A walk through Darwin's Footsteps
Day 1 - I arrived in the Galapagos Islands, early afternoon, after a smooth flight from Guayaquil, crammed with children from the Ecuadorian mainland going on a school trip. Seeing them on their school trip to the Galapagos Islands made me feel robbed as I sat and recalled my school trips to Ford Castle and Vindolanda on grey, windswept, English autumns.
I was met by a travel company representative in Baltra’s small, bustling airport and from there driven to the port. Upon arrival at the dusty port, which was more of rocky outcrop, I stood and awaited my vessel and naturalist guide. Before I had even boarded my ship, the Cruz del Sur, my adventure though the footsteps of Charles Darwin had begun. The weather was perfect, and in too few instances can you say that. Seals played in the waters below the rocks and pelicans soared overhead. The ship was visible on the horizon and soon a panga (local term for a dinghy) was making its way towards me with the naturalist on board.
The panga eventually arrived at the shore and the naturalist jumped out to greet me in a matter of fact manner, no time for niceties. He introduced himself, threw my bag in the panga and advised me that the original ship I was to be a passenger on for the duration of this trip had been incarcerated because of the crew illegally fishing for sea cucumber in protected waters. The replacement though, he stated, was a better vessel anyway. We boarded the panga and left Baltra.
The panga bounced through the clear blue waters towards the Cruz del Sur II, making me feel more Cousteau than Darwin, as the cool pacific spray hit my face and frigate birds and blue-footed boobies flew overhead.
On arrival at the ship I boarded and was introduced to the captain, staff and passengers who had already been on board for a few days. I was shown my quarters, a small but adequate room in the bowels of the ship, one bed, one seat, one toilet, and one porthole window. Enough of a room if you’re planning to spend most of your time outdoors, which I was. I dropped off my bag and headed up to the deck, while the ship headed to Seymour Island.
As Seymour island appeared, our captain dropped anchor and our naturalist guide rounded us up. We were advised of the natural history, flora and fauna of the island and handed our snorkel, mask and fins. One by one we entered the warm pacific waters and began to explore Galapagos’s underwater world, before we had even begun to explore the islands themselves. The underwater visibility was excellent, a variety of fish initially swimming around, eventually joined by a large group of seals, females, young males and pups all darting around us as we bobbed up down in the brine. However cumbersome they looked on land was in complete contrast to the beauty of them gracefully gliding through the water, coming up to your face to inspect you, then darting back down to the seabed to chase each other.
After our time in the water we got changed back on board the boat, got in the pangas and headed to Seymour Island a beautiful landscape of volcanic rock, sand, shrubland and cactus. We walked around the first island of our Galapagos experience in the warmth of the lowering pacific sunshine along a designated footpath that had to be adhered to, to protect the islands from any further effect than has already been caused by us. The footpath didn’t diminish our ability to view the awe inspiring wildlife that surrounded us, unperturbed by our presence on the island by their current unlearned fear of man. We walked among the seals, land iguanas, sally lightfoot crabs and lava lizards as frigate birds flew overhead and blue footed boobies darted into the clear blue waters for their supper.
Day 2 – early morning we arrived at Bartholomewe Island and headed out for an early morning snorkel before breakfast. The weather had not deteriorated and water was as clear and warm as it had been yesterday afternoon. The underwater world was a sight to behold. We snorkelled around pinnacle rock an enormous natural monolith that stuck out of the water like a ducks rear end, observing the beautiful volcanic rock formations under the surface of the water around its base. Numerous fish swam around us, including bat fish, puffer fish and parrot fish as well many sea lions and sharks (a white tip reef and a Galapagos shark). I then saw one of the most amazing sights I’ve seen in nature, when a group of Galapagos penguins started to swim around us, darting through the water with the grace of a bird in flight. It was a struggle to force ourselves back to the boat considering the awe-inspiring surroundings.
On dry land we walked up to the higher parts of Bartholomewe Island, viewing pinnacle rock from above, high in the hills. Back by the shore we saw many sally lightfoot crabs, lava lizards and a Galapagos Hawk on its nest observing proceedings. While waiting for the pangas back to the boat we stood in 2 foot of water while dozens of white-tip reef sharks swam around our ankles…all this before midday!
In the afternoon we sailed to Santa Cruz Island being followed by Frigate birds and Bottlenose Dolphins on route. After anchoring we boarded our pangas and headed into the mangroves. It seems that there is no place you venture to in the Galapagos Islands that doesn’t have a plethora of wildlife going about their business. In the shallow waters of the mangroves we saw three types of ray (golden cownose, spotted and eagle) and black-tip and white-tip reef sharks ranging from 1 foot to 6 foot long. After our amazing trip around the mangroves we headed back to the boat to get ready for some more snorkelling. While getting ready to get in the water we spotted a hammerhead shark in waters around the boat; we enter the water anyway and start snorkelling.
At night after dinner we sat on deck reminiscing about the amazing events of the day, while shining out torches on dark waters below at the large shadowy figures of the sharks and the sea snakes circling the boat.
Day 3 – The morning of day three was spent on and around South Plaza Island observing the flora and fauna which abounded. Seals, sea lions, iguanas, crabs and lava lizards on land; Darwin finches, swallow-tailed gulls, shearwaters, boobies and frigate birds filling the skies.
In the waters we snorkelled once again with sea lions; females and pups, until the dominant male entered the water, intent on making his presence felt, and so made a tactical retreat and headed back to the boat for lunch.
After lunch we headed to Santa Fe Island, the boat gracefully breaking through the waves between islands as I sat on deck greedily searching for more wildlife on route. Galapagos did not fail to deliver; beautiful manta rays breached the waters in pursuit of fish as I sat in awe. The waters around Santa Fe Island were of a beautiful turquoise, and too inviting not to jump into. I stripped down to my shorts and jumped over the edge of the boat into the waters about 30 feet below. Once again the water was like a stocked aquarium and upon entering the water I was once again surrounded by sea lions, turtles and rays. On land we saw more iguanas, sea lions and Galapagos hawk. In our panga’s back to the boat we headed past eagle rays, white-tipped reef sharks and turtles, while blue-footed boobies, frigate birds and pelicans flew overhead. So much wildlife in one place was unbelievable.
Day 4 – early morning we sailed to San Cristobal Island, where we left our aquatic accommodation and took our bags to a harbour-front hotel to spend our last night in Galapagos, on land. We said goodbye to our seafaring and shore naturalist and hello to our highlands naturalist who showed us to the car and took us on a drive up to the higher areas of the Galapagos Islands. The weather was beautiful as we arrived at an area where the giant Galapagos Tortoises that the Islands are named after live in a semi wild environment to protect them from dogs and other non-indigenous animals. We saw many of these amazing creatures as they slowly made their way through the undergrowth. We were then taken to a baby tortoise sanctuary where youngsters were kept until they could be released into the wild. Finally we drove further into the hills to a volcanic crater where a circular blue lake had formed. We walked around the crater lake where the views of the island were impressive and the wildlife not outdone, as Magnificent Frigate birds swooped down to the waters of the lake to feed. At night we sat and watched the seals, pelicans, boobies, frigate birds and pelicans with a beautiful sunset background as we had dinner on the outdoor terrace. Dinner was included so needless to say I dined on lobster; a perfect last night in the Galapagos Islands.
Day 5 – On our last day in the Galapagos Islands we were awoken early, dumped our bags in the back of the van that would take us to La Loberia beach and then onwards to the airport. Once at La Loberia beach we got out a walked across the rocks that surrounded the beach. A lot more wildlife populated this area including many seal, lava lizards, marine birds and the creature we had predominantly come this area to see; the marine iguana.
The other sparse marine iguanas that we had seen previously had been quite small and vastly outnumbered by their land cousins, however, in this area the marine iguanas dominated. They were much larger and greatly populated the area, sunning themselves on the lava rocks that camouflaged them. Like the other the animals of Galapagos, they had no fear of humans, allowing you to clamber up to them and examine them at close proximity. Their ugliness is their beauty, pre-history on their body and face like a Ray Harrehausen film, encrusted, white, sea salt on their nostrils and snouts expelled upon leaving the water and allowed to dry in the sun. Too soon we headed off to the airstrip for our flight from San Cristobal to Baltra. We boarded a tiny 8-seater plane (including pilot and co-pilot, who had to move his seat forward for my knees digging in his back) and flew to Baltra. For such a tiny plane the flight was remarkably smooth and the views of the Galapagos Islands from above were stunning, incredible rock formations, clear blue waters and I think I even saw a whale in the waters around the islands…but maybe I was imaging this for not seeing wildlife for 30 minutes.
We touched down in Baltra just in time to catch our flight back to Quito, mainland Ecuador, and said goodbye to possibly the most amazing place on earth.