3-10 March 2014. Groaning our way out of bed at 3.30am we prepare for a 4.25 departure to Quito airport for the flight to Baltra to begin our cruise of the Galapagos Islands. At the airport we receive the sweet news that we’ve been upgraded from a porthole cabin to a ‘Junior Suite’ with big windows. On arrival at Baltra we have a long wait for a bus and a short ride to the dock. We clamber into a rubber dinghy and travel over choppy seas. The dinghy, bouncing rocking rolling on the rough water pulls up to the side of our ship. Men on board hold ropes to keep the dinghy close. Others reach out their hands to pull us up. One by one we find balance enough to step up onto the side of the dinghy and then onto the stairs, fiercely grabbing hold of hands and/or railings and pulling ourselves up the three or four steps onto the gently undulating deck of the ship. We have arrived at the beginning of our Galapagos adventure.
Our ‘Junior Suite’, home for the next eight days.
There is a great variety in the size and style of boats available to tour the islands. We wanted something stable so chose the largest, accommodating one hundred passengers, the maximum allowed, though there are only about sixty on this cruise. We have eight days of exploration ahead of us. But first an excellent buffet lunch, an introduction to the ship by the purser, an introduction to the islands by the head naturalist, emergency evacuation drill, and being fitted for snorkeling gear.
At last it is time. In small groups of about fifteen we climb back into the dinghies
and depart at spaced intervals for the short ride to Mosquera Islet, slipping off the side of the dinghy into crystal clear waters and onto a long empty white sand beach. Empty except for hundreds of sea lions. We are amazed. The sea lions are indifferent to this invasion of other beings. They have never had reason to be afraid of humans so they serenely continue doing their sea lion thing: walking their lurching walk, rolling in the sand, barking, swimming, rolling in the waves, pups suckling or mewing for mum. They are stacked up side by side, rolling around and on top of each other, playing together, soaking up the sun and the water, completely at one with their environment and oblivious to us.
And on the groups of lava rocks dotted here and there along the edge of the water are marine iguanas and the wondrously colourful Sally Lightfoot crabs. Dozens of iguanas and hundreds of crabs crawling floundering swarming all over each other, clinging precariously to the rocks as the waves crash over them, until there is a wave so big that it washes them all off into the sea.
The Galapagos, a volcanic archipelago straddling the equator, consists of 19 islands and over 100 rocks and islets. It lies about 1000 kilometres off the west coast of South America and is a province of Ecuador, a national park, and a biological marine reserve. There are four towns, each on a different island, with a total population of something over 25,000. On the plus side tourism is strictly controlled with visitors given access to only 54 land sites and 62 diving and snorkeling sites. The National Park sets all the cruise itineraries so no two boats are at the same place at the same time. Small groups are allowed to visit each site for only two to four hours and must be accompanied by a licensed guide. On the minus side people have been visiting these islands on and off, attempting various settlements, whalers provisioning their ships, Ecuador sending its prisoners, ever since they were first ‘discovered’ in the 1500’s. They all brought with them many plants and animals not native to the islands that have flourished and are of severe environmental concern.
Of course I cannot write a post about the Galapagos and not include a mention of Charles Darwin who first landed here on 15 September 1835. He was on board the survey ship HMS Beagle. He noticed that the mockingbirds differed between the islands, and was also made aware that the same was true for the tortoises. He took many specimens of birds back to England, but it was only after John Gould, the famous English ornithologist, had studied them that Darwin understood their significance. Gould showed that finches too differed from island to island each developing, like the mockingbirds and tortoises, according to their own particular and unique circumstances. This information was critical to the development of Darwin’s theory of natural selection as the guiding principle of evolution. The publication of The Origin of the Species in 1859 was hugely controversial at the time, flying in the face, as it did, of Christianity’s version of creation.
On board ship our days unfold in a steady rhythm: a hearty early breakfast followed by a trip by dinghy to an island where we go hiking and/or swimming and/or snorkeling always in close range of wildlife that has no concern for our presence. A sumptuous lunch followed by a rest then another outing to a different island, followed by a four-course dinner with the wonderful company of two American couples and a couple from Taiwan. There is always after-dinner entertainment but we usually entertain ourselves in our cabin with writing, reading, and sorting through the day’s photographs.
One day we see brightly coloured marine iguanas sunning on the rocks and swimming.
On another day, a single Sally Lightfoot crab in all its resplendent glory.
On South Plaza Island we hike through a cactus forest and are surrounded by land iguanas. The land iguanas feed on the cactus and are very territorial, each guarding its own tree. We see them again and again, on several different islands and in a great variety of colours.
We see lava lizards
and there are sea lions on every island we go to.
Some islands are little more than harsh rock, some are covered in low vegetation, some are forested.
Every evening there are dazzling sunsets.
It is a magical time. Every day a new adventure. We are completely enraptured. We love ship-board life. We are astounded and seriously impressed by the detailed organization on the ship so that all our needs are met. We love the tropical climate and the warm clear waters. And we love most of all the close encounters with the untroubled, abundant, beguiling wildlife. It is a magical time.
Next post: Oh my goodness the bird life: blue-footed boobies, red-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, herons, frigates, pelicans, mockingbirds and swallowtail gulls. Snorkeling with turtles, sharks, dolphins and angelfish. And of course several encounters with the famous giant Galapagos tortoise.
We visited Mosquera Islet, and South Plaza, Santa Fe, San Cristobal, Española, Floreana, and Santa Cruz Islands. Our ship was the Galapagos Legend.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.