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Discover Galapagos

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On 8th October 1835, the British survey ship HMS Beagle anchored at Santiago Island in Galapagos. On board was the bright young scientist Charles Darwin, from the UK. The local fauna and flora on the island fascinated him and his trips to exotic places especially to Galapagos greatly influenced his masterwork; the book the Origin of Species. He once described Galapagos as a “world within itself”.

Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands distributed on either side of the equator in the Pacific Ocean. The islands form a province of Ecuador and have a population of slightly over 25,000. The principal language on the islands is Spanish.

On 30th June 2012, 177 years after Darwin’s famous visit, I was on board a flight from Quito, the Capital of Ecuador that landed in Baltra Island in Galapagos before noon the same day. I was greeted by our tour guide/naturalist George at the airport who guided me and 15 other visitors on an hour-long road with spectacular scenery on Santa Cruz Island to the Academy Bay on Punta Tamaya. There we got into two Zodiacs to board a luxury catamaran named ‘Cormorant’, anchored at Academy Bay. It had accommodation for 16 passengers with 9 cabins.

After checking into our cabins and having had lunch on board we came back to land to visit the Giant Tortoise reserve. It took us thirty minutes on a bus to arrive at the reserve in the highland. We saw at least ten giant tortoises. Rain hindered our further trekking on the reserve for these reptiles. It was interesting to watch how they feed on grass. The Galapagos Tortoise is the largest living species of Tortoise, and tenth heaviest living reptile, some weighing over 400 kg with a life span in the wild over 100 years and an extended life span of 170 years in captivity.

In the 16th Century the Tortoise population is said to have been around 250,000 and it had declined to about 3,000 by the 1970s. The reasons for the decline are similar to that of the situation in the rest of the animal world, where some are killed for food, some face extinction due to habitat clearance for agriculture and in many cases exploited for its commercial value. According to the information available ten subspecies of the original fifteen survive in the wild, an eleventh subspecies had only a single known individual nicknamed Lonesome George, kept in captivity and died at the age estimated at 100 years, one week prior to our visit to Galapagos.

We were back on board by 6 pm to continue our tour as planned for seven nights on the Cormorant to explore 5 islands of the 13 main islands of the archipelago, namely Isabela, Fernandina, Santiago, Genovesa and North Seymour and ending on the 7th July in Baltra Island. The Cormorant cruised towards Isabela Island during the night which is the largest of the Galapagos Islands giving most of the guests a sleepless night due to the rough sea. When I got up early in the morning on the 1st of July, the Cormorant had anchored on waters close to Puerto Villamil of Isabela Island, which is an island formed by joining of five young volcanoes. Our morning activity was to visit the Sierra Negra Volcano.

After breakfast we were on the two Zodiacs at 8 am for dry landing on the shore of Puerto Vilamil town. Later we were transported to the half way mark of the base of the mountain of the volcano by a side-opened bus, passing through several different vegetations and geological zones. Due to inclement weather and the slippery ground conditions, climbing was difficult and took much time for most of us to reach the top. The crater was not properly visible due to the mist. It is on record that this crater is the second largest in the world, Ngorongoro in Tanzania being the largest. At the top of the mountain I was able to photograph a pair of Woodpecker Finch, a species of bird in the Darwin’s finch group of the Tanager family found only in Galapagos Islands. By noon we were back on the Cormorant for Lunch.

At 3 pm, once again we went back ashore at Puerto Vilamil to visit the Tortoise breeding center run by the National Park Interpretation Center. Most species at the center are from the southern part of the Island. The shape of their shell helps to identify them. The island has five distinct Giant Tortoises each from a different area on the Island. Some are with either flat or saddleback shells while others have a higher domed shape shell. Later we sighted a few Galapagos/Caribbean Flamingoes in a salt-water lagoon. On our way back to the Cormorant in the two Zodiacs, we sighted a group of Galapagos Penguins on piled up lava rocks bordering the island. These are the only Penguin species that live in the tropics. Others live in the Southern Hemisphere mainly in the Antarctic since they love the ice. Yet, not in the Arctic, it is strange!
We were back on board by 6 pm. Later our naturalist briefed us on the program for the following day with a slide show. During the night the Cormorant cruised towards our next destination, Punta Moreno on Isabela Island.

As usual, a wakeup call came at 6.30 am on 2nd July but I was already up from 3 am due to jet lag from a time difference of 10 hours between Sri Lanka and Galapagos. The Cormorant had already anchored at Punta Moreno. At 8 am we were on the two Zodiacs moving towards land for dry landing on the lava rock. We sighted for the first time one of the famous marine birds in Galapagos, the Blue Footed Booby on the banks of the lava shore. These are sighted along the continental coasts of the eastern Pacific Ocean, California and Galapagos.

It was my first experience of landing on a barren lava field. The first attraction was the shark in a salt water lagoon on the lava field. We also sighted two marine Green Turtles at the same spot. Later we moved interior, albeit cautiously, on the lava field. We spent some time at another salt water lagoon, seeing more Galapagos Flamingoes and returned to the Cormorant by 10.30 am for the next activity; snorkeling at 11 am. Most of the tourists were experts in snorkeling but I was just a beginner. Many had sighted Sea Horse, Sea Lions and Turtles while snorkeling. Back on board for a BBQ lunch. At 1.30 pm, the Cormorant cruised parallel to the Isabela Island towards Elizabeth Bay. I was on the top deck when a few Bottle Nosed Dolphins were sighted and within minutes they were very close to our catamaran. All of us enjoyed the acrobatic show by the Dolphins.

It was around 3 pm when we reached our destination. Later, all of us were in the two Zodiacs for a guided Panga ride on the Elizabeth Bay until sunset. It was a great experience and I had taken a few good images using my Nikon D4 of Penguins swimming in water, Great Blue Heron, Golden Ray and Marine Turtles. Later, the Cormorant cruised towards Fernandina Island, our next island to visit in Galapagos.

On the 3rd of July when I went up to the main deck at 6 am, the Cormorant had already anchored in Punta Mangle on Fernandina Island. This land is one of the habitats for Marine Iguanas in Galapagos which is not sighted elsewhere in the world. Its diet consists of seaweed and algae. On land the Marine Iguana is a rather lazy animal but in the water it is a graceful swimmer and it can dive up to 30 feet. Adult males are up to 1.3 meters in length and weighs 1.5 kg while the females are smaller in size and length.

After breakfast all of us went snorkeling. It was amazing to see the Marine Iguana underwater feeding on its favorite food; seaweed and algae. Later in the morning we were taken on the two Zodiacs for a dinghy ride to see the Marine Iguanas on the lava rocks, Flightless Cormorant, Marine Turtles and Sea Lions in water. We were back on board for lunch.
In the afternoon, the Cormorant cruised towards Urbina Bay on Isabela Island. At 3 pm we had wet landing on a black beach of Isabela Island in Urbina Bay. Our naturalist George, took us on a guided tour inland where we came across a few domed shell Giant Tortoises, some mating; a sight that surprised all of us. Shell size and shape varies on Islands with humid highland and dry lowlands. Charles Darwin’s observations of these differences on his second voyage in 1835 to Galapagos contributed to his Theory of Evolution. We also sighted a few Land Iguanas. The Galapagos Land Iguana is primarily herbivorous, grows to a length of 3 to 5 feet with a body weight of up to 25 pounds and having a life span of 50 to 60 years. In comparison, the Marine Iguana’s life span is about 5 to 12 years. We were back on board by 6 pm and the Cormorant started to cruise towards Punta Espinosa, north of Fernandina Island.

On the 4th of July, as usual I was up by 6 am and while I was on the top deck a bird I had not seen before, a Magnificent Frigate Bird flying over the Cormorant gave me the opportunity to take a few good images. It looked a male since it had a scarlet throat patch on its black body. This bird feeds mainly on fish. The Magnificent Frigate Birds found in Galapagos are considered an endemic subspecies exclusive to the archipelago.

After breakfast, we were on the two Zodiacs moving towards Punta Espinosa for a dry landing on a lava rocky beach. The beach was full of Marine Iguanas in their hundreds. Sea Lions on the land were quite friendly. This gave many of us the opportunity to take very close pictures with the Sea Lions. We also sighted a Galapagos Hawk that was searching for a prey at a water hole close to the lava beach. Later it disappeared inland. We were back on board by 10.30 am. Some went snorkeling before lunch.

Immediately after lunch, the Cormorant started cruising towards Tagus Cove on Isabela Island. At 3 pm we were in the two zodiacs for dry landing on Tagus Cove. There was a steep climb for about 10 minutes to reach the overview location of Darwin’s lake. It was worth the exercise to see the spectacular view of the lake together with the Cormorant at sea in the background. This lake has a very unusual feature being slightly above sea level. Its water is twice as salty as sea water. Historical records indicate that pirates, whalers, warships and Charles Darwin have all visited Tagus Cove. At 5 pm we went back to the Cormorant.

At about 5.30 pm, the Cormorant started its two Cummins, 400 HP engines to cruise towards our next destination; Puerto Egas also known as James Bay in Santiago Island. On the way we had a glimpse of a few Humpback Whales, and at 8 pm on the same day we crossed the equator. It was by dawn on the following day when we reached Egas Port of Santiago Island.

As per the program for the day we were ready by 6.30 am on the 5th of July for wet landing on Santiago Island. The trail guided by our naturalist led to a coastline with gorgeous tide pools and astonishing fauna that kept my camera busy taking images of Galapagos Fur Sea Lion, Marine Iguana (its skin color is different from Iguanas on other islands we visited, more towards brick red) Galapagos Dove, Striated Heron and American Oystercatcher. We were back at the Cormorant for breakfast. Afterwards, many of the guests went snorkeling and diving while I stayed back on board busy capturing images of Blue Footed Boobies diving in to water to catch fish in James Bay. They have very good vision and even at 100 meters above the sea a fish can be spotted. Once spotted, they will point their bodies down like arrows and dive into the water at a speed around 97 kmph, closer to that of a Cheetah’s speed of 110 kmph when chasing a prey for their survival. Sometimes Boobies dive to a depth of 25 meters below the water surface. After lunch, the Cormorant started cruising towards our next stop; Genovesa Island. The Captain estimated the cruising time to reach the island as close to eight hours. We arrived at Genovesa Island around midnight which gave me a few hours of good sleep before breakfast.

On the 6th of July 2012 at 6 am we received a wake-up call. The Cormorant had already anchored inside the huge ‘caldera’; a cauldron-like volcanic feature usually formed by the collapse of land following a volcanic eruption forming the Great Darwin bay. When I came to the main deck, what I could see from all sides were birds flying all over and being surrounded by the huge lava rocky cliff. As planned we had early breakfast and all the guests were on the way to Prince Philip’s Steps in the two Zodiacs for dry landing. When we came to the top of the 25 meter high cliff, all what we could see were large colonies of birds mainly of Nazca, Red Footed Boobies and Great Frigate Birds. What was fascinating was that the birds were very friendly with humans, getting close to them for pictures. Now I could confirm the Naturalist’s comments on Genovesa as being one of the most pristine islands in the Galapagos. We further trailed inland passing more seabird colonies surrounded by thin forest. Later, we came to an open area where we could see over a million seabirds flying all over the area, a scene I had not witnessed before elsewhere. What a spectacular view! We were also lucky see a Short-eared Owl on the ground waiting for a chance to catch a prey. We were back on board by 10.30 am and some went snorkeling.

In the afternoon, around 2.30 pm we went ashore again but landed on a coral beach named ‘Darwin Bay Beach’. Once again more nesting of Frigate Birds, Nazca and Red Footed Boobies were sighted in addition to Shallow Tailed Gull and Yellow Crowned Night Heron. Back on board by 5 pm for departure to North Seymour Island, which was the last destination in my ‘Discover Galapagos’ tour to Ecuador. The first few hours of the cruise were very rough resulting in the serving of dinner pushed to 9 pm and postponing the Captain’s cocktail to the following morning. It was our last night on board the Cormorant. The schedule for the following day was very tight. Wake up call was set for 5.30 am.

On the 7th July 2012, at 6 am we were on the two Zodiacs for dry landing in North Seymour, which is a small island near to Baltra Island. The main attraction in the island was the Blue Footed Booby, the mating dance of the male where it stretches the neck towards the sky, spreading its wings and dancing with its bright blue feet. Something similar to a peacock dancing but this was much more interesting to watch. Other attractions were the Great Frigate Bird and the Magnificent Frigate Bird. Here also, the male shows off to the female by inflating its huge red pouch below his throat.

We were back on board at 8 am for breakfast followed by the Captain’s farewell cocktail. Later, the Cormorant cruised towards Baltra Island and we disembarked around 9 am to take a flight back to Quito in Ecuador.
During my stay in Galapagos I also had the opportunity to capture pictures of some of the species of Darwin Finches. According to available information, during Darwin’s second voyage to the Galapagos he took back thirteen species of Finches for research to the UK. Thanks to the lonely planet Galapagos, I met new friends on board the Cormorant from USA and UK, which enriched my trip to Ecuador- DISCOVER GALAPAGOS.

It was by 3 pm on the 7th July 2012 that I arrived in Quito to continue my safari on the mainland; Ecuador – Birds of Paradise.
“In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.”
Charles Darwin.

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