Galapagos Islands Trip Diary - The Land That Time Forgot

Caron Steele

19 Oct 2015

Black Turtle Cove, Santa Cruz Island

The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean. They lie on the Equator west of Ecuador. There are 18 main islands and 3 smaller ones. I spent a week sailing around the southern part of the archipelago in the luxury motor vessel The Eclipse.

We visited 7 Islands, each of them magical, with dramatically contrasting landscapes. Whether it’s the stark volcanic landscapes juxtaposed against the lush tropical forestation or the fact that most of the islands are uninhabited and home to a diverse collection of curios creatures, I feel I have sailed into the Land that Time Forgot.

1. Santa Cruz Island
2. Rabida Island
3. Santiago Island
4. Isabela Island
5. Fernandina Island
6. Genovesa Island
7. Bartolomé Island

After a long journey to reach the islands, our first port of call in the late afternoon was Black Turtle Cove, on Santa Cruz Island; a complex maze of tranquil salt-water islets, surrounded by three different species of mangroves.

We set out in small pangas and search the waters for sea turtles, which we spot swimming in the green waters below us. A tranquil and verdant location and although the light is fading fast the reflections on the water are vibrant and beautiful.

As we return to our ship we see pelicans and the infamous blue-footed boobies on the shore line.

Rabida Island and Santiago Island

The next morning we visited Rabida Island, a small island of red volcanic rock surrounding a striking red sand beach. As we approach the island in our panga we see pelicans fishing from the red, red rocks of the cliff face.

The sun is bright and being in a panga on choppy waters crashing against the rocks is exciting, but not conducive to photography. 

I manage a few shots I am happy with and then spot a group of marine iguanas clinging to a rock. They are marvellous creatures like miniature dragons or dinosaurs.

I am so excited to have seen these Iguanas in their natural environment, stoically clinging onto the rocks as the waves lap over them. Moving in slow motion they climb all over each other and barely seem to flinch at the intrusion. For them time appears to move slowly.

We land on the island and take a steep hike up the hillside to look back at the dramatic contours and contrasting colours of the green hill, red volcanic rock and sandy beach, the salt-water lagoon, and the cobalt blue sea.  A view worth walking for.  

Apparently the lagoon used to be frequented by flamingos but after the last El Niño in 1983, they have not returned. It is believed that the trade winds slowed the central and western Pacific causing the warmest water to shift to the east, which in turn results in major changes in atmospheric circulation around the globe, forcing weather changes throughout the world.  This is known as the El Niño effect.  When the warm water shifts east, the cold water thermocline layer near South America drops lower into the ocean. The surface water temperature rises significantly and the supply of colder, nutrient-rich water is cut off. This nutrient supply is what sustains the algae, tiny crustaceans and shrimp that the flamingos feed on.  Although the waters in the lagoon are now nutrient rich the flamingos have failed to return to this island in significant numbers.  No information is available to explain why they haven’t returned. The impact of the El Niño, almost certainly as a result of global warming, highlights the delicate nature of these unique ecosystems that have evolved isolated from the continent but still cannot escape the effects of the ‘progress’ of man and the impact we have on the planet.

Later in the morning we get to go snorkelling for the first time. Wetsuits are compulsory although the water is warm it is choppy and they do provide extra buoyancy – great for safety, tricky for diving and photography. 

The fish are colourful but not the most plentiful I’ve seen in the world but there is so much more than just fish. The seabed is strewn with large fat colourful starfish bigger than dinner plates. 

Just as I am marvelling at these a sea lion swims past and then doubles back to get a better look at me. I can’t believe my luck he swims round and round playing and creating a net of bubbles. 

He is so fast and graceful. It is beautiful to watch. Now I am truly in love with the Galápagos.

After lunch we made our way to Santiago Island where the trail leads to tidal pools that are home to a variety of invertebrate organisms, including sea urchins, octopus and starfish.

Marine iguanas littered the volcanic rocks of the shoreline and we spotted some Galápagos fur sea lions basking on the rocks in the sun. The animals are fearless of humans and carry on soaking up the rays as I carefully approach them to take some close up photos. It is quite magical to be so close to these beautiful creatures without startling them. You can really feel like a part of their habitat and watch the intimate nuances of their behaviour. I notice my breathing slows as I relax in their presence and despite my excitement there is a wonderful sense of calm. 

The Galápagos Islands are possibly unique in the world for the lack of human predation (not historically the case) and as a result the wildlife is fearless and generally unperturbed by our presence. It is such a wonderful feeling that I struggle to put it into words. On more than one occasion I have to back away as curious sea lions and other creatures approach me to check me out. There is no aggression, just curiosity, in much the same way as I am viewing them. It is a very enriching feeling.

With all this interaction our guides take great pains to stress to us the importance of keeping a reasonable distance and not to touch the animals for fear of disrupting their behaviour patterns, for example a young playful seal pup if touched by human hands could retain our scent and be rejected by its mother and starve.

Although these precious islands have become a popular tourist destination, they do appear to be well managed and at the moment conservation rather than money seems to be the key motivator, which is refreshing.

Tagus Cove, Isabela Island & Fernandina Island

Today, we visit Tagus Cove on Isabela Island historically a favourite site of the pirates and whalers, many of these early visitors wrote their names on the cliffs along the shore. The name Tagus comes from an English war ship that passed by the islands in 1814 looking for giant tortoises to boost its food supply.

We climb up the hillside to get a spectacular view of Darwin’s Lake, a small lagoon in a crater that is thought to have been formed by a tidal wave when a volcano on Fernandina Island erupted. As we walk we discuss Wolf Volcano, seen earlier in the distance. It may erupt at any moment. It is ‘due’ an eruption it could be tomorrow or next year. Wolf is the highest Volcano in the Galapagos, standing at over 1700 metres and it last erupted in 1982. There is a fizz of excitement as we wonder if we will get to view this spectacle. As it happens the Volcano erupted about 2 weeks later.

Later in the morning we don our wetsuits and go snorkelling again. Today I am enthralled by green sea turtles feeding on the red & green seaweed and algae, which apparently makes them as high as a kite! No wonder they are so chilled in my presence.

Two feed around me for several minutes before heading out into deeper waters. They drift backwards and forwards with the strong tide grabbing mouthfuls of algae as they glide past, as if flying through the sea. They remind me of birds cruising on thermals. When they decide to power off they move swiftly and gracefully through the turbulent waters.

As we head back to the ship we see flightless cormorants preening on the rocks, pelicans snoozing and a beautiful sea lion in the shadows. The combination of light, shadows and water on the sand makes it look like treacle. The textures and colours are gorgeous. At this point I’m bouncing about in the panga as if I’m on a bucking bronco so photography is a bit hit and miss – actually more miss when I review the photos!

In the afternoon we visit Fernandina Island, one of the most pristine and dynamic ecosystems in the entire world. La Cumbre Volcano, which last erupted in April 2009, dominates the landscape, with lava fields stretching towards the ocean from its base. Espinoza Point is home to unique Galápagos species including the Galápagos penguin, flightless cormorant, Galápagos snake and huge marine iguanas.  Thankfully we don’t spot the snakes but this is “Marine Iguana City”. They seem to be everywhere lying literally in piles on the rocks. They are marvelous creatures. I totally love them. 

Darwin apparently was not so impressed.

On his visit to the islands, despite making extensive observations on the creatures, Charles Darwin was revolted by the animals' appearance, writing:

"The black Lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large disgusting clumsy Lizards. They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl & seek their prey from the Sea. I call them 'imps of darkness'. They assuredly well become the land they inhabit."

I lie down on the sharp volcanic rocks and start to get some photos… and then they start snorting. Or more technically; desalinating. Marine iguanas boast the most effective desalination gland in nature, located behind the nose it enables them to drink seawater and maintain their salt balance. Salt gathers in the gland and is then ejected from the body by ejaculating salty water through their nostrils. A series of large projectile sneezes and I was lying in the midst of it- not exactly the ‘Lynx effect’! 

Interspersed amongst this mass of marine iguanas majestic in their granite armour sparkled the gleaming vibrant shells of the Sally Lightfoot Crabs like rubies in the coal.

Their colours are spectacular contrasting against the blacks and greys of the iguana-strewn volcanic rocks.

Time, as ever, ran out and as the sun set we had to head back to our ship, past the cormorants and basking sea lions. Once again I am struck by the unique beauty of these islands.

Isabela Island

Another day dawns after a pretty turbulent night at sea and we return to Isabela Island. The morning seems deceptively tranquil as we head off in the pangas but as we approach the shores of Urbina Bay a pretty big swell seems to appear from nowhere.

A 4 foot swell comes in 5-10 minute intervals, culminating in some fairly large waves crashing on the shore. The pangas struggle to get ashore and we have to keep retreating to deeper waters as another bout of waves approach. Eventually we find a window and make a dash for it. Unfortunately one of our party slips as they climb out of the boat onto the moving sand and is knocked under the waves - camera and all.  We knew it was going to be a wet landing but not a submersion!

The waves come crashing in again and it all gets rather hairy for a few moments as we scramble to safety.  People are screaming as they lose their footing on the moving shale-like sand and are knocked underwater by the crashing waves.  Pangas and crew are battered as they struggle to get everyone ashore.

Somewhat sodden and coursing with adrenaline we set of on our trail.

Today we are in search of giant tortoises.  Within a few minutes of walking we come across a large female tortoise quietly grazing. These docile creatures can live to be over 100 years old in the wild and are known to live longer than 170 years in captivity. Spanish explorers, who discovered the islands in the 16th century, named them after the Spanish galápago, meaning tortoise. 

Isabela is home to more wild tortoises than all the other islands. Its large size and notable topography created barriers for the slow-moving tortoises; apparently unable to cross lava flows and other obstacles, groups of tortoises have become isolated allowing several different sub-species of tortoise to develop. 

On our trail we also come across some large land iguanas. Over twice the size of the marine Iguanas the land Iguanas grow to between 3 and 5 foot long. They are also much more colourful in shades of yellow, orange and ochre.

As a result of the choppy weather we have an afternoon of relaxation as activities are cancelled due to the rough seas. The break is welcome and an opportunity to lie out on the sun deck and soak up the rays. I drift off to sleep counting the frigatebirds circling overhead. 

Later that evening we join the Captain on the bridge as we cross the equator and celebrate with a glass of champagne.

Santa Cruz Island

The following morning the skies are a little grey. We have sailed through the night around the coast of Isabela and have arrived at Santa Cruz Island where we disembark to visit the Charles Darwin Research Centre and see the giant tortoise breeding programme in action. We see some baby tortoises about six weeks old who at such a tender age still manage to look ancient and wizened.

Then we all head inland to the highlands of Santa Cruz which are lush in vegetation and very wet. In fact we are caught in the midst of a very heavy tropical downpour. Undaunted we carry on searching for giant tortoises but due to the unseasonably large amount of water everywhere they are dispersed rather than gathering around the watering holes and we only find a few chomping away on the greenery with their shells glistening in the pouring rain. After a fairly fruitless search we return to explore the town of Santa Cruz.

Island of Genovesa

Another choppy night and there are a few green faces as we head for the Island of Genovesa. I’m not sure if it’s the rough seas or the result of too much alcohol and bad dancing on the decks to the wee small hours of the morning. The sea breeze on the panga journey to Genovesa works its wonders and smiles soon appear as we see the mass of birdlife that unfolds before us. El Barranco, also known as Prince Phillip’s Steps, is a steep path with stairs carved into the rock, which leads to a plateau full of bird life among a palo santo forest.

This I think has to be my favourite Island – boobies galore - what more could you ask for? Well for my part a working camera! Frustration mounts as we see blue-footed boobies courting everywhere and I can’t get any photos as my lens has fogged up as a result of yesterday’s downpour. I try another lens and that too is misted up. In these humid conditions all our lenses are suffering but finally after about 20 minutes of near desolation as I marvel at all the amazing birds performing fantastic rituals around me, and no working camera, my lens clears and I can start to capture some precious moments.

Male blue-footed boobies are making fantastic whistling noises as they court the females who chatter back. Some are already sitting on eggs. The red-footed boobies are even more colourful and have gorgeous pink and blue markings around their eyes. 

I gaze in awe of all the diverse bird life around me and then I spot the Frigatebirds. Slightly late in the season they are still courting. Males with their bright red gular sacs inflated sit in groups and call to the females.

They have the most elaborate mating displays of all seabirds. They display to females flying overhead by pointing their bills upwards, inflating their red throat pouches and vibrating their outstretched wings, showing the lighter wing under-surfaces in the process. Their throat pouches or gular sacs take over 20 minutes to inflate by taking in sips of air. They also produce a drumming sound by vibrating their bills together and sometimes give a whistling call. The female chooses her mate based on this display and lands next to him.Seeing so many of them calling in competition as a female flew past was spectacular.

Just as we are about to head off I notice a male frigate bird swooping down and attacking another sitting on a nest. I thought it was just a passing swipe but then he settled in the bush and a serious fight ensued. We can only assume that the bird on the nest was guarding an egg to put up with such a savage assault. 

As the sitting bird opened his beak to call the attacker plunged his beak right down his throat. They battled ferociously for over three minutes pecking at each other and at one point we heard an ominous pop as if the gular of one bird was popped. The nesting bird however managed to defend his nest and the attacker finally flew off. We all let out a huge sigh of relief. 

Frigatebirds usually produce only 1 egg and when it hatches the chick is fed by the parents for up to a year (although most of the feeding is left to the mother after the first 3 months). It takes so long to rear a chick that frigatebirds generally only breed every other year. The duration of parental care in frigatebirds is among the longest known for birds. Given this high level of investment perhaps it is not surprising that the male should have defended his nest so staunchly.

As our defeated bird flew off with his gular still inflated it seems amazing that he can navigate as his large red neck pouch bounces about in his face as he flies. However having the largest wingspan to body weight ratio of any bird, they are essentially aerial, able to stay aloft for more than a week. This large wingspan of up to 2.3 metres, combined with a distinctive forked tale which enables them to steer in flight makes them makes them highly successful acrobatic birds in the sky.

Later in the afternoon we visit Darwin Bay, a coralline white sandy beach leading into lush mangroves where more boobies and frigatebirds are nesting. Night herons fishing in the shallow inlets of water and sea lions are lying on the beach basking in the sun when we arrive. I stop to take some photos and have to back away as they approach and try to sniff my lens.

The skies are cloudy and it starts to rain so we give up on our land excursion and take to the sea for a refreshing swim.  The sea lions join us.

Bartolomé Island and Dragon Hill, Santa Cruz

An early start the next morning and a vigorous hike up the peak of Bartolomé Island, gives us beautiful views of dramatically contrasting jaw dropping scenery and one of the most iconic vistas in the Galapagos of the Pinnacle Rock. 

After the hike we all feel we have earned our breakfast. After breakfast back into the sea for a snorkel. We spot more sea turtles and rays and below us the sea floor moves as an enormous school of fish swim by. Closer to the shore we spot a sea horse on the sea bed, larger than I expected it is about 8 inches long. One of our groups is lucky enough to come across a travelling pod of about 60 dolphins. I am very envious.

We return to our ship for lunch and set sail for the island of Santa Cruz. Here we disembark and hike up Dragon Hill, aptly named because of its healthy population of land iguanas. It is hot and humid as we head out past the mangroves into the scrub looking for iguanas. Tall cactus trees are dotted across the landscape and the grasses are thigh high making spotting the iguanas quite tricky. We could see pathways carved through the grasses where they had recently passed. Soon we find a breeding pair and the female in particular has amazingly alert eyes. 

She also appears to be moulting. A mocking bird lands nearby and snacks on a piece of moulting skin, very little is wasted in nature. On our return we spot a lone flamingo that has landed in a small lake near the shore.

Las Bachas Beach, Santa Cruz Island

Finally our last day has arrived. Although we partied into the early hours the night before and I have blisters on my feet from dancing barefoot on the deck, I struggle out of bed for a 6.00am start and a quick trip to Las Bachas Beach located on the North of Santa Cruz Island. I am so glad I have made the effort. 

This is possibly the most beautiful beach we have visited. The stuff of Robinson Crusoe movies! 

The finest soft white sand oozes between my toes. It feels so heavenly and romantic, until my guide informs me that the sand is actually created by parrotfish grinding coral & coralline algae in their teeth and ingesting it. After they digest the edible portions from the rock, they excrete the rest as sand, creating this beautiful beach. A single parrotfish can produce up to 90kg of sand a year- pretty amazing. So much for the romance…. I am in fact walking through fish poop!  It still feels and looks wonderful. As we head down the beach we can see turtle tracks and have to tread carefully to avoid the shallow hollows which usually indicate nesting sites. At the back of the beach through the salt brush is a small lagoon with 2 flamingos on it.

The light and reflections are spectacular.

A tear wells in my eyes as I realise that within a few hours I will be on my long journey home away from these enchanted islands. Time may have appear to have forgotten them but I never will. A return journey to see the rest of the archipelago is definitely on the cards.

Created by nature and now conserved by man the Galapagos Islands are to be treasured. If you visit them you will fall in love. They are home to the Theory of Evolution and give us an understanding of our creation and as such should be cherished.

Caron's Top Tips

I flew from London with Iberia via Madrid to Ecuador although with KLM via Amsterdam was also an option.

Note that if you are on a budget but crave a luxury flight you can always book the economy fare with Iberia and bid for an upgrade, I did and got a business class flight for a fraction of the price. It is hit and miss and you only find out if you’ve been successful in your bid 5 days before you fly so be prepared to travel economy, however the upgrade was lovely especially on a long haul flight & I genuinely arrived far more refreshed and ready to go.

Also buy some judo elbow pads and gardening knee pads to take with you – you might look a bit of a ‘plonker’ but they will save your skin on the harsh volcanic rock when you need to get down low for a good photo. Finally make sure you have a fully waterproof bag that can be submerged for your camera kit – and use it, several people on our trip lost expensive camera gear when endeavoring wet landings as waves crashed over us. I would also recommend getting some silica crystals to keep kit dry as it is quite humid.

Also be aware that if you have the aircon on in your cabin your lenses will take up to 45 minutes to de-mist once out on deck so it’s worth getting them out before your excursion.

All images are copyrighted to Caron Steele.

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Comments

Suzanne

21/10/2015 7:00 PM

Amazing pictures and a great write up on what sounded like a great trip.

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