“I’m going to the Galapagos Islands!”
It’s an exciting thing to tell people – and I told a lot of people! But in truth, I had no idea what to expect. Like stepping onto Antarctica or seeing the Northern Lights, for me the Galapagos was a bit of an abstract concept; an otherworldly place with landscapes and creatures I’d never seen… sure.
But what would it really be like? What would it feel like to be there?
I had some initial expectations: sea turtles everywhere, white beaches with impossibly blue water; swimsuits, snorkeling and frolicking with fish friends all day, every day. And there is truth in that… although the turtles aren’t ‘everywhere’ – how could they be, when the sea lions (and their outrageously cute pups) are taking up all the space?! I don’t know how I’ve been living my life not hanging out with sea lions every single day.
And so I began my Galapagos adventure, not quite knowing what to expect and buzzing with excitement and anticipation. I was taking the 4-night cruise of the Eastern Galapagos on the Santa Cruz, and here’s something else I didn’t expect: the four days on the islands that didn’t sound even remotely long enough were the lengthiest, most fulfilling four days I’ve ever spent. You want bang for your holiday buck? Go to the Galapagos. The days are so action packed and eye opening that four days feels like ten!
After a 3-hour flight from Quito to San Cristóbal Island and a short bus ride to the dock where we will board our boat, we are officially in the Galapagos Islands! And boy does it smell like it. The air is thick with salt and smells like fish – and sea lions, which are.. lion around everywhere. I promise I would not have gone there if it weren’t so apt! Because they’re lying all over the place and I have never seen them so casually close before. I am already trailing behind the group because I just want to stay and watch (and take too many photos). Not only are they beautiful and weird and adorable and funny – about half of them are BABY SEA LIONS.
My boyfriend is giving me the hurry up and I am trying but already this feels like we’ve entered a new world. The chicken-wire railings that line the waters edge give the impression they exist to keep to sea lions from us, rather than us from them. The curious creatures get as close as they can and pose comically for photos (when they’re not napping, which they do a lot of, I’m soon to learn). They’re everywhere I look – on rocks, on steps; even on the ramps we walk down to board the zodiacs (rubber passenger dinghies) that will transport us to the big boat, the Santa Cruz. So while I’m frantically taking photos (and let’s be honest – the same photo over and over again) we are being ushered onto a zodiac and next minute… we are cruising the Galapagos! Being on the water makes it real and already I am wide-eyed and ready for more.
After lunch on the boat, it’s our first shore excursion – to Punta Pitt, on the eastern tip of San Cristóbal Island. On the way we spot a Blue-footed booby and some sea lions, perched on a rocky out crop. It’s a wet landing at Punta Pitt, meaning the zodiac pulls up ashore and we clamber out straight onto the beach, almost knee deep in the water, which is cool and clear. After drying our feet and putting sneakers on, we hike up a rocky trail, climbing a hill that is made of volcanic rock; also known as a tuff cone. Awesome!
It’s hot and humid as we climb but we’ll soon be rewarded by the views of the shoreline waiting at the top. The landscape surrounding the trail is not unlike the Australian bush, with similar tones of browns, dark reds and greens. But the prickly-pear cactus trees bring me sharply back to reality and I am reminded that I am far, far away. At the top we’re greeted by a sparse, dry expanse with pretty pastel succulent ground cover. And the view is outrageous!
Our days are more or less split in two: breakfast and a morning excursion to one of the islands, then back on the boat for lunch and a rest before an afternoon excursion. Free time after lunch quickly becomes naptime… the heat and humidity, salty sea air and exertions of each shore excursion bring a happy weariness!
Day Two – Day of the Iguana! Our first sighting is on Santa Fe Island and we see only two or three. The land iguanas here are pale yellow and dusty grey, and endemic to Santa Fe – which is also the driest and most austere of the islands. It’s beautiful in its starkness and the prickly-pear cactuses that dot the island create a striking silhouette against the blue of the sky and the ocean.
Impression #1 of the Galapagos: sea lions. Impression #2, and slightly unexpected (for me at least): arid. As those who have been or read about would know, many of the islands present unforgiving and uninhabitable landscapes. How could any living thing survive here, let alone thrive? This is what makes the wildlife of the Galapagos so fascinating; each species of these remote Islands has evolved independently, in isolation, and has totally adapted to their individual environment (and thus provided the inspiration for Darwin’s theory of evolution).
Our second island visit is to South Plaza – iguana central! This island is much more colourful, with succulents covering the ground in a carpet of yellows, oranges and reds. The iguanas here are a different land species and brighter yellow, lurking beneath the prickly pear cactus trees, waiting interminably for pears to drop. There are far more on South Plaza and if a cactus has recently yielded fruit, they gather in armies around the tree’s base. They are really strange creatures – fantastically reptilian but with creepy human qualities. The way they position themselves on rocks looks like they are posing and their legs appear squishy and chubby, like the legs of toddlers. We saw plenty sleeping in the sun (‘passed out’ might be a more accurate description) and some looked just like little kids all tuckered out after a big day in the Galapagos.
My friends the sea lions were present at both islands – they swim and play and rest in every bay and are a constant, to everyone’s continuing delight. Two playful pups were wrestling on the small jetty at South Plaza and took a lot of convincing from the Naturalist guides to move off the steps. Like naughty teens they made a big show of taking their time, huffing as they shuffled off into the water. We saw hundreds as we walked around the island, of all ages and sizes, mostly sleeping; some of the pups curled up between large rocks, fashioning a cradle of sorts for themselves. And when it’s time to leave? The pups at the shoreline turn their charm dial up to full! They surge back into the water swimming and diving around the boat, imploring us not to go. Out come everyone’s cameras and another couple of hundred photos are taken.
On what was already a spectacular day I was even more excited to go for a deep-water snorkel in the afternoon. Jumping off the zodiac into the bright sapphire water was what I’d been waiting for! It was an incredibly pleasant 24ºC – warmer than Sydney beaches, so no wetsuit required (although they are provided for those who prefer). The cheekier sea lions swam around us, moving like lightning in the water. For all their comical shuffling on land, seeing them underwater is wonderful. They glide; diving, spinning and twisting around us like dancers – an experience I won’t forget. This was the Galapagos I’d been dreaming of – an underwater world of sea turtles, vibrant tropical fish, rainbow coral, stingrays and even a white-tip reef shark! (Harmless, on the smaller end of the shark spectrum, and pretty cool looking.) The Galapagos is a diverse wonderland and the on-land marvels are only half of the story… the other half is waiting for you under the water!
The next morning we’re off to Puerto Ayora, a commercial and very pretty village on Santa Cruz Island and the most populous town of the Galapagos, with over 12,000 inhabitants. It is home to the Charles Darwin Research Station, which is situated within an impressive prickly-pear cactus forest. The research centre is the headquarters of scientific investigation and conservation, and its well-known giant tortoise breeding program. Lonesome George, the world’s most famous giant tortoise and sadly the last known individual of his subspecies, was in residence here till his death in 2012 and was identified as the rarest creature on earth in his last years. He is a potent symbol of ongoing conservation efforts in the Galapagos Islands. We’re here to check out these prehistoric-looking slow movers and we work our way backwards from the fully-grown adults (which weigh up to 300kg!), stomping slowly around their grassy ponds, to the nursery, which is as cute as it sounds. Here the scientists use colour-coded paint dabs on the shells to keep records of their tiny charges. The babies – smaller than my palm – are beyond cute and well protected from predators in the mesh nursery. The giant tortoise is found only in the Galapagos and the Seychelles and it’s a pretty cool seeing these descendants of a truly ancient reptile family.
Afterwards we have free time in the village and happily stroll its quaint streets, browsing in the many shops. The lifestyle appears quite appealing and I’m fascinated by the thought of living here, where sea lions hang out at the fish market and marine iguanas watch over the boats from sunny perches on stone walls!
Our last full day kicks off with an awesome hike at Punta Suárez, on Española Island. It’s the most active of the walks we’ve done and hugely enjoyable, with big black rocks to navigate – and plenty to see. Española Island has a great many sea-bird colonies and we come across hundreds of boobies (Blue-footed & Nazca), swallow-tailed gulls and shearers. And here we meet the Española marine iguana; nicknamed the Christmas iguana because of its brilliant aqua and red colouring! They are amazing looking and their colours become more prominent during breeding season – we see several male iguanas showing off their colours to some fairly indifferent females. Despite their bright appearance, they still camouflage spectacularly with the grey rocks and colourful succulents; as with all the iguanas we saw, they kind of sneak up on you.. once you start looking for them you realize you are actually surrounded!
The sea lions are represented here to, posing and lording it up on the rocks… some of them have clambered up quite a ways from the water! Our hike brings us to a clearing down near the water, with a blowhole and quite a lot of wildlife traffic; sea lions, iguanas, boobies and gulls are all here in great numbers, each doing their thing, coexisting in this unique environment.
Our final excursion of the day – and sadly, the trip – was to Gardner Bay, on the other side of Española Island. Talk about picture perfect! This is a postcard worthy beach of glowing white sand and sparkling aquamarine water. It’s a relaxing excursion and a fabulous way to end an amazing adventure. We swim in the pure water and stroll along the shore, spotting a miniature stingray drifting along and falling in love with the sea lions for the hundredth time. These were my most enjoyable moments with them, observing them at rest, as most lay on the sand in deep slumber. We wandered amongst them, taking photos and studying their faces, nice and close. A cheeky juvenile wasn’t impressed with his mum taking a siesta; he tried very hard to engage us to play, pursuing us down the beach a little, which was a bit unnerving! Two little pups chased each other and come so close to us we feared their mothers might suddenly appear (they were as nonchalant as ever) – I hadn’t thought the baby sea lions could get any cuter… but they could! The Naturalist guides say the animals of the Galapagos are unfazed by our presence not because they are tame, but because they are innocent – and it is everyone’s responsibility to keep it that way. It is a real privilege to get so close to all these amazing creatures and the photos cannot convey the feeling. The zodiacs puttered back and forth between the beach and the Santa Cruz and we stayed until the very last ride, saying a final goodbye to the sea lions – and essentially, the Galapagos.
The morning of the fifth day brought a subdued feeling; no one wanted to leave. We strapped on our safety vests and disembarked the Santa Cruz for the last time, stepping into the now familiar zodiacs, bound for the small airport on Baltra Island. The best way to describe the experience is in simple terms; special. It’s a magical place and the wonder and feeling of being there is unmatched and impossible to describe in writing. The sea lion on my fridge magnet, bought at the airport, looks at me with cheeky agreement!
Written by Amy McCulloch
For more information on the Galapagos Islands, click here.