Galapagos Archipelago Excursion 12/15-22/18

I have been enchanted by the Galapagos Islands all my life.  It was high on my bucket list but as you can imagine not an easy check off.  The opportunity came this past December when a group of relatives, friends and extended family, 17 of us in all, signed up for a Celebrity cruise on the Experience.  It was a very small cruise boat, about 38 passengers and 34 crew, and an older boat that is going to be retired later this year and replaced by one that holds about 200 passengers.  

There are no large cruise boats permitted in the islands.  I’m sure this is due to maneuverability and to protect the environment.  I was very glad that we were able to go on this small boat as the experience was more informal and we were able to quickly get to know every one of the crew and passengers, a larger boat would not have the same feel.  Naturalists were with us all the time to answer any questions and make sure no rules were broken.  The experience was so broad and mind boggling that I’m having trouble organizing my thoughts so please forgive my ramblings. 

The Galapagos archipelago is a cluster of about twenty volcanic islands and more than a hundred islets totaling 3000 square miles.  They are just less than 600 miles West of the coast of Ecuador and right on the equator.  They are formed by volcanoes from the Galapagos hotspot, a volcanic plume from the jointure of three tectonic plates.  The oldest islands are more than 4 million years old and are disappearing back into the sea as they “drift” to the East.  The youngest islands, Isabela and Fernandina, are still being formed.  The archipelago was discovered by the Spanish in 1535 when a ship on its way from Panama to Peru was dragged there by converging ocean currents. 

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries pirates visited the Galapagos followed by whalers who stopped in the Galapagos through the 1800’s and captured over 100,000 of the giant tortoises for food.  In a few areas you can still see the names of the sailors and their ships that they painted on the cliffs many years ago.   

Ecuador declared the Galapagos a protected national park in 1959 and they have been working to restore much of the archipelago to their original condition.  It is a World Heritage Site, a Biological Marine Reserve and a Whale Sanctuary.  Today there are only about 20,000 – 30,000 inhabitants, half of which live on the Island of Santa Cruz.  Most of the islands/islets are uninhabited.  The park is very carefully controlled.  The government is doing a remarkable job of this difficult task protecting the environment of this special place and trying to restore it to its original state where possible.  You cannot visit without a permit and you cannot go on land unless accompanied by a government “naturalist”.  The only (small) docks I saw were on the island of Santa Cruz, so tourists are taken to shore in rigid inflatable boats, Zodiacs.  Imagine walking down stairs on the side of the cruise boat and getting into the Zodiac while it’s rocking in the waves, then repeating it to scramble onto the volcanic rocks. It’s difficult for me to put my experience into words.  Simply, it was far beyond my expectations: very educational, physically demanding, and rewarding…stunning.  Of course, the big draw is the animals.  And not only are they remarkable by their diversity but they have no fear of humans.  You could just touch most of them any time you wanted to, but the rule is that you cannot touch any living thing, any time.  Imagine sitting on a bench or rock within inches of a 500-pound sea lion, or walking right up to a frigate bird, or snorkeling with a penguin.  They have no fear of humans because for eons they have (mostly) not been harmed or touched.  Of course, to discuss all the different animals I saw is well beyond the scope of this posting but I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

Different islands seemed to have more of a particular animal.  The tortoises were limited to those islands with enough vegetation for them to eat, but certain tortoise species evolved on specific islands with traits adapted to the plants there.  Other islands had lots of iguanas, others had sea lions, penguins, boobys, Nazca boobys, great frigates, cormorants, Darwin’s finches, storm petrels, etc. and lizards everywhere.   

Another thing that struck me was how tough it must be to live there.  There are four ocean currents that converge in the area: The Cromwell, Equatorial, Humboldt, and Panama creating different temperatures and unpredictable tides.  While there are plenty of fish for the sea birds and sea lions, the land is mostly barren volcanic rock except for the larger, older islands.  The islands are a small land mass and therefore mostly arid and are isolated 600 miles out in the Pacific Ocean.  It is easy to see why many of the animals have evolved to fit their environment and many are only native to this strange place.  Some of the most notable of these are the algae eating marine iguanas and the flightless cormorants and let’s not forget the fifteen species of giant tortoises.  The plants and insects seemed to be unique as well: the few flowers are mostly yellow and a few white; of the few insects I saw were an unusual black bumblebee and a colorful striped grasshopper.  

The exploration got off to a fast start the first evening in Black Turtle Cove where we must have seen over a hundred Pacific sea turtles, many of them mating.  The next morning was a snorkel off the beach.  I was in the water for about 5 minutes when an adult sea lion came out of nowhere right up to my face to say hello.  I have to say it was unnerving.  A hike on another island went along a path that was well worn by the tortoises.  We were thrilled to see one of the magnificent animals.  But after seeing 50 more on the trail it seemed common place.  And it was their trail, you had to get out of their way.  On another hike it was through bird country: boobys, frigates, owls everywhere right along the trail and in the trees along the sides, sitting on eggs and chicks right on the ground, astounding.  Other hikes were on barren volcanic islands inhabited with countless sea lions, iguanas crabs and lizards.  All living together with no fear of humans. 

I’ll relate one last experience that was for me the most astounding thing I saw. On December 18 off the coast of Isabella Island near Urvina Bay we were cruising in the Zodiac when an orca larger than a bus surfaced about 30 feet in front of the boat.  It had a 300-pound sea turtle in its mouth which it flipped in the air before chomping down.  The birds finished off the bits and pieces.  We got out of the orca’s way and were along a sheer rock wall when steam and smoke shot out near the water line reminding us that this was an active volcanic island.  It was time to go back to the boat.

The boat stopped at about two locations every day.  Following is a brief synopsis of the itinerary:

  • Saturday, 12/15
    • Fly to Baltra, Galapagos from Quito
    • Zodiac ride through Black Turtle Cove, many pacific sea turtles
  • Sunday, 12/16
    • Rabida and Egas Port, Galapagos: snorkel and hike
  • Monday, 12/17
    • Tagus Cove, Isabella and Espinoza Point,
    • Fernandina: Zodiac and Darwin Lake, snorkel, lava field hike, hawks, whale bones
  • Tuesday, 12/18
    • Urvina Bay, Isabella and Vincente Roca Point: zodiac, snorkel, hike, tortoise, orcas
  • Wednesday, 12/19
    • Bartolome Island and Las Bachas, Santa Cruz, Daphne Island circumnavigation
  • Thursday 12/20
    • El Barranco, Genovesa
    • Darwin Bay: boobies, frigates, owls, mockingbirds, Prince Phillips Steps
  • Friday 12/21
    • Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Darwin research center, Tortoises
  • Saturday 12/22
    • Arrive back in Baltra, Galapagos
    • Fly back to Quito

Below are photos with a short caption on each for identification.  I apologize if they are not National Geographic quality…..but they are MINE!

Ralph Obenauf February 8, 2019

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