Monday, April 26, 2010

Beautiful Boat!

Galapagos Explorer II Our cruise ship--she has a certain Italian flair, don't you think? Built in Italy in 1990.

The Galapagos Explorer is the biggest and most beautiful boat that cruises the Galapagos Islands. It holds 100 passengers and has a staff of about 50 on board. It was a very comfortable ship to travel on. It was big enough to not be tossed too drastically by the waves, although we felt the roll of the ship often. They were very conscious of making each passenger comfortable. Most of the traveling from one place to another took place during times when passengers could rest in their staterooms to fend off seasickness.

It has many public meeting areas, the lovely dining room, indoor and outdoor bar, lounge where we held meetings every day, two shops, outdoor sun deck, plus various outdoor deck spaces. It had WI FI internet ($15 per hour!) Very convenient to read your junk mail in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!

There are 80 boats licensed to travel through the Galapagos Islands. Each has access to certain islands at certain times, and under penalty of jail time, the boats adhere to this schedule! This schedule is planned so that very seldom is more than one of the ships at any given place at the same time. We did cross several other groups one day, when three of the big ships were at the same place, but we had our times to walk the trails, and it wasn't a problem.

We were very happy with the comfort of the ship and the friendliness of the staff. They are there to help the passengers and make the trip fun.

One thing that was interesting about Galapagos. There are no large public docks big enough to accomodate more than a small boat or water taxi. So all of the embarking and disembarking from the Galapagos Explorer II took place via zodiacs (pangas in Ecuador). These are rubber rafts that held 12-15 people powered by outboard motors. Getting on and off of them was a twice daily drill, thank heaven for some very strong deck hands to help us old folks with the task! They had to take our luggage on and off of the boat the same way. Thank heaven nothing went in the drink! The Galapagos Explorer, being one of the largest boats at the Galapagos, always parked at least 1/2 mile off shore, so our trips in and out of the islands took some time. They used 6 zodiacs during every embark/disembark maneuver. It was interesting to see how all that worked.

No high heels used here! Definitely wear your walking shoes!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Marine Mammals

Mammals are not very evident on Galapagos. Those that were introduced in centuries past have proven to be very harmful to the unique wildlife on the islands. As a result, feral pigs, dogs, cats, rats and goats have been eradicated over the past decades, with the hope that these will not impact the wildlife's future. Sea mammals are the only naturally occuring mammals, mostly sea lions. These playful creatures can always be counted on to entertain, and they are really fun to watch
These are fur sea lions, not as plentiful as regular sea lions. We only saw these on one island, James (Santiago) Island.
Sea lion pup waiting for mom to come back for a feeding.
This was our second "wet landing" site, on Gardner Bay on Espanola Island. We walked the entire length of the beach, then snorkeled. Some did deep water snorkeling, out near the boat.
Beautiful beach, we snorkeled here after walking the length of the beach.

One sad note about sea lions: the sea lion moms do not cross adopt, so if a pup's mom doesn't return, he dies. One sea lion mom came in from the sea, barked twice, and her pup came runnig up and started nursing before she was even out of the surf! Hungry little guy!

Beautiful white sand beach, our ship was in the background. Some people chose to deepwater snorkel near the rocks. I stayed near the shore, but the white sand got churned up by the waves, so you couldn't see much. But it is very beautiful here!


The Galapagos turtles are very endangered. Many of them are now living in protected surroundings, like the Charles Darwin Research Station where these turtles are living now. Eggs from Galapagos turtles are hatched here, and the young are cared for until they are about 2 years old. Then they are released back in the wild on the islands where the eggs were taken from.

One very large and very old turtle is the sole survivor of his species from one of the islands. They have named him "Lonesome George", and have placed him in a pen with two much younger but similar in species female turtles, hoping to keep the species from going extinct. While we were there, George approached one of the females and bit her on the backside! Nice touch, George, no wonder you are lonesome! You don't know how to treat a lady!
These female turtles were once pets of people living on the islands. When the entire archepeligo became a national park in 1979, these were taken into custody with the promise to care for them for the rest of their lives. This is a big commitment, because they can live to be 100+ years old! We saw some bickering among the females, one bit the other's neck skin, practically pulling the skin off! Now, ladies, let's behave ourselves!
Males are bigger. This turtle was on a feeding platform in the male turtle's pen.

We saw some more turtles on our last day on Santa Cruz, they were in a protected but more open habitat, fending for themselves for food, instead of being fed.

There were many sea turtles also at the Galapagos, but something happened to my memory card when I was taking their pictures, and I lost my sea turtle pics. Darn! I'm glad I had downloaded the other previous pictures from that card each day when I was finished taking pictures, or I would have lost about half of my pictures.

I used a Canon Digital Rebel, with a 75-300mm imaged stabilized telephoto lens, plus a Canon Power-Shot A470 with a zoom lens. For anyone who wants to use a telephoto lens, I really recommend image stabilization, even though they cost twice as much. Almost all of my shots with the telephoto are sharp and clear, even if cropped. I am very pleased with the results of my photography, even though I use no special photography tricks and use the auto feature of my camera. My Rebel is one of the original digital Rebels, not that many megapixels, but I'm still very pleased with the results. Not bad for an ametuer. I also used a Flip video camera, I have yet to preview those pictures.

One if by land, two if by sea!

Lizards, lizards, lizards! We saw so many lizards. Here are three of the lizards that inhabit the Galapagos Islands
Land iguana--found on Santa Cruz island, Dragon Hill. We saw about a dozen land iguanas in this area. They are not nearly as ubiquitous as the marine iguanas are, and they are somewhat more secretive and skittish than the marine variety. The males have large spikes and the females have shorter spikes, that is the determining factor on the sexes. Land iguans graze on leaves and vegetation, their snouts are more pointed than the marine iguanas. One male was eating by the trail, and another was lurking in the bushes about 10 feet away. We guessed it was a female, jealous of all the attention he was getting, she charged out of the bushes at us, and scared us all off! Very interesting behavior!
Notice the color difference in this marine iguana from the ones on Fernandina Island, this one was on Espanola (Hood) Island. These are much more colorful, with red, green, blue, tan coming through the black and grey. The females were distingushed by the fact that most of them were covered with dust or sand, from digging their nests. There was one nesting ground where 40 females were all digging, it was amazing to watch!
This is a lava lizard, seen on all islands, but each island seemed to have a different coloration. All females have red throats.

Reptiles rule at Galapagos!

Birds, birds, birds!

Here are some of the birds that we saw. Most of these pictures were taken on Espanola (Hood) Island, which is the most easterly and oldest island in the Galapagos. The trail was a rock strewn trail, very difficult to navigate. I swallowed my pride and took a walking stick (AKA cane!) It saved my life more than once! I'll never hike without one again! Some of these birds are unique to Galapagos, others are similar to ones seen around the world.
Galapagos Hawk, this one is banded. Similar in size to red-tail hawks in the U.S.
Gulls on the wing are sometimes difficult to identify, but this one stood still for me, it is a swallow tail gull, and it is easy to identify on the wing.
The story as we heard it was that the albatross had not yet landed on Espanola Island to start the nesting season. Just as those words came out of the guide's mouth, here comes Mr. Waved Albatross, flying down about 10 feet from our group on the trail. Following him were many more. The males choose a nest site, and later the females come to actually nest and lay eggs. We saw dozens of albatross that day.
The bird most mentioned when talking about Galapagos birds is the blue footed boobie. We saw a pair on the trail actually engaged in the mating dance. Quite interesting, and unfazed by our admiring glances, and many pictures that were being taken. The male does a dance, lifting his beautiful blue feet and showing them to the female to get her interested in mating!
Galapagos dove, somewhat like our mourning dove in size and color.

In addition, we saw Nasca (masked) boobies, oystercatchers, turnstones, mockingbirds, Darwin cactus finches on this island. I'm sure I'm not remembering others that we saw, there was so much to see on this island.

If you go to Galapagos, do not miss visiting Espanola--it is the one to see if you can't do anything else.

Ubiquitous and beautiful!

They're called "Sally Lightfoot crabs". And they are ubiquitous, and I think they are very beautiful in a creepy sort of way. Their colors are just fantastic. And I love the name, since I have a daughter named Sally. Guess what she got as a souviner? You guessed it, "crab" artifacts.
A beauty on the beach!
This one has a prime viewing spot.
Watching them scrabble over the rocks and jump from one rock to another, you can see why they have the name Sally Lightfoot, a famous dancer. They fairly dance from one place to another. Often we saw them crawling across the backs of marine iguanas, the iguanas don't move much, and the crabs are always on the move.

One thing I never resolved in my mind is how something this colorful survives, because its coloration is definitely not a protective element! They just seem to be screaming "eat me!" when the beautiful red crab scrabbles over black rocks. But I guess enough of them survive, even with being a tasty food source. Of course, we never ate them, no fishing on Galapagos for humans!

Most of the animals in Galapagos are totally unfazed by humans being around them. They are completely protected from any harm or intervention. All islands are marked with trails, and you must be accompanied by a trained Galapagos Park Service guide to even set foot on the islands. And the amount of "people traffic" per day on each island is very closely controlled.

We had some excellent guides on our tour, some very highly educated people, who were natives of Galapagos or Guayaquil Ecuador. They certainly knew their facts, and shared them with us as we walked the trails on each island.


Fernandina Island
Now, isn't this a face only a mother could love?
I've tried counting them, but can't quite get past the tails that are tangled together. This was just one rock covered with marine iguanas, this is on Fernandina Island, the newest island of the Galapagos. I think I heard the number 300,000 marine iguanas on the islands, I can believe that! On this island we found very rugged terrain, sharp volcanic rock covered with algae, which makes for very treacherous footing! I fell on my first step onto this island. Others in the group hit the lava more than once, just like I did. But it was totally worth the trip, because we saw sooooo many things here.

We saw, marine iguanas, Sally Lightfoot crabs, flightless cormorants, Galapagos hawk, yellow warbler, sea lion pups playing, sea turtles, frigate birds, so many other things I can't even remember. Awesome!

Where in the World......?

....has Sew What? been? I've been very far away!
At the Blow Hole rock formation on Espanola Island, Galapagos, Ecuador April 5-15, 2010.

I've crossed the equator at least 6 times since I last reported. Yes, I've been in South America, Ecuador to be exact, and from Quito, Ecuador, my brother and I went to the Galapagos Islands.

This was a trip that was many months in the planning. We first decided to go on the trip in April, 2009, paid our money to secure the room on the cruise ship in May, and have been slowly getting ready for our big adventure.

Since this was a first big international trip for both of us (not counting a trip to British Columbia about 11 years ago, and crossing the border to go to Tijuana once), we were both a little apprehensive. My misgivings were these: Would we get along in a Spanish speaking country without much usuable Spanish? Would the airplane actually get us to our destination without too much trouble? What about customs? What about passports? What about money? And would I be able to actually tour the islands because I'm old and somewhat out of shape?

So starting with the first question: Spanish--in Ecuador, there are many English speaking people. Since most of our interactions with local folks invovled the exchange of money, and they use American dollars in Ecuador, we somehow spoke the common language of American Dollars, so all retail transactions were rather easily accomplished. Lots of smiles, pointing, cuando???, holding up fingers to indicate how many dollars, and showing $20 bills got me what I wanted! Quito is a shopper's paradise, on one street, there was the entire street full of fabric vendors, cashmere, alpaca, bolts stacked to the ceilings, $3-$5 per yard! And I wasn't able to shop because we were on a tour with a time deadline! I swear I'm going back some day with two empty suitcases, and going to reap a bonanza of treasures to take home. I did OK as it was with the shawls, shirts, blouses, purses, leather goods, and carvings we found at an open-air market. I did so well, I had to buy a big bag--duffel bag size--to carry my treasures home. That extra 2" expansion on the new suitcase wasn't going to cut it! Anyway, the new suitcase left room for more treasures, once we got to the Galapagos. And I have nice cool souvenir from Ecuador.

Second question--about the airplane (I really hate flying): There was a potential disaster on the horizon when in Miami, they declared our airplane as unable to fly to Medellin, Colombia, as the reverse thrusters didn't work, and we would fly off the end of the runway if we tried landing in that plane. Glad they found out about that before we took off. But lucky for us, another plane was just sitting around ready to take its place, and we were only delayed by an hour, which they made up by fast flying. When we got to Medallin, we had to pick up our suitcases, go through customs, pick up our boarding pass, go through customs again and get on our airplane. Now, when we had gotten off the first plane, the second plane was parked right next to it, but it was a long journey of running up and down stairs to get on the next flight. Some very friendly Colombians at the airport kindly helped us, carried our suitcases up the steps for us, and helped us to negotiate all of this. So that part of the worry turned out OK.

Customs was not fun, but not terrible either. The longest wait and most frustrating customs experience was in Atlanta when we got back to the U.S. at 5 a.m and 300 people were waiting to go through customs. Then we had to get our suitcases, take them 50 feet to another place to check them in, and finally we were on our way home for the last leg of the journey. Oh, and to leave Ecuador, you have to pay $28.27, exact change desired--an airport tax, just to make sure you went home with very little cash left! Crazy!

Passports were not a problem, we have lots of stamps now. Money, no problem, except that I left quite a bit of it in Ecuador!

The physical aspects of the trip were challenging. We walked at least 2-3 hours every day, some days on some very rugged terrain. But it was definitely worth it, because we saw some of the most amazing sights you can imagine. I will post some of the most spectacular of my pictures in subsequent posts. The trade off was that we got to swim/snorkel at least once a day, and one day we got two opportunities to snorkel. We saw so much wildlife, it is hard to explain how much there was to see. The word UBIQUITOUS is the best adjective I can give for the amount of iguanas, crabs, birds, fish, penquins, sea lions, turtles. There is so much to see in Galapagos. It truly was a trip of a lifetime, and I'm glad I got to go on this adventure while I was still physically able to do it.

And, I'd go back in a minute!