It has taken a few days to put this blog entry together, but it´s been well worth it – the Galapagos are absolutely fabulous!! Before going we had heard all about it, the Galapagos are great, lots of fearless animals, and of course Darwin. We even came across an amazing blog that opened our eyes to what we were about to go and see, but…it is nothing like the real experience of being over there. Those who can go, GO NOW!!!
So where do we start? From the beginning, I guess, one island at a time, since each island is a different world in many ways. In fact, we will start from the boat, the crew and our fellow passengers - the infrastructure of the journey - though the islands on their own are the real centrepiece of the experience.
Our boat was the MS Sea Cloud, a small vessel which holds 8 passengers and 6 crew. We were only 7 passengers and eventually got 7 crew, which made for a pretty good “looked after” group of passengers. The crew included Valerio, our naturalist guide, Pepe, the Captain, Manuel, the chef, Luis and Juan, do-it-all men, Gustavo, the mechanic, and Randy, our mid-week-acquired mechanical engineer who joined the ship to refit it in dry dock at the end of our cruise (the Sea Cloud is some sort of replacement vessel when any of the 3 jewels of the Angermeyer Cruises fleet cannot sail, we think, and it will stop operating after our cruise - maybe to be sold off?).
Of the passengers , we got the worst cabin on the boat: cabin 4, at the back of the boat, the closest to the engine. Given that we paid almost $2,000 each for the pleasure, we were pretty disappointed. The noise was so loud that if any of us two spoke looking away from the other, we could not hear what we were saying….pretty bad!! However, after the first couple of days we got used to it and not even the fact that the generator was on ALL THE TIME bothered us any longer. Once we then got to know how much the others had paid and how long before us they had booked, we just gave up any thoughts of ever even complaining about our bad luck…
The other passengers were a father with his two daughters from the US and a couple from the UK. I was the youngest!! Given the first class status of the cruise, we were already prepared for a fairly mature crowd, but never expected Egbert to be past 78!!! Egbert was actually German, a retired music professor who moved to the USA some 40 years ago. He still had a very strong German accent – so maybe I am not that weird with my so strong Italian accent after only (!!) 15 years in the UK. Anyways, Egbert was in excellent shape and managed all walks but the last one, because by day 7 his feet had swollen a little. He even attempted snorkelling and only gave up because he could not deal with the snorkel!!! Egbert and his daughters, Tina and Daniela, were all above 6 feet tall (1.8 m), which made us feel a little small at times. The British couple, Deny and Peter, were also retired and mature but nevertheless managed the snorkelling and everything else. Peter had a very fine British sense of humour which kept us amused. So our cruise turned out to be one of pure exploration, i.e. no wild partying but an intense program of observation and photography. Not that I could have partied anyways – I was out sea sick most of the evenings, which is when we were moving from one island to the next. I took tablets and patches, but that did not help much, my body just didn´t like the waves. Gregory was absolutely fine, as usual.
So we were a very small group and could enjoy some really private island visits, made all the more so by Valerio´s concern to ensure we stayed away from other groups. Valerio was an excellent guide. He struck us as an extremely committed conservationist, super enthusiastic about his islands and very concerned about their future. The rules were spellt out very clearly and loud at the beginning:
- never take anything, only pictures with NO FLASH!
- never touch the animals
- keep strictly to the trails
The archipelago is a national park financed by visitor income – each tourist stepping on the islands must pay a $100 fee. The preservation of the ecosystems is only possible with the right balance between wildlife and humans, so tourism nowadays is very tightly controlled. At the same time, tourism is vital for the Galapagos, since it provides the considerable income needed to fund the various conservation programmes, first of all by eradicating the introduced species that are the greatest threat – since Darwin, lots of domestic animals were introduced that have now multiplied and become feral, and the national park is now employing some 300 park rangers to go around the islands identifying and shooting the pests (feral goats are in the thousands, and they eat everything!!).
There are limits on the number of visitors overall, and to each particular landing site around the islands. Boats are tightly regulated down to such matters as anchoring and long-term allocation to fixed itineraries encourages responsibility for the proper conservation of the islands. The end result seems to be quite successful: the islands appear really pristine, in fact it is like walking around a natural living museum with unique species of animals exactly the same as Darwin found them in the 1830s!! It is obvious that the park is doing a great job and hey, no wonder if all guides are like Valerio! The only thing that I did not particularly like was Valerio´s enthusiasm for the likely introduction of a new tourist capping system which is supposedly going to be based upon ownership of a black American Express credit card (disposable income of £50k a day or something stupid like that), that is to say, the intention is to limit the numbers of visitors to the few super rich!! That would be completely and utterly wrong and I really hope it won’t go that way. The Galapagos are expensive enough as they are and everybody should have the chance to visit them, with a little bit of saving effort.
Anyways! Let´s not get into the political here.
This was our itinerary:
Here´s some pics of the boat and people
Our noisy cosy cabin
Manuel, our chef
Oops, Egbert is missing!
Deny and Peter skinning Gregory
North Seymour Island, PM
This was our first island experience, and a very good one. On this island there are lots of birds, including the famous blue-footed boobies (beautiful birds with very blue feet that look quite daft) and nesting magnificent frigate birds, which are very distinctive with the males inflating a red sac under their throat like a balloon to attract the females. The frigate birds have lost the waterproofing on their feathers and so cannot land on water. They feed by pursuing other birds and harassing them for food after they have done all the work!! Horrible birds really.
Once on the beach area, we came across the first sea lions and marine iguanas. Marine iguanas are incredibly ugly and funny at the same time. The sea lions and iguanas were everywhere and at times you really have to concentrate on where you put your feet and not step on anybody! It was here that we saw our first Palo Santo trees, which are endemic of the Galapagos and look dead most of the year – but they are not!
Blue-footed booby..erm...missed the feet!
The white circle is excrement, laid this way to protect the nest from enemies!
Notice the grin...´
Sea lion bull
Day 2 Genovesa Island – all day
This island is known as the Island of the Birds. It took us 7 hours to reach the island overnight. We first disembarked in Darwin´s Bay, where all birds were nesting - frigate birds, red-footed boobies, lava gulls, doves, tropicbirds, petrels and many others. There we were able to see, between one nest and the other, an inflated frigate bird from really close by, which is really curious. After lunch we went up the Escalera del Principe, which is a stepped passage through the rocks up to the island platform. We walked through the lava rocks and Palo Santo forest and saw many nesting red-footed boobies, which we did not see anywhere else.
Sally Lightfoot Crab
Palo Santo trees
Red-footed booby, missed the feet again!
Magnificent frigate bird
They do look a little daft, not?
Bartolome Island, AM
Santiago Island, Sullivan Bay, PM
Bartolome is one of the most visited and photographed because of its Pinnacle Rock and the sea lions and penguins around its base. It is dominated by a volcano and it consists of porous lava rock – huge rocks relatively light as they are half air! It is quite barren and low plants like the mollugo and tequilia plants are starting to grow, and some tiny cactuses. We climbed to the high part through a wooden stairway, where we could see a beautiful view of the nearest bays and islands. After the land excursion we did some snorkelling from the beach. First we actually went over a sand dune to the other beach, where snorkelling is forbidden, to look at the ´resting´ white-tip sharks. There Valerio explained to us that the males bite the females on the fin when mating, so the way to tell the females from the males is to look out for love bites! We walked back and went to discover the underwater world, which was sooo much better than what we saw on Genovesa. There were lots and lots of panamic cushion stars (forgive the precise terminology, but we had a week´s worth of name learning!!) – basically big velvety red starfish, and chocolate chip starfish, which are smaller and cream color with dark brown tips and dots here and there. Beautiful. I wanted to pick one but did not have the guts to either do it or ask Valerio if I was allowed. Only take photographs!!! Then there were a couple of penguins, a marine turtle, a couple of small sharks and a chirpy sea lion. The water is meant to be about 15 degrees but once you are in it is not too bad, actually, so we decided not to hire a wet suit for the week.
This is the underworld at Bartolome
panamic cushion stars
From Bartolome we had a 15-minute sail (!) over lunch to Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island. Sullivan Bay was definitely another very unique and peculiar place. We disembarked on this solidified century-old black lava flow that looks like it has just cooled down and walked on this crust for a good hour or two. It is a moon-like black landscape full of wrinkles and broken crust, really curious. This night was good because we only had to sail less than an hour to Puerto Egas, still on Santiago just on the other side, so I managed to enjoy a full dinner along with a rum and coke. Hurrah!
Gregory running from the lava river..
This is where this beautiful cactus was!!!!!!!
Puerto Egas – Santiago Island AM
Puerto Egas was another highlight, a spot full of life both in and out of the water. We disembarked on a black sand beach and walked down along the coast to the beginning of the tidal pool trail. This is basically an area of black volcanic rocks that create crevices and natural rock bridges – the result is several natural pools of crystal-clear sea water where lots of animals can be seen. First of all the ubiquitous marine iguanas, that in this area are almost totally black and blend in perfectly with the colour of the rocks, so that you need to keep your eyes glued to the ground to ensure you do not step on one. Or trip over a sleeping sea lion… We saw a turtle floating in one of the pools, which was really nice, and I think it took us over 2 hours to walk the length of the trail. Then we jumped into the water and saw lots more turtles and swimming iguanas.
From Santiago we then sailed over lunch to Rabida, one of my favourite islands.
Tina in her typical photographer pose...
Rabida is quite small and most striking. It has a red sand beach and earth and at the time of our visit had a colony of fur seals with a very very angry beach master. The beach master is the chief male seal lion who owns the harem. They are enormous, black and with big teeth and whiskers. They tend to stay in the water and keep poking their head out and make the most horrible sound to fend enemies off their females and cubs. The cubs also make quite an ugly noise, sounding like belching sheep, but at least they are pleasant. Anyways. If you get too close to the females, they run for you and then its trouble!! Valerio explained that we should never run and especially never turn our backs to them. In case of attack, we should raise our hands high to show how much taller we are than them, and if that does not suffice, show our teeth and shout loud. Same like with pumas, we are experienced ;-)) ! This reminds of one scene where we saw one of these monsters chasing another smaller male away – cannot remember on which beach any longer - the chased sea lion put himself right behind a group of people standing on the beach! That was a funny sight, to see an animal seeking refuge from another one using humans as shields!
Back to Rabida. We went for a walk round the edge through a Palo Santo tree forest and the inland was just as beautiful as the beach. The contrast of the red earth with the grey of the Palo Santo and the beautiful prickly pear cactus trees was just stunning. In the water, a seal was playing with two birds that kept picking at it. Then we went back to the beach to snorkel along the rock wall – the very same spot where the angry beach master was. We were not too keen but Valerio insisted, entering the water not too far away from the beast. On this occasion 3 of us did not snorkel, I went in only because Valerio had mentioned scorpion fish (it blends it perfectly with the red sand and the rocks..). Well, we saw no scorpion fish, but the reef was beautiful. And the beach master did not bother us at all, he was protecting the ladies and his babies on the beach so in the water we were no threat, of course!
From Rabida it was another evening sail to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, the National Park headquarters.
ITALIAN (VERY SMALL) CORNER
Bene. Dunque. Che scrivo? Impensabile tradurre tutto questo romanzo in italiano. Muoio! Ci ho messo tre giorni tra il selezionare le foto e lo scrivere il diario, e vi assicuro che tre giorni non sono pochi!!
Che dire. Sapevamo che le Galápagos erano molto belle e uniche, pero´credo che abbiano sorpassato le nostre aspettative – che forse erano piu´ basse del dovuto? O, piuttosto, forse uno non puo´ immaginarsi esattamente a priori com´e´ la faccenda.
Allora. Le Galápagos sono un posto unico e bellísimo. Le isole sono tutte molto diverse e presentano panorami e geografie particolari. Su ciascuna ci sono moltissimi animali che non hanno nessuna paura di noi: si passeggia vicinissimi a uccelli strani e coloratissimi, le foche ti vengono incontro (a parte i maschi dominanti, che se ti vengono incontro non hanno buone intenzioni) e quando una guida ti racconta dei vari fatti e abitudini intorno a ciascuna specie, tutto questo mondo unico resulta veramente speciale e ci si sente privilegiati a poterlo guardare dal vivo. La nostra barca era di uno standard piuttosto alto e ci e´costata un occhio della testa, ma sono stati soldi ben spesi: questa e´un´esperienza che restera´con noi per sempre. Le isole sono chiaramente minacciate dal grande numero di persone che le visitano ogni anno, quindi il parco nazionale sta cercando modi di ridurre l´afflusso e di mantenere alti gli ingressi di moneta. E´ prevedibile che cercheranno di ridurre i numeri sempre di piu´ aumentando i prezzi allo stesso tempo per non perdere i fondi, che significa che con quanto piu´passa il tempo, tanto piu´caro diventera´ il visitarle. Qual e´il punto di tutto questo giro? E´ che bisogna cercare di andarci al piu´presto, prima che qualche cretino decide che solo i portatori della American Express Nera possono accedere, tagliando fuori i comuni normali. Il discorso finale della nostra guida, a pensarci bene, e´stato proprio questo: e´nostro dovere spargere il messaggio di quanto speciale e´questo posto! Che sia riuscito a lavarci completamente il cervello? Mah, forse sono stati i leoni marini…
Finisco qui, ho esaurito le energie con questo blog. Spero che le foto provvedano alle mie mancanze linguistiche.