Thursday, 6 March 2014

Viva la Evolution! (Or The Galápagos Islands)

We booked this bit of our trip months before we left the UK so have had a long time to get excited about it. It's a 9 day non-backpacking holiday in the middle of a massive holiday, staying on a luxury yacht in one of the most ecologically diverse regions of the world. 

200k people a year are allowed to visit the Galapagos.  Of them 60% visit the inhabited areas which make up 3% of the Islands landmass - from there people can get excursions to the immediate surrounding areas. The other 40% of us take our sea sickness pills and get to visit the extensive unpopulated areas.  Very very privileged.  

The islands are 1000km away from mainland Ecuador and are formed from volcanic eruptions so they were never attached to other land masses. Years of tectonic plates shifting around hasn't bought them close enough to anywhere else for species to merge so, with the exception of introduced species by man (dogs, goats etc.) they remain populated with endemic species.  Some reptiles have reached here on vegetation rafts from Ecuador, but no mammals would survive the 2 week+ voyage.

Survival of the fittest means the plants and animals have adapted to their environment in the optimal way so that only the best of each kind now exists. There are no large carnivores (all the reptiles have taken herbivore niches) so fear/camouflage are redundant and all specifies are quite relaxed to show themselves to human visitors. 

Each night we sailed to a new island and spent the days walking, swimming and snorkelling around key points, getting up close and personal with stunning creatures and landscapes. 

The boat: Queen Beatriz holds 15 guests with a crew of 8. It's a catamaran with a bar, sun deck, restaurant and bedrooms. Just big enough to feel plush but small enough to get us around quickly. 

The people: largely retirees due to the cost of doing this but we had a really good bunch. For the first 3 days 2 Aussie honeymooners our age, for the  remainder they were replaced with 2 feisty Sheila's from Queensland. The rest of the gang were ex-colonials with the exception of Fabian our guide. 

The route: it takes weeks to sail around all the islands so we'd opted for the central, south and East Islands. It meant we'd miss the specialist birds watching, but as that takes 2 days sailing north it was a fair trade.  As it was I had to spend the first night on our balcony keeping my eyes on the moonlit horizon to keep sickness at bay so 2 days of open water (the max we did was 7 hours overnight) would have ruined me.

It's so hard to describe how incredible the trip was. The days were high point after high point. Once we'd got over gawping at giant iguanas on lava fields, we'd be snorkelling with sea lion pups, climbing into lava tubes (darker than dark and perfect for hiding a very preciousss ring) or knee deep in vegetation in a could forest with giant tortoises. Each day we had at least 3 excursions off the boat to see something different - each one just at incredible as the last. Even with my verbosity I was out of superlatives by day 2.   We have hundreds of photos and if anyone back home so much as hints at wanting to see them we will gush with enthusiasm for hours (be warned) but for the sake of brevity - here's an attempt at edited highlights....

Sea lions. The Labradors of the Galapagos are everywhere. The bulls are huge and aggressive but thankfully not that interested in humans. 

The females are either supervising the nurseries or out hunting (if one gets eaten by a shark while out, the pups are left to starve. Very sad but adoption is just not a thing in this species) and will give the odd warning bark but otherwise are happy to watch humans get very close. 

The pups are the most fun! Like all kids they're curious and playful and if you do the 'come and play' sign (a body roll) they don't need asking twice. We both drank lots of sea water and bashed our limbs on the rocks as we tried to keep up with them but the joy of tumbling with several pups at a time, eye to eye as you swim under the water with them, and getting the odd slap as they investigate you close up (I got a slap in the face with a fin after a prolonged staring contest- I swear I heard it laughing as it swam off) is worth it every time.

Every time a large grey object appeared in our peripheral vision we hoped it was a sea lion and not a shark, but when we found sharks they were so serene fear was immediately replaced with awe. We swam with several reef sharks (white tips, wary of sea lion bulls) and were amazed how close they came to us. As we swam through a narrow cave in Kicker Rock (below) know as the washing machine due to a clash of tides and the tumultuous effect thereof, 5 circled around only metres below us.  30 mins later Chris &  I spotted the only hammer head shark of the trip. Approx 3m long and 1m away it was beautiful to see but also a bit frightening (completely frightening. Instead of giving the 'shark' alert to fellow swimmers I shouted 'f*#%ing hammerhead' in a pitch much higher than normal) as they're known for bad tempers even if they don't intend on eating you.  
We got out soon after and noticed that Chris was bleeding from being bashed on the rocks in the washing machine. Could explain the volume of sharks? 

Turtles: huge, graceful creatures in the water they come ashore to bury their eggs leaving tractor like tracks up the beaches.  There is a 2m distance rule for all the animals however sometimes they got closer to us quicker than we could get away - turtles seemed especially calm and if our underwater camera was any good, we should have some lovely shots of them swimming alongside us. 

Iguanas of many colours and sizes. 

These dragons have to warm up in the sun before they've got the energy to move much & even then only to eat or protect eggs. One spat at us rather than move off the trail (again, no appreciation of the 2m or the 'stay on the trail' rule). 

Most curious is the marine iguana - as adept in the water as out. Unless they get nabbed by a sea lion; Our morning snorkel took on a different note as one reptilian bather became a toy for a juvenile sea lion. Until, like all toys, it broke in half and was discarded. Messy. 

Giant Tortoises roam the clouds forests in a very other worldly fashion, tearing along at up to 3km per day if they need to, cold water penguins challenge the sea lion pups for Most Adorable award, flamingos eat shrimp until they turn pink and the water returns to transparency, bright red Sally crabs provide great contrast to the black rocks they sit on, blue footed Boobies do their dance to attract a mate while red footed Boobies woo with a noise like a creaking door. Groups of Sting Rays the size of bed sheets flap along so beautifully you could almost forgot to look at the plethora of fish, coral and crustaceans. Under the water there is a loud crackling noise which is the sound of shellfish chatting! Apparently it drives dolphins and whales mad with frustration as they never give it a rest. 

The other major inhabitant to note is the human. Mostly converted to the importance of conservation the few inhabited places co-exist well. Sea lions are the most prominent neighbour - they love a flat surface so will lie on every sun lounger, bench, restaurant table etc. and the locals aren't allowed to harass them away. 

They climb onto people boats, on the back of trucks and attempt to steal fish in the market by stealth - serving at the counter, and pretending to be part of the catch being 2 of the tricks we saw.  Sometimes a fishwife will turn the hose on them but they bloody love that and queue up for more. 

I got quite emotional on departure (and not just because of bumpy pacific flight ahead) and we vowed we'll return to do it all again. 8 magical days that will be really tough to beat. 

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