Sunday, January 17, 2010

Galapagos Islands - Darwin was right, I still like bananas!

So here's the deal....
I am now so far behind with the blog we are in danger of finishing this trip and being four countries behind!! The reality is that most of you have no idea where we are except for a few folks back home who we contact via Skype, however, the task of completing the blog and keeping everybody up to date is proving more and more difficult as we head further South (does this sound convincing?). We are now in a part of the world where internet connections if they exist, do not have the capability to upload photos, the sewage systems are so ineffective you can't put toilet paper down the bog (nice!) and things generally move at annoyingly slow pace. We accept all of these as part of the deal we signed up for, but it's frustrating for us knowing Christmas and New year has come and gone and we are still six weeks behind with our reports (six weeks by the way equates to three countries). So, from here on in I will keep the blog reports limited to the major events in each country unless we hit major cities where the internet connection allows me to work quicker. This will make Sue happier and hopefully keep you lot more up to date on where we are.

Back to the Blog..
Another painfully early start and the usual hanging around at the airport waiting for the flight, but as always seems to be the case when you're going on holiday you are a lot more tolerant than when returning home. The Galapagos trip was going to be one of the highlights of our journey through the Americas and we had been looking forward to a few days on a mode of transport without a throttle.

The Galapagos islands lie in the Pacific Ocean about 1,000 km from the South American coast and straddling the Equator. There are 13 large islands, 6 smaller ones and 107 islets and rocks, with a total land area of about 8,000 square kilometres. The islands are volcanic in origin and several volcanoes in the west of the archipelago are still very active. Galapagos is a province of the Republic of Ecuador and five of the islands are inhabited, with a total population of around 18,000 people. The capital is Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island, although the largest town is Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz.

Satellite view of the islands.

We flew into the main airport at Baltra and then took a short bus ride to Baltra Bay to board our yacht, from this point on I will refer to the Aida Maria as a boat, not a yacht or a cruiser. To me a yacht has sails and I am  not in the least bit nautical so it's a boat.

Baltra airport
What, no luggage!
Waiting for the dinghy to take us to the boat.(just us, not the seal)
The Aida Maria.
The dining area/lounge.

The Aida Maria has eight double cabins with room for 16 passengers, fortunately for us the cruise was not fully booked so there were only 7 of us on board, Sue and I, Jill, a backpacker from the UK and four Germans. Klaus and Brigitte, a young kid called Sunta and an old guy who's name escapes me.  The crew consisted of the captain (who had sailed with Jacques Cousteau on the Calypso) a first mate (trainee driver/steerer) cooks, deck hands and our English speaking guide Veronica. Everyone was really friendly and the captain who had been sailing these waters for forty years seemed to know his stuff (avoiding reefs and not bumping into things like islands etc!).

The bridge (nautical term for steering room) with the Captain in the background keeping an eye on the trainee.
Now I've already explained I know nothing about boats but I do know one of these two should be watching where we're bloody going!

We would spend the next five days sailing from one island to another before ending up at Santa Cruz island and the Charles Darwin Research Station. Every day consisted of breakfast followed by an island visit in the morning, lunch on board and then in the afternoon another tour of the same island or nearby attractions and a choice of either snorkelling or relaxing on the beach. late afternoon we would sail to the next island usually arriving late at night or early in the morning depending on distance.

Leaving Baltra.
Frigate birds following the boat.

The Galapagos Islands are a naturalist's paradise famous obviously for the association with Charles Darwin and his work on the Origin of Species but also for the large number of endemic species that populate the islands. This year is significant as the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most famous work. The first thing you notice is how unphased the wildlife is by visitors, animals and birds are not the least bothered by our presence and you have to be careful where you step as you walk round the islands. Because of the fragile environment visitor numbers to the islands are restricted and pathways are clearly defined to prevent unnecessary damage, this caused our guide some initial problems because the old German guy kept wandering off, seems he had a problem with keeping to borders (well remember what happened to Poland!) Only joking!

Marine iguanas, one of the iconic species on the islands.
The dark shapes in the surf are Galapagos green turtles waiting to come ashore to lay their eggs, every now and then one would beach itself and return to the water to wait until nightfall.
These things are a lot larger than the Olive Ridley turtles we saw in Zihuatenejo, Mexico.
Turtle tracks from the previous night. (the nesting sites are protected from tourists but not from iguanas).
Iguana tracks.
'Sally Lightfoot' crabs.
Lagoon Flamingos
Non native species (female) tend to be more colourful than the male but noisier! like the Magpie they have an attraction towards shiny objects and spend considerable time preening their plumage.

That afternoon we had a chance to snorkel off the beach but the water was not clear unless you swam out a good distance, and the sea temperature was cool but not uncomfortable. As the islands are on the Equator they benefit from two ocean currents which support a wealth of sea life, the warm Northern Panama current and the cold Southern Humboldt current.

 Sailing to Islas Plazas.

The sailing to Islas Plazas was fairly calm and we managed to adapt to the motion of the boat without throwing up. The next day we spent the morning walking round the island with Veronica explaining about the island and wildlife. Depending on the island we would have either a 'Dry' or 'Wet' landing, if it was a dry landing there would usually be some kind of jetty or pier, if it was a wet landing the boat would pull up to the beach and we'd have to walk to shore through the surf.

Dry landing complete with obstruction.
There are around a hundred boats of various size that provide a tourist service to the Islands so whichever Island you're on you are never alone.
Sea lion pups in a nursery pool.
This seal had just given birth as we arrived and was busy cleaning the pup.
Yellow Warbler.
Land Iguana, the colour and markings vary according to habitat and diet.

Swallow tailed gull.
Red Billed Tropic bird chasing a Petrel.
A nesting 'something or other'.
Right! let's get the Booby jokes out of the way, these are 'Boobies' the one on the top left is a 'Masked' or 'Nazca' Booby the rest are Blue footed boobies. See, it's not so funny!
Here's another couple of blue........anyway moving on!
Bloody Tourists!
Masked Booby.
Blue Footed Booby.

The food on board the boat was always very good and due to the fact that there was only seven of us, meal times were fairly informal. The meals were included in the price of the cruise but if you wanted wine or beer it was extra. During lunchtime we travelled the short distance to Santa Fe and dropped anchor in a quiet cove ready for our afternoon tour.

Santa Fe Island.
Feeding the fish after lunch.
Sue and Jill 'Resting'

'Wet' landing.
Volcanic ash once more!.
Land Iguana in desert camouflage.
Mocking bird.
Galapagos Hawk.
The view from the top of the island.
Lava lizard.
More Bloody tourists!

The snorkelling after the walk was really good, visibility was so much better than the day before and the cove was full of fish. We saw some white tipped reef sharks from the boat but by the time we got into the water they'd gone. None of the girls in the group were confident in the water and Veronica had no concept of how frightening it can be to be out of your depth in the open ocean. Sue, Jill and Brigitte had all agreed to give the snorkelling a try but at their own pace in shallow water, Veronica however, wanted them to practice outside the cove where the reef drops off into the ocean.......not the right approach. I explained the problem to Veronica but  Jill and Brigitte were put off for the rest of the trip, With the Captain´s help Sue did snorkel next to the boat later on whilst the boat was still in the cove. In the meantime Sunta and I spent an hour or so following the edge of the reef and squaring up to a big bull sea lion that was intent on protecting his harem. A good piece of advice given to me by Bill when we snorkelled in the Sea of Cortez was to avoid eye contact with the male sea lions, it is seen as a threat posture and whilst on dry land I could run the skin of one, in the water I´d be little more than fish food! Eventually everyone else got hungry and we were ordered out of the water and back to the boat for dinner, on the way back we did get to see a shoal of spotted eagle rays and some more sea turtles.

After dinner we set off for a 6 hour sailing to Hood Island, now called Espanola. Sue wrote in her journal the trip was like a roller coaster ride, the sea was very choppy and as the boat was travelling at quite a rate of knots by the time we dropped anchor at 2am our stomachs were still going up and down for a couple of hours after! Next morning we walked round Espanola for a couple of hours in the rain, not torrential stuff just a steady drizzle but enough to keep the camera inside our clothes.

More iguanas, but different colouring.
A couple of soaking wet Boobies (see it's still not funny!)

Espanola is home to a colony of Waved Albatrosses the islands biggest bird, with a wingspan of 11ft (3.5m) they are huge. We spotted the odd couple here and there and also the occasional chick waiting for it's parents to return with food. It's worth mentioning that since visiting the Islands I have managed to delete half the photos that I took. I have no idea how it happened but needless to say the 'F' word was top of my vocabulary for a few hours!

This is the only surviving photo of a Waved albatross in flight (not very impressive I know).
This is the look that says "No more booby jokes"
Storm petrels feeding, the name 'Petrel' is thought to be derived from St Peter, because their habit of not quite landing in the water, but dipping their feet in and fluttering over the surface while they feed on plankton, makes them seem as though they are walking on water.

On our way to Gardner Bay in the afternoon the boat was surrounded by hundreds of Bottle nosed dolphins, there were separate pods of maybe twenty or thirty and they would converge on the boat as it moved through the water and every time we slowed down to get a closer look they would move away. The captain estimated there could have been up to 500 in total and they were probably working together during a mass feeding session. After watching and photographing them for about 20 minutes the Captain asked if I wanted to snorkel with them, as if by magic my flippers appeared in my hand and Sunta and I jumped into the dinghy and raced ahead until we were in front of the main body of dolphins. As I dropped over the side the first thing that struck me was the clarity of the water, the visibility must have been close to a hundred feet but as I was told later the actual depth of the water was over 600 feet it's hard to tell for certain. What was clear was that the dolphins diving below us were mere specks in the distance down towards the dark blue depths until they headed for the surface and at that point you realised how fast they're travelling! When we first entered the water and the boat moved off you could hear the clicks and whistles from a few dolphins ahead of the main group, but as the rest swam past it was almost painful. Not a loud sound but crisp and sharp as though you were wearing headphones, within a minute they'd passed us and we were climbing back into the boat. We got some great photos and even some movies from the boat as they rode the bow wave....Oh! did I tell you I'd lost the photos? Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!
That sound will stay with me for some time!

Gardner Bay was relaxing, a long white beach and clear turquoise waters, I spent time snorkelling and sunbathing and Sue hung out with the Sea lions.

On the way to the next island the crew went through a 'man overboard drill' I was unaware of it all until Sue suddenly said the Captain had jumped overboard! The crew very capably stopped the boat and went to pick the Captain up in the dinghy but here's a question: If your'e going to throw someone overboard into some of the deepest, most shark infested water in the Pacific wouldn't it be the cook or the cabin boy? not the only fucking bloke who knows how to sail this thing and get us back to civilisation!!!
Oh! how we laughed!
Captain? Captain?
What do you mean he was there a minute ago?
The end of another good day.

The Post Office on Floreana Island and the lava tube.

The next day in the morning we visited the Post office on Floreana Island, not your normal post office, merely a load of junk and driftwood far enough back from the beach to stop it getting washed out to sea in a storm. Oh! and a barrel on a stick!

The Post Box (barrel) the only place on the Galapagos Islands where graffiti is tolerated.

This Post office was apparently established in 1793 when whaling was a big industry in the southern oceans. Ships would stop here and deposit letters for home and passing ships would stop and collect them and take them back. When we looked in the barrel there were some letters dating back to the1980's, some had notes on them to be left for collection by certain individuals, some were to be collected by the same person that left them but at a point in the future and I wondered how many would never be collected, fate having played a part in the lives of the addresser or addressee.

 We took 'Monkey' for a day out but decided not to post him home!

A short way from the post office is a large lava tube, a cavern created by cooling molten lava that ends in the sea and is filled to various levels depending on the tides. Entry to the tube is by means of wooden steps and ropes and by the time we got half way in most of the group had second thoughts and returned to the surface! 

Going Down!
The start of the tunnel with the light from a torch in the distance.
Our guide, Veronica.
Can't miss me in that gear.

As the tunnel get closer to the sea there are one or two places where the water is deep and access is only possible by crawling through gaps in the rocks. 

Ladies first.
The water was crystal clear as there are no strong currents and surprisingly not as cold as I expected, however the longer we were down there the colder I started to feel.
Why am I smiling? the waters cold, and I have no idea if the tide's coming in or going out.
It's really not that tight a squeeze!
This is the end of the line so to speak, there is an underwater link to the ocean but without diving gear all we could do was turn around and go back the way we came.

After lunch we had the opportunity to dive on the 'Devils Crown' an old eroded volcanic cone teeming with sea life, it's reputed to be one of the best diving spots in The Galapagos and it certainly lived up to it's reputation. the erosion has created underground caverns occupied by huge spotted groupers and moray eels, the current here was extremely strong around the rocks so the dinghy was never far away.

The rest of the group landed on the beach and sunbathed for a while we joine them after an hour and we hiked to the other side of the island to see Turtle Bay. 

Turtle Bay.
More sea turtles hanging around in the surf.
This female had got herself so far up the beach she had got herself stuck, at first we though she was dead but on closer inspection it appeared she was just knackered and waiting for the next high tide to get back to the sea (we're talking about the turtle right?). Someone did suggest carrying her back to the surf until it was pointed out that interfering with wildlife is strictly forbidden, oh, and also the fact that she probably weighs over 500lbs.

The last highlight to a great day was swimming with this lone Galapagos penguin, it was busy chasing fish just off the beach so I grabbed the mask and flippers and spent the next hour watching him trying to grab a meal, they move incredibly fast but once it came to the surface you had enough time to get close again before it's next dive. The Galapagos penguin is one of the smallest species of penguin and the only penguin to cross the Northern Hemisphere, it survives this far North due to the cool Humboldt current and the deep water Cromwell current. I had no idea where the rest of it's colony was but this one was totally at ease around me and kept me amused until it was time for me to get back to the boat.  

Old joke:
 Question:  Why don't polar bears eat penguins?
Answer:   Because they can't get the wrapper off! 

Look... a penguin in the UK is a type of biscuit, but everyone thinks the question is to do with the geographical location of indigenous species when in fact.......Ahh Bollocks it was funny to me !

With the trip coming to a close we moored that night under stormy skies at Puerto Ayoranta on Santa Cruz and went ashore to have a beer on dry land.

Santa Cruz.
Sue, Brigitte, Klaus, Jill and yours truly.

Sue and I had a quick look round the shops, just the usual tourist stuff. I managed to get a sticker for the bike (you can't have enough stickers!) and Sue bought some postcards to send home.

That night on the boat Sue couldn't get the stamp off her tongue!

Back on board at the briefing for the next day there was a heated discussion over what time we were going to get up for breakfast, Veronica wanted everyone up at 5:30 which would have meant a 3 hour wait at the airport for our flight back to Quito. We eventually settled on 6:00 and went to our cabin for our last night afloat.
On our last morning we visited the Charles Darwin Research Station and looked round the tortoise breeding area, this is home to Lonesome George, arguably the Galapagos Island's most famous resident. George is the last surviving Pinta Island tortoise, the rest of the population died off when their habitat and food was decimated by introduced feral goats. Estimated to be between 60 and 90 years old he still has a long life ahead of him but all attempts to increase the numbers of the species have failed, he is penned with two females of a similar subspecies and whilst eggs have been produced none have hatched. And guess what? the morning of our visit George must have been 'shagged out' after a night on the tiles (or shells!) and refused to show his face. His female companions were up and about but it's kind of like going to Buckingham Palace to see the Queen and there's only Prince Phillip wandering around in his dressing gown!

One of George's 'Bitches'
I could tell you this was Lonesome George and you'd be none the wiser, but George probably wears one of those cheesy T shirts that says something like 'One of a kind Baby!'

We visited other tortoises of different subspecies but they lacked the fame and notoriety of 'Lonesome George'. this is Lonesome George's pal ' Billy No Mates'

This is what happens when you poke him with a stick (only joking).
the different subspecies can be identified by the shape of shell or length of neck, this type have evolved with longer necks to reach higher for food.

This species feeds on lower vegetation at ground level.
And the orange one at the back has evolved to use a credit card and feed in restaurants!
Its hard to believe that these things are still no bigger than a hamburger when they are 5 years old.
here's one to prove it, this is 5 year old 'Big Mac'

Well that was the Galapagos Islands, apart from some minor 'cock ups' at the airport with mixed luggage we were back in Quito in an hour and a half. Was it worth it? Definitely, I'm not sure that the eight day cruise wouldn't be overkill, especially if you didn't like snorkelling but for us it was money well spent. As for the lost photos, well that's life I guess, just a stupid mistake, but the memories can't be erased (Mr Alzheimer might argue otherwise) and as for the disappointment of Lonesome George not showing up, well....
I hope his dick falls off!!!!

A last look at the Islands.
Get some rest, you;re going to need it!

Back in Quito we got a taxi to Diego's place and picked up BOB everything had been sorted and we were now on a mission to catch the group further South who had a five day head start on us. Diego had come up trumps again and allowed us to stay the last night in his Aunt's fancy apartment, she lives most of the year in the United States but keeps a place in Quito as well. Diego, if you're reading this, thanks for all your help and when you come to the UK you can stop at my Aunty's place!!

Ready for the off!

The next morning we were off early, I figured we could get to the border with Peru in a couple of days if we didn't hang about. On the way we stopped at the Cafe of the Cow for breakfast, a neat place we'd been before with Diego on our trip to Cotopaxi.

El Cafe De La Vaca.

As Sue walked in the door the girl at reception said "there's a Diego on the phone for you" it turned out Diego wasn't sure if he'd tightened the sensor screw on the final drive and was panicking in case we crashed. As it was everything was fine but it did mean I had to take the back wheel off to find out.
As predicted we got to the border in a couple of days riding through some great scenery and the now familiar road works.

The border crossing was not without problems but all told we were out of Ecuador and into Peru in just over an hour.

Leaving Ecuador.
Waiting at Customs.
Still waiting.....
You get the idea?

We had received emails from Chris telling us where the rest of the group were and roughly how many days ahead they were, this of course would depend on how hard we rode over the next few days.What we didn't want to do was sacrifice any of the things we had originally planned to do and see just for the sake of riding with the others.

Next........Peru, home of Paddington bear and trash!