Dragons, penguins and the last paradise on earth

When we were planning this trip, we decided to prioritize locations, which are difficult to reach or require more time than we have on a normal vacation trip. This is how Australia and New Zealand got pretty much on top of our list. But there also were a couple of places, which are just far away and which we would probably never visit if we were not close by anyways. Galapagos is one of these destinations. We knew, that it’s a very special place and access is quite restricted, we knew that it is hard to get here and that it would be expensive, but we also knew, that it would be one of our MUST destinations and we would regret if we wouldn’t come here. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. While planning the trip, we figured out, that we could meet friends here, who are also traveling around the world right now, which gave us additional motivation to visit the islands.

Planning: While researching how to visit the islands, we realized that there are basically two types of vacations on the islands: Staying on land and traveling from one island to the other by ferry or taking a cruise and not worrying about luggage, ferry schedules etc. Since (as always) we were organizing the trip just a couple of weeks before it should begin, we were lucky to get the last-minute offers of the cruises. The significantly reduced prices of the cruises were just slightly above what an island-hopping trip would cost and included way less hassle connected to luggage and moving from one place to another, so the decision was clear- it would be a cruise. Once this was clear, it just got more complicated as there are over 60 cruise boats operating between the islands and most of them would have some offers to be checked. After two days of reading through brochures, looking through reviews and negotiating on the phone it was finally decided – we would go on a four-day cruise on one of the most modern and luxurious boats in the Galapagos with only 16 passengers and pay just a fraction of the usual price 🙂

Booking the flights was another frustrating episode of our trip – first we got charged for one of the flights, but didn’t get a confirmation and it took a very angry call to Opodo to get our money back and then our flight from Quito to Galapagos got rescheduled by four hours, which meant, that the whole ship would have to wait for us.

But once we got on board, this was all forgotten. First of all, we’ve met my former colleague and her husband and had a very warmly welcome after not seeing each other for seven months, then the crew welcomed us on board and showed us around. Even though our cabin was the cheapest and the only one in the lower deck, it was better than many of the hotel rooms we’ve stayed in so far. After a short break, the lunch was served, and we had our first contact with the other passengers. While we were sitting at the airport on the way to the islands, we were looking at groups of people (especially those behaving weirdly) and imagined how it would be to spend four days in a closed-up space with those weirdos. Luckily none of those were on our boat 🙂 The other passengers were a family of six from Sweden (not talking much, but when they said something, it was hilarious :D), a couple from Colorado (constantly apologizing for their president :D), a couple from Boston, who just got engaged in Machu Picchu, a couple form western Australia whom we also spend the days after our cruise with because they were a lot of fun, our friends and us. After the short lunch, the first activity was snorkeling around a giant rock in cold water with no visibility. As a motivation, we were told, that normally it’s a good spot to see hammerhead sharks… but visibility below two meters didn’t really make us want to see any 😀 After all the highlight of the day was a sea lion, who wanted to play with us and therefore turned some rounds just in front of my camera. Every evening, our naturalist guide would hold a presentation explaining the activities for the next day and we realized, that this trip is not going to be relaxing… Every morning we would wake up at 6:30, breakfast at 7, first activity at 8 and this is the late schedule – during the hot season, the activities start at 6:30 or 7 to avoid the main heat. Due to this early start and the travels of the passed day, everyone was in bed by ten.

After quite an unusual night (bed is shaking, all kinds of sounds around us), the next morning began with a trip to North Seymour, one of the uninhabited islands which is the nesting place for frigate birds and home to lands iguanas, blue footed boobies, lots of sea lions, crabs and many more. A detail, which surprised us: Due to the fact, that the islands are a national park and all wild life is highly protected, the animals don’t have any fear of humans. The birds didn’t fly away when we got close to them, the iguanas were absolutely not aggressive and the sea lions were just as lazy as ever – here we started to realize how special this place is. We walked around and saw frigate birds nesting, saw young chicks in their nests calling for their parents, male birds placing themselves in front of green bushes and inflating a red bag on their chest to attract females (they seem to know, that the green bushes make a great contrast to their chest-bag and make them look even better). Just a view steps away, the next highlight: Land iguanas, again not afraid at all and not making any attempts to run away from us… Everyone got a chance to take some shots before the two iguanas looked for a more private place to get the mating season started :D. The next highlight again just a few steps away: the famous blue footed boobie, a bird which is famous for their bright blue feet. The first one we’ve seen was still a young one and didn’t have enough time to eat enough of the food he needs for his feet to get the bright blue color, but he was nice enough to hold still so we could get a pic with him :D. The next one was like an example from the book, he was posing on the rocks, with his bright blue feet standing out on the black lava rocks with the ocean and some smaller islands in the background – a perfect shot (see below). 🙂 To make our way back to the boat more entertaining, a young sea lion was crawling over a dry piece of wood and was posing around in the sun – just as if he really wanted to be a photo model 🙂 And this all happened in a timespan of just about an hour! Whenever we visit places where one can see wildlife and we don’t get to see it (e.g. driving two hours one way to see penguins and seeing nothing more than an average beach…), we say “It’s not a zoo”, but this place was waaaay better than a zoo! It was just incredible!

After all the walking, it was again time for snorkeling in cold water, but this time the visibility was much better and we had the feeling that the water was a little bit warmer too – maybe we just got used to the cold… But to general disappointment, we didn’t see any sharks who would fancy some fresh tourists 😀 However, some tropical fish and rays were a nice reward for getting wet and cold.

In the afternoon, we’ve visited another island, where we had our first encounter with marine iguanas, which we’ve called “Godzilla” because of their look under water. To our surprise, those dragons were waaay smaller than they looked on the pictures and were also far too lazy to look dangerous Nevertheless, they totally look like dragons… small, salt spitting dragons. And this place had so many land iguanas, that you really had to be careful no to step on one of them! (better than a zoo!) Here, we could witness some of the effects of global warming – as El Niño (a weather phenomenon in the Pacific) is happening more often now as it used to 200 years ago, the species are struggling to adapt and to find enough food during those extreme weather periods. This leads to lots of skeletons of iguanas laying around everywhere – a pretty sad picture, but one that is necessary to realize, which effects climate changes have even in such remote places. Back on board, we had the evening “off”, which was very much welcome after two days full of activities. Michael used the time to review some of the snorkeling footage (see below )

The next day should be the highlight of the whole cruise. The wake-up call was again at 06:45 and after a short breakfast we landed on Rabida island at 8 AM. We landed on an orange-colored beach, where curious sea lions welcomed us. After a short walk, we’ve reached a lagoon, where one can see flamingos sometimes… but not today… so we walked up a hill to get a better view of the lagoon. Our guide explained that all the dry trees around us have developed a hibernating mode to survive the dry season and the whole island will come back to life and will be completely covered in green in just a couple of weeks when the rain season starts again (obviously, it couldn’t start as we were on the island and couldn’t use any rain :D). While we were wondering, how it is possible, that we are alone in most of the places we visit, our guide explained, that the local government creates a strict schedule for each of the boats and therefore ensures, that there are not too many people in any of the places at any given point in time. This took some of our flexibility, but on the other hand gave everyone the chance to enjoy the places undisturbed in small groups and of course protected the wildlife from hordes of tourists – a restrictive policy done right! After this short walk, we got back to the beach and discovered a sea lion guarding our backpacks – just because there are no other people, doesn’t mean no one is getting close to our belongings. Luckily the sea lion didn’t insist on his new stuff and left the place peacefully, after our naturalist guide used clapping to make the sea lion move a couple of meters. Most of the group walked into the water for a snorkeling session. While jumping from the boat into the freezing cold waters still worked out for Michael, walking in from the beach was a deal breaker. Therefore, Alice took over the underwater filming and got instantly rewarded by a curious sea lion turning his rounds just in front of her )) Rays, sea stars and more playful sea lions were the other highlights of this session.

But the real highlight of the whole cruise was the second snorkeling session in the afternoon. This time our guide didn’t stay on one of the small boats as he did before, but jumped into the water with us, probably because he knew, that this spot is like snorkeling in a very rich aquarium! The trip started easy with some bright colored sea stars and some tropical fish, but after a few minutes our guide spotted some whit tip reef sharks in a cave – that could be the highlight already… but then there were penguins, just a few minutes later and again, they didn’t feel disturbed by us, they couldn’t care less! When one of them jumped in the water, Michael tried his best to follow him, which worked surprisingly well until he got distracted by another shark occasionally passing by! A minute later, a giant turtle elegantly “flying” under water and being cleaned by some cleaning fishes. A minute later – more penguins 😀 And while we were already on the way back to our boats, we’ve spotted a giant ray, which probably had a bad encounter with sharks as it was missing his sting tail. All in all this was probably one of the most unforgettable hours of our whole trip! It was unlike any other place where we had the chance to go snorkeling (and we were in really cool places before), we have seen the full bio diversity of the Galapagos islands, we’ve seen a working eco-system not destroyed by over-fishing, we’ve seen species in their natural habitat doing, what they are used to do… It was like a visit in a zoo, but the animals were in their natural habitat and were absolutely not afraid of us because humans are not their predators here! A real paradise on earth, which is hard to describe in words! Before our trip to South America we stayed with friends in Houston and watched David Attenborough’s “Planet Earth” about the Galapagos and it was like being in the movie.

Our last day on the boat started with a shock – during the first snorkeling trip, Michael got stung by some sort of jelly fish. First it was on the hand and didn’t hurt too much, but later the beast (small, blue and mean) stung him on the ear and parts of the face, which made the snorkeling trip quite short for him. Alice took over filming again while Michael made use of the boat’s vinegar reserves and put some ice on his face to reduce the burn. When the rest of the group came back, several other people got stung, so Michael wasn’t the only one in pain – luckily nothing life threatening . After snorkeling, our guide still had a highlight up his sleeve – Sulivan Bay is a place only inhabited by marine iguanas and birds. So we had another chance to get close to those Godzilla dragons and get our close-up shots of them spitting salt (they filter the salt out of the sea water and therefore don’t need any fresh water!). A small walk around a lagoon (again, no flamingos), some giant cactuses and we were back on board. Since the last three days were so exhausting, most of us skipped the last snorkeling trip and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon. Our last destination was dragon hill – a volcano offering a scenic view over all surrounding islands. On the way up, we’ve seen some “fresh” lava formations and could hold some lava stones in our hands, which are light enough to float in water (which sometimes causes damages to the ships – like icebergs only lava stones). On the top of the hill, we enjoyed the great view and could use the time to reflect the last three incredible days in front of our inner eye and realize what we have seen and how incredible this place really is. Back in the boats, our guide used the last rays of sun to get back to where we’ve seen the penguins, so we could get some more pictures with them – especially for those without an underwater camera a great chance to get another shot – what a great finale!

After a shaky ride, we arrived in Puerto Ayora where the boat would spend the night. While the rest of the group would have a trip to see some volcano craters and giant tortoises, we had a different plan – we organized a diving trip for this day! Therefore, we were the first ones to leave the boat, got picked up at the port at 06:45 and were on our way diving As everything in Galapagos, diving is quite expensive here, but we decided that we can’t miss this experience while we are here. We have planned it in advance and moved our flight back to main land by several days to make sure we can do it. So we’ve checked our equipment in the dive center and made our way to the other end of the island where the boat was waiting for us. Compared to the other boats we were on for diving, this one was really small, but since we didn’t come for the boat it was fine. To our surprise, the dive spot had a strong current and made it quite difficult to remain stationary and enjoy something specific, it was rather like standing on an escalator and moving past things. But nevertheless, we’ve seen more sharks, than we bothered to count, have seen spotted eagle rays up close, have seen some turtles, tons of fish and even two hammerhead sharks passing by in the distance (those were a bit scary as they are significantly bigger than the white-tip sharks we’ve seen before – imagine the “White shark” theme in your head). After all, we decided, we would regret if we haven’t done the dive trip, but also decided not to go again on the following day. Therefore, we had more time to relax, walk around the small town, buy post cards, drink a beer with our new friends and try out Ceviche. 😀 On our last day, we of course caught up on the missed giant tortoises and visited a sanctuary where they live and roam freely. One could also safe the trip and just see them along the road, but here there were many of them and… well… the mating season already started 😀

Overall it was an unforgettable experience, which words can hardly describe and also pictures can’t transfer the feeling of abundance of bio diversity, the feeling, that you have to be careful not to step on one of the iguanas, the feeling, that you have to hold yourself back not to pet one of the cute sea lion cubs or the tears of joy you get when trying to follow a penguin under water… It’s an unbelievable paradise and we hope to come back one day!

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