As we lift off the runway in Guayaquil, Ecuador and bank toward Baltra in the Galápagos Islands, some 600 miles away, I still don’t know what to expect. I have dreamed of this moment for decades, but still wonder how the experience will match my expectations. Hopefully, I can put aside anticipation and focus on the moment. Stepping onto Galápagos soil, my first reaction was, “Did I just see a Joshua Tree?
Proceeding through customs in a building without walls, covered only in thatch, with no lines is nearly stress free. A good beginning. Soon on the bus for the three-mile trek to our ferry, I got my first glimpse of the Prickly Pear tree, resembling the shape of the Joshua tree with large, flat, prickly pads.
An abundant and vital part of the Galápagos landscape, the flowers of the Prickly Pear feed the giant tortoises and the pads, after falling to the ground, are devoured by the land iguanas, “prickles” and all.
The first ferry ride was less than one mile, the distance between Baltra and Santa Rosa Islands. The initial arid landscape was now mitigated by this stretch of turquoise sea with visible sea life. I’m here.
Stepping off the ferry on Santa Cruz Island, one of the largest in the Archipelago, my eyes caught a Sally Lightfoot crab scurry across the volcanic rocks. Hoping to see some of these colorful, animated creatures during the trip, my guess was that over 150,000 crossed our paths during the next four days. They were everywhere, their vibrant pigments contrasting the black rocks. The babies are black for protection; the adolescents transform through a red period before assuming, as adults, a myriad of visually sensational colors.
Santa Cruz is more tropical than the other islands. It is also home to the giant domed tortoise, that thrives inland of it’s namesake Baie Tortuga along the route to Peurto Isidro Ayora, where
“Carmina,” our home for the next four days, was “anchor down,” awaiting us. Only the gentle giants of this island are reason to delay our rendezvous.
A short hike off the road, into a large, lush meadow led to our first glance of the giant dommed tortoise. Everyone’s eyes locked on the first creature, within seconds we distinguished 15 or so quietly eating the meadow grasses. A few of the gentle giants withdrew into their shells as we passed, but most went about their normal routines of ingesting without chewing to begin the three-month digestive process. With shells waist-high to a normal adult and often six feet long, head to tail, it’s hard to comprehend these stupendous creatures once being slaughtered for fresh meat on pirate ships.
The necessity to perform the forbidden led to one memorable experience. As we departed, the bus encountered a very large tortoise resting in the middle of the road. We waited patiently for a few minutes before our naturalist, Pauli, announced that we had a boat to catch and sought volunteers to lift and relocate him. Six of us carefully, with near precision, lifted the creature and moved him several feet off the road. This experience was followed by observing, clearly the fastest moving of all tortoises. Other islands are home to the saddle tortoise, whose shell is arched to provide more reach to the Prickly Pear flower, food that hangs three to four above the ground.
Puerto Isidro Ayora, Galapagos’ largest town with a population of 30,000 is a main port for all cruise vessels. As our group of 15 boarded two zodiacs for the half mile journey to our small cruise ship, a discussion of our diverse expectations ensued, some fulfilling life-long dreams, others being drug along by their spouses. Once again, I put aside perceptions and immersed myself in the moment.
After an onboard toast with pina colatas and a wonderful dinner prepared by our chef, Raoul, we went to bed early, hoping to survive the movement of the boat as we lifted anchor and cruised north to Bartolome’ Island, a volcanic rock with minimal plant or animal life.
On the zodiacs by 8 am, we departed for the island and a challenging hike up some 400 steps through the lava beds to the top, followed by snorkeling in a small cove in Sullivan Bay, directly below the majestic, wind-carved Pinnacle Rock. Views from the top of Bartolome’ Island and below the ocean’s surface were stunning, the latter courtesy of a huge school of Yellow-tail Surgeon Fish. We would see many more fish, along with sea lions, marine iguanas, eels, rays and sea turtles during our daily snorkeling adventures.
After lunch on “Carmina”, we are back on the zodiacs, patrolling the volcanic cliffs in search of the shy Galápagos penguins, camouflaged by the rocks, amongst the fluorescent Sally Lightfoot crabs and a few Blue-footed Boobies. At twenty-four inches, these rare penguins are the second smallest of the species, generating tremendous speed and agility once in the water.
Day 2 began with a dry landing on Peurto Egas, a lava beach on Santiago Island and a hike encountering large colonies of sea lions, marine iguanas and, of course, more Sally Lightfoot crabs. The volcanic cliffs led us to a flat lava plateau, filled with tide pools and ledges near the surf, providing protected water access for the sea lions and marine iguanas. Hundreds of prehistoric looking marine iguanas appeared on the ledge, laying side by side and on top of each other, somewhat oblivious to our invasion. Aside from the occasional snort, evacuating the salt from their latest ocean sojourn to eat red and green algae and cool their bodies, they seemed somewhat lifeless. On a stakeout, we observed these lethargic creatures sunning themselves until the necessity to repeat the cycle drove them to the sea.
We’ve all seen the California sea lions, the Galápagos variety’s closet relative, but few have been invited into their world, to witness their daily lives, parenting habits as well as the chauvinistic attitudes of the alpha male. Amidst these magnificent mammals, Pauli consistently identified red-billed
tropicbirds, brown pelicans, flightless cormorants, Galápagos hawks, lava herons, and many of the 14 finches found on the islands.
Following snorkeling in a small bay, abundant with sea turtles and rays, we returned to the boat for lunch and navigation to Rabida Island for our first deeper water snorkeling off the dingy. The timing for this jaunt was perfect to observe the last lunch call for several Blue-footed Boobies, innocent looking birds with striking turquoise feet that, once in the air, become missiles, driving into the surf with the force and synchronization of the Blue Angels.
Flipping off the dingy like a scuba diver, Rod was first in the water. Before I can slide in, he re-appears, emphatically pointing a specific location. Adjusting my mask, I quickly put my face in the water to discover a marine iguana, feeding on some algae, and then proceeding to the surface. Watching the creature swim was hypnotic, the spell finally broken by a sea turtle that
within arm’s reach. The five of us who chose to join the first dingy dive were rewarded well beyond our expectations. Back on the boat only to remove our wet suits, we re-boarded the zodiacs and crossed the inlet for a wet landing on Rabida Island
Gorgeous red sand beaches and a huge sea lion colony is the “cliff note” description of the small Radiba Island, southeast of Santiago Island. A landscape of low to medium shrubs and Prickly Pear trees give a vibrant contrast to the red sand and soil. Our first observation of the dictatorial alpha male hierarchy occurred on Rabida. The large alpha male sea
lions rule their “harems” with an iron fist, against other interested males and females with a wandering eye. Thrusting out one’s chest and yelling stridently is, apparently, required to maintain their power; machismo a bit over the top for my tastes.
On the return trip to “Carmina,” the drivers meticulously maneuvered the dingy close to the rocks of the minute Nameless Island for close observation of Blue-footed Boobies nesting on the rocks. The resting birds did not seem to fit their air acrobatic profile on display when they were hunting fish. Back on the boat for dinner, we set sail to South Plaza Island, a small patch of land a few hundred meters east of Santa Cruz Island that promised unique terrain and wildlife.
The 6 am rumpling of a dropping anchor signaled that we were somewhat close to land. South Plaza Island required a wet landing because the minuscule strips of sand immediately ascended to steep rocks that we carefully crossed to reach the effervescent scarlet and yellow seauvium succulent ground cover, contrasting the dramatic Prickly Pear trees. The trails led to steep, vivid cliffs, affording views of fierce blue-green surf and Elliot’s storm-petrel “galapagosensis,” a long-legged bird that stays close to land, accentuating its speed and agility.
The male iguana that resides on South Plaza Island is unique, displaying lurid colors to attract females during mating season. The ones we encountered, 2.5-3 feet in length, were
bright yellow with scales resembling an ear of corn. Karen carefully shot them from all angles, and then was rewarded when the female arrived for some quality time. One lasting memory from this small island, thriving with life, was watching a mother sea lion and newly born pup. Pushing the pup away from the after-birth, toward the sea, she anticipated that the frigate birds would soon come in numbers for the unusual meal. The dynamics of the whole, the acrobatic, hungry frigates, the protective sea lion mother and the pup, trying to comprehend “womb to water,” was mind-boggling to watch. Back to the boat for lunch and some relaxation as we sail to Santa Fe Island, our last exploration of this miraculous place.
Our time on Santa Fe, one of the oldest of the Galápagos Islands, began as the dingy entered the translucent waters of a small bay, leading to a wet landing on a beach with abundant sea lion activity that nearly caught one of our group in a compromising position between an angry alpha male and an unwelcome male intruder. Amidst loud barking and some aggression by the alpha male, the situation was soon resolved as the female of interest accepted her fate.
The unforgettable wildlife of Santa Fe was beneath the ocean surface. After a deep water entry off the dingy, we had the time to “snorkel” the bay, identifying three rays, spotted-eagle, diamond and sting, sea lions, eels, multitudes of fish and the large, graceful sea turtles methodically flying by.
Chef Roaul out did himself with a wonderful last dinner and we all had some time to reminisce. The choppy waters, during our final sail to Peurto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island, make us wish we had completed packing before dinner. Our bags managed to get outside the door by the 6 am deadline and we were soon on our last dingy ride to enjoy the village before departing for
Quayaquill on the Ecuador coast. The Galápagos experience was ending, the memories beginning. We came upon more plant and wildlife imaginable, swam in its oceans and witnessed the results of volcanic eruptions. A lifetime of activity condensed into five days. After eating like a horse the entire trip, I returned home from Peru and Galápagos six pounds lighter. While the regiment doesn’t require one be a marathon runner, some physical preparation is required. It’s definitely worth the gym time.