Swimming with Sharks on the Galapagos Islands

Trip Start Jan 30, 2010
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Trip End Sep 12, 2010


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Flag of Ecuador  , Galapagos Islands,
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

We were in Huaraz, Peru waiting for the overnight bus to Lima, for a flight the following day to Guayaquil, Ecuador and then on to the Galapagos Islands, and we were having misgivings. One, we had to let go of further exploration of northern Peru which we might later regret; two, even though we found good deals on flights, we had a feeling it might be very expensive once there; and three, Michael hates boat travel and can get extremely seasick, making the Galapagos ISLANDS possibly a bad choice for him. All three concerns ended up being justified. 

 We'd read that one could go to other islands on day trips, to see a variety of wildlife while based on the main island, which if so, would preclude having to take an expensive cruise on the open, rough sea. As a bonus, we'd save the $1,500, or more, each for a multi-day cruise. Things didn't turn out quite as we planned. 

We really didn't know what to expect.  We bought Lonely Planet Ecuador at the Guayaquil airport just before boarding our plane, and speed-read it during the 2 1/2 hour flight to the Galapagos archipelago. Arriving at the islands is thrilling; they seem exotic and fragile even from the air. After landing at the airport on the black lava rock that IS the island of Baltra, we transferred to a shuttle bus for the two hour ride to Isla Santa Cruz (connected by bridge to Baltra), the main island. The island's one city and hub of the Galapagos cruise and tourism industry, is Puerto Ayora, which struck us immediately as built-up and crowded. We were taken aback by the brash commercialization along the pier, where the cruise boats dock. The main street appears as one long row of t-shirt shops, tour agencies and bars. Access to the waterfront is completely blocked by buildings, and a busy two lane road is jammed with traffic. This scene was the polar opposite of what we expected to find. 

We found a hostal on a side street which, to our relief, was much quieter than the main drag. The room lacked a/c, which was a problem given the suffocating heat and humidity. To cool down, we opened windows to let in soft south pacific sea breezes. We immediately set off to investigate tour options for the following day, finally booking a three day tour to neighboring Isla Isabella. 

After we'd had time to explore Puerto Ayora away from the horrible main street, our harsh first impression softened and we saw, beneath the hype and traffic, a bucolic seaside tourist town. Not typical by any means, though, as did regular double takes when passing the occasional Blue-Footed Booby or Pelican perched no more than three feet from us. We had to watch our step lest we disturb one of the many large marine iguanas, whose habit it is to sunbathe on the sidewalk. Even in this busy tourist area, the animals were present and very easy to spot.
Most people don't linger in Puerto Ayora, they just pass through at the beginning and end of their cruises. We stayed on Isla Santa Cruz for six nights, and found plenty of things to see and do. The Darwin Research Station, at the end of town, is fascinating. We got up close and personal to the center's many Galapagos Tortoises, including the island's most famous bachelor, Lonesome George, the last of his species from Isla Pinta. There are Land Iguanas, too, as well as a turtle breeding facility where various island species are identified by color coding on their shells to keep the gene pools pure.

We saw more tortoises in the highlands, where these enormous creatures roam free. It was a bit sad though as every cruise begins or ends with a tour here so the poor beasts seem rather harassed (though it's hard to tell with tortoises; they certainly can't run away!).
Of the 15 main islands, five are accessible by day tour*, and these to only a small area of the island. We signed up for a two-day tour to Isabella Island, the largest, and reputedly one of the prettiest, islands. Unfortunately, our 3-hour crossing was extremely rough and Michael was violently seasick. He suffered horribly from the time we left Puerta Ayora's harbor 'til well into the night. Once back on tierra firma, he vowed that boat travel for him was out for rest of the trip (and preferably the rest of his natural life!). Getting back to Puerta Ayora presented a problem, until he found a 9-seat puddle-jumper that makes the trip several times a week, and promptly booked his return flight. 

Isla Isabella proved a fascinating and beautiful place. By far the largest Galapagos island, Isabella boasts the longest beach in the Galapagos - three kilometers of white sand, gently breaking waves, and lots of pelicans and iguanas for company.We took a guided tour to the inland volcanic region to view the world's second largest volcanic crater, Volcan Sierra Negra; also the island's highest point, at 1,490 meters. The 16 km walk took us through lava beds and past mineral rich craters and lava tubes; the entire scene resembling a charred moonscape. Geological formations of volcanic activity over thousands of years are instructive in how the Galapagos Islands were formed. We walked among volcanic craters and crumbling lava tubes. From our perch on top of the island, we had a long view of the string of volcanic peaks that together form this long, beautiful island. 

We noticed that most tour agencies in Puerto Ayora were offering last minute specials on cruises, so we investigated and decided these were quite affordable - less than 1/3 the regular price. After much discussion, we decided that Annet and Oliver would sign up for a four day cruise that was selling its last two berths at a bargain-basement price. Michael would stay on Isla Isabella, hiking, swimming and snorkeling (and avoiding boats!), and Oliver and Annet would meet his flight airport on Baltra, where our cruise ended, in four days. 

Oliver and Annet returned by ferry to Santa Cruz, where they boarded the worthy 16-passenger "Eden". Over the next three days, they visited several islands: St James Bay on Santiago Island, Islas Bartolome and Genovesa, and Turtle Bay on Baltra Island. As the last and lowest-paying guests, they were given the worst room, in the hull next to the boiler. The tiny room was very loud, and became extremely hot at night when the boat sailed, and the boiler was at full throttle. The cruise's schedule was a strict regime. A ringing bell announced time for a meal or the next excursion, which was either a hike or snorkeling. The excursions were the cruise's main attraction, and were fabulous. We snorkeled twice a day in different bays and the open ocean. We saw incredible marine life. Oliver found himself swimming near a white tipped reef shark, which are quite large. We swam with fun-loving Galapagos Sea Lions, quietly swam next to Green Sea Turtles, and viewed several species of rays and irredescent Angel Fish, Damsel Fish, Parrot Fish, Wrass and more. A large, rectangular Hog Fish appeared from the depths, scaring Annet almost out of her fins! We also hiked twice a day among island habitats, where we saw wildlife at very close range. Some of the more rare and exotic species we saw were the Red Footed and Nasca Boobies, the Galapagos Hawk, Fur Seals and the Long-Eared Owl. Michael, on Isabella, saw interesting creatures, too, including flamingos, an octopus and a black snake. He also swam in a rock crevice about a meter wide, called The Tunnels, with 20-30 White-Tipped Reef Sharks, so close as to brush against him. 

The main reason to go to the Galapagos is to get close to wild birds, mammals, reptiles and sea creatures. A distance of no closer than two meters is allowed, but often the animals approach people (as in the case of the Marine Iguana that hopped on Oliver's shoulder to sunbathe), or are nesting on or next to the trail. They truly have no fear and never ran or flew away from us. Conversely, they don't beg for food and appear to live completely as nature intends. They simply remain in place and observe humans observing them.

After the cruise, our family was reunited in Puerto Ayora, where we then spent a couple of days relaxing on Isla Santa Cruz before flying back to Peru, and our final South American excursion to Iquitos and the Amazon. We discovered a couple of white sand beaches on the island. The best one, Turtle Bay, is where we spent our last day on the Galapagos, swimming and kayaking, as sharks skimmed past just under the water's surface. Considering the countless buses, taxis, airports, ruins and hiking which have filled our days these past few weeks before arriving here, it felt very good to be, simply, a family relaxing at the beach.

There were a couple of downsides to the Galapagos that bear mentioning. First, the Galapagos' protected status is loosely interpreted and insufficiently enforced. Illegal fishing for sea cucumbers, fish and sharks for shark fin soup goes on openly, as there are just a few patrol boats for the entire archipelago. Secondly, population growth and domestic animals  on Santa Cruz is overburdening the island's natural resources and habitat. Settlers from the mainland began migrating to the islands to find jobs in the tourist industry after Ecuador's economic collapse in the 90's. Neither of these issues will be resolved soon, unfortunately. 

Though we ended up having a fabulous time, we don't recommend going to the Galapagos on a whim, as we did. A big trip like this deserves careful research, and saving. It really is necessary to take a cruise (with dramamine or an anti-seasickness patch), because the only way to get to the pristine, uninhabited islands is by boat. Each island is unique in geography and types of species that inhabit it. Many of the more exotic species, such as albatross, flightless cormorants and fur seals, live on just one island. Our advice is, since you'll be spending a small fortune anyway, go for the longest cruise to see as many islands as possible. 
 
Oliver, 12, became immersed in seeing these unique and strange creatures in their fragile habitats. He became a budding conservationist, writing a list of every bird and animal we saw, and a description of each. Since our kids will inherit the environmental mess our generation has created, it's great for them to come see what the world stands to lose if nothing is done to protect animals and their habitats. To see our son wander in this natural kingdom and engage close-up with booby birds, penguins, sea lions, tortoises and iguanas is our fondest take-away memory.

*populated islands are: Santa Cruz, San Cristobol, Seymour, Floreana, and Isabella
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Comments

Marisol El Mirador de Valparaiso on

Congratulations, beautifull pictures Oliver.
Best Regards Annet, Michael Oliver.

Lisa Fuchs on

Glad you got a chance to see the Galapagos. I enjoyed reliving our own memories through your eyes. Bartolomeo is gorgeous as is San Giovese! Aren't you supposed to return to California at some point this summer before heading to the Far East? Miss you!

Alma Lalonde on

Geat to hear from you! It looks like you´re having a great time, beautiful shots of wildlife. Are you still in Lima? Tim and I happen to be in Lima today and for anothert two days, we are waiting for Cristina and will head to Cusco as soon as she gets here, let me know if you are around. Otherwise, I heard you are in Palo Alto for a little while? Nick is looking forward to seeing Oliver. Let me know if you are stil in Lima, maybe we can get together over some coffee.

Michele P. on

Amazing photos! What an incredible experience--you've sold me!

Marisol on

Dear Lisa , Alma, Everybody :
I´m the hostal owner of the Bed Breakfast El Mirador de Valparaiso. Chile.
I invite you to visit our city .Best Regards.

Granny on

Absolutely amazing.What a wonderful experience-apart from the boat!Your photos are fantastic.

Denice on

Annet,
Thanks for the update. Great photos Oliver! Michael I feel for you and the sea sickness! Planes are great! Annet, call me when you get to Palo Alto. I am looking forward to seeing you and hearing all about your adventure in person! xoxo Denice

TAE on

Many photo are wonderful & amazing ! Galapagos island can see creature as they really are. We really enjoyed photo. Oliver is great.
Thank you for sharing this impression.
Take care . Love TAE

J.L. de Jong on

I'm jealous. What a trip, but do you get to watch any world cup soccer games?

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