The allure of the Galapagos has only been accentuated for me by the host of wildlife documentaries, films and National Geographic articles. Yes, the Galapagos appears to have been overdone. Why would anyone possibly need to go there? Having studied Botany and Zoology in my youth, dabbled with genetics, dipped my toe into marine biology, further studied environmental sciences and ecology, and of course not ignored the science of evolution, coupled with an introductory understanding of geology well, I was intrigued.
The Galapagos islands are just south of the Equator and west of 90 degrees West in the Pacific Ocean. Should you need further topographical details, there are many published sources. There are about two dozen islands of which only four are inhabited by some 25-30,000 residents. 97% of the land is within the national park and the islands are contained within the Galapagos Marine Resources Reserve which covers 133,000 sq.km. of the Pacific Ocean, see photo, (Islas Galapagos -above!). Access to the islands is only by boat, so I signed up for an eight day trip on the Angelique, a veteran Dutch two master, refurbished for the tourists. Victims fly into Baltras airport from Quito via Guayaquil, pay the $100-00 park entrance fee, and join the boat. Within the National park there are about sixty approved and managed landing sites. Each site is supposed only to have 90 tourists ashore at any one time. The naturaist guides are best provided from the Parks Service and we had two during our trip. They were both extremely knowledgable and professional.
The Daily Routine We would normally investigate a separate island each day with one to three separate landings. This might simply be to a beach, or there could be a 1-2 hour trek throught the interior. In addition, there would be one to three opportunities to snorkel each day, from a beach or from the panga. Some days, we would land by 0630 hrs, trek, and return to the Angelique for breakfast. Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner were all taken aboard on deck. The food was excellent with at least three courses for each meal. When we returned from a mid-morning snorkel there would be freshly baked snacks and drinks to welcome us. Activities lasted for a 12 hour period each day. After dinner, the boat would weigh anchor and steam through the night to the next island. I found no disturbance from engine noise, but was awoken on three nights with the sudden droppping of the anchor, usually between 0100 and 0430 hrs. However, I did have the cabin next to the anchor locker.
The Wildlife Any image of the Galapagos will include reference to numerous bird species, ( of which 14 finches were critical to Darwin''s theories), marine and land iguanas, giant tortoises and sea-lions. There is much more - small lizards, insects, crustacea, nesting turtles, sharks, manta rays, penguins and myriads of fish. Many of these species are endemic to the islands or to an individual island. There are also species that occur elsewhere in the world, including seasonal migrants.
Most of the animals will allow an extremely close approach. Long lenses are frequently not required. Only Lava Lizards, snakes, grasshoppers and flamingoes are sensitive to man''s proximity .
Apparently, Darwin spent only a few short weeks in the islands, visiting but one or two. He was more interested in plants and preserved his specimens inadequately. Only the more meticulous recording of specimens by officers of the Beagle, gave him sufficient material to reflect upon during the 24 years that it took to publish his seminal work. It was also normal to eat the tortoises and use them as live provisions on long sea voyages. Darwin''s work was the catalyst that gave the world an alternative view of genesis, published by a religious man in early Victorian times. He could not resist the evidence of his own and others determinations. Darwin was a brave man to float his theory against his own and society''s traditional norms. Science owes him a great debt. Any visitor to the islands can now make similar observations to Darwin. A whole variety of endemic species shows genetic divergence from island to island.
Whether you make such observations about the variations between marine or land iguanas, mockingbirds, the finches, or giant tortoises, the opportunity is there for the discerning observer, guided by the wealth of evidence gathered by other scientists. The Journey Arriving at Baltra Harbour we are immediately impressed by the way that the sea-lions occupy every public bench, immune to the fact that these were placed for use by sticky tourists, or were they? A small green fishing boat is occupied by three large beasts, relaxing under the shade of the deck canopy. The gunwhale of the boat is periously close to being swamped. Marine Iguanas occupy the steps to the pontoon, oblivious that we gingerly step over them. Birders beware. It is not possible to wander about, eyes cast skywards, without tripping over a whole army of land and marine residents. Great care is required. The panga, an open bathtub of a craft we might call a dory, ferries our baggage aboard. A brief meeting with El Capitano, in full navy dress (the first of only two occasions), a welcoming cocktail, intros from the Marine Reserve naturalist guide, and we are off.
Angelique weighs anchor for nearby Las Bachas beach on the north coast of Santa Cruz, see photo, (Las Bachas beach -above). We sample our first wet beach landing, and once again marvel at the animals apparent disdain (anthropomorphism acknowledged), at our presence. After dinner we make for Genovesa, some 110 km to the north. This will mean steaming through the night with arrival somewhere just before dawn. As we depart, Great Frigatebirds vie for position on our cross-trees and radio aerials strung between the two masts. This becomes a feature of all our passages, with as many as a dozen birds alighting, arguing, leaving and then settling down like giant swallows collecting for the Autumn migration, see photo, (Frigatebird at the yardarm -below.) It is obvious that these `pirates of the air'' choose the soft option for travel between the islands.
Genovesa is our first real treat. We awake in the anchorage of Darwin Bay, a full cresent flooded crater lake, with surrounding 25m cliffs. After breakfast aboard, photo, ( Angelique- breakfast -below), we make a wet landing on the white coral sand beach.
Genovesa is small. It is north of the equator and home to breeding colonies of Red-footed Boobies, photos,
(Red-footed Booby - brown form), (Red-footed Booby - chick), Great Frigatebirds, photo, (Great Frigatebird - pair), Nazca boobies, photo, (Nazca Booby), and Swallow-tailed Gulls, photo, (Swallow-tailed Gulls). The short 750 beach trail takes us to the very edge of the nesting birds, among the red mangroves, and behind rocky outcrops where we spot a sentinel Yellow-crowned Night Heron, photo, (Yellow-crowned Night Heron), while the various boobies and frigatebirds wheel overhead, photo, (Great Frigatebird - below).
The male frigatebirds are involved in competitive courtship behaviour. They wave their long hooked bills from side to side, make rasping and clicking sounds then puff out their red balloons, just in case they haven''t been noticed. Further spectacle is provided with a family of sea-lions and armies of garish red, yellow & orange Sally Lightfoot crabs as they pick their way across the rocks.This is followed by an hour of snorkelling from the beach. I drift underwater with a school of purple/ blue and yellow-tailed Sergeant Fish. The 200 or so tea-plate sized fish merge around me. I reach out towards one, but sensing the pressure wave, the fish swims further into the school.
They continue to drift with me. I offer them no threat, they are unperturbed. Some of our group have seen white-tipped reef sharks. This initial contact later becomes quite commonplace. Lunch aboard the boat, a beer, a relax on deck, then a dry landing at the nearby Prince Phillip''s steps. One again the steps cut into the cliff are occupied by a vocal young bull sea-lion and his `harem''. The dry-forest vegetation of the clifftop has breeding pairs of Nazca Boobies, a party of sqwarking Mockingbirds, photo, (Mockingbird) and Galapagos Doves, photo, (Galapagos Dove). Red-billed Tropicbirds, photo, (Red-billed Tropicbird) arc and wheel in small groups above the cliffs, streamers flying. We walk across old lava boulders between the Palo Santo or Holywood trees, Prickly Pear Cactus and Saltbush scrub for about 1 km., spotting the roosting sites of the Galapagos Owl in the tunnels of semi-collapsed lava-tubes. We then find an owl on the ground beneath a Saltbush., photo, (Galapagos Owl -below). Water bottles are working overtime.
Genovesa has proven a very good start to the journey. We strike anchor as dinner is served. There is another six hour cruise to the south-west - arrival - sometime after midnight. I awake at 0045 hrs. Peering through the porthole I see that we are drifting slowly past the grey shape of an island. A light tower atop the hill flashes twice every ten seconds. I hear crew members on deck above me, then the crash of sledgehammer on chain as the anchor plunges down. As it strikes the sea bed, a spreading pale blue circle of phosphorescence is reflected in the ships deck lights. Bartolome - I wash and dress quickly having set my alarm for six, go up on deck, and make a cup of tea at the always boiling urn. I climb into the bottlenose pulpit and perch 6 metres from the bow level with the wheelhouse. The sun gradually colours the eroded tuff cone that is the signature of Bartolome, photo, (Bartolome -below). At 0630 hrs the ship''s bell calls us to breakfast.
Fourty-five minutes later the panga drops us at a rocky quay leading to a boardwalk that ascends the 114m summit of the island. We start the climb through the wasteland of the lava flows, cinder boulders and ash layers of this modest cone. We are soon very hot, but are pleased to make the summit. Bartolome is rightly classed as one of the scenic gems of the Galapagos. The views are breathtaking. The starkness of the red, brown and grey volcanic rocks is tempered by the vivid blue Pacific and a delicate isthmus of sand that joins Bartolome Hill to the Tuff pillars, photo, (Bartolome tuff pillar). Either side of the bar there is a white coral sand beach with mangrove scrub separating the beaches, see photo, (Bartolome - the isthmus).. I have the compulsory photo to prove I was there, photo, (Bartolome - The Author). The summit flanks are contorted by lava flows and cinder craters, photo, ( Bartolome Summit -below).
We descend the boardwalk to the quay. I miss the first panga. A basking Marine Iguana gives me the first opportunity for a real close up, photo, (Marine Iguana). The panga takes us to the nearby white coral north beach on the isthmus. There are Galapagos Penquins on the rocks and swimming at speed in the shallows, photo, (Galapagos Penquin). We wind our way through the scratchy mangroves and descend to the south white sand beach through the dunes, photo, Bartolome isthmus - south beach. This is a marine turtle nest site, although there are no apparent signs. No hatchlings yet. However, we wade into the shallow surf where 8 metres from the beach, a number of white-tipped reef sharks track parallel to the shore. The sharks swim around our feet, interested only in the forthcoming feast, photo, White-tipped Shark. We return to the boat for an early lunch, and cruise over to nearby Santiago ready for a dry landing at 1300 hrs., photo, (Sullivan Bay - anchorage -below,)
Santiago as seen from the summit of Bartolome, photo, (Santiago) is a desolate moonscape. The most recent eruption little over a century ago has bequeathed a black Pahoehoe lava field that has poured into the sea at Sullivan Bay, photo, (Lava Field - Sullivan Bay). The slowly cooling lava has formed the familiar rope swirls of Pahoehoe, photo, (Santiago lava cones) , and the lava cones are generally devoid of vegetation, photo, Pahoehoe Lava).. Numerous lava lizards sport themselves in the heat of the day, photo, (Lava Lizard) . The black lava rocks of the beach are home to hundreds of Sally Lightfoot crabs, photo, (Sally Lightfoot crab), whose antics always amuse.
The younger crabs are black with orange streaks, providing excellent camouflage. The adults are brightly coloured. They appear to avoid getting their feet wet. As the tide comes in they jump vigourously from rock to rock above the swirling currents. Another endearing creature is the Lava Heron. This small bird was foraging in the rock pools for fish, stealthily moving forward. By chance, as I also crept forward for a close uip shot, I disturbed a fish which the Heron immediately seized, photo, (Lava Heron - with fish). The Lava Heron then engaged in a period of expectancy where it welcomed me rocking stones to reveal fresh prey. He had naturally done this before. Santa Cruz - Another night time cruise brings us to Puerto Ayora, the main town of Santa Cruz. Busy little lighters are unloading a cargo ship. The methods are time consuming, inefficient and are similar to those used in Europe 70 years ago. The barges are unloaded at the quayside into a fleet of small high-sided trucks by 30 or 40 stevedores. We are all taken in Toyota pick-ups to the Charles Darwin Research Centre. The centre is very active in the preservation of the remaining 12 tortoise species, with not too much hope for `Lonesome George'', the last surviving member of the Pinta Island race. However, the centre is a good place to gain an appreciation of the sometimes striking variation between the different island races of tortoises, photo, Head-bangers (Tortuga) below.
Other tenants of the centre are a number of Land Iguanas that will be released to the wild, once they have recovered, photo, The Orange she-dragon. The trees and Prickly Pear Cacti trees are full of finches and other birds, photo, Yellow warbler. Lunch on board close in the harbour then we board a bus for the central highlands. We visit a farm where a large area of the property has been allowed to revert to wilderness, with the island tortoises free to use the area as their own. We walk through the scrub and open areas to find a number of tortoises, photo, Galapagos Tortoise, with some of considerable size, photo, MAJOR & minor (Tortuga + 1)
We also have the opportunity to explore a 600 metre lava-tube, with head torches being `de rigeur''. The ceilings were upto 15 metres high to as low as one metre where it was necessary to scramble through a short section of tunnel.
Floreana - the voyage to Post-Office Bay, photo, Post Office Bay - Floreana -above, brings us to an anchorage at 0645 hrs, just in time for breakfast. We made a wet landing at 0800 hrs, and posted our postcards in the pirates'' barrel, set up as a `dead-letter box'' in the 1700''s by pirates, but also used by naval ships. We sorted through the dozens of cards, retrieving those that we could post on arriving home. Cards are now on their way to Belgium, Norway, Switzerland, India, Italy and the UK - a reflection of the cosmopolitan venturers on the Angelique. We then visited a further lava tube. Sat at the far end of the beach where two young sea-lions came to visit and entertained themselves in the surf among the rocks.
I carve my name using a shell on a weathered piece of wood, which I leave among the motley collection of driftwood beneath the Post-Office barrel. Back on board for lunch, then to the Devil''s Crown for snorkelling from the Panga. This assemblage of rocks off the north of Floreana is the submerged crater rim of an old volcano, photo, Devil''s Crown - Floreana. There is a moderate current and those not wearing wetsuits are made aware that the water is not tropical. Various shark, a small Manta Ray and Green Turtles are seen. Flocks of Red-billed Tropicbirds circle above the rocks and numerous boobies engage in synchronised sky-diving, clumsily disengaging themselves from the water to circle and dive again. After lunch the boat takes us to Punta Cormoran, where we land on a beach tinged green with granules of olivine an igneous composite containing Iron and Magnesium. A short walk past a large Black Mangrove tree through the dunes reveals a shallow salt water lagoon, where 30 to 40 Greater Flamingoes, photo, Greater Flamingo, leisurely graze their way through the ghost-shrimp haze,photo, Flamingo salt lagoon below.
A ten minute walk behind the headland takes us to another white sand beach, used by turtles for a nest-site. Once again, inquisitive Great Frigatebirds quarter the beach, looking for the first signs of a hatchling feast. Also behind the surf a major patrol of 40 to 50 sharks awaits the same banquet. The vibrant life of the Galapagos hides the everyday tragedies that are also part of this incredible reserve. The walk back to the beach raises clouds of grasshoppers, photo, Galapagos grasshopper, and we discover a terrestrial hermit-crab as it crosses the dusty path, photo, Terrestrial Hermit Crab. Some of us snorkel from the beach and then await the Panga as the sun quickly closes the horizon, photo, Floreana sunset. Espanola - the overnight voyage to Espanola, photo, Gardner Bay - Espanola, took over ten hours, some 2 to 3 hours longer than anticipated. Adverse currents at this time of the year were the reason. Some of the crew slept most of the morning.
The 700 metre stretch of white sand is occupied by 150 sea-lions, photo, Sea-Lion heaven, photo above, Sea-Lion likes firm bed. Later that day there are 140 tourists on the strand, more than the stated permitted maximum. There is space here to cope. There is no obvious beachmaster and many of the females, still suckling a six month old pup, are once again pregnant. Beachmaster not required? A juvenile sea-lion has obviously suffered a shark attack and lays on the beach awaiting the final outcome.
This is nature in the raw. There is good snorkelling at Roca Tortuga, 150 metres from the beach. Two intrepid warriors then swim the additional 300 metres out to Angelique. We say goodbye to this magical beach, photos, Gardner Bay blue, and Gardner Bay - au revoir, and sail for one hour during lunch to Punta Suarez. I spend some time riding the pulpit trying to capture the storm petrels as thay skim the surface of the waves. Punta Suarez excels above Gardner Bay. We land at a black lava rock jetty, strewn with some of the largest Marine Iguanas yet seen. I''m sure that I recognise this location from many of the glossy documentaries made. A lava Heron picks its'' way among the boulders and challenges a nearby lizard to leave a small Sally Lightfoot crab for itself, photo, Crab, Iguana, Heron .
We walk inland up a small beach cove. It is the hottest yet at 32 deg. C. The heat accentuates the nature of nature. The stench from the sea-lion colony is apalling. There are at least three large sea-lion corpses in varying states of slow decay, adding the sickly aroma to the small of copious faeces. Not for the faint-hearted. The smell of the Galapagos is thankfully omitted from the documentaries. The trail winds through Holystick scrub which provided nesting cover for Blue-footed Boobies that are displaying as though the fashion will be banned within minutes, photos, Dance fandango - B.F.B. and More Booby antics, while others know that they are comitted. photo, Blue Booby talk.
The cliff top path is mined with the breeding tunnels of Marine Iguanas, that look strangely out of place on these high dusty areas. Lava lizards, photo, Lava Lizard, seek the agile grasshoppers. As I watch an adolescent sea-lion chase marine iguanas as they land, photo, Sea-Lion beachmaster in training. I turn to find a Galapagos Hawk has landed some 2 metres away from me in a bush. I take a couple of shots, but have to ditch the telephoto because I am too close, photo, Galapagos Hawk. The hawk and I exchange confidences as I hurriedly change the lens. He is in no hurry. A Mockingbird flies into the bush and proceeds to scold us both. The Hawk stays in the bush and I am able to alert others to its'' presence. We are definitely the trespassers. Continuing along the cliff path to Punta Suarez, photo, Punta Suarez - Espanola, we pass the nesting area for the Waved Albatross. They look like big blue footed turkeys as they sit with feet awkwardly to the front, photo, Waved Albatross - disdainful. They are second in stze only to the Condor and their bulk is impressive. Albatrosses also give us the evil eye, photo, Un-wavering Albatross. Is there any creature on these islamds that man can outstare? Although I do not see any albatross launch itself from the cliff, a number ride the thermals back and forth along the edge, turning above me for the return traverse, photo, Waved Albatross - in flight -below.
Santa Fe - next day we find ourselves at Santa Fe, a small island on the way to Santa Cruz. We spend a pre-breakfast walk through cactus forest and then a short snorkel from the panga. After breakfast we cruise to South Plazas arriving at lunchtime. South Plazas - framed by rocky reefs and a tuff cone, this idyllic inlet provides a hottrek through a mature prickly pear tree cactus desert, photo, South Plazas desert landscape . The circular walk also takes in a surf battered cliff where seabirds nest in profusion, photos,Swallow-tailed gulls + chick, and Swallow-tailed Gull in flight and Storm Petrels storming and Storm Petrel at cliff-top nest . An interesting finch weaves its way between prickly-pear lobes, photo, Which Finch? .
Iguanas abound, with the marine version clinging to the cliff top, photos, Land Iguana and Land Iguana again and Iguana patrol . Once again there is evidence of the extremes, probably in food resources, with igoana corpses abundant, photos, Grim Reaper and Smiling Reaper . New life is present in the form of a juvenile heron, photo, Yellow-crowned Night Heron - Juvenile , which stands on the waters edge rocks. After lunch we steam for the Itabaca Channel, between Santa Cruz and North Seymour, where we snorkel and see two small sharks. Today is the 15th April and the crew leave us in charfe of the ship, while they go ashore to vote in the mandatory referendum. The Socialisty President, Snr. Correo, is seeking a mandate to change the Ecuadorian constitution.
The result is announced within two hours, 78% in favour. Enough of S. American politics. El Capitano once appears in his whites, we drink a toast to our pleasant company, and then leave for North Seymour Island after dinner. We later creep 30 metres from the cliffs opposite Mosquera Island, with only a hand torch on the cliff to sense the way as we edge over a six metre clearance submerged wall. They''ve done it before! North Seymour - Our plane leaves at 1045 hrs from the other island. Not being in a rush, we have an early breakfast, and land on North Seymour. This is a real chance to see both the Great abnd the larger Magnificent Frigatebirds nesting in the same colony. We are not disappointed. The Great, photo, Great Frigatebird , has green back plumage and the female has a red eye-ring. The Magnificent has purple back plumage, with a blue eye-ring for the female, photos, Magnificent Frigatebird and Magnificent Frigatebird pair .
We say farewell to the Boobies, photo, Blue Booby enchantment and our final land iguana, photo, Final Land Iguana. After a short sail across the channel, we disembark at Baltra and make the airport by 0915 hrs, where we have to twiddle our thumbs for 90 minutes. I must have lost my presence of mind, because after seven full 16 hour days I fell asleep on the plane. Bliss.