, marine iguanas, sea lions, and our first snorkel!) On returning to our hotel later, we got a distressing message that our boat, the Encantada, had an “incident” (fire!) and that our tour was canceled. Cue PANIC! For the next few hours we were constantly on the phone and doing research online as to what our options were. We finally decided to accept an offer to get on the yacht Daphne – almost an identical tour over the same days, but a free upgrade to “comfortable class”.
SCORE!! We were treated to delicious food, a newly refurbished yacht, a top-class guide (naturalist), and many more comforts that we would not have gotten on the Encantada – the most luxury we have experienced on our travels! One small downside, however – our new upgraded class of boat meant that we were traveling out of the price range of many backpackers like us – making us the outsiders to a group of twelve friends who were all at least twenty years older. One small upside on top of that, however – we were the kool kids on the boat – the crew treated us to free drinks, we often got served food first, and we also were tipped off first whenever there was marine animal activity around the yacht.
Our days began early, with the breakfast bell ringing at either 6:30 or 7:00am, with the exception of the first day, which began after lunch. After being well fed, we would climb into the zodiac and be taken ashore the islands for a nature walk. Our first day of exploration was literally as first described above – we were shocked by the immediate exposure to the multitude of animals, including the endemic blue footed boobies. We were just in time to see them diving into the shallow waters by the hundreds, hunting for lunch:
And then there were the pelicans, the crabs, the jet black marine iguanas, and the pink flamingo that swooped by our heads! The stars of the show on this island visit, however, were the wee little baby sea turtles. Two months before, their mama dropped them off on shore as eggs, buried a few feet below the sand. For dozens of days they broke out of the eggs and slowly inched towards the top of the sand, readying themselves for their dash to the open sea, where they would disappear and show up as adults 15 years later.
We were there to see them on the exact day that they were meant to start their scramble to the sea – we could see their tiny little heads and legs almost right at the top!
Circling above the turtle nests was a nasty frigatebird – savagely looking for a snack. We offered to stay and protect the turtles to ensure they made it to the sea (only 1% of the babies survive!), but we were not allowed. We were told we had to let “nature be nature”. Cue much sad sighing.
We snorkeled a bit on Bachas beach (named after the US military barge that was here during WWII), but saw very little in the murky water. We returned back to the boat for dinner and I felt the first effects of seasickness that would plague me for the first couple of days. As soon as the boat started moving to our next location (a 3 hour trip after dinner), I had to promptly lay down with my eyes closed to combat it.
We woke up the next morning and found ourselves on the Plazas – two small islands off the east coast of Santa Cruz. We stopped to watch baby seals frolicking on the shore before our attention was captured by the colorful land iguanas that we saw for the first time. Mating season is over and the males are shedding their colorful skins, but many still showed their vibrant yellows.
Back to the boat for lunch, and then into the water for some snorkeling around the boat and in the bay. Pete and I followed a large stingray for some time as it slinked along the bottom (rays FREAK me out!), but we mostly saw a lot of yellow tailed surgeonfish (think “Dory” from Finding Nemo).
El Capitan of the boat took us out a little further for more snorkeling – this is what I was afraid of. We were in SHARK territory! There are a few different sharks in the Galapagos waters and none are threats to humans – but that doesn’t matter. They are still sharks! We eerily swam across deeper, darker waters listening only to our own breathing and expecting something to jump out at any second. We fully expected and (half) hoped to see them, and my grip on Pete’s hand tightened.
It turned out that it wasn’t to be on Thursday (perhaps Charlie was still negotiating their appearance contract?), but we still came away without disappointment. Instead of sharks, we saw a humongous school of salemas (think school of silver fish that shaped themselves into objects on Finding Nemo). There had to be hundreds of thousands of them all huddled together, stretching as far as we could see.
Feeling a little nauseous again from all the swimming in choppy waters, I climbed back on the zodiac while everyone else made their way towards shore. “TURTLE!” yelled one of the snorkelers and everyone quickly swam over to the same area to see a graceful sea turtle swim along.
I stayed on the boat and the driver took us off to the side to give everyone more room. Suddenly, on the far other side of the boat – another turtle! At that point, I didn’t care if I vomited in my mask – I had to get back in the water. I jumped in quickly, and was rewarded with having this giant creature all to myself. I swam alongside him for a couple of minutes, marveling in his gentle, graceful nature as he lazily glided along, popping his head up every couple of minutes for a gulp of air. It was honestly a spiritual experience, sharing a moment alone with this amazing animal!
Still feeling sick, I skipped the afternoon walk along the beach and napped instead with dreams of turtles. But Pete came back with more pictures of beach-bum-sea-lions and iguanas.
Another six hour trip after dinner landed us on Isla Española the next day. Our morning walk meant seeing the usual onslaught of sea lions and crabs, but we were also treated to seeing a colorful variation of the marine iguana and their nesting spots.
We were served some relief from the oppressively hot weather with a torrential downpour as we made our way back to the boat. No one was particularly interested in swimming just after lunch then, we all waited until the sun came back out before jumping in to snorkel at Garner Bay. This spot turned out to be the only real disappointment of the trip – the water was very murky and we saw very little. I also decided that I don’t like snorkeling when I can’t see the bottom and when the current was so strong, as it crashed hard against the cliffs that we were gliding beside.
Back onto the zodiacs and then onto the white beaches of Garner Bay, speckled with big brown patches of lazy sea lions. This time on the beach was free to do as we wish, so we chose to sunbath among the sea lions – keeping the recommended distance away, but still close enough to be sneezed on!
Our final full day on our boat cruise was our best yet as we visited beautiful Floreana. All animal appearance contract negotiations must have been fully completed, as we were once again startled with our luck at seeing the diverse array.
First up – the Galapagos penguin! Charlie had mentioned before our boat ride that we had a 1 in 5 chance of seeing one, so it must have been our lucky day as we came upon 6 of them right off the bat. Much smaller then the magellan penguins we saw in Chile, they playfully darted around our boat and posed for pictures.
We made two stops on Floreana, the first being Post Office Bay – a locale used in the old days by whalers and sailors to stay in touch with their loved ones at home. Leaving letters behind in an old wooden barrel, other sailors who were on their way home would stop and take it with them. The tradition still continues today – visitors can leave mail for others to pick up and post on the mainland. Pete and I left two postcards of our own, and picked up two others to mail to random strangers. It will be interesting to see when our two postcards will make it to their destination!
Our second stop was to view one of several lava tunnels in the Galapagos. Submarine volcanic activity slowly created all islands in the archipelago – when the lava flows on the outer part of the stream got cold and hardened, the liquid magma continued flowing within, eventually leaving empty tubes behind.
Back onto Daphne and we moved to the other side of the island. Shortly after lunch, we made our way to the ominous La Corona del Diablo – the Devil’s Crown – for our last bit of snorkeling on our trip. There was a lot of pressure for this last stop, we were all now quite anxious to see the previously absent sharks, and this was reportedly our best chance.
“SHARK!” screamed El Capitan as soon as he entered the water. I had hung back on the zodiac, again nervous of the strong current and my weak stomach! But, I couldn’t take any more of the anticipation and I promptly jumped right in.
Two white tipped sharks! Giant manta ray! Sea turtle! Cue dumbfounded tourist (ME)!
I spun around as quickly as my flippers would let me, trying to take in as much as I could in the few minutes I was surrounded by all of the animals. Surprisingly enough, the sharks didn’t scare me one iota – they were quite far down and I even chose to follow one of them for a short while to see what he was up to (picking on little fish – that’s what!) What scared the bejeezus out of me was the giant manta – I had NO idea that they were that big – they can get up to 6m wide and long!
More beautiful fish, some galapagos sharks, and Pete even saw a tuna dart right to the top and jump out of the water. The best snorkeling we had all week, right on our last day. We regrettably got back into the zodiacs and left Devil’s Crown, but Charlie had one more treat in store for us at the end of this fantastic day.
Back onto Floreana, we checked out a lagoon full of pink flamingos and then walked to the most beautiful beach of all. This one was not for swimming though, as right near the shore we watched families of stingrays (with babies!) swim up and down.
On this beach we also saw numerous sea turtles, doing their usual lazy stroke very close to shore. Charlie explained that they were all females, waiting until dark to head onto the beach and lay their eggs in the sand. No sooner did he say this then we saw another damn frigatebird hovering overhead, obviously looking for baby turtles already hatched and about to emerge and rush to the sea. The pre-historic looking bird darted it’s long beak down into the sand several times, but emerged empty as we all watched – gasping! I couldn’t help myself, I whistled at the bird to try and distract it and move it away from the area, but I got in trouble. Again, let “nature be nature”, I was told. But thems are babies!! Cue more exasperated sighing. I turned my back and headed straight to the boat. I just couldn’t watch.
We had a three hour trip on the water back to port and we enjoyed the sunshine from the top deck, reviewing amongst ourselves all of the amazing things we had seen. Just when we thought we had seen it all…just when we had “checked” off most of the list of things we wanted to see…we had one more surprise – on cue.
¡Muchos delfines! Many dolphins, guiding our ship on the journey back to Santa Cruz! Up to the front we went and watched as six dolphins swam and jumped just in front of our speeding yacht, and another few more did tricks for us along the side. I had never seen such a display before – they were so playful and amazing to watch. A perfect end to our near perfect cruise.
The following morning we bid a sad farewell to Daphne and her crew, but continued on with Charlie for one last visit. Up into the highlands of Santa Cruz we visited the grandaddy of all animals to be seen on these islands – the giant tortoises.
This breed of tortoise, endemic to these islands, can weigh up to 500lbs and can live to be over 150 years old. While there used to be hundreds of thousands of them roaming the islands, they are now down to only about 20,000 left. They are magnificent animals that astounded early visitors – this impression of theses animals eventually gave the islands their name (in traditional Castillion language, the word “Galapago” was used to describe a riding saddle, which resembles the shape of the tortoises shell).
They were mesmerizing. We slopped around in mud to find four of them in the wild – idly looking us over while we snapped a hundred photos. They ranged in age from the ~fifty year old medium-sized-giants, to the very old, giant-sized-giants! One amazing feature of these animals is that they never stop growing throughout their whole life.
After this last visit, we said goodbye to our guide/naturalist/animal-appearance-contract-negotiator, and set back into town on our own. We have only a day left in this enchanting part of the world before we leave it behind and restart our journey north. We leave with hundreds of pictures, a dozen videos, and a million memories.
I am struggling with finding the words to accurately summarize this utterly magical experience in this incredibly unique place. I feel like I have been typing! Like this! The whole time!! But there truly is nothing comparable in this world to these majestic islands, and we consider ourselves extremely lucky to be some of the few to experience it.