Our ten month escape from routine, with four suitcases, two kids and big dreams.
Monday, 1 April 2013
Ecuador,The Galapogas,The Legend
28/03/13 Galapagos, hhmm, where to begin. Well we all know about the island's most celebrated visitor way back in 1835. A young Charles Darwin who arrived on The Beagle as the ship's geologist and naturalist. He was only here for five weeks but it was a short stay that would sow the seed of natural selection that, 25 years after his famous visit, would evolve into the seminal book, On The Origin Of Species. As for me, my body is thanking me for being back at sea level after hovering around the 9000 to 11000 feet mark for the last week. I think I may have picked up a slight case of Zombie Fungus in the Amazon which combined with the altitude was driving me crazy. Lets hope that being at sea level and inhaling some sea water are going to be the end of that.
We flew from Quito via Guayaquil, then after a 45 minute lay over on the tarmac, straight to the islands. Being an equatorial country there is really only one season just with varying degrees of wetness. The weather at the moment is supposed to be wet and humid, 16 to 32, but right now the sky is clear and blue, there is no rain about and it's a very pleasant 25 degrees C. The water is the same, 24 - 26 degrees C. Bliss.
There is a new airport nearing the end of construction on the island of Baltra, it's not big, but then tourism here is only around 170,000 p.a. While that doesn't seem a lot, it is in fact 75,000 up on what the Ecuadorian government recently stipulated was a sustainable number. The local guides, while welcome of the big tipping tourists, are concerned about the environmental impact of too many tourists. Hopefully good sense and not the lure of the big tourist bucks will prevail. Only time will tell.
The first thing I think of when the plane lands is... Kalgoorlie. I kid you not. There is red dirt, lots of dry native bush around, and it seems quite warm when your feet first hit the tarmac. Once we're through the airport it's only a short bus ride out to the small jetty where the zodiacs leave to ferry us all out to the Galapagos Legend. It's a beautiful ship, 96 metres long, five decks high and can cater for 96 guests and 60 crew. Once again we have "lucked in". There are only about 60 guests on board. Perfect.
The Galapagos Legend.
Our boys have hooked up with three young American boys they met on the plane and look set to have some fun with them. We've said hi and had a couple of chats with their parents Lyle and Kristen. They seem nice. Before we check in or get to see our rooms, it's up to the restaurant for a hearty buffet lunch. We get the chance for a quick look in the cabins before we're all called to the lounge area where we are divided up into groups, Cormorants, Boobies, Albatross and Dolphins. We're in Dolphins. There's no mucking around here, we're fed, allocated and loaded into zodiacs for our first boat ride all before you can say turtle soup. We're all a bit tired from the early start but there's nothing like seeing your first Blue Footed Boobie to get you in the right frame of mind. They're a large handsome bird with the most amazing soft powder blue feet and piercing blue/green eyes.
You'll always remember your first Boobie
Not us but you get the idea
After that it was Green Back Turtles, baby White Tip Sharks, Flying Fish, more Boobies, a Brown Pelican landing in trees and flocks of White Crested female Frigate birds ignoring the come on antics of their desperate Red Puffed male suitors.
It was a great little introduction of what was to come. Back on board it was a shower and then a couple of relaxing cocktails on the rear deck before dinner. The pre-dinner entertainment was spectacular. The ship is constantly moving between islands and tonight a pod of six dolphins following in the wake of the ship were doing some serious Sea World aerobatics, pulling off a parade of huge aerial manoeuvres. A squadron of Frigates were hovering over the main deck, gliding on the early evening breeze waiting to dive like kamikazes when the ship evacuates the daily food scraps into the ocean.
The Flight of the Frigates
We've seen some amazing things in just a matter of hours. The mind boggles at what is to come.
Sealions wresting on the beach, large Sting Rays leaping full length from the water, three metre White Tip Galapagos Sharks patrolling the boundary of the ship at night under the glare of the large flood lights, and so much more.
6.15am. Over the speaker in our rooms wafts a very gentle wake up call in the soft dulcet Spanish tones of a female crew member inviting us to leave our dreams and please slowly make our way to the restaurant where a delicious breakfast awaits. Best wake up call Iv'e ever had. After breakfast it was up to the Moon Deck to choose the snorkeling equipment we'll keep for the remainder of the voyage . Our first trip this morning was to a lava field. I wasn't sure what to expect here. It was amazing, as far as you can see, lava frozen in place in a surreal landscape. It looked like massive fields of black whipped cream but hard as iron. There are a hundred different patterns and textures all formed at different stages as the hot molten lava flowed and cooled. Enormous coils of thick knotted robe,silky smooth folds of material, cracked meringue you can step into up to your knees and large sprays of charcoaled crumbly granola.
You expect to be able to squeeze it between your fingers like soft putty
A masterpiece by Mother Nature
And, unbelievably, amongst 200 years of bleak, harsh volcanic desolation, life has found a way to bloom. Cactus plants and Pioneer plants have some how found a way to grow in a barren, waterless environment. And not just occasional sprigs but considerable growth.
No water, no soil ??
In the altered words of Julius Sumner Miller, " how is it so?"
It was about here that Callum decided to make a more personal acquaintance with the lava and went a cropper taking a nice little chunk out of his knee. It was a little gusher but thankfully no stitches required.
He was very brave
The lava walk is always done first thing in the morning as it can get a bit hot out here in the afternoon. Our guide Xavier and a friend of his apparently cooked an egg on the lava rocks a few weeks ago. As the lava field got closer to the waters edge we got our first glance here of the creepy little Marine Iguana. There were many more to come.
It was time to head back to the boat to get changed into our diving gear and then back for our first snorkel in the Galapagos. What a first dive. Visibility was only about 5 - 6 metres but there is such an abundant amount of sea life and it is so happy to be around you that seeing any further would be of no value. Christina spots a small 4 feet White Tip Galapagos shark cruising quietly beside us, a couple of sea lion pups came to play, make a few passes at us then just as quickly dart of towards a small school of fish. There is such an abundance and variety of sea life here. You couldn't name them all, Angel fish, Bump Head Parrot fish, Azure Parrot fish, Trumpet fish, Yellow-Tailed Mullet, Golden Rays, Eagle Rays, Manta Rays, Black and White Tip Galapagos Sharks, Puffer Fish, Flying Fish and sooo much more.
Interesting fact, There is no fresh water on the Galapagos Archipelago. There are 16,000 people that live on the main settlement of Santa Cruz and all there water requirements come from a desalination plant or bottled water.
6.45am wake up call for breakfast and then off to find Land Iguana and maybe some Tortoise. It's a wet landing on the beach. We all drop our snorkeling gear into a pile and then take off down a well worn track. First thing we find is a small pile of well bleach bones belonging to a sea lion and a tortoise. The circle of life as Xavier points out. A nice little dramatic cliche to start the morning then it's onward to find some live ones. We see the piles of fresh turds before we see the tortoise. Their large, wet and glistening so we know it's a big one and it's probably not too far away. Around a bend and there he is, our first tortoise.
An enormous 80 year old beauty, heading our way and taking up half of the path. What is remarkable about all the creatures here is their complete lack of fear of humans. You could touch them, hold them, pick them up or even tickle them and you'll get little reaction. But of course if your stupid enough to do that the guides will chop you up and feed you to the Iguanas.
This magnificent youngster standing in our path stops to observe these strange upright visitors with a casual curiosity then settles down on his tortoise haunches and waits for us to move on. With a life span upwards of 150 years, he's in no hurry. We get our digital fill then head on down the track. I look back a few minutes later and he is on his feet, his massive shell slowly swaggering as he heads off the path and further into the thick grass. It's not long before you can't turn without seeing a Giant Tortoise, I'm expecting one to drop from the trees. But then we come across a very rare treat. On the path ahead with his tiny little legs and his iddy biddy shell is a small 4 year old baby tortoise.
The little fella going for a walk
Even our guide of 8 years, Xavier, hadn't seen one this young in this area before. The survival rate of the hatchlings is very low. Only one in a hundred will survive to reach maturity. Once they're hatched they're on their own. There is no parental support and they are easy pickings for a variety of predators.
One that didn't make it, unfortunately you need a head to get ahead.,
A little further down the track we saw the original reason for our trek, our first Land Iguana, A mustard yellow pre-historic creature about a metre long. Scaly and dead eyed, they stand like statues warming their cold blooded bodies in the warm sun. Once again, no fear, just curiosity. He stands in the middle of our track, unconcerned about our progress or our need to pass. We try to respectfully edge around him but that's a little too far in his personal space and he turns slowly and retreats into the bush. Fair enough.
A face only a mother could love
We get to see plenty more Iguana and the large holes in the ground that they retreat to too try and hold their body heat during the cold nights. On our way back to the beach we come across an open field with about ten Giant Tortoise slowly munching there way from one side to another. When they're this big they have no predators so they go where they want when they want. A bit like being a Northbridge "identity".
We finally arrive back at our beach, hot, satisfied and ready for a snorkel. Once again visibility is only a few metres but we are in the water for no more than a few minutes when out of the murkiness, cutting right across our path, comes a whopping big Green Sea Turtle. I got to swim beside him, above him and below him, no more than an out stretched arm away. The highlight so far.
Tonight was Neptune's Party. The quintessential crossing the equator shin dig. The staff tried hard to recruit passengers but that was never really going to happen. It ended up being mostly staff and a few guests who I think were promised copious amounts of free alcohol.
Crossing the equator, we'll drink to that.
You never know how these things are going to go but it was actually a lot of fun. We had some drinks, had a dance and then went outside to watch the sea lions feeding on the flying fish who kept knocked themselves out by flying into the side of the boat. Doh!! We were looking for the large sharks that chased off the sea lions the night before but they didn't show.
Early start this morning, 6.15am wake up call. Today we went to Ferdinand Dena to find big mobs of Marine Iguana. Xavier said we cant leave till we find at least 1000. We could have left within the first 20 minutes. They were everywhere.
So pleased they're all well fed
The point of going early is to catch them before the sun warms them up and they take off into the water to feed. We found them in groups of 40 - 50, then groups of hundreds. Some still piled on top of each other waiting for the morning rays to get their internal motors clicking over. At night they do the same, forming large piles to combine their body heat in an effort to stay warm. The pile slowly crumbles as the suns ray start to penetrate and by one they peel off and make their way to the ocean to feed.
An Alpha male Sea Lion was forced to defend his territory from a young buck trying to muscle in on his harem. This is not a major Smack Down.
There's lots of loud barking, a couple of snaps here and there and suddenly one of them taps out and takes off. All very civil. The standing Alpha then chases the interloper out to sea, comes back and does a little victory dance accompanied by lots of barking. Apparently it's a tough job defending and servicing your harem so eventually the Alphas will lose the stamina to defend their territory. They will finally get beaten and when they do they go to an island close by where all the defeated Alpha's go to recuperate, like a bachelor island. Once they have their mojo back they'll return and try to reclaim their harem.
After a couple of hours on the island we head back with the intention of a 10.30 am deep dive but the weather has turned a little and the seas are now choppy. On top of that we're feeling a little jaded from Neptune's party and our guide has told us that this morning is going to be good but the dive this afternoon is going to be even better. We choose to stay on board and do the later dive. I snooze, the boys run around the ship with the other boys and Christina goes to the library. It was a good move. Come time for the 2.30pm dive we're feeling re-charged and ready to go.
The dive is the dive we we're hoping for. Christina counted 24 Green Tortoise in Isabella Bay.
A sea of Giant Green Back Tortoise
We swam within arms reach of these massive peaceful giants as they regard you with a lazy eye then flap on their way. They're very happy to have you tag along and there's no determined effort to lose you. A sea lion pup scoots in behind me, loops back around and heads straight for me before veering off. Game on. I'm chasing him, he's running circles around me, I'm ducking, he's weaving, we're having a ball. Next minute a large female darts up beside me and gives a very audible, very specific bark. First rule, barking is not good. Barking means game over and go and find someone else to play with. Which is exactly what I did. I didn't have to go far. Fifty metres away I bump into, almost literally, two more sea lion pups. Off we go again except this time it's double the fun. A Flightless Cormorant shoots under me like a slim torpedo, chasing lunch.
The Flightless Cormorant;
De-evolution in progress, these guys actually LOST the
ability to fly due to abundant food and no predators
These two guys run rings around me for about three minutes then as quickly as they came they were gone. A large school of yellow tail mullet swim underneath me and as I dive down they slowly part to let me through .
Our 45 minutes seems to go way too fast although the water here is probably the coldest yet and it feels good to be out and have some warm sun on your back. Xavier is calling us back on the boat. He stands on the bow with his shirt off and his pants hung low on his hips like a latin rock star. His large arms folded across his bulging pecs, jet black Spanish hair and dark sultry eyes behind cool shades surveying us all bobbing in the water. This was a final show for the girls. He's such a nice guy you can forgive him his vanity. Lets face it, he has the body, he has the tan, so why not.
It was back to The Legend for a quick change, hang the wet stuff on some deck chairs on the bow then back in the boats for a final tour along the cliff faces of Vicente Roca Point. We're looking for Nazca and Blue Footed Boobies, Marine Iguana, Sea Lion, Penguin and Cormorant . We find them all.
Nature in perfect harmony
Watching the big Marine Iguana just paddling along in the pounding surf waiting for an incoming wave to wash them up onto the rocks was the most fun. Nearly, nearly, up, up, almost there, clawed legs pawing at the slippery edge of the rocks trying desperately to get a grip, then in a sudden rush the water retreats and he's whisked back out to wait for the next one.
It was like watching Eric Moussambani swim at the Sydney Olympics, go Iguana go.
We don't wait around to see but off course he makes it. There are already twenty or so off his friends basking in the final rays of the day metres up on a craggy ledge. We find a big cave to drive the boat into but it's soon full of the diesel fumes of the outboard and I find myself more consumed with holding my breath than the surroundings. It was really just a big hole.
Three ways to brighten up a big black hole :)
Looks like we're in a big black hole, coz we are
That's it. Back to the ship for a shower, the final dinner and a slide show of the photos the guides took. Also the winner to be announced of the guest's photo comp. The winner was a great shot of a penguin charging the lens of someones camera. After that it was a cognac on the deck with some of the great people we have met. Early start in the morning with the bags to out and ready for pick up at 7.15am.
1/04/13 The last morning was a bit of a fill in tour on our way to the airport but it turned out to be something special because Alice caught two large Tortoise's humping in the bushes. We stopped off at a farm where Tortoise like to congregate, there's about 4000 of them. We got there just in time to see the big fella concluding business. Nice and easy gets the job done here. A bit of grunting but the big fella's not interested in working up a sweat. And then of course comes the photo opportunity. The way he was posing I think he was quite pleased with himself.
Thought I'd give the old fella a bit of competition
Well, our work here is finally done. We bid all of our new friends goodbye as many of them head back to resume their lives. We have made some good friends here and look forward to catching up with them in the States. Sally from Atlanta and Alice in Richmond, Mickey and Luke in Washington D.C, Eric, Renee and Jacob in New York and Lyle, Kristen and their gang in San Francisco. Also a fond farewell to Lord Charles from Britain and Paul and Dani. This part of our adventure was the complete package.