Sunday, February 10, 2008

Ecuador 2008 Part 5 - Galapagos

(Shelley's writing this again while Andrew deals with the pictures)

We flew out to Galapagos a day ahead of the rest of our group -- despite resistance from our tour company. They wanted to herd everyone together -- we wanted to get our bearings and arrange some diving for Andrew when we were done the cruise. Our hotel, Sol y Mar, was right on the water, the deck and room balconies were colorful with bright yellow and blue chairs. There's a pool on the deck area and when we checked in we were told not to panic if the neighborhood sea lion jumped in the pool with us! As we sat on the deck the sea lion was there along with a few marine iguanas, pelicans and great blue herons. We saw our first blue footed boobie on the roof of the dining area and the hotel also has a resident pelican with only one wing. He still seems to have a pretty good life here! (Although he has to hop up the steps to get from the water to the deck.)

Anyway, back to the cruise -- Andrew and I don't "herd" very well as you can imagine, nor are we the big group type of sociable people. In fact, we were going into this part of the adventure with great trepidation. So far the tour groups we'd seen had either been high school age teens on school trips or filled with people considerably older than us and each seemed to have at least one loud opinionated person who would have driven us crazy by the end of a full day with them.

We were very pleasantly surprised to find a wide range of ages and nationalities in our group, and everyone seemed to be quite fit. All had traveled quite extensively so it was fun to hear about places they'd been to. There were 20 of us ranging in age from 11 to, I'm guessing, 60's. Of the twenty of us, six were Swiss, four from England, six Americans, and four were Canadian (the other two were from Vancouver and related to and traveling with one of the Swiss couples). The 11 year old, Isaac, at first reminded me a bit of Andrew. Skinny, dark hair, he was traveling with his Dad and his favorite subjects in school are science and reading. Within the first hour on the boat the two of them were engaged in a game of checkers. Although I'm sure Andrew probably wasn't (isn't!) as outgoing - Isaac provided us with much entertainment throughout the week!

We had nine crew members plus our two naturalist guides, Janet and Paul -- both Ecuadorians who spoke quite good English. The nine crew seemed a bit excessive at first but when you consider three meals a day for 20 people, transporting us on and off the various islands, boat maintenance, and night shifts when we traveled from one island to another, it's understandable.

The boat we were on was called Flamingo I. The company, Ecoventura, has three similar boats and all three were more or less on the same schedule. When we first started searching the Internet for cruises it was almost mind boggling the number of different companies there are. We narrowed it down based on their eco-friendliness and then Ecoventura was the one that had room for us at a price we could handle. We also lucked out with a really good schedule. The Park Service dictates who goes where and when -- we had a good route and also seemed to be the first ones off at each location we went to. There were usually three or four other boats with us, including the two other Ecoventura boats.

Sunday -- We started the trip near Baltra, where the airport is. Buses took us to the dock where the boats were waiting and we rode by panga (zodiacs) to the boat. The two pangas stayed with the boat all week (being winched up and secured to the side when not transporting us on and off the islands). The seating in the waiting area of the dock was already occupied by sleeping sea lions! Once on the boat, it took a while for us to get going as they gave us plenty of time to get unpacked, have a briefing, have a safety drill, etc. Our first stop was a small island called Mosquera where there were lots of sea lions. Some very big males which got quite irritated when people got too close, and smaller ones still suckling on their moms. Also a few marine iguana and different types of birds. It was very hot and absolutely no shade!

Each night before supper either Janet or Paul would give us a briefing about what we were doing the next day. Sitting still for an hour as the boat rocked seemed to make both Andrew and I a little queasy by the time supper was served. Andrew missed two meals during the week and I only picked at mine the first few days.

Monday -- Overnight we traveled to Genovesa Island which is quite far north. This island is one of only two where the red footed boobie lives. In the morning we went to Darwin's Bar and toured around for a bit. Saw lots of the red footed boobies and their babies. The babies are quite funny because they look like furry little puff balls. As they get older they look almost as big as the adults only have this mess of fuzz instead of proper feathers. We also saw quite a few frigates with the red front but it wasn't puffed out like it will be in March during mating season. We snorkeled off the beach and the visibility wasn't great but still saw lots of fish and Andrew and a few others saw a small shark about 4-5 feet long.

In the afternoon we moved to another area of Genovesa called Prince Philips Steps -- after none other than Prince Philip who visited a few years ago. This area of the island is quite rocky with black lava and therefore very hot. Again, no shade! Lots more baby boobies with the parents taking turns providing shade for them. They move their throats really fast to cool themselves off. The highlight was finding an owl near the end -- this area is known for them so we were looking the whole time and finally found one under an overhang in a fissure of the lava.

Of course I couldn't take any longer than the second day to sunburn myself! Even though I put sunscreen on twice, my arms got fried. Not many people escaped some sort of redness either on arms or legs. [Andrew - Some of us wore long sleeves and long pants, despite the heat!]

Tuesday -- We went to Fernandino Island and landed at Espinosa Point. This is the island known for marine iguanas and flightless cormorants. It's the youngest of the islands (about 700,000 years old) so again lots of hot black lava. Thank goodness for a bit of breeze off the water! The cormorants have huge webbed feet. The iguanas blend in quite well with the lava so you have to be careful not to step on them! As we stood looking at the cormorants I suddenly realized there were literally hundreds of iguanas on the rock right beside us!

In the afternoon we moved to Isabela Island, Tagus Cove. We snorkeled from the pangas but the water was really cold and rough so we didn't see a whole lot due to the murky water. The new and interesting animal here was the penguins. Very small and not as many as we thought there would be but many of the penguins died in the warmer water during el Nino in 1996-97. It was still pretty cool to see them sitting on the rocks and have them zip by you in the water.

After a quick look at Darwin Lake and a panga ride around the Cove to get a closer look at the penguins and other birds on the rocks we were off again!

Wednesday -- At Santiago Island, Egas Port, we started the day with a short walk to see the tide pools where the fur sea lions hang out. (All the sea lions we had seen up to now were Galapagos sea lions.) We then got to snorkel off the beach and today the snorkeling was absolutely amazing!!! Within a couple minutes of being in the water Andrew spotted a sea turtle. He kept telling me to come over to where he was, but I was enthralled with the sea turtle that I'd spotted! Then all of a sudden there were five within sight. We followed them for ages and they let us get really close and touch their shells. It was so cool!

Then we saw two big octopus that looked like they were fighting it out, all wrapped together and turning this way and that. Either fighting or having sex! There were also a few big sting rays sitting on the bottom. And this doesn't even begin to cover the abundant, big and beautiful fish.

As we came back toward the shore, the sea lions had to get their share of the attention as well. They were so playful! Swimming all around us, coming right at us and then darting away, hamming it up for the camera. I kept getting water in my mask because I was laughing at them! It was great fun!

The only really annoying thing is that Andrew had handed me the underwater camera shortly before the sea lions and I thought it was already on. Turns out it wasn't and all the "photos" I took of the sea lions didn't exist! I was more than a little angry at myself!! Oh well.

We got back on the boat for a three hour ride to Bartolome Island and part way through the captain called us all to the sun deck to see the dolphins. He circled around for quite some time and it was fabulous to see all the dolphins jumping in and out of the water and following the boat around and around.

It was about this time that I was playing a game with Isaac to help pass the time and he said to me "You sure say 'eh' a lot." I told him that's how we talk in Canada. He wanted to know if it was pronounced eh, (as a statement) or eh? (as a question) so I explained the fine art of how to say 'eh' in Canada. He said if you live in Texas you have to learn how to say y'all. From then on it was a challenge to use the words eh and y'all in the same sentence. Hilarious!

We snorkeled again in the afternoon and although the visibility wasn't as good we still saw lots -- a shark about 5 feet long, the most humungous starfish we've ever seen including a chocolate chip star fish (they're yellow with brown spots that look like chocolate chips), sting rays and schools of hundreds of smaller fish.

Then we climbed the "mountain" -- which actually had stairs all the way to the top -- and got great views of Pinnacle Rock which is the view you see on most postcards or photos advertising Galapagos and was the site of the Galapagos scenes in the movie "Master and Commander" starring Russell Crowe.

Thursday -- Back at Santa Cruz Island today and Andrew and Martin, one of the other guys from our boat, went diving while the rest of us when to Rancho Primiso where the giant tortoises roam in the wild (along with all the tourists). It was extremely hot and again very little shade but it was cool to the see these huge beasts!

Then it was off to the lava tunnels (huge underground tunnels causes by lava flows a million or so years ago) and to Los Gemelos, the twin craters.

In the afternoon we went to the Charles Darwin Research Station where Lonesome George and Super Diego reside. George is the last of his species. They've been trying for years to get him to mate with one of the female turtles of a similar species but George isn't interested. On the other hand, Diego's species were almost wiped out in Galapagos so they brought him from the San Diego zoo to try to revive the species. And he's been so active (resulting in literally thousands of babies) that now they call him Super Diego.

The thing I really didn't like about today was the feeling of being one of the masses of tourists. Bus loads being herded here and herded there; look at this, look at that; get back on the bus, go to another location and do it again. Ugh.

[Andrew - The diving was great - saw Hammerhead and Black-tipped sharks, Spotted Eagle Rays, Manta Rays, turtles, and lots of fish. Although Martin and I had similar experience, he got put in the experienced group and I got put in the beginner group. We think when he said "fifteen dives" they heard "fifty" and when I said "fourteen" they heard "four"! I'd call myself a beginner but the other people in my group had no dives other than their courses. They ended up having a fair bit of difficulty and I wasted part of each dive sitting on the bottom keeping an eye on people while the guide sorted out the problems.]

Friday -- Very rough seas last night! When I asked Andrew how he survived the night . . . turns out he hadn't even noticed how rough it was and slept right through it. Typical!

At Isla Espanola we snorkeled most of the morning from the very beautiful white sand beach of Gardner Bay. In the afternoon we went to Punta Suarez for a very rocky hike. Here the iguanas are much more colorful -- bright green and red and are nicknamed Christmas iguanas. There were some great blow holes near the shore (water shooting up high through holes in the rocks due to the waves crashing against the shore) and some really beautiful birds flying around. The white tailed tropic birds were everyone's favorites.

When we got back to the boat we had time to go for a quick swim. A few people, instigated by Isaac, jumped off the sun deck of the boat. It's a big jump! I took the wimpy route down the ladder.

Saturday -- San Cristobal Island today, landing at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital city of Galapagos (although not as big or as touristy as Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz). This is where the cruise was supposed to start but the airport here is closed for renovations so all flights go into Baltra and that's where the cruises are starting from. We stopped at the Interpretation Center before heading inland to La Galapaguera, where they are trying to reintroduce the giant tortoises to the south part of the island. We had a bit of time to wander in town for a bit before heading back to the boat and moving on to Ochoa Beach for our last snorkeling of the cruise. Saw another octopus really close up. Huge eye! There were a few sea lions as well but one big male patrolling the shallow waters near shore so we didn't dare play with them too much.

We cruised past Kicker or "sleeping lion" rock which is supposed to look like a sleeping African lion and most other people managed to figure it out but I just didn't see it.

We had a really awesome final supper of jumbo prawns. We sat with Isaac and his dad, Jeff, this night but unfortunately this was one of Andrew's nauseous non-supper nights so he didn't last long. Isaac abandoned us soon after as he was grossed out by the entire prawn (head & eyes included) starring up at him from the plate. He did come back for dessert though!

Sunday -- We were up early and the staff almost kicked us off the boat! Well, they let us have breakfast first. They had to get ready for the next crew of people who would be starting their cruise later that morning/afternoon. Everyone else was heading back to Quito or Guayaquil but Andrew and I headed back to Sol y Mar in Puerto Ayora. We couldn't check in till noon so we left our bags and went back to the Charles Darwin Center for Andrew to have a look around. Much nicer this time with only us and a couple other families. And we got a much better view of Lonesome George. He was out in the open and when the big arm of a cactus came crashing down to the ground he lifted up his head to have a good look around and try to figure out what was happening.

Monday -- Andrew had diving lined up again today but it didn't happen. They had canceled because not enough people had signed up and another company we tried had a full load already. He was still feeling a little queasy and had been debating whether or not to go so the decision was taken out of his hands. We wandered some of the back streets while it was still cool (relatively speaking). Some really nice streets with bougainvillea and hibiscus and other colorful plants lining the walls and sidewalks. We spent the rest of the morning on the hotel deck, lazily reading our books, napping, and being amused by the antics of the iguanas, pelicans and herons.

Tuesday -- After breakfast we took a water taxi to Angermeyer Point and walked to Los Greitas for snorkeling. It was a small grotto area which had extremely cold water! but by far the clearest we'd been in. It was quite deep and we could see right down to the bottom. It was incredible with the sun rays shining down through the water and the big, brightly colored parrot fish. The best part was that we had the place to ourselves for a short time. In the afternoon we went to yet another snorkeling area, Garrapatera beach, where the water was shallow and incredibly warm! Funny how it differs so dramatically from one place to another.

Since it was our last night in Galapagos we went to the fancy Angermeyer Point restaurant for supper. The most entertaining part was the little geckos that were scrambling around the deck railings. [Andrew - I'd been looking for the geckos but this was the first and only time we saw them.] As we were eating dessert one of them got brave and crawled onto the table. He seemed to really enjoy licking some spilled fruit from dessert! We were passing the camera back and forth between us and the gecko didn't budge from his spot! Then he got even braver and climbed up onto the plate. I refused to let him get to the brownie before we did. We were exclaiming over him and pointing at the plate -- the staff came over to see what was wrong. They laughed but I'm sure they thought we were crazy!

As we walked down to the dock to leave we saw a lava heron with something in its beak. We thought it had caught a fish but upon closer inspection it was a gecko! The poor little thing put up a good fight but didn't last long before the heron gulped it down.

Wednesday and Thursday -- airports and airplanes. Flying back to Quito and then home. What a great trip we've had! [Andrew - Some excitement when the plane stopped in Guayaquil and was greeted by a fire truck and guys in full silver fire suits. Some of the passengers had seen flames coming from the wing! But after a few minutes the firemen left and we continued on in the same plane! Somehow I think it might have been taken more seriously in Canada or the US!]

Friday - Minus 22 C this morning in Saskatoon and I have to admit that I grumbled a bit as I put on my long underwear for the ½ hour walk to work. But then, when I got to the riverbank trail just 3 blocks from home and briskly headed toward downtown, I suddenly looked up and took in the view, breathed in the cold crisp air and thought “This is so awesome!!!” It's wonderful to be home! [Andrew - but Shelley conveniently managed to avoid the walk home with the wind-chill at something like -50!]

As usual, click on the slideshow to get a bigger version.

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