Postcard from the Edge of a Breath – Part 2

… continued from part 1

I was very nervous about spending a 7 day on a boat in the Galapagos. I mean, couple of tortoises, few shacks and iguana or two.. what more is there (apart from sea-level air you can breathe)? I packed travel backgammon, bought water proof playing cards, downloaded some books and movies to stave off the boredom and set off. The first impressions we got from the Galapagos totally lived up to my expectations. Arriving in Baltra, the ex-military base that serves the archipelago, we were herded along the runway to a open sided shack (aka terminal), which has a superfluous “re-” in the “please excuse the inconvenience whilst re-building” sign. Hot, tired after the flight from Quito, we queued to pay $100 (not really sure why), queued for cursory hand baggage check, and then queued to collect baggage.

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We then drove on a dilapidated bus to the harbour. Things sort of looked up for a minute, with some huge sleek, elegant white, luxury yachts bobbing gently – but our guide pointed past these delights to a small blue converted fishing vessel (our boat the Samba) which paled into insignificance next to the magnificence of the other opulent liners. To be honest my heart sank a bit more, but boy, how wrong can you be – luck was really on our side for this one.

The Boat – The Samba
The negative first impressions of our boat were dismissed the moment we set (bare) food on it. It was charming. OK; it was a bit on the small side but it was cozy, with every nook and cranny crammed with essential supplies from table cloths and napkins to snorkeling gear and reference books. The main boudoir had a huge polished wooden table and two dispensers that provided a constant supply of tea and coffee. The decks had many comfy seating areas with easy access to the bridge and 2 smaller zodiac boats for ferrying us to and from shore were stowed neatly on the sides. It was lovely. And more was to come, the food served there was excellent, 3 meals a day and snacks were magiced from the small kitchen.

02-01-samba


The People – Guests, Crew and Guide, my Guide
But what really made the cruise special, were the people – it would have been cramped on the boat with 14 guests, 6 crew and our guide, but a misfit Swiss couple were quickly jettisoned after the wife, who spent all her time either puking or lying down looking ghastly, found out she was pregnant and they left the cruise. The remaining 12 guests (5 Brits, 2 Swiss, 1 US, 1 Australian, 1 German and 2 locals) bonded dazzlingly with each other, our brilliant guide, Silvia (Swiss who became affectionately known as “guide, my guide”), and the crew. The days were literally fun-filled and informative. Silvia was a fountain of knowledge not only on everything animal, vegetable and minerals on the Islands, but also on weather conditions. “This next stretch will be calm sailing”, she confidently predicted, as the boat rolled and Jennifer spun off her chain in to the conveniently located drinks fridge. Luckily, the fridge was undamaged, Jennifer was OK too.

02-02-people

The Itinerary
The daily itinerary looked something like this:
07:00 – Breakfast bell and like Pavlovian dogs we swarmed in to the lounge
08:00 – First activity – normally hike or walk on an island
10:00 – Back on the boat for a glass of juice and a snack
10:30 – Second activity – normally snorkeling
11:30 – Back on the boat to shower
12:00 – Bell rings for lunch
13:00 – Rest period avoiding the mid-day heat
15:00 – Third activity – hike or boat trip
17:00 – Back on the boat for a glass of juice and a snack
Chat and laugh, watch the sun set
19:00 – Bell rings for Din-dins
20:00 – Briefing for next day
20:15 – Laugh, chat, drink, laugh, star gaze, laugh, dance until bed time
Occasionally there was a special event, such as cocktails on the bridge when crossing the equator at sunset, an improvised disco on the bow or an early morning start to see a turtle orgy – but Silvia kept us on track and on time.

The Islands – More and Bigger than Expected
The islands are clustered around the equator about 970 km west of Ecuador, cover an area of about 8,000 square kms and are home to about 23,000 – expanded by about 3,500 tourists per week. Of the 15 main islands, some are millions of years only, some are still being formed. As a result each island has a really unique look and feel, the older ones having been fully colonized by unique fauna and flora, the newer ones almost barren, with new growth fighting to survive. But regardless of age, sea lions bask and lounge on all beaches.
This topographical difference of the islands really hit home on Santa Cruz, the first of the 6 we visited – it looked like something out of a science fiction movie – a vista of red moss with candelabra cacti spread in front of us, dotted by wildlife. Compare that with the stark contrast of the much younger Isla Santa Maria – where the results of relatively recent lava eruptions have cooled and the resultant flow patterns can be clearly seen. Brittle, black pumice, heavy with iron either clanked underfoot or cracked as small plants try to establish themselves and the occasional iguana scampered over the rock. Other wildlife, such as the flamingos have made themselves at home however, their beautiful pinkness contrasting strongly against the black of the rock.
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The Wildlife – Afraid of Nothing
As there no predators on the islands, the wildlife there have no fight or flight response. They simply sit there looking at you curiously as you approach and some have adapted unique traits. The cormorants for example have become flightless due to the abundance of food and totally unnecessary need to fly away from anything. Other animals that we encountered in real close up, whilst wondering down the paths included land iguanas (known as Christmas iguanas due to their red/green colouring), sea iguanas (both swimming and drying out on land), sea lions, turtles, tortoises, brilliant orange sally-lightfoot crabs, and a plethora of indigenous birds including penguins, blue-footed boobies, albatrosses, hawks, doves, gulls (including the unique nocturnal gulls), frigate birds, lava herons and beautiful flamingos.
The bird’s behavior has adapted to humans. We anchored one night, light spilling off the deck attracting fish to the brightness. A pelican arrived, landed and paddled around the boat in the shadows occasionally lashing out to get a fish. Each lap took 2.8 minutes and we gave up counting after a while.
We spent one day at the Charles Darwin Institute, which is trying to repopulate the native tortoises, before visiting them in the wild. Originally there were an estimated 200,000 tortoises and 15 sub-species but most of them were eaten – for a while, the Galapagos were treated like a “float-through” McDonalds, boats would arrive, collect a few tortoises “to go” for the rest of the journey – now there are an estimated 15,000 and 11 sub-species left, one of which has a single survivor – lonesome George. He has a lovely pen and 2 harlots to keep him company, but he seems to be immune to their seductive charms. I suggested tortoise porn, which has actually been tried, but it looks like George will be the last of his line – a story that is threatening much of the Galapagos as the commercial tourism and global warming encroaches on the wildlife.
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The Snorkeling
Originally we wanted to do some diving, but the sites are few and snorkeling is just as, if not more so, rewarding. The Samba had a good supply of gear; we donned wet suits and took one of the zodiacs out to an approved site. The first sojourn gave a taste of things to come – as we entered the water, 2 sea lion pups came to investigate and swam with and around us with considerably more dexterity than we could muster.
Tropical fish with resplendent colours glistened in the shallow, clear waters. Shoals of yellow-tailed surgeon fish, always encompassing one black king angel fish, drifted past. These were interspersed with occasional sharks, penguins, manta rays and huge turtles. We followed these for ages watching the elegant, efficient propulsion in the blue water.
We also swam off the side of the boat.. but there were dangers, I got a nasty jelly-fish sting, which was alleviated by urinating on it – not much fun, but it was a good excuse for being late for diner – “I am so sorry I am late, but I was peeing on my wrist”.
02-05-snorkeling
The Summary
People say a Galapagos holiday is holiday of a lifetime, a thought to which I certainly subscribe. It will be interesting to see how the archipelago is managed over the next few years, environmentalists dream vs. money making tourist destination is a recipe for change. I only hope it is not a change for the worse.

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