Saturday, October 8, 2011

Galapagos Part 2 of 5 - Ecuador

Day 1: Isla Santa Cruz
Our first full day of the tour began with a nice continental breakfast in the hotel, no surprises there.  We were a little apprehensive after we grudgingly handed over $1,900 dollars cash in return for a paper receipt with the instruction that we would be collected at half eleven to be driven to the harbour.  It wasn’t easy to trust but the hotel staff knew Freddy and it would be too hard to find a crook in the Galapagos so hand over the money we did.  The car to collect us was ten long minutes late, but soon we were on our way to the harbour and riding a small boat out towards where the majority of ships were stationed, most of which were yachts, catamarans or luxury cruise liners!  Out of nowhere a ketch pirate ship emerged and I immediately knew which boat would be our home for the next seven nights.  It really had character and stood out like a donkey wearing a tiara in a beauty queen contest amongst the other modern ships. 
Sulidae emerges from amongst the luxury yachts and catarmarans!

Here’s the spec, Jack Aubrey would be proud:

The Sulidae is a ketch, gaff-rigged motor sailor. It is 63 feet in length, with a beam length of 16feet. Speed is 8 knots, Capacity 12 passengers, with 6 double cabins- each with private bath, hot shower and air-conditioning. 4 crew + 1 guide.

On board we received a warm welcome and were shown to a very small cramped cabin below deck at the front of the ship.  The beds were bunk beds but staggered so than the one below fanned out from the one above and as a result there was only enough standing space for one.  We asked to change to go further back in the boat and we were able to change to a room with a bit more space towards the rear and we soon had our stuff nicely tucked away and orderly.  The best quarters with more space and panoramic views are right at the back but were already taken by a guy who was half way through his tour having started on a different island.  The toilets were pump operated and the usually cold shower just a hose which you used sitting on the toilet like a pensioner which is actually the best way when it’s choppy.  I actually quite enjoyed all this boat living in the end and there was no denying the character of the ship.  ‘Sulidae’ as it is named is a Dutch built ketch which began its life as a fishing vessel, incredibly dating back to 1901 although it has obviously seen a lot of restoration between then and now including the addition of a motor.

Below deck on Sulidae

Kate in the Sulidae shower/ on the toilet

WHAT ABOUT THE ANIMALS? Alright, I’ll get to that.  After the four of us sat down for the most incredible monster buffet lunch it became apparent that we weren’t to be joined by other people just yet.  We headed back on shore and up to the highlands of Santa Cruz island and embarked on a walk around a trail which demonstrated some of the best of what the Galapagos has to offer in the way of endemic vegetation.  The short trail we followed was orientated around three large ‘collapses’ of volcanic lava tubes.  These were giant crater-like holes that had been produced when the roof of the solidified lava that had escaped from a volcano far away could no longer support itself and fell into the self-created tube.  Now these craters were overgrown with scalesia trees and guava trees that bear no fruit along with other species that are unique to the islands.  During the walk we were lucky enough to come across birds, also endemic, that flew surprisingly close and weren’t easily intimidated.  The best find we made was a female ‘flycatcher’ bird which flew down to say hello but we also saw Yellow Warblers, Darwin Finches and a Galapagos Dove.   

Vegetation now grows over a volcanic tube collapse

A female flycatcher checks us out

John our guide and the escalia trees

Next we were to do what I had been looking forward to most in the Galapagos, we were about to meet an animal which exists nowhere else naturally in the world and symbolises the islands.  They are the stuff of legends, they weigh up to 250 kilograms, they easily outlive all of us, they are phenomenal… the Galapagos Giant Tortoise.  A bumpy road lead us to the area where they exist in the wild but under watchful eyes of national park workers.  There was a café and gift shop which had the hollow shells of the tortoises that were so big that it was possible to climb inside which Kate obviously did.  Having seen the turtles later I found the comparison astonishing, judge for yourself…

Can you spot the one subtle difference between these photographs?

We spent a good length of time walking amongst the tortoises and it was possible to get close to them although understandably it is prohibited to touch any of the animals on the islands.  The turtles were quite timid and are intimidated by height because they stand up as tall as possible when facing each other in confrontation.  It was therefore important to stay as low to the ground as possible when close otherwise they would withdraw into their shells.  They are very gentle animals but have quite a presence and they could often be heard making a long and low breath as they bellowed out air that sounded like a car engine shutting off.  It was an amazing experience to be able to mingle amongst these creatures and comprehend their size first hand.

Kate and her new giant tortoise buddy

Walking with dinosaurs?

Giant Tortoises have had a pretty rough time over the last couple of hundred years. Hundreds of thousands of them have been slaughtered after the Galapagos was discovered and used as an outpost by pirates and bootleggers.  The tortoises are apparently delicious and the sailors could keep them alive on the ships until they needed to eat them so the meat wouldn’t spoil.  In later years they were used in industry and their ‘oil’ was sold and used in street lighting to the point where they were severely endangered and some subspecies of giant tortoises on other islands like Floreana were driven to extinction.  Programs are now in effect to try to restore these subspecies populations back to healthy proportions in the wild but it is difficult as introduced predators such as rats, cats and goats still remain meaning that young or gestating tortoises don’t have much of a chance and need to be raised in captivity for years until they are large enough to be released. 

You can come out now big guy, it's safe now... Kind of

The evening was drawing in and we made our way back to the harbour and onto the small ‘Zodiac’ boat which took us back to our pirate ship Sulidae where another slap up meal awaited us prepared by Wilman, the ship’s cook.  Wilman was a wizard of a cook and defied all laws of cooking physics by being able to prepare such amazing dishes in the boat’s shoe box of a kitchen.  We relaxed on deck in the harbour whilst it became dark, watching the lights of other boats bobbing around on the calm water.  The ship always sailed at night so soon the engines turned on, the anchor was raised and we were making our way to another island, Isla Santiago.

John our guide riding the Zodiac back to Sulidae

Wilman, arguably the most valuable person on the boat

Relaxing on deck

Frigate Bird

Crewmember in the driving seat

Day 2: Isla Santiago
After a great breakfast of eggs, pancakes and much more than we could never possibly eat between us we went on deck and admired the views as we reached Isla Santiago.  There were birds bobbing all over the ocean surface and we could often look up to see Frigate birds following the ship.  The approaching landscape was both beautiful and alien.  It was like something from a Dali painting seeing the rusty mounds of land, volcanic and unforgiving but spectacular.  Having boarded the Zodiac we made our way to the rocky landing where we were greeted by brightly coloured Galapagos crabs.  Once we set foot on the island it became apparent that we were walking upon a lava field which looked more like a work of art than simply ‘the floor’.  John our guide explained that there were two types of lava here, the Pa Hoe Hoe (meaning rope) and the Ah Ah lava (after the sound you make when you walk on it in bare foot), both Hawaiian in name.  We treaded across this landscape seemingly from another world, now and again dodging wayward locusts who in the strong wind had found themselves lost in this barren place and sometimes coming across dead ones whose time had run out.  Life, as they say, finds a way and it wasn’t long before we found some lava cacti miraculously growing amongst the rock.  

The beautiful approach to Isla Santiago

Rusty rocky mounds

Crabby greetings

More like a work of art than lava

Kate admiring the 'rope' lava

A dead locust

Walking further we came off the black lava and onto red rock and dust.  It was even possible to see where the flow of molten lava ran out of juice and stopped in its tracks, weird…  This lack of lava didn’t last for long though and we were soon on another plain of once molten rock.  We also caught our first glimpses of the tiny scurrying lava lizards, tiny gecko-live creatures that would let you get surprisingly close before darting into a crevice.  Back onto the Zodiac, we cruised round to another bay and did a bit of penguin spotting.  In true Galapagos fashion, the Galapagos Penguin lets you get as close as you like without a care.  They casually stood on the rocks seeing to their feathers, making sure that they were nice and oily for their next dip into the sea.  

Lava Cactus growing amongst the lava

The lava flow stops here

Walking on the surreal landscape

A lava bubble

John our guide

The beautiful beach leading to the sea

The Galapagos penguin chilling on his rock

The Zodiac pulled up to a jetty that was already occupied by a group of Marine Iguanas on Bartalome Island.  Marine Iguanas are… yes you guessed it, endemic to the Galapagos Islands.  They arrived all those years ago along with the tortoises on whatever raft or debris they used to get here and over time evolved to swim and dive in order to reach the tasty green algae that they now eat.  Now and again it was possible to see the Blue Footed Boobie birds kamikaze dive into the ocean in order to try to catch their fish.  We climbed up a wooden staircase, stopping at various points where our guide would explain various facts about the Galapagos and quiz us on any knowledge he had already imparted.  At one point we picked up a large porous rock which looked heavier that it was, although it was still pretty heavy… There was a spectacular view of the Island from the viewpoint and we stayed up there as long as we could in the blustery wind.  Having climbed back down to the beach we had an opportunity to do some snorkeling and had a chance to swim near penguins and iguanas.

Galapagos Marine Iguana
Blue footed booby

Picking up the porous rock

The view from the peak of Bartalome Island

In the sea at Bartalome

We were busy following the colourful fish around when out of nowhere a sea turtle appeared and we suddenly had a new friend.  He looked at us with disinterest or at most a mild sense of caution as he effortlessly glided through the waters.  We had seen sea turtles during previous dives but most had been very timid, this specimen certainly wasn’t and like the other animals we could have reached out and touched it but for the rules which are there to be respected.  The fact that we were swimming with a turtle barely sunk in when John and Danny on the Zodiac saw a penguin chilling on the rocks in front of us.  Because we weren’t in the boat it was possible to make our way up to him as he casually preened himself and generally penguined around in the sun.  Not two meters away a big black marine iguana sat overlooking us admiring the penguin.  In a different spot we were also lucky enough to spot a ray gliding along the sea floor.  It was all great fun and a unique experience, we went back to the boat and chilled out until dinner was served up to us before having an early night for our six am start the next day.


  1. sometimes i dream that you are my best friend, then i remember u r, so i cry tears of salty water, collect them in a cup, and pour them over my breast

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    3. That's great! Keep checking out the blog for updates.