June 26th - July 6th, 2003
When Rasa and I first set foot on the panga (the motor powered Zodiaks used to shuffle passengers from ship to shore in the Galapagos) sent from the Eclipse to the dock in Baltra, our guide William greeted everyone and said "welcome to the last paradise on Earth." Over the course of the next seven days, I would come to realize that truer words were never spoken.
Our trip to the Galapagos Islands has been about two years in the making and was pretty much entirely Rasa's baby. I've come to realize during our planning (and since our return) that many people don't really know too much about these islands, their location, or their significance. Many people who do know about the islands are under the impression that it's not open (or at least easily accessible) to visitors. I actually had that impression myself.
Admitting to being an Animal Planet junky, we've seen numerous programs about the wildlife of the Galapagos and, with each program, Rasa's desire to visit grew. Especially when we discovered that visiting the islands was, indeed, doable.
The research began and we had actually gone so far as to book the trip in 2002. Circumstances here at home, however, forced us to cancel. This year, it was going to happen no matter what. So we booked it. Our itinerary took us into Quito, Ecuador on Thursday, June 26th. The 27th was spent in Quito and, on Saturday the 28th, we flew to Baltra and boarded the Eclipse where we lived for the next seven days. As we usually do, Rasa and I kept a detailed journal of each day's activities. Using that journal as a guide, I've put together a condensed write of the trip.
- The Islands
- Thursday, June 26th - Travel
- Friday, June 27th - Quito
- Saturday, June 28th - Baltra, Santa Cruz
- Sunday, June 29th - San Salvador, Bartolome
- Monday, June 30th - Genovesa
- Tuesday, July 1st - Fernandina, Isabela
- Wednesday, July 2nd - Isabela
- Thursday, July 3rd - Santa Cruz
- Friday, July 4th - Espanola
- Saturday, July 5th - Santa Cruz, Baltra, Quito
- Sunday, July 6th - Travel
The IslandsThe Galapagos Islands are best known for being the place that inspired Charles Darwin to come up with his theory of evolution by natural selection. The islands lie in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. Like the Hawaiin Islands, the Galapagos have been formed by hot spots in the plate they lie on. The oldest islands are about four million years old making the islands youngsters by geological standards. They continue to move and change today as evidence by heavy volcanic acivity on the islands of Fernandina and Isabela all within the last ten years.
The islands were not discovered by man until 1535 when father Tomas Berlanga found them by accident while sailing from Panama to Peru. He described a harsh desert-like terrain, giant tortoises, marine iguanas, sea lions, and the amazing tameness of all the wildlife. The islands were rarely visited after that but they did become a refuge for pirates and buccanneers. These visitors, discovering that a tortoise could live for up to a year with no food or water, would take the tortoises by the thousands from the islands and keep them stacked upside down on their ships so they could have fresh meat to eat. The tortoise population was severely depleted during these times and many are on the endangered species list. Each island in the Galapagos has it's own unique species of tortoise and the Pinta Island species is today survived by only a single male named "Lonesome George" who resides at the Darwin Research Center and is estimated at about 80 years old.
Charles Darwin visited the islands in 1835 for scientific study. Darwin recognized that since these islands were formed by volcanic activity, the life on the islands had to come from somewhere else. But since many of the species found on the islands are not found anywhere else, he concluded that they must have evolved from South American ancestors.
Today, the islands are owned by the country of Ecuador. About 95% percent of the land made up by the islands is a national park. The island of Baltra is owned by the Ecuadorian military. Baltra is home to the only airstrip in the archipelago which was originally built by the United States during WWII as a base that could be used to protect the Panama Canal. In addition to Baltra, there are small human settlements on the islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Floreana, and Isabela. This is merely a small dent, however, and the rest of the islands are unspoiled and heavily protected by the government of Ecuador. Visiting these islands means traveling by boat. Only day excursions are permitted and anyone setting foot on the islands (aside from the settlements) must be accompanied by a guide. The animals of the Galapagos are still as tame as they were before the islands were discovered by people and they don't have any fear of human beings. The wildlife is abundant. To move among them is to move around them. To look at the terrain of the islands could almost be a look back in time at the evolution of the continents most of us live on. It's really not like any place else on Earth.
Thursday, June 26th - Travel
We traveled from Detroit to Quito, Ecuador by way of Houston. We arrived in Quito at about 11:00PM and we were promptly greeted by Bonnie and her husband. Bonnie worked for Klein Tours and would be responsible for our transportation to and from the airport both coming and going. At that time of the evening, the city of Quito was a little eerie as it was pretty much void of any activity and looked very run down. Bonnie cautioned us against going out at night after things closed up saying it would be dangerous for us. Even while driving, her husband only treated red lights as stop signs. She said that stopping at red lights at that time of night was likely to get you robbed so it was best to just keep moving.
After a short drive, we arrived at the Hotel Mercure and checked in. The staff at the hotel were very accomodating. They kept our room stocked with bottled water and advised against drinking water from the tap. Even brushing our teeth was to be done with bottled water. Our room was reasonably comfortable. We didn't need much as we would only be there until Saturday morning. Shortly after arriving, we retired for the night.
Friday, June 27th - Quito
We were up early. Quito is parked right on the equator and is also very high above sea level perched at over 9000 feet. This meant restless sleeping for us as we're not used to being that high up. After cleaning up, we went down for the breakfast buffet and set out on the town. Quito looked very different now. There were people walking around everywhere and heavy traffic. We walked from our hotel into the old part of town and saw some grand old churches. With the high elevation, it was tiring for us to walk up and down the steep narrow cobblestone streets and before long, we found ourselves heading back for a rest. Just like many countries outside of the US, the streets of Quito were rolled up at around noon for a siesta so we pretty much laid low until about 3:00PM when we set out on foot again checking out various little shops near our hotel. We didn't stay out that long though before heading back again. Our hearts weren't really into the urban exploration this time around as that wasn't the reason for this trip.
Later in the evening, we walked over to a restuarant in the Hilton called Portofino for dinner. Our meals were excellent. This was a first rate restaurant and the entrees ranged from around $6 to $12. Very cheap for that kind of food and service. We had a real nice evening and ended up staying at our table talking for quite some time. When we finally decided to head back, we stepped out and found that the eerie Quito from the night before had returned. We were just getting into the time of night that Bonnie had cautioned us not to go out in. We braved it though and didn't run into any trouble. Once back in our room, we turned in.
Saturday, June 28th - Baltra, Santa CruzWe woke at 6:30AM, grabbed some breakfast, and met up with Bonnie at 7:00 who transported us back to the airport. Our flight for the islands left at 9:30AM. We stopped briefly in Quayaquil to pick up more passengers. From the airplane windows, Quayaquil looked like a nicer and wealthier area than Quito. Several more people boarded here and by the time we got back into the air, the plane was full. The flight to the island of Baltra took about an hour and a half. The descent was gorgeous. Nothing but blue water with some scattered islands. The airstrip in Baltra wasn't much shorter than the island itself which made for an interesting landing. The instant we got off the plane, we were obviously in a different place than the mainland. At sea level, the temperature was much higher and the sun was blazing. I should point out here, however, that this being our summer up here in the north, the weather was milder in the Galapagos than it had been in Detroit the week before.
We got through the arrival area in the airport fairly quickly showing our passports and paying our fees to get into the park. Once inside, we were greeted by some people from our ship and once everyone was there, we boarded a bus for the dock area. Down at the dock, it was time for what would become a regular occurrence over the next seven days. We all put on life jackets and, in groups, boarded pangas that were waiting in the water. Panga is what they call the Zodiaks that took us from ship to shore every day. Nobody rides in a panga without a life jacket and, aside from passengers, each panga has a driver and a guide. Our guide for the first jaunt from dock to ship was William. Once we were all in the panga and underway, he said hello and then said "welcome to the last paradise on Earth". We moved out to deeper water and caught our first site of the Eclipse. This was the ship that would be our home for the next seven days.
The Eclipse wasn't a huge ship. By cruise standards, it was actually pretty small. There were roughly 42 passengers sailing that week and about 32 crew members. When we arrived, our first order of business was to find our cabins and drop our bags. Rasa and I were assigned to cabin #5 which was one level down from the main reception area toward the front of the ship on the port side. From there, we all gathered in the meeting room up front for a briefing on our trip and to meet our guides and cruise director.
The cruise director was Mario. Mario was a big and very good natured man who hailed from Columbia. He was the first one up in the morning, the last to go to sleep, and was always geniunely smiling. He talked a little about the runnings of the ship and then turned the talk over to Bolivar. Bolivar is a native of the Galapagos Islands having grown up on Santa Cruz. Boly gave most of the briefings and led the snorkeling expeditions (as well as guiding all of the land expeditions with the other guides). The next guide we met was William (although Rasa and I had met William on the panga ride over). William was another native from the island of San Cristobal. The next guide was Leonard who was from Quito. Both William and Leonard seemed very knowledgeable in the Earch sciences and the geology of the islands. The last guide we met (who we unfortunately didn't spend a lot of time with) was Batina. Of all the guides, Batina (or B.T. as she was called by the kids) seemed to have the best command of the english language (although all of the guides spoke excellent english). She also seemed to work exceptionally well with children and so she was always the guide who would take out the group of "Young Explorers".
Of all the passengers, I'm ashamed to say that we didn't do very well with names during the week. It seemed to be another one of those formalities that was dropped as we removed ourselves from the civilized world. Aside from the two of us, there were two groups of English women traveling together, a couple from Tuscon Arizona, a couple from Santa Barbara, a family of four from Portland Oregon, another family of four from Connecticut, and a couple from Davenport Iowa traveling with their grandson. In addition, the Eclipse was in the process of being purchase by another travel company and the owner was traveling with his wife, two daughters, and two grandsons. The daughters were traveling with boyfriends/spouses who were involved with the business. The two grandsons were twins. They were very good looking boys with an equally good command of both the English and Spanish language.
The young kids on the ship were immediately branded by Bolivar as the "Young Explorers" and, during the week, went on most of the expeditions together led by Batina with a few other adults along for moral support.
Bachus Beach (Santa Cruz)
Our first official stop once we were underway was the island of Santa Cruz which was only a short jaunt from Baltra. We anchored off the north end of the island at Bachus Beach and hopped in the pangas for a trip to shore. Bachus was a wet landing which meant we got as close as we could to shore and then hopped into the water to walk the rest of the way. Some landings would be wet, others would be dry. A dry landing meant that we could find a natural outcropping of rock to use as a dock and get off with our hiking boots on.
Anyway ... Bachus was beautiful. It was a nice white sandy beach. Lenny, our guide, took as along the shore and the sandy beach gave way to black rock caused by lava flows. There were colorful Sally Lightfoot Crabs all over the rocks and as we crossed a narrow path from one section to the other, we caught our first glimpse of a marine iguana right in our way. This one was small (about 2-3 feet). I was pretty excited about seeing this beast but only because I hadn't yet realized how plentiful they are. We would see a lot more over the next seven days.
As we walked along the shore, we saw several holes where giant sea turtles had laid eggs and even saw tracks in the sand where a turtle had returned to the water after making a nest. No turtles yet though. We did come to an inland pond where a group of good sized flamingos where drinking and filtering algae. We also saw some blue footed boobies out over the ocean hunting for fish. This was amazing. They would circle high above the water until they spotted something. Then they would go into a dive, pull their wings in at the last minute, and torpedo into the water making virtually no splash and disappearing for a few seconds before coming back up.
After about an hour, we ended up back at our landing sight with time to kill so we just hung out on the beach. Several members of our party (including Rasa) took the opportunity to go swimming as well. After a while, the pangas returned and we headed back to the ship.
We arrived back at the Eclipse to find some snacks waiting for us as well as some juice. During the entirety of the trip, we would be fed very well and have access to a huge variety of tropical fruit juices most of which I couldn't identify. Very tasty though.
At 7:00PM, we had the first of our nightly briefings to go over plans for the next day followed by a spectacular buffet dinner in the dining room. After sitting out on the deck until well after sunset, we turned in.
Sunday, June 29th - San Salvador, BartolomeWe were both up by 6:30AM. At about 6:40, some nice piano music started piping through the intercom. At 6:45, Mario's voice came in over top of the music saying, in Spanish and then in English "good morning ladies and gentlemen, it is 6:45 and time to wake up". This would be a daily ritual. At 7:00AM, a buffet breakfast was served in the dining room. After breakfast, we had until 8:00 to get ready for the morning excursion.
James Bay (San Salvador)
At about 2:00AM this morning, we pulled up anchor at Bachus Beach and cruised to San Salvador. Actually, this island was discovered and named several times so, depending on who you talk to, it is either James, Santiago, or San Salvador. Most of the maps I've seen show it as Santiago.
After breakfast, we dropped anchor in James Bay and took the pangas in for another wet landing. The beach was quite different from yesterday. Much more lava rock and the sandy portions were black. After our landing, we went for long hike. We saw Galapagos hawks and some more hunting by the Blue Footed Boobies. We got to a portion that was extremely rocky and saw many sea lions and fur seals. This area was also littered with many marine iguanas. We even saw some baby sea lions that were only about a week old. This was the spot where the tameness of the wildlife here became very apparent. We could get right on top of everything we saw and they just didn't care. We walked around the sea lions, the iguanas, and the birds and they just ignored us. It was amazing and made for many great photo opportunities.
We hiked back to the beach where we landed and changed into our snorkeling gear. A group of us went off the beach and were led by Bolivar. The water was very clear and, right away, you could see fish everywhere. We swam through huge schools of sardines as well as several other species of very colorful tropical fish of varying sizes. As we came around some rocks into another section, Bolivar was tugging at my arm and pointing. When I looked where he was pointing, I saw two huge sea turtles swimming in front of us. They were actually pretty graceful swimmers and almost looked like they were moving in slow motion. We swam with them for a while and then turned to head back. On the way, we came across some sea lions. Just like on the beach, they didn't seemed bothered by our presence and just went about their business as if we weren't there.
Back at the beach, we boarded the pangas and headed back to the Eclipse for lunch. Lunch was served on the back deck every day which meant eating outside (which was nice). Lunch was followed by siesta time. This lasted until 3:00PM. As the week went on, we got quite used to this quiet time and actually started taking short naps. During this time, we pulled up anchor and moved to the other side of San Salvador to the small island of Bartolome.
Bartolome is a very small island and is mostly rock and lava flows. The first part of the excursion was another snorkeling trip. This time we would be going in off the panga along the rocky shore. This was where we caught our first glimpse of the Galapagos penguins. We continued on and got to a spot where we all went in. The first thing we saw when we got underwater was four pretty sizeable white tipped sharks. Bolivar had told us several times not to get nervous about seeing sharks as they've never bothered anyone here. We took his word for it and continued swimming. I have to say that this was really cool. After a while, I was getting tired and climbed back into the panga. Rasa continued and saw several starfish and some stingrays. They got by the rocks where the penguins were and some of them jumped into the water. By all accounts, they moved way to fast to follow once they were in though.
After the snorkeling, we went back to the Eclipse to change into hiking clothes and then went to the island of Bartolome proper with William as our guide. We had a dry landing as a rocky outcrop formed a natural dock. Bartolome is a volcanic island. There is virtually no wildlife there except for some lizards and the plant life is sparse. Much of the landscape looked like Mars with the reddish rock. We hiked to the top of the volcano which was only about 400 feet and caught a glimpse of one of the most photographed views in the Galapagos. Looking down the lava landscape to the water and Pinnacle Rock.
Hiking back down the volcano, we hopped the panga and headed back. Our next destination would be a long distance away and would be the only stop north of the equator so the Eclipse set out right away and would be moving all night. After our 7:00PM briefing and dinner, we lounged a bit out back and then turned in.
Monday, June 30th - GenovesaUp at 6:30AM again beating Mario's daily wakeup call. By the time breakfast was served, we had dropped anchor at Genovesa Island. Another glorious breakfast served in the dining room.
Darwin Bay (Genovesa)
We docked in Darwin Bay. This was a very interesting bay because you could tell that it's shape was almost perfectly circular with an opening at one side for the ship to get in. The bay is actually a giant crater that has long since filled in with sea water. The only crater larger than this one, according to our guides, is the Ngorongoro in Africa where Rasa visited after climbing Kilimanjaro.
We took the pangas in for another wet landing and the beach we landed at was loaded with sea lions. This was the largest concentration of them we'd seen yet and they were amazing in that our presence didn't even remotely disturb them. To walk along the beach meant walking around the snoozing animals. We could sit right next to them on the beach and they didn't budge.
We set out on foot along the coast line and quickly began rising high above the water. Once we were away from the beach, the stars of this outing were the birds. I had never been that interested in bird watching but, at this place, it was near impossible not to be interested. They were all over the place. And like the sea lions, they didn't move or fly away when we walked among them so we stepped carefully. We saw tons of frigates and also every variety of booby (red footed, blue footed, and masked). The male frigates were putting on their mating show which we were fortunate enough to catch. They have a red pouch just under their beaks and, to impress a female, they fill it with air. Apparently, once they've done this, they don't deflate for quite a while as it's an expenditure to get it inflated in the first place. So they'll even fly with the thing inflated and it looks pretty wierd when they do.
After hiking, we ended up back at the beach where we landed and hung out with the sea lions for a while before the pangas returned. Our morning wasn't finished though. The next order of business was to get into our snorkeling gear and go off the pangas by the cliffs. Bolivar was hoping on seeing some hammerhead sharks. The water was quite a bit more cloudy in this area than where we were yesterday largely due to the currents and waves. We saw a school of a hundred or so manta rays swimming pretty deep. If you dove down far enough to see them, it looked like the entire ocean floor was moving. We saw more sharks as well and this was the only time they made me nervous. I looked down and, fairly deep, I saw a whole school of white tipped sharks. As I moved above them, I noticed that they were slowly coming up and getting kind of close. When I looked up to see who else was around me, I realized that I'd lost my group and was alone. I didn't panic but I did kick into high gear until I was among people again. At that point, I'd blown most of my steam so I climbed out. Rasa stayed in with the group and did manage to see three hammerhead sharks. Bolivar and another woman head seen one. With all the snorkelers back in the panga, we headed back to the Eclipse for lunch on the deck.
Prince Philip's Steps (Genovesa)
We remained docked in the bay and, after lunch (and after the daily siesta), took the pangas for a dry landing at an area called Prince Philip's Steps. Prince Philip has apparently been a big supporter of the islands and has made many significant contributions to the conservation of the area. In preparation for a visit, these steps were built so that Prince Philip could climb up this area where some amazing views await. I use the term steps pretty loosely though. There are man made rails to hang onto but the steps themselves are rock and kind of tricky. Especially when the waves come in and the water makes them slippery.
The steps don't go on for long and, once we were up on the cliff, the rest was pretty flat. Again, the stars here were the birds. They were everywhere and many were nesting. After we passed through the bird colony, we came into an area that, again, looked like a martian landscape. We were out in an area that was very large and very flat. You could see for a very long distance and still there were birds everywhere. Our mission here was to find a short eared owl. I scanned the landscape with binoculars and was the first to spot one. After continuing on a bit, we came upon another that was much closer to us (a couple of feet actually) so we could stop and snap some photos. From there, we turned and headed back to the steps where we boarded the pangas and headed back to the Eclipse.
The usual briefing and dinner was again followed by some lounging and then bed. There was a possibility of an earlier wakeup call the next morning as we would be passing the equator again and there was the possibility of spotting whales there.
Tuesday, July 1st - Fernandina, IsabelaNo early wakup call so, apparently, there were no whales to be seen. Again we beat Mario's call and woke at 6:30AM. Breakfast was at 7:00. Just as we were sitting down with our plates to eat, Bolivar came in and said that there were a school of dolphins out in the channel. The dining room cleared out in a matter of seconds. As we cruised through the channel, we could see the dolphins several yards off the starboard side. They were jumping and moving along with us. It was almost like a ballet. They were slowly moving away during all this as well so, after only a few minutes, they had become too far away to really see anymore so we returned to our meals.
Punta Espinosa (Ferandina)
After breakfast, we made a dry landing on the island of Fernandina. This is one of the islands that has most recently had volcanic activity (an eruption in 1995). We landed on black lava rack that stretched out into the water. The whole landscape was black rock but already, life had come back in abundance including lots of cactus and some lush mangrove forests. Right away, we were in the middle of a huge number of marine iguanas as well as tons of birds and sea lions. It was like Galapagos to excess. They were all over the place and as tame as ever. The hiking was a bit trickier here as it was all over rock and there were many crevasses that were very deep. We saw several inland ponds full of sea water and even saw some big turtles and manta rays swimming in them. We hiked back beyond our landing site and out onto a peninsula where we saw a whole family of sea lions and the big male was the largest we'd seen yet. We also saw a whole bunch of baby iguanas and got a close up look at a Galapagos hawk that had just caught a baby iguana and was clutching it in it's talons.
Shortly after 10:00AM, we caught the panga back to the Eclipse in preparation for another snorkeling outing. I opted out this time but Rasa went out. They went to a shallow area primarily to look for sea turtles. This time the water was very cold (even by Michigan standards). Rasa had managed to borrow a wetsuit top but still shivered. Once they were in the water, they did find a group of sea turtles that they swam with for a while. Then Rasa left the group a bit to watch some flightless cormorants diving for food. Later, Rasa and one of the younger boys left the group and found themselves in contact with a single sea lion. We had seen them before but this one wanted to play. It would swim circles around them very quickly and would get right in their face and blow bubbles. They said it was just amazing and they didn't want to leave. Rasa said she could here the kid laughing under water. This was also about the time, however, that everyone had become frigid enough to jump back in the panga so they called it and came in for lunch.
Tagus Cove (Isabela)
During lunch, the Eclipse moved across the channel to Tagus Cove on the island of Isabela (the largest of all the islands). After the siesta, we split into two groups. One group went for a long panga ride around the coast while the other group (our group) went for a hike followed by a short panga ride. Our hike was a constant ascent up to a peak that was up about 400 feet from the coast. There wasn't a lot of wildlife in this area but the views were spectacular. At our first stop, we could see Darwin Lake which is a large inland lake elevated somewhat off the sea and not visible from the coast. We continued upward and at every turn, we had a somewhat better view of the lake with the ocean behind it separated by a thin area of forest. At the top, we could see the highlands of Isabela and a couple of the volcanos of the island (the most recent eruption on Isabela was in 1999 on the south end). After hanging out at the top for a while, we headed back down for our panga ride. We moved along the coast which was made up of high cliffs and rocks. There was nowhere you could have gotten out and attempted to get on dry land. There were birds and iguanas around every turn hanging out or nesting in the rocks as well as a bunch of sea lions. Shortly into our ride, Bolivar got a call on his radio that another group had spotted a school of dolphins in the channel. We raced out to try and catch them but they were gone. We went back and continued our tour of the coast and passed by several areas where pelicans were nesting. Many of the eggs had already hatched and there were baby pelicans all over.
After the ride, we were heading back to the Eclipse. As we got close, there was nobody there to help us pull up and Bolivar radioed up to see what was going on. Someone came back on the radio speaking Spanish. Bolivar pulled up to the ladder and said anyone who wanted to get out should move guickly as a whale had been spotted in the channel and whoever stayed would go out to see it. Three people got out (why, I can't imagine) and the rest of us moved at full throttle out into the channel. Like a beacon, we spotted the blow of a whale. Bolivar somehow could track it's direction (not really sure how) and each time it surfaced and blew we were closer until finally we were right on top of it. Amazing! It came up for another blow and Bolivar identified it as a Brydes Whale. We were close enough to see that this kind of whale actually had two blow holes side by side. Our afternoon had been made!
We returned to the panga and cleaned up for dinner. Tonight's dinner would be out on the back deck and Rasa and I received a letter requesting our company at the captain's table. We had a great meal and a fun time chatting with some of the crew. After dinner, the "Young Exlorers" came out donned in costumes that looked like the various species of birds we'd seen. They put on some latin music and did a dance that was pretty hilarious. After that, several members of the crew came out and played some music. It was a lot of fun and they were quite good actually. We stayed out on the deck listening to music and talking until about 10:30PM (our latest night so far) and then turned in.
Wednesday, July 2nd - IsabelaUp at 6:30AM again. The Eclipse had moved south to Urvina Bay at about the midway point (from north to south) of Isabela Island. As I said, this island is the largest so we actually had three stops here. This particular morning was the most active seas we'd seen to date so the Eclipse was in full rocking mode during breakfast and our landings were interesting.
Urvina Bay (Isabela)
Again we split into two groups. One group took a short hike and a second took a long hike. Both groups would end up back on the beach for swimming or general hanging out. Rasa and I opted for the long hike. Today our guide was William and, as we walked along the coastal area, he told us that the area we were on was underwater until 1954 when a major volcanic event pushed the area upward and gave Urvina Bay a whole new coastline. This was evident by the amount of coral that you could see above water. We saw many huge pieces of gray coral that looked like large bushes.
As we headed inland, we saw our first land iguanas. The coloring on these creatures was very different from their marine counterparts and many of them were also larger than any marine iguanas we'd seen. The land animals were also a little more apprehensive of people. We could still get pretty close to them but after a short spell, they would walk away into the brush. At our furthest point inland, we cut off the trail to try and find some giant tortoise but had no luck. We did see several goats. The goats on the Galapagos were actually introduced here and are considered more a pest than anything else. They kill wildlife and plantlife and reproduce at a very fast rate. There is a mission underway to try and rid the islands of goat. On some of the small islands, they have been successful but on an island the size of Isabela, it's really a losing battle.
We headed back to the beach and did actually spot one giant tortoise (although it wasn't that giant). Once we got back, we hung out on the beach for about a half hour. The surf was pretty rough so nobody went out snorkeling. Rasa did some swimming until the pangas finally came around and we went back for lunch.
Elizabeth Bay (Isabela)
During lunch, the Eclipse continued southward toward Elizabeth Bay which was another (and our last) stop on Isabela. While we were heading down the channel, Rasa and I were at the starboard side of the ship talking when suddenly she yelled out "dolphins". Sure enough, we got to see another show. There weren't as many as this morning but still very cool.
Later, we docked in Elizabeth Bay. The coastline in the bay was very rocky and there was no place to land. Our afternoon excursion would be purely from the panga. There were many tiny rock islands in the bay and we started with those seeing a lot of birds and several penguins (as well as iguanas and sea lions). From there we headed toward the coast and through an opening into a lagoon. Once inside, we cut the motors and paddled. This was great. The shores were made up purely of mangroves. The roots grew down into the water so even though it looked like a shore, it was really all still water. Very lush, calm, and dead quiet. I could have napped here. We saw many sea lions lounging in the lagoon climbing up onto logs. There is even a species called a "Tree Sea Lion" that climbs up into the mangrove trees. As we paddled around, we also saw rays of different types swimming around and saw a bunch of sea turtles. This was one of the most relaxing places I had ever been ... ever.
Back at the Eclipse, we had some time to kill before dinner so we sat up top watching the sunset. As we headed down the channel, we spotted another whale. We didn't get real close this time but did see it blow a few times before we lost site. Tonight would be another all night cruise as we left Isabela to circle around to the south side of Santa Cruz.
We had our usual briefing and dinner. No extra activities were planned for this evening so we figured we'd be in bed early. We were still pitching quite a bit. After dinner, I headed out to the rear deck to have a smoke. When I got back there, I noticed that the crew were lowering one of the pangas into the water (very unusual for this time of night). When I looked over the side, I also noticed that we had stopped. Leaning over the back rail was an english passenger who actually used to work on the Eclipse (so his Spanish was as fluent as his English) and I asked what was going on. Straight behind us, he pointed out a light that was flashing an SOS. They had been watching it for a while and finally stopped and sent a panga to check it out. The gentleman who now owns the Eclipse came out a short time later and spoke to Rasa and I (very nice guy). The guys from the panga had just radioed back that they found two local men on a fishing boat who had lost power and had been floating around for three days. They used the panga to tow the fishermen and their boat to the Eclipse where it was tied to the back and would be towed to Santa Cruz. Considering these guys were probably severely dehydrated, they actually didn't look too much worse for wear when they finally climbed on board. The amazing thing about this story also is that almost the same thing happened onboard the Eclipse about a year ago to the day. Hmmmmm.
Thursday, July 3rd - Santa CruzVery rough seas all night and it was the first time I actually felt somewhat lousy. I felt ok when I woke though (again at 6:30AM) and was ready for the day. We had our usual breakfast and dropped anchor off the southern coast of Santa Cruz at the town of Puerto Ayora (one of four actual towns in the Galapagos). Several members of our excursion would be getting off permanently here as they were only taking a five day excursion. We would also lose a small handful of crew including one of our guides (Lenny).
Darwin Research Station and Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz)
We took the pangas in at about 8:30AM and docked outside the Darwin Research Center. They have a breeding facility here for giant tortoise and for land iguanas. This is where "Lonesome George" lives. The tortoise they have are separated by ages. We started with the zero to three year olds that were tiny. From there, we moved up in age and the tortoise got larger. We finally got to the Lonesome George enclosure and he was huge. The adult pens were different from the rest in that they were pretty large and open for people to walk through. The females and males are kept separate. We went through the female enclosure first and got some real close up looks at several adult female tortoise. Then we moved over to the male enclosure. These guys were enormous! When they say "giant", they're not kidding.
After leaving the center, we were all on our own to wander around the town of Puerto Ayora until lunch. This was nice. It's actually a real town where people live with shops, cars, etc. It was like our first taste of anything remotely resembling civilization since we'd left on Saturday. It was kind of nice. We picked up a few souvenirs and checked out the shops. By the time we'd made it across town to the main docks, it was time for lunch so we hopped our panga back to the Eclipse and had lunch on the deck.
The Highlands (Santa Cruz)
Today was a short siesta. At 2:15, we hopped the pangas back to Puerto Ayora and then hopped a bus up into the highlands. Up at our stop, a farmer with a very large chunk of land had two attractions that he allows tourists to come up and see. The first is the lava tunnel.
The lava tunnel was formed by huge lava flows whose exterior cooled and hardened before their interior leaving a tunnel. At one end, we took steps down and it was huge. They had hung some lights along the side which made the whole thing look man made but it wasn't. At one point, the walk became very rocky and we had to crawl through a very small opening to continue on. We had been given the option to simply turn back but everyone in our group voted to push on. This time, Rasa and I opted to travel with the "Young Explorers". Probably a good move. They had a ton of energy and were not about to turn back at any point. At the other end of the tunnel, the kids spotted a barn owl in a nest right above the opening ... something we would have never spotted if the kids hadn't been there.
After the tunnel, we moved onto attraction number two which was a ton of giant tortoise roaming his land. We parked and set out on foot and saw several. Some of them were just huge. Even larger than the ones we'd seen at the Darwin Research Center. This was where we discovered the one and only down side to being with the kids. They tended to run ahead and get pretty active around the tortoise which would pretty much cause them to pull back into their shells by the time we got there. Not a big deal though. We had a blast.
We headed back to the Eclipse for dinner. Our dinner was out on the rear deck again. Since we were still docked in Puerto Ayora, they brought over some musicians from the town to play some traditional music. They were excellent. After just one tune, they also brought in three women in costume who did some dancing with the music. After a while, they began pulling people out to dance with them and almost always started with Rasa and I. We had fun. At one point, they stopped and the gentleman who appeared to be the band leader spoke to us in Spanish. Not understanding a word of it, I turned to Rasa and said "how much do you want to bet he just told us that they have CDs available for $X up at the bar". Bolivar translated and, sure enough. Some practices transcend cultures and countries. And ... I bought a CD. After the festivities, Rasa and I stayed up and talked with William and Bolivar for quite some time on the rear deck. Then we turned in.
Friday, July 4th - EspanolaI broke my streak on Friday and was actually still in bed when Mario began piping his music over the intercom. We had sailed from Santa Cruz to Espanola overnight. We dropped anchor in Gardner Bay and, looking out, all I could see where incredibly white sandy beaches.
Gardner Bay (Espanola)
We took the pangas in for a wet landing. This place was all beach and was gorgeous. The plan was that, once we landed, everyone was free to do what they wanted. Walk along the beach, go swimming, do some snorkeling, or any combination of the above. The beaches were littered with a huge number of sea lions. As usual, they lounged and we had to work around them. Rasa and I went for a walk on the beach. We saw a bunch of marine iguanas. That's not unusual by now except these were more colorful. They had a red pigmentation because of the red algae they eat and are sometimes referred to as "Christmas Iguanans". Eventually we made our way back to our landing point and changed into snorkeling gear. The water was really nice. After swimming around and checking out the fish for a while, we came upon a sea lion who was in the mood to play. He would swim circles around us and make a bee line straight for my face turning at just the last minute. What a blast! After a while we went back to the beach and Rasa left with a group to go snorkeling off some rocks. I stayed on the beach. Mostly, those of us who stayed behind just relaxed. The kids had some excitement though. Two of the young girls were playing in the water and were joined by two or three young sea lion pups. It was amazing. They were all playing. The girls came up on the beach and one of them even followed. It was adorable.
Meanwhile, Rasa and her group took pangas out to one of the rocky islands in the bay. She had managed to borrow a full wetsuit from another woman who wasn't going. Bolivar led the group and was very strict about the group staying together because of currents. Rasa spotted a shark and followed it a bit. She had gotten someone elses attention and figured the group would be following. At one point, the shark came up and started following behind her right on her fins. At about that point, she realized she had lost the group and got nervous. Too nervous to even turn and snap a photo. She swam a little faster and he fell behind. She caught back up with her group and they saw some more sea turtles and rays. They jumped back in the pangas after that and went to another spot looking for hammerheads but didn't see any. Finally, it was time for lunch.
Punta Suarez (Espanola)
During our lunch on the rear deck and the siesta that followed, the Eclipse moved over to the west side of Espanola. At 3:00PM, we were back on the pangas heading for another dry landing on the rocks. As we came into the cove, we could see a bunch of sea lions playing in the water. One even followed us in. Once we landed, several more sea lions were lounging around on the shore and we also saw huge concentrations of iguanas. We moved away from the water and into an area that was, again, populated with a large number of birds. Today, the main attraction was the mating dance of the blue footed booby. We came at just the right time and everywhere we looked, there were males doing there marching steps followed by pointing their noses and tails straight up in the air, spreading their wings, and whistling. The whistle was very distinctive and we could here a ton of whistling from every direction. On top of that, we came across several females sitting on top of eggs. Some of the eggs had even hatched and we saw many babies.
We continued to the other side of the peninsula (where we had landed) heading for a spot called the "blow hole". Once we got there, we were high on the cliffs. The shoreline on this side was beautiful. Just below us, there was a spot where cracks and holes in the rocks forced a plume of water to shoot up several feet whenever large waves crashed in. It looked like a big geyser. Hence the name "blow hole". We sat up on the cliff and watched for quite a while. It was really relaxing. There were also many birds flying overhead including some really large waved albatross.
We started heading back and came upon a whole colony of these waved albatross. These were huge birds and somewhat strange looking. We were lucky enough to come upon a male and female doing their mating dance which was hilarious. They would open their mouths for a second, then start fencing with their beaks. After that, the female would clack here beak so fast for a second that it sounded like a woodpecker. This was followed by the two of them bowing to one another and then pointing their heads straight up in the air. At that point, they would do the whole thing all over again. We could have watched pretty much all day but had to continue back to the boat.
When we got back to the dock area, we stopped amidst the group of sea lions. Rasa sat on a rock and a young sea lion plopped down pretty close to her. Then he stretched out and started sniffing her legs. After that, he put his head on her shoe and went to sleep. She sat their staring at him with her mouth open. I had to snap some pictures of this. We finally had to go and I had to pry Rasa away from her new friend. We hopped the pangas and as we headed out of the cove, many sea lions were still in the water and some followed us out. Cool!
Last SupperOur last evening on the Eclipse was nice. Our briefing was more of a de-briefing. Some of the kids had written poems about the islands and read them out loud. Our crew came back in after that and the captain offered up a toast to his passengers and also toasted the Americans in recognition of the fact that it was our July 4th independence day. We applauded the crew and the guides. We wrapped up with the guides thanking us for the support and us thanking our guides for such a great week.
We sat down to dinner in the dining room after that. During our meal, Bolivar introduced us to the rest of the crew who had done so much behind the scenes all week. After that, a couple members of the crew performed some more music in the dining room. It was a very festive dinner indeed.
Our last order of business was to square up all finances with Mario for items purchase on the ship. After that, we turned in.
Saturday, July 5th - Santa Cruz, Baltra, QuitoWe were up extra early (6:00AM). We had an extra wavy ride over night back to the north end of Santa Cruz. I slept pretty bad. There was one last optional panga ride and we opted to take it (hence the early rise).
Black Turtle Cove (Santa Cruz)
Before breakfast, some of us hopped pangas into Black Turtle Cove. The cove was very similar to the panga ride into the lagoon in Elizabeth Bay on Isabela. It was very quiet and calm and surrounded by lush mangrove forests. The first area we explored was said to be a nesting ground for black tipped sharks. Sure enough, we saw some young sharks in the shallows. They would hang around in there for quite some time before venturing out into the ocean. In another area, we also saw two adult white tipped sharks just sitting on the bottom. As we continued rowing around the lagoon, we also spotted several rays and several sea turtles.
After about an hour, we headed back for breakfast. I had a pretty light breakfast as I wasn't feeling well. We had until 10:00AM before we would depart so breakfast was followed by last minute packing and lounging around. We moved everything out of our cabin and ended up napping a bit up on the top deck. This was probably a mistake as neither of us had put on sun screen and got burned a little. At 10:00AM, we were off.
We took the pangas back to the dock on Baltra. As we gathered our things and waited for the bus, we saw a very funny sight. Out in the water was a small motor boat. The motor wasn't running and the only passenger inside was a rather large sea lion just sitting on the seat. I guess he was trying to find the starter. We took the bus back to the airstrip and waited for a bit before our flight started boarding. We said our goodbyes to our guides and got on the plane. After that, we were off.
QuitoAfter about a half hour stop in Guayaquil, we continued on to Quito. Rasa and I didn't really get any kind of a chance to say goodbye to anyone. Once we were off the plane, the first two bags onto the carousel were ours and I was still not feeling well so I grabbed them and headed straight for the exit. Bonnie was there waiting and we were on the road quickly. When we began this trip in Quito, Rasa and I happened into the Marriot and were amazed at how beautiful a hotel it was. When we inquired about cost, it was only about $14 more a night than where we were staying. We had asked Bonnie to look into changing our last night to the Marriot. She said she tried and couldn't. We told her just to take us there and that we would eat the cost, she made some calls and they did end up covering some of it. Wow! We should have gone there right when we got in. For only $14 more a night, this hotel was paradise. The room was huge. A king sized bed in a large room with a gorgeous bathroom and large walk-in marble shower. Unfortunately, I was really feeling bad at this point so I just climbed into bed. Rasa went down to enjoy the pool and she said it was amazing. A three teired pool with waterfulls flowing into the next tiers along with glass walls and ceilings. She came back up and we spent the entire night in our room watching movies and eating room service. I was feeling a little better later on and actually managed to eat.
Sunday, July 6th - TravelOn Sunday, We were up at about 3:45AM (gads). Bonnie met us at 4:15AM and it was off to the airport. We had a 7:00AM flight and had to get there way early. Getting in and on our flight went without a hitch. The first leg of our journey was from Quito to Bogota, Columbia. The area around Bogota looked beautiful as we flew in. Very lush and green. We never got off the plane but security came onto the plane. This was strange. They checked the carry on bags in the overheads and even had people getting out of their seats one row at a time so they could check the seats and seat pockets. After about an hour, we were back in the air. We continued on to Newark, New Jersey which seemed to take forever. Again, the Bogota flight seemed to be treated special. After we landed, while all the other carousels moved pretty quickly, the one from Bogota moved at a snail's pace and it became apparent that security was checking each bag before they went on the carousel. Suddenly, our 2 hour window was not looking so long anymore. We finally got our bags after about an hour. We went through customs and then re-checked them. The next order of business was finding our gate which took a while. Once we finally got there, we discovered our flight to Detroit had been delayed an hour because of a problem with the cabin door (later we found out that the problem was that it wouldn't stay propped open ... who cares). After the hour delay, we were off. We landed in Detroit at about 9:30PM and only one of our checked bags came out. We went to the baggage office and found that security re-checked bags from our Bogota flight that were going back onto a plane and only one of ours made it. The other would have to be delivered on Monday. One last jab! We took the shuttle to my car and headed home. It was nice to drive. It was nice to sleep in my own bed. It was nice to see Dakota who my sister in-law had been so kind as to pick up for us that day.
WrapupThis was like no other trip we've ever taken and possibly like no other we'll ever take. The country of Ecuador really needs to be applauded for their efforts in the conservation of the Galapagos Islands and for keeping them mostly unspoiled. It was also a trip that, to my surprise, worked equally well for people of all ages.
To all our fellow passengers, it was a great pleasure spending the week with you. To Bolivar, William, Lenny, and Batina, your work was incredible and your never ending knowledge of the islands was impressive. To Mario and the rest of the Eclipse crew, you made it a wonderful place to call home for seven days.
To anyone else, if you've ever even remotely considered visiting this very special place and you have the means ... DO IT! You won't be disappointed.