In the footsteps of Darwin - The Galapagos Islands

James & Amelia Gould
Sat 17 May 2008 19:58

27 April – 9 May 2008 : Galapagos Islands


The Galapagos Islands belong to Ecuador and the whole area has been designated a nature reserve.  There are 58 islands in the archipelago, each different to the other in topography, flora and fauna, resulting in the highest proportion of endemic species in the world.  There are therefore many restrictions on visiting the islands, whether arriving by boat or by plane.  We were only allowed to take Rahula to one of three designated islands; We could stop at any of these islands for a maximum of 24 hours before we officially cleared in, but once we had cleared in we would have to stay at that island for the duration of our stay.  Once we had stopped at an island the only way to travel around was on an organised tour with an official park guide.  We had already planned to spend most of our stay on Santa Cruz, but decided to stop by San Cristobal for the maximum allowed period as it was on the way. 


Wreck Bay is a small horse shoe cove on the western side of San Cristobal lined by a small town, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.  We looked around the town from our vantage point on Rahula and wondered how best to spend our 24 hours on the island.  We had arrived on a Saturday afternoon, so we figured that arranging things would be difficult, especially obtaining diesel to replenish our empty tanks.  Then in answer to our questions a knight on a white horse (well, a battered yellow water taxi) appeared.  Fernando worked for one of the island’s ship’s agents and offered to get us anything we needed.  We immediately hired him to get some diesel before the petrol station shut, and discussed the possibility of having a tour around the island.  We figured that as the following day was a Sunday, no one would be at work to notice we had overstayed as long as we left first thing on Monday morning…


So after a much needed full night’s sleep (bliss after 10 days at sea) we headed into town early the following morning to meet Carlos the taxi driver, our guide for the day.  The first thing we noticed were the sea lions lazing in the sun on the steps of the town quay.  When we looked around us we realised there were sea lions everywhere – on the fishing boats, trying to climb up yachts, on the beach, on the quayside.  They were just lying there, looking very cute, completely unfazed by the presence of people all around them.  We got into the pick up truck taxi and headed off into the hills, with Carlos pointing out interesting landmarks along the way (mainly farms growing bananas, coffee, and tomatoes).  At the southern east end of the island we stopped at a giant tortoise breeding centre and sanctuary.  The giant tortoises of the Galapagos are a unique species, and each island has its own breed, with some island having as many as 5 different genres.  You are supposed to be able to tell the difference by the shape of the shell, but we never really got the knack…  The Galapagos giant tortoises nearly became extinct due to hunting by Pacific whalers and fisherman who would stop at the islands for provisions and hunt the tortoises for their meat (I’m not sure ‘hunt’ is the right word when it comes to the less than sprightly tortoises, gather is more like it… J).  The tortoises have also had to battle for their food against introduced animals such as dogs and goats that have gone feral and ruined their natural habitat.  The centre on San Cristobal was founded to help increase the island’s giant tortoise population through a breeding and reintroduction to the wild programme. The centre is a semi-natural park, with paths meandering through the trees and tortoises roaming free.  There are informative signs about the area’s flora, and it was fun wondering about spotting tortoises in the undergrowth.  At the breeding centre we came across the baby tortoises, which were the size of a normal British tortoise.  They are kept in cages to keep them away from predators, and are released into the wild after 5 years.  It was weird to think that as these tortoises live to be 150 years old, most of the ones in the centre will outlive their breeders by a long way.


Carlos did not speak any English, but we managed to get by with my faltering Spanish and a dictionary.  (It also turned out that he had retired after 30 years in the Ecuador Navy, so we managed a short dit spinning session and talked a little about the Type 23s that the Ecuadorians had recently bought.  He was quite impressed with them, although I think it was a bit like them buying a used Lada…  J).  He explained that there were two climates in San Cristobal, wet and dry. We assumed he meant seasons, until we drove upwards through the mountains and the clouds built and it started to rain.  He assured us that in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno the sun was still shinning (we’d left the hatches open…), and explained that because of the topography of the island this part was always wet.  We drove up to the foot of an old volcano crater, and Carlos showed us the path to walk up.  We strolled up, relishing the chance to stretch our legs after so long at sea.  We were looking forward to stunning views once we got to the top, but were disappointed to find the whole crater shrouded in cloud.  Inside the crater was the archipelago’s only fresh water lagoon; all the other islands have to rely on desalination or rainwater collection for drinking water. 


From there we drove to the sunny side of the island (it really was Four Seasons in One Day [C Crowded House]) for more breathtaking views of barren landscapes and on to beach strewn with black lava rocks.  Here we found the archipelago’s other famous inhabitant, the marine iguanas.  They were big black ugly lizards, sitting still on the black rocks soaking in the heat.  Again, they seemed completely unperturbed by human presence and we could get as close as we wanted without them moving.  There were also more sea lions lounging around the rocks, looking very cute.  James decided to believe in reincarnation and come back as a sea lion as all they seemed to do is sleep, eat and play (I can think of worse things to do!  J).


We stopped for lunch at Fernando’s house and had traditional South American fare of soup, chicken and rice.  It was the first proper meat we had eaten since leaving Panama so we didn’t mind!  After lunch we went for a stroll through the small town.  As we expected everything we shut on a Sunday afternoon, which gave the town an even sleepier feeling than it already had when things were open.  There were a few small hostels, dive centres and tour operators catering to the limited tourist market, but nothing like the buzzing metropolis we expected to find in Santa Cruz. 


Reluctantly we sailed from Wreck Bay early on Monday morning, escaping the coastguard before they admonished us for staying too long.  We motored the 40 miles to Santa Cruz (still no wind!), past the uninhabited island of Santa Fe which has a sheer cliff coastline.  (This was where I did battle and won against a huge bull Mahi Mahi.  It was nearly as tall as me and it was a Herculean 20 minute struggle to land him without losing any gear…though I broke my knife trying to kill it…tasty….J.  We ate the outcome for the next 2 weeks, even with giving lots away to other yachts!  A).  As stated in the pilot book the anchorage in Academy Bay is open to the South East and suffers from the ocean swell occasionally rolling in.  We set the bow and stern anchors to stop Rahula swinging and keep her pointing into the swell.  The anchorage was very busy, as it was full of yachts and medium sized motor yachts running cruises of the Galapagos Islands.  On our first full day there we checked out the town.  Puerto Ayora is the biggest town on the archipelago and the established centre for tourism.  The town was full of back packers in the hostels and tourists headed for the cruise boats.  The small supermarket has a limited stock of tinned food and a section for fresh food that had a selection of unidentified rotting fruit and vegetables.  I was surprised that none of the stuff grown in San Cristobal made it to here.  The produce market was more promising, though the selection was very limited.  I also learnt that the only way to get meat is to breed the chickens myself, or pay a fortune for deep frozen imported beef.  Luckily we had a fridge full of fish and were still munching our way through the food we bought in Panama… (I think we still will be in Australia…J)


The following day we booked a trip to go diving on Gordon Rocks, which is a sight famous for seeing Hammerhead sharks.  The dive boat collected us from Rahula early in the morning and we blasted off to the dive site.  After 10 minutes we realised that the boat was going in the wrong direction, and when we asked the Dive Master what was going on he said they changed the dive location due to poor visibility, and we were now going to Floreana, an island to the south of Santa Cruz.  James was very disappointed to miss out on the Hammerheads, but we were looking forward to a good dive anyway.  On the first dive we saw plenty of white tipped sharks and schools of colourful fish.  We spotted a turtle, but the highlight was a school of Manta Rays gliding through the water above us, their mouths wide open to collect algae.  I had problems with my ears again on the first dive and when we started descending for the second dive I realised my ear was still not well (I had burst the eardrum in the Caribbean).  I surfaced while James continued the dive with the rest of the group (I did make sure she got back to the boat without being munched by sharks! J).  I snorkeled above the divers instead, and was treated to four turtles swimming just below me.  I followed them slowly, admiring their elegant, effortless motion.  In between dives we stopped at a small cove for lunch, and yet again there were sea lions everywhere on the shore.  We got into the water with snorkelling gear, and were soon joined by several of the sea lions that came to play.  They swam all around us, blowing bubbles and play fighting with each other.  James played with one for ages, mimicking their graceful swimming style.  It was great fun, and worth the trip to Floreana! (A real highlight for me and an experience I won’t forget.  J)


The most striking thing on the Galapagos Islands is the abundance of unusual birds.  I am not usually a bird watcher (she said that in the Gambia River, now I’m getting worried…J), but you can’t fail to get excited at the sight of a large Frigate bird circling overhead, or a blue-footed Boobie hopping from foot to foot.  We’d wake up in the mornings to find a Pelican perched on our bow, eying us up as we were invading it’s space (which I suppose we were! J).  After the dive in Floreana we motored passed a large hill rising steeply out of the sea, its sides filled with nesting Frigate birds, their chests puffed up into big red bags.  On a couple of the islands we got to see the Galapagos penguins as well, tiny birds that manage to survive because of the cold currents that pass the islands.


While diving we met a great Australian couple.  Sally and Tony have been backpacking around the world for 5 years, stopping occasionally to earn some money to fund the next part of their trip.  They were great fun and had some interesting stories of the places they had been to.  We invited them onboard for dinner and it was a nice change to talk to someone who has nothing to do with boats!  We met them for drinks several times during our stay in the Galapagos, and we hope to catch up with them again when we arrive in Australia.


My sister arrived on 1 May with our new Genoa furler in tow.  She managed to travel for 2 days via 4 different airports and not lose the 2m long tube or her luggage along the way.  We were very grateful to her and my parents who made this courier trip possible and meant that we did not have to wait for weeks for the parcel to clear Ecuadorian customs.  It took us whole afternoon to remove the old Genoa furler as all the screws had seized and needed to be individually drilled out (24 screws in total, not my favourite afternoon… J).  It then took us a few hours one morning to fit the new one.  It was a great relief to have a working reefing system again (better than the old one and very shiny…J).


We went on a few more organised trips with my sister.  We deliberated long and hard on which of the trips on offer to take as they all looked great but were very expensive and we were limited on time and money.  In the end we opted for a two day trip to Isabella and another visit to Floreana.  The problem with doing these day trips is the inefficiency of travelling to and from Santa Cruz each time. The islands are quite spaced out and in order to cover the large distances between them the tour operators use low freeboard fishing boats which had been extended and to which they strap the biggest outboard engines they can afford.  The result is a slightly unstable and very uncomfortable, but fast, boat.  The ferry to Isabella was packed full, and we powered full steam ahead into the large ocean swell, bouncing along the crests.  A few times a wave caught the driver unawares and the boat would round up.  Once the driver did not recover in time and the boat was tipped over to one side by the wave, throwing everyone on that side over the people sat opposite.  It was funny in a way, but not the kind of boat I would want to be at sea in for too long! (They were the nautical equivalent of a Peugeot 106 that’s been pimped: lots of noise, lots of fuss, pretty fast but no finesse.  J)


Once we arrived in Isabella in the late afternoon we were herded to our hotel with the rest of the group, given 15 minutes to settle in, then herded back out again to visit some sights.  We went to another giant tortoise breeding centre, this one having more of a zoo feel with the tortoises kept in pens rather than roaming freely in the wild.  On the way back we wondered though some salt water ponds surrounded by cactus trees and mangroves.  There was another pond in the middle of the small town that had some resident flamingos, but as the light was fading we decided to return in the morning to get a better view.  We had an early start the following morning in order to fit everything into our action packed day.  First on the itinerary was a visit to The Black Volcano, one of the 5 volcanoes on Isabella.  We were given the option of walking up to the crater or riding horses, and we all opted for the horses when we heard the track was muddy and difficult.  After a short lesson on how to ride a horse, we were helped onto our steeds and set off on our way.  The “lesson” was completely pointless as the horses seemed to know the way and did whatever they wanted (although I had varying amounts of success by use of international equestrian techniques such as shouting Giddy Up, Whoa and ‘hi ho silver away’.  He knew who was boss… J).  The whole way up the sound of people trying to get their horse to obey rang up and down the path.  The horses trod where they wanted, even if it meant dragging their riders through a tree.  They canted when they wanted, despite the protestation of more nervous riders.  Once I gave up trying to control my horse I started looking around and enjoying the view.  When we got to the top it took me a while to realise that the vast black bowl I was looking at was the crater of the volcano.  We were riding along the edge of the crater, the other side only just visible 30 km away.  The sides of the crater were lush with vegetation, but the centre was filled with hard lava of varying shades.  We were told that the darkest stuff was from the most recent eruption in 2005.  We all trod a little more carefully after that.


At the top we left the horses in the care of their owners (although Eleanor’s old nag needed slightly more care and looked very nervous as I’m sure the ‘Rancheros’ were talking about the Galapagos equivalent of a glue factory…  J) and set off on foot to explore the volcano.  We took a path through a barren volcanic landscape covered in evidence of past eruptions in the form of lava tubes and rolls of hardened lava flows.  Little hills had formed from the various explosive eruptions, each a slightly different colour as the lava rock oxidised.  It looked like an open coal mine or a quarry, and was beautiful in a bleak way.  The only things that grew on the hardened lava were cactus trees, some of which grew to be quite tall with big thick trunks.  At the end of the path stood the mouth of Volcano Chico, a small parasitic volcano that still emitted a faint smell of sulphur.  We returned to our horses along the same path, stopping for a spot of lunch under a big tree.  We then started the long ride down that was slow and tedious, all of us seriously saddle sore by now…  At the bottom we saw some hunters returning from a trip to the uninhabited north side of the island, loaded with dried wild goat and boar meat.  As these introduced animals are now considered to be a pest they are being methodically culled to allow the native species to re-establish themselves (I’m sure it also has something to do with the fact that they are very tasty!  J).


There was no time for a break at the bottom, as the tour operator had to fit all the attractions in!  So we were herded back onto the bus and taken to the second stage of our tour, the coast.  Here we were given a tour of the harbour on small boats, and caught glimpses of more penguins, blue footed Boobies, marine iguanas and sea lions.  We went for a brief snorkel, but the water was not very clear and very cold (hence the penguins!) so we soon got out again.  We returned to our hotel at the end of the day tired, walking like John Wayne, but pleased to have crammed it all in and seen so much.  (It was nice to chill out in the evening on the beach in a bar called Beko with our Australian backpacker friends who had had a less strenuous day and get slowly sossled with good company and not too expensive a beer…  J)


The second organised trip we took was to Floreana.  This time we got to step on the island, and were given a guided walk along the coast to a sandy beach.  Along the way our guide stopped to point out interesting flora and fauna and point out anything unusual (like a baby turtle that had been eaten by a crab before it made it to the sea from its nest.  Ahhhh…).  It was fascinating to find out a little more about the make up of these unusual islands.  At the beach we came across lots of baby sea lions that were eager to play and rushed about splashing and barking.  One obviously knew just how good looking it was and posed for the cameras for ages while a group of tourists flocked around it with cameras held high like photographers at a catwalk show.  We swam with the sea lions and went for a brief snorkel around the rocks before it was time to head back for lunch.  There is only one small village on Floreana, with a population of about 80 people.  Despite its diminutive size, the village still manages to have a hotel and a restaurant, though I can’t imagine they get much passing trade as the only way to visit is on an organised trip.  After lunch we headed further around the coast to Devil’s Crown, a circle of black rocks jutting out from the sea that used to be the crater of a volcano.  The water is 10-15m deep around the outside of the crater, 3-5m deep inside, and very cold.  The snorkeling around the rocks was amazing, certainly the best we had seen in the Galapagos.  The water was very clear and there were big schools of fish everywhere.  James free dived down to photograph some of the more colourful fish, while Eleanor and I spotted things from the surface.  We spotted some more penguins in a cove further along, and had one final play with the sea lions before getting back into the boat to warm up and head home.


Back in Santa Cruz we did some of our own exploring and visited the Charles Darwin Centre, which is another giant tortoise breeding centre.  The main reason for the visit to this centre was to see Lonely George, the last remaining giant tortoise from Pinta Island.  The centre is trying desperately to pair up George with females of similar genetic background in order to maintain his genre, but he is having none of it, and remains a 70 year old bachelor (I suppose after so long it is difficult to muster the energy…).  Unfortunately George was busy having breakfast when we visited, so we only got to see his back.  The centre had an informative display about the conservation work going on in the Galapagos, in particular trying to prevent more introduced species contaminating the ecosystem by searching all tourist’s luggage and checking incoming boats (strangely enough, Rahula was never checked or fumigated, despite the fact that we were carrying fruit and veg from Panama).  It also had some pens containing strangely orange land iguanas.  The only other site of interest within walking distance of Puerto Ayora was Tortuga beach, a 3km long white sandy beach reached by a long red brick path from the town.  The beach was beautiful and frequented by surfers showing off their skills on the 5 continuously breaking waves.


Our final days in Santa Cruz were spent preparing for the long passage ahead.  We managed to buy a few fresh provisions, organised a tank of water to be delivered to the boat (this was no easy feat and A is being modest.  Rather than pay the extortionate agent fees for water, Amelia used her Spanish skills to organise 1000 litres of water to be delivered by water taxi to three yachts in the anchorage . She organised everything with military precision and everyone from the other boats was obviously grateful for the effort she had put in.  I on the other hand did diesel and gas which involved giving the diesel cans to a taxi driver and saying DIESEL rather loudly and taking the gas bottle to a hardware store and saying PROPANO very loudly.  It seemed to do the trick.  Although I had earlier heard a story about how they top up boat propane tanks as they have no gas plant in the islands and all their gas comes in bottles from Ecuador.  It involves getting a large full tank of propane and leaving it in the sun until it is very hot, meanwhile the unsuspecting Yachtie’s tank is put in an industrial deep freeze overnight and the following afternoon the two are connected up and hey presto, a nearly full yachtie’s tank thanks to island ingenuity.  J).  The final gruesome task was cleaning the hulls to remove all the growth that had accumulated during our stay.  Rahula had a horrible yellow streak above her waterline, and the hulls were covered in long flowing weed.  We spent four and a half hours scrubbing the hulls to remove everything and return the boat to her hydrodynamic shape.  It was exhausting, and we had to constantly look around us to watch for passing speed boats or Galapagos sharks.  Later that day James kept complaining of water in his ear, and while fiddling with it trying to shake it out a small crab fell out.  A few hours later more fiddling produced another crab (this one was dead).  Then the other ear stared playing up…  James could hear scratching in his ear, so we went to Sally & Tony’s hotel room to use their big ear squirter to flush James’ ear out.  The jet of water produced another crab!


Crabs all freed and returned to their natural habitat (via the Santa Cruz sewage system….serves them right…J), it was time to say goodbye to the fellow cruisers in the anchorage and head off into the Pacific.  3000 miles to the next destination…