The Galapagos Experience – San Cristobal

Trip Start Jul 30, 2010
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Trip End May 29, 2011


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Flag of Ecuador  , Galápagos,
Sunday, February 20, 2011

"Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black basaltic lava thrown into the most rugged waves"

Charles Darwin – on San Cristobal in "The Voyage of the Beagle"

Now, if Darwin had approached San Cristobal from south rather than the north his initial reaction to this island might have been a little more positive. Coming in from the South (or SW) as you approach the harbour you can see that the main road facing the sea is lined with small, colourfully painted buildings. It's all quite rustic and quaint. It also rather disguises that fact that even tho’ San Cristobal is the 2nd most visited island, there’s not much to see in the sleepy town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.

One of the reasons Puerto B. Moreno is so sleepy is the nature of tourism in the Galapagos. The islands are visited by about 160,000 to 200,000 each year (based on the sales of the $100 per person entrance ticket) but most of those come in on, and stay on, the cruise ships, getting off only to visit the beaches, buy a handful of souvenirs and walk around the CD Foundation Centre. Most of the money they spend stays on the ship and very little of it goes back to the Galapagos or even Ecuador. This is a shame because more footfall on land would lead to more employment, better restaurants and some much needed competition amongst establishments. I think the other reason it seems so sleepy is that most of it is shut. For every one tour shop/souvenir shop/cafe that is open, two others are shut all day long. It’s almost like they open on a rota system: "Tuesday is my day to be open; Wednesday is yours". When they do open they then shut for lunch from about midday to 6pm and then shut for the day at 7:30pm.

Along the sea-front of Puerto B. Moreno, sitting on benches, the kids’ play-areas, steps and even on the back of unoccupied boats are sea-lions, hundreds of them. At night the sea-lions take over the beach as they fight and jostle for position. The grunting and groaning becomes louder as cubs and parents search each other out. It’s quite a sight (and smell) to be so close to sea-lions in the wild.

In this, our 2nd week, our volunteer activities were described by 'Real Gap’ as “Environmental, community and social projects”. Suitably vague eh? We’d discovered at our Quito orientation that this meant more digging holes, pulling out Blackberry bushes and general hard labour. After a few days of doing just this in Santa Cruz it didn’t fill us with too much enthusiasm. We’d also been warned in Quito that the project in SC was in a heavy biting fly and mosquito area but nothing could have prepared us for the insect onslaught that was waiting hungrily for us at the centre. This was by far the worst place for biting insects we’d been to on the trip – even worse than the Borneo rainforest or the Milford Sound in NZ. Within minutes I was bleeding from the face, neck and arm, bitten by black-flies who had absolutely no aversion to Deet. Our dorm was a mossie infested room with a tattered mesh for a window and the mossie nets supplied weren’t much better.

When we had originally signed up for this it was for animal rehabilitation. After the orientation we learnt that we’d be repairing the dirt-track road to the centre – damaged in the rains. We stuck with the task until about 11:30 when Claire turned around and said she’d had enough. Her back was killing her and carrying on wasn’t an option. That was good enough for me and we headed back to base. No-one tried to persuade us to stay and we got the impression that people walking off the project was not uncommon. As we waited for a cab we watched a couple of the long-term volunteers and a project leader work in the kitchen. No-one spoke, there was no laughter and no sense of fun – it was joyless and authoritarian. Any guilt we felt about leaving the project so early was offset by the knowledge that the project has kept our money even if it hadn’t had our labour. I know that part of this trip is about the giving of our time and energies but frankly life and this trip are too short to waste on something we’ll only do half-heartedly.

Over the next couple of days we spent time on the beach, lying in the sun as sea lions waddled their way around us and visited the Interpretation Centre which was actually really interesting and gave quite an informative history of the islands and the problems (social, economic and environment) that the islands face today.

On our last full day on San Cristolbal we took a snorkelling/diving tour out to Kicker Rock (León Dormido – not a direct translation as you can see if you speak Spanish), which is basically a bloody big rock that emerges from the sea. A small channel has formed between two parts of the rock where people can snorkel or dive. It’s famous (locally at least) for seeing the Galapagos Shark and Hammerhead Sharks. The first you can see snorkelling, the latter diving. For some unfathomable reason I chose to dive.

Looking back to the Perhentians I had, let’s call them reservations about being in the water with sharks – any types of shark, and there the Black-Tip Reef Sharks were described as ‘not usually dangerous’.  For Hammerheads the ‘not usually’ is replaced with ‘can be’. Not sure about Galapagos sharks. Anyway I was more than a little apprehensive about the diving.

At our first stop, Los Lobos, we had just snorkelled but during that we had seen a Green Turtle if little else. Kicker Rock proved to be an all-together different matter. There were three of us diving plus our Dive-master/Guide, the rest, including Claire, snorkelled. As we dropped down to about 20m we went round a reef where we spotted in the distance a couple of Galapagos sharks idling towards us. They went past barely registering us. As we swam along the canal the bottom became more sandy and visibility improved just in time to see a large Gal. Shark to swim right past me and my buddy, about 5m away. As I motioned to my buddy I realised that an even bigger one was gliding past him. Then we looked up.

Above us, and increasing around us, was a school (is that the correct collective?) of Gal. Sharks. It was like being in a TV documentary. Everywhere we looked there were sharks.  There must have been 20-25 of them, perhaps more, all swimming in the opposite direction to us - specifically towards us. My heart was in my mouth and it was all I could do to try and manage my breathing, stay calm and thus stay stable and not float up alone into their path. We passed thru’ the school with few of them taking any notice of us, indeed they seem to part to allow us thru’.

I was happy – perhaps relieved is a better word - I’d seen more sharks and lived to tell the tale and at that point I could have happily finished the dive but we were only about a 1/3 of the way in. We passed thru’ another school of Gal. Sharks a little further on and then as we were doing our safety stop at 5m another smaller group passed us, eyeballing us as we floated in the sea.

We didn’t get to see the Hammerheads. Our guide claimed to have seen one but it was either gone or the visibility had dropped before the rest of us managed to see it.  I can live with the disappointment.

We were supposed to do two dives at Kicker Rock but a storm rolled in and as it was too considered too dangerous to allow the snorkelers back in we returned to Los Lobos, where the storm had passed. There we did another dive, which was pretty dull until a couple of sea-lions decided to join us and whizzed around, between, under and over us, playing in the bubbles from our regulators. Magical – and it felt a lot safer than being in the company of the sharks!

So if you’re wondering was I scared the answer is yes and no. No, because I’ve learnt that 95% of sharks are harmless (usually) to humans and of those attacks that do occur it’s usually a result of the shark mistaking a human for a seal – not much comfort I know to someone who’s been attacked but still not the shark’s fault.  And yes, because I’ve seen up close just how fast they swim, how dead-eyed they look and how helpless we would be to a shark attack. So it’s probably more accurate to say I am still apprehensive around them but possibly don’t have the irrational fear I had before this trip.  I’ve also learnt that the shark population is being decimated across the globe by uncontrolled game fishing and the unspeakably cruel and barbaric practice of cutting a shark’s fin off for a poxy bowl of soup. I guess that also shows some concern and some respect for one of the planet’s oldest inhabitants. That’s not something I expected from this trip.
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Comments

Andy Howell on

Another cracking entry, I'd always though of you as a bit of a chum, but only today as a bit of chum. The correct word for a gatherting of sharks in a 'kak' as that is what one is expected to do. Good for you for walking off the work detail, as it's the sort of thing I'd do, I felt better about myself - so some good's come it... cheers, Andy

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