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Galapagos and a beach side paradise August 5, 2007

Posted by Jason in Animals, Bird Watching, Cruise, culture, Darwin, Ecuador, Environment, Galapagos, Nature, South America, Travel, wilderness.
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28th of July to the 5th of August

After disembarking from the Galapagos Cruise we immediately caught the “ferry” to the eastern side of the island of Isabela. The largest of the Galapagos Islands with a small settlement and the fishing capital. The Island covers around 58% of the overall landmass of the Galapagos Islands and has several active volcanoes.

Cheryl walking along the neach with our beach side retreat in the distance

The “ferry” is in fact a small motor boat that carries around 14 people over the seas between Santa Cruise and Isabela over around 2 1/2 hours. Due to the season, the seas were extremely rough! The boat lurching out of the water at regular intervals before smashing down onto the water again! I was glad I had not eaten lunch yet! To make matter worse there was a woman on the boat who was copiously drunk singing and falling over at every opportunity, screaming with all her might for the whole journey! Eventually she asked to go to the toilet. The driver of the boat slowed and moved away our baggage from a small compartment at the front of the boat where a small (and I mean SMALL!) toilet was situated. Once inside the compartment they closed and locked the door and proceeded towards Isabella! This whole heartedly approved of by all passengers!Half an hour later she was let out looking a little worse for wear.

Eventually we came into port, well a small wooden pier. However, the “captain” of the boat came in too quickly and the boat hit the rocks! Immediately it started taking water on board and there was a scramble to get off the boat and to get our bags! To our disbelief this boat was still in operation 4 days later on our return!!

Our home for 4 days would be a beach house, on the beach itself with the view of the Pacific Ocean and a balcony from which to admire the view!

Jason surveying the enormous volcanic crater from horseback   The view towards the north of the Island from the crater rim      Flamingoes

We spent the next 4 days chilling out. We did horse riding to the Sierra Negra Volcanoe. Through the mists of the Island to the crater rim where the mists dissipated and the view of the second largest crater in the world came into view. We walked around across lava flows to smoking fumaroles and could see a wonderful view across the island to the north toward the other volcanoes and the bleak volcanic landscape.

Chez and Jason on horseback on Isabela Island

Cheryl loved the horse riding, this being one of the few occasions when our guides would allow the horses to trot or Gallop!! I on the other hand found it most painful!!

We took the board walk on the island to see Flamingos, Tortoises, Lava Lizards and of course the Darwin Finches. We also went to a small island off the coast of Isabela where we saw hundreds of Marine Iguanas, some sea Turtles and amazingly White Tipped Reef Sharks swimming within 2 meters of us in a shallow pool off the coast of the island. It was just wonderful.

The rest of the time was spent doing. . . . well. . . . not alot!!

The town(well small village!) of Puerto Villamil is quite nice but incredibly sleepy. Laid back in the most extreme way! Even most of the hostals or hotels do not have signs up saying they are, and siesta appears to happen at any time of the day, or in some cases all day!!

We spent a few hour wiling away our time in Beto´s Bar on the beach drinking cocktails. We were told this was the best bar on the island. We later found out it is basically the only bar on the island!

The second largest volcanic crater in the world An Iguana Crossing!!

After the 4 days we took another tortuous journey on the “ferry” back to Santa Cruise where we visited the darwin Centre again and generally relaxed in town and on the near by beach of Tortuga bay.

In some of the Hotel Bars on the water front you can drink on the decking sharing it with Herons, Sea Lions and Pelicans! The Sea lions can get a little upset if you steel their spot in the sun!!

The local fish market is a wonder to see. The boats come in bringing their catch and they are gutted and sold or prepared for clients there and then. Of course this is not only a place for tourists to have a look. Basically all the Sea Birds and Sea Lions in the area know about the easy pickings! Blue Herons, Lava herons, Sea Lions, Pelicans and Frigate Birds all arrive for a feeding from the scraps! Most amusing to see.

After 7 days more of the Galapagos we were ready to catch the flight back to Quito. Surely a journey and experience we will not have again. A beautiful place!

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Galapagos Islands : 8 Day Cruise to Darwin´s Paradise July 28, 2007

Posted by Jason in Animals, Bird Watching, Cruise, culture, Darwin, Ecuador, Environment, Galapagos, Nature, South America, Travel, wilderness.
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Marine Iguanas keeping an eye on us!!

We arrived in Quito to book a cruise of a lifetime in the Galapagos to find that the pickings were rather thin on the ground with it being the high season. There were some good deals on a few tourist class yachts, but we wanted to go to a few places that most visitors don´t go, and to do this we discovered that we had to take a 1st class boat around the islands.

Our Catamaran the Cormorant II fit for the high seas Galapagos National Park Nazca Boobies!!

As you can guess this was not going to be cheap! After much soul searching we went for the Cormorant II Catamaran.

This is a much faster boat and being a catamaran should be more stable as this is the misty season with rough seas!

So on the 22nd of July 2007, we headed on a plane from Quito to Baltra Island and “The Galapagos Islands”!!

It was so weird to be on our way to the Iconic Galapagos Islands, another destination that I have wanted to see for 20 years or more.

After a delayed start (we were supposed to catch the 8:20am flight and ended up getting the 11am), we were picked up at the airport in Baltra by our eccentric guide Alex. An Ecuadorian born class III guide, a biologist who had been guiding for 15 years. Perversely, we soon found out that he had lived in Birmingham, England for 4 years while doing a masters degree!

We were worried by the first words Alex said to us as we hit the tarmac of the airport, “Where are your stickers”! As we looked around we saw several people with green stickers labelling them as passengers of the Cormorant II. Now we are not fans of tours and being herded around, and this was worrying in the extreme for us! However amusing it is to see grown adults herded around with bright green stickers on them!

It took an hour or so by bus, ferry, mini-bus and motorised dinghy zodiac to arrive at our boat. We had heard many stories of the boats not quite being “as advertised”, but the Cormorant II was everything they said it was. Spacious cabins, great food, friendly crew and for us extremely luxurious. A pleasant change!

Giant Tortoise

After a quick lunch we headed off to the island of Santa Cruz and into the highlands to see the Giant Tortoises. An amazing first sight in the Galapagos. Enormous creatures up to 250kg in weight and live up to 200 years. There are 14 species in the Galapagos although one species is likely to be wiped out shortly as there is only one of his kind left from the Island of Pinta. They call him Lonesome George. The Charles Darwin Research Centre have been trying to breed him with close relatives but he won´t breed. Each species has a different shaped shell and has developed independently on different Islands, sometimes a different sub-species within the same Island, like on Isabella Island where they have evolved differently depending on which volcanoe they live in and around on the Island.

Giant Tortoises on Santa Cruz island Giant Tortoise Giant Tortoise

After this it was back to the boat and a voyage started across the open sea to Espanola Island, an overnight crossing after our slap up evening meal.

Galapagos Cruise of a Lifetime

22nd July to the 29th July

After the first nights voyage at least half of the 16 passengers were, well. . . . shall we say. . . . a little green in the morning! The sea was not the calmest in the world and the voyage lasted a good 6 or 7 hours!

Marine Iguanas on Espanola Island Sea Lions Sea Lion sleeping, oblivious to the tourists around them!

The sun was shining as Espanola Island greeted us, and I have to say one of the highlights of the whole trip. A dry landing and a short walk around the head of the island . We were greeted to amazing sights of sea lions within a metre of us, Marine Iguanas, literally hundreds of them, mockingbirds, warblers, lava lizards, and beautiful Blue Footed Boobies!! And this was within the first 10 to 20 metres of the landing area! To get off the Zodiac onto dry land we had to negotiate sea lions who were lying on the pathway and clearly did not want to move! Not to mention the dozens of Sally lightfoot crabs, incredibly colourful with their red and yellow coats of armour scattered over the rocks.

At first we did not recognise the dozens of marine iguanas because there were so many so close that they looked like stones and rocks, not moving an inch! This was totally incredible.

Waved Albatross

A short walk further on and we encountered the Waved Albatross, the only place they nest in the world. We were so close we could have touched them, and we saw their amazing courtship dance with their beaks like a swashbuckling sword fight!

A few metres further on and we saw many sea birds and the “Albatross airport”! where the Albatross taxi across the cliffs and take a run before launching themselves into the sky, a wonderful sight. It was so nice to just sit here and watch them.

Blue Footed Boobie

Further around the island we were able to experience the Nazca Booby bird at close quarters and the Blue Footed Booby, mother and father looking after their chick within a metre or so of us as we sat and watched them, and saw their amazing courtship dance, lifting their bright blue feet into the air as if for the cameras!

Blue footed boobies feeding a young     Blue Footed Boobies!

So many species we saw on Espanola, Cactus Finch, Warbler Finch, American Oyster catcher, Galapagos hawk, and the Swallow Tailed Gull.

Chez observing the Blue Footed Boobies and their young

Absolutely amazing to be so close to the wildlife, to be able to just sit and observe their behaviour in a natural setting.

A great first encounter with the wildlife.

A Sea Lion Sea Lions in Gardner Bay Jason disscussing the value of a sun hat with a Sea Lion!

After snorkeling in the afternoon, we had a further wet landing on the beach in Gardner Bay where we were able to chill out as the sun descended and we were able to observe the Sea Lions again at close quarters. Simply beautiful.

Land Iguana

The following day, following another sea crossing we went to Santa Fe Island, completely different to the previous day. More barren this time and we managed to see Land Iguanas, Sea Lions and the Boobies. There are wonderful cacti here with a red bark that is just beautiful. We saw many finches here and the yellow warbler.

After snorkeling we headed to South Plaza a simply amazingly beautiful Island. It is amazing how each Island is so different and sustains such life in sometimes what appears to be quite a barren or hostile environment. Each creature that has evolved has increased its chances of survival by creating a unique niche for itself and in the main not competing with other species.

South Plaza Island

South Plaza is quite beautiful with its red succulent plants and wonderful cacti. Here we saw diving Pelicans and Land Iguanas, not to mention the amazing Boobies and Sea Lions. A walk along the cliffs revealed an array of sea birds including the Galapagos Shearwater, Red Billed Tropic Bird and Brown Noddy. Below the cliffs we could sea Sharks (the vegetarian kind!) feeding and swimming with the Sea Turtles.

This is also the place where the sea lion bachelor colony hang out, who are either too old or cannot get a mate. Needless to say they did not look the happiest of sea Lions!

Pelicans hitching a ride on our boat!

In the evening we were joined at the rear of the boat first by a couple of Sea Lions who clambered up to “chill out”!!, but later 2 Pelicans decided to use the boat as a good feeding post, staring fixedly on the sea waiting to dart into the water! We watched them for at least an hour, they did not blink an eye at us taking photos and watching them from within 2 to 3 metres!!

The following day we headed to North Seymour Island, it was a hot sunny day again and we spent a good 3 hours or so walking around this beautiful Island. Again completely different to every other Islands we had seen. The big attraction here is the Frigate Birds with their ostentatious red pouches displaying. This is a sight to behold. So amazing if rather ridiculous looking!

Frigate Bird Displaying

We also saw the Frigatebird behaviour, as if on queue for our Guide as he explained that they do not fish in the sea, indeed they cannot get their feathers wet with sea water, but that they steal food off other birds.

We saw a band of frigatebird robbers! Swooping down on a family of Blue Footed Boobies where they were trying to feed their chick and a frigate bird swooped down and stole a fish from within the young booby´s throat as it tried to swallow! Where else could you see behaviour like this??!

We saw many other species on the Island, many more Marine Iguanas and saw areas where they lay their eggs. In addition we sat and watched for a while a sea lion mother trying to teach her young pup to swim, he could only have been 2 weeks old!

After chilling out on the boat sunning ourselves we snorkeled at the Isle of Bartolome around the compressed ash rocks reaching into the sky on the coast. We swam with sea turtles and saw enormous rays – marble and manta rays. Wonderful colourful fish at every turn.

The View of the Galapagos Islands from Isla Bartolome

Then we landed on Bartolome itself and climbed to the top of the hill across a wonderful volcanic landscape to view the bay below. Truly beautiful.

Overnight was another rough crossing, a long night for those without their “sea legs”! At times the boat was lurching from side to side with things crashing off shelves to the floor! To go to the bathroom was becoming a major feat!

The boat was heading to the west of Isabella Island where few boats are allowed to go any longer, only the faster boats and those with permission with new park regulations are allowed to visit here.

We stopped to see Tagus Cove a place where Charles Darwin visited and observed what are now called Darwin´s Finches. A major piece in the puzzle of his evolutionary theory, even if he did not know it at the time. A beautiful area on the largest of the Galapagos Islands covering 58% of the whole landmass of the Islands.

We could see the hulks of the volcanoes on the Island reaching up into the mist.

Sea Turtle coming up to breathe Sea Turtle swimming Lava Heron

Each day we saw plenty of the mist covering many of the land masses, hence the “misty season”! However we were lucky on the whole that the mist often cleared to give us wonderful views.

We then visited Elizabeth Bay where we took a Zodiac into the breading grounds of the sea turtles, seeing many Pacific Green Sea Turtles and the Leather Back Sea Turtle.

Then a trip around the outlying rocks here to observe a feeding frenzy of Blue Footed Boobies diving into the sea for food, along with pelicans and penguins. We also observed the Flightless Cormorant.

This evening was beautiful as we watched the sun go down. The sunset was amazing turning the sky in 360 degrees into oranges and purples.

Fernandina Island

The following day we visited Fernandina Island which was stunning, seeing the nesting Flightless Cormorant, Marine Iguanas, Lava Cactus, Blue Heron, Lava Heron, rays off the coast with sea turtles and different species of mangrove.

The Island has a spectacular backdrop of the large volcano, Volcan La Cumbre.

Jason making friends with the Marine Iguanas!

After snorkeling we headed to Urbina Bay on Isabella where we saw more Land Iguanas and snorkeled in the bay, swimming with sea turtles within touching distance and we saw a blowfish.

In the evening we did not experience a sunset like the previous evening, instead we had 14 hours of rough seas and mists! Finally landing at Floreana the following morning. Here we saw marble rays, dozens of them within 5 metres of the beach just above the sand feeding and sea lions commanding the beach!

Flightless Cormorants with their chick and Marine Iguanas in the background

We also visited the “Post Office” which is a barrel where people leave post cards and if any travellers live near the address of the cards takes them away and posts them personally! Well saves a stamp hey.

Following these we snorkeled at Devil´s Rock, a sunken volcano in the sea where Chez swam with a White-Tipped Reef Shark! Rather her than me!

This was to be our final evening, a Saturday night of cocktails and barbeque on deck in the port of Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz.

Our final day was a short visit to the Charles Darwin Research Centre and then to say our farewells to the rest of the group.

The Galapagos Islands, a trip of a lifetime?

There is no doubt that the Galapagos is an amazing place to visit, but is extremely expensive!! There are restrictions as well. You cannot go anywhere in the National Park without a guide, its all tour orientated which is inevitably restrictive and expensive. But for good reason – to protect this natural environment is paramount.

The Galapagos is certainly not as we expected. Over 30,000 people live on the Islands – far more than I had envisaged. And rather than being unspoilt, the human interference of the last 200 years has almost devastated many species.

However, the abundance of wildlife you can observe here in its natural environment so close is truly awe-inspiring and amazing.

The islands are beautiful and unique in many ways and it never gets too crowded. When you consider that visitors can only see a tiny percentage of the islands visited, yet you can see so much wildlife, it gives an indication of just how abundant the wildlife is.

We have asked ourselves whether it was worth the money to come to the Galapagos and our answer has been a resounding YES! It is truly a unique experience and a trip of a lifetime!!