31. Gliding Around The Galapagos

July 8, 2011 - Isla Baltra, Ecuador


We left Quito via a totally disorganised domestic airport to head off to the Galapagos Islands. We flew to Baltra airport which was originally built by the Americans during the second world war. We transferred to our boat The Queen of Galapagos which was moored off Santa Cruz Island via mini bus, ferry and zodiac motor launch. We met up with our fellow passengers amongst which were some Australians, a Swiss couple, an Israeli and an Ecuadorian family. We also met our guide Antonio who would be with us for the week. After lunch we went for a walk on the island and saw some giant tortoise that chew on the long luscious grass and wallow in the shallow pools of water to keep cool. Some of the more mature tortoises were thought to be over 200 years old and weighed about 550 lbs. They really were magnificent creatures and didn’t seem that bothered as we crouched near them taking photographs.

We then visited some lava tunnels which stretched for over two kilometres to the sea and some volcanic craters which had been formed many millions of years ago.  However we didn’t go that far as it was late afternoon and we had to return to the boat to shower and have dinner.

The next day we visited North Seymour Island where during a walk we encountered lots of wild animals and birds including pelicans, land & marine iguanas, sally lightfoot crabs, swallow tailed gulls, sea lions, frigate birds and blue footed boobies. The male frigate birds inflate a large red balloon under their neck when they are trying to attract females to the nest and we saw lots of the males in action. We also saw two blue footed boobies courting which is rather funny to watch as they make strange whistles and sway their necks.

After lunch we went for our first snorkel where we saw lots of different tropical fish, starfish, a manta ray and even a couple of six foot white tipped sharks!  Fortunately our guide told us that these sharks are fairly docile and prefer to eat smaller fish than the taste of human.

Later that afternoon we sailed for Bartholomew Island where we went for another walk and encountered penguins and more pelicans. The island is very dry and covered in volcanic craters and lava tubes from when the island was formed and gives it a moon like landscape.  The Galapagos Islands are all in fact on a giant volcanic plate which means they move eastwards a few centimetres each year which in geological timescales is quite fast.  As these islands move eastwards they become drier and eventually die and crumble back into the sea.  However, on the volcanic plate itself, new islands are formed once huge volcanic eruptions occur from time to time.

The following day we returned to a different part of Santa Cruz Island to see if there were any flamingos on a lagoon.  Unfortunately as we approached the lagoon two flew away leaving just a lone one in the lagoon. We walked back to the beach and went snorkelling, again we saw lots of different fish including a manta ray that was swimming in the deep seabed.

One of our group even found an old pair of binoculars at the bottom of the ocean which looked like they might have come from world war II. The Americans discarded a lot of equipment after the war which has been left at the bottom of the sea.  That afternoon we sailed to Plaza Island and on the way we were accompanied by a school of dolphins who had great fun diving around the boat. It was great to see so many of them leaping out of the water in front of the boat.  We were also accompanied by a couple of frigate birds that would glide on the wind and hot air currents.

On the island we saw lots of sea lions, red billed tropic birds, swallow tailed gulls and land iguanas.  We had to be very careful amongst the rocks that we avoided the adult bull male sea lions as they are very territorial and guard their ten to fifteen females that lie on the shoreline sunbathing.  Amongst the female sea lions there were a number of pups who were sticking close to mum for protection as well as food. We also had to take care not to step on any land iguanas that were hidden amongst the rocks and under small bushes. 

We had to stay within the designated pathway on each island so as not to disturb the wildlife as little as possible and it was good to see each group of tourists obeying this simple rule.  As a lot of the wildlife seemed quite unafraid of humans there is ample opportunity to get good photos of the animals and birds.   We walked to a sea cliff and watched the various seabirds diving for fish in the surrounding water as well as sea lions posing on the rocks.

After dinner the captain decided to set sail to San Cristobal Island which proved to be quite a choppy ride and alas a few hours of sleep were lost especially by the non-sailors amongst us!

The next day we had to say a bleary eyed goodbye to our Ecuadorian and Swiss friends, but we gained some more hearty ship mates who were mainly American, along with a Hong Kong couple. We went to an interpretation centre which explained all about the Galapagos Islands and how they were formed before snorkelling again and we managed to get very close to some sea lions in the shallow water.

In the afternoon we visited a tortoise breeding centre and saw some baby tortoises.  Whilst on the docks we observed the sale of boxes of sea cucumbers that had been caught by the local fishermen. We watched the sun set over the harbour before returning to the boat for dinner.

The following morning we went snorkelling twice, firstly from a beach which was a bit disappointing as we only really saw some angel fish. Then we went deep water snorkelling around Kicker Rock where along with the usual fish, we also saw a couple of turtles and a puffer fish. During one of the trips back to the boat, the zodiac hit a rock and punctured one of the inflatable tubes and it started to capsize. Fortunately everyone made it back safely to the boat although the driver was mortified.

After lunch we snorkelled again and this time we were fortunate enough to see some sea lions in the water, although they were very wary of us we did manage to get a couple of good photos using our underwater camera.

Later that afternoon we went for a walk (interpret that as a scramble over rocks) on San Cristobal Island and spotted some colonies of marine iguanas, some more blue footed boobies, one of whom had a very young chick and lots more sea lions. During the walk Clare’s flip flops broke and she had to clamber over the remaining rocks barefooted. It was fortunate the rocks were not sharp.

The next morning we were off snorkelling again and this time we encountered lots of very playful sea lions who swam around with us and showed off all their acrobatic skills. They spent ages diving up and down and turning summersaults whilst we watched in amazement. They even enjoyed having a nibble on Pauls toes and chasing some of the groups’ flippers! Eventually and with regret we had to leave them to their fun and games and snorkel on, but a couple of the younger sea lions did follow us for a while, continuing to show off.

Later that afternoon we went for a walk on another part of San Cristobal Island which was home to lots of albatross. We saw them nesting, courting, fighting and taking off and landing, the latter of these actions looked very precarious. The albatross is quite a heavy bird and needs room to manoeuvre, so they have to find a flat piece of land a bit like a runway on which to descend before using their beaks to bring them to a final halt. To take off, they have to find a cliff from which to launch themselves and flap like mad once airborne. On this island we also saw some hawks and two blue footed boobies mating (this took all of about 10 seconds!)

During the early hours of the next morning we set sail and had a choppy ride to Espanola Island (another few hours of sleep lost). We went to a beach and visited the post office which is really just a barrel which you put in a post card and hope someone else will pick up your postcard and hand deliver it.  This could take two weeks, two months, two years or not at all.    We put one in so it will be interesting to see if it ever arrives.  We had a look through but there were not any postcards that we could deliver, although there was one for Bermuda which would have been tempting to deliver!

The post office has been in existence for over 300 years and was originally used by whalers who would leave correspondence for their loved ones and would be collected by any ships going back to the mainland.   We then had the opportunity to snorkel and on the way saw some penguins playing near the beach. Almost immediately upon entering the water we spotted some giant sea turtles. They were magnificent creatures, elegantly floating over the rocks while feeding on the algae. Our next treat was to have a penguin come up to us and to swim around with us, he stayed for a few minutes and posed for a couple of photos, before dashing away.

Our last couple of snorkelling sessions had been way beyond our expectations and having had the opportunity to swim with sea lions, giant turtles and a penguin the experience had been out of this world.

In the afternoon we had the opportunity to do one last deep water snorkel around a sunken volcanic crater called Devil’s Crown.  We were dropped by one of the zodiac boats so the current would take us down one of the channels.  It was certainly tough going as the current was very strong whilst we swam.  We saw a number of fish, sea urchins and starfish but after a while our energy levels had been spent and we decided to get picked up and returned to the boat.

Just before sunset we went for a walk on Floreana Island which has black volcanic sand on its beaches and has a lagoon where flamingos are often seen.  Unfortunately none were around when we visited and so we continued our walk to the other side of the island to another beach where we saw both a shark and manta ray swimming in the shallows of the sea.  We also got to see some turtle nests where a female had buried its eggs for them to eventually hatch and make their way to the sea.

On the way back we walked past the lagoon again and managed to spot two flamingos feeding that had eluded us before and so we crept back to the viewing area to get some photos.

The next day we returned to Santa Cruz island in readiness to go back to Baltra airport and return to the mainland of Ecuador.  It was an early start and before we headed back to the airport, we said goodbye to the captain and his crew that had looked after us so well during our cruise.  We also had time to visit the Charles Darwin Centre that runs a giant tortoise breeding and education program and rescue centre for tortoise and iguanas that had been bought as pets and mistreated.

Also the centre features a certain local star called ‘Lonesome George’ who was rescued from one of the Galapagos Islands where it was thought no giant tortoises existed.  As it turned out he was the only tortoise on this island and so he was bought back to the centre so he could be introduced to a couple of females to mate.  As George is thought to be well over 100 years old and not had female company for decades, this process took a long time and he finally began to mate with one of the females who has been named Georgina.

After this quick tour, we said goodbye tour guide Antonio and boarded a bus back to the north of the island, caught a ferry again and another bus that got us to the airport to catch our flight back to Quito.

We then spent a couple of days in Quito looking around the old town before starting our journey home via Los Angeles. 




5. Santa Cruz - Clare going into a Lava Tunnel
10.  North Seymour Island - On a walk
18. North Seymour - Blue Footed Boobies Courting
70. San Cristobal - Blue Footed Boobie & Chick
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