Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Galápagos Islands (12th-19th July 2011)

The Galápagos Islands stretch over a 320km axis from east to west and the equator passes precisely across the crater of Wolf volcano in the north of Isabela Island.  The archipelago is made up of 19 islands and 42 islets or surfacing rocks. The total land surface of the archipelago is just over 8,000 square kms.  The Islands are purely oceanic, which means that they have never been connected to the mainland by any sort of land bridge. The conspicuous absence of land mammals in the Galápagos also helps to confirm the oceanic Island theory.  The archipelago is entirely volcanic, and Isabela Island alone is made up of six volcanoes side by side.  Five of them are typical shield volcanoes, the craters of which are huge ‘calderas’.
The Galápagos Islands were declared a National Park in 1959.  Organised tourism began in the 1960s and by the 1990s some 60,000 people visited annually.  Today, over 100,000 people visit each year.  With increased tourism, more people have migrated to the island to work, both legally and illegally.  The dramatic increase in human activity has begun to impact the islands’ fragile ecology.  In 2005, the largest of the eighty tourist boats operating in the Galápagos held 96 passengers.  In 2006, the 500 passenger MV Discovery made its first visit to the islands.  Many see it as the writing on the wall when it comes to mass tourism in the Galápagos.
The Islands have faced other problems that include oil spills, the poaching of sea lions for their reproductive organs (which are sold on the international black market) over-fishing, illegal fishing for shark, lobster and other marine life, and the introduction of non-native animals.  Obviously, the Galápagos National Park has its hands full protecting itself.  Charles Darwin Foundation (www.galapagos.org) is a non-profit organisation in charge of protecting and studying the islands, you can donate money online if you wish.
Today I awake early to finish my preparations to leave Guayaquil and head to the airport for my journey to the Galápagos Islands. I am so looking forward to my mini holiday.  For 8 days I will not have to think about where I will be laying my head for the night, where I will find food, how will I get around to see the sights and how safe will I and my belongings be.  Speaking to other travellers on the boat (later in the week) we were all feeling the same.
Santa Cruz (Indefatigable Island) – 12/07/2011
Santa Cruz is the most central of the islands, with the largest population of all the five inhabited ones.  The town Puerto Ayora has been the main base for tourism for the last 25 years, and is home to the National Park headquarters and Charles Darwin Research Centre.  The island has all the recognised vegetation zones, though much of the native flora has been destroyed by introduced plants and animals.  The southeast is much wetter, for it faces the trade winds.  Probably the highest number of bird species can be seen overall on Santa Cruz, including nine species of Darwin’s finches and the rare Galápagos variety of Hawaiian or dark-rumped petrel.

The plane goes well and within an hour and half we descend below the clouds and I can see Islands dotted in the water below.  My excitement increases.  Before long we are landing on a small airstrip at Isla Baltra and being hustled into a tiny airport.  I clear customs, which are very strict about bringing in plant and animal matter and exiting the Island with anything (remember it is a National Park).  Then immigration, pay my $100US National Park entry and I am through.  As noted in my very detailed instructions, there was a driver waiting for me to take me to join my fellow passengers who had earlier gone through the same process as me.  We board a bus, just as every other traveller from the tiny airport has and then after a short distance we head to a small harbour and take a small boat across the narrow strait to Santa Cruz.  From here we walk to his car and we travel along a very straight and narrow road leading to the farming community of Bellavista. We leave the road and into the gates of a private farm, here I find the rest of my group walking around with our guide for the week.  I join them and our guide Christina shows me the very large tortoises, lava tubes and talks to us about the plants and birdlife in this area.  Soon we head back to the farm for a most delicious boxed lunch.  If so far has been any indication to what my week will be like, I am in for a great week.

Wild large tortoise on the farm

Lava tube on the farm,  some farms have lost their stock falling down these tubes, this was large enough for us to walk into.

Christina, our guide for the Galapagos, here she is explaining this tree is poisonous and for us not to touch.
Refreshed by a great lunch, introductions amongst the group and some new friends, we pile into our minivan and head to Puerto Ayora to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station.

Charles Darwin Research Station
Though primarily an international scientific research station and not a tourist site, this is one of the most visited spots in the islands.  It is situated just outside the town of Puerto Ayora (about a 20 minute walk) and next to the Galápagos National Park offices, with which the CDRS is closely linked. A raised wooden walkway curves through the transitional zone vegetation and on to the corrals of fully grown tortoises.  Most poignant of all is the enclosed section where ‘Lonesome George’ the sole survivor of the Pinta Island subspecies, now resides with some females from Volcán Wolf on Isabela.  Despite all encouragement he has failed to take an interest in his companions!

Here we walk around the complex with Christina explaining/informing us as we move around the several enclosures of turtle hatchings to giant tortoises .  ‘Lonesome George’ was indeed a hit, we stayed for ages watching his antics.  He apparently doesn’t move too much these days so we were very lucky.  I have dozens of photos but will just bore you with a few. 
Baby hatchings at the Charles Darwin Station

Candelabra catcus, very important plant for the life of many animals on the Galapagos

as too is the Lava catcus

Me with a rescued giant tortoise at the Charles Darwin Centre

A giant tortoise paw, they are really huge

Explaining the life cycle of the land iguana

Dear old (at around 100 years old) 'Lonesome George'
a rescued land iguana, we will see many more in the days to come

From here we walked back into Puerto Ayora, a pretty town, many tourist shops, lovely cafes, water views and a seafood market.  Here we stop for a bit to watch the fisherman try and hold onto their morning catch, the pelicans, blue-footed booby, seals and seagulls do their best to try and swipe anything while the fisherman’s attention is distracted.  We have a little time left before we need to board our boat, so my new friend and later room buddy Brandy (from San Diego) opt for a cocktail to celebrate the week ahead.  The café is lovely and we sip our cocktails and watch the world go by. Heaven!

Puerto Ayora, where Samba is waiting for us

Fresh fish at the harbour

Waiting for the fisherman's attention to lapse, a pelican and a blue footed booby
Soon it is time to board the dingy and then to board our boat.  The ‘Samba’ is just right for me, only 13 passengers (can take 16), big enough to move at a good pace, but small enough to know your fellow passengers.  During the week, her sails are raised and what a lovely sight it was.  The 9 of us board Samba and are introduced to the other 4 passengers already on board.  Soon we were allocated our ‘cabin buddies’ and cabins.  I must say both Brandy and I were very pleased with the whole boat, much more comfortable than I had really expected.  We organise our rooms and before we know it the dinner bell has been rung.  Further introductions and a lively dinner conversation flowed while eating a most delicious dinner.  First there was soup, then an array of salads, vegetables, and meats.  The dinner was finished with a scrumptious dessert.
White tablecloths, crisp table napkins, table set perfectly, yes indeed, this was going to be a great week.
The Captain lets us know that we will be navigating straight after dinner till around 3am until we reach our first Island, if anyone was prone to seasickness, now would be the time to take tablets.  It was indeed rough and many didn’t sleep well that first night, some wondering if they would see the light of day again (exaggeration) though Brandy did tell me she held onto the mattress all night.
Our boat for 8 days 'The Samba"

our bunks with towels made into rabbit ears for me

and Brandy's towel was made into a flower.


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