When you tell people you are going to the Galapagos, the first question they usually ask is “will you be doing a cruise?”… and those who have been there before quickly add “… because you can’t go to the Galapagos and NOT do a cruise!!”. When we started shopping for the proverbial cruise, we paused to ask ourselves if this was really worth it. It’s an expensive ticket, and we didn’t want to fall in any old marketing ploy after all! In the end, we didn’t want to risk missing something great so after an afternoon of intense web browsing in Cuenca, we bit the bullet and confirmed our passage aboard the Angelito.
Guess what? It was worth EVERY penny! Yes, we drank the cool-aid and are now among the missionary team who claims vehemently that you CANNOT go to the Galapagos and not do a cruise…
The Galapagos archipelago includes some 200 islands, most of which are mere rock formations in the ocean, but approximately 13 of which are large enough to fit our mental image of an “island”. However, only four of these are inhabited: Santa Cruz (which has the largest population, at about 20,000), San Cristobal (which houses the province’s capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, 5,600 hab.), Isabella (Puerto Villamil, 2,500) and Floreana (170 hab.). Because of their geographic isolation from the mainland, and from one another, and because humans didn’t come here prior to the early 16th century, the flora and fauna of each of these islands has evolved quite independently. This is where Darwin observed physical differences amongst finches that were apparently of the same genus – physical differences that stemmed from their adaptation to the conditions of the specific island they inhabited. Still today, this natural selection process has created a flora and fauna that is endemic to the Galapagos (i.e., it doesn't exist anywhere else), and often endemic to each individual island, or regions within an island… Isabella alone counts 4 or 5 distinct species of turtles (the experts don't entirely agree on the distinction between specie and sub-specie), each of which lives isolated from the others in the calderas (craters) of the island’s five enormous volcanoes! The same goes for land iguanas: those from Espanola differ from those of North Seymour. And so on, and so on…
The same is true of the marine life: there is as much, if not more, to see underwater as there is above. And did I mention that Chloee fought very hard to overcome her fear of being bit by a fish again? She was initially terrified of swimming in these fish-infested waters, but with some coaxing from her parents, support from our guide Fabian and by starting out on an inflatable mattress we had brought along for that purpose, she made it. By Day 2, she was in the water without the mattress. And by Day 3, she had shed her life vest and was diving with the fish. We are so proud of her!!
The Galapagos are also interesting from a geological perspective, even though they are still very “young” (the oldest island is approximately 4 million years old, and they youngest is less than 1 million years old): the archipelago lies on a “hot spot”, an area where major tectonic plates (the Nazca and the Cocos) collided to form the islands in a burst of seismic activity, and are now drifting away from one another. As such, the islands are volcanic castoffs: hardened lava, compacted ash, pyroclastic material. The mineral composition of each eruption being different, some islands are black, while others are as red as P.E.I. This gives the scenery an out-of-worldly appearance: in some areas, majestic candelabra cacti grow out of intensely black lava rock; in others, the sand is bright red and the mountains are covered with green and silver shrubs... and in the dry season, the stunted trees are parched and white, like the blanched bones of a skeleton in the desert.
In order to protect the diversity and integrity of the wildlife, the Galapagos National Park (GNP) was established by Presidential decree on July 4th, 1959. Encompassing 97% of the land, it has placed very strict controls on which islands can be visited, and does not allow tourists to go anywhere outside the four inhabited areas without a guide, on an accredited tour boat… Hence, the value of the cruise: there is much to do in the four inhabited islands, but the really good stuff happens in the protected areas.
Galapagos regulations state that each guide may lead (and leading is what they do! One mustn't stray for the path at any time!) a maximum of 16 passengers, so the majority of cruise ships carry that many passengers, plus their crew. There are, of course, options for the rich and not-so-rich, but mere mortals such as ourselves usually go “tourist-superior” class and travel quite comfortably. Our cabins were very comfortable (including hot shower and AC); the food was abundant and absolutely delicious (thanks to Felix, our salsa dancing chef who enthusiastically shook his booty in the kitchen from sunrise to sunset); the crew was friendly, competent and attentive; and our guide, Fabian, was passionate and extremely knowledgeable (he actually gave us short lectures on the flora, fauna and geology of the Galapagos, complete with PowerPoint presentation, every night after dinner!).
We were joined on board by 12 other passengers, including 7 Americans, 1 Australian, 2 Canadians, and 2 Germans… and could not have been blessed with better travel companions. Everyone got on wonderfully well, and we enjoyed many memorable moments together – including Hawaiian Jack’s dancing prowess and a few hilarious rounds of InReverse (one of the girls’ favourite iPad apps: Player 1 hides to sing a song into the iPad. The app then breaks the songs in segments and plays them back to the other players in reverse. The other players must then repeat and record the “reversed” segments, and the app reassembles them re-reversed. From this combo, you must try to guess the original song… Ours was a pretty game group for giving this a try with such gusto!).
BALTRA / NORTH SEYMOUR
Our journey began near Baltra Island, north of Santa Cruz, where the Angelito awaited passengers arriving by land and by air. After introductions and our first foray into Felix’s cooking, we headed off to nearby North Seymour Island for a 2 hour hike. Baltra and North Seymour are both low, flat islands: the sea floor which was literally pushed up and out of the ocean by seismic activity.
We were immediately treated to wonderful wildlife: golden land iguanas, magnificent frigate birds (the big black ones, that inflate a red pouch on their chest when mating), blue footed boobies, black swallow-tailed gulls, tiny red-throated lava lizards… and sea lions, including lots of cuddly babies with glistening puppy-dog eyes… Oh, how tempting it was to reach out and touch them! Especially since these animals have never known man as a predator, and therefore do not fear these odd-smelling, two-legged creatures who incessantly ogle them through little black boxes. Rules are you should not come within less than 2m of an animal, but they are so unafraid that you could be within touching distance. And some times, it is the playful and curious baby sea lions that come to you, curious to see and smell you from up close!
SOMBRERO CHINO (SANTIAGO)
Overnight, we sailed on to Sombrero Chino, a small island off of Santiago Island made of compacted volcanic ash that, from afar, looks like a “Chinese Hat”. A short “panga” (motorboat) ride along the shore allowed us to see our first Gallapagos penguins: they are tiny! Perhaps 50 cm high, they waddle along the rocky shores and hop into the water, to shoot past you like torpedoes. Here again, we walked the island to explore the wildlife and particularly enjoyed the site of sea lions resting lazily on the lava rock as the ocean waves crashed noisily along the shore behind them.
We then jumped into the (very warm!) water for our first snorkeling trip and were immediately taken by the quantity of fish that surrounded us… Despite the lack of coral, there is a tremendous variety of tropical fish in these waters, of every shape, size and colour. But most exciting were the “biggies” we got to hang out with in the water: sharks, rays, sea lions and penguins. The Galapagos has many types of sharks and during this cruise, we actually swam with three of them: the most common and smaller white tips that rest at the bottom of the ocean all day, the larger black tips, and the more-difficult to sight hammerheads. We also swam with four types of rays: sting rays (lovely from afar!), spotted eagle rays, the smaller golden rays, and the majestic manta ray (the one we saw was roughly 5m across).
Over lunch, we motored on to Bartolome island, photos of which often appear on Galapagos promotional materials (“Pinnacle Rock”) and where a scene from the movie “Master and Commander” was shot (I never saw the movie, but our guide was quite excited to point this out). Pinnacle Rock is like a large condo tower for animals: it is a narrow spike of rock that rises into the sky, and where various species seem to cohabit peacefully – sea lions and penguins on the first floor, blue-footed boobies on the middle levels, and swallow-tailed gulls in the penthouse.
Again, we begin our visit with a panga (boat) ride to visit the penguins – and actually caught two of them “in the act”.
- “What are they doing?” asked Chloee.
- “They are making babies”, I explained, proceeding to provide more details on the similarities between human and penguin reproductive procedures.
- “But why is the male on top?” asked Chloee.
- “That’s my girl!” I answered!
We then landed on the island to climb the 350+ steps to the top, under a scorching sun… Arianne had decided to stay on the boat with her adopted Hawaian grandmother, Dolores, and we wondered if she hadn’t been the smartest among us… But the view was worth it. Bartholome is an island of “compacted ash”, with “spatter cones” and “tuff cones”. In plain speak, this means that when the formative eruption happened, it made quite a mess! But the result is a bit like a Jackson Pollock painting: harmonious and colourful, with bright red sand and silver and green shrubs. This is the purpose of this hike: scenery and geology. There are few land inhabitants here, save for a lone Galapagos eagle who joined us for a photo session, posing regally on a rock a few meters away. After that, we were due for another snorkeling trip! And our special treat here was to swim with the penguins and stingrays.
That night, we were exhausted… but it was our guide Fabian’s birthday! So the girls made birthday cards, the Hawaians pulled surprises out of their bags as gifts for him, the cook made a cake… and we had a little party!
Overnight, while we dreamt of copulating penguins, our captain brought us to Genovesa, or “Tower Island”. Genovesa is in fact the caldera (crater) of a large volcano, which rose out of the sea. Its surface is only 40m above sea level, but it drops straight down to the bottom of the ocean for about 2km (hence its name of “Tower Island”) – the depth of the ocean is over 1km just 0.5km from the island. Because it is in effect the top of the caldera, the island is donut-shaped and a breach was created in the wall when part of the caldera collapsed. Boats therefore enter by this breach and can moore in a large, protected bay known as Darwin Bay – home of the Galapagos fur seals (which were able to admire from afar during our panga ride).
Genova is the archipelago’s northernmost island and it is known as the “bird island”. We therefore begin our visit with a hike to see nesting frigate birds, red-footed boobies, finches, petrels, yellow-crown night herons, swallow tailed gulls... and a few more small ones I couldn’t name. Again, it was fascinating to be able to walk up to within 1m of their nests and see eggs and hatchlings from so close! Later that day, we went for another walk via Prince Phillip’s Steps (nothing regal about these crude steps carved in to the rockface!) to see the nesting grounds of the masked Nazca boobies and sat for half an hour watching a small Galapagos owl, who sat there watching us.
We also did some of our neatest snorkeling in Genovesa – we swam along the cliffs, in very deep water… the rockface plunged straight down into the depth of the sea, and you couldn’t see the bottom (and this is where we saw the cool hammerhead sharks and a few Galapagos fur seals!)… Stunning. And as if this wasn’t enough, upon returning to the boat, we spotted two huge Galapagos sharks and a sea turtle right beside the boat – they danced together for us for over 10 minutes.
JAMES BAY (SANTIAGO)
That night, we started the return journey by heading for James Bay, on Santiago Island. This was to be our last full day of cruise, and it was also a full one. At 6:30am, we began with a hike on Santiago, to learn about the flora of the island and visit a rocky outcrop where live Galapagos fur seals, oyster catcher, sea iguanas and sally light foot crabs. Again, this is a field of solidified lava: black porous stone that swirls to and fro, as if it had only cooled yesterday. The beach is also of volcanic sand: deep black, but very soft. The snorkeling here is also wonderful, and we get to play “Simon Says” with curious fur seals who dance around us like maidens around the May Pole.
Our last stop is on Rabida Island, about two hours away, and Fabian had told us we might see dolphins along the way… and we did! Woot! Woot! All sixteen of us crazy gringos on the bow, cheering like kids at a soccer game, as these beautiful sea mammals raced with our boat and jumped out of the water time and again with a wink and a smile. It was absolutely magical – there must have been 20 of them, and they stayed with us for over 20 minutes - along with the frigate birds who follow the boat to ride on the updraft and thus save their energy for their pillaging activities (these birds are true pirates: they cannot get wet for they will drown, so they still food from other birds to survive!).
Rabida is a small red and green island, where there isn’t much to visit: the pink flamingos who used to be the main attraction have left the building when their lagoon was invaded by pooping sea lions… The snorkeling as well was pretty, but we were just about to declare that there wasn’t anything new here when we were met face to face by an enormous, 5m manta ray. Wow!! She made our day.
And already, it was our last night on board… The crew joined us for an “adios” cocktail, we had a lovely dinner (Felix outdid himself, and made beautiful fruit carvings that gave the dinner table a festive air) and enjoyed the now infamous InReverse party game.
The next morning, half our group left at 7:00am to catch early flights and the rest of us headed to the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora to visit Lonesome George (see my Santa Cruz blog entry) and his buddy Super Diego, a male Galapagos turtle who was found in an American zoo and brought here. Apparently, despite his ripe old age (he is pushing 100), he is quite popular with the ladies and is remains a prolific genitor of cute baby turtles.
We were quite sad to see this dreamlike escape come to an end, and to bid farewell to some of our fellow travellers… but were delighted to discover that we would be spending a bit more time with at least some of them on the next leg of our trip, on Isabela island. We felt so at home on the boat that knowing that we could hang out with fun-loving Jack and Barbara a bit longer was like prolonging the social side of the cruise in good company, for a few more days!
Yes, definitely. You CANNOT come to the Galapagos and not do a cruise… And we highly recommend the Angelito and its crew!