Darwin Lake, Isabela Island
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
15 Days In The Galapagos Islands
Arrival & Orientation
We arrived in the Galapagos Islands this morning on our flight from mainland Ecuador. There are two main airports in the Galapagos - Seymour Airport on Baltra Island (aka South Seymour Island) and San Cristobal Airport on San Cristobal Island. We landed at the Seymour Airport on Baltra.
We were greeted by Myra who will be our naturalist guide for several days. With our minimal luggage, we boarded a bus for the short ride to Baltra Harbor where we would board the boat that would be our home in the islands for the next fourteen nights.
Generically, our vessel is referred to as a "small ship" when comparing cruise options in the Galapagos. It has eight cabins for a maximum of sixteen guests.
I don't know whether to call it a boat, a ship, a yacht or by its name. The commercial name is the Sea Star Journey, but it is officially registered as the Domenica. I'll probably call it all of the above.
At any rate, they sent two inflatable boats with motors to the dock. They call them Zodiacs, dinghies, or pangas. I'll be using the generic "Zodiac" throughout these posts. One was used to transport our luggage, and we stepped aboard the other.
Once on board, Myra introduced us to Andres our "hotel director" who would be taking care of us while on the boat. Andres showed us to our cabin, one of eight on the yacht. The cabin was huge - much larger than expected.
We left the harbor immediately and set sail along the northern coast of Santa Cruz Island.
After we checked out our cabin and unpacked, Andres did an orientation presentation in the salon (or social area or living room).
This ship has three itineraries - two are five-nights and the other is four-nights. We are doing all three back-to-back-to-back, and Andres said he hadn't seen anyone do that before on this boat.
One of the reasons we booked this particular trip was to get to as many islands as possible over two weeks without repeating any stop. After each four or five day itinerary, we will get a new set of shipmates.
On this first itinerary, there are only three couples - us, a couple from Canada and a couple from Spain. We'll probably be spoiled having this large boat for six people and not having to scramble for position on the excursions.
After our orientation and the typical boat safety drill, we explored the rest of the boat.
Our cabin was on the main deck with three other cabins, all with inside entrances and lots of windows. The main deck also included the dining area, the bar, and the salon/social area. On the rear deck, there is a long table that will seat all passengers, and there is a bin to store all footwear worn on the excursions so the interior of the main deck stays clean.
The next deck up had four cabins with outside entrances, the bridge, and a nice area to relax at the back.
The top deck, or sun deck, had several loungers, two hot tubs, a clothes drying line, and the inflatable kayaks we would be using. One hot tub and a few loungers were under a canopy while the other hot tub and loungers were out in the sun.
Lunch was served in the dining room buffet-style, and then Myra did a briefing on our first excursion which would be taking place shortly. She informed us where we would be going, what type of excursion (walk/hike, Zodiac ride, snorkel, or kayak), what we would be likely to see, whether we would be doing a "dry" landing or a "wet" landing (feet in the water), and what footwear we would need (very important). For every excursion we would need hats, sunscreen, sunglasses, and cameras. We brought binoculars which turned out to be a really good decision.
These briefings would be repeated each night before dinner and would cover all of the next day's excursions. The schedule was then posted on a TV screen and/or on a dry/erase board.
That pretty much covers our arrival and the time we spent traveling to our first stop.
Eventually, we anchored off the north coast of Santa Cruz Island with our boat's sister ship the Gran Natalia. The two ships would be traveling together, but excursions will be staggered as only one group of sixteen people (with a required guide) could be at a visitor site at a particular time.
Dragon Hill Hike/Walk
Once anchored, we boarded a Zodiac and headed to shore. The brown hill in front of us is Dragon Hill (aka Cerro Dragon).
We pulled up to the lava and did a "dry" landing meaning we didn't have to get our feet wet when we stepped off the Zodiac.
We walked along the beach and got our very first look at the Marine Iguanas, our first species endemic to the Galapagos. They are the world's only marine lizard and they are only found in these islands.
Then we got a look at some of the larger Sally Lightfoot Crabs. They are found all along the western coasts of the Americas, but many of the best photos of these crabs are taken here in the Galapagos.
Myra gave us her talk on Marine Iguanas before we moved on.
We then walked to a saltwater lagoon, where we were fortunate to see a pair of American Flamingos, and a few other shorebirds.
The flamingos and the shorebirds we saw, like the Least Sandpiper, the Whimbrel, and Black-necked Stilts below, are not endemic, and as birding hobbyists, we had seem them before.
We also got our first look at a White-cheeked Pintail Duck. Again, it's not endemic, but that was the first one we had seen.
After leaving the lagoon, Myra showed us our first endemic plant - Galapagos Cotton. It has the largest bloom of all the endemic plants in the islands.
From there, we followed the signs and continued on the trail through the dry vegetation and cactus toward the hill.
Next, we saw our first Large Ground Finch.
There are fourteen species of what are known as "Darwin’s Finches" in the Galapagos Islands. All are endemic and all are said to have evolved from a single species through a process called “adaptive radiation”.
We just wanted to see as many of the finches as we could because they can’t be seen anywhere else in the world. And while at Dragon Hill we were able to see two more finches - the Medium Ground Finch and the Common Cactus Finch.
None of the others in our group cared much about the finches, but we were fascinated watching their feeding and noting their beak adaptations.
Continuing on, we were looking for the Galapagos Land Iguana, another endemic species that is found on six of the islands. Soon, we came upon a large, yellow male feeding on a Prickly Pear Cactus pad. Just as Myra had explained to us a few minutes earlier, he was using his claws to scrape the spines off the cactus before he munched.
There are two other species of land iguana in the Galapagos and each of those can only be found on one island. Those would be the Pink Land Iguana on northern Isabela Island (which we probably won't see) and the Santa Fe Land Iguana on Santa Fe Island (which we will most likely see).
Later, we came upon a female land iguana.
The land iguanas are one of the animals that are being repatriated to various parts of the islands. Feral dogs had taken a toll on their populations, especially here on Santa Cruz which has the highest human population (and, therefore, the highest numbers of dogs).
We saw evidence of feral donkeys and saw two feral cats at Dragon Hill. But, fortunately, feral goats, pigs, and donkeys (introduced animals) have been eradicated on many of the islands. The biggest remaining problems with introduced, feral animals are on the four human-inhabited islands.
Moving on up Dragon Hill, we got our first glimpse at a Galapagos Mockingbird, another endemic species.
We had nice views of the two boats from the top of the hill, and we rested there for a short time.
We continued on down the hill and completed a loop. We saw more finches along the way, and Myra showed us a good example of a Palo Santo (aka Incense Tree).
The Incense Tree gets its name from the aroma of the resin. There are two species of Palo Santo in the islands - one is endemic and the other is not.
Most of the leafless trees you see in the photos are Palo Santo. Remember, we are here in December right at the end of the dry season and just starting to transition to the wet season. In a couple months, the landscape will be greener.
We went back past the lagoon toward the beach where we saw more Marine Iguanas and Sally Lightfoot Crabs.
Our Zodiac was ready and we walked out on the lava to board for our ride back to the ship.
And thus ended our very first excursion. Seeing seven endemic species, we were off to a good start.
Wrapping Up Our First Day
We were greeted with snacks and juices on the rear of the main deck. And we got to relax for awhile until it was time for our briefing about the next day's itinerary.
After our briefing, we had a "welcome cocktail" and the entire crew came out for introductions. Myra introduced everyone.
The crew consisted of:
• Naturalist Guide
• Hotel Director
• Bartender/Main Deck Cabin Steward
• Upper Deck Cabin Steward
• Assistant Engineer
• Sous Chef
• 3 Sailors (Deck crew & Zodiac drivers)
Only Myra (far right in the right photo) and Andres (far left in the left photo) speak English fluently, so it was a little difficult to communicate with the rest of the crew, but we would manage. They knew just enough English and we knew just enough Spanish.
Soon, it was time for dinner. Again, it was buffet style and while not gourmet, it was good food with a lot of local ingredients and nothing processed.
After dinner, we pulled up anchor and headed west along the northern coast of Santa Cruz where we dropped anchor at the mouth of Black Turtle Cove, the destination for tomorrow's first excursion.
With the boat's lights on, there were sharks swimming around feeding on whatever was attracted to the lights. We also had a lone pelican and a single sea lion feeding as well.
After watching more nature at work, we called it a night. It had been a long day, and we wanted to be plenty rested for tomorrow. We quickly learned that this is an adventure and a learning experience and certainly not just a leisurely "cruise" in the usual sense of the word. And that's exactly what we wanted.