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Las Islas Encantadas: Galapagos Aboard Athala II

by Emma-Maria Robertson, AdventureSmith Traveler

This Travel Journal submitted by AdventureSmith traveler Emma-Maria Robertson details her Athala II Galapagos Cruise aboard the 16-guest Athala II. Submit your own AdventureSmith travel tales through our Travel Journal form -- through September 15, 2014, you could win a Galapagos cruise for doing so!

Day 1  

On the plane from Guayaquil to San Cristobal I hear the family who are sitting next to me talking about the boat that they are joining. They are trying to figure out which of the other passengers will be their shipmates for the next week. Although the plane is small I am surprised to find out that this family makes up four of the ten other passengers on our boat. We are given a snack and I am surprised at the amount of times we are told not to take our lifejackets with us when we leave the plane. The flight is short and before I know it we are coming in to land. I hear the undercarriage being lowered, yet when I look out of the window I cannot see land anywhere. Eventually, when it seems we are almost at sea level, the runway appears in front of us. We come to a halt right beside the airport, which is a small wooden building, and two men run over with the stairs. Once again we are reminded not to take our life jackets (which I find out are the seat cushions) with us when we leave. We leave the plane and walk over to the airport. It is a completely open building with a wooden roof. We walk into the arrivals section and present the forms that we have been asked to complete. I see some men wheeling our luggage over to a section just behind the desk. When we are allowed to go through we find all of the suitcases from the plane laid out on the floor and three sniffer dogs wandering over them. Once the dogs have given them the “all-clear” we are allowed to collect our baggage and make our way to the front of the airport where a guide from our boat is waiting for us. We meet a few of our fellow shipmates and head towards a mini bus, which will take us to our home for the next seven days.

As we make our way down to the dock where two pangas (as dinghies are known in the Galápagos Islands) are waiting for us we see our first sea lion. He is basking in the sun, right in our path. Our guide advises us to give him a wide berth and tells us that we will be so used to seeing sea lions and iguanas by the end of our cruise that we will hardly even notice them anymore. I find this very hard to believe while looking at the massive mammal lying at the top of the steps. On the short trip from the dock to the Athala II we see two more sea lions, basking on an anchored fishing boat. After a safety briefing we are ready to head out on our first excursion, to La Galapaguera in the northeast of San Cristobal. It means almost another hour in the bus, but when we arrive we will see giant tortoises.

Due to the exploitation of the species for meat and oil and the introduction of non-native predators to the islands (such as goats, rats and pigs), it became necessary to protect this species. The national park now runs a program to breed them in captivity before releasing them back into the wild on their ancestral home lands. The tortoises at La Galapaguera live in semi-natural conditions. Tortoise numbers declined from over 250,000 in the 16th century to around 3,000 in the 1970s and only ten of the original fifteen subspecies survive in the wild. Due to these conservation programs it is estimated that the total number of the species exceeded 19,000 at the beginning of the 21st century. Despite this the species is still classified as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Galápagos tortoise is the longest lived of all vertebrates, averaging around 100 years. They are also the world’s largest tortoises and the 13th heaviest living reptile with some specimens exceeding 1.5 meters in length and weighing 150 kilograms. Larger tortoises are big enough to carry adult humans on their backs; in 1835 Charles Darwin wrote, “I frequently got on their backs, and then giving a few raps on the hinder part of their shells, they would rise up and walk away; but I found it very difficult to keep my balance.” These herbivores spend their days grazing on grass, leaves and cactus, basking in the sun and napping for nearly 16 hours per day. A slow metabolism and large internal stores of water mean they can survive up to a year without eating or drinking.

Day 2     

In the morning I am woken by the sound of music coming through the speaker in the ceiling of my room. We sailed overnight and are now anchored off Gardener Bay on Española Island. Isla Española, also known as Hood Island (named by the English after Viscount Samuel Hood), is considered to be one of the oldest Galápagos Islands with an estimated age of over three million years. The island is dying and slowly becoming rocky and barren with little or no vegetation. The beach at Gardener Bay, however, looks like paradise. From the white sand beach we can see the Athala II just off the shore, on the crystal blue waters. All along the beach are sea lions, basking in the sun. There must be hundreds, from pups of only a few days old to the largest specimens. Many are lying on their backs allowing their belly to feel the warmth of the rays. Some are enjoying a cooling dip in the sea and a few young pups are playing on the shore. The Galápagos sea lion is a species of sea lion that exclusively breeds on the Galápagos Islands (and on nearby Isla de la Plata, in smaller numbers). They have a body length between 150 and 250 centimeters and they weigh between 50 and 400 kilograms, with the males being much larger than females. They are very inquisitive and social animals. I watch as some of the larger sea lions move along the beach, clumsily and struggling with their own weight. Their flippers do not help them to “walk” across the sand and they flop down regularly to take a break before continuing their short journey. As soon as they reach the water they are transformed into the most graceful and agile animals I have seen. One swims up to a young boy who is playing in the shallow water and splashes him, encouraging him to play a game. We are, once again, advised not to go too close to them and not to touch them and when a member of the group gets too close a large male seal turns sharply and gives a low, threatening growl.

Being surrounded by this animal paradise and the unguarded creatures that inhabit it feels surreal.

After a walk along the long stretch of sand we settle down to relax in the sun (after finding an area that is not occupied by sea lions). Our guide, José, had mentioned mocking birds to us and had advised us not to give them any water, as they could become dependent on tourists providing them with fresh water and forget how to dig for water themselves. He told us that they can recognize a water bottle and will fly straight over to you if they see one. Completely forgetting this I take my water bottle out of my backpack to have a drink. In seconds there are three mocking birds almost on top of me. I can’t believe how confident these tiny creatures are. They stay with us and hop around, looking to see if we have anything of interest to them before resigning to digging a hole between the three of them. Being surrounded by this animal paradise and the unguarded creatures that inhabit it feels surreal.

After a leisurely lunch back on the Athala II we disembark at a pier covered with sea lions and iguanas basking in the sun and I am beginning to understand what our guide said when we arrived at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal. As we begin our walk we pass a sea lion pup playing with a lizard. He is chasing it around a rock and the lizard keeps coming back, as though he is enjoying the game too. Galápagos sea lions feed mainly on fish and so the pup is not hunting for food, he just seems to be playing. A little further on I see another sea lion sharing a rock with an iguana and marvel at how well these two, very different species cohabit. All my marveling (and photo taking) makes me lose the group and I have to hurry to catch up. I find them standing by two blue-footed boobies, one is an adult and the other is a chick. The young booby does not yet have blue feet and still has his white down feathers. Although blue-footed boobies are not endemic to the area, the Galápagos Islands is home to over half of all breeding pairs. These boobies nest on land at nights and take off at dawn in search of food. Their diet consists mainly of anchovies, it is the pigmentation of the fish that gives them their blue feet. It is thought that the booby birds got their name from the Spanish word “bobo,” meaning stupid, which is how early European colonists may have characterized these birds when seeing them walking clumsily on land, their least graceful environment (3). It is also thought that the early Europeans may have characterized these birds as “stupid” due to the fact that they were unafraid of humans, as they have never encountered a human meaning to do them harm. A little further on, a nazca booby is sitting on two eggs. Nazca boobies are the largest of the boobies on the Galápagos Islands and have green feet (although not as bright as those of the blue footed booby). Like their blue-footed relatives, they are ground nesters. It is the nazca booby’s diet of sardines that gives it green feet. Red-footed boobies can look quite similar to nazca boobies from a distance, however their diet of squid give them bright-red feet. Although this bird is sitting on two eggs, only one chick will survive due to a practice known as “siblicides” (the killing of a sibling, regardless of the food supply). The eggs will hatch around four days apart and the older (or stronger) chick will kick the younger (or weaker) one out of the nest. It is believed that two eggs are laid as an insurance policy, if the older chick’s egg is damaged or the chick dies then the younger sibling will survive. A very young blue-footed booby is being fed regurgitated food from one of its parents. Blue-footed boobies can lay up to three eggs at a time and both the males and the females take turns in incubating the eggs and feeding the chicks. If food supplies are good then all three chicks can survive, however if food supplies are low the parents will feed the larger and stronger chick first, which often leads to the death of the younger and weaker sibling.

As we reach the rocky shore we come across a blow hole. The erosion of coastal rocks by the ocean’s waves can sometimes create blow holes. Underwater caves can grow inwards and upwards into vertical shafts, and if conditions are right, this can result in water being blasted out of the shaft when a wave comes in, at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. Nearing the end of our hike we come across some young waved albatrosses (also known as Galápagos albatross) testing their wings. The waved albatross is the largest and the heaviest of the birds found on the Galápagos Islands and it has a wing span of over two meters. These large wings makes soaring effortless, however they do not help the birds to take off, as the sheer size of them makes flapping very difficult indeed. We watch as the young birds flap and hop, most only staying in the air for a second or two before coming back down to land. The waved albatross only nest on Española Island and lay one single egg.

Day 3     

It is an early start on the third day of the cruise, as we are hoping to catch sight of the flamingos in the Flamingo Lagoon at Punta Cormorant on Floreana Island. Once we have been brought ashore we begin our hike inland. When we reach the lagoon we see three beautiful flamingos wading through the water. The flamingos that live in the Galápagos are related to the ones that live in the Caribbean and they gain their bright pink colour from the small shrimp and crustaceans that they eat. The Galápagos flamingos do not migrate and, although there has been no major decrease recently, their low numbers make them vulnerable. They are indistinguishable from other flamingo species, however they are loosely considered to be endemic, as they do not have contact with any other flamingos. They lay only one egg and both parents tend to it, taking shifts. If anything happens to either parent this process is broken and the egg will be put at risk by being left alone while the remaining parent goes to get food. This reproductive pattern contributes to the vulnerability of the species. We continue across to a beach at the other side of the island, a known as a nesting area for sea turtles. It is a green-sand beach, due to the large amount of olivine crystals. These crystals have been expelled from nearby tuff cones by the wind. A tuff cone is a type of volcanic rock which is formed by the interaction of basaltic magma (molten volcanic rock beneath the surface of the earth) and water.

I head down to the rocks at the shore where I find sally lightfoot crabs. These brightly coloured crabs are truly beautiful and even seem to pose for the camera. The sally lightfoot crab is also known as the red rock crab. Adults vary in colour, from reddish-brown, to mottled or spotted brown, pink or yellow. When they are young they are dark brown, which allows them to camouflage easily with the volcanic rocks. They are the most common saltwater crabs along the western coast of South America and are one of the few saltwater crabs that inhabit the Galápagos Islands. Sally lightfoot crabs are between eight to twelve centimetres in length and are flat and low to the ground. I spend a while photographing these gorgeous creatures while some other members of the group spot a ray swimming near the shore.

After breakfast we head out in the pangas again, this time to Baroness Lookout. On our way we pass a lazy sea lion, sharing a rock with some sally lightfoot crabs. He slowly slides down the rock and flops into the water to cool off. A sea turtle swims up alongside the pangas and a blue-footed booby watches us from a nearby rock. History says that Baroness Elisa Go Wager particularly liked this spot and would spend hours enjoying the view of the sea from here. We make our way up the path and when we arrive at the top is obvious why the Baroness spent so much time here. The view is magnificent. We head back to the Athala II for lunch and to get ready for the finals of the Galápagos cup. Apparently the crew of the boats in the Galápagos Islands arrange a football tournament each year, which they play on the “football pitch” at Post Office Bay and our team have made it to the finals. We head ashore and cheer our team on to victory. Our team wins and are presented with the Galápagos cup and a bottle of champagne. After the excitement of the football match we leave our crew to celebrate and make our way to the post office. A man named Hathaway erected wooden barrel (some say it was originally a box) to be used as a post office for whalers. Letters to loved ones back home would be left in the barrel and the next passing ship would collect and deliver them. The post office still stands today and tourists leave postcards in the barrel and take others to deliver when they return home. Captain James Colnett is often mistakenly credited for installing the post office, however the first written account of its existence states that there was a black sign over it with the words “Hathaway’s Postoffice™ painted on. Mr. Hathaway has not been identified, but it is thought that he could have been a whaler. We leave our postcards and select some addressed to places near to our homes to deliver when we return. We also carve our names into one of the many planks of wood, covered with t he names of the visitors to this very unique post office.

Day 4

On day four of the cruise we wake up in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. Santa Cruz is the second largest of the islands in the Galápagos and is around 1,000 kilometres squared. The island has a long history of human settlement and agriculture and is now the most populated, out of the four inhabited islands, with an estimated population of 17,000. Puerto Ayora is the island’s largest city, located on the southern coast, in Academy Bay. We head ashore, to the Charles Darwin Research Centre, a biological research station that was created in 1960 and is operated by the Charles Darwin Foundation. It is the centre of the great restorative efforts taking place in the Galápagos Islands. The station features a tortoise rearing house, where hatchlings and young tortoises can be nurtured until they can be released to their home islands. This usually happens when the tortoise is around four years old. Adult tortoises that cannot be released back into the wild live in the adult tortoise area, in several different enclosures for the protection of each subspecies. One of the first stops is the Galápagos land iguana. There are two species of land iguanas found on the Galápagos islands: the Galápagos land iguana, which is native to six islands, and the Barrington land iguana, which is only found on the island of Santa Fe. They are large, yellowish iguanas, over one metre long and can weigh up to thirteen kilograms. The Galápagos iguanas are thought to have a common ancestor who probably floated over to the islands from South America on rafts of vegetation. The land iguanas live in drier areas and are much brighter and more colourful than their marine relatives. At night they sleep in burrows in the ground in order to conserve their body temperature.

There are a few different species of giant tortoises to see before we reach the star of the show, Lonesome George. At the time Lonesome George was the last survivor of the dynasty of land tortoises from Pinta Island and was estimated to be between 100 and 150 years old. He was found in December of 1971 and taken to the Charles Darwin Research Station in March of 1972. Researches desperately tried to find other specimens of him species, however all efforts were in vain. Lonesome George shared his pen with two young, female tortoises from the population of Wolf Island. As we approach his pen Lonesome George is following one of the female tortoises with a leafy “gift” in his mouth. Sadly, Lonesome George passed away on the 24th of June of 2012, a year and half after we saw him. I feel truly privileged to have been able to see this amazing, beautiful creature in real life and sad that, due to man’s actions, we have lost yet another wonderful species.

We head back to Puerto Ayora and have some time to wander around the port before returning to the Athala II. As we walk past the fish market and see four pelicans helping themselves to a snack, while the vendor is speaking to his customers. When he notices them he chases them away, however they are back a few minutes later to finish their meal. In the afternoon we take a minibus to the Bellavista in the highlands of Santa Cruz, where there is an access to around two kilometres of lava tubes. These tubes were formed when surface lava cooled and solidified, while the underground hot lava continued to flow. We follow our guide down a set of steps, through what appears to be a small opening in the ground and into the lava tube. Once we are inside, the beginning of the tunnel looks almost man made. As we make our way further into the lava tube the path becomes more difficult, with rocks in the way and rubble covering the floor. We find a selection of bones that someone has carefully placed on top of a rock.

El Chato tortoise reserve is the next stop. The reserve is very large and is made up of two areas, La Caseta and and Cerro Chato. Although visitors can go into the site without guides it is not recommended, as it is very easy to get lost within the grounds. It is much cooler in the highlands and the vegetation is lush, as this part of the island is often shrouded in mist. The ground is damp and there are many ponds, which the tortoises like to submerse themselves in. It is believed that they do this as a thermoregulation mechanism (for heating or cooling, depending upon the conditions) or to kill ticks and protect themselves from mosquitoes (10). Most of these “wild tortoises” migrate to the lowlands for the wet season, where they will mate and nest before returning to the highlands in the dry season (11). We are advised not to get too close to them, and when I am taking a photograph of a tortoise (from a very safe distance), it makes a rather menacing hissing noise. The hissing noise is actually created by the tortoise letting air out of its lungs while pulling itself into its shell, but it is enough to warn me off. Giant tortoises have very strong jaws that are lined with sharp ridges and could easily bite off human’s finger. However, these giants are very gentle and are only known to bite humans by accident, when they misjudge food. When tortoises fight they face each other with ferocious glares, open their mouths and stretch their heads as high up as they can. The winner is the tortoise whose head reaches the highest and the loser will pull his head into his shell; a sign that the battle is over (11). When we arrive back in Puerto Ayora there are Christmas celebrations taking place in the street. People dressed up with long, pointy hats and clown masks and costumes are dancing, while men in sombreros and ponchos play music. On our return to the Athala II we have a delicious Christmas dinner, served by our chef, Adrian.

Day 5

On Christmas day we wake up just off the shore of North Seymour Island. This is a small, flat island with a land surface of approximately two square kilometres. It is a well known nesting site for frigatebirds and almost as soon as we step foot on the island I see a male greater frigatebird with his gular sac puffed out, to attract a female. Distinguishing magnificent frigatebirds from great frigatebirds is not easy, especially with males. Magnificent frigatebirds make a rattling or drumming sound, while great frigatebirds make a gobbling sound, like a turkey. They can also be distinguished by looking at their scapular feathers. Although the feathers on both birds are black, they are iridescent and produce different colours when they refract sunlight. The iridescence of the magnificent frigatebird is purple, while that of the great frigatebird is green. Male frigatebirds puff up their gular sacs and shake their wings while the female flies above them. The female’s task is to choose the frigatebird with the best genes and she will land next to him. The pair will then build a nest and the female will lay one single egg. If an egg of a chick is lost early in the process, as often happens, then the courtship must begin again with a new pair being formed until procreation is assured. The frigatebird has one of the longest periods of immaturity of all birds and it could take up to six months for the chick to learn to fly. Even then the chick is dependent upon its parents for food and must learn the art of kleptoparasitism (stealing food and nesting from other birds while in flight), which can take up to a year. The bird will not reach full sexual maturity until it is five years old. I watch as a male, great frigatebird tries to land in a tree that is already occupied. There is a slight altercation and the bird eventually flies off. Another male passes overhead with a twig; he must have found a female and be making a nest nearby.

A little further on we pass some young blue-footed boobies. It will take them two years to gain the adult pattern in their plumage. I am distracted by a male yellow warbler, who is hopping up and down a branch nearby. The Galápagos variety of this species is very bold and I am able to get very close to take some photographs. These birds are not endemic to the Galápagos, however they are permanent residents of the islands, meaning that they live and breed here rather than migrating. Yellow warblers are small birds, around twelve centimetres tall with a wingspan of around 16 centimetres. Both the males and the females have yellow plumage with some black streaks, however the males also have reddish streaks on their chest and a red dot over their forehead. They have the nicest songs of all Galápagos land birds. I spend a while photographic this curious, brave bird before realising that I have, once again, lost the group. I hurry on to find the group standing by a young sea lion who seems to be posing for photographs. When we move on he lies back down again for a nap. We then come across a marine iguana sitting picture perfectly on a rock and by this point I am convinced that the animals in the Galápagos Islands are trained to pose for pictures.

The Athala II gets underway during lunch and we travel on to Bartolomé Island, named after Lt. David Bartolomé of the British Navy. It is a barren islet of just over one square kilometre in Sullivan Bay, to the east of Santiago Island. We head out on the pangas in the hopes of spotting some Galápagos penguins. Within a few minutes we see the first one, perched on a lava rock. We come quite close to it and it just watches us, as we take photographs before moving on. We then come across another Galápagos penguin making his way down the rocks to dive into the water below. Galápagos penguins are the second smallest species of penguin in the world and have established a small breeding colony behind Pinnacle Rock. In 1982 this species suffered a massive decline during El NiÑo, from nearly 15,000 to less than 500, and they have been slow to recover. In July of 2008 a Plasodium parasite was found among the Galápagos penguins, giving researchers yet another cause for concern over the future of this species. Researchers are monitoring the population in Bartolomé to ensure their health and survival. We reach one of the two beaches on Bartolomé and spend an hour lying in the sun and swimming. Not wanting to miss a photo opportunity, I take my mask with a built in camera and head to the sea. I have only been in the water for a few minutes when I hear someone calling to me from the shore. I look up and see three or four members of the group standing on the shore, pointing to the water just behind me. I turn around and see that a Galápagos penguin has come to join me. They are incredibly fast swimmers and the penguin darts around me so quickly that I keep losing sight of him. The group on the beach point him out, right over at the other side of the bay, and seconds later he is back at my side again. I stay in the water for a while, swimming with the penguin and watching the shoals of yellowtailed surgeonfish pass by.

I look up and see three or four members of the group standing on the shore, pointing to the water just behind me. I turn around and see that a Galápagos penguin has come to join me.

After a lovely rest we are ready to climb up to the summit of Bartolomé’s extinct volcano. The landscape on Bartolomé is made up of real volcanic desolation; tuff cones, spatter cones (cones formed of molten lava ejected from a vent), scoria formations (formations of highly vesicular, dark volcanic rock) and black volcanic sand. We follow the 600-meter pathway (made up mostly of stairs) to the summit, which stands at a height of 114 meters. From the summit is the breathtaking view of Bartolomé island, Pinnacle Rock, Sullivan Bay and Santiago Island. Pinnacle Rock, featured in the movie Master and Commander, is one of the most distinctive characteristics of Bartolomé island and the most representative landmark of the Galápagos Islands. This rock is the last remaining piece of an eroded tuff cone. It is thought that its distinctive shape could also have been created by the American pilots, based on nearby Baltra Island in World War II, who used Bartolomé for target practice (16). We watch the sun set over Santiago island before making our way back down the steps to the waiting pangas.

Day 6

Early on the morning of the sixth day of the cruise, we head out on the pangas to explore the northwest coast of Isabela Island at Punta Vicente Roca. Isabela Island is one of the youngest in the Galápagos Islands and is the most volcanically active. Originally named Albemare Island, after the Duke of Albemare in 1684, Isabela is also the largest island in the archipelago, measuring 120 kilometres long. Punta Vicente Roca lies on the edge of one of Isabela’s six shield volcanoes, Volcano Ecuador, which is almost 800 meters high. Half of Volcano Ecuador slid into the water at Punta Vicente Roca, leaving a spectacular cutaway view of the volcanic caldera. The Athala II, the 30 meter catamaran, looks tiny against the impressive backdrop of the volcanic cliffs. Blue-footed boobies are fishing and we stop to watch them. These birds usually head out at dawn to look for shoals of small fish, such as sardines or anchovies. They then dive en masse at speeds of up to sixty miles per hour from heights of over twenty metres to catch the fish in their serrated bills. Blue footed boobies’ nostrils are permanently closed, allowing them to swim underwater and they have air sacs in their skulls, which protect their brains from the impact of these dives.

We pass a raft of penguins, floating on the surface of the water before our guide tells us that he has spotted a mola mola. The mola mola (also known as sunfish) is the world’s largest bony fish and can reach over four meters high, over three meters long and can weigh over 2,000 kilograms. It is very odd looking and it appears as though half of the fish is missing. They are clumsy swimmers and waggle their large dorsal fin and anal fins to move through the water, steering with their clavus. Despite this clumsiness they are able to breach the water and jump heights of up to three meters in order to try to shake off skin parasites. They feed on jellyfish and other smaller fish, as well as large amounts of zooplankton and algae. The mola mola comes right up to the side of the pangas and follows us along for a while. We make our way along to a sea cave at the end of the bay. A couple of blue-footed boobies and a heron watch us from the cliffs above as we head inside. A sea turtle pops his head out of the crystal blue water and briefly swims alongside the panga. The green sea turtle is a reptile whose ancestors evolved on land and took to the sea about 150 million years ago. They are one of the few species so ancient that they watched the dinosaurs evolve and become extinct. It is a large sea turtle measuring over a meter and a half and weighing over 300 kilograms when fully grown and can live for up to eighty years.

Fernandina is the third largest of the Galápagos Islands and first appeared on maps (under the name of Narborough Island) in 1684. It sits in the middle of the hot spot that created the Galápagos Islands and is most famous for its continuing series of volcanic eruptions, most recently the eruptions of May 2005 and April 2009. Punta Espinoza is a narrow ledge of lava and sand that extends from the base of the volcano to the sea. Our hike will take us inland, across pahoehoe lave to the edge of a large “aa” lava flow. As lava travels down the volcano sides, the surface of the flow will cool much more rapidly. The surface of the flow forms two different types of lava called, aa and pahoehoe. Aa lava has a rough, jagged surface due to the gas explosions tearing apart the external crust. Pahoehoe lava has a smooth, ropy surface, as the gases have yet to escape. Underneath the surface skin the hot molten lava continues to flow, pushing forward and wrinkling the skin, producing the rope like appearance. Punta Espinoza is a favourite place for marine iguanas, who nest here in the early part of the year and the young iguanas emerge around June. Making our way across the sand and the lava rocks we can see iguanas basking in the sun. Marine iguanas are endemic to the Galápagos islands and are thought to have evolved from the land iguanas that may have floated across from South America on rafts. Adult iguanas are between a meter and a meter and a half in length and weigh up to one and a half kilograms. They can live for up to twelve years and are herbivores, eating underwater algae and seaweed. Marine iguanas are the only sea going lizards and are exceptionally graceful swimmers. Our guide, Harry (José left us just before we reached Bartolomé Island) explains that researchers tried to track the marine iguanas by placing tracking devices on their heads, as they do with the Galápagos tortoises, for example. Strangely, all the marine iguanas that had the tracking devices attached to them died. They then discovered that the marine iguanas have their heat sensor on the top of their head. By placing the tracking device on top of this sensor the iguana was unable to tell if it was too hot or too cold and would sit in the sun until it died of overheating.

I see a female lava lizard sitting on a marine iguana’s head. There are seven different species of lava lizards in the Galápagos Islands, and it is believed that they all evolved from one single species. Like the iguanas, they rely on the sun for their internal heat and will start the day by basking in the sun for around half an hour, but must retreat to the shade during the hottest part of the day. At night lava lizards rest under leaves or gravel to protect themselves from the cooler temperatures. A sea lion and a marine iguana swim together to the shore and climb out to warm up in the sun. Meanwhile, a young sea lion pup sleeps on the sand, in the shade of a tree. The pup is probably only about a week old. Sea lions attend to their pups continuously for six or seven days after birth, at which time they return to the sea to feed. It could be two or three days before she returns. Over on a nearby lava rock another young sea lion pup is feeding. Sea lions only nurse one pup at a time and, if she does not have another pup, then the first can nurse for up to three years (23). Up on a rock I see a Galápagos hawk, the only diurnal bird of prey on the islands, endemic to the Galápagos. They have a body length of approximately fifty-five centimetres and a wingspan of approximately one hundred and twenty centimeters (24). They feed on small mammals, birds, reptiles and lizards including lava lizards, young iguanas, hatchling tortoises, snakes and rodents. We continue over the lava, carefully walking around the large cracks and the lava cactus (one of the first species to grow on young lava) until we come across whale bones that were washed up on the shore. Researchers have very carefully carried them from the shore and reassembled them on the black lava rocks. We reach the shore and see a flightless cormorant standing on a rock. This bird (also known as the Galápagos cormorant) is endemic to the island and is the only cormorant that has lost the ability to fly. Instead it has an exceptional ability to swim and dive, far better than its relatives. It was initially thought that this species had developed from cormorants who had flown to the island, but whose descendants had lost this ability; however it is now believed that it was created through a genetic mutation or genetic copying mistake. This mutation that would normally be harmful for a bird species may have been beneficial for this cormorant (25). We return to the Athala II and, after dinner, have an equator crossing party and dance our way across the equator, while enjoying another beautiful sunset. This will be the fourth time that I have crossed the equator since leaving Spain and I will cross it twice more before I return home.

Day 7

Santiago was originally named James Island, after King James II and was the second of the Galápagos Islands to be visited by Charles Darwin. The land iguana is now extinct on this island, however in Darwin’s accounts of this island in The Voyage of the Beagle he states that there were so many they had trouble finding a spot free of iguanas to pitch a tent. When Darwin first arrived on this island he found a party of Spaniards who had come from Charles Island to dry fish and salt tortoise meat. During the 1920s and again in the 1960s companies extracted salt from the Salt Mine Crater and constructed roads and buildings at Puerto Egas, named after the owner of a company that worked there in the 1960s. In the 1930s a small group of people tried to colonise the island but failed. They released goats, pigs and donkeys onto the island, which caused havoc for the ecosystem and many of its native species. As we make our way along the shore I see an American oystercatcher and its chick. The chick is mimicking the actions of its mother as she sifts through the sand and pokes her beak into small nooks in the lava pools, looking for food. Generally they eat shellfish; with their sturdy beak they can pry open an oyster, clam or muscle and snip the muscle that holds the shell close. The American oystercatcher is an uncommon bird in the Galápagos Islands and there are probably only around two hundred pairs. They stick to the rocky shores, sandy beaches and coastal lagoons. The mother has found some food and brings it over to her chick, who hops over to meet her. Once again, my photo-taking has caused me to be left behind and I hurry to catch up. The rest of the group is a little further along the shore, looking at fur seals that are lying on the lava rocks. Fur seals look very similar to sea lions, however there are some distinguishable differences. Fur seals’ coats tends to be thicker and, generally, they are smaller than sea lions. Their eyes are bigger than the sea lions’ and their noses are more pointed. They also have hoarser voices, which are less often used and are better climbers, so will often be found high up on the rocky shores (28). A young fur seal watches us inquisitively as we walk past and, a little further on, two pups play with a sally lightfoot crab in the rock pools. This reminds me of the sea lion pup that I watched playing with the lava lizard at Punta Suarez on Isla Española. A mother lies with her young pup, who is probably only about five days old and still has the umbilical cord attached to it while another young fur seal seems to pose for photographs, much like the sea lion on North Seymour Island.

We climb up the volcanic rocks and reach Darwin’s Toilet. This rock formation is similar to a blow hole, but with less pressure. A vertical chute lets the water rise up when the wave comes in and drains the water away again when the wave goes out. While we are watching a fur seal pops up in the “toilet” and splashes about until the water is drained away. A few moment later, when the water rises again he reappears. When we board the Athala II we set off for Rábida Island. Some dolphins join us and put on a spectacular show, jumping out of the water in perfect sequence by the bows of the boat. Our captain lets me steer the boat and luckily we make it without going off track too much. Rábida is one of the most volcanically varied islands in the archipelago. The island gained its Ecuadorian name of Rábida after the convent of Rábida where Columbus left his son during his voyage to the Americas. It is a relatively small island, of less than five square kilometres and has a distinctive red colour, caused by the several small volcanic craters and the high amount of iron in the lava. When we arrive, we go for a snorkel. A white tip reef shark swims up next to us before continuing on its way. The white tip reef shark is one of about four hundred species of sharks found in the world and can be distinguished by the white tip on both its first dorsal fin and the upper caudal fins. This species of shark is common in the Galápagos and can often be found resting in shallow waters of swimming near the shores. They can grow to over two meters and are generally curious and gentle. They are nocturnal and feed primarily on crustceans, mollusks, small fish and octopus (30). I follow a green sea turtle over to a huge rock, where it dives right down to the bottom and I lose sight of it. I stop to look at a sea urchin and the other people in the group move on. When I am about to move on I feel a splash behind me and turn around to find that I have been joined by a sea lion. It is less than arms length away from me and floating, upside down in the water, splashing its tail. I swim around a little and it follows me, playing in the water until something else catches its attention and it moves on. I am left speechless from the experience; there are no words to describe the amazing feeling of being so close to such a beautiful animal in its natural habitat and on its terms.

I am left speechless from the experience; there are no words to describe the amazing feeling of being so close to such a beautiful animal in its natural habitat and on its terms.

Later we go ashore to hike up the rocky cliffs towards the overhang, which offers an amazing view of the island’s cove and the ocean. On the way up I stop to photograph a female small cactus finch, eating the insects inside the flower of a prickly pear cactus. Adult males are usually completely black, while the female is brown and streaked. I pass a lava lizard and then find a female small ground finch resting on a cactus. Their bills that are designed to crush food, allowing them to feed on seeds. When we reach the top of the cliffs the view truly is remarkable and back down on the beach I can see two sea lion pups playing in the red sand. Soon an adult sea lion swims in to the shore, barking. One of the young pups immediately rushes to the shore to greet her and the two make their way up to the beach together. Mother and pup sea lions learn to recognise each other by their bark in order to be able to find each other amongst the hundreds of sea lions that could occupy one stretch of coastline. We make our way back down the cliffs and return to the Athala II for our last dinner on board and a final night celebration with the crew. Afterwards I stay on the aft deck and chat to Eduardo, the cruise manager, and Harry, the naturalist guide. They tell me stories about the Galápagos Islands and show me photographs of orca that have been spotted in the waters nearby. They tell me they wish I could have seen the orca, but it is unlikely and we leave the boat tomorrow. That night I go to sleep dreaming of all the amazing things that I have seen in the past week and of orca coming up alongside the boat.

Day 8

After quite a late night I have been hoping that we will not be woken up too early this morning. It is barely light when I hear a voice coming through the speaker in the room. “We have some orca feeding just off the starboard bow, if anyone is interested in seeing them.” I am sure this is a joke, given the conversation that I had last night with Eduardo and Harry, but I pull on a pair of shorts and t-shirt (inside out, I later discover), grab my camera and head to the bows. Sure enough, there are two gigantic orca. We realise that they are feeding on a green sea turtle, which they will play with before they eat in order to disorientate it. At one point one of the orca dives down into the water before coming up between the bows of the catamaran and swimming off again. It is upsetting to see the green sea turtle trying to escape the clutches of these two gigantic animals; however they put on a magnificent show, breaching, spy hopping and tail slapping. Orca (also known as killer whales) are actually from the dolphin family and are the largest (and possibly one of the oldest) species of oceanic dolphin. They are found in all of the world’s oceans, traveling in hunting rides and often feeding on sea lions, fish, stingrays, octopuses, squid and even reptiles such as this green sea turtle. They spend their days foraging, traveling, resting and socialising. The total population of orca is thought to be around 100,000, although this is a very rough number, as their population spreads from the Antarctic to the tropical Pacific, the waters of Japan and the cooler north-east Pacific near Norway, to name a few. The orca is an apex predator (a predator that, as adults, are not normally preyed upon in the wild). They are sometimes called “wolves of the sea” because they hunt in packs, like wolves and they can eat up to two hundred and twenty seven kilograms of food per day (32). The orca finish feeding and we leave them to head on to Isla Lobos, a small island separated from San Cristobal by a narrow arm of sea water.

We reach the shore and clamber over the lava rocks to get to the dock. The island lives up to its name; it is completely covered by sea lions. They are magnificent creatures, but they smell very bad and we can smell them before we even leave the pangas. As we are making our way to the sandy beach an aggressive male gets in the way of our guide, warning him off. On the sandy beach a young sea lion barks, looking for its mother. When on land sea lions congregate into harems, made up of a group of females and pups with one dominant male, or in bachelor colonies. In harems the dominant male (or bull) will spend most of his day patrolling the waters along his territory, rearing his head out of the water and barking, to protecting his territory from other bulls. He will only hold his territory for a few months before being challenged by another bull. As he cannot feed while defending his colony, he will eventually become weak and tired and a younger, well nourished bull will overpower him (33). Our naturalist guide, Harry, spots something and makes his way over to the rocks. A young sea lion has a ripped plastic bag caught around its neck. He tries to get hold of it and calls some of the crew to help him. The sea lion moves away from him and eventually into the water and Harry is unable to remove the plastic bag. The plastic bags that are provided on the islands are thin and break easily, so it should break off easily if it gets caught against a tree or a rock. While this sea lion does not appear to be in any immediate danger, millions of animals die every year because of marine garbage, the most visible of all ocean pollution (34). Many of these animals die when they become entangled in pieces of string or plastic bags or from consuming floating trash (35). Most marine garbage originates from coastal and inland cities, where it is washed down into the sea through storm drains or rivers, however in this case the plastic bag has probably blown off a passing boat. Some trash, particularly plastics, can stay in the ocean for years. It is of the utmost importance that we always dispose of garbage correctly, even if we are nowhere near the ocean, as these deadly items could make their way there quite easily. We are extremely privileged to be able to visit this natural paradise, however it is imperative that we remember why this place is so special and how easily it could be destroyed. The increasing number of tourists who visit the Galápagos Islands each year are largely to blame for the increase in waste on the islands and the surrounding waters. The magic of this place is the untouched nature of many of the islands and the unique, unguarded animals that inhabit them. While on our excursions we witnessed a teenage girl from another boat trying to poke a penguin to make it move and a young boy splashing a resting sea lion to see its reaction. We saw the same girl leaving a plastic bottle behind on another island, which our guide picked up and returned to her guide (with a few stern words). The crew on the Athala II were very concerned about protecting the wildlife of the Galápagos; however it seems that the crew of some of the larger boats and the guides from some of the day trips need to take a little more care.

It has been a magical experience, but our time in the Galápagos Islands has come to an end and we head back to San Cristobal to catch our plane to Guayaquil. When we arrive there is no plane at the airport (the plane waits in the middle of the runway so it would be easy to spot). At the check in we ask if the flight has been delayed. We are told that it seems to be, however when we ask how long it is delayed by the answer is “maybe a hour, maybe more. Maybe tomorrow, who knows.” I decide to do a little souvenir shopping at one of the three or four tiny shops at the airport before sitting down to look through my photographs. Finally the plane arrives and, after a very quick turnaround, we are able to board. We look around to say “goodbye” to Harry, who has accompanied us to the airport, but we can’t see him anywhere. We decide that he must have left and make our way through to the gate. Just as we are about to board the plane Harry comes bounding through to the gate, accompanied by the security guard, saying something about how we couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to him. We take one final group picture and are on our way. When we arrive at Guayaquil we say our goodbyes to the other passengers and to chef Adrian, who is going home for a week. Just eight days ago these people were complete strangers yet, after sharing this amazing experience, they have now become family. The same is true for the incredible crew on the Athala II, with whom I spent many nights chatting on the aft deck and learning how to fold towels to look like penguins. I am very sad to leave this place, but the memories of my week in the enchanted islands will stay with me forever.


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