Sunday, October 29, 2006
The flight to Quito went without problems and I arrived at my hotel about 20 minutes to midnight last night. The room was pretty much as described on La Casa Sol's website, but instead of getting a single, I was put in a loft room. Luckily, there was also a bed on the ground level, so I took that.
I woke up this morning with a bit of a headache, which might be because of the altitude of Quito, or it might be just travel fatigue. After a breakfast of fruit and bread, I caught a taxi to the historic center of Quito. There was some spectacular gothic and colonial architecture. I really wasn't in much of a sightseeing mood, and many of the buildings were too close together to get a good photo, unless I took a close up of just a tiny part of the structure.
I was sitting on a bench in the central plaza when a good looking Ecuadorian man sat next to me. His english was as bad as my spanish, so we really couldn't say anything to each other.
I probably should have tried to learn a bit more spanish before coming here. Trying to communicate around town today was a challenge. With the small amount of Portuguese that I can speak, I could kind of understand what people said to me, but they had no idea what I was trying to say back to them.
Around 3pm, I headed back to my hotel for a siesta.
I'm starting to get a little concerned. I was supposed to get my airline tickets and cruise voucher delivered to my hotel today, but as of 6pm, it still hadn't come. Maybe they plan to deliver it after their office closes for the day. I am trying not to get stressed over it. Maybe I just need a beer.
Actually, a beer and dinner sounds pretty good to me right now. My Galapagos flight leaves at half past seven tomorrow morning so I will probably go to sleep early.
During my trip during late September / early October, I knew I was missing most of the young of the blue footed boobies, but I was there in time to see the mating rituals of the waved albatross and the frigate birds.
Below are the islands I visited and the animals that I thought were highlights of each site:
- frigate birds and swallow-tailed gulls
- Gardner Bay - sea lions, sally lightfoot crabs
- Punta Suarez - waved albatross, nazca boobies, red-billed tropic birds, marine iguanas (bright red and green), mocking birds
- Punta Cormorant- flamingos, sting rays
- Post Office Bay - horse flies, snorkeling with sea lions
- Puerta Ayora - tortoises at the Darwin Research Center, finches
- Highlands - wild tortoises
- Tortuga Negra - blue footed boobies, golden cownose rays, pelicans
- Punta Moreno - flamingos, white tipped reef sharks
- Elizabeth Bay - sea turtles, penguins, herons
- Urvina Bay - land iguanas, painted locusts, mocking birds
- Punta Espinoza - flightless cormorants, galapagos hawk, marine iguanas
- South James Bay - fur seals, galapagos scorpion, yellow warbler
- Read as much as you can about the animals and geology of the islands before you go. That way you already have an idea of what to look for on each of the islands and what it looks like. While the guide was pointing out animals for much of the rest of the boat and telling them about the biology/ecology of those animals, I was able to half listen and concentrate on getting better pictures. Plus, I didn't need to write down that slide #243 was a nazca boobie, because I was already able to identify it.
- Selecting your yacht can be a daunting task. You have to balance the itinerary you want with the cost, level of comfort, and availability. Even after doing that, be prepared to be flexible, since your yacht and itinerary is still subject to change (weather, mechanical issues, or "lost" reservations).
- On the smaller yachts, "luxury" really isn't luxury. I went on the "luxury" yacht Beluga. The Beluga was clean, comfortable, served excellent meals, and provided good customer service. However, the cabins were still very small. Only soap was provided (no shampoo or other toiletries typically associated with luxurious accomodations). The only reason this really stands out to me is that I accidentally packed a container of body wash, rather than shampoo. I noticed this the first day in Quito, and decided not to buy a small bottle of shampoo because I was sure that my luxury yacht would provide some. I was wrong. I spent the cruise washing my hair with body wash and soap - although not a big deal, it is something to know.
- While the trails are fairly short (typically 1-2 km) and relatively flat, the terrain can be very uneven and rocky. If you have weak ankles or balance problems, be sure to bring sturdy shoes and even a walking stick. I found both to be very useful.
- You also need to be able to get in and out of the pangas. You will do this multiple times a day - from the yacht, to the island, from the island, to the yacht, and often times in/out at open sea while snorkeling. Sometimes the waves are quite rough, so again balance is required. If you are clumsy or heavy/fat, inflatable zodiacs are more stable than "canoe shaped" boats. Just something else to consider when booking your yacht.
- If you visit August - October, the water will be cold. You don't want to miss snorkeling, so a wet suit comes in very handy (it is a necessity if you can't handle cold water). You will want to check to see if your yacht rents wet suits and snorkel equipment. If not, you will want to provide your own. If you are a difficult size to fit (especially very large), your yacht may not have anything that will fit you (or if you need a prescription lens in your snorkel mask). Be prepared and bring your own. It's worth the extra cost and effort, so you don't miss snorkeling.
- Bring lots of sunscreen and use it EVERYWHERE. Make sure to get your feet, back of legs, ears, neck, and even top of head if you don't wear a hat or have thick hair.
- Most important, bring your sense of humor. Being in close quarters with a dozen or so strangers for a full week can be a challenge if you aren't willing to go with the flow and laugh once in a while.
There was a group of 5 Americans from the Delaware Nature Society, a German couple, a father and daughter from Quito, a Scottish couple, a Brazilian man, and me. I wasn't quite sure how the other 5 Americans were partnered (2 men, 3 women) until we got aboard the yacht and I learned that I had a cabin all to myself.
North Seymour Island
After formal introductions and lunch on the Beluga, we had a chance to unpack as we were "sailing" to the first island, North Seymour. Once we arrived at North Seymour, we had a fire drill, and then we were ready to get in the pangas (inflatable dinghies) to head to the island.
This was a dry landing - meaning the dinghy stopped at the edge of a cliff, with steps formed in it. We then had to get out of the dinghy, bouncing in the waves, and scramble up the side of the cliff. It actually wasn´t as hard as it looked (or sounded).
Once on land, it was a fairly easy trail, although there was quite a bit of congestion at first. Instead of climbing to the top of the hill where the trail started, people were stopping to snap pictures of swallow-tailed gulls nesting. A couple of them were sitting on eggs. There were also quite a few Sally Lightfoot Crabs around, that people were taking pictures of. Our guide yelled at everyone to move to the top of the hill. Hopefully he won´t yell at us the entire trip!
At first the trail was fairly flat and sandy, winding past a shoreline full of sea lions and a few small, black marine iguanas. We were also able to find the rarer, lava gull. Further inland, we could see nesting colonies of great and magnificant frigate birds. People started zooming in on them, but the guide told us we would get much closer in a little while.
Along the path, there were a couple of land iguanas - most of them hiding under bushes. While the guide was explaining something, I wandered a little bit off, and tried to get pictures of the land iguana eating. Twigs from the bushes got in the way of the pictures though.
As we got closer to the frigate birds, the trail got more rocky, to the point that we were scrambling over all rocks. I had to go rather slow, since I'm not quite all that coordinated, and I didn't want to sprain my ankle on the first day!
The frigate birds were amazing!
The males puffed up the red pouch under their neck to attract females. They tipped their heads way back and made a clacking noise. Females would swoop down to check out the males. Some of them stayed only seconds before flying away. Lincoln (the Brazilian guy) and I cracked jokes about it being harder than a singles bar for the males.
Along with the adult frigate birds, there were also several juveniles in the nests. The great frigate bird juveniles had rust colored heads, and the magnificant juveniles had white colored heads. In one nest, the juvenile was screaming out to be fed. When the mother came back to feed it, the nest was swarmed with other adults, trying to steal the food.
We also saw a juvenile blue footed boobie, but not adults.
After the walk, we got back in the panga to go to the yacht. Hopefully I will get more adept at getting into and out of the panga as the week goes on.
Once back on board, we had an appetizer and welcome cocktail, then dinner. After dinner, we received the evening briefing for the next day. We were also told that we had a long sail that night, and the seas might be rough. We were advised to take a motion sickness pill right away if we needed one, since we would be moving in an hour.
Having never been motion sick before, I passed on taking the pill. I was fine when the ship was moving - until I got in bed. Then I felt queasy. I probably could have fought the urge to be ill all night, but decided that the combination of too much dinner and the motion was more than I could stomach. Once I threw up, I felt much better, and had no problem sleeping the rest of the night.
During breakfast, Lincoln asked if I did ok without the motion sickness pill, since practically everyone else took one. I told him I was a little green last night and got sick. He assured me he would keep it a secret, then went around telling everyone that I had a secret. It was pretty funny. You can bet that I took the pill Saturday night!
After breakfast, Mauricio repeated what he told us last night about the island that we would be visiting, including reminding us of the types of shoes we need to wear. He also told us that the reason we were still moving was because the yacht had to turn around last night. The captain got appendicitis and had to return to port to go to the hospital for surgery. We were then introduced to the new captain.
Gardner Bay - Española Island
The morning visit was a wet landing at Gardner Bay on Española Island. We were going to land on a white sand beach, so we should plan to get into the panga barefooted. There wasn´t an official trail there - just time to wander around on the beach, relax, or practice snorkeling. About half of the people on this cruise had never snorkeled before, so Mauricio provided instruction to those people.
The beach was littered with sea lions. It was amazing how close you could get to them. You could get close enough to pet them (but that wasn´t allowed).
We were warned to keep our distance from the male bull sea lions, in that they might bite if they felt like they needed to defend their territory. No problem there! I had no intentions of finding out if their bark was worse than their bite.
In addition, there were a bunch of sally lightfoot crabs and marine iguanas too.
After strolling on the beach for a while, I decided to brave the cool water and snorkel. The ship didn´t have a wetsuit that fit me, but luckily I brought my own "skin". It wasn't as warm as the wetsuits, but it did an ok job of providing insulation from the cool water. I also had a chance to try out my new underwater camera. Because there wasn't a viewfinder, it was a bit challenging to know what I was taking a picture of, since it was too bright for the screen.
After the newbies had a chance to practice snorkeling off the beach, we got back on the panga to snorkel in the open sea, away from the beach. The water was much cooler there. If there weren't so many incredible animals to see, I probably would have hopped right back on that panga. (Although getting back into the panga from the sea is much easier said than done!)
During the snorkel, I saw lots of different fish, sea turtles, starfish, and sea urchins. A few of the pictures turned out, but I really need more practice using that camera.
Afternoon - Punta Suarez
After lunch, we got back on the panga to visit another area of Española - Punta Suarez. This was a dry landing, and I was warned that it was rockier than North Seymore, so wear sturdy shoes and bring my walking stick. The landing wasn't as tricky, but it still started on rocky "steps" before transitioning into a sandy trail.
During other times of the year, this is a major breeding site for bluefooted boobies. Unfortunately, we missed the bulk of that season and only found a few nesting adults and chicks, rather than the 1000s that can be found earlier in the year.
The marine iquanas were big and colored red with green. We had a few minutes to watch them swim into shore before continuing along the trail.
As we moved along, the trail transitioned from sandy beach, to gravel, to small rocks, then to large lava and stones. Much of the trail was spent scrambling over large stones and a few boulders, periodically separated by short parts of gravel or small rock trail. While much of the path was fairly flat, there were rolling hills as we approached the blow hole. The picture to the right shows Mauricio explaining something as we took a break along the trail (large rock section). I don't know how he walked this section in flip flops; I was doing all that I could to avoid breaking my ankle.
Along the way to the blowhole, we saw Nazca boobies, which were so close you could have touched them. There were mostly adults, as we missed the main breeding season.
Lots of red billed tropic birds flew by, although they were very difficult to photograph.
More amazing was watching the waved albatross going through courtship rituals. As juveniles practiced, it was like watching a fencing match. As we stood and watched them, several other groups trotted past us, pausing just long enough to snap a few pictures. I´m glad we aren't rushed like that. We had the opportunity to watch them waddle around as they tried to take off and land.
Once we got to the blowhole, there were quite a few hood mockingbirds, especially each time a waterbottle was pulled from a bag, they would show up to beg for water.
On the way back, we saw a Galapagos Hawk, eating some kind of meat. A little further along the trail, we deduced that it was from a dead baby sea lion, since there was a sizable chunk of it (freshly) missing.
On Sunday morning, we had a wet landing on the olive green sandy beach on Floreana. The trail was much easier today, which was a relief for me. It was mostly compressed gravel or dirt, with slightly rolling hills. The first stop was to a slightly muddy area, where we saw flamingos, black necked stilts, and sandpipers.
You could also see the volcanic cones on the island reflecting in the water of the ponds.
There was only a small section that required any scrambling over rocks, and that led to an overlook over a pond, where we could watch flamingos and other waterbirds, along with watching the red billed tropic birds.
Coming down from that area, it was up another hill, then down to a white sandy beach. At this beach, we shuffled through the ocean water, trying to find stingrays. There were a lot of them.The water was a bit too sandy to take a decent picture of them. Standing among dozens of stingrays was pretty fun until one of them glided over my foot. That feeling creeped me out, so I shuffled back out of the water and onto dry beach. Actually, I jumped first, then the guide yelled at me for jumping, and then I shuffled out of the water - quickly!
After returning to the boat, we had lunch and then were supposed to change into our snorkel gear and head out to snorkel at Devil's Crown, a cluster of rocks just off the shore. The current there was too strong, especially since several in the group were novice snorkelers. Instead, the boat moved about 30 minutes away to Champion Island. It was back into the pangas, and we got closer to the island before we jumped out of the pangas to snorkel.
The snorkeling here was amazing! In addion to lots of fish and urchins, there were also sea turtles and pelicans. But the most incredible part were the number of sea lions. They would swim right up to you as you were in the water.
If you dove under the water, they would playfully chase you, and do all sorts of flips and spins. That was really fun when in a group of snorkelers, but a bit frightening when I suddenly found myself completely surrounded by sea lions - with the pups tugging at my flippers.
Post Office Bay
After the ever fun task of pulling ourselves out of the water and back into the panga, we headed back to the yacht for a post-snorkeling snack. Once we were all back on the yacht, it moved for another 30 minutes until we reached Post Office Bay. It was then back to the pangas for a wet landing on the white sandy beach of Post Office Bay. We had about 2 hours of free time on this beach, to either explore the beach, watch sea lions and crabs, or to snorkel. I spent most of that time in the water, but after 1.5 hours got a bit chilled.
Once everyone was back on shore, we walked the 100ft or so to the "post office". In the past, ships would drop off mail in a bucket here, and passing ships would pick up any mail that needed to go to destinations on their itinerary and deliver it. The tradition continues with tourists dropping off their postcards here, and other tourists picking them up to hand deliver once they get back home. A couple people dropped a few of theirs off. I hadn't had time to shop for postcards or write any, so I didn't drop any off. Mauricio read through the stack of postcards, calling out cities. Several people took some.
As this dragged on, Lincoln and I went to stand under a tree in the shade. He didn't have any shoes on and his feet were burning in the sand. I teased him for not knowing to wear shoes. By this time, Lincoln had started making fun of me (usually for being cold all the time), and started refering to Arizona as "Volcania". We were laughing because none of the postcards were addressed to Brazil or Volcania (or Arizona) so we weren't able to take one..... not that we really wanted to anyway.
After leaving Post Office Bay, the yacht turned on the engine and started back to Santa Cruz. On the way, we were told that we might see whales or dolphins. As we got close to Santa Cruz, there were several groups of dolphins just off the bow of the ship. Most of the time they were so close to the ship I wondered how they didn't accidentally get run over!
We also saw a lovely sunset from the ship as it headed back into the harbor. We had dinner, and then had the option of heading into town. Of course, all of us took advantage of this opportunity. We did a bit of shopping (I didn't buy anything since we would have tomorrow to shop too) but Lincoln was on a shopping mission since this was his last night. Klaus, Hildegard, and I were sad about his leaving, since he was so much fun (and also acted as a translator for us!).
At 10pm, we headed back to the dock to get picked up by the panga. George (the bartender on the ship) was at the dock instead of working the panga. We asked what he was doing on shore. It turned out that he had tonsilitis and made a quick trip to shore to see a doctor. Great! Will we have any crew left by the time this trip ends?
I wasn't sure if I would see Lincoln in the morning before he left, so we exchanged email addresses and hugged each other goodbye. I promised to send him three of the bad pictures I took while snorkeling (since he seemed to thoroughly enjoy making fun of my lack of photography skills) - a half a shark, bubbles, and an arm. I'm really going to miss him!
I woke up early on Monday morning and sat down and talked to Lincoln as he was eating his early breakfast. We said goodbye again, and he was escorted off the ship to visit the Darwin Foundation Research Station before his flight back to Quito.
About a half hour later, everyone else woke up and came out for breakfast. It was a dreary day, with the seasonal Garua (mist) hanging over the island. It looks like I will need my raincoat today.
After breakfast, we headed into the port, then caught taxis to the Darwin Research Station. This station hosts a breeding area for the tortoises and some of the land iguanas. Eggs are collected on the various islands, and then when the tortoises are 5 or so years old and big enough not to be eaten by much of anything, they are released back on their native islands.
One of the most famous tortoises at the center is named Lonesome George. He is said to be the last of his species, from the island of Pinta. They have tried to get him to mate with females that are similar to him, but at first he wasn't interested in mating. A veterinary sexologist (who would have thought to major in that!) taught George the mechanics of what to do, so now he attempts to mate with the females, but alas, he produces no sperm. Since he's only 50-60 years old, he's got another 50-100 years to get the job done right.
A few large tortioses that people had as pets or that zoos donated are also kept at the center. There is a large feeding area, and you are allowed to get up close (but no touching) to them.
In addition to the tortoises, there are lots of finches flying around.
We saw quite a few different ground finches, and even a woodpecker finch.
As the morning wore on, I started to feel cold and clammy, and then got a really bad chill. The mist was burning off, and I was burning up. I also was experiencing "land sickness". I kept getting the sensation that the land was rocking back and forth like the boat.
After leaving the center, we had time to walk the mile back into town and do some shopping. I walked straight to the docks to wait for the panga to take us back to the ship. I sat on a bench and tried not to pass out. When it was finally time to leave, I had a fever and chills.
Santa Cruz Highlands
Just after lunch, two new people joined the ship to take Lincoln's room - a mother and daughter from London. They headed out with the group for the afternoon tour of the highlands of Santa Cruz. I didn't.
I felt miserable by this time and decided that if I missed this afternoon's activity, I would probably be healthy by tomorrow. I stayed on the ship and took a couple of aspirins, and then it was straight to bed for me. I blame George (the bartender, not Lonesome George) for this!
After sleeping off the fever most of the afternoon, and drinking plenty of water in case I was dehydrated, I felt almost ok by dinner time. The fever had broken, although I didn't have much of an appetite. As I picked at my dinner, the other people at the table told me that I didn't miss too much. They explored a couple of lava tubes (not much in them), and traipsed across a muddy pasture to see tortoises in the wild. They said it wasn't really that much different from seeing them at the Darwin Research Station. By then end of the day, several people said that they were "tortoised out". I was still a bit disappointed that I probably missed my only opportunity to see wild tortoises.
After dinner, we had the opportunity to go back into town for a couple of hours before we left port and headed to Isabela. A few people headed to town; I headed back to bed.
On Tuesday morning, we arrived at Punta Moreno, on Isabela. During the briefing before landing, Mauricio warned us that this would be a dry landing on very jagged and uneven lava. (The boulders on Espanola would seem easy compared to this.) As the pangas pulled up to the island, I wasn't even sure how I was going to scramble up the cliff. Usually there is something that at least resembles steps - this time - no. I almost considered getting back into the panga and going back to the yacht, but it was even scarier turning around than going up. Once I reached the top, I looked out and saw a vast expanse of the same rough, brittle, pahoehoe lava. In my mind, walking across lava was going to be like walking across blacktop with lots of cracks. Boy was my mind wrong!
After a few minutes of struggling with trying to figure out where to step, Mauricio decided that it would take a month for me to walk the trail on my own. He told me to grab his hand and stay to his right, and he would lead me through the trail. On one hand I was very thankful that I had his help, but on the other hand I kind of felt like a dork. Like a blind dork. I even commented that I felt like I was blind, with him leading me by the hand and my walking stick clicking against the lava in the other hand.
There were a few areas where the lava flattened, but most of the time, my ankle and knee were at weird angles. There were also quite a few ledges and crevices. The crevices usually weren't more than a foot wide, although they were really deep.
The ledges were on edges of cliffs filled with sharp pointy lava - and sometimes pools of brackish water filled with sharks! Mauricio kept steering me towards the ledges and I kept trying to follow behind him, rather than beside him. Every now and then he would "yell" at me for not walking where I was supposed to, since he claimed the edge of the ledge was more solid than where he was walking. I knew I should trust him, but I really didn't want to end up at the bottom of one of those cliffs!
While there wasn't that much to see on the surface of the island (a few small plants and cactus), there was a lot to see at the bottom of the cliffs. Those areas often filled with brackish water (salt water from the ocean running up fissures in the lava, and fresh water running down from the volcanoes). Small fish and sharks would get into these pools through the fissures with the salt water, then grow too big to escape back to the sea, getting trapped.
Lots of plants grew along the edges of these pools, and the water attracted flamingos, stilts, martins, and other shore birds.
After the walk was over, came the part I was dreading the most. Getting back down the cliff and into the panga. My descent was less than graceful, and I basically fell into the boat. I can't begin to tell you how happy I was to get back on the yacht!
After we were all back on the Beluga, the captain turned on the engine and we started moving to Elizabeth Bay. We ate lunch while the yacht was moving, which was quite an experience in itself. Most of the time, meals were served when the yacht was anchored.
Elizabeth Bay, Isabela
Shortly after lunch, we dropped anchor and went snorkeling at Elizabeth Bay. There were a couple of penguins zipping by, but they were very difficult to capture on film. There were also a few flightless cormorants, which were equally quick swimmers. As we moved closer to the rocky/lava shoreline, there were all sorts of inlets to explore.
There was one narrow channel that led to smaller pools surrounded by lava. Getting through that was difficult, since the tide was going out, and you really had to swim against the current (and push off against the rocky bottom). Once it that area, there was a mix of brackish water - it almost looked like we were snorkeling in oil, since the mix of fresh and salt water caused a filmy cloud. This made taking pictures rather difficult.
As we moved further inland, there was one area that Mauricio told us not to miss. He made it all very mysterious, saying that we couldn't wear our flippers or kick our feet in that area, and only 3 people could enter at a time. He then swore the leaving people to secrecy, so they couldn't tell anyone else what they saw. In order to get into this area though, you needed to take off your flippers, and walk about 3m across the same sharp, uneven lava that we walked across earlier in the morning. Sheesh! I could barely walk across that with shoes - let alone barefoot. Several other people were equally hesitant to walk across that lava, so we problem solved and made a path with our flippers. That way, even though the sharp lava was underfoot, our feet were actually touching the rubber flippers. Mauricio assured us it was worth the effort. IT WAS! In addition to all sorts of fish, there were about a half dozen sea turtles in an area about the size of my bedroom, gracefully swimming along beside us. What an incredible experience.
After hauling ourselves back out of the water and into the pangas, we headed back to the yacht for a warm snack and to change clothes. We had about an hour to dry off and warm up, before we hopped back into the pangas for a ride through the mangroves. The crew also brought the kayaks out, so people could use those if they wanted (there were 2 kayaks for everyone to share).
It was amazing how close we could get to the wildlife in the pangas. Once we got into the mangroves, the motor was cut and the driver pulled out oars, so we could paddle silently in the water. Through the water, we could see sea turtles and a few sting rays, but the real interest was on the shore.
At one point, we came across a group of penguins on the shore. I was close enough that I would have been able to touch them! In fact, I ended up holding onto a branch of the tree they were under in order to keep the panga still, and stop it from bumping against the shore with each wave. It was amazing to see the amount of wildlife hiding in the mangroves. There were pelicans, sea lions, and lots of different kinds of shore birds.
We also stopped for a while to watch heron catching small fish.
There were several kinds of heron present.
As the sun was starting to set, we left Elizabeth Bay and headed back to the ship, where George was waiting for us with hot appetizers and drinks. Most of us got a glass of wine and went up to the sun deck to relax before dinner and enjoy the view of the setting sun. And we were rewared with a spectacular sunset!