A trip to the Galapagos Islands will change your life in some way. Famed for their vast number of endemic species of animals, they were studied by Charles Darwin in 1831 to 1836 during the voyage of the Beagle. Darwin’s observations and collections led to his theory of evolution by natural selection. The islands are located in the Pacific Ocean about 1,000 kilometres off the western coast of Ecuador and consist of an archipeligo of approximately 13 major islands, of which five are inhabited, and several smaller islands which tend to go unheralded. It is a land that time forgot; a rugged lost paradise that is home to animal species found nowhere else on earth.
We landed at San Cristobal near the Capital of the Galapagos, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. From there we headed, by bus, to the docks. Benches were provided in the harbour area so people could sit as they waited for their various boats and tours to arrive. However, the local residents took priority when it came to occupancy. I was never happier to give up my seat to a sleepy, very content sea lion. To be that close to these creatures immediately upon arrival was very conflicting emotionally. On the one hand I felt as though I should not be allowed to be so close yet on the other they seemed to invite it. That feeling would be reinforced over and over again in the next few days.
A 115 foot, 16 passenger yacht would be our home for the next five days. Looking after all our needs was a crew of about a dozen, prepared to make our adventure a resounding success. The constant rocking of the boat was going to take some getting used to. Just about every time I stood up I wound up being body slammed into a wall.
Isla Lobos or Lobos Islet means Sea Lion Island so named for the large colonies of the playful mammals residing there. It is just north of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island and was the location of our first of many snorkeling expeditions.
We were in the water with the sea lions, numerous fish and a few sting rays. At one point a couple of “playful” sea lions came swimming up from behind me at breakneck speed. Wearing a diving mask you have absolutely no peripheral vision in the water so these beasties appeared and disappeared in the blink of an eye.
We returned to the boat, had just enough time to change then hopped back in the pangas to return to Lobos Islet for a sunset hike. It must have been very much like this when Darwin landed here 180 years ago. We made a dry landing which means you can get off the panga and onto the land and remain dry doing so – well, reasonably dry; your feet tend to get a little on the damp side. The sea lions were all around and were not shy about making their presence known. Their coughing, barking and braying or whatever that sound they make is, could be heard all over the islet. The young had been born quite recently so there were still lots of nursing pups. Sadly we saw some dead ones as well but that must be accepted as nature’s rule; after all, this is where the concept of survival of the fittest was born.
Our guide advised us, “Do not touch or pet any of the animals. They are still very much wild animals. Observe the two metre rule at all times; keep two metres between you and the animal.” I like this rule, however, not all the animals have had this rule explained to them and will wander or waddle right up to you. It was as if they were posing for their portrait. That’s when I realized this was a very unique and special world.
Lobos Islet is a nesting ground for the Galapagos blue-footed booby. The name booby comes from the Spanish term bobo which means stupid, fool or clown. This is in reference to its clumsy and comical movements on land. They are a very loon-like bird in appearance but the babies are clunky, goofy looking masses of white down feathers. It is hard to believe that one day soon they will become the big, comical, blue footed, dancing showman of the Galapagos bird world.
We continued across the black lava rocks cautiously; cautious to maintain footing but also to be ever so careful not to step on any of the marine iguanas. They are black and blend in perfectly. If they didn’t move you would never know they were there. They were much smaller than I thought but surely these are the creatures that sent men running from the Galapagos with tales of fierce dragons.
Our first night onboard was truly a night to remember. There was stuff strewn everywhere, all over the floor and everywhere it shouldn’t be. I guess it was about 2:30AM when the boat started crossing to Santa Fe Island. The rocking and rolling became extremely pronounced as we hit open water. There’s an old joke that says you haven’t had too much to drink if you can lie on the floor without holding on. That night was a major effort to stay in the bed without holding on. It didn’t matter what position you chose to sleep in because you were immediately moved back and forth from one side to the other all night long. Things were flying off tables, desks and chairs. It’s just as well we were in bed because we would have been in the line of fire otherwise. Water bottles, pens, journals, glasses, cameras – anything that wasn’t tied down became a deadly projectile. It looked like we had been ransacked when I got out of bed in the morning.
Santa Fe Island is roughly in the centre of the Galapagos archipelago and is characterized by large stands of prickly pear cacti. A wet landing was required at Barrington Bay. The panga took us to within about five feet of shore and we waded to the beach in knee high water from there.
A hike yielded awesome ocean views and the huge prickly pear cactus. The Barrington land iguanas are endemic to Santa Fe Island in the Galapagos and can be identified by their pale, almost yellow colour, a long tapered snout and very pronounced dorsal spines. A face not even a mother could love, they are slow moving and can grow to a length of three feet and reach a body weight of 25 pounds.
As the evening drew to a close we watched a sea lion frolic at the side of the boat in the dark and some fish jump playfully out of the water. Then a seven foot black tipped shark swam around the boat and everything disappeared. It was nearly a perfect evening then, as she rested her hand on the rail, Karen was stung by a wasp. After a brief inspection one of the crew assured her it was nothing dangerous. As a fellow passenger put it, “You’ve had a real Galapagos experience now.”
Genovesa Island is a five square mile shield volcano. That usually means they consist almost entirely of fluid lava flows. The horseshoe-shaped island has a volcanic caldera whose walls have collapsed forming Darwin Bay. Genovesa is also known as the bird island because of the large and varied number of bird colonies nesting there. That became very evident the moment we arrived – an ornithologist’s dream come true.
Most of the baby birds I have seen here are hilarious looking balls of fluffy, white down feathers. The frigate really is the wicked witch of the bird world when it comes to looks and sadly not even the babies escape that gawky, awkward appearance. It must be the dark eyes and the hooked beak that gives them the look of pure evil.
James Island is the name sometimes given to Santiago Island. Consisting of two overlapping volcanoes, it is the weirdest place I have seen in the Galapagos yet. We did not see many animals, like none, other than a small lizard. The island is totally volcanic hence there is very little vegetation thereby no food supply to sustain any significant animal life.
The older part of the island which forms the surrounding hills is comprised of lava that is four million years old as opposed to two million for the newer part. As we began our walk across the lava I couldn’t help but sing the Police song “Walking on the Moon.” It might as well have been the moon because there cannot be a lot of places like this on earth.
Immediately off the east coast of James Island lies Bartolome Island characterized by its very impressive Pinnacle Rock. The water was crystal clear as we swam along the rocks toward a beautiful sandy beach. As we floated, gazing in awe at the multitude of colourful fish two six foot long white-tipped reef sharks appeared about ten feet below us circling in and out of a rock cavern.
The Summit Trail leading to the island’s peak is generally referred to as “La Escalera, The Stairs”. It begins as a stone and concrete pathway then continues through volcanic sand to a 400 step wooden staircase. The view from the top is a seemingly endless panorama of Bartolome and James Island and other small Galapagos islands beyond.
The Galapagos was certainly both a one of a kind holiday and the trip of a lifetime. I know I’m going to look back on it with many conflicting emotions; the enormous joy and almost disbelief that I was actually there and the sadness and melancholy that it ever had to end. The saddest thing of all was the realization that we will likely never get to see this phenomenal part of the world again. “No hay lugar como Galapagos! There is no place like Galapagos!”
Much more travel writing by this author in his book, That Road Trip Book.
Copyright © 2016 Eric Whitehead