Very early Friday morning, we boarded a domestic commercial flight to Guayaquil where we picked up the rest of our travel companions and continued on to the airport on Baltra Island in the Galapagos. The archipelago is roughly 600 miles from mainland Ecuador. Our cruise tour would consist of the five main eastern islands. During WWII the US had an air force base on Baltra to protect the Panama Canal. You can still see remnants of the base. From the airport we were bused to a small dock where we were loaded onto “pangas” (inflatable rubber boats, sometimes called “zodiacs”) and motored to our ship the Santa Cruz II. There were approximately 90 of us plus the crew.
After enjoying a very good buffet lunch, we were briefed by the person in charge of our daily excursions. The cruise offered snorkeling, hiking, kayaking, and touring in a glass-bottom boat. She went into great detail about all the options available to us and the rules that accompanied them. Noel was irritated by her because he thought her presentation was disorganized and confusing. The later ones didn’t get any better. A few times her descriptions of a hike, for example, made it seem easier than it was and vice versa. I don’t think it was a language issue.
We were all loaded into the pangas again and motored out for a ride around Baltra Island. We had originally been slated for a wet landing on Mosquera Islet to walk along the beach but the ocean was too rough for a wet landing. From the pangas we spotted blue-footed boobies (bigger than I had imagined), dove-tailed seagulls, frigate birds, brown pelicans and lots of marine iguanas. It was a pretty good start.
Back on board the ship we were formally introduced to the ship’s crew at the captain’s reception. An excellent evening meal followed. Evening meals were not buffet-style. Instead, we chose dinner options early in the day and were served table-side at night. The shrimp in Ecuador, a another major export along with roses, are particularly good, rivaling Maine lobster. The staterooms are not large but have really good storage space that make the rooms more spacious. Great beds. The main thing I dislike about most cruising is the small size of the showers. We’re average size people. I can’t imagine how really large folks manage.
The next day was Saturday and in the morning we were dropped off at the dock in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on the eastern-most island in the Galapagos, San Cristóbal. The town has a population of about 6,000 and is the provincial capital of the archipelago. This is the island where Darwin first landed in 1835. It also has the only source of fresh water in the entire island chain.
We were driven to the Cerro Colorado Tortoise Breeding Center where the famous giant tortoises native to the islands are protected and bred. The animals mate and lay eggs once a year. Park rangers collect the eggs incubating them in dark boxes for 30 days. The hatchlings are then put into growing pens for two years and later released into their natural environment. Every island in the archipelago has or had its own species of tortoises. San Cristóbal had two, but one became extinct because of human exploitation for its meat and oil and the introduction of non-native predators like rats, goats and pigs.
In the 16th century the total giant tortoise population is estimated to have been around 250,000 spread among 15 species. In the 1970’s that figure had declined to 3,000 among 10 species. European explorers and later whalers brought goats and pigs to San Cristóbal in an effort to raise fresh meat to supply the ships, but the seafarers found that tortoises were better at fulfilling that need. Tortoises could be kept alive on shipboard without food or water for as much as a year and became a major food source. Thanks to the efforts of this breeding center and two others the current population is now around 19,000. The only other place where giant tortoises exist is in the Seychelle Islands in the Indian Ocean.
On the way back to our ship we did see some interesting harbor sights – a collection of confiscated boats that had been illegally fishing and now were destined to be destroyed as well as sea lions and marine iguanas lying around like dogs and cats do on the mainland. No fear, not even any caution. In the afternoon we were offered the opportunity to hike on Punta Pitt on the north shore of the island, but Noel and I bowed out because we were really tired.
One of the things we like the most about Smithsonian tours is the informative lectures given by the guides. Before dinner this evening one of our Ecuadorian guides spoke to us about the ocean currents that bring nutrients to the islands at various times of the year and, therefore, have a huge effect on the fauna inhabiting each island. The environment of each island is different and much of the fauna unique, the most notable being Charles Darwin’s famous finches. We would see this difference most obviously in the tortoise population. On islands with humid highlands the tortoises are larger and have domed shells and short necks. On dryer islands the animals are smaller with saddleback shells and long necks.
The following day was Sunday and our day to explore Santa Fe and South Plaza Islands, both uninhabited by humans. We had an early morning wet landing, i.e. no dock, on a sandy beach on Santa Fe Island. I rather enjoy wet landings. You can wear flip-flops, special water shoes, or go barefoot and then put on your hiking shoes once you’re on dry land. I prefer barefoot. There were lots of sea lions and their babies lolling around on the beach. It’s astounding to be able to go right up to them. We avoided touching them, but we could have. The babies were absolutely adorable. There were also lots of land iguanas, not so cute, but interesting. The most striking flora were the large pear cactus trees. With our hiking poles in hand, we had a nice hike over rough rocky terrain.
We followed up the hike with an excursion in the glass-bottom boat, the alternative for those of us who don’t snorkel, and even some folks who do. We saw lots of beautiful exotic fish that we normally only see in aquariums including a well camouflaged octopus.
After lunch we were treated to another excellent talk, this one by Prof. Michael Wysession on the effects of volcanoes on climate change, pandemics, mini ice ages, famines and general environmental disruptions in food production. Whew! That was a lot to take in, but fascinating.
We spent the afternoon hiking on South Plaza Island and saw many of the same sights we saw in the morning on Santa Fe Island. The land iguanas are larger on this island. The appearance of large yellow male iguanas signals the start of the mating season. We also saw interesting large swallowtail sea gulls. The island has a particular succulent groundcover called Sesuvium that changes color from mostly green in the wet season to orange and purple in the dry season. We were there at the start of the wet season that runs from January to May; the dry season is from June to December. The Sesuvium was still a pretty reddish color while we were there.
Although rewarding, the afternoon hike on South Plaza Island was difficult for me. The walking stick was absolutely critical for me to keep my balance on the rocky uneven path. I came away from our day of hiking in total amazement at how unafraid of us the animals are, including the birds. One last fact about the island – all the tortoises on South Plaza Island are extinct because they were killed and eaten by whalers and other human visitors.
Monday we spent the day on Santa Cruz Island, the most populated (12,000) and the second largest island in the Galapagos. We began with a tour of the Charles Darwin Research Center in Puerto Ayora, the only real town on the island. The center does much of the same work with the tortoises as the Cerro Colorado Tortoise Breeding Center on San Cristóbal. It also serves as the administrative headquarters of the national parks in the islands. The center was the home of the late “Lonesome George,” the lone survivor of his giant tortoise species on Pinta Island. There were several attempts to breed George with female tortoises close to his species. He proved capable of mating but the subsequent eggs were not viable. He died in 2012 from natural causes and his body was frozen and shipped to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to be preserved by taxidermists. His preserved corpse is on display at the Darwin Center.
As we walked back into town from the center, we passed the local fish market. Commercial fishing is not allowed in the archipelago. Local fishermen, however, are allowed to sell their catches to Galapagos inhabitants, so the market is very small. However, it is one of the most astounding sights I’ve ever seen.
There were four humans cleaning fish at a table set up along the sidewalk. Lined up with the humans was a sea lion standing on her back fins right in the middle. The humans would feed the sea lion the cast-off bones and guts from the fish. One for me, one for you, one two for me, and one two for you.
On another table nearby sat a large brown pelican. I walked up to within six inches of it and it just ignored me because the humans were also throwing fish parts its way. In the middle of this whole scene stood a heron, almost like a maître d’ in a restaurant overseeing the whole operation. The humans and animals were totally habituated to each other.
That’s the essence of the islands’ magic to me – the seamless and equitable habituation of the human species with the other species.
Out on the town’s sidewalks you have to be really careful where you step because the land iguanas like to sprawl on the warm sidewalks. When the sea lions aren’t lined up at the local fish market, they like to loll on the benches at the bus stops. The whole scene just blew my mind.
We were bused up to the cloudy highlands in the middle of the island for lunch at a local ranch with one stop at a local hooch maker and coffee grower. Coffee is another of Ecuador’s major exports. The ranch hosted a number of indigenous giant tortoises in an adjoining field. They resembled large boulders.
Noel and I had seen enough, so we opted to bus back to town to shop and catch one more sight of the fish market. It had been a truly remarkable day.
The next morning our ship anchored outside Española Island, the southern-most of the islands and one of the oldest. It is also a dying island, slowly becoming a rocky barren wasteland with little or no vegetation. However, it still boasts lots of birds, lizards, and sea lions and its indigenous tortoise species has made a comeback thanks to an aggressive breeding program.
We opted for the “short” hike to Punta Suarez that morning, a spot with lots of birds. About half way through the hike which required walking over large boulders, my knees started shaking. It may have been a short hike but it was a difficult one. We bowed out as did several others in our group. My balance has deteriorated with age and I am very fearful of falling after having had two bad falls in the last few years. This age thing is freaking me out because in my mind I don’t feel old, but my body doesn’t live up to my mind’s expectations.
After another guide escorted us hiking dropouts back to the beach, we were privileged to see a Sally Lightfoot crab starting to molt, i.e. lose its shell. Our guide said she had had 20 years of experience on the Galapagos and had never seen a crab molt before.
That evening after dinner the lights were turned on from the stern of our boat and we were treated to the amazing sight of sharks and swallow-tail gulls trying to catch flying fish. It turned out that the ship’s lights should not have been on. The lights attracted the flying fish and they, in turn, attracted the sharks and the gulls that put on that great show for us. This kind of thing is apparently against park rules. The next day the ship was visited by park rangers, so maybe someone turned the crew in.
Wednesday was our last full day on the archipelago. While many folks spent the morning snorkeling and kayaking off North Seymour Island, an islet off Santa Cruz Island, we relegated ourselves to a panga ride around the islet coast where we spotted lots of blue-footed boobies, baby swallow-tail gulls, and baby fur seals.
In the afternoon we were offered a hike on North Seymour to see the frigate birds displaying. However, our excursion briefer described the hike as having one very difficult section that required some steep rock climbing, adding the warning that anyone dropping out would ruin the hike for all the participants because then everyone would have to drop out. As a result, Noel and I settled for a meh glass-bottom boat ride in the afternoon. Later, our friends told us the hike was not particularly difficult, mostly walking on sand. We were very disappointed in ourselves and the bad information we received. From the glass bottom boat, we managed to see one frigate bird displaying off in the distance. The hikers saw many.
Thursday we had an uneventful flight back to Guayaquil and were taken to the five-star Hilton Hotel near the airport while many of our companions traveled on to Machu Picchu, Peru. I am happy we had the privilege of visiting the Galapagos. But most of all, I am happy we tasted a bit of Ecuador, our great discovery of this voyage.