The Initial Experience
So as with most popular tourist destinations and schedules, my trip to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador had its ups and downs. For starters, even though the boat I booked was usually full, for some reason, the date that I picked there were no other passengers. Of course I only found this out at the airport after checking in my bags, and I was informed by the owner that a replacement boat would be found for me, and she would even extend my ticket by one day and let me do a one day private tour on the Merak for the first day.
So I went to Baltra, met the guide Alberto, and heading over the Caleta de Tortuga Negra for a few hours to observe the mating of the Green-Sea Turtles in progress. Amongst this, we also sighted some white-tipped sharks, and a couple of blue footed boobies. Alberto left shortly after, leaving me to sail with the Spanish-speaking crew of 3 over to Puerto Ayora, where I would await my next instructions. There were none. After some distorted Spanish conversations with Ruth, the owner over the phone, I learnt that there were no other boats available, and instead, she had organized for me to stay at her house, and join 3 days of daily tours to different islands, before boarding the Merak again for a 4 day cruise on the Friday. Although I wasn’t too pleased with this arrangement, I figured I would just try it out anyway, being a little too tired to argue more.
Needless to say my first few days experience on the islands was disastrous. The house itself was nice, and I had my own spacious room, but the crew spoke only Spanish, and after a while I ran out of vocabulary to maintain a decent conversation. The daily tours were very average, with naturalist guides who spoke terrible English, so much so I wound up joining the Spanish-speaking groups on most occasions. I had some interesting experiences, such as encountering sea lions in the water. But I must say that out of the 3 daily tours to Bartolome, Floreana, and Isabela, only the tour to Isabela was memorable. It was there that I saw some Galapagos penguins, checked out the giant tortoise research center and caught glimpses of old embryos and tortoise fetuses, as well as baby tortoises no bigger than a human hand.
We also had the chance to visit Tintoreras, an area littered with juvenile marine iguanas, overlooking a narrow cove filled with resting white-tipped sharks, an area we were actually able go snorkeling through carefully.
And it was a big plus that on the way to the island from Puerto Ayora, we caught sight of what looked like a family of dolphins in the open waters. Of course I found out later from the more reputable guide on the Merak that they were in fact most likely Pilot whales. Even better…
But even with all this, I felt the tour I had originally chosen, and the experience I had on the daily tours were eons apart. After another quick chat with Ruth, I managed to barter for the full 8 days on the Merak, inclusive of a stop on the elusive Espanola Island, land of the waved albatross, at no additional cost. I guess my Spanish is getting better after all!
And so I embarked on an incredible 8 day adventure aboard the motor-sailboat Merak, which on the plus side held only a maximum of 8 passengers, so the tours in and out of the water were more or less private, and invited a more intimate atmosphere onboard. On the down side however, with her tiny hull and tall mast, she cut through the water like Edward Scissorhands on steroids. But having said that, the crew were great, the food amazing and plentiful, and the experience with the flora and fauna of the islands was utterly unforgettable.
Now as we all know, there have been countless numbers of published material on the Galapagos islands and tours, so instead of droning on with a full play-by-play, I’ll just touch base on the highlights.
I of course paid a quick visit to the Charles Darwin Research Centre, where I observed the typical “saddle-backed” tortoises of Santa Cruz with their exceptionally long necks, and the, now sadly empty, coral of the late Pinto tortoise “Lonesome George”, who passed away in June this year at the ripe age of 54. This, along with a quick jeep ride into the national park El Chato, where 4500 other tortoises reside, gave me more than enough down time with the slow and steady.
On many of the islands, such as Santiago, North Seymour, Santa Fe and Islet Lobos, there were countless masses of Sea Lion colonies, mostly inclusive of numerous juveniles and newborns more than happy to smile at the passing paparazzi.
We even had the chance to snorkel with a few playful juvenile Sea Lions in the waters around Islas Plazas. It was truly an amazing experience, and it was curious how the more bubbles and flips we made in the water, the more these inquisitive creatures would be inclined to follow and imitate us. On one of the nights when we were docked close to a colony, we even had a single adult female come to take refuge on the back step of the boat!
The snorkeling experiences over the 8 day tour, in my opinion, were the highlight of the trip, as we had opportunities to see green sea and hawksbill turtles, sharks (white-tipped, black-tipped, and Galapagos), and different types of rays as well (manta, spotted eagle, diamond, marbled and golden cowrays). In fact, if you sat outside on the deck of the boat as it sailed through open waters, you could often catch the larger rays flip just above the water line, in an attempt to rid themselves of parasitic fish.
Then of course you have the famous marine iguanas, endemic to the islands of Galapagos. In the southern-most islands they take on a reddish tinge, and on Espanola Island you can even find “Christmas Iguanas”, easily recognizable by their distinct bright green markings on their spine and legs. Off the coast of San Cristobel, it was even possible to see these adaptable creatures feeding on sea algae under water! Vast difference compared to their bright yellow land species cousin.
And now onto the birds of the Galapagos… there were loads. We saw the mating rituals of the red-chested frigatebirds on Seymour North, with their unique technique of puffing out their red glands on their chests to attract the females of the species.
Amongst the “Boobies”, yes that is the proper term for them…, I saw just 2 of the 3 species, the larger green-footed Nazca Booby, and the fast-flying, super-diving Blue-footed Booby. These amazing acrobats plummet through the air at full speed, hitting the water at a 90 degree angle to catch their fish… If there was a fish Olympics, the score would read 10/10/10!!!
Then of course there is the famous waved albatross… 4th largest rank in the world for a wingspan of up to 2.4m, with the ugliest offspring I have ever laid eyes on. As in… they might even give the “ugly duckling” a run for his money…
On several islands, you could also catch close-ups of the Galapagos mockingbird, a scavenger with a sense of curiosity towards water bottles, and a definite penchant for the taste of freshly swatted flies, the latter which I was only too happy to oblige.
And finally, the predators: The Galapagos Hawk and the Monk Owl. I managed to catch pictures of the hawk on several occasions, with its distinctive curved beak and majestic form gliding through the skies. The owl however, was another story. I was up on the deck checking out the stars and the moon with our boat guide Che Che, when two owls drifted right above me. Had I had my camera, it would have made for a brilliant photo, with the half-moon behind them illuminating the shadows of their wings…click: Mental picture. It was one of the most surreal moments I had on the cruise, that is until the funniest thing happened… Che Che completely freaked out, waving his hands and madly shooing them away. Apparently he can dive with hammerhead sharks but is convinced that the owls are coming to claw your eyes out!
On my final few hours of cruising time back to Santa Cruz from Espanola, I lay at the very tip of the bow, gazing at the night’s sky as it filled with constellations. And as the bright lights of Puerto Ayora drew closer, I became overwhelmed with gratitude for this amazing experience to one of the world’s most famous national park.
So as my final spiel of tips for the future visitors of Galapagos:
Land tours may be cheaper, but they in no way compare to the experiences you’ll have on a boat cruise.
Don’t try to save bucks if you’re prone to seasickness, the smaller boats WILL move more,
The reviews which tell you to bring a multitude of snacks obviously didn’t have Mauro as a cook, because on the last night he even managed
to make strawberry shortcake while rocking about on open seas,
Wet suits are a godsend in the waters in the South
As always: Bring an ipod, cards, and even some dice… There’s not much happening after 8pm,
And finally,if you go snorkeling with the sharks, find yourself a buddy you know you can outswim
Chao for now!!