Swimming with turtles, sea-lions, and sharks

Trip Start Sep 06, 2010
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Trip End Sep 04, 2011


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Flag of Ecuador  , Galápagos,
Saturday, October 9, 2010

Dear blog followers, you have been reading my first lines written in South America.


First, let me come back to my second RTW flight from Panama City to Quito. I do not how it is possible, but it is cheaper to fly from Panama City to Miami, and from here to Quito, then to get on the direct flight. Do not ask me why, but there must be some reason :-)/  As a result of this weird flight arrangements, I spent almost 3 hrs on Miami bound plane, and another 4 hrs on the plane from Miami to Quito. As you can easily count, the flight time from Panama to Quito is just an hour. But whatever, I was in no rush! 

As all my previous flights, everything went well, having no delays, so at 6 pm of the local time ( -7 hrs from CET) we landed in Quito. Already by looking out of the plane window I could judge that Ecuador is going to be a different cup of tea from Central America. The landscape was very mountainous, sky was cloudy, and temperatures fluctuate around twenty degree Celsius.....here come the time to dig out warm clothes from my backpack.

So here I am on Archipelago de Colon, well-know as Galapagos islands. Yes, I did not originally plat to visit these islands, but way too many travelers were really enthused over spending some memorable time there. Hearing that I was set to change my itinerary, and head further 1,000 km west from the shore of Ecuador. Back in Bocas del Toro, where me and  the US and Dutch guy re-united (unintentionally) for the first time, we all agreed to undergo the Galapagos adventure together. Since then, we were in touch to synchronize our travel routes in order to be in Ecuador on October 9. The whole coordination exercise was handled very well, even buying plane tickets on the same day using Facebook chat (at that time I was back in Panama City, and them already in Ecuador).  As many things, also this one was not spared from compilations. The guys recommended to buy the tickets on South American website called Despegar.com. I am not fully aware of electronic purchase process in South America, but after completing the electronic purchase we yet had to re-confirm the reservation via email. To complicate it even more, apparently you have to call Despegar to further re-re-confirm the purchase, or to come to their office to sign the credit card payment receipt. Whatever was the real cause, after arriving to Quito, I have found out that my on-line ticket purchase for the next morning flight has been canceled. That meant to call their office in Colombia, and to go through a painful process of (not)understanding each other. The bottom line on our conversation was that I am not on the pass anger list any more. To get on it, I must have bought the return ticket directly from AirGal for $377 (the ticket bought on-line a day ago was $ 236). The premium paid for buying a ticket directly from the carrier was not that bad. And what was the most important, we all happily met on the plane the next day. Once this problem was removed from my to-do-list, I could peacefully check into a hostel across the street from the airport, and get some good sleep. I have not seen much from Ecuador during the first day, but the local girls (at least those non-Indian) can be seriously hot. Ecuador was climbing in the chart.

Before embarking any Galapagos bound plane, luggage of all passengers is scanned to ensure that no food or plants are brought to the islands. Then on the flight, the crew sprayed all carry-on luggage over-head compartments with some disinfection spray. Ecuadorian officials are really very serious about preserving original fauna and flora of Galapagos islands. A sense what we can expect from Galapagos island was served to us already a few minutes before landing when we saw a few beautiful uninhabited rocky islands carelessly "floating" in the ocean. The rest of the first day on Galapagos was spent walking around different travel agencies to find a good boat cruise. Finally at 8 pm, each of us paid $710 for spending two nights on Isabella Island, one day on Floreana island (those were two separate trips), and 3 nights on a boat cruising around the northern Galapagos islands. But I am telling you,  it was one serious planning and negotiation shift to find what we wanted. There are a lot of travel agencies around Porto Ayora (the port on the main island called Santa Cruz), but at the end they all call the same cruise boats. Due to strict environment regulations, there is only a limited number of these cruise boats, each of them having a license to visit certain Galapagos islands. No permit means that a boat can not visit an island.

 The rest of the blog entry will be split into day sections due to the fact that so much was seen, and experienced. From the same reason, and it is only for my diary overview, I am also including the animals seen on those islands.

Sunday and Monday, October 10-11
Our Isabela island adventures started early the next morning by getting on 400 hp motor boat.  It was one bumpy ride, as the boat was making its way through 2 m waves.  I will not act as a big macho and sincerely confess that I got really scared two are three times during this ride. Good we did not eat anything in the morning, otherwise it would have been thrown into the water :-). This way I was more or less ok.  Even though we had almost the whole day to discover the island on our own, we were so tired from the previous day that we slept, or just rested at the hotel. In the late afternoon, when the paid part of our tour started, the guide took us to Flamenco bay to see .........guess what :-). The population of Flamencos on Galapagos is rather small, counting around 470 pieces, with most of them living around Isabela island. Apparently we were quite lucky to see 9 of them in the bay. This is what I call an abundance of a wildlife :0.

The morning of the second day on Isabela was devoted to hike on Sierra Negro and Chica volcanoes. The hike by itself was not tough, as the Sierra Negro volcano is only 1,490 m high, but it was very, very dusty. On the top, we could see  beautiful sceneries of 10 km wide crater, and the island's shore. It is apparently one of the worlds biggest active craters (last eruption is dated 2005). The area of volcano Chica, which is just 20 minutes walk further from Sierra Negro,  is really spectacular, as it offers a view at a few eruption cones, and that reddish-blackish landscape, free of any vegetation, so characteristic for volcanoes. In the afternoon we went for our very fist Galapagos snorkeling trip,  and to see the Shark alley. We were quite excited, as it was about to be our first intensive exposure to Galapagos wildlife. It felt totally insane to walk around hundreds of sun-rays-catching marine iguanas who do not give a s*** you are there (there were so many of them that I almost stepped on a few), it is hard to depict what kind of stomach shivering you get when a curious sea lion is swimming around and beneath you, and how it feels to see tens of sharks lying on the bottom of crystal clear waters of the Shark alley. As one Dutch guy said: " It was great to see smiles on faces of all participants after this snorkeling trip".
Without any doubts, being on Isabella island was a great introduction to what we were about to experience in the course of the next days. The stay at Isabella island was further highlighted by staying in a nice hotel with a full board, and by meeting a group of four friendly Spaniards. The only drawback were local roosters waking us up every morning slightly after 4 a.m. But no problem. At the end, we were there to explore the local flora and fauna!

Animals seen:
Flamenco
Seal lion
Galapagos penguin
Galapagos hawk
Lava lizard
Shark

Tuesday October 12
We headed back on Santa Cruz island very early the next day to spend some time in Tortuga bay and at the Darwin Research Station. The main purpose of the research station is to collect giant tortoise eggs once laid in a nest on a beach, bring them to the station to allow them to hatch under control conditions, and then to bring 4 year-old small turtles back to their natural environment. The Galapagos giant tortoise population was saved from extinction due to this program. The research station also serves as a home to well known male giant tortoise called Lonely George. He was last of his kind on the island where he lived, and to save him he was brought to the research station during 70's. What is great about this place is that visitors are allowed to freely walk around these magnificent creatures, as long as they do not touch them.

Our next steps lead to Tortuga bay known for its vast pristine beach. Walking around this untouched wide beach with a blinding white sand, whose shore is constantly hammered by Pacific Ocean, was an another cherishing experience. If you ever dreamt of being in a picturesque place disturbed only with roaring of an ocean, and  wonder around together with marine iguanas, then this is place to be.

 Animals seen:
Marine iguana
Sea-lion
Lava lizard
Giant tortoise


Wednesday October 13
Today, we again hopped on the motor boat to explore beauties of Floreana Island. Similarly as Isabela, the island is about 2 hr boat ride away from Santa Cruz.. Me and LaShawn (the US guy) spent the whole ride there on the captain's platform hoping to catch a glimpse of some wildlife. We were rewarded for our patience by seeing a magnificent Sperm Whale, and by observing Albatrosses flying just a few centimeters above the water surface . The captain also allowed us to take a pictures behind the steering wheel. On the island we once again saw giant tortoise (as in previous case living in an artificial reservation), and pirate caves located in the highlands. However, the most stunning natural gem stone is hidden underneath the ocean surface. Jumping into 17 degree Celsius cold water is not easy (wet suit must be worn), but what  you would not do for swimming with thousands of fish of different colors, or graceful turtles. Imagine that you are snorkeling in the Pacific ocean, and huge graceful turtles are swimming a meter or two underneath you. Really priceless moments!

Animals seen:
Green turtles
Sea-lion
Green turtle
Sperm whale
Waved Albatross
Red-billed tropic-bird

Thursday October 14
Thursday was the first day of our 3-night boat cruise around Galapagos northern islands. The name of our new home was Guantamarana, and it could (and actually was) carry 16 passengers, 7 crew members, and a Galapagos National Park guide. Besides us three, other passengers were mostly Germans, three other Dutchmen, and two South Americans.  After visiting already a few destinations it was easily noticeable that Galapagos is not a popular backpacker spot. And yes, the reason is very easy.... costs, costs, costs. As a result,  passengers on these cruise boats are predominantly people 40 plus, and only very few representatives of younger generation. Therefore, do not expect much fun aboard. Luckily this is more then compensated by unique experiences off the board.  The boat crew takes full care of you serving three buffet-like meals a day and two snacks, securing you from the motorboats when snorkeling, cleaning your cabin, etc. You do not have to take care about anything besides not getting sea-sick. Each cruise boat have to mandatory have a Galapagos NP guide who ensures that the park and its fauna and flora are not affected by tourists. He also explains you everything about animals you see, eco-system rules and ties, and amuse you with funny stories from his previous practice. Our guide had 21 year experience, and was a walking encyclopedia of biology. He was really nice, but when it came to to obeying by the park rules he was uncompromising. They take preservation of the NP park, and the wild life's' natural environment  very seriously. No using of flashes, do not even think of stepping out of marked trails, no food on uninhabited islands,etc! The nature come first.

Galapagos cruise boats always travel at night. This way passengers are on islands early in the morning, and can stay there for a whole day. Due to this reason, we started our trip by exploring two sink wholes (collapsed craters), lava tunnels, and giant tortoise living in a wild nature on our departure islands, Santa Cruz. At midnight the boat raised its archer, and head in direction of Rabida island. During all three nights I did not get much sleep, as the boat was making its way through rough Pacific Ocean. I always took a motion-sickness pill, but sounds of the boat engine, and endless rocking from one side to another did not let me sleep well.

Animals seen:
Giant Tortoise
Brown Pelican

Friday October 15
After delicious breakfast we were ready to walk around a small island called Rabida. As most of Galapagos islands, it is uninhabited with numerous colonies of sea-lions living on its shore.   It is really amazing how animals here are unafraid of humans.  As explained to us, this unique feature of their behavior is attributable to the fact that there have been no mammals predators hunting them. Those are truly unbelievable moments to be able to walk around colonies of sea lions without them running away, or seeing  sea-lion moms breast-feeding their babies. You can not possibly get closer to mother nature other then experiencing this.  On top of all this, you are served interesting information about their life, and habits. For example, the leading sea-lion male (the locals call him "The beach master") keeps his superior position only for 2-3 months, and usually only once in his life. He must wait approx 12 or 13 years to reach this status undergoing countless fight with other opponents.

In the afternoon, the boat cruised from Rabida to close-by Bartolome island. This small island is located just off east of  much bigger Santiago island. Bartolome is desolate island with few plants which is proclaimed to be the most visited and most photographed island on the Galapagos due to the Pinnacle Rock - lava expelled by the volcano which created the tuff coned shape rock. Our first steps or rather jumps lead into the  surrounding "freezing" ocean waters to check on sharks. Unfortunately, we were not lucky, but instead we bumped into a swimming Galapagos penguin. As the sea-lions, this, the worlds' second smallest kind of pinion , absolutely did not care about 8 eager tourists swimming closely around him. He got to me as close as 20 cm....incredible, is not it?! After snorkeling we all gathered on the picturesque beach left of the Pinnacle Rock to go on the other side of the island to observe a frightening scene - digesting sharks. It was truly impressive view to see tens of sharks shadows swimming just a few meters from the shore. And if it was allowed, you could swim with them without getting a bite!

The day was wrapped up by a pleasant walk to the top of Bartolome island to be able to see beautiful views of nearby ocean-mounted islands, and the islands' bays.

Animals seen:
Galapagos penguin
White and black teeth shark
Galapagos shark
Darwin's fitches
Sally-lightfoot crab
Frigate-bird
Great blue heron


Saturday October 16

The night ride to the next destination was really unforgettable one, as the boat was heavily rocking from side to side. We all agreed that there were 2 or 3 moments when we thought that the boat is going to flip over. Surviving this part of trip gave us a green light to visit Genovesa Island, the oasis of sea birds -  frigate-birds, red-footed and Nazca boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, and storm petrels all breed here by the thousands. Picture yourself walking around  thousands of all those birds some of them nesting, their babies with yet fluffy feathers running around waiting for parents to feed them, males birds trying to get attention of females, quarreling bird couples, etc. They really act as people. And of course, they fearlessly run around you. Not to forget, other thousands of them are flying over your heads, so you have to watch out not to get pooped on. 

Let me give you a bit inside into life of these bird colonies. Unlike red-footed boobies, Nazca boobies nest on the ground. They lay 2-3 eggs, but then the strongest chick kills its weaker siblings while the parents are watching it. Frigate-birds are the meanest birds I have ever seen. As their feathers is not waterproof they can not dive to catch fish. Instead, they chase other birds, bite them aloft trying to make them vomit, and then pick up what was expelled from their stomachs. It was not rare to see 4 or more frigate-birds going after a single bird....so cruel!

As we still did not see any sharks during our numerous snorkeling sessions, we were eager to do anything to finally swim with those ancient predators, and to look directly into their cold eyes. Rocky and savage shore of Genovesa is a paradise of hammer-head sharks, which like to swim in deep and turbulent waters. I was swimming around and staring into deep waters like a real fearless Czech backpacker, but I did not succeed to see them, as they swim  really deep. Other people were more happy, and saw a few of them swimming below them. So now I could say, that I swam with sharks :-).


Animals seen:
Nazca Booby
Red-footed Booby
Swallow-tailed gull
Fur seal

Sunday October 17

The last stop on our trip map was North Saymour island. Over there we could see happy blue-footed boobies, which feet shine into a distance. We also observed plenty of bride-hunting frigategibirds males, which, in order to attract a female,  inflate their huge screaming-red pouch. We also witnessed a blue-footed boobie male performing a funny dance (hopping from one leg to another one in order to show up his blue feet) in front of a female, and giving her small presents (sticks, small stones). All that to mate with her. Amazing experiences. You can barely wish for more!


Animals seen:
Blue-footed booby


I probably should not use words like "wow", "unbelievable", "amazing" about Galapagos, but folks,  it is hard to do it. All of you must have seen one of those National Geographic documents about wildlife, so imagine living it for a few days. Having all those turtles, sea-lions, penguins, various birds, sharks just at arms' lenght, and them behaving as we (humans) were not there. After hard-core partying experience during my last days in Panama, being on Galapagos wide-opened my eyes to witness how beautiful our planet is.

Now it is time to explore the mainland of Ecuador.

Greetings from Quito, Ecuador
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Comments

Andyk on

You should consider to start working for National Geographic once u r back.. ;)

Vince on

Petr,

Do you have a mobile number on which I can call u??

garrettgetschow
garrettgetschow on

Liked the blog.. was it worth the expenses to see the island? I'm traveling on a budget, but really want to see it. Thanks, G

luxguy
luxguy on

Hi Man, Sorry for a delay in replying. Galapagos are definitely worth visiting. Fauna and flora are something unreal there. Look, If you are in SOuth AMerica it would be sin not to go there. From Europe or US it is going to be much more expensive. If you do something similar what we did you can do it for $1100 . Let me know if you need more info!

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