Our flight from Quito, Ecuador to Baltra in the Galapagos Islands was the start of one of the most awe-inspiring journeys I've had the privilege to experience. I could only imagine Charles Darwin's surprise as these spectacular islands came into view when he first visited here in 1831!
Being at one with nature cannot possibly hold more true than here, amidst these islands 1,000 km off the coast of Ecuador. Darwin is generally credited with the theory of evolution by natural selection, which is that the strongest survive and propagate and therefore increase the strength of the species. It was not until 1978 that the islands were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and they are indeed a priceless world heritage.
The mv Santa Cruz was to be our home for the next few days and once settled onboard this comfortable expedition vessel, we met our naturalist guides who briefed us on the history of the islands, the course our voyage would follow and the rules we must follow during our island visits. No garbage was to be left on the islands; indeed, we were given little canvas garbage bags to wear on a string around our necks to dispose of any garbage we might have. Obviously, we must have the highest respect for the islands on which we would trod and the wildlife we were about to meet; after all, this was their home and they had not invited us to visit. Having said that, the birds and sea life here had never been threatened by man or anything else for that matter, so they had no reason to be frightened of us. Following our briefing, we were divided into small groups, assigned our personal guides and we wasted no time in starting our exploration of these incredible volcanic islands.
Arriving at our first island, North Seymour, we scrambled ashore and were greeted by the friendly squawks of colonies of blue-footed boobies and frigate birds. It was truly incredible to watch a blue-footed boobie feeding its babies, just a couple of feet away! And the male frigate birds, wanting to attract a partner, would puff up their red chests expanding them like balloons. As our guide lead us in a hike along the shoreline, we had to tread carefully as large colourful reddish crabs, sea lions and marine iguanas wandered unconcerned, amongst us. They looked at us as if to say "hey, come on in; make yourselves at home." Incredible!
Returning to the Santa Cruz that first day, I was struck by the calm, easy way of nature and how important it is for man to preserve this very special place.
Our next morning brought us to Bartolome Island where a wooden staircase with resting platforms and handrails brought us to the top of the island. The climb was worth it! The views awesome! Next, we climbed aboard a rubber dinghy and were treated to a ride around Pinnacle Rock, watching sea lions and iguanas lazing or climbing up the jagged, black lava rock along the shore. As the dinghy pulled close to shore, we climbed overboard into the cool water (wet landing) and made our way up the rocks for some free time to enjoy the sun and meet the locals. We had to be very careful not to step on resting marine iguanas that blended in with the craggy rock. From Bartolome, we sailed to the horse-shoe shaped Tower Island, a volcanic caldera whose wall has collapsed, forming the Great Darwin Bay, surrounded by cliffs. Lake Arcturus, filled with salt water, lies in the centre, and sediment within this crater lake is less than 6,000 years old. The island is also known as Genovasa Island and Bird Island, because of the large number of birds who live there. Here, we were able to climb a very steep, rocky path to the top of the island and walking inland, we passed colonies of seabirds living a free and happy life.
Back onboard the Santa Cruz, the atmosphere was casual, warm and friendly; the ship's staff mingles with guests; there is nothing to dress up for; after all, this is an adventure cruise and everyone was up for the adventure! Our cabins were clean, comfortable and functional, as was the entire ship.
A morning visit to Tagus Cove on Isabella Island, found us welcomed by clapping penguins, flightless cormorants and spectacular views of Darwin Volcano and Lake. Tagus Cove has been visited by ships since the 1800's, using the area as an anchorage site. Returning to the ship, we enjoyed a delicious lunch onboard, finishing just in time for our arrival at Punta Espinosa on Fernandina Island. While foreign species have arrived on the other islands, none have ever invaded Fernandina Island and it is therefore one of the worlds' most pristine island ecosystems. A volcano called La Cumbre dominates the landscape of this island with lava fields reaching to the ocean. It was on this island that we were able to observe a flightless cormorant nesting site.
The animals are not the only attraction on the islands. While most of the terrain is rough, black volcanic rock, there is also some very interesting and unusual vegetation such as prickly pear cacti. Some of these grow to eight or nine metres high!
On our last day, we made an early morning cruise around Daphne Island. While we did not explore this island on foot, we were able to sail close enough to view the many sea lions and birds which inhabit it. What a sight to see thousands of sea birds soaring overhead as they make their way to and from their homes on the ledges and in the crevices of the high rocky face of the island. It is on this island surrounded by the turquoise waters, that scientists perform research projects whereby they band the island's finches in an attempt to gain a greater understanding of their lives. Because of these ongoing research projects, land visits by tourists is only possible with a special permit obtained from the National Park Service. But just to have the opportunity to cruise by and get up close was truly memorable!
All too soon, my Galapagos adventure came to an end and this story is just a very small part of the larger than life experience this was. As I bid adieu to the islands and its fascinating inhabitants, I pondered at the privilege it was to visit and explore nature at its very finest. It will long be in my memory as one of the most remarkable travel experiences of my life.