Galapagos

Marvels at every corner

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Galapagos is part of Ecuador and uses the US dollar

 

11.05.2011

I WAS GOING TO THE GALAPAGOS! Even as I am writing this, I still cannot believe it.

At 10.50, I took the plane for 1h 40 min to the island of Baltra, which is separated by a short channel of about 500 m from the bigger island of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is the main touristy island, with the main town of Puerto Ayora (which has a sizeable 18.000 inhabitants, and growing) being the place where nearly all the tourist cruises go from.

When the plane set to land, we were flying over the islands. Man, they were a lot bigger than I expected! The biggest one, Isabella, stretches for 100 km! 

The islands, it should be mentioned here, are purely volcanic of origin. They are located just at the border of a tectonic plate and just consist of volcanoes rising up from the ocean floor, constantly (in an earth time frame) spewing lava until the islands were created relatively late in the earth history. The islands are still volcanically active, especially the islands in the northwest, which are the ones the most closely located to where the two tectonic plates (forgot the name) meet and therefore are the youngest.

The islands  never had any land contact with the mainland, allowing the animals that somehow reached the island (at first only birds and, on the legs of birds, eggs of reptiles, amphibians and insects) to evolve into completely separate species. It was also here that Charles Darwin developed his theory of Evolution using the Darwinian finches as examples of evolution.

As soon as the door was opened, I was happy. Here on the islands, the warm Ecuadorian costal climate reigns. It is never below 27 degrees which is the way I love it.The first view of an animal in Galapagos...

On the plane, all our luggage got sprayed with insecticides in order not to introduce foreign species into the Galapagos islands. Foreign species have already been introduced and these have nearly (or indeed have) wrecked havoc with the local species, sometimes completely outcompeting them.

It has to be remembered that the Galapagos islands are a national park and therefore the guidelines for protecting the animals are very tight. And extranjerros (foreigners) have to pay 100 dollars entry into the park...

After paying the entry into the park (which is, it is rumoured, soon to be increased to 200 dollars) and exiting the airport, I took a free bus to the small isthmus where a ferry was awaiting us (0.80 cents) to go to the island of Santa Cruz. From there, the cheapest way is to take a bus down to Puerto Ayora (1.80 dollars). The road is built straight across the island, sometimes appearing like drawn with a ruler.

The road is built totally straight and vanishes in the horizon

The islands, being of a volcanic origin, consist mostly of black lava rocks. Very few species can grow on this kind of rock, however some do manage. The other interesting factor is that the islands receive very little rain and therefore are really quite dry. This probably has to do with the fact that the Galapagos Islands are in a maelstrom of four different currents which get stronger at one point of the year and weaker at others (therefore bringing nutrients, which kickstarted big time the marine life around the Galapagos).

All in all,  it is very confusing, so  look up when which current comes when to the islands because they result in a great increase or decrease in temperatures of the water (and the surrounding air). They can be from chilly 14°C to a warm 26°C. To be fair, you don’t really want to go snorkelling for hours without a very thick wetsuit if the water is on a mind-freezing 14°C...

Anyway, the islands are very dry, with cactuses being prevalent (actually the only cactus that grows like a tree, and can do it on lava rock, is endemic to the Galapagos) with low, dry shrubs making up the most of the island.

However, a nice change of the vegetation can be observed when travelling the 42 km across the island of Santa Cruz. The vegetation goes from very dry (with a lot of dried trees) to a bit wetter (though still dry) to diminutive forest up at the highest heights (near the crater) and back again to dry vegetation. The reason iis pretty obvious. The dry air charges itself up on the evaporation of the island and then rains itself out over the center, where the most humid vegetation is.

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DSCF5200 (Copy)DSCF5201 (Copy)DSCF5202 (Copy)DSCF5206 (Copy)The funniest thing is that the part of the island that is inhabited (so around Puerto Ayora) is not part of the Galapagos national park. As soon as the bus crossed the limit, one could make out agricultural pastures, plantain plantations and other agriculture that I could not identify. It was really quite funny to see. The bus also went through some settlements before arriving at Puerto Ayora.

Puerto Ayora is actually nothing special. It is very much like any other coastal town that handles a strong influx of tourists. The malecón (the main street next to the water) is incredibly touristy, with very expensive restaurants etc... lining the street, as well as very expensive food, clothes etc...

The thing to remember is that the cruises on the Galapagos islands are incredibly expensive, especially if, like most people, one doesn’t book them Last Minute, but in advance. That means that only rich people can afford a cruise, which results in the prices along the malecón being especially high.

I was therefore walking away from the malecon in the direction of the main town in the hope that I would find a cheap accommodation for the one night that I initially wanted to spend in the town (just in order to find a cruise).  A local woman who had a cheap accommodation accosted me and the English woman traveller who I was talking to. The woman proposed us a cheap accommodation for only 12 dollars per night. We accepted. I had already calculated with at least 15.

We then went out to have lunch. The prices surprised me again. For 2 dollars, it is possible to have an almuerzo sin sopa. I was really exulted because it meant that I could live on the islands for the usual 20 dollars, giving me much much more time to explore the islands (although to be fair, I don’t know the prices yet for accommodation in the other island that I want to visit, Isabela).

After looking around for some yacht prices, I met up with the English girl again who had gone off to find some Internet, and we walked to the local fish market, where apparently “the animals were going crazy”.

It was true. The three guys who were working at disassembling the big tuna, were crowded by a big number of pelicans and two sea lions. The sea lions actually sat right next to the man begging with their eyes for bits of fish. When the guys threw back some rests of fish, a fierce fight between the pelikans and the two sea lions erupted over the bits and pieces. All the time, a lot of people were standing around the whole market, watching the animals. It was hilarious.

The pelicans lined up to get some food...

But so did the seals...

That’s the other thing that is so genial about the islands. The animals have no fear at all of humans.

Afterwards, me and the English woman went to the nearby Laguna de Neftas which was situated just at the end of the town. It was a beautiful lagoon with mangroves at either side, however it was nothing that special. Beautiful, but nothing that special….

After a dinner for another 2 dollars, the English woman and me, we were sharing a room with two separate beds, went to bed. Her being tired of heavy drinking the night before, me tired off the really short night on the bus.

 

12.05.2011

I woke up early in the morning. The English woman, her name was Christa or something like that, I never really got it, wanted to look around the island for a bit until she left for a trip to Isabela island that she had booked the day beforehand. I had said the previous day that I was coming with her, but shortly after setting out I changed my mind and started to look around for cruises that left to the islands I wanted.

 I had made up my mind to go to the different boat offices and checked out the location of two as well as gotten a list from all the offices (tourist office was incredibly helpful in that way) that are located on the island. Unfortunately, I realised a bit late that the list did not indicate directions, but only the approximate regions of the city where they were located. I met shortly afterwards a local who was helping the English woman with her cruise who counselled me to use instead the agencies (since they were no other ways to book cruises, the agencies and the Yacht offices having formed a syndicate).

I talked to one, and found out that it was cheapest to ask directly for one that did not go to the places on the main island since I could do these myself. What this amounted to was that I would only take a 6 day cruise. The first day that I would pass off would be the one that went to visit either the Charles Darwin Centre or the Highlands of the islands (which I can do by myself without any cost) and then sleeping the last night not on the boat (for 150 dollars) but in a nice comfy bed on the shore (for 9 dollars). I thought it was a perfect deal.

 

They proposed the cruise (which also went to the north of the Galapagos islands, including Genovesa, which is impossible to visit on a day trip) for me for 1000 dollars. They tried to pressure me into accepting the offer immediately with sayings like “Now, only now. Pay now otherwise the Agencies in Quito will sell it out. The offer is only valid now”.

I really hate these kind of pressurizing techniques, so I quickly left telling them to think about the offer if they prepare some photos for me.

Instead of looking for other yacht (because I had the feeling that the agencies were kind of using the fact that I wanted to book a yacht for this day in order to raise the prices) I went to the Tortuga Bay, which was reputed to be a very beautiful beach. The walk to the beach (which was a long one of about 45 minutes) was awesome. It was a small walking path (well it was cemented) and led through the lava fields/undergrowth that I had seen beforehand from the bus.

One could see the cactus trees really growing out of the lava fields and on the small amount of soil that the decay of these cacti produced grew a thick “underbrush” of plants. Look at the photos.

Very arid vegetation... This is a cactus tree, endemic to the Galapagos.

A lizard... This photo was taken without zoom

I also saw a lot birds. Mostly three or four species of the Darwin finches (their habitat are the tree cactuses that grow pretty much anywhere), a couple of species of lizards and other kind of birds. Please note that I am onlz counting the different species of animals that I found and not the amount of animals. The amount was simply staggering, and like before they really were not afraid of humans. The birds did have a certain amount of respect, meaning that they didn’t let you approach more than 1 meter to them (imagine doves in a park where they constantly get fed) however the lizards were simply stunning. I nearly tread on them by mistake! They took as much notice of me as tree. It was amazing.

After about 40 minutes, I arrived at the beach of Tortuga Bay. It was really really stunning. The whitest sand beach I have ever seen in my life, the photos I have made not making justice to the beauty of it.

Tortuga bay... In hindight, I can say that there is an even prettier beach than that...

... No words to needed here...

 The sand had about the same consistency as coarse flower (and was about that annoying to get off your clothes…). I walked along to the end of the beach that I could see. Along the beach, I came across aspecies of birds that were picking out little crabs off the sand. They were hilariously funny stalking on very long and very red legs along the sand.

Still laughing, I continued to walk in the sand. In the distance, I saw a couple of logs lying in the sand.

A couple of logs?When I was about 3 meters away from them, I realised with a fright they were actually marine iguanas just lying there in the soft sand soaking up the sun. They actually did not move when I passed at less than 2 meters from them and busied myself making photos.

I continued walking and stumbled upon an empty path (I still had not seen a soul), this one consisting solely of demarcations made with the black lava stones that lie around everywhere. Shortly afterwards, I came across a pelican that was fast asleep on the rocks and didn’t wake up when I came up to make a photo. I didn’t realise it until I nearly stepped on it, but a black marine iguana was just lazing in the sun, warming up again after its dive done into the water to feed on algae. It was lying right next to one of the crabs special to the Galapagos that are blood red and simply beautiful. I found loads of these marine iguanas on the rocks and on the path that followed. It was phenomenal.

Can you find the black marine iguana?

At the end of the path, and after scrabbling over some more lava rocks, I found a lagoon with white sand beach and waves lapping the shore. It was a protected bay that allowed to swim (swimming was forbidden in the previous beach because the currents were too strong...). I spent a couple of hours just lying at the beach and reading. Just imagine: you are on the Galapagos islands and have the leisure and time to just read and enjoy yourself! There were only a couple of locals at the lagoon, but nothing compared to what you usually see.

The swimming lagoon at Santa Cruz

In the afternoon, I checked out the office of the Yacht that the agency had propsed. Unfortunately for the tour agency, it was one of the two yacht offices that I knew where they were located. After some bargaining, they brought the price down to 960 dollars and allowed me to come onto the first trip to the highlands for free if I wanted to. Perfect! I told them that I would think about it until the morning (although I knew that I would not get that perfect a deal again, on such a luxury yacht, where the normal price for a cruise is between 1700 and 2500 when booked in advance). The only drawback was that the cruise would leave only in twelve days… Twelve days that I could spend on the awesome Galapagos…

In the afternoon I still went to a place called Las Grietas. It is a volcanic rift that runs from high in the mountains down to the sea. It is here that rainwater mixes with the saltwater producing an incredibly clear water (one would never notice it but the chasm is something like 10 meters deep, although it does not look like more than two). It was very beautiful (and cold).

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Also worth mentioning is that at lunch time, I had changed accommodations. I had found a place that offers the accommodation for 9 dollars a night, an awesome double room with an ok bathroom included. This is the same price that I paid in Quito!

In the evening, I didn’t do anything more than write up my diary.

 

13.05.2011

In the morning, I leisurely left to see the Charles Darwin center. Actually it isn’t really much. The history of the Galapagos is shortly explained, most of which I knew already. The interesting thing was then the tortoise raising station.

The Galapagos National Park tries to increase the population of tortoises on the islands since they got absolutely decimated by humans, eradicating several species on the islands (each island had a different species, which was especially adapted to the island it was inhabitating).

Big tortoises of Galapagos

 

There were also some open air “cages” which held some exemplars of the giant tortoises of the Galapagos (each species in a different “cage”). The most famous one was Lonely George, the last of its species. It was tried to make him reproduce with one of the tortoises of his species, however she died before it succeeded. It seems that Lonely George is unable to reproduce or, it is rumoured, is homosexual. Really quite sad (by the time, you read this, Lonely George has died).

Lonesome George... The last of its kind died on 24th June 2012

Right next door was a rehabilitation cage for the big land iguanas that are endemic to the Galapagos. It is supposed that tens of thousands roamed the islands of Galapagos before man came but the introduction of feral pigs, cats and dogs led to a rapid decline of these wonderful beasts.

In the afternoon, I had a look through the town and in general had a really relaxing day. I wanted to move over to Isabela the next day (I had already bought my ticket for 25 dollars), planning to spend there a week before returning to Santa Cruz and doing some of the other attractions of the island. I may even go over to San Cristobal but I do not know about this yet.

 

14.05.2011

In the morning I got ill. I had the trots. Knowing from the two times I had it before (once in Loas and once in Nicaragua) I knew that it would be over in a couple of hours, however I still felt myself unable to travel. It was 2 hours by boat over rough seas to Isabela. Just imagine how it would be if I needed the toilet...

I just changed my ticket to the next day and set myself out to be cured by my beautiful immune system. After a day of rest, I was fit again by the evening.

 

15.05.2011

In the morning, at 10.45, I decided to go one more time to the Tortuga Bay. After half an hour of rapid walking I arrived at the beach from where I still took some of the marine iguanas in photo, iguanas that I didn’t spot for a long time lying at 3 meters from me on the black lava stones. They were so well camouflaged. (I can find 15 in the image below...)

Try to find them...

After a short while I had to go back to take the boat at 2 oclock. After paying the host her 9 dollars for the additional night that I stayed, I went off to the boat.

The boat was powered by 2 outboarders with 200 horsepowers so a relatively strong boat. About 25 people were fitted into the boat (everyone could sit relatively comfortable), however the sea was really quite choppy making the crossing less than fun. One person got really seasick (the captain had a good supply of plastic bags) and several others felt the worst for wear but compared to what I had already experienced, especially in Indonesia, the crossing was extremely secure (we all had lifevests and the boat had radio).

Puerto Villamil is quite a different town from Puerto Ayora. The first thing that I realised is that the port was a lot less accessible than the port in Puerto Ayora. The boat had to navigate through quite a small channel between outlying (volcanic) tiny islands and submerged rocks where only the top showed. It was quite an act to navigate the relatively small boat into the port. The bigger cruiseships would not have fitted in there. The other thing that was also remarkable was that a lot fewer vessels were actually in the port. Solely a couple of fishing boats could be seen.

The next surprise was the town itself. It didn’t even have tarred roads, and the houses had lawns and were relatively big. Furthermore, the town was not plastered with travel agencies and other touristy things, unlike Puerto Ayora. I loved it!

 

It was really mostly a local village which just happens to have a few tourists that come there. It was so small that during the next days, I met the people that came with me on a boat several times a day. It is in general a much more interesting village than Puerto Ayora (as I was to find out, the island is also a lot more interesting because a lot less touristy and much more like in its original state.)

 

The town (which just counts 2000 souls), does indeed have the ubiquitous touristy restaurants (which serve more expensive food) just right next to the Parque principal (well just an extended garden...) but these can easily be ignored. Another thing that I missed on Santa Cruz but found at Isabella was the proximity of a beach. Puerto Villamil is located at a beautiful white sand beach that goes on for a couple of miles. It also sports turquoise relatively calm water which allows to relax on the beautiful beach and, in order to cool down, to jump into the luxurious waters.

Next to Puerto Villamil: This is the most beautiful beach that I have been to!

When we arrived, I checked out the price situation and found that ten dollars was the minimum price I could get for a room. I checked in with quite a good hostel called Tero Real for ten dollars. The price for food is pretty much the same in Isabela as in Puerto Ayora (3 to 3.50 dollars for a meal at a local restaurant). However, I found out pretty painfully that all local restaurants had closed on Sunday so I got only to eat only 3 empanadas. That cost me only 1.50 dollar and actually filled me up...

16.05.2011

I had met the day before an Israeli called Eliran and we had said that we would take a bike to the Wall of Tears (a landmark left from the time that Isabella was a prison, during around 10-20 years). The prisoners had to build this wall by hand without any tools.). After seeing the price for renting a bike, I already said no (10 dollars for half a day, however, the only reason why it is so high is that there is only one place in town that rents bikes...). Even after two more people who were on the same boat as us joined us on the tour to the Wall of Tears, the man didn’t want to go down in price.

He just kept at pointing at his sign while being really unfriendly. This contempt for customers immediately (and without fail) gets my hackles raised. If that happens, one can be certain that one will be taken advantage of so we left and decided to walk the 7 kilometers to the Wall of Tears. Luckily there are numerous interesting sights in between the start and the Wall of Tears.

The first we came across are the salty water holes that surround the village of Puerto Villamil.They were mostly red colored small mangrove clad waterholes.

The waterholes near Puerto Villamil are superb!

Marine iguana, taken with a small zoom of 5x

There, Eliran and Joss went ahead while the biologist Ness and me went down the wooden bridge-path that led across the waterholes. According to a sign at the entrance to the lagoons, the village of Puerto Villamil traded these lagoons for some lava-field further up with the Galapagos National Park. This sign already hinted that the villages here on the islands are located in a constant clinch with the National Park. This corresponds with something I have read somewhere (and that I know of experience): the villagers here do not care at all for the National Park and the unique flora and fauna that are present here. Rather they would prefer that the strict rules prohibiting the fishing and cultivating were renegotiated to allow the locals to exploit the nature. All the people here can see is the money that one could potentially make (a lot of illegal shark fishing is present here for example) and do not respect the Galapagos as what they are in any way: a biological marvel of the world that does not exist like this anywhere.

In the salt lagoons, we saw the ubiquitous marine iguanas. I also managed to film one swimming that really is not that easy. I love those beasts.

One of them swimming

On the further lagoon we saw finally something that I had wanted to see all the time: a flamingo. These pink fluffy long-necked, and long-legged, birds are water-hole bottom feeders. They use small waterholes like the one we were standing next to to stand in the water and then plunge their head into the water to eat whatever is near their feet on the bottom of the hole. It was really funny to watch them.

In the following two waterholes, nothing much was to be seen apart from a few mangroves and the ubiquitous lava fields. However, when we came back, we ran into a whole group of about 30 marine iguanas that were blocking our path. Some of these were so sure of themselves that we wouldn’t hurt them that they didn’t even move when I touched them. In the photo below, I did NOT tread on the Marine Iguana, it was just to show that these animals do indeed not fear us.

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We then walked on towards the Wall of Tears. The path led us along a beach for quite a while, one of the most beautiful beaches I have yet seen, much better than the beach at Puerto Ayora (and believe you me, I have seen a lot of them... ), white sand with turquoise water lapping at is shores for kilometres with the beautiful panorama of the Isabella  island behind it.

Isabella is indeed a lot better than Santa Cruz.

We came up to a bay with a beach that was just in the process of forming. It did not sport yet white sand but rather tons and tons of shells and musles . By erosion, these shells will one day (in about 1000 years) turn into the same white sand that is also present in Puerto Villamil. However the real interesting thing was the colony of blue-footed boobies that was sitting and resting on the stones nearby.

A colony of blue footed boobies

 

These beautiful birds are living off fish that they catch by making spectacular dives into the water in order to catch fish that were foolish enough to venture too close to the surface. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any of the mating dances that the birds are famous for (which is probably how they got their name, boobie being the old expression for something that looks funny or behaves clumsily.), however I shot a couple of really interesting photos.

Just around the corner on the street to the Wall of Tears, I came across my first penguin. It was standing alone near a colony of blue-footed boobies. It looked absolutely cute (not many people get to see these birds because they only live on Isabella). It is the bird totally on the right.

The penguin is the one standing totally on the right of the picture

At the same place, we also witnessed some sea lions that were tolling around in the water, playing with each other and making the funniest noises ever. I took a video of it, it was so comical.

I then continued onwards to the Wall of Tears alone because Ness did not want to walk anymore. I came across one land tortoise, slowly chewing the grass next to the road. It should be observed that land tortoises do not really have any enemies. No big carnivores live on the islands. The only way that the populations are kept in check is the abundance of food. Now that it is the rainy season, a lot of vegetation is present for the tortoises to eat (on top of it, this year is an El Niño year, which brings a lot of rain to the islands), however the situation is vastly different during the dry season.

To be fair, I did not come across anymore really interesting things on the way there apart from a lookout point which allowed a view over the sea of vegetation that is Isabella. It was pretty awesome to see especially as it gave an inkling of the size of Isabella.

View from the lookout at Isabella

I never made it to the Wall of Tears because I met Eliran and Joss just before the lookout point who confirmed that the Wall of Tears is indeed just a Wall of Tears and nothing else, and not really worth walking the ten minutes more. Exhausted we went back to the town instead.

At the town, we, Eliran and me, met up with a guide who had already proposed to us to guide us up to the volcanos in the highlands for 20 dollars a head. Considering that the other guides wanted 35 dollars, I readily agreed to it.

17.05.2011

At 7, the guide was supposed to pick me up from my hostal. He did come too late but that was just expected here in Ecuador.

After a while, the bus came and after we had picked up the 6 other people who were coming with us, we set-off towards the Volcan Chico and Volcan Sierra Negra. The travel there was already fascinating. As we exited the town, the vegetation began to get more and more arid as we were driving along with less vegetation being visible and more and more lava fields, until we drove up to the volcano were suddenly the vegetation turned really lush, soil was present and the vegetation was astounding (considering that a couple of kilometres back, very arid vegetation was present with cacti being the most common).

The vegetation was getting ever more arid..

 

It also started raining. The guide later explained to us that the wind coming mostly from the south pushes the clouds over the island where they charge up with moisture from the island and then rain it down on the side of the volcano. This is probably also the reason why the agriculture is situated in both Santa Cruz and Isabela on the south side relatively high up in the mountains (seeing the surroundings off Puerto Villamil and how little soil is present one wouldn’t even think that there is any kind of agriculture possible). We even came across a small forest with real tall trees (which are probably an introduced species).

When we arrived at the start of the trail to the Volcan Chico (which would lead past the Volcan Sierra Negra) and started walking along it, I was astounded. The trees (or what passed for trees here on the Galapagos, small stunted things) had moss hanging on the branching, a sign that this was a place with high humidity, the same sign as for recognising a cloud forest. I could not believe my eyes, even though it was raining at the time and we were in a relatively thick cloud (we were at more than 800 m altitude).

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The walk in itself was not that interesting, it was just through some rather uninteresting vegetation. The omnipresent finches here were of a different kind than the finches that were present at lower altitudes, these being the so-called cactus finches, while those at higher altitude being the “higher-altitude” finches. All really simple...

After a short while we arrived at a lookout point over the Caldera of Volcan Sierra Negra. Sierra Negra is a massive crater, the second largest in the world. It measures more than 10 kilometers across, and is nowadays extinct. The whole crater is covered with a field of cooled lava. The whole of it consists of black rock. The other funny thing is that the Volcan Chico, which is situated just next to Volcan Sierra Negra has erupted recently in 2005. Some of the lava has run into the crater of Sierra Negra and the basalt formed there a contrast with the vegetation that grows in the middle of the Caldera. Of all that, we didn’t see too much, the clouds and the fog were still present. We walked on for another hour until we came on the Volcan Chico.

The Volcan Chico is the really active volcano. Volcan Chico, instead of just being a single crater designates rather a whole region of volcanic activity with loads of craters. The whole area is covered with lava fields. Of those, we got explained, two types are present on the island: Pahoehoe types and A’a’. One type of lava, Pahoehoe, is produced by very liquid lava that cools slowly and forms a rather smooth lava field. The other type is produced by very viscous lava which produces a lava field of incredible irregularity with sharp points pretty much anywhere (interesting here is also that the cooled lava is very porous, breaks easily and is very light). Look at the photos.

The recent Pahoehoe lava contrasts with the black lava in the foreground.

The lava makes superb forms

The landscape was just beautiful. The old lava turns a somewhat rusty colour while the newer lava is completely black. The Volcan Chico region showed both kinds. Together with the seldom cacti growing on the lava rocks, as well as the sky that had turned blue, the colour mix was beautiful. The view of the volcano cones behind us, as well as the lava flows that still could be seen, added to this beautiful picture.

A lot of lava tubes and tunnels could be seen. These are stone tunnels formed when the lava cools and solidifies on the outside while the molten interior flows out of the tube formed by the solidified exterior. It is easiest if one just has a look at the pictures to get an impression on how grand the setting was.

Lava tunnels

 

At the end of the path, there was a lookout. It allowed a superb view of the northern part of Isabela (apparently one can also see the other islands from here but unfortunately the weather hadn’t cleared up enough for us to see them). The lava flows that were created in the eruption in 2005 could be seen as a black scar on an otherwise pretty green island (remember, it is the end of the rainy season in an El Niño year). It was fantastic to see that. Again, look at the photos in order to have an idea of the magnitude of the view.

The view from the top...

On the walk back, the whole day cleared up at least a little bit and allowed a view of nearly all the Caldera (the cauldron like structure formed by the collapse of land as the lava beneath it flowed out). I have seen photos of other people who went up there on another day when it was completely clear and it really does look awesome if the whole of it is visible.

In the evening, I didn’t really do anything apart from having a rest and chilling out at the beach. I still saw some of these awesome pink cushion birds called flamingos but that was all.

The people who had gone to the Volcan (the group of seven plus the tour guide) wanted to meet up to have a dinner together and then maybe go out for drinks. I was at the meeting place at the right time, however unfortunately, only Eliran showed up. After waiting quite a long time, we just went to have dinner and then met the English people I had met before in Santa Cruz when their boat had a problem.

The problem was so bad that the whole cruise had to be cancelled for them...

 

18.05.2011

In the morning, I wanted to go swimming in the laguna de Concha y Perla so I made my way over there at 9. On the way down there, about ten minutes from the village along the road to the mole, I stumbled across a sign that advertised cheap accommodation. In hope of a bargain I chose to enquire about accommodation price. I got told by a volunteer Italian woman who was working there that it was 8 dollars for a room (2 dollars less but the accommodation was ten minutes outside of town) or only 4 dollars for a tent. I just thought: bargain. Sleeping in a tent is no problem for me especially since I was told that I would have my own bathroom (the owner of the hotel was not there for the moment). Unfortunately the Italian women could only be back at 1 oclock to allow me to move into the tent. I didn’t care, an accommodation for 4 dollars would allow me to live on 11 dollars a day for maintenance costs, meaning that I would be able to spend more each day on other things.

I moved out of my room and moved into the tent. It was really fine. I then set off at around 2 towards the laguna de concha. The path led through 300 meters of mangroves. From what I could see that day, the laguna de concha was just a bay.

Laguna de concha y perla

There was really nothing special. When I arrived there, it was high tide. I dressed in my swimming clothes, laid them out on the dry landing and then went inside the lovely blue water. Very shortly afterwards, a couple of really big waves came my way. They splashed through the dry landing and made my clothes completely wet. Knowing that my camera was in my clothes, I swam in record time back to the landing and just managed to save my clothes before another big wave hit the dry landing. Luckily my camera had stayed dry. Out of fear for my camera (and because it was advised not to go in the water because of high waters), I killed the trip and went back to the place where I had just checked in.

In the evening, I met again the English couple who had had a formidable day at the Volcan Chico. I was jealous, they had a completely clear day and were able to see the caldera completely. The photos of it looked indeed really impressing.

When I came back, I got told by the Italian women that apparently the owner was really unhappy that I had moved into the tents, I wasn’t to have a bathroom, but had to share with a really unwilling Italian women. I just had too much. I decided to leave the next day, screw the 6 dollars.

 

19.05.2011

In the morning, I happily left the Italian women behind me. Eliran was staying the day beforehand in the Hostal Flamenco, and he was very happy there so I followed his advice and checked in that hostal as well. I managed to negotiate the price down to 10 dollars, an amazing price considering the quality of the hostel. I even had air conditioning (even though I will never use it because I am already cold and need an extra duvet at the normal night temperatures here of 27 degrees...).

Afterwards, I went back to the Laguna de Concha y Perla. I rented for 2.5 dollars a mask and snorkel and went snorkelling. During low tide, the Laguna looked completely different (the photo posted above shows the laguna during low tide). During low tide, the sea water was hindered from coming into the laguna by lava rock that rose at the end of the laguna. In the middle was a big “lake”. According to a sign that was nearby, sometimes sea tortoises get trapped during low tide in the laguna. During my snorkelling I did not see any...

The snorkelling itself was quite boring, not many fish could be seen and the visibility was poor. However, the highlight was that a sea lion came and started playing with me. He kept on swimming around me, swimming at quite a fast path towards me just to turn around just before me and head off in another direction and to disappear in the murky depths. He then would frighten me by coming in from a completely unknown direction (that is their kind of play) and then I would chase him through the water (although I would have no chance at all to outrace him as they are so agile). Sorry for the bad quality of photo, the underwater camera was awful.

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 I played with him for like 20 minutes while I was snorkelling around the lava formations that were delimiting the laguna. After a while, I got cold and went outside to warm up. Shortly afterwards, two more sea lions came and where playing. Then they started to poke their heads out of the water and staring in my direction. I took that as an invitation to come back and play. It was awesome to play with three sea lions at the same time, chasing one just to have another one chasing you or swimming like a torpedo at you just to turn around at the last moment and to swim a loop. Or they would swim on their backs alongside of me and look over to me as if saying “haha, you can’t do this...”. It was an awesome feeling and so much fun.

I went back to my place in order to warm up and rest a bit. I was planning to snorkel out to the tintoreras later on after lunch.

I went to the embarkation mole from which one can swim to the islands of the tintoreras. As I was beginning to snorkel over, I found out that the sea was actually not so deep here and that during low tide, one could walk over without any problems. I slowly made my way over to the islands of Tintoreras just to realise that I had forgotten my shoes and would not be able to walk on the volcanic stone of the islands. Stupid me…

The snorkelling was pretty shit down there as well, so I gave up. On the way back, I was hailed by a tour guide who told me that actually this was National Park territory and that the islands and the surroundings could only be accessed with a tour guide. Damn…

I did nothing else that day apart from lying on the beach and reading.

 

20.05.2011

In the morning I packed my water-tight bag and went back to the mole. I wanted to go out again to the Tintoreras. Once at the mole, I saw that three cruise boats had arrived over night and quite a lot of people were trying to take a cruise out to the Tintoreras.

I knew that in fact one had to go with a guide over to the Tintoreras, but I thought cheekiness would pay off. I was wrong...

The water was indeed only about knee or hip high, so I waded out to the Tintoreras pushing my watertight bag in front of me. When I was about a third of the way, I heard a shrill whistle. One of the guides had spotted me and was motioning for me to come out of the water. At first, he was always talking about that I should go on his tour and stuff like that. I told him that I would not go but then another person from the park also came to it and then I had to get out. The first guy to call me out was the same guy as the one that caught me the day before….

I had heard when I went to Volcan Chico that there was still a pond that I had no visited where usually there is a bigger group of flamencos present. It was true...

Male and female tortoise copulating

 Because I was frustrated by not being able to go to the Tintoreras, I went in that direction instead. On the road, I came across the giant tortoise breeding center. I witnessed giant tortoises coupling which was interesting if not a bit perverted: the massive male kept crouching over the far smaller female, drooling and making sounds, not unlike a human, while the female tried to get away from under him. I afterwards read that the females run away from the male and only the biggest one is fast enough to catch them and that sexual selection works that way for them.

I also had a look at the two different types of tortoises that exist in the southern parts of Isabela, one with a curiously flattened shell and the other one with a very concave shell. The centre also explains very well why it is needed.

 

The rare ability of tortoises to survive a long time without water and food made them ideal as a fresh meat supply for sailors who poached tens of thousands of them. The populations of the different tortoises would still have recovered somehow were it not for the introduced animals.

 The tortoise eggs are laid in sand by the female, the baby tortoises when they have hatched need to dig themselves out, which normally happens within 30 days. As soon as they are out of the ground, they live through their most dangerous time: their shells isn’t yet hard enough to resist the attacks of predators. Sadly enough, the introduced pigs find the nests of the tortoises with their good sense of smell and eat the eggs, the introduced ants kill and eat the baby tortoises shortly after their hatching inside the burrow or the cats and dogs eat the baby tortoises because their shells are not hard enough yet. It is estimated that if the tortoises were to breed outside of the protection of the breeding center, none of the baby tortoises would survive.

In the breeding centre, the baby tortoises are kept until they are 3 years old and then released in the wild. At this point of time, their shells are hard enough (and they are big enough) to survive. After that visit, I understood the existence of the breeding center, especially that only 12 different species of large turtles exist, 5 of which live on Isabela alone. The rest are dispersed on the Galapagos islands. Another interesting fact that I learned during that visit was (I should have thought about it really) that the giant size of the tortoises is probably due to an evolutionary phenomena known as insular gigantism. It is thought that the Komodo dragons have evolved through the same mechanism.

At 2, I set off again. This time I went in direction of the Mura de Las Lagrimas (Wall of Tears), the wall that was built by the prisoners that were kept here shortly after the second world war. I really wanted to see more penguins and hoped that I would be able to spot some at the same point that I had beforehand, just after the newly forming beach of whitesand.

Luckily I could hitchhike a ride up to the new-forming beach and from there I decided to walk down towards the Wall. Unfortunately I did not see any penguins or any other kind of birds, however ran in 20 or so turtles just munching on the grass at the side of the road.

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Another turtle...

21.05.2011

In the morning, I had decided to walk again the path in the direction of the Mura de Las Lagrimas in the hope to see some penguins. This time around, I unfortunately didn’t have the luck to get a lift so I walked all the way. The beach along which runs the road looks even better during low tide: an incredibly long expanse of beautiful white sand with little coloured birds running along, searching for crabs and other foods on the beach.

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I then walked onwards to the Playa del Amor, the beach that was in the process of forming. Unfortunately, there were no birds visible. Disappointed, I went further in the hopes of seeing at least some blue-footed boobies. As I rounded the bend where I had first seen the penguin, I saw in the distance a big “cloud” of boobies, pelicans and frigates flying. I decided to be bold and just walk along the lava stones on the shore towards the place the boobies were at (it was low tide).

Obviously, going over new stones (in a geological sense) was really slow going. The stones were really sharp (one can actually see that at my flip-flops, they are cut open at different places). In all the crevices were hidden crabs that fled when I came near. At every step I made, at least ten crabs were fleeing in front of me.

 

When I arrived I saw an incredible sight. Literally hundreds of blue-footed boobies were hunting at the same time in a big swarm and, if they spotted fishes all turning into living torpedoes and diving at the fish at the same time. It just looked as if one took a machine gun and started shooting boobies out of it and into the water. I took a video of it, have a look at it because I won’t be able to describe the sight appropriately so that its glory can be captured. It was an impressive sight.

Blue footed booby armada going for the dive!

In the creek that the blue-footed boobies were diving at fish, there were also a great number of pelicans (maybe 50 or more of them) diving at fishes. It looked awesome to have those really quite big birds (wing span of about 1.50 to 2 m) flying around before diving into the sea from a couple of meters height. Above all this were cruising the frigates.

They are built so aerodynamical that they can hover for hours in the wind without even moving their wings. They can also be incredibly fast, fighting with each other in the air or diving for fish. They cannot enter the water because their feathers are not watertight like the boobies or the pelicans but they fly low over the surface of the sea and pick out fishes in their long beaks.

Then there were also what I thought at first were albatrosses, but they turned out to be young frigates. As they are not yet sexually active, they do not need the big red bag of male frigate that is indicative of male frigates. Instead they have a purely white head.

A frigate flying

I only saw one penguin. It was just swimming pretty much right next to me. Unfortunately, the next second that I pulled out my camera, it was gone...

After some time, my camera was full and I went back. Later on at the beach I met a French couple who I spent the rest of the evening with.

 

22.05.2011

The French couple had been sleeping the night before in a tent. I told them to come to the hostel I was staying in because it was a really nice one and like the other ones it was just asking for 10 dollars a night (the hotels and hostals here in Isabela have all the creature comforts that anyone requires: a tiled bathroom, air con etc... really quite good value). When I woke up, they were already at my hostal ready to take a room. After they moved into their room, we met up and walked towards the Mura de Las Lagrimas.

Like the day before, I did not see much wildlife apart from the birds on the beach until we came to the same spot I was at before. An as big number of blue-footed boobies were again all diving for fish, the frigates were in the skies and pelican were diving for fish. I have managed to shoot some astounding photos.

Pelican diving in from high above...

Pelican made a mistake and crash landed this dive...

For lunch, I went back to the village while the Frenchies stayed on the beach. After a nap and a rest at the beach, I borrowed the fins of the French guy, put my camera into my watertight bag and went out to the mole in order to try to swim out of the Tintoreras. I had surmised that in the evening, there would not be anyone there at 5 to stop me swimming out there. I hadn’t taken into account that the boats from Santa Cruz came in at 5. The guard who had caught me the two times beforehand spotted me unfortunately and then was standing there and making sure that I would not swim out to the Tintoreras that are located within easy swimming distance of the shore.

After a while, I was just sitting there at the dock enjoying the sun and waiting that he would go, he did indeed leave. I managed to swim three quarters of the way until a late boat with a guide on-board fished me out and brought me back to the mole. The guide on the boat, an old men, did not really understand why he was being told he should bring me back since I was only taking photos, but the guard who caught me apparently seems to have a vendetta against me...

When I came back to my room and started counting the money, I found out that 100 dollars were missing. I immediately went to the police. A police man came over to check that nobody broke into the house and told me to go to the Comisaria in the morning.

Ecuador weirdly enough has two different institutions. One is the police which is there to make sure the places are safe aswell as a comisaria whose task is to investigate delicts. I got told by the policeman that I needed to make a denunciaccion (an accusation) at the Comisaria when it opened in the morning.

I initially wanted to leave the next day but I couldn’t at that point. I had to go the comisaria in the morning.

After changing my hostel and moving back into the hostel in which I was first, I went to bed.

 

23.05.2011

In the morning, I went to the Comisaria where I had to wait for half an hour to an hour until the Comisario showed up and explained to me the procedure I had to go through to make a denunsiaccion. I had to write and print the letter of denunsiaccion (in Spanish) as well as give a copy of my passport.

I then went back, got sent back to print out more copies of the letter, waited some more to see the Comisario who sent me to his secretary. I waited for a lot more, then signed the summons of the other party, waited a bit more, got sent away to come back at 3 oclock, waited some more, did some paperwork etc...

That day was spent mostly waiting.

 

24.05.2011

Another day spent mostly waiting. I met the other party (which consisted of the owner of the hostel where my money got stolen) at around 4 and after some time we came to an agreement that the owner would replace 50 dollars of my money that was stolen. I was happy that I had at least that much. I also bought already my ticket for the next day to go back to Santa Cruz.

 

25.05.2011

The boat left Isabela at 6 am. The boat ride was nothing special, quite bumpy but actually ok. When I arrived at 8.30 in the port of Puerto Ayora, I went directly to the same hostel in which I was beforehand for 10 dollars. Unfortunately that one was already full (they only have two rooms to rent) so I found another one a bit bigger (it’s called Charles Darwin) that also rents rooms for 10 dollars on the main avenue pretty near the port. I just spent the rest of the day pretty much waiting for my yacht to go the next day. Nothing really important happened that day.

 

26.05.2011

The morning, again, I was really waiting for the boat to depart. At 12, I was set to board the boat. The boat itself is has 3 floors and one sundeck at the top, ie it is really quite big. I have made photos of every deck so that people can have an impression of the size of it. I will not describe it here because it is too much.

My cabin...

When I arrived, people were already eating. I joined them. The food was pretty damn good.

We left a little late for visiting the highlands of Santa Cruz, at 14h 45 because a plane had arrived late. The boat had hired a guide Veronika, who remained our guide for the remainder of the trip.

We took a bus and drove the 30 min to a place that was once upon a time a farm and now served as tourist attraction (on site they sold quite a lot of these tourist things with “Galapagos islands” printed on them) for seeing Galapagos Giant toirtoises. A few paths cross this terrain which apparently is well liked by the tortoises. During the time we were there, we saw 2 or 3 of them.

These were gigantic. Look at the photos to see just how gigantic.

One of those gigantic turtles...

They were massive!

Otherwise the whole farm was not really that interesting. Ok, I could shoot a couple of good and interesting photos but it was mainly a touristic station.

At the end of the trip around the farm (we saw two of the giants), we came to a house in which were displayed skeletons of giant Tortugas. I tried lifting the “carapace” and it actually was not as heavy that I couldn’t lift it. I began to believe what the guide had told us, that the legs were the heaviest part of the Tortuga.

Sceleton of a turtle!

 

An interesting fact about tortoises that I did not know was that the top of the shell that is possible to see on the living tortoises is not actually their shell but rather a very tough outer skin. The age of the tortoise can be determined by the amount of rings that are present on it. Conversely to tree rings, the more rings there are on a tortoise, the younger it is. The gigantic ones we saw nearly did not have any of these rings.

Afterwards, we still went to see the lava tunnel that is situated nearby. During the visit, I struck up a friendship with the two only Ecuadorian girls that were as well on the yacht (Pamela and Salome) with whom I was a lot together during the next days. They could speak English as well however we were mostly speaking Spanish together. My Spanish is actually now good enough to have full grown conversations in Spanish.

After the evening meal at 10 pm, which consisted of a buffet of European-like cuisine, the boat set off. Having paid only 960 dollars for 8 days (which is about half of everyone else), my cabin was situated at the bottom of the boat (less rolling movement of the boat) right next to the machines (louder). Since the boat is always moving at night, these places are usually the worst ones but I didn’t really mind. The rolling motion was acting like a cradle and I usually fell asleep in no time.

The first night though I didn’t sleep that well. I guess it is going to improve in the future.

 

27.05.2011

That day we went to the island of Santiago, just north of Santa Cruz. The voyage up to that point took us 6 to 7 hours (the boat moves at 7-9 knots). The breakfast, which was again European buffet style, was at 6.45. I had awoken at 5 already and was just lying in bed until the sunrise, which is around 6.

Unfortunately, the skies were covered so no sun was visible. Unfortunately, the biggest cruise ship of the Galapagos was situated in the same bay as us. With 96 passengers on board, having it in the same bay as us pre-monitioned a very crowded path into the island and photos of wildlife with a lot of tourists on them...

After the breakfast, we set off to the island in two dinghies. The landing was a wet one (ie we needed to get wet in order to walk on the beach) where we landed on a small black sand beach.

 Black sand consists of eroded basalt, which is the prevalent stone on this island. Already on the beach we could see several sea lions playing in the sea. However, we were not supposed to go down the beach at this point of time.

The beach at Santiago

This is one of the biggest downsides of having a guide. One can’t do what one wants,  go where one wants at the speed one wants. One is always dependent on the guide and the group dictates the tempo of the visit. Unfortunately, it is not possible to visit the Galapagos otherwise.

Nowadays, the Santiago island is uninhabited but in 1920 a salt mine was present in the bay in which we anchored. Guayaquil did not have near it any salt mines and therefore the ones on Galapagos were very profitable, however this changed when just before the second world war a mine next to Guayaquil was discovered and the salt from the Galapagos was suddenly a lot more expensive. Some of the buildings from the mine are still visible, however nowadays nobody lives on the island.

The path that led more into the interior of the island led us past some quite interesting flora that are endemic to this island (I have not covered flora at all with photos because I am nearly exclusively interested in animals and landviews), as well as lava lizards, both male and female (female: red underside male: strong colouring in the form of dots on the back).

At one point, in the distance, we saw the biggest predator of the Galapagos: a Galapagos hawk was soaring the updrafts quite far above us.

The next really interesting point was when we came to walk towards the shore on lava. We discovered the fur seal, an animal that looks quite like a sea lion from a distance, however closer one can see that they have a much more rat-like face, bigger eyes and a much denser fur (they look a lot fatter due to that fur). On top of it they are not quite as playful and a little bit moreshy than sea lions. Approximately as many sea lions exist as fur seals, however the islands that are inhabited (Santa Cruz, Isabella, San Cristobal) just happen not be inhabited by the fur seals, meaning this is the first time I have seen any.A fur seal

Near where the fur seals were lying was a Grieta (a fracture of the lava rocks, like the one I have been in in Santa Cruz with very clear water) We saw a fur seal swimming along it, however we also one of those massive sea turtles just floating in the grieta apparently a bit lost... It was beautiful to see.

A sea turtle

When we walked back along the sea we came across some more of the marine iguanas, some oyster catchers (birds with a big red beak) and two herons. However more interesting were the interesting lava formations that could be seen. The islands had been built with hundreds of eruptions, each eruption forming a new layer on the previous lava layer. These layers could be seen clearly in some of the rock formations we came past.

Pamela and lava stones

Other interesting formations were created when the lava trapped underneath some air (or water) which then expanded in the heat and exploded forming little craters.

When we returned to the beach, we got out the snorkling gear, however I did not snorkel very long and did not see anything especially interesting, although I must say that the fish were present in great numbers. In the end, just before we were supposed to go on the ship, I went towards the end of the beach and saw two baby fur seals coming out of the water. It was really funny how they were walking.

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We then embarked on a 6 hour trip to the island of Bartholome. On the way down there, we came across some really interesting rock formations that looked absolutely awesome. Some frigate birds were flying along the boat, hovering sometimes just two meters above the boat on the air turbulences caused by the boat. It was an amazing sight, seeing these big birds so near us.

The frigates then used the boat as a kind of taxi. A big group of only male frigates settled down on the boat allowing us very close up shots. They weren’t even frightened of us.

A frigate had settled on our boat

Close-up of a frigate

Bartholome is a very young island. Like Fernandina, which is only about 1 million years old, Bartholome does not have much vegetation growing on it. It is home to the so-called pioneer settlers, the first plants that can colonise lava rocks. These are small, nearly grey plants. I have taken photos of them as well as the surrounding they grow in that are indicative of how hardy those plants are.

A view of the landing place in Bartholomew

At first, we went to the beach. On the way there the dinghy drivers steared the dinghies close to the shore and there I saw my second (and third) penguin standing on the shore. It was incredibly cute looking. After some photos of these as well as the fur seals lying on the rocks, we went snorkelling.

A penguin---

Again, the snorkelling was good but the fishes were, well kind of the same as the fishes I have seen beforehand during the many times I have been snorkelling. However, I SWAM WITH PENGUINS! It was awesome. They are really quite fast (although less so then I thought) and are also quite agile in the water. It was awesome to see them chasing after fish (although I am not sure they were trying to catch fish but just playing with them). Every so often they went up to the surface to catch a breath and then went underwater again to chase after some fish. I have no other description for it but that it was awe inspiring to see these little animals which are incredibly clumsy on the land to turn into such goodswimmers.

Swimming with penguins

A Penguin that swam with us

In the afternoon, we went up to the lookout point of Bartholome. I will not describe here how it was. Have a look at the photos.

The first colonizers...

Most famous view of the Galapagos...

 

In the evening, after a dinner, the boat set off for the 7 hour travel towards the islands of Genovesa. It was supposedly quite agitated but I did not realise anything of it. I was sleeping.

 

28.05.2011

I woke up pretty early in the morning, but had to wait for breakfast until 7 am. Instead, I went outside for some sunrise pictures and had quite a shock. Not one or two other yachts were there on the distant Genovesa but 5 other ones, one of which was a massive luxury cruise-ship that carries 60 persons.

Apart from that the island looked really awesome. It was once a massive crater with a crater probably 2 kilometers across. However, a long time ago, one of the rims has collapsed and water went in through the breach, which filled up the crater (the crater is very deep, more than 300 meters) and left in its wake a breach of a couple of hundred meters width. The boat was anchored in the middle of the crater.

Sheer walls rose from the side of the crater. On the top, hundreds of different birds were nesting (actually, in whichever direction one looked, one always saw numerous birds circling in the sky.). Look at the photos to get a good idea of the island.

Genovesa is an old crater that filled up

 

At 8, we took the boats towards the Prince Philips steps. While we were travelling along the old crater rim, the sheer cliff, we came across several colonies of fur seals as well as different birds, notably the tropical bird, a beautiful white bird with long very long white tailfeathers, the Nasca booby (which was once called the enmasked booby) as well the red-footed boobies. We saw these from far however.

A fur seal on one of the sheer cliffs of Genovesa

As soon as we climbed the steps, we arrived on the crater rim (which measures about 2 or 3 km large). We emerged pretty much directly in a Nasca booby colony. Look at the photos to see how they look like.

A Nascar booby

Nascar booby male with an egg

After a few meters, we came upon the first red-footed booby. Red-footed boobies live only on this island. The reason for this is that red-footed boobies (these are the smallest of the boobies family) tends to sit and nest on trees. This makes them a very easy target for the Galapagos hawk, however on Genovesa this hawk does not live, meaning that the red-footed booby does. I have made superb photos of these.

A red footed booby

A red-footed booby

We continued and came across big colonies of frigate birds that were sitting on bushes and on the ground displaying their big red bags, in order to attract a mate. We saw absolutely tons of them, flying above us in the air as well as sitting on the ground. Amazing!

A big group of frigates

We walked on until we could see about 500 m from us the border of the islands. Here we could see again the volcanic rock being predominant over vegetation. An impressive amount of petrels were flying. We tried scanning the rocks for the elusive Galapagos owl, the only diurnal owl in the world but since it is coloured the same as the lava rocks, it was hard to find. I saw some of these really beautiful tropical birds, the birds with immensely long tailfeathers, that were being chased by frigates. Very likely,the tropical birds had fish in their beak and the frigates were trying to steal them by clubbing the tropical bird repeatedly...

We saw a couple more frigates males courting for females but otherwise not really anything that interesting. On our way back, we met another group with guide who told Veronika (our guide) where to find an owl. We did then indeed see one then, a beautiful brown and grey owl.

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In the afternoon, we wanted to go snorkelling. We went snorkelling from the dinghies which dropped us off near the exit of the crater, however the waves were too strong and the visibility was decreased to no more than 3 meters. The crew members in the dinghies told us to get back in the boats because of the danger of the big waves and droves us over to the other side of the crater and we went snorkelling there. The snorkelling there was really nothing special until we came onto a colony of fur seals who were lazing in the water. It allowed for superb photos (photos didn't turn out anything good though since the underwater camera was shite).

Fur seal swimming underwater

In the late afternoon, after snorkelling, we were driven over to a beach. Right next to the beach was a path that led to some colonies of birds, nesting near a beach. This was also the place where I first saw the swallow-tailed gull, a nocturnal bird, that sports a phosphorescent ring around the eye which it uses to hunt.

I shot great photos of nesting boobies, baby frigates, male frigates during nesting rituals and swallow-tailed gulls.

Swallow-tailed gulls

In the evening, after dinner and after a goodbye cocktail for the guest who were leaving the boat the next morning, the boat left from Genovesa to the distant Baltra island. The passage was really quite rough but after taking a pill (for security reasons, I have only ever been sea-sick once in the red sea), I slept like a champion.

 

29.05.2011

In the morning, we got into the dinghies and were driven around the Tortuga Bay, a shallow, deep bay on Santa Cruz lined with mangroves. I did not find this tour quite that interesting because we were driven along on a boat and not allowed to walk and explore the area, a feeling even worse than walking in a single file behind the guide. However, we did see a few animals. A flock of baby manta rays, about 20 to 40 of them, 2 coupling turtles and a lot of birds. It was interesting to see these animals but nothing more.

Beautiful scenery

After the breakfast, the boat left to cross over to Santa Cruz where the other people were dropped off to leave for the airport. I could have gone to the nearby beach but it really was just a stretch of beach that could be seen from the boat and nothing special. Instead I stayed on the boat and read, worked on this travel blog and in general did nothing.

At around lunch time, the other passengers arrived. After an introduction and lunch, the boat set off to Las bachas beach on Baltras. We were then driven over. After a short, failed snorkelling session (the visibility was below 2 m) I stayed with the rest of the passengers (and the passengers of the five other boats that had arrived at the same place as well) until we were led in a single duck file along the beach, past some sea turtle nests, to a salt water hole. The first thing we saw at the hole was a formidable sea heron eating a baby sea turtle. It was quite funny to watch how long the sea heron had to bite on it to break its shell.

A heron with his breakfast

A heron

Right next to the heron was a flamengo stalking through the muddy water hole, trailing behind it a wake of black mud pulled up from the bottom. There wasn’t really anything else to see at that waterhole apart from a heron standing beside a sea turtle nest (a hole in the sand) where the baby turtles were just hatching, and patiently waiting for his turtle food.

Afterwards, we went back on board. Just afterwards, we travelled the 45 minutes to North Seymour (small island located just north of Baltra) and anchored there for the night. The spot we anchored at is famous for its many sharks that are present here and true to form, in the night several sharks were swimming around our boat. We did try to make photos of some but most of them did not turn out very good.

30.05.2011

In the morning, we ate breakfast at 6.30 and afterwards went onto the island of North Seymour. Already on the dinghy ride over to the island, we saw a marine iguana swimming lithely through the sea, using his long and high tail to propel himself forward.

The landing was a dry landing, however on the steps were lying a sea lioness and its cub. It was the first time that I have actually a cub suckling at the mother.

A female suckling her cub

 

After taking a couple of photos, we went ahead for about 20 meters and then stumbled on the next unusual animal: a Baltra land iguana.

A Baltra Land Iguana

In 1939, a British scientist decided to make an experiment. He realised that land iguanas did live on the island of Baltra, however did not live on the island right next door, North Seymour. For that experiment, the scientist took 70 land iguanas over to North Seymour and left them to roam free and studied their behaviour. Although the introduction of species is now frowned upon, humanity was very lucky that this experiment was done. In the second world war, the Americans installed a big navy base on the Galapagos, in order to protect the Panama Channel, and completely exterminated the Baltra land iguana. Luckily these survived on North Seymour.

Land iguanas, although they are ugly as hell and look even meaner than that, are purely vegetarians, feasting on cacti (the cacti also need to adapt to the animals that eat them. They need millions of years to do so and have not yet done so on North Seymour, ensuring a steady supply of food for the land iguanas.). When young, they do indeed eat insects, however then change their diet to vegetarianism. I have made some superb photos of these so have a look at them.

We then walked on to find two blue-footed boobies making the mating dance.Blue footed boobies making the mating dance

It is quite a funny affair and also the reason why these birds have earned the name boobies (in old English, a booby is a joke or a funny mistake). The preferred trait for females is the blue colour of the feet of the boobies. The bluer the feet the better. In order to attract a female’s attention, a male booby stands on a rock and stands alternatively on each leg and lifts the other one in the air so that the female can have a look at and appreciate the blueness of the feet. It is a hilarious courtship dance. I have taken videos and loads of photos so have a look at this and guess how much I have laughed.

The other part of the dance is that either the male or the female show the other sexe the top side of their wings, a position that look really quite funny as well. In the end, it was the male that left the female. One could really see how confused the female was that the male left (usually it is the other way around). Poor female booby...

Blue footed boobies making the mating dances

We then went on and saw a lot more frigates males sitting on trees with their big red bags blown up. We came across a male and female frigate that were sitting next to each other on the tree. Apparently, the female had just arrived something like 5 minutes earlier. The courtship usually takes round about 20 minutes, so we were seeing what happened as soon as a female had chosen a male according to the size of his bag. It turns out that not much happens. The female just sits next to the male, under its spread out wings and its bag fully blown up. Nothing else happens and I don’t know how the female decides to stay or not because the female, after two minutes sitting under the wings of the male just took off. The male was singing, or ooloohing, after her but really he couldn’t do anything.

The courtship of the frigates

Courtship of frigates

As we walked on we saw loads of blue-footed boobies, either just sitting in their nests (which were just small circles of slightly arranged twigs on the ground, nests being quite an over-exaggerated term) as well as another couple doing the booby dance. We encountered still a couple of the land iguanas, and towards the end of the trip on this island, the swallow-tailed gull, hiding in a bush.

After going back on the boat, we left towards the island of Fernandina.

We arrived in a beautiful white sand/ blue water bay at around 2. Before being allowed in the water, we had to wait for another 10 minutes because the boat only had a licence for snorkelling that started at 2 pm. The Galapagos National Park gives out licences for each boat to do a certain thing at a certain time, for example visit the island, go into the water etc...

In order to control tourism, the boats are as well not allowed to propose diving as well as land visits. The boats can only either be dive boats or land visiting/snorkelling boats.

After two, we went snorkelling. The captain had checked the tides and told us that we could be dropped out just outside the bay and then swim downwards with the current and then re-enter the bay through a short throughway between two lava flows. The snorkelling was not that great outside the bay, however as we swam into the bay we came into a great swarm of fishes that parted just ahead of us. Beautiful!

 Inside the bay, we then came across resting sea turtles lying on the clear white sand. It allowed quite good photos. I only had brought two throwaway underwater cameras and to this hour I do not know how the photos are but lets hope they are awesome. Unfortunately, we did not see any shark, nor any hammerhead sharks, the Galapagos being one of the few places where one can observe these ugly beasts.

A turtle in a white sand bay

A turtle on a white sand bay

Because I was cold, I then swam back to the boat while the others went to see more turtles. They told me afterwards that apart from turtles, they swam with sea lions as well as saw a swarm of eagle rays. I was furious with myself that I had chickened out.

Afterwards, we did go on land. We landed on the beach where a colony of sea lions was just lazing away the day. They were really quite fun to watch, especially since we could get this close to them (we were sometimes not standing farther than 30 cm from them and they really didn’t care about us).

The sea lions let us get very close

 

The walk then let up a path strewn with lava boulders. On Santa Fe live another species of land iguanas, the Santa Fe land iguanas. When they are grown up, they have a beautiful yellow and pink colour. Unfortunately, we did not see any of these. We just saw the young land iguanas who are not fertile yet and who do not have the awesome colour of the adults. We saw two of those. Otherwise the landfall was relatively unspectacular, just more of the same lava rocks, cacti trees, beautiful views, marine iguanas etc...

A young land iguana from Santa Fe

In the evening, we set off for the island of Española, an island that is only accessible with a cruise. I was really looking forwards to that because it is the only island that is home to the waved albatross.

 

31.05.2011

In the morning, we set off at 7.30 for the Suarez Bay on Española.

Española is the oldest island (100 million years) of the Galapagos. It is the furthest away from the geologically active spot that formed the Galapagos islands. It is, like the islands that were present before it, going to be transported further and further on the conveyor belt that is the Galapagos islands (remember that the Galapagos islands move further and further away from the geological hotspot that created them by about 5 cm per year, and in time, new islands will be created in their space) until, like its predecessors, it will submerge into the ocean. This process of creation and moving along the conveyor belt also explains the discrepancy of the time needed for the animals to evolve as far away from other animals as they currently have (much more than 100 million years, for example the giant tortoises) and the relatively youth of the islands (less than 100 million years).

Other islands have existed beforehand but have, like Española will soon, been submerged again by the oceans. Scientists have indeed found the previous Galapagos islands submerged not too far away from the current ones. Taking into account that species can indeed move from island to island (the Galapagos tortoises do indeed exist or existed on all the islands, even on Fernandina, the youngest one), the conveyor belt theory does indeed explain the time span needed for the evolution of the species on these relatively new islands.

While we were still riding in the dinghy, we saw one of the ubiquitous marine iguanas swimming in the bay, returning from a foray of green algae, however the marine iguana did look a bit different from the ones I had seen before.

Once we had landed, I realised what I had thought was weird about the iguana. A different species from the ones I had seen before live on this island. They are mostly black (and as ugly as the other marine iguanas), however have some red spots as well. I do not know, nor can I fathom what the use of these red spots are but, hey, they are pretty.I made loads of good photos of this marine iguana species.

A marine Iguana on Espanola

An Espanola Marine Iguana

 

Just as we were walking onwards, we saw a different species of the Galapagos mockingbird, the Española mockingbird, making weird noises and then hopping towards a marine iguana and starting to hack on its tail. The marine iguana did not move at all, so I guess that the bird had formed a mutually beneficial relationship with the marine iguanas here: the marine iguanas are cleaned of parasites and the mocking bird eats them. Even having surmised that, it was quite astounding to see the marine iguana not at all reacting to a bird half the size of him picking at him.

Right next to the marine iguanas, on the beach, was a group of sea lions. Although they were only small, and because I have seen so many of these already, not really interesting but these will feature later on again, hence the importance to mention them here.

As we walked on in the extremely rocky path, we came across some blue-footed boobies as well as some Nazca boobies and swallow-tailed gulls and then across a couple of waived albatrosses sitting on the earth.

DSCF7296 (Copy)

DSCF7301 (Copy)DSCF7303 (Copy)Albatrosses are incredibly beautiful birds with an incredibly yellow beak. Thez are one of the biggest birds in existence. Although 21 different species exist (the exact classification and the number of species are somewhat clashing points between experts) and they mostly nest on remote oceanic islands. Galapagos only harbours one species: the waved albatross (called like this because its breast feathers look like waves).

The waved albatross is peculiar in itself in that it is the only species that breeds at the latitudes of the Galapagos. These birds only nest on the island of Española and, maybe, if Española eventually disappears, they will also disappear. They are heavily dependent of their breeding place and will only breed there. They are also dependent on their mate. They only have one mate in their life and will not reproduce with other albatrosses. In order to form these life-long bonds, Albatrosses have developed a very expansive breeding dance. They use their bills to “fight” mock fights with their beats. It actually looks as if they are giving each other, like humans, kisses and do so not only before the breeding but also afterwards to secure the bonds.

A beak fight between albatrosses

At this point, I will not write more on the Albatrosses apart from that they are accomplished fliers who can fly incredible distances (thousands of kilometres) with very little energy expenditure by making use of updrafts, hence using this technique to cover incredible distances and dispersing greatly when they don’t breed. As good as they are adapted to flying, as badly are they adapted towards landing.

Unfortunately I have not seen it live but often when landing, they fall on their faces, and as a reason stay either mostly in the air or, once landed, tend not to depart again.

With those first three albatrosses that were sitting, I did not witness the breeding ritual unfortunately but the beauty of the birds was incredible. They are big, about the same size as geese, but are formed much slimmer with a long yellow beak. Look at the photos to see the full beauty of these animals.

Near there, a hawk was sitting on some lava stones. This sight is relatively “rare” (for tourists who only come on a week-long cruise), since most of the time, these hawks are soaring in the air, searching for food. What is even more rare is what came afterwards. Another hawk flew in and actually landed on top of the first one. Either this was just a play or that was hawk porn.

Galapagos Hawk

 

Hawk Porn!I do tend to lean towards the notion of hawk porn because the hawks remained like in this position for quite a while and made good poses for some great photos.

As we walked on, we came across some further albatrosses sitting on the grass, waiting for their mates or simply resting, about 200 meters from a cliff.

At this point, we were always getting showered by a finemist of seawater, however it seemed unreasonable to suspect seawater because it could not have been caused by the simple action of waves this far away from the sea.

As soon as we arrived at the cliff, we saw why. During low tide, the sea revealed a lava formation known as blow hole. It is basically a tunnel in the lava with a big chamber at the end which has an opening skywards. When the waves hit the channel, they compress the air inside the tunnel and the big chamber. Air and water is ejected in a big plume towards the sky. It is an amazing sight to see a plume of water every time that a bigger wave hits the shore. I took videos of it and to see what I am talking about, have a look at these.

Blow hole on Espanola

After appreciating this, we continued to walk along the ragged cliff of Española. What was interesting was that the stones which were positioned at the bottom of the cliff looked quite unlike any on the other islands. On the other islands, the stones near the shore are sharp edged lava, even though often immersed in water due to the waves. Española, however, being much much older, has stones near the shore that have been smoothed down to resemble the stones often seen in rivers, worn round and smooth by the constant action of the waves. It was also on the cliff that I saw one these majestic birds called albatross fly. It flew several rounds around the place where we were, in total a couple of kilometres and really fast, and did not move once its wings. It was just soaring on the updrafts the whole time. Whoaa!

Albatross flying

We then did see a couple of albatrosses doing their famed breeding dances, although not the full thing that they do only after meeting their mate for the first time in months. It was still impressive, have a look at the photos.

Breeding dances

When we returned to the beach with the sea lion colony, we saw a sorry sight. A young was lying on the beach, nearly a squeleton. It seems its mother had died, and since none of the other females takes care of stray youngs, this young just hungered. It was still breathing but one could see all his ribs and it was obviously dying. Naturally we couldn’t intervene because what happened was just natural selection.

A cub dying..

After embarking on the boat again, we sailed for three quaters of an hour until we came to a sandy beach. The only real attraction was the presence of a big colony of sea lions. It was quite fun to see them so close but I have done that already a couple of times. In the evening, we travelled to Floreana.

01.06.2011

Floreana is an island south of Santa Cruz. It is inhabited by about 300 people. To be fair, there is not much to say about Floreana island. It is rather uninteresting, compared to the other islands. It does sport however a green sanded beach, which is due to the mineral olivine which is created if lava is suddenly cooled down.

Green sandy beach (doesnt look really green in the picture but trust me, it was greenish)

We landed on this beach, which does indeed have a greenish colour, a fact that does not show on the pictures unfortunately because the sky was covered. We then went on to a salt water hole that was already half dry. However 5 flamingos still found food here.

I realised soon that these flamingos have an extraordinary pink colour, probably due to the fact that they find plenty of the crills here that give them the red/pink colours. Indeed, flamingo chicks are completely grey and as soon as they start to feed themselves, they turn pink.

DSCF7564 (Copy)

Afterwards, we traveled a few minutes to the next bay, the post office bay. At this place, sea farers had once upon a time posted their post in a box next to the bay. The next person that had a destination close to the destination of the letter then took the post with him and delivered it. It could take years to arrive at the destination.

The bay in itself was not remarkable but the snorkelling was. I saw loads and loads of turtle that were swimming around the nearby rocks. I also made a lot of photos.

A view of Floreana

At 2, the boat left for the 4 to 5 hour long trip back to Santa Cruz.

After dinner and a final briefing, I left the boat. I had agreed to stay on shore the last night while the others stayed on board and went on to visit the Charles Darwin Centre in the morning.

In the first hostel in which I asked (the last one in which I stayed), the people had already stopped working and didn’t want to give me a room. In the first hostal I have stayed in, the owner told me that all of her rooms were already taken but she did have an additional house that she was renting currently to two German girls, but which had another bed free, so I went to that one. It was situated quite far inside the city, about 10 minutes from the malecon. After having settled in, I met the people who were with me on the boat in a bar and spent an hour reliving the beautiful moments of the travel.

 

02.06.2011

I really didn’t do anything interesting that day apart from working on my photos and on my travelblog.

 

03.06.2011

I left the house at 8.00 in the morning to take the last bus to Baltra Island. My flight was only at 13.00 oclock so I had to wait for quite some time, more so when it was delayed. I arrived at 5 o’clock at the airport and was greeted by my girlfriend in a massive hug. She had indeed stayed at the airport and waited for an hour for me with the parents waiting in the car.

Continue reading on with my travels in the guide to Ecuador (at the bottom, when I describe my return to Ecuador)

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