Because the jagged volcanic landscape of the Galapagos is young in geologic terms (3-5 million years) and is populated by such bizarre creatures, it seems to be from a different time. Someone commented during our tour group's stroll through a grassy field bordered by jungle on the island of Santa Cruz that it was like being in Jurassic Park. One could almost imagine a stegosaurus emerging from the mist. We didn't see that, but we did see a few dozen giant tortoises slowly chewing their way through the grass. Great excitement ensued when a small red bird, a vermillion flycatcher, came to roost on one of the tortoises within the range of our cameras. Or at least within the range of my camera.
As the humans fell silent, the sounds of the Galapagos took over. As we endeavored to hear the breathing of the tortoises, the singing of the birds and the wind moving through the vegetation also became quite apparent. The agreed-upon 60 seconds stretched into many minutes, and eventually everyone wandered off to the next stop without breaking the silence.
It was a full and varied week. Here's the chronology:
December 10 - I flew from Boston to Guayaquil, Ecuador via Miami. The Lindblad Expedition folks deposited us at the Hilton for the night.
December 11 - Our tour group of about 70 boarded a domestic flight to Baltra in the Galapagos, just south of the equator. Around the airport is a cluster of tourist shops and I got a few knick knacks, expecting (hoping) that this would be one of the few opportunities to do so. Then we boarded a rickety bus for a short ride to the port where the M.S. Polaris was anchored. Notice I said "anchored," not "docked." Our first zodiac (panga) ride of the week was to get from the dock to the ship. After we got situated on board, we were back aboard the zodiacs to explore the mangrove swamps of northwest Santa Cruz Island. This is the only place where we expected to see land iguanas in the wild, and our guide spotted a couple for us. We also spent quite a bit of time hunting for sea turtles and found several in a small lagoon. The sea lions and various birds were new to us on this first afternoon but would become a routine sight in coming days. [Photos from Dec. 11.]
December 12 - Our first full day began on the island of Española at Punta Suarez with a landing among the sea lions and marine iguanas. As we landed there was a mother sea lion with her newborn pup within just a few feet of the path, and nursing began with a crowd of curious onlookers. We also had to walk carefully to avoid stepping on the iguanas. The young are dark to blend in with the lava of these volcanic islands, and the females are drab. But the male iguanas are quite colorful during breeding season, and we saw a few examples. As we pushed inland, a Galapagos hawk swooped past and landed on a lava rock. I attempted to get closer, expecting that it would become nervous and fly off, but it just ignored me as I edged to within about 20 feet. Rather than hike the full route, I joined a panga cruise offshore and was rewarded with a view of more than 30 albatross in a group on the water and our first view of the red-billed tropic bird. This white bird has an elegant long tail and is an interesting sight in flight. In the afternoon we went to Gardner Bay on the island of Española. I made an attempt at snorkeling but eventually chose to walk down the beach to check out the sea lions. Curious mockingbirds followed us around and nosed through any backpacks left on the ground, hoping for a sip of fresh water. [Photos from Dec. 12.]
December 13 - The day began early with a stop at the famous Post Office Barrel on the island of Floreana. Our guides entertained us with tales of the early visitors to the Galapagos. The snorkeling sounded like it was beyond my capabilities, so I got my view of the sealife from the glass-bottomed boat. In the afternoon we explored a beach where sea turtles lay their eggs, and several turtles could be seen offshore. Although they lay their eggs at night, sometimes the female turtles come to the beach during the day just to take a break from the amorous males who follow them around. We were hoping to see one of the turtles emerge, but all we saw was the occasional head popping out of the water. We also saw quite a few stingrays in the surf, and further offshare the flitting shadows of reef sharks. To end the day, the setting sun enhanced the color of flamingos and shorebirds feeding in a shallow bay. [Photos from Dec. 13.]
December 14 - During the night we crossed the equator headed north. Early morning we circumnavigated Roca Redonda where thousands of seabirds roost in the rocky cliffs. We recrossed the equator heading south to get to Punta Vicente Roca, where we explored the shoreline and a volcanic cave in zodiacs. When we get back to the ship, one group says they saw Galapagos penguins. It's also announced that we are going to stay here for snorkeling since conditions are much better than usual. I still wasn't confident in my snorkeling abilities so asked to ride along on one of the zodiacs. Four boats returned to the volcanic cave and I snapped away as almost everyone else dove in. Eventually at least eight penguins appeared in the water and even swam among the snorkelers. Even though I wasn't dressed to dive in, I still got some good shots of the penguins as they swam past. Later we landed at Punta Espinosa on Fernandina Island. There were plenty of iguanas, sea lions, flightless coromorants and lava lizards, but the highlight for me was a pair of nesting Oystercatchers. They are so unafraid of humans that is it possible to get within a few feet of them, and even observe as the mates trade places on the nest. I got a good view of the two spotted eggs. Later we did a panga ride and found a few Galapagos penguins. One was molting and looked rather mangy. [Photos from Dec. 14.]
December 15 - Santa Cruz contains the largest settlement in the Galapagos, Puerto Ayora, population about 10,000. First stop was the Charles Darwin Research Station where there are many different types of giant tortoises, including Lonesome George, the last survivor of the subspecies from the island of Pinta. Tortoises can live for 150-200 years and George's age is variously estimated at 50-80, so extinction of this subspecies seems to be years away but quite inevitable. On a more positive note, 15 tortoises from the island of Espanola were found, and these were brought back to the research station for a successful breeding program. There also is a breeding program for the Pinzon Island tortoises. In all, there were 15 subspecies of giant tortoise at one time, but four are extinct and unless science can provide a solution, someday it will be five. After leaving the station and making a quick stop at an internet cafe, it was time to board a rickety bus for a ride up the mountain. After lunch we stopped to see two giant volcanic sinkholes called Los Gemelos, then continued on to see tortoises in the wild, described at top. [Photos from Dec. 15.]
December 17 - We recrossed the equator going south, and the day began with a precarious landing on the rocks of Bartolomé to hike up to the 359-foot summit. The view from the top is the signature panorama of the Galapagos. After the hike down, there was another precarious moment as we reboarded the zodiacs. Our zodiac driver had to time the waves, zip in to board a few people, then pull back as the waves came again. Back on the ship while we were still at anchor I watched a group from another ship making their attempt to leave the island. Their boat also had to time the waves and make several attempts to get everyone off the rocks. If I had seen that before we made our landing, I probably would not have gone. Our final stop was Puerto Egas on Santiago Island. The breakers discouraged me from swimming so I explored the shoreline with my little camera and got a few final shots. [Photos from Dec. 17.]
December 18 - As a final nod to the influence of Darwin in these islands, our final sightseeing task was a circumnavigation of Daphne Major, a volcanic cone. Research into the natural selection of Darwin's finches has been conducted here since the 1970's. (We didn't get that close and my cameras were already packed away, so if you want to see finches, see Dec. 15 photos.) Then we headed to anchorage at Baltra. Although it was a great tour, I was very happy that the zodiac ride to the dock at Baltra would be my last for quite a while. Our group flew to Guayaquil and split into three. Some went on to Quito for the night, some headed to Peru and further adventures at Machu Picchu, and I was among those who was staying in Guayaquil.
December 19 - Standing at baggage claim three times in two days (including Miami to go through Customs) is a test of endurance, but my final trial at Logan was mercifully brief and I was able to get home before midnight. Seeing the world is a great thing to do, but the part of the journey that involves airports and airplanes can only be tolerated.
But the Galapagos is one of those places that must be seen. Although there is a perception that the islands have escaped the heavy hand of humans, that isn't quite true. They have escaped to a greater extent than most other places on earth, and we found out that a great deal of effort goes into preserving what remains. For anyone interested in visiting, don't bother checking the big cruise lines. Although it is teeny by cruise ship standards, the Polaris has been the largest ship doing regular tours. Lindblad just added another ship that apparently will cater more to families. (On our return to Guayaquil, the hotel was full of familes with kids getting ready to go on that ship's intial cruise.)
All I have to compare this cruise to is my trip to the Antarctic on the Clipper Adventurer in 2003. Both Clipper and Lindblad employ first-class naturalists, staff and crew. Comparing the two ships, the Adventurer is a bit bigger than the Polaris, and I would guess has had a more recent refit. Both handled zodiacs in a similar manner, although I've heard that newer ships have a more comfortable loading system. It's hard to believe the Polaris used to do Antarctic trips; it doesn't have stabilizers. But this wasn't an issue in the Galapagos where we were sheltered much of the time. Some wore the seasickness patches, but I forgot my pills and didn't miss them at all. From a dining standpoint, I would give the edge to Clipper. Maybe it was because they were mostly locked into an Ecuadorian theme on the Polaris, but I liked the food on the other cruise better. My fellow guests on both cruises were similar, mostly retired couples with a smattering of younger folks thrown in, and all very nice.
If I ever do the South Georgia trip with Lindblad, I'll have a chance to include their MS Adventurer in the comparison.