Again, the boat travels during the night and we wake to find ourselves at South Plaza Island. The two islands were originally one, but an uplift of lava from the sea floor split them in two and ancient chunks of coral can be seen lying on the surface. It is bloody hot on land but there is a breeze and we enjoy the hike, encountering many colourful land iguanas along the way. The far side of the island has steep rugged and jagged cliffs, the tops of which are pure white. Christian explains it is the result of centuries of sea lions urinating on the rocks and polishing the rocks with their fur. I am agog that they can climb up there at all and that they do it every night. On the way back to the pangas, we stop to learn more about sea lions. This spot is a nursery where mothers hang out while their young learn to swim in this protected area until they are ready to brave the open ocean and its predators (particularly orcas). We learn that the males compete for females and the bigger, dominant ones acquire harems. The males that don't win females (Christian calls them the "losers") live apart in bachelor groups .
|Rocks polished by sea lion urine||Sea lion nursery|
A couple of hours of cruising takes us to Santa Fe Island. We enjoy watching the Frigate Birds just a few feet above us, effortlessly riding the air currents above the ship. I was watching the water off to starboard and caught a glimpse of an orca breaching.
After lunch and some relaxation, we set out to snorkel with sea lions. Christian is a very strict naturalist and emphasizes that, whatever we might see tourists from other cruise boats doing, we are absolutely not to touch the sea lions or try to play with them. It is a challenge to resist because they swim close to us and they are very cute. We also see trumpet fish, small rays and big, green sea turtles.
On Santa Fe, we do a wet landing onto the beach with the goal of seeing some iguanas that are specific only to this island. On landing, we face a challenge: the beach is full of sunbathing sea lions. Fortunately, Christian speaks fluent sea lion and is able, with coughs and grunts, to politely ask a few females to move over and let us pass. Later, as we make our way to the next beach, we have to detour over some rocks to avoid a large, cranky male. Christian tries to reason with him too, but loses this argument. Size matters in sea lion society! We meet Pedro and Dino, two of the only sixty remaining mating pairs of the Santa Fe Iguana, a species which is near extinction and exists only on this island. We have a group photo taken in front of the largest prickly pear cactus in the Galapagos -- it is the size of a large tree. On the way back to the ship, our pangas are surrounded by sea turtles.
|Beachful of sea lions||Santa Fe iguana|
We wake just before dawn as the boat is approaches the large dramatic rock called Leon Dormido. It juts sheer out of the water to a height of hundreds of feet. The boat circles the rock so we can observe and photograph it and then we are in the water with our snorkelling gear. We swim through the narrow channel between the two halves of the rock and see black-tipped sharks, sea turtles and sea lions.
|Leon Dormido at sunrise
|We snorkel all around these rocks|
The boat then heads to the island of San Cristobal and drops anchor in the harbour of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, one of the two main towns in the Galapagos. About half of our shipmates are on the four-day tour and are leaving the boat. For us, we would have been devastated to leave at this point! We are ever so pleased that we chose the eight-day tour and can stay on for the rest of the voyage.
|Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island|
Christian heads to the airport with the departing guests and to bring back the newcomers. As we are here for several hours, he organizes vehicles to take us on a tour of the island. We visit the El Junco lagoon, a small lake in the crater of a tiny extinct volcano and one of the only sources of fresh water in the islands.
|El Junco lagoon||Adarsh, one of our group|
Then we are taken to the Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado, a breeding centre for giant land tortoises. We meet several huge male and female adults and then, in different enclosures, we see 1 and 2-year-olds, 3 and 4-year-olds and then 5 and 6-year-olds who are ready for release into the wild. Access to a 26 square kilometre area at one end of the island, where the tortoises dwell, is rigidly controlled to minimize interference with their ability to survive. We learn about their diet, mating habits, egg-laying, and incubation periods as we are guided through the sanctuary. To my amazement, I learn that the temperature at which the eggs are incubated determines the sex of the hatchling. The conditions at the centre are clean and the animals appear to be comfortable and well-fed (a bit difficult to tell on a 200-pound tortoise to be honest), but they have plentiful supplies of the leaves and vegetation that make up their diet.
|Juvenile tortoises||Breeding pens|
Back on board, we meet our new shipmates, enjoy a cold beer or two and turn in for an early night.
The early morning sunrise over Espaņola Island is breathtaking! As we wait for the breakfast bell, a small Galapagos dove, with his bright red legs and brilliant blue eye ring lands on the upper deck. He trots around poking here and there, perches momentarily on the rail, poops on the deck and flies off. We begin our day with a wet landing in Gardner Bay on the nicest beach we have seen yet -- the sand is soft, almost white and decorated with tiny pink and white shells. Further down the beach we see a bright red and green Christmas iguana.
Photo by Per Gare
On our trek around Espaņola island, we are lucky to see several Galapagos hawks and green and white marine iguanas -- the largest found in the Galapagos. Although iguanas are normally dry-land animals, these amazing reptiles have evolved the ability to dive into the ocean, swim down and eat algae off the rocks under water. Because they are cold-blooded animals they cannot stay in the cold sea water very long or their body temperature will drop too low, so they quickly climb back up the cliffs and bask in the hot sun until they get warm again. These iguanas dig burrows in the ground and under rocks to lay their eggs. We watch a scrap between two females over a choice site. Immediately after this we come upon a large tortoise. Christian is quite excited as he did not expect we would see one here. They are slowly being reintroduced to this island, but are still relatively rare.
|Galapagos hawk||Giant tortoise reintroduced successfully to Espanola|
|"Christmas" marine iguana|
For me the highlight of this island is the Waved Albatross! These enormous birds spend months at sea without ever touching land. They soar for long distances with their 7 to 8 foot wingspans. Only during breeding season, they return to Espaņola island to lay eggs and raise their chicks. This island is ideal for them as it has high cliffs on the windward side that the albatross uses to get airborne. On land they are very clumsy and we are fortunate for the opportunity to watch one of their spectacular crash landings as it is just the very beginning of the breeding season.
|Cliffs on the windward
side of Espaņola -- ideal take-off field for albatrosses
||Waved albatross on final
Photo by Per Gare
Photo by Per Gare
|Called the "waved" albatross because of tiny wave
patterns on the feathers
Photo by Per Gare
We wake up before the sunrises over Floreana Island and are soon off to the beach at Cormorant Point. This was the site of a whale oil rendering plant and we peer at the rusty old boiler and other relics. A short hike leads us to a small lagoon where we watch flamingos sifting the shallow water with their beaks to collect the tiny shrimp that form their diet and colour their feathers pink.
After lunch we visit Post Office Bay to mail and pick up post cards in keeping with tradition. Nineteenth century whaling vessel crews set up a wooden barrel and placed letters in it addressed to families at home in the United States or Europe. Later ships that called on their way home would collect letters and forward them to their intended recipients.
|Ruins of 18th century whaling industry||Mail barrel at Post Office Bay|
|Curious Galapagos flycatcher||"I've always wondered what was inside one of these things...."|
Christian leads us to a lava tube and we carefully descend into it. It is like a long tunnel created by hot gasses during the volcanic eruption. We clamber down rickety wooden steps, as if we are descending into the bowels of the earth. At the bottom we walk on a sandy floor and eventually reach the end which is blocked by seawater. It is very dark and we use our flashlights, but it is also delightfully cool after the blistering heat above ground.
|Entrance to the lava tube...||...into the bowels of the earth!|
|Bottom of the lava tube; it extends out under the sea||Pretty yellow warbler|
Back on board, Christian does a presentation on the history of the Galapagos but most of us are too tired to pay much attention. The ship weighs anchor early as it is a ten-hour cruise to the next island. We all turn in early and sleep like logs, lulled by the rolling motion of the ship.
The pangas take us ashore at Sulivan Bay on Santiago Island to visit a spectacular lava field. The most recent eruption was in 1905 (just this morning in geologic time) and the lava is absolutely barren of vegetation. Nevertheless, the swirls and ripples look like the lava is still liquid. Christian is very knowledgeable and teaches us more than most of us will ever need to know about volcanoes and lava. For example, we learn that this is a typical example of pahoehoe lava! I never knew that!
|Sheets of lava||pahoehoe lava|
During our lunch break Christian gives us an interesting presentation on the various fish to be seen in these waters and then we are back into the pangas for our afternoon snorkelling session. This is the most spectacular place we have snorkelled in yet. it is called Pinnacle rock: a sheer rock rising straight out of the sea to a height of a couple hundred feet. We swim around the base amid sea turtles, a penguin swimming underwater, clouds of tropical fish and an octopus. The highlight for me is watching a sea turtle about three feet in diameter, swim straight towards me. At the last minute it dips down, passes sedately underneath me and goes on about his way.
The boat moves the short distance to Bartholomew Island and we go ashore for our last hike. On our way to shore, we see a marine iguana swimming in the water, more blue footed boobies and a tiny Galapagos penguin, the second smallest of the world's penguins and the only one to be found north of the equator.
Photo by Per Gare
|Blue footed boobies
Photo by Per Gare
Photos by Per Gare
We disembark from the pangas on a short set of concrete steps, where unfortunately we encounter a sleeping female sea lion, blocking our way. As it is forbidden to chase or frighten the animal, we are treated to another display of Christian's sea lion linguistic skills. He barks and coughs and grunts until the sea lion, with some ill grace, slides off the steps into the water.
The hike takes us on a boardwalk and many, many steps to the very top of a small volcanic peak. It is a stiff climb and we are both pretty pooped by the time we reach the top, but the volcanic terrain we pass through is fascinating and the view from the overlook at the top is magnificent!
|Boardwalk to peak on Bartolome island||View from top looking down at Pinnacle rock|
The boat moves during the night the short distance to North Seymour Island. We are up early to grab a coffee and then off to Black Turtle Cove in a gentle rain to see if the sea turtles are awake. The pangas putter through shallow channels among the mangroves and we see many sea turtles. The young turtles hang out in this protected area to avoid predators in the open water. We also see some baby sharks.
|Putting through the mangrove channels|
|Juvenile black-tipped shark
Photo by Per Gare
|Beautiful sea turtle
Photo by Per Gare
We return to the boat for breakfast, to pack and to say farewell to our shipmates. Meanwhile, the boat moves to Baltra Island and we are taken ashore for the short bus ride to the airport. Sadly, our Galapagos adventure is over! We both absolutely loved every minute that we spent here and we are determined to return one day to cruise the other itinerary. It takes you to the more remote western group of islands. There is much more still to see!