Santa Cruz – Galapagos Islands

Day 3: Santa Cruz Island – Charles Darwin research station and the Highlands

We had another short sail at night from Santa Fe to Santa Cruz island. Santa Cruz has the largest town of all the inhabited Galapagos islands and is where all of the crew from our boat lived. It is also famously known for the Galapagos Giant Tortoises! Four of the other passengers left the boat that morning which meant there was only one other lady, Helen, apart from Dave and I. She had already done the tour on Santa Cruz Island so she went off on her own leaving Dave and I to have our own private tour for the day with Fabian, our guide!

We headed to the Charles Darwin Research Station which focuses on conservation by breeding and re-introducing Giant Tortoises back in to the wild. Giant tortoises are the largest terrestrial reptiles on earth weighing up to 250kg and are only found in two places in the world; the Galapagos and on Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean (who knew that?! – we had to google it later – it’s a tiny island in the Seychelles). Only 10% of the Galapagos Giant Tortoise population remains due to pirates and whalers eating them in the 1700s and because of both introduced plants and animals that threatened the species. At the time we went in December 2017, the centre had 983 tortoises, ranging from babies all the way to 100 year old adults! The adults were ones that can’t be reintroduced in to the wild, perhaps because they had been kept as pets or in zoos previously. The majority of tortoises at the centre are young ones. Up to the age of 4, the tortoises are very vulnerable so they are kept until they are large enough to be safe out in the wild; they need to reach 23cm before they are released. One of the most interesting things we learnt was that tortoises don’t have X/Y chromosomes but rather you can determine the gender of the tortoise based on the temperature in which the egg is incubated! 28 degrees breeds males and 29.5 degrees breeds females! Since 1970, the Darwin station has released 5,456 tortoises on to the various Galapagos islands.

Up close, they were more fantastic than I could have ever imagined. They just looked so prehistoric and I still can’t get over their sheer size! We of course, went to see the world famous (now stuffed) tortoise called Lonesome George. He was the last remaining tortoise of his specie from the island in the north of the Galapagos archipelago called Pinta. His kind was previously declared extinct however he was discovered in the 1970s by locals. There was a great effort to find him a mate to breed with but alas, he was the last of his kind and he died in 2012. The other famous tortoise that we saw, alive this time, was Diego. He came from San Diego zoo in the US to save his species from extinction. He is over 100 years old and apparently has fathered an estimated 800 of the endangered tortoises from Española island. The research station was really educational and we even got our passports stamped there with the tortoise logo (obviously my favourite page in my passport now).

We had a bit of free time on Santa Cruz island before heading back to the boat for lunch. We wandered down the main street called Charles Darwin street and perused the many souvenir shops (I succumbed to a tea-towel with a map of the archipelago). We also stopped by the famous fish market where sea lions, pelicans, frigate birds and herons surround the fisherman in wait of a morsel! It was such a bizarre and comedic sight, I could have stayed and taken photographs there all day. It was my goal in Paracas, Peru to take a photograph of a pelican with it’s mouth open and I finally got one that I love!  Lastly, we went to see the Santa Cruz Hollywood-style sign by the pier. Whilst we were there we spotted our first marine iguana actually swimming in the water! We were shocked by how quickly and effortlessly it moved, we almost had to jog along the pier to keep up with the pace to watch. On the pier, we also met Miguicho, an incredible man on a mission – who was also in a viral video.  He turned his life around from being an alcoholic and a sailor who was shipwrecked for 77 days to someone who has collected over 822,500 cigarette butts! He turned some of them in to art sculptures to raise awareness about water contamination. He showed us videos of Galapagos albatrosses in particular who eat the ends. It made me even more thankful that I’ve finally managed to quit smoking (it’s been over 3 months now!) but also even more guilty for how much I owe the planet for any time that there wasn’t a bin and I stubbed out the cigarette on the floor.

We came back on board and had a private lunch for 2! Then we headed back out to Santa Cruz’s Highlands. We first went to Los Gemelos (the twins) which are two huge volcanic craters. On the walk around Los Gemelos is the Scalesia forest, apparently made famous by a David Attenborough documentary. There are 15 species of Scalesia endemic to the Galapagos islands; what is so interesting about this plant is that it is a type of dandelion that we have at home, however, here, it grows to be trees; some species even reach 15 metres! Unfortunately, it was quite misty and foggy, very common given the location at the very centre of the island and at higher altitude, so we couldn’t really see the full effect of the crater in too much detail.

Our last excursion of the day was to see the Santa Cruz Giant Tortoises in the wild! Technically, they are part of a farm, though they are free to roam wherever and to leave the area if they wanted to. It was even better seeing the tortoises here than it was in the Charles Darwin research station. It was just madness to see these enormous gentle giants just milling around. The best part was a small pond/water hole where there were FIFTEEN wild tortoises, we will treasure the photo of us together with that backdrop! Lastly in the farm/wild area, there are lava tunnels that you can walk through. Lava tunnels are formed by the outer skin of molten lava solidifying whilst the liquid magma continues to flow through. When the lava flow stopped, the molten lava inside kept going, eventually leaving behind a cavity of empty lava tubes. Very cool to say we’ve walked through a 60 metre lava tube.

As we waited by the pier for our zodiac, we saw a Galapagos shark swimming past! He was only about 60cm but still very cool! In the evening, a new batch of people arrived bringing our total up to 9. We were really surprised that it was such a young cohort; everyone was aged between 23-30. We had another small world moment when one of the new people was the twin of someone Dave played rugby with at university!

Thanks for reading and join us next time for day 4 of the Galapagos cruise!

Sophie & Dave

Santa Fe & South Plaza – Galapagos Islands

Day 2: Santa Fe and South Plaza Islands

We adjusted to being on a boat quite quickly and had a good first night’s sleep, though we decided to take sea sickness tablets throughout the trip as a precautionary measure. We had a fairly early start and got ready for our first hike of the day. This was a ‘wet landing’ on to Sante Fe island meaning we jumped out the zodiac into the water and put our trainers on once we’d got to the beach. The beach and the rocky shores were covered with sea lions. The star of the show however, was a young Galapagos Hawk. He was perched only a few meters away from us on the tree. It was a young hawk because his colourings were a light brown, the adults are much darker. It was so incredible to be so close to a completely wild bird of prey who had no fear of us because he has no predators in the Galapagos and is the very top of the food chain on the island. After the photoshoot of him, we walked back to the beach and turned to see 5 hawks circle and land nearby! I dashed back to get a glimpse and got to see a mature, dark hawk too!

We then set off on our walk in pursuit of the unique specie; the Sante Fe land iguana. This iguana is unique to the island and is more yellow than other land iguanas in the Galapagos. We saw tracks in the sand and even the prints of the scales of the iguanas. The landscape and vegetation on the island was very different to what we’d seen the day prior in San Cristobal and Isla Lobos. Santa Fe is covered in what looks like dead bushes as they are really white, however, our guide said they are still alive and turn green for a couple months of the year around March! The island also has quite a few cacti, the Sante Fe iguanas are often spotted near them as they are lurking, waiting for fallen fruit that they eat. We managed to spot 6 on our walk all quite close to the trail though the highlight was seeing one iguana who was actually eating the cactus fruit and then a Galapagos Mocking bird landed on the iguana and was waiting for a bite. I was very happy I managed to get a photograph of such a rare sight; an iguana endemic to a 24 km2 island, eating the fruit of an endemic Prickly pear cactus that rarely falls and another endemic bird (to the Galapagos archipelago) sitting on his shoulder (see photo below!).

We headed back to the boat for a quick wetsuit change before going back out for our snorkelling session around Sante Fe. It was just as incredible as the day before. We saw a couple of sea turtles gliding effortlessly through the water. We saw interesting fish including quite a few of the beautiful King angelfish which are such a vivid blue colour. We saw an absolutely huge school of Yellowtail Surgeonfish. This was the biggest group of fish I’d ever seen in my life! These fish are about 20cm long and there must have been at least a thousand of them! We also saw a Marble Ray gliding along the ocean floor. The highlight of the snorkel however was when Dave and I were at the back of the group watching the few sea lions twirl in front of us, when a huge reef shark came on to the scene! It was bigger than the ones we’d snorkelled with in Fiji, at least 1.5 metres long! We then watched in awe as a sea lion swam up to pester the shark and tried to bite its tail. Not surprisingly the shark swam off in a hurry – definitely some of my favourite GoPro clips ever!

After lunch on the boat, we sailed on to the nearby South Plaza island for the afternoon.  I went up on the top deck to see about 10 massive Frigate birds sitting on the roof. They like to ride the wind pockets created by the boat so there are always loads perched at the top for a break. The South Plaza island, yet again, was a completely different landscape. It was covered in an extremely vibrant red plant called Sesuvium that changes colour through the seasons, Fabian (our guide) said soon it will turn completely green. We saw a sort of traffic-light effect with greens, yellows and reds! It is so interesting to think how different the Galapagos islands are at different times of the year, it sounds like if we are ever to return, we should come in March when lots of the vegetation changes. We saw quite a few land iguanas dotted around the island, many had what looked to be peeling skin. Apparently iguanas shed their skin twice a year; once before and once after mating. We actually saw lots of iguana carcasses too, which was quite grim but also really fascinating to look at. The island is really small, only about 2km long, though on one side, there are some big cliffs which make for interesting bird life. We saw our first Tropic bird, it is white with black markings on its back with a long, thin tail. Also nesting along the cliffs were Lava Gulls. Finally, we saw quite a lot of sea lions dotted around the islands though we saw one with a huge wound, all the skin on its hind was torn off leaving behind raw flesh. Fabian said it was likely the sea lion had been bitten by a shark and he made a call to report him. Hopefully he will be taken and looked after until he can be released back!

Join us next time as we embark on day three of our Galapagos cruise!

Sophie & Dave

San Cristobal & Isla Lobos – Galapagos Islands

Hello!

The first day of our 8 day sailing adventure around the Galapagos islands. We booked our tour with Happy Gringos travel agency in Quito last minute with a 40% discount. There are a myriad of boats to choose from ranging from basic to luxury, 14 to 100 passengers, routes sailing around the East or West of the archipelago and a couple of days to a couple of weeks. We chose the mid-range Eden yacht, a 78ft boat accommodating 16 passengers, with an 8 day route taking us West across the archipelago. The route was the selling point for us as we got to visit such a variety of islands and in turn, the unique wildlife found there.

Here was our route:

Sailing route around the Galapagos

Day 1: San Cristobal Island & Isla Lobos

We got up at 4am in Quito in order to make it to the airport for our early flight to San Cristobal. We went through the airport smoothly paying our $20 transit fee and then $100 Galapagos park entrance fee on the other side. We arrived at 10:00am and had anticipated having to wait around until at least midday for other passengers on the next flight from Quito however we were pleasantly surprised when our guide Fabian showed up to collect us. We waited by the pier for the little zodiac boat to take us to the yacht in the marina and we saw our first sea lion completely unfazed by us sunbathing at the dock. The boat we chose was the Eden Yacht that holds 16 passengers, 7 crew and the Galapagos guide. We soon discovered however, that there were only 5 other passengers! We were shown to our cabin and we were a little disheartened to find bunk beds and our room being on the top deck. We had specifically requested a twin cabin on the lower deck so as to avoid sea sickness as we were both still scarred from the boats we had to take in Fiji! After unpacking, turns out there was a mix up and we did have a twin room lower down. We were so relieved as the motion is so much less down there, neither of us had to be on a bunk with no railing and we had so much more space to store our clothes/bags. We were happy campers as we met the rest of the people on board and settled down to lunch.

After a short 40 minute sail, we anchored by Isla Lobos. Lobos in Spanish is sea lion! Sea lions are easy to distinguish from seals as they have cute little ears. We got in to our wet suits ready for our first Galapagos experience of snorkelling. When we thought about going to the Galapagos, we never considered we would be wearing wetsuits throughout but the water temperature was cold, ranging between 18-21 degrees. That didn’t matter though because it was absolutely incredible and we got to swim with loads of sea lions! They were so playful, pirouetting in the water and blowing bubbles around us. We could not believe how close they were coming to us. It was such a magical experience. Out of nowhere, two giant sea turtles appeared too! Whilst we snorkelled, Frigate birds circled us over head and Sally Light foot crabs scattered along the rocks where we saw our first Blue footed Booby. We climbed back in to the little zodiac boat and as we drove back to the Yacht, we saw the crew trying to usher a sea lion off the back of our boat!

After an hour we had a quick change on the boat before heading back out to explore the island on foot. As we pulled up in the little dinghy, we couldn’t actually use the island’s steps as sea lions were sleeping there so we jumped along the side. As the island is made of volcanic rock, the surface was extremely uneven so we concentrated a lot on not rolling our ankles. We saw so many sea lions, quite a lot with their pups! We even saw one that our guide estimated was only 4 weeks old! The guide estimated that there were 250 just in the short stretch of rock and sand we were on! We also saw our first land iguanas, much darker in colour than the ones we’d seen in Guayaquil. Again we were lucky enough to spot a really small iguana who was only about 10 months old! All around the island, we saw Frigate birds floating in wind pockets in the sky barely moving at all. We also saw many of them nesting in tree branches. We saw many more females (white and black) than males who have a red neck. We were SO lucky to see one male Frigate bird doing the iconic puffed out red neck as a mating ritual. December is towards the very end of the mating season thus this was such a rare sight. Unfortunately it was a bit too far for a good photograph but we did see it with the naked eye. We got to see a few Blue footed boobies up close and personal too! The males are the ones that nurture the chicks and we saw one with a 3 week old chick! Apparently they did an experiment on the main land giving one bird the same Galapagos fish diet and the other bird a different diet. Only the Galapagos fish diet turned the feet blue, though it is also a sign of maturity as only the adults have the blue feet. The young are just fluff balls and honestly look like cuddly toys! As we walked along the island back towards our boat to head back for dinner, I turned to Dave and said that this might possibly be the best day of my life.

Join us next time for day 2 of the cruise!

Sophie & Dave