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23 January 2005 14:30

Judith Crick's Trip Note Part 4

Galapagos

A trip to the Galapagos is unforgettable experience! The islands are world-renowned for their fearless wildlife, but no amount of hype can prepare you for such close encounters with nature. I enjoyed snorkeling with turtles, penguins and sea lions, encountering the odd white tip shark, watching giant 200 kg tortoises lumbering through cactus forests and the courtship displays of Blue-footed boobies and magnificent frigate birds, all in startling close up. Lying on the equator, 970km west of the Ecuadorian coast, the Galapagos consists of six main islands ­ San Crisobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela, Floreana, Santiago and Fernandina ­ the last two uninhabited.

Tuesday 28th Dec 2004
We are here (at last) at 11.30 local time, 6 hours time difference to London. We are taken on the 10 minute bus journey from Baltra airport to the port, where we board the GAP adventurer III. I’ve already spotted sea lions in the turquoise bay and puffer fish. This little boat has the capacity for 16 passengers (chosen specially for the smallest number of passengers) and for this trip we will be only 12. There are also 7 crew, including the naturalist guide Juan Carlos (otherwise known as JC or the "shark"!). Funnily enough our cabin is one of only two cabins on the top deck, right next to the open air bar! Carol and I are delighted! Our cabin is so tiny we have to take in turns to unpack. But who cares? We’re here to see the wildlife and snorkel!

We cruise south west around the island straight away and that afternoon have our first beach landing at Bachas Beach (meaning "barges" - left by the Americans from landings made in the 2nd world war, when soldiers were stationed here to protect the Panama Canal from the Japanese) ­ turquoise bay and white sand and I see Sally Lightfoot crabs (bright red in colour, very distinctive against the black lava rocks), black (female) marine iguanas, red and green (male) marine iguanas. Flamingos so pink they are salmon orange, yellow warblers, frigate birds, white chick pintails, great blue herons and hermit crabs and of course your Blue-footed boobies - with feet as blue and plastic looking as rubber washing up gloves!

Eventually went for a swim in water so cold ­ immensely refreshing. Later saw the flamingos in flight. We cruised to see the sunset at La Tranca, welcome cocktail with the captain and crew (who all seem really nice and friendly) and the only drawback seemed to be that wine was USD 25 a bottle (the same wine cost USD6 in port) at the bar. Fortunately we had bought some supplies! This night I was overcome with tiredness and went to bed at 9.00. A peach moon was rising and the Milky Way was almost white and I would have loved to lie on deck and absorb it all, but eyes refused to obey! Another night!

And then overnight west to Bartolome Island and we are up at 6.00 am and ashore by 6.30 to see the sunrise and climb an old volcano. A tricky landing on steps cut in the lava rock, because of a huge swell, probably the result of the earthquake and tsunami on 26th December. Fantastic views from the top of the volcano that we climb. Lots of islands have three names ­named by the Ecuadorian Indians, then the Spanish in 1535 and then the British - Charles Darwin in 1835. The islands were called the enchanted isles by the old sailors ­ due the plate movement the islands are moving between 6 and 7 cm a year. Just before we landed I saw one Galapagos penguin (the furthest north penguin and can on occasions actually be north of the equator) on the rocks ­ it was small (1 foot in height - about the size of the chinstrap penguins) and mostly black ­ or appeared so as he was standing on the black lava rocks with the sun rising behind him. He stood tantalisingly still for ages and we went up really close in the rib, but he was impossible photograph, as the sun rose behind him! We came back on board to Origami towels on our bunks! Mine a turtle wearing sunglasses, Carol’s a rabbit wearing sunglasses! Fantastic!

First Snorkeling ­ James Bay, Santiago Island
Was from ribs ­ none of this rolling over backwards for me on my first go , I lowered myself gracefully (I’d like to think!) into the turquoise water. Amazing a few screams when we encountered sharks, but they were only small - about 4 foot in length. This is what we saw: Reef sharks, white tip sharks, marble and diamond sting rays, parrot fish (turquoise and about 1 foot long), black strip salema, yellow tail snappers, sea lions, star fish ­ three kinds, brown called chocolate chip, blue and red, anemones called Christmas tree, sea urchins, anchovies, king angle fish (blue and yellow), razors searchers, yellow tailed damsel fish ­ yellow and blue in big groups. But no Clown Fish! All so wonderful and for a while the sun came out and I could see even more through the rays of sunlight. On the way there saw another elusive Galapagos penguin ­ but no camera!

Cruise to James Bay on Santiago Island and ashore to see sea lions, lizards, Migratory birds: semi palmate plover, Rudy turnstone, black billed sand pipers and wandering tattlers. And native birds: oyster catchers, lava heron, yellow warbler, yellow crown night heron and Galapagos mocking bird. For a walk by the sea on lava rocks, past blow holes and reverse waterfalls. Sally Lightfoot was everywhere - bright reds and orange against the black lava, in contrast the female marine iguanas were well camouflaged against the rock and there were hundreds of them - it was almost difficult not to tread on them! Back to the black lava sand beach (covered with sea lions) and three of us decided to swim back to the boat. One guy, Alex had started out, but had been frightened off by a shark. We went as quickly as we could, with lots of bravado talking. Drank far too much that night and put the world to rights with Juan Carlos (guide), Luis (captain and Dower (engineer) with the use of a very rude phrase book that Carol had brought out as a Christmas present for me. Very Amusing evening! It was a fantastic starry night with a peach moon and milky, milky way ­ Orion, Taurus, Cassiopeia and Pleiades all being startlingly clear! Bed at 2.40am

Up at 6.40
Walk ashore saw (for those of you not interested in twitching you can switch off now!) flamingos, frigate birds, Whimbrel, Otter Bourne Shearwater, blue footed boobies, yellow warblers, Galapagos duck, Pelicans, medium ground finches, Brown Noddy and Galapagos storm petrels. Then snorkelling for an hour saw penguins, sea lions, sting rays, golden rays, spotted eagle rays, red starfish, marine iguanas, parrot fish, angle fish, chocolate chip starfish and hog fish.

Rabida Island - south of Santiago.
Ride around mangrove swamps (red mangrove) saw turtles, sea lions, sharks, Blue footed Boobies and pelicans. 5 hour cruise to Puerto Ayora from 2.00pm, there at 7.00pm ­ bit of a waste of an afternoon!

31st Dec ­ up really early breakfast at 6.30 to say goodbye to the other 10, Carol and I the only ones left. Taken to the Darwin Centre by JC and met Lonesome George who is they last of his species and doesn’t seem inclined to mate with any of the females that they have tried to introduce him to. He is a tortoise and is 200 years old. Also saw Land Iguanas in captivity. Did a little internet and bought some booze for tonight and then went snorkeling with JC. Learnt how to dive snorkeling ­ what expansion to the underwater world this opens up! Went ashore for lunch rather than meet the new people (actually they were all really nice ­ 13 new people making us up to 15 for the New Year). Met them at 2.30pm and caught a bus to the highlands to see more giant tortoises that weigh 200 kg and are well over 100 years old! Also a couple of sunken volcanoes in wooded areas, with lots of birds including the startlingly red vermillion fly catcher. New people are actually alright and we started to celebrate New Year at 4.00 pm with a Turkish couple (that live in London), then it was our turn at 6.00 pm to celebrate our new year (we’re six hours behind the UK here). One new arrival Mary (great fun) from the UK was also single and traveling alone ­ the rest of the new people were couples or a family ­ so Mary was delighted to find that Carol and I weren’t a couple! New Years Eve came and went in the usual blur of alcohol and fun and it was only when we got back to the boat, that we discovered Carol’s purse had been stolen. The boat was leaving Port Ayora at 1.30 am and of course we didn’t want to leave until this had been sorted out! Eventually sticking to the timetable meant we had to leave! In the morning made preparations to phone the loss of the credit card through and miraculously Carol’s purse materialized on the floor of Mary’s cabin. It was a complete mystery as to how it got there, although we all speculated that although it had been stolen, someone relented and returned the purse - posting it through Mary’s open window. Ashore on Florala Island for a walk (flamingos) and then swam back to the boat, which was a great sobering up experience in the delightful cold water, with adrenalin levels running on high! Later an hour of snorkeling in quite rough conditions and then on to Post office bay, where you can post mail (without a stamp) in a barrel and people who are returning home, take the ones for their country and post them (with a stamp), when they get home! I didn’t take any to post, as I will not be returning home for a while! Then down into caves which led to an underwater lake where I swam (it was sooo cold and dark). Two American kids and I were the only ones that swam. We traveled over night that night and found the sea was quite rough, so most people retired early. I star gazed for a while from the front deck and then retired early too. I am now on the top bunk which I am finding hard to get used to.

2nd Jan
Ashore by 7.30 on Espanola Island to see Wave Albatross, Masked Boobies with eggs and babies. Later snorkeling with new underwater camera in conditions that are quite rough. The boat moved us to a beautiful sandy beach, were I did some running along the beach and then more snorkeling, by swimming out to some rocks. Then sat on the beach for an hour drinking a bottle of red wine and watching the sun go down. While I had been snorkeling Mary, lying sunbathing listening to her I-pod had been mugged by a young playful sea lion, who tried to take the I-pod off her. The same sea Lion was at that moment trying on someone’s discarded mask and flippers! Definitely a sea lion that wanted to be a human! Mocking birds everywhere and so tame they climb onto you going for your fresh water bottle. That night Mary and I shared a few bottles of wine with the Captain, Luis and Carlos, the barman. Neither spoke very much English, and the rude phrase book had gone missing on the last drunken occasion - Mary’s command of Spanish was amazing using gestures and a few words. Between us we managed to translate phrases such as "two birds with one stone (which translates as one shot) " Can’t for the life of me remember why!

3rd Jan
Ashore on Santa Fe Island: to see Land Iguanas, which are very well camouflaged. Later more snorkeling and saw a turtle, which I hope I managed to get a good shot of with the underwater camera. Later we went ashore on South Plaza and saw from the cliffs a massive shoal of yellow tailed mullet being hounded into an even tighter circle by yellow finned tuna. JC insisted he spotted a shark getting interested too, but I didn’t see it. On the cliffs we also saw petrels, shearwaters swallow-tailed Gulls (Mine! Mine! Mine!), which are nocturnal and red billed tropic birds, with their long streamer tails. Sea Lions bred on the rocky coast; tidal pools made play areas for their young. Land iguanas burrowed in the soft soil and marine iguanas draped themselves over the black lava rock shore with Sally Lightfoot crabs.

On our way again, we repeatedly saw what we first thought was whales or dolphins spouting, but when we looked through the binoculars they were rays leaping out of the water and splashing down. Their white undersides were clearly visible reflected in the evening sun. And as our eyes searched and searched the seas (there were rays appearing all round) we did spot a whale.

At Carrion Point for the night and lots of mosquitoes, which was a shame as it deterred people from sitting around the bar (open air) for our last night. We were toasted on our way (Carol, Mary and I were leaving the next day) with a turquoise cocktail that was revolting. For some reason Mary and I felt compelled to stay up and continue the Spanish conversation (?) with Luis and Carlos. I was going to end the evening with a final star gaze, but when I went up front to have a look the sky had clouded over, but I had an amazing star show of a different kind! The sea was full of stars ­ phosphoresce ­ and the sea lions streaking along side at great speed were giving me the most sparklingly beautiful star show!

Last run ashore we saw Blue footed boobies courting - what a delight - and a frigate bird colony, including a few puffed up bright red necks, of the male birds showing off. Then we departed for Baltra and the airport.

I had the most fantastic time in the Galapagos and really sad to be back in civilization. Met some more lovely people on the trip - lots of laughing,

While I was in Santiago, I had tour and wine tasting at Veramonte in Casablanca valley and then to Valparaiso (historic port town) followed by Vina del Mar (packed seaside resort). In Valparaiso I looked around "la Sebastiana " casa of Pablo Neruda (famous Chilean author and Nobel Prize winner -I’d never heard of him!). I thought it was great ­ I tried to explain to the driver (Joseph) that the house had the same nautical (maritimo!) flavour and wonderful bright colours as my house ­ but I think a lot was lost in translation, he probably though I lived on a boat! Pablo Neruda was a collector of coloured glass, he said "water tastes better from coloured glasses " ­ fool what about Champagne? On one wall was a wonderful mosaic of Patagonia and Antarctica. In a poem he wrote about the construction of this house, he said on completion " and all that was left is to add the blue " At Vina del Mar I saw lobos del mar (sea lions) on the rocks (as if I haven’t seen enough sea lions, but didn’t have the heart to tell Joseph).



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