There are ~90 ships that have access to the Galapagos. On recommendation and research, we went on the National Geographic Endeavor, one of the largest ships in the Galapagos.
Connected through Miami (what a dump of an airport) to Guayaqil, Ecuador. From the many Ecuadorians we would later meet, Guayaqil seems like an awesome city, but as we got in so late and had to leave early the next morning, we didn’t see any of the city.
Woke up in the morning, and after breakfast, bussed back to the airport. Took a plane to Baltra Island (aka “B3”) – which has little else but the airport. The airport was built in World War II by the Americans, and Baltra once hosted 5,000 soldiers (simultaneously damaging a lot of the indigenous wildlife). We were bussed over to the dock (in truth a block of concrete) and boarded zodiacs. Zodiacs were the sole mode of getting on and off the ship for anything, and we would do it multiple times a day. We went through the usual introductions, informational points, and safety drills.
The ship, the Endeavor, was built in the 1900s as a German fishing boat, and, after many retrofits, is now a 92 passenger expedition ship (with another 72 staff). As expected, it was cool to see how every square inch of the ship served some purpose. The ship’s crew was split into three distinct functions – the ship (captain, etc), hotel (cabins, meals), and expedition (naturalists).
The first afternoon we sailed to “Las Bachas” (poor pronunciation of “barges” for the wrecked ships found there) beach on Santa Cruz Island. We disembarked (on zodiacs) to the beach for our first hike through the Galapagos national park.
Ecuador is incredibly focused on the preservation and restoration of the Galapagos, as we learned during the trip. There are strict rules about what you can bring to the Galapagos, and what you are allowed to take away (nothing). You have to maintain your distance from animals, stay on paths, no flash photography, etc. You have to have a pass and ships have to be licensed, and you have to have a naturalist with you at all times (we had nine), who themselves are deputized by the park service. While we would only be told where we were going and what we were doing the prior evening, the ship had an agreed-upon itinerary with the park service. The exact windows of when we could land at each point was a benefit to us – only once or twice in the entire trip would we come across another visiting group, giving us a true sense of being in the wild.
The naturalists themselves are fascinating people. Most of them are native to the Galapagos (currently there are around 30,000 inhabitants of Galapagos, and Ecuador is now focused on trying to limit the population size), and all of them have extensive backgrounds in biology or a related field. We kept getting the sense that they were not tour guides, but they passionately cared about the the Galapagos wildlife and its restoration. The Galapagos while 600 miles from mainland, is a major part of the Ecuadorian national identity, and one of the four regions that the country is split into.
Back to the first hike – flamingos, iguanas, crabs, birds, sea turtles, and one or two sea lions. We learned about the sea turtle’s reproduction process, and saw mound after mound where turtle eggs were buried. After a quick swim in the water, took Zodiacs back for dinner. Not sure whether it was the rocking ship, being on vacation, or the strenuous day, but with 6 AM wake-up calls every day, the entire ship would be asleep by 9 PM.
Disembarked on the shore of North Seymour. Landings would vary between wet landings on a beach where we’d have to change into hiking shoes on land, or dry landings on a makeshift dock. We were split up into groups of fifteen or so, and each group would have a naturalist escort them.
Saw blue footed boobies, frigate birds, and more iguanas in one place than I’ve ever seen.
Afternoon – went snorkeling off Rabida Island. We were able to see a fair amount of fish and a shark or two, but they brought an underwater specialist with us who, every night, would show clips from his dive, where he was able to go right up against the coral. We used a GoPro every time we went in the water, but his footage definitely beat ours.
After we returned from snorkeling, went for a walk along Rabida Island. While the entire Galapagos is made up of volcanic formations, the lava that formed Rabida had high iron oxide content, resulting in red sand. Again, saw some more wildlife, as well as a couple sea lions playing in the water.
Aside from the more recent human intervention (they definitely drove home the fact that we humans have a habit of screwing everything up), there were two remarkable points about the native wildlife. First, the total isolation from surrounding lands resulted in species that were both endemic to the archipelago, and related enough to each other that you can see how species deviated depending on their habitat. For more, read up on Darwin’s finches – we saw many types of finches as we traveled around. Second – and this is one of the core reasons why the Galapagos stands out – the wildlife is ecologically naive. They had no concept of human beings, and were unafraid. With very few seeing us a threat, you can walk right up to a sea lion with no fear on either side. Iguanas would walk right across your path as if you didn’t exist (I was surprised that not even the ground vibrations alarmed them). It made photography especially exciting.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were served in the dining room, either buffet or plated. They encouraged you not just to interact with other guests, but also with the naturalists, who would grab an empty seat at your table. Getting to know them and not feeling like a foreign tourist was great.
Fernandina Island. Also known as Narborough. Each exploring country, as well as Ecuador when officially annexing the Galapago, often gave each island a different name.
That morning we disembarked on Punta Espinoza for an intense hike over lava flows. This hike stood out due to the immense number of iguanas all over the area, as well as a few sea turtles swimming in the shallow waters. Marine iguanas mainly live in the water, but rely on basking in the sun in order to warm them up. Again, with no fear of humans, they would not stir however close we got (regulations kept us six feet away), nor would they hesitate from walking inches from us as they went in and out of the water.
After lunch we went to Isabella Island, an area called Punta Vicente Roca. When we went deep water snorkeling, we saw numerous sea turtles (and if you watch our GoPro footage, you can see one charge right at me), sea lions, sharks, and various fish. We even saw a flightless cormorants (a bird) swim right underneath us. Unbelievable.
After snorkeling, boarded zodiacs along the edge of the water. On the cliff faces and rocky outcroppings saw blue-footed boobies and other birds, our first Galapagos penguin, sea lions, and of course more iguanas.
In the afternoon we had a wine tasing on the bow of the ship as we crossed the equator. The ship dropped anchor in the calm waters of Tagus Cove.
Isabela Island. Went for a long hike at Urbina Bay, and saw our first tortoises. This part of the island is notable as, roughly 50 years ago, magma movements raised an entire section of the ocean floor up by 15 feet, exposing it to the elements. Along the hike we were able to see coral formations, now landlocked.
One theme of the trip was learning not just about the human impact to the islands, but also about the destruction that human-introduced animals caused. Isabela island had a major issue with feral goats and donkeys eating all the vegetation that turtles and other species relied upon, until a big effort to “eradicate” them over the past decade proved successful. There are now strict regulations on what animals can be brought onto the islands (dogs and cats must be sterilized, and any stray or even unleashed animal is sent back to the mainland).
That afternoon went back to Tagus Cove, where we took a fast paced (e.g. no stopping every five feet to explain a plant or animal) hike to the rim of a dormant volcano. Tagus Cove is where whalers would stop over to barter for supplies, noted by the historic graffiti of passing ships. Also of note was this area of Isabella was one of the ones Charles Darwin visited in 1835.
Santiago Island (aka San Salvador aka James…). This is where Charles Darwin spent the most amount of time (9 days out of his 19 days on land).
Took an early morning intense hike along rocky lava formations in Playa Espumilla.
They guided us to a particularly beautiful part of Buccaneer Cove, a one-time pirate haunt. Given that tortoises, unfed or watered, can last for up to a year, pirates, whalers, and other ships would take tortoises with them as fresh meat months into a voyage (one of the primary reasons the tortoise population is so low). Snorkeling in the late morning revealed more sharks, fish, and a couple manta-rays. The dropped us off in a particularly beatiful spot for snorkeling, as we were able to enter a cave, turn around, and see a beautiful effect with the sunlight on the water.
In the afternoon the ship headed to Puerto Egas. After a wet landing we took a walk to find marine iguanas and sea lions playing in the series of grottos formed by lava, as well as numerous types of birds.
There was little downtime during the trip, often not more than a 30 minute break unless you wanted to skip a major activity. Any idle on-ship time was filled with lectures by the naturalists, instructional sessions, or other cultural activities. While being a “expedition” instead of a luxury cruise, we were still treated well. One of the funniest things I found was jumping from the zodiac into the ship after a sweaty morning hike, to be handed a glass of fresh juice and a cookie by the eager hotel staff.
That evening, we were treated to a barbecue outside on the deck of the ship.
Spent the day on land. After waking up in the port of Puerto Ayora to the most turbulent seas we had so far, disembarked to Puerto Ayora. We first visited the Charles Darwin Research Center, which we had kept hearing about in the prior days (and a couple of the naturalists also worked there). CDRS is tasked with both researching and executing rehabilitation efforts of near-extinct species. Tortoise eggs or newborn tortoises rarely survive the invading rat population, for example, so the rearing center takes eggs, incubates, hatches, and then raises the tortoises until they are old enough to be released back into the wild. They are doing the same with mangrove finches and other species now.
Walked through the town of Peurto Ayora, and then we were bussed into the highlands. After a stop at a sugar cane processing demonstration and for lunch, we headed to Manzanilla Ranch (a former farm that happened to be right in the giant tortoise’s migratory path, and is now a tortoise sight-seeing area). Tortoises roamed freely, to the extent that our bus had to dodge them on the access road.
Afterwards, headed back to the ship, where we heard a talk by researchers from the Darwin center before dinner.
San Cristobal Island (aka Chatham). San Cristobal was the first island that Darwin visited. Anchored in Punta Pitt (the Pitt namesake being the same one behind Pittsburgh). On the hottest day so far we took the most strenous hike up to the edge of a collapsed volcano cone. Saw red footed boobies and other animals. The hike was so hot that upn descending back down to the beach everyone went straight into the water, where sea lions were swimming and tanning.
In the afternoon the ship went to Lean Dormido (Kicker Rock), a beautiful formation of two rocks, with a narrow channel in between. We snorkeled through the channel and along the edge of the formation. The channel, normally calm, had unusually high 6-10 foot swells, but we were still able to spot schools of fish, manta rays, and a few sharks.
In the afternoon, there was a farewell cocktail party on the bow of the ship as the captain circumnavigated Leon Dormido against the setting sun.
In the evening we were supposed to go to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, a small town where we would fly out of the next morning, but high waves and flooding in the town kept us on the ship – the most turbulent night we had aboard the ship made packing a challenge.
Woke up at 6 AM, had breakfast, then headed to the airport. Everything on the ship came and left on a zodiac, included tall piles of our suitcases. After a flight back to Guayaqil, went on a short tour of the city. Guayiqil is the largest city in Ecuador, and the main commercial port (major exports are flowers, cocoa, rice, and fruit).
GYE —> MIA —> DCA