Galapagos Island Adventure
August 23 - September 4, 2018
by Debbie Miller Marschke
When I was 7 years old, my Mom bought a set of Time Life books for our family. One of those books was titled “Evolution.” It was my favorite book in the set and I can still see the illustrative photos in my mind’s eye. The images never left me, and soon I had added the first entry to my personal “bucket list”: The Galapagos Islands. Pretty ambitious for a 7 year old!
Through Steve’s college alumni association with CalTech, we had the opportunity to visit the Galapagos Islands. We flew to Guayaquil, Ecuador first, and then flew another 725 miles west to the Galapagos where we boarded the National Geographic ship “Endeavor II.” We flew from Los Angeles to Miami, then Miami to Guayaquil. Yes, I know what you are now thinking ( I thought the same thing) but check the map – Ecuador is on the same time zone as the East Coast. It took about 13 hours travel time to get from Los Angeles to Guayaquil. Then there was another short flight from the mainland to the island of San Cristobal. Our ship was embarking from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. There were about 90 people (52 cabins) in our group, the ship was 240 feet long; very accommodating and nimble enough to maneuver in close to shore. This tour was not a “cruise” format, it was an “expedition” itinerary focused on the natural environment.
Let’s back up for a moment, because I have skipped some good stuff. We spent a full day exploring Guayaquil before we joined up with our travel group. Ecuador uses the American dollar, and we thought prices were almost like at home. Food was very cheap with the exception of the restaurants within hotels (we figured that out right away). Gasoline was priced at $1.48 gallon and diesel was $1.03! Since tourism is a main staple, we had no problems with communication or getting around. English is the second language so it was not too hard to find someone who could assist us. I remembered enough of my High School Spanish to read most signs and do some simple communication when needed. In order to get an overview of the city, we first rode in the open top of a double decker tour bus on a loop around the city, and then hit the streets on foot. The bus did stop at Parque Bolivar, which is famous for the urban land iguanas that like to hang out in the park right in front of a historic cathedral (I thought that was funny). These iguanas are a different species than the ones on Galapagos, and they will probably never leave the park now that local parents bring the kiddies down there to tempt them with lettuce. There were dozens of them, real “lounge lizards”! The iguanas seemed pretty low key so you could get fairly close to check them out. We did witness a territorial squabble between two males, which ended with the winner doing a hilarious head-bobbing victory dance. We walked along the waterfront area known as El Malecon, and climbed the 444 steps in the oldest city neighborhood; the colorful Las Penas district. We were bombarded by a cacophony of barking street vendors, a remarkable amount of pedestrian foot traffic, and taxi drivers constantly beeping at us (checking if we were interested). Guayaquil is Ecuador’s largest city, and it had the hustle & bustle to prove it.
Perhaps some of you may be wondering why a trip to the Galapagos is in the Desert Explorers newsletter? The Galapagos Archipelago are equatorial islands in the Pacific Ocean, but much of the landscape is desert, not tropical. The cold Humboldt ocean current and the warmer Panama Flow both shift around the islands depending on the cycles of the fickle El Niño and La Niña weather patterns. These islands do not receive much rainfall most of the time. It is a dramatic stage unlike any other place in this world. The harsh landscapes are gorgeous. The islands are volcanically formed (still active, just like Hawaii ). Most of the islands were arid desert ecosystems; a few islands had some significant elevations so the higher you go up, the more vegetation there was. Yes it was lush in some locations, but mostly desert scape. Most of the coastal areas had low chaparral-like plants and cactuses. Temperatures were around 60-70° most days, lightly breezy, puffy clouds or overcast, and some days it drizzled mist (called garua). We were grateful for the cloud cover because it was immediately apparent when the sun came out that the equatorial sun was brutal. We were there during the “dry season” which lasts nine months. Actually it felt a lot like the weather during winter at our house in Torrance, CA. Before the trip, I read books and watched videos, but I am here to testify that Galapagos is an indescribable and amazing place. You just need to go and experience it in person because words are not enough.
Upon arrival to the island of San Cristobal we checked on to the ship and returned to shore for an excursion. The islands did not have docks for a ship of this size, we had to use zodiac rafts as tenders every day. This is the policy to prevent the introduction of invasive species such a rats. San Cristobal is the location where Charles Darwin came ashore for the first time to collect his specimens for his later famous “origin of species” work. At age 26 Darwin had signed on as a naturalist under Captain Robert FitzRoy. His job was to assist in an exhaustive survey of the coast of South America and to procure rare specimens. He collected birds in a frenzy on the islands, which included many species of finches (which he neglected to label because he assumed that they were all the same species). When he returned to England, he was astonished to learn from ornithologist John Gould that there were 13 different varieties of collected finches. This launched a lifetime of contemplation, study, and the authorship of a book that would change the world irreversibly.
We spent at least one hour a day snorkeling at each island. I think my favorite experience was snorkeling with the young sea lions. Our underwater photos were taken with our Nikon Coolpix camera which was waterproof (this is a GREAT pocket sized camera). The young sea lions were playful like little dogs, they would zoom all around us and sometimes put their faces right up to ours. The photos are not zoomed in, we were actually that close. It was hilarious and the most fun. We loved it. I was constantly stopping to expel water from my snorkel because I was laughing too much! We interacted with the sea lions on the beach too, but they were mostly just sleeping or nursing babies when they were on shore.
Every day our group was accompanied by educated Naturalists that would escort and educate us. The group size was reduced into smaller ones, usually from 10-15 people, and there was no way to predict which guide we would be with because it depended on who boarded our zodiac at the same time. The guides were all highly professional and delightfully personable, so every guide was a winner.
Day Two -The next island we visited was Española. Española is the oldest island in the archipelago. We were surprised to learn that scientific studies of some of the unique endemic animal species on the islands are millions of years older than all the existing islands. What? How? The islands are formed volcanically as the hot liquid magma leaks out from a hot spot in the tectonic plate (Nazca Plate) under the Pacific Ocean. Over millions of years and movement, new islands are being created as the plate is moving along. The oldest islands that had been formed have eroded away and disappeared under the ocean over millions of years, displacing the animals to the nearest islands that are still existing. Española did not have much elevation and was very dry. It’s uninhabited by humans. We took a zodiac, landed on shore on the rough lava shelves, and hiked around to see what lived there.
This was the place where the Waved Albatrosses live and breed. They are a threatened species of large seabird with a seven foot wingspan. They forage in the open seas for fish and squid, sometimes for several days in one trip, going out as far as 60 miles. They don’t build a nest, just lay a single egg on the rocky ground and move it around. Once the chick hatches, the parents may be gone for more than a day looking for food. They relocate the chick by sense of smell. We did see adult parents walking around looking for their chicks. The mated pair stays together until one of them dies. We were able to actually watch the mating dance going on which included bobbing up and down, and clacking beaks loudly (which sounded like hitting two hollow sticks of bamboo together).
We also saw the famous Galapagos Marine Iguanas. They were so numerous near the shoreline that we had to watch our steps closely because you literally would be stepping on them (I almost did a few times!) They hang out on the beaches and on jagged black lava (which they totally blend in with). A group of iguanas is called “a mess” (no joke). They eat algae (grows like sea lettuce) so they forage in the ocean underwater, diving down to submerged gardens. I noticed that they appeared to be sneezing a lot, but found out that they were actually expelling the high amounts of salt they’d ingested because high amounts of ingested salt is very toxic. Ugh, gross, watch out for the flying iguana snot! The iguanas were completely unaffected by our presence, I could simply walk up to them, bend down and take close up photos and they didn’t even flinch. Not tame, just totally unconcerned with humans. Every island was inhabited by the orange/red Sally Lightfoot crabs. These skittish crabs covered every beach and rocky coastal outcropping on the islands, in great numbers. Their presence gave our photos of the rocky coast splashes of vibrant color. There were armies of them everywhere, of various sizes.
We also saw the famed Blue Footed Boobies. They have a particularly funny mating dance that is a crack up to watch which involved fancy footwork and prancing around. They were my favorite! The feet and beak are a striking turquoise blue color. I could have purchased a souvenir t-shirt that bragged “I love Boobies”, but I thought better of it...
The most unbelievably amazing thing about the animals on these islands is that they are not afraid of humans, so we could get face-to-face with them. This seemed other-worldly to me, they knew no fear of us at all, they were utterly unconcerned. This almost brought me to tears daily because I kept thinking that this was the way the world was created, before humans ruined everything. I had no idea a place like this still existed. The government of Ecuador has done a terrific job in their conservation efforts, despite the fact that eventually tourists will love the Galapagos to death.
Day 3 - Our ship would sail overnight to the next island when we were sleeping. Some nights the sea was rough so there was quite a bit of rocking to and fro when we were trying to sleep. Neither Steve nor I were bothered with seasickness, but the ship’s purser was handing out Dramamine like after dinner mints.
The next day we took a zodiac to the island of Floreana. We would launch by zodiac from the rear of the ship. They had eight zodiacs on board and one glass-bottom boat for the non-snorkelers. The ship had cranes on a boom to load/ unload those zodiacs, it was interesting to watch and the crew was really skilled which made it look easy to do. On this day we had our first “wet landing” which meant that we would need to step out of the boat into calf-deep water in the surf and wade ashore.
Floreana is uninhabited by humans now (but it had a weird history in the 1930’s. If you are interested, rent “The Galapagos Affair: Satan came to Eden” on Netflix. A most bizarre tale). Our group hiked inland to a lagoon that was full of flamingos. They were not real close because they were feeding in the middle of the lagoon, straining the bottom looking for crustaceans. They look pretty goofy, but also have graceful mannerisms. I also interacted with a baby Booby that totally cracked me up.
It was extremely difficult for me to resist touching him, and I could have totally just scooped him right up into my arms easily because he was so innocent and unthreatened by me. This happened every day, constantly. This is one of the reasons why Galapagos is so special.
Charles Darwin really did not have to work very hard to collect his specimens because sometimes he just walked around picking up birds like Easter Eggs! Sounds unlikely until you’ve been to Galapagos and then you will understand.
We hiked to a beach that was known as a sea turtle nesting area. We saw lots of tracks were the females had come up in the night to lay their eggs. We also saw little telltale tracks from hatched babies headed to the ocean (all the activity happens at night, we didn’t see them). This beach was also prolific with sting rays. They float around in the surf, so they taught us to walk and “do the stingray shuffle.” You have to shuffle your feet along the bottom as you walk in the water because the rays are half buried. Our group waded into the surf, shuffling, and disturbed a huge group of about 30 of them, all different sizes. They are not aggressive and only dangerous if you tread on them... but they looked pretty menacing!
We visited “Post Office Bay.” It is the oldest postal location in Ecuador. In the 1500s, whalers and sailors had erected a Post Office barrel here. In those days, ships would be at sea for many years before they returned to their home port. The standing policy was to look through all the mail that had been left in the barrel, and if there were any letters addressed to a port of destination for that particular ship, then that letter was taken out – and ultimately delivered by that ship. No postage necessary, it was an honor system. Seems that this system really did work back in those days, and the barrel is still here in operation today. Our group deposited some postcards for delivery, and we looked through the letters that had been left in the Postal barrel. Some were given the opportunity to go kayaking before breakfast, so we were paddling around by 6:30 a.m.
Day 4 - The Galapagos Islands consists of 13 major islands, and seven smaller islands. The most iconic animals are the Galapagos Tortoises, which presently occupy only four islands. Formerly, they occupied more islands but had become extinct when the islands started receiving human visitors. In the 1500s, buccaneers used to stop at the people in our group took some post cards to deliver in their hometown to the addressees. How fun is that?!
Snorkeling that afternoon had me playing with the sea lions again. I was never afraid of them, though we were warned that they are really just like puppies and will nip playfully once in a while. We also encountered a sea turtle that was feeding, it was pretty neat to watch. The fish and coral were really fantastic.
Our days were non-stop activity. Right away, I started going to bed around 9 p.m. (which is way early, unheard of for me) because I wanted to get enough rest to be able to continue the rest of our week at the same pace. None of the activities were mandatory, but the activities were structured in a way that one could do all the activities available if desired and if you had the energy. We didn’t want to miss anything, so both of us were pretty zonked out by the end of the day. There was one morning that we Galapagos to load up on food and water. Giant tortoises were in high demand and were systematically exploited. Sailors would retrieve them from the islands backpacking them onto the beach, then placing them on the ships decks or hold where the tortoises would survive without food or water for up to a year. It was an easy source of fresh meat for long voyages, but resulted in an estimated loss of between 100,000 – 200,000 tortoises as history marched on (side note – read “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”
Nathaniel Philbrick. True history on which Herman Melville based his famed “Moby Dick.” This ordeal involved the Galapagos and the story is compelling). Over centuries, man also introduced invasive and harmful species such as rats and goats. Tortoises began to be harvested and relocated to zoos and collections worldwide. Today there are around 20,000 tortoises left on the Islands.
We visited the human inhabited Santa Cruz Island and the Charles Darwin Research Station where they are working very hard to help the tortoises raise young ones successfully. Baby hatchlings are kept in safe, secure facilities for five years.
Once they are established and old enough to have a good chance of survival, they are reintroduced into the wild. They can live over 100 years and can weigh up to 500 pounds. We were surprised to learn that they do not start breeding until age 35! Most of the tortoises we saw weighed 300 - 400 pounds. Another fun fact – when two males are “fighting” over a female, they compare neck sizes. The male tortoises face each other and both stretch their neck out as high as they can. The male that has the longest neck wins the battle. I included a photo demonstrating a dominant male strutting his stuff. I also included two photos from the Darwin Center’s exhibits. I was interested to see an example of what the inside of a tortoise’s shell looks like, the tortoises’ vertebrae is attached to the shell on the inside.
The oldest known tortoise that has been accurately documented lived to be 167 years old. We learned that it was conceivably possible that there are still some tortoises living in the wild that were alive when Charles Darwin was on the Islands. Think about that for a minute. WOW!
We traveled to a higher elevation of Santa Cruz Island to a ranching community where we were allowed to hike around and look for tortoises in the wild. On our way there, we counted 50 of them out in the fields. It was really odd because they were in pastures intermingled with ranching cattle – apparently this is a fairly common sight to see tortoises and cows together in the same field. What a weird sight that was! The highlands were lushly forested and grassy. The tortoises eat grass and are pretty much out in the open. We were able to walk up to many of them, they were so gentle and so amazing to watch. It was really hard to tear ourselves away from each one of them. Another fun fact -the tortoises like to soak in warm pools; we did find a pool with several tortoises having a spa day. It was raining a light mist that day but we had slickers, and the touring company provided high top rubber boots so we just took it in stride.
Day 5 - We spent a second day on the island of Santa Cruz, but this time on the other side of the island from where the tortoises are located. Santa Cruz is one of the larger islands so the landscape was diverse. Our ship sailed to the northwestern coast (uninhabited) where we spent some time hiking around checking out the famed endemic land iguanas. Actually we saw two different varieties living in an area called “Cerro Dragon” which translates as “Dragon Hill.” We probably walked about 2 miles inland, you can see our ship out in the distance in one of the photos. I included several photos of the landscape. The beaches had amazing white sand that transitioned into rugged black lava rock. Inland, the soils were orange due to mineral content. There were stark contrasts with the low greenery and the sparse trees (which were bare this time of year). There was an abundance of tall cacti spread amongst the trees, and that is what the land iguanas eat.
Upon making landfall, we encountered the marine iguanas. They are mostly black and reminded me of Godzilla. Charles Darwin called them “Imps of Darkness.” When they are not on the beaches diving for seaweed, they migrate inland and hang around in lagoons here. Their trackways can be seen in the lagoon shallows.
They bask in the sun to warm up because the ocean water is pretty cold for them. We asked the Naturalists if the sea lions try to hunt them for food? No, but the sea lions do grab them by the tails and attempt to play with them in the water, which can result in the death of the iguana. (Sounds just like a puppy, right?)
Next we encountered the yellowish land iguanas. They live in burrows underground and, unlike the marine iguanas, are solitary. We actually saw several of them fighting over “real estate.” They mainly eat cactus fruit, so they spend their days waiting for the prickly pear fruit to fall on the ground.
The cactus fruit is covered with long sharp needles. We actually saw an iguana rolling a fruit around with his front claws, breaking the spines off so he could eat. Apparently they never do get all the spines off and it’s fairly common for iguanas to bleed from the mouth while they are feeding. Tough life!
This was a fairly surreal hike. The scenery and animals were other-worldly here. It was magically beautiful. No wonder Galapagos used to be called “The Enchanted Isles” by the buccaneers!
Day 6 – Bartlome. Our group went ashore on a smaller island just off the east coast of Santiago Island. Bartoleme is a volcanic moonscape with not many plants at all. It was a geologic treat with lots of examples of volcanic spatter cones and lava flows. There has not been much erosion of the features yet, everything looked freshly minted from the earth and very eerie. Nevertheless, Bartolme is picturesque and the views are stunning.
We went snorkeling twice on this day, and we had the best snorkeling experience so far because the full sun was out and the lighting was excellent. In the morning, we encountered an unbelievable collection of starfish. They were mostly sitting on the sandy bottom and there were hundreds of them. This dive was called a “deep water drift”; it was along a rocky shoreline that dropped directly into deep water, with a strong current. No shallows at all. The zodiacs dropped us off so we could swim with the flow of the current along the shoreline. Occasionally during our time in the water, I would stop and look at the cliffs above me. It was pretty funny because the sea lions and marine iguanas were sitting up there, looking down at us. Who is observing who? Later that afternoon our ship moved to Sombrero Chino, another islet near Santiago. It is a really weird experience to be sitting in the water, looking at a shoreline of black craggy lava with a forest of tall cacti growing everywhere. It’s even stranger to be snorkeling and look up from snorkeling underwater to see penguins looking down at you! Galapagos penguins are fairly small. We were lucky to catch them sunning themselves after feeding. What charming little guys they were! Steve swam above a black tipped reef shark, and I saw a moray eel and a group of puffer fish.
Day 7 – Genovesa. Our last day of the island expedition was spent on Genovesa, which is known for an overwhelming amount of bird life. Our ship sailed into Darwin’s Bay, which is a submerged volcanic caldera, so the ship was surrounded by land on three sides (our captain earned his wages that day). Immediately upon making a wet zodiac landing on the beach, we saw nesting birds literally everywhere. I was really fascinated by the young red footed boobies, which were occupying every tree and bush. Completely innocent and unafraid, these babies calmly regarded us while we stood less than a foot away. I did not need to use a zoom lens because I was standing right next to the birds. The boobies used the bushes as cover and protection from the frigate bird, which also nested in profusion here. We learned that frigate birds are just like pirates; they don’t hunt for their own food, rather, they steal it. The frigates chase the boobies over the ocean when they are returning from hunting and harass them until the boobies drop (or regurgitate) their meal. Then, in mid-air, the frigates catch the food. The boobies nest in the bushes and trees because the frigates won’t climb in between branches. The frigate birds had nests out in the open on the ground. Up on the rocks were nesting swallow tailed gulls, Nazca boobies, and red billed tropicbirds. It was an unbelievable amount of birds, completely unafraid of us. We also hiked up the cliffs to an open area, looking for the Galapagos owl. I can brag that I located one of the owls before our guide could spot it, which pretty much astonished the rest of the people in our group.
Our journey had reached its end, and it was pretty hard to say goodbye to the Enchanted Islands. The entire trip had exceeded our expectations, and did measure up to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Definitely unforgettable and worthwhile. We felt very blessed. We flew from Baltra to Quito for two days to explore that historic city. We met a very spry 75 year old man at the Basilica Voto de Nacional, who we hired as a guide. We followed him for five hours throughout the historic section of “Old Town” in Quito. He made sure we saw everything, from the famous landmarks to obscure details. He was a local resident, so he shepherded us behind the scenes in a few of the “fine arts” schools Old Town was awesome, there were so many buildings still in use from the 1500’s, 1600, 1700’s and 1800’s. Steve reminded me that Quito had never experienced any world wars, and not many natural disasters and thus, much of the architectural history is still intact. However, the area is surrounded by dormant but active volcanoes; potentially all this history could get wiped out by a catastrophic eruption. We had a wonderful time, learned a great deal, and maximized every available moment we had in this wonderful place! ~ Deb