Galapagos islands

SV Jenny
Alan Franklin/Lynne Gane
Tue 31 Mar 2015 05:08
Dear Family and Friends,

30th March 2015

Family news, I am thinking of my daughter Rebecca as she celebrates her birthday tomorrow. A very Happy Birthday.

Hola from Galapagos,

David Attenborough has done it, National Geographic has done it but when you are here, armchair naturalism doesn’t come close.

Anchored in Academy Bay, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands, sailing yacht Jenny is on her second trip here. Seals have cruised by, their gentle faces upturned and inquisitive, sea turtles not far off, raising their heads from the turquoise waters, pelicans, quite oblivious to you, dive fishing beside your hull.

Visiting Galapagos’ unique animals on this and neighbouring islands is strictly controlled. This is a once in a lifetime experience so we swallowed hard on the tour costs. We have been rewarded by seeing Flamingos, Penguins, Blue Footed Boobies, white tipped sharks, seals, sea turtles, sea iguanas and giant land tortoises, all on Isla Isabella. With no fear of humans this is a truly inspiring experience.  Getting to Isla Isabella is a 2 hour trip west from Santa Cruz, a jaw crunching, back slamming 25+ kt ride in a small motor cruiser, getting off was a relief! We were met by our tour guide, a pleasant ex fisherman. There were many groups landing and you realise you are on the tourist conveyor belt. We bussed to the Flamingo lagoon, walked to the tortoise breeding centre bussed to the cafe and so on. There was plenty to time of time but you are not free to wander far!

The flamingos were just inland, sieving the brackish waters of a lagoon, the young ones more white than pink as it is their diet that helps them acquire their distinctive colour, so more mature more pink. 

The giant land tortoise centre specialises in breeding the eggs collected from the wild to help re-establish population numbers. Left in the wild, most of the eggs are destroyed by preditators. There are 10-11 different types of Tortoise, endemic to each of the islands, some like Lonesome George, a giant land tortoise from Isla Pinta, was the last one of his kind and sadly died in 2012 without siring any more with tortoises of other islands. Fully grown the males are huge, the females about a third of the size. They have adapted to survive on the vegetation of their island home, lush grasses on Santa Cruz, cactus trees on the drier islands. Surprisingly in the wild, they will walk an energetic 2 Km a day and need to forage for food most days. Their carapaces are hard enough to protect them after about 2 years but the centres tend to release them into the wild at 5-6 years of age when they have a greater chance of survival. Like trees, their shells record annual growth rings so their age can be worked out. The sex of the eggs is determined by the temperature during incubation, between 28-29.5C, with greater numbers of females hatched to help preserve the species. 

That they reached such a critically low population in some islands the result of human intervention. During the 16-19th C visiting ships would take live turtles on board ship, because they could live up to a year without eating and provided the ship with fresh meat. It is estimated that there were around 250,000 tortoises but by the middle of last century some populations were down to less than 20. From the 1830s the islands began to be settled, farming and introduced species like goats, pigs and rats, ate the tortoises habitat or their eggs and the planet very nearly lost these creatures for good.

On the other hand there seems no shortage of the sea iguanas, blending perfectly with the black volcanic rocks, they bask in the sun, absorbing the heat radiating from the rocks. They will pile on top of each other, drape themselves over steps, concrete jetties, unmoving as you pass carefully by. In contrast the highly coloured Sally Light Foot crabs that scurry over the rocks at speed, are bright red, orange, yellow and sometimes black, such a distinctive sight. On our boat trip to the outlying rocks we saw the penguins swimming and resting on the rocks, white tipped sharks a few feet away feeding in the shallow pools, sea turtles, much smaller than their land cousins maybe 35-40cm long, and a seal family in a cove. The bull seal was very protective and aggressive so we watched from a distance. And you cant leave the area without making your acquaintance with the blue footed bobbies. Reading the guide books it seems as though we have stepped into a children’s story book, blue and red footed bobbies, brown noddy birds, Sally lightfoot crabs, I can just see the cast of characters now.

Another tour and we drove into the interior of Santa Cruz, blessed with plentiful rainfall, I haven’t seen this much lush grass since a wet English spring, it was such a surprise to find it so verdant. We passed grazing cattle, neat towns, well made roads, an ordered community. We arrived at the tortoise ‘ranch’ high in the hills, it has wild tortoises who choose to stay for the lush grass and the freedom from other competition. We were encouraged to try on the empty giant shells for a photo call, and after an undignified wriggle I managed to slide inside. Not a style that I’ll be wearing it this season! 

It also contains some lava tunnels, similar to those seen in Lanzarote, we followed this with a visit to the Los Gemelos. Huge formerly subterranean lava lakes, now roofless, steep sided ‘craters’ but not in the true sense, a green house high up at around 6-700m. The vegetation changes depending on elevation and rainfall. The forests of Scalesia hung with trails of moss green lichen, huge tree ferns in the moist hills and the semi arid trees of the shore line, giving way to the sea defences of mangrove. Not all islands are like this, those to the West are drier, some pure volcanic drama.

There are a few visits you can make without a minder, Tortuga bay some 3-4 km walk is one of them. Walking through the cactus tree woodland over a paved walkway makes the going easy to a soft white coral beach, pounded by surf and home in the mangroves to sea iguanas. The sea bathing is only for the enthusiastic but just along from here a peaceful lagoon is much more popular with tourists and locals.

Puerto Ayora is much better than I imagined, the street designers have been in, the front is an imaginative space, paths, exhibition stands, planting, community volleyball, concert stage, seating. You feel safe here, most services are to hand, the restaurant menus look good, the wifi predictably intermittent. The inevitable souvenir shops have some gems here and there, I will have to smuggle some back on board!

Two more tours to go. The one to Bartolome I hauled myself out of bed for this morning at 5am, was cancelled and has been rescheduled for Wednesday. What can you do!

All our best,

Lynne and Alan