Galapagos Redux

Sally Lightfoot Crab
Sally Lightfoot Crab

Trip report from the singing and swinging group on the Letty. Susan and Burt, Susan and Bill, Amy and Edwin, Sue and Clay, Brian, and Fiona, and Robert. From this point on: Susan is Susan Mittelstadt. Susana is Susan Roth, Sue is Sue. There’s a full list of birds seen at the end.
2/4/18: The very first moments of our very first day looked like we might have a long week ahead of us. It all begin well enough with a fish dinner followed by Amy’s birthday cake at Puembo Birding Gardens. Then things went bad. Susan woke up with an intense version of tourista at 2 AM. With only 5 hours to go before the bus to the airport arrived some tough calls needed to be made. Pondering the hospital or disturbing a guest, Susan and Burt chose the guest. Edwin has been Susan’s intermittent primary care provider of 35 years and the two share a long tradition of medical care in remote locales. Susan swallowed her pride and gratefully accepted a shot of anti-nausea drug. She also despaired over the idea of dragging some noro-virus like disease onto airplanes and a ship with a group ready to enjoy the Galapagos Islands. Edwin assured her that if she kept her hands clean she would not infect the group. So she made up her mind to get herself to the Galapagos and recover en route. At seven she was able to leave the room and found the group rallied and taking over leadership roles. Burt was managing Susan. Susana was gathering people, luggage and keeping track of time. The bus was late. Twenty minutes after the scheduled pick up time the bus was spotted passing by a block away. Our hostess was excitedly trying to direct the driver by phone but it was not working. Ultimately Bill saved the day and ran down the bus on foot. Run, Bill, run! We arrived at the airport with only a little time to spare but EcoVenturas was ready and swept us though all the preliminaries with alacrity. Susan was wheeled about in a wheelchair. Sue and Clay joined us at the airport. We all made the flight. Way to go team. Roberto joined the group at the stopover in Guayaquil.
We arrived in San Cristobal on schedule and were ferried to the boat. The Naturalist Journey’s group met 6 new friends and we seamlessly merged into one group of friendly and excited participants. Susan passed out the species checklists and shared the extras with the other couples. We had our boarding briefing and then enjoyed the first of a continuous string of fine meals. After lunch there was a practice emergency drill. Susan slept through it but reports were it went well. We are all pleased there was no need to find out who or who not might have been paying attention.
The afternoon was the first snorkeling of the trip. Burt helped the newbies figure out the mask and snorkel and generally relax in the water. Fiona saw her first sea turtle. Highlights of the outing were the Pacific Green Sea Turtle, the blue-footed Booby, sea lions, great and magnificent frigate birds. That night an exhausted group headed to bed early. No music was played.

Fiona in the sea kayak.
Fiona in the sea kayak.

2/5/18: By the first morning aboard we were all under the Galapagos’ magic spell and the bad omens of the day before were forgotten. We started with a wet landing at Cerro Brujo and a beach walk. Our Ecoventura guides Cecibel and Giancarlo set us free to explore a lovely stretch of soft sandy shoreline. We walked in sight of Leon Dormido (or Kicker Rock). There we saw our first marine iguanas and lava lizards. The San Cristobal mockingbird, a warbler finch, and the velvety gray lava gull were also spotted. Elliot’s storm petrels danced on the water behind the Letty, too.
The late morning was spent snorkeling nearby. Words fail, mainly because I have no idea what we saw. The snorkeling never failed to impress.
After lunch we did a hike at Punta Pitt. Begging blue-footed booby babies. Dancing blue-footed boobies. Egg sitting blue-footed boobies. Blue-footed boobies are looking good at Punta Pitt. A marine iguana took a run at Susan and she leapt and screamed to the delight of everyone in her group. Susan swears she was not scared only startled by the love stuck reptile.
Highlights of the day: All three species of boobies (red-footed, blue-footed, and Nazca) were seen. We also enjoyed close up swoops of the nocturnal swallowtail gull and the red-billed tropic bird. Fiona is bitten by the bird listing craze and it is revealed that her SO is an eBird administrator. Fiona spots a pair of American Oystercatchers.

Brian getting groovey.
Brian getting groovy. Fiona on my fiddle. Brian on my mandolin. I am properly unarmed.
Mailing my post card.
Mailing my post card.

2/6/18: Day three found us walking at Punta Suarez on Espaniola and sea kayaking, snorkeling, and hiking along Gardener Bay. It was a jam packed day. On our hike we saw our only waved albatross. It was dead but nobody seemed to mind. Giancarlo explained that the largely unfilled niche of carrion eaters in the Islands was why skeletons and mummified remains were so plentiful. On the live side we saw more Nazca boobies, a snake, and sea lions and marine iguanas. The marine iguanas are especially colorful and active this time of year. Our boating expedition was a delight. Calm seas, clear water, balmy temperatures. What else could you ask for? Susan and Fiona went out together while Burt boated with Brian. Roberto did the SUP and all the other couples were paired with their mates. Nobody was thrown overboard.
During the snorkel we saw a massive ball of creole fish. A shimmering blue delight.
That night Susan ate her first solid food and the instruments and singers came together and got the trip groove going. Brian, Burt, Susan, Fiona, and Roberto got down. The Capitan danced with Sue to Love Potion #9 while Claudia drove the ship. Edwin wins the award for knowing all the words to all the songs.
The day’s highlights: Galapagos mockingbird, Espaniola warbler finch, wandering tattler, a yellow-crowned night heron, creole fish, marine iguanas.
2/7/18: On our fourth day we were getting the hang of this expedition. Our ship was anchored just off Floreana. Cecibel had us getting up early to avoid the heat. The early wake up call had the added benefit of avoiding other groups. We’ve hardly crossed paths with other visitors on any day. Despite our good natured grumbles about the 6 AM alarms we are happy. That Cecibel is a smart one. On this day we visited Post Office bay and learned the history of the area. Following a centuries old tradition we took the time to sort through the mail and find some post cards to hand deliver. We left our own cards behind with the hope someone would bring them to us someday.
Before the visit to the post office, we took a walk to the turtle beach and saw fresh tracks of a Pacific green sea turtle. She was swimming away from her nest as we arrived. On our return walk we stopped and watched American flamingos in the pond just behind the dunes. Joining the flamingoes were a whimbrel, a sanderling, some lava herons, white-cheeked pintails, and a black-necked stilt. The day’s bird list was very long and varied.
That afternoon there was more snorkeling and in the evening lots of fun music with Fiona singing Crazy and Danny Boy. The requests started pouring in and the whole group was singing along now. Brian wowed us with some Sligo solos and joined in on the pop tunes, too.
2/8/18: On this day we left the wilderness behind and visited the inhabited island of Santa Cruz. First up was a stop at Los Gemelos, the twin giant sink holes in the lava on the side of the highway. At this volcanic formation half our group saw the elusive woodpecker finch. The rest of us enjoyed hearing about seeing the woodpecker finch. Afterwards we bussed up to El Chayote Farm to see the giant Galapagos tortoises. The seasonal rains were late this year and so the vegetation wasn’t very deep or thick. While a dry wet season isn’t good news for all creatures it makes for prime tortoise viewing. We saw many fine creatures and they were in the mood for love. Tortoise humping is not as sexy as it sounds nor is it a high action event but it is very fun to see. We saw many Galapagos finches here and started checking off some of Darwin’s famous species. We walked through a beautiful and long lava tunnel. There were common gallinules, smooth billed-anis, a whimbrel and some cattle egrets in the ranch surroundings.
That afternoon we took a tour of the Darwin Center. Giancarlo and Cecibel explained the captive breeding program and the accidental finds of George in the wild and Diego in a zoo. We saw Diego, father of hundreds, in his compound with several lovely ladies. We also saw the remains of George, father of none, hermetically sealed in a glass case. George was the last of his kind so it’s appropriate he has a place where we can forever contemplate the loss of a species.

A wintry but warm day in the Galapagos.
A wintry but warm day in the Galapagos.

Afterwards we had free time in town. There was shopping to do and Ecuavoli to watch. That Ecuavoli is a high stakes game. Three on three for several hundred dollars a match. The Carnival parade with a band and the local beauty queens came by just as we headed back to the Letty for the evening.
2/9/18: On this day we visited one of the most spectacular scenes in the world, Bartolome. We took a boardwalk across a lava landscape to a view of Pinnacle rock. It was a stout hike but we all made it without distress. Again we were grateful to Cecibel for an early start. We had the island to ourselves and the dark lava was already heating up at 7:30. Our guides explained the geology of the area while we walked. Tuff was discussed at length. We saw some lovely lava cactus starting the process of vegetating the islet. At the viewing deck you can see the isle nipped in with bays on opposing shores and Pinnacle rock in the center of it all. Afterwards some of us snorkeled. Again, the snorkeling was worth the effort of donning all that gear. White tipped sharks lurked in shallow crevasse just below us. The lava landscape continued into the seascape. On our way back from the swim we passed the base of Pinnacle rock and spotted a Galapagos penguin. Fiona, on board, was watching the pangas and took note of our stop and saw the penguin from the Letty with her binoculars. Impressive skills of observation.
That afternoon we took a panga ride into the Black Turtle Mangroves on Isla Santa Cruz. Right away we happened upon a multi-species feeding frenzy. Sardines were running and everything else was chasing them. Frigates slid down in lazy arcs to just dip the tip of their bills in and flick out a fish. Pelicans and blue-footed boobies plunged deep from up high. Herons lined the shore and stabbed at passersby. Meanwhile bigger fish swam behind the schools and created vortexes of disturbed water.
We traveled deeper into the mangroves and found a hawksbill sea turtle and both white and black tipped sharks. Then we found one of the most delightful creatures to see from a boat, juvenile hammerhead sharks. We had stumbled into the recently discovered hammerhead shark nursery. There were clumps of five or more in several locations. Our guide, Giancarlo, had never seen so many baby hammerheads in one location. Hammerheads at this size look like a fun pet. This is such a recent discovery that it only made the news the week we returned.
More music and more singers let lose in public that night. Roberto slayed Dylan’s Another Cup of Coffee. Brian showed he’s got the chops to improvise on anything we throw at him.

Hammerhead sharks
Hammerhead sharks
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Hawksbill sea turtle

2/10/18: The penultimate day. The previous day was one boggling scene or creature after another. On our last full day in the islands we had the time to look around and think about all the beauty we had taken in. First we took a long walk at South Plaza. We saw a hybrid of a land/sea iguana at the entry to the island. This streak faced animal is neither one nor the other. It isn’t even known if it can propagate. We also observed courtship between swallowtail gulls, a nursing sea lion and pup, some wrestling lava lizards, and some interspecies interactions between land and sea iguanas. I guess they have to interact if they occasionally produce hybrids.

Bartolome
Bartolome
Blue-footed boobies
Blue-footed boobies

We watched the shearwaters and swallowtail gulls soaring off the cliffs. A hatchling in a cliff side nest below us was fed by a parent. Half the group watched sharks eat a seal. It was reported to be a gory slow death.
That afternoon we snorkeled and hiked at North Seymour. Our hike was full of frigates in all stages of reproduction from courtship to eggs to hatchlings to juveniles. There were shrub climbing land lizards, too. There were also many blue-footed boobies. We saw two male boobies vying for the attention of a lone female. All that foot wagging and sky pointing and she seemed unimpressed. We enjoyed the show.
Our last night of tunes was full of group singing. The crew joined us for some well known numbers in both English and Spanish. Cielito Lindo, Besame Mucho, Quizas…
2/11/18: We spent our morning hanging in internet cafes and passing the time before our flight back to reality. Here’s the complete bird list.

White-cheeked Pintail

American Flamingo

Galapagos Penguin

Galapagos Shearwater
Elliot’s Storm-Petrel

Red-billed Tropicbird

Red-tailed Tropicbird

Magnificent Frigatebird

Great Frigatebird

Nazca Booby

Blue-footed Booby

Red-footed Booby

Brown Pelican

Great Blue Heron

Cattle Egret

Striated Heron

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Galapagos Hawk

Common Gallinule

Black-necked Stilt

American Oystercatcher

Semipalmated Plover

Whimbrel

Ruddy Turnstone

Sanderling

Western Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

Wandering Tattler

Swallow-tailed Gull

Lava Gull

Brown Noddy

Galapagos Dove

Smooth-billed Ani

Galapagos Flycatcher

Galapagos Mockingbird

Floreana Mockingbird

Española Mockingbird

San Cristobal Mockingbird

Yellow Warbler

Green Warbler-Finch

Gray Warbler-Finch

Woodpecker Finch

Large Tree-Finch

Small Tree-Finch

Small Ground-Finch

Large Ground-Finch

Common Cactus-Finch

Medium Ground-Finch

Española Cactus-Finch

 

 

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Genovesa

Genovesa Island, Galapagos, Ecuador. Map by Ed Madej
Genovesa Island, Galapagos, Ecuador. Map by Ed Madej
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Swallowtail gull nesting on the Prince Phillip Steps.

Our fifteen hour cruise through rough waters took us to Genovesa Island.  Genovesa Island is shaped like partially eclipsed sun. The island is the tip of a defunct volcano barely peaking above sea level with a water filled crater. The Letty and four other ships were at anchor when we awoke. Access to sites in the Galapagos National Park are strictly regulated. Each ship was assigned this destination over a year ago. Throughout the day the 100 or so people scattered throughout the vessels would take their turns visiting the island and its surrounding waters. Our agenda included two walks, a snorkel, and a sea kayak. First up was a dry boat landing at the Prince Phillip steps for a morning walk.

The names of the archipelago features were originally in English when the first map of the area was made by the buccaneer Ambrose Crowley. In 1684 Crowley honored his fellow pirates and British royalty or noblemen. These names were in use at the time of Charles Darwin’s renowned voyage on the HMS Beagle and so became authoritative as the Beagle produced navigational charts of their expedition.  Eventually Ecuador took possession of the islands and chose to rename most prominent locales in honor of the 1492 expedition of Christopher Columbus. Genovesa Island is in honor of Genoa, Columbus’s home town. Prince Philip steps are in honor of Isabela’s husband, the Columbus expedition’s patron.

Prince Philip has a mighty memorable feature names after him. The walls of the crater are very steep lava. There’s hardly a break and one small beach. We’d be making a wet landing at the beach that afternoon but this morning our panga driver pushed the nose of the our shuttle up against the cliff and one by one we disembarked onto a narrow break in the cliff. Steep, irregular steps led up to the bird filled island body. Our line of eager visitors was immediately held up by a nesting swallowtail gull. There was no way to pass without violating the 6 foot rule. Welcome to the Galapagos. The wildlife has no fear. Our guide pushed ahead and lead us past. The gull did not flinch. A thousand people must pass every week.

Up on top we had our first in depth interpretive tour. The highlight was a Galapagos Mockingbird killing a giant centipede. Our group stopped and watched the mockingbird whip the centipede over and over again on the rocks. Satisfied the centipede was no longer a threat the bird ate the centipede’s brain and only its brain and flew away. The centipede’s legs were still moving. Our guides and Howard had never seen this behavior and has never seen a centipede of this size in the islands. Day one and we were already making history.

Next up was a heap of red-footed boobies in all stages of the reproductive cycle. We saw nesting, hatchlings, juveniles all at the same time. Our guide said it was unusual for the red-footed booby to have a mishmash of breeding at one time. The guide speculated climate change was triggering profound changes in currents and food and bird habits.

The swallowtail gulls were all around, too. These birds are the only nocturnal gulls in the world. Their eyes are rimmed in bright red trim that resembles plastic. Nobody knows for sure what the eye makeup does. At night we could see their ghostly shapes following our ship and diving for churned up squid or jellyfish.

After the walk we returned to the ship for lunch. Our afternoon was filled with another walk at Darwin Beach and a kayak and snorkel. More glorious wildlife above and below the seas and too much food. Food was always plentiful and delicious. There’s no snacking on the islands which initially caused me concern. I like to eat on a walk. The return from excursions was always met with fruit, snacks, and juice so I had no need to worry. My friend Pat told me it would be okay and she was right.

That afternoon we headed out to sea for another big overnight crossing.

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Chilly morning start at the northern most island of Genovesa.
Day 1 Galapagos enthusiasm. Trying to stay 6' back but the animals approach.
Day 1 Galapagos enthusiasm. Trying to stay 6′ back but the animals approach.
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Galapagos Mockingbird takes on a giant centipede.
Galapagos centipede 12". Killed by Galapagos Mockingbird.
Galapagos centipede 12″. Killed by Galapagos Mockingbird.
Booby Chick
Booby Chick
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Another booby chick.
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Red-footed Booby, Genovesa Island
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Descending the Prince Phillip Steps, Genovesa Island.
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Swallowtail Gulls nesting on foot path. That’s my foot edge on the right. Bright red eye trim.
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Exit of the crater. The open Pacific is beyond the gap.

Sea kayaking along the wall of the crater.

Panoramic of the crater.
Panoramic of the crater from our ship. Wetsuits hanging on the starboard side. Sea kayak hanging on the port side.

 

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Back to the itinerary

Our cabin on the Letty. We were at water level.
Our cabin on the Letty. We were at water level.

The good ship Letty was our vessel for the week. She’s about 30 years old but biannual dry dock upgrades have kept her in fine shape. I wish I could go in for a remodel every two years. Burt and I were bunked below deck in a room with three beds. The extra bed made for spacious storage. We had our guitar and mandolin and the usual necessities to stow and the bed made it much easier. Also, it’s generally considered more comfortable to sleep apart in rough seas. There’s nobody else rolling around in your bed. Elbows and knees fly about erratically when trying to exit the bed for a midnight pee. Not a very romantic situation.

The first excursion was to La Loberia on Isla San Cristobal. Here was a harem of sea lions lolling about and a ‘beach master’ bull male guarding his ladies. The beach master was lumbering in and out of the shallows and down the  shore break bellowing and grunting. He swung his head back and forth and if his flippers could reach he would have been beating his chest. The beach masters are mature males working hard to prevent competitors from accessing the females. Beach masters work so hard chasing off suitors they only last in charge a short while until they collapse from exhaustion and hunger. Every few weeks they are dethroned and a new beach master takes over until he too is drained of all virility.  This sounds entertaining for the ladies in more ways than one.

While the menfolk do what men do, the females are feeding and caring for the youngsters. We saw many nursing babes and juveniles snoozing in the waning sun. Well fed sea lions rolled around and did yoga poses and slept while we gaped and took photos. It was as if we were invisible. Our guides kept us a whole 6′ away. Years of conditioning made it hard to let an animal of this size this close. In a magnificent roll reversal I was more cautious of the sea lions than they were of me. I mean to tell you, those things have some serious teeth and despite the lack of legs they do move fast.

San Cristobal Island is one of teh oldest in the archipelago. At La Loberia the lava boulders are well worn and rounded because it is the oldest lava and the beach faces the harshest waves. Over the milleniums the rocks have been softened. Other places we were to see were full of jagged and scary rocks of new lava. Also, there are two types of lava: aa and pahoehoe. Aa lava is jagged from the time it erupts. Pahoehoe means robes and it is a softer, more sinuous lava. Pahoehoe rocks start out smoother. Our guides explained all this during our walk to the beach.

We returned to our ship where I had an octopus dinner. Burt had beef. The cruise’s food was good and surprising. The menus are very diverse. Lunches are more traditional with a base of beans and rice but dinner was influenced by world cuisine. That night was a 15 hour open ocean cruise north to Genovesa. I took a dramamine and woke up 12 hours later. I highly recommend dramamine if your are prone to motion sickness. I nearly threw up trying to brush my teeth. Once I took my pill and hit the hay I had not a care in the world.

Morning found us anchored in a sea filled volcanic crater. Coolio.

Female sea lion at La Loberia on San Cristobol Island.
Female sea lion at La Loberia on San Cristobol Island.
San Cristobal
San Cristobal
My new blue footed booby buff.
My new blue footed booby buff.
San Cristobal
San Cristobal
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Boobies

Nazca Booby
Nazca Booby

Everybody loves boobies. They are so darned cute. On the Galapagos Islands there are three species of boobies: Red-footed, Nazca (formerly masked), and blue-footed boobies. Foot color and intensity is an indication of health. Blue-footed boobies have an elaborate courtship dance that includes bowing and wing flapping and very sustained showing off of the feet. Look! My feet are bright blue! I am young and healthy! Pick me! Female boobies wave back with their feet if they like a guy. Lucky for us we saw a blue-footed booby couple dancing and calling. There was all kinds of foot waving and bowing.

Red-footed boobies are similar to blue-footed boobies that wave their feet and dance when looking for a sexual partner but the red-footed boobies also do a thing called sky-waving. They point their blue faces skyward and show off a blue throat. We did not see this but we did see nesting red-footed boobies and red-footed booby chicks. Red-footed boobies are very diverse in appearance. There is a white phase and a brown phase and several mixed phases between white and brown. Add to that juvenile versus adult coloration and sometime these boobies are hard to tell apart from other boobies.

Nazca boobies take a different approach. Nazca males find a tree based nesting spot and defends it. The ladies pick the males based on the desirability of the nesting site. Very sensible. Choosing real estate over theatrics and cosmetics is astute.

Boobies deep dive for fish. Their nostrils are permanently closed and a sac of air protects their brains from high impact dives. Each of these species fishes in a different area of the ocean. In close, out further, and out really far.  Blue-footed fish close to shore and the red-footed fish scores of miles out at sea. The Nazca booby fishes in between.

Nazca is the name of a region of Peru and the tectonic plate of the Galapagos islands. Nazca boobies can be found in the Nazca region of Peru as well as teh Galapagos Islands.

Boobies sometimes land on tourists heads. It almost happened to me.
Boobies sometimes land on tourist’s heads. It almost happened to me.
A flock of juvenile boobies.
A flock of juvenile boobies.
Red-footed booby
Red-footed booby. It has a blue face.
Baby booby.
Baby booby.
Blue-footed booby
Blue-footed booby and Sally Lightfoot crabs.
Marking territory with a circle of defecation.
Marking territory with a circle of defecation. a popular roosting spot. The poop stream changes as the bird moves to face the sun.
Red-footed Booby
Red-footed Booby
Nazca Boobies
Nazca Boobies
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Marine Iguanas

Marine Iguana country. Our ship in the background.
Marine Iguana country. Our ship in the background.

Marine iguanas are also, surprise, known as the Galapagos Marine Iguana. These reptiles are unique in the world. They forage at sea for algae. The larger males dive deep and can spend many minutes under water. Females and juveniles eat closer to shore and from the inter-tidal zone. Their noses and teeth are specially adapted to eat close growing algae off of rocks. Burt and I saw a few swim by while we were snorkeling. A lizard at sea. In times of scarce food, caused by current shifts, the iguanas can reabsorb bone and literally shrink in size. last year there was a food shortage and large numbers died. We saw many skeletons and got a good look at their vegetarian teeth. This year the food is abundant and the population is bouncing back. Several island have their own unique subspecies. Old mariners thought the iguanas were ugly. Carol Simon and I think they are sublime.  Carol is a herpetologist and the marine iguana is her favorite lizard. When watching sunning marine iguanas you will see them occasionally snort spurts of salty water. They expel excess salt through their noses.

Marine Iguana
Marine Iguana. Stub nose, strong swimming tail.
Warming in the sun
Warming in the sun
Marine Iguana teeth.
Marine Iguana teeth.
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Galapagos Highlights

Naturalist Journey's trip to see the Boobies. Three kinds in the Galapagos. Do you know which these are?
Naturalist Journey’s trip to see the Boobies. Three kinds of boobies live in the Galapagos. Do you know which these are?

I’m too tired to get into the blow by blow trip details. The Galapagos are famous for the friendly wildlife and amazing scenery. They are a volcanic archipelago bathed in cold sea currents. If you don’t know the name of some species of plant or animal stick the word Galapagos or Lava in front of it and you might be right. Lava gull, lava lizard, Galapagos mockingbird, Galapagos prickly pear….Our journey covered more than 500 nautical miles and 5 islands in 8 days. Naturalist Journeys hosts Howard and Carol gave 4 lectures covering the natural history, human history, evolution, and environmental threats. Our local guides were phenomenally well informed, energetic, and kind. Burt and I snorkeled in 8 locations. We saw more than 40 new species of birds and animals. I think you should check it out.

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Flying juvenile red-footed boobies. The red feet come later.
Dead Marine Iguana.
Dead Marine Iguana.
Many Marine Iguanas.
Many Marine Iguanas.
Lobo Marino or Sea Lion.
Lobo Marino or Sea Lion.
Galapagos lava
Galapagos lava
Cactus
Cactus
Galapagos Prickly Pear.
Galapagos Prickly Pear.
Land Iguanas. Males squaring off for a territorial battle.
Land Iguanas. Males squaring off for a territorial battle.
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Arrival in Ecuador

Bad luck with my pen but I still got in.
Bad luck with my pen but I still got in. My pen worked only at low altitudes. Anywhere over 8000′ and it leaked. Not a good pen for Ecuador.

Two weeks ago Burt and I landed in Ecuador and had a memorable adventure. An adventure full of fun and action and family and friends. Here’s how it went.

The Gypsy Carpenters flew out of El Paso which is three hours from Portal, AZ. Our trailer and dogs and cat were stowed safely with friends in Portal. The cat is apparently happier with her friend Dodi than with us and the canines. Our flight was at mid-day and on the spur of the moment we drove to El Paso the evening before. After a few frustrating u-turns on the endless highways surrounding the El Paso airport we found a La Quinta with an authentic taco joint next door. Live music and tacos pastur for dinner. The La Quinta took us in and kept our car for free with a free shuttle to the airport. What a deal. The next morning we slept in, ate the complimentary breakfast and took to the skies.

There’s not much to say about air travel beyond how uncomfortable it is for everyone involved. Twelve hours later we landed in Quito. Burt and I have both been to Ecuador several times but the most recent trip was ten years ago. A lot has changed in Ecuador in ten years. We stepped out of our airplane expecting a third world style-runway exit with lots of intimidating barriers and screaming taxistas. Instead we landed in a modern day airport. It was clean and cavernous and well lit. Everything was orderly. What happened? President Rafael Correa happened is what I hear. A country wide investment in infrastructure has made the place anew.  The Pan American highway was once a two lane pot hole riddled byway. Kind cute. Now it is a super highway. Six lanes of well-engineered roadway all the way to Columbia. Welcome, tourists.

At 11:00 PM we were shuffled through customs efficiently and with smiles. My ink splattered declaration was not a problem. My crossed-out name not an issue. Quite the opposite of our entry into Miami yesterday where I accidentally pushed a wrong button at the mandatory automatic kiosk and got us swept into the X line of suspicious people. Four in the morning and nobody was smiling. I was told I wouldn’t make that mistake again by the grumpy inspector. The taxis were lined up and regulated. We paid the standard ten US dollars to be ferried to our Air B and B host in Tababela. Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as its currency. Another reason to travel there.

We spent a day resting and acclimating to the high elevation. Chester’s B and B was a cozy spot with a comfortable bed in a town where nothing was happening. Worked for us. Most of our tour companions were on a pre-Galapagos side trip to see the condors and were staying in Puembo at the Puembo Birding Gardens. Naturalist Journeys uses the Puembo Birding Gardens as its Quito base camp. The inn is in beautiful location and has many fantastic birds, a friendly hostess, and fine dining. I figure my heart wasn’t up to the elevation where condors soar so we just hung out and played music and read for a day in seclusion.

The next morning we were up early and taken to the airport by our hosts. At the airport we united with our group and began the intricate journey to the Galapagos Islands. There were 18 guests and 2 hosts on this trip. Carol Simon and Howard Topoff were our hosts. In February Burt and I will be hosts and have guests of our own. Our twenty person group was met by the Ecoventuras team and shuttled through the detailed Galapagos luggage inspection and baggage check and sent off to our boarding gate to wait for our nearly three hour flight to the islands. The Galapagos are a unique place full of native plants and animals. The luggage inspection is to make sure we are not carrying anything that might harm the natural environment. No seeds, unpackaged food, plants, or dirt are allowed. I cleaned Burt’s and my shoes before the trip. (Shocking, I know.)

Our group was comprised of a bunch of scientific types with connections to Portal, Arizona. All of us knew someone on the trip. Burt and I knew Carol and Howard, of course, but we also had longtime Helena friends Ed and Rosemary on board. Our flight made a stop at the coastal city of Guayaquil and we picked up two more of our participants and then it was off the the archipelago.

The Galapagos are more than 600 miles from shore in the Pacific Ocean. The airplane makes quick work of what used to be a many day sea voyage. Flying is convenient but it also minimized the vast distance and made it easy to forget how far from the rest of the world we were. Our plane landed on San Cristobal Island around 3 in the afternoon. After another inspection we met our week’s guides, Fabricio and Franklin, and headed right out our ship for a late lunch and a boat safety meeting. After eating and considering a midnight sinking we headed back to land and took our first nature walk to La Loberia. Sea Lions are called Lobos Marinos and La Loberia was the place of many sea lions. They weren’t kidding. More next post.

Trees in Tababela near our B and B
Trees in Tababela near our B and B
Our Naturalist Journeys tour group.
Our Naturalist Journeys tour group.
Galapagos Route
Galapagos Route
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