Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Galapagos Islands

Day 1
At 10.10pm at the end of Day 1 I’m sitting below deck in the Sagitta, the place entirely to myself gathering my thoughts from our first day. The seas are reasonably choppy, sufficiently so for everyone to have scrambled for cover in bed immediately after dinner. Our ship’s beautiful - a technical description would be beyond me but it’s a three-masted sailing ship. All 10 rooms have air-con, private bathrooms and there's a library on the bottom deck. Right now we’re cutting through the water through engine rather than wind power. Today began at the airport waiting for the group to form, sitting around trying to predict what the average age of the group would be (it’s about 50) and picking out faces from the crowds swarming around wondering if we’d be sharing space with them on the seas for 6 days. Our tour company seem to have their shit together and quickly they’d rounded us up and shepherded us to a turtle conservation centre where we walked around in a field filled with giant turtles and learned, amongst other things, that they‘re still sexually active after 100 years - well for some.
Our group’s predominantly made up of Americans - think overstatements like “This is so once in a liftetime” - and a smattering of Europeans - think understatements like “Well I just happened to be in Ecuador so…”. First days in a group are the worst, figuring out who to talk to and who to avoid but in true Big Brother fashion, by the second or third day the picture will become a lot clearer. During dinner tonight I sat beside a guy from Washington DC whose day job is to serve as an environmental attorney and whose remit is to find ways to get bills enacted into laws in spite of the best attempts of the Republicans. He’s an amateur ornithologist and literally has a list of must see birds - Darwin’s finches are at the top of his list - which he hopes to accomplish before this trip is out. He’s very serious about his birds and so I fight back the Father Dougal-esque urge to ask him if he’s excited about seeing some boobies. This place is eerily quiet tonight - think the Marie Celeste - and we have an early start in the morning.

Day 2
It’s a 7am start for breakfast and then we’re aboard a dinghy and in the water. Almost as a sign of things to come, we’ve scarcely left the side of the ship when four dolphins surface nearby and we watch them from a distance. Our first landing is a dry one but before we make land we spot our first blue-footed boobies with their comically bright blue feet doing their funny little blue-footed shuffle in order to attract a mate. Right beside them is a flightless cormorant, unique to the Galapagos. We land and explore the vast lava fields of Isabela. There are 5 volcanoes on Isabela, all of them active. Our guide tells us of a team of 8 Ecuadorian marines who in the early 1980’s decided to cross 40km of this same terrain as part of a training exercise. 7 of them made it, albeit just about, their boots torn to shreds and the one who’d decided to turn back died from dehydration. Beautiful as this landscape is, it is a brutal place and, as Darwin noted, only the fittest survive here.
Of course studying the people on the cruise can be just as fascinating - we are all animals after all. Our American Democrat representative is almost unhealthily obsessed by birds - at one stage he runs across the island with his binoculars in hand like he’s just been told that Monica Lewinksky is going down on Sarah Palin on newly formed lava rock. He’s a bright guy though and can just as easily tell you how many vowels are in the Hawaiian alphabet or how many types of finches there are in the Galapagos as he could tell you what day it is today.
In the afternoon we hit the dinghies again for another visit on to the shores of Isabela. It’s incredible what you see all around you, all the time - dive-bombing blue-footed boobies searching for food, turtles swimming past the dinghy peeking their heads above the surface occasionally for air, flightless cormorants nesting beside solitary penguins, sea lions catching 40 winks in the branches of mangroves, manta rays gliding just below the surface, marine iguanas basking in the warmth of the late afternoon sun and scavenging frigate birds circling above at all times watching the ocean and the ship below. And that’s just in the space of a few minutes. It’s a never-ending cornucopia of wildlife, one species momentarily disappears and another one quickly pops up to take its place. We go snorkelling and swim beside gigantic marine turtles their elegance underwater in complete contrast to their lumbering forms on land. As first days on the water go, it’s been pretty much flawless.

Day 3
Perhaps we should get off the boat now because it’ll be pretty difficult to top today. This place is teeming with life and all creatures great and small revealed themselves during the course of the day. We began with a land walk on the western coast of Isabela in search of land iguanas. This being the Galapagos, creatures are anything but elusive and before long we’d spotted some monstrous types. Best of all though, we stumbled across two males pumped up with aggression and facing off in a territorial battle. Xavier, our guide, told us that this was an extremely rare event to witness so we watched at close quarters as the two creatures lumbered towards each other in slow motion, made some weird head and tail movements and proceeded to butt each other with their heads. As the drama unfolded I watched it all silently, like everyone else in the group, save for the David Attenborough voiceover in my mind which narrated each blow. I’ve been hearing a lot of those in the Galapagos. The standoff lasted about ten minutes without a punch being thrown and so we wandered off leaving them to renew hostilities after our departure.
We’d no sooner arrived back on the ship for lunch when a humpback whale began breaching to the side of the boat - Christ don‘t these creatures realise we have to eat. Truly, it’s never-ending here. In the afternoon we snorkelled in a bay filled with marine turtles - huge, elegant creatures - underwater at least - seemingly oblivious to the fact that there were 16 pasty tourists swimming on their patch. I’m fascinated by the turtles and the fact that they allow you to swim within touching distance. Another land trek took us Fernandina Island, the youngest in the archipelago and home to a vast population of marine iguanas. There they lie piled on top of each other perfectly blending with the rocks upon which they spend their day. Fernandina is also home to a healthy population of sea lions, again utterly immune to human presence and who lay sprawled on the sand bothered only by the flies which occasionally caused them to flee to the water.
There’s an easiness amongst the group now that wasn’t there on Days 1 or 2. Star of the show is Tim - American, gay as hell and possessing enough one-liners to rival Tommy Cooper. Tim’s everybody’s friend and his main goal in life now is to adopt a seal pup. Birdwatching Democrat Brett is already becoming a parody of himself, asking everyone for silence when he’s filming his birdie videos and impatiently requesting that we rotate those who sit at the front of the boat so that he can get better shots. It’s not as if his fucking lens isn’t big enough. It’s a good group though and the boat’s bloody wonderful so life is great. Quite how we’ll manage to continue to be amazed after today is something to look forward to I guess.

Day 4
It isn’t every day that you wake up in the southern hemisphere and go to sleep in the northern hemisphere but that’s the case today. Winter at dawn and summer by dusk. We crossed the equatorial divide at around 5pm and the occasion was marked with glasses of champagne - I have quickly accustomed myself to such things on this ship, accepting the champagne with the air of a man who would normally be having a glass at this time of the afternoon anyway. Today was an inevitable and predictable comedown after the highs of yesterday and yet any day in which you spot a blue whale surfacing - albeit from a distance - could scarcely been considered unremarkable. There’s also the fact that just one hour before we crossed the equator, we’d been snorkelling with penguins. Yes, penguins on the equator - who knew?
Each night on the ship we receive our briefing for the following day’s activities just after dinner. Tonight Xavier has informed us - somewhat cryptically - that tomorrow’s planned activities are slightly up in the air because of a warning issued to them by the marine authorities. He was a little vague with regard to what this means but explained that in case of high seas, for example, it may be impossible to disembark from the boat. Because of the lack of clarity this has led to inevitable speculation as to what this might mean - severe storm, tsunami etc. I have exactly 3 days of travel left in my trip and I’d rather not spend a third of that time stuck on a boat in stomach-churning seas within sight of the wildlife which is everywhere on this place.

Day 5
Well, no tsunami this morning then and, puzzlingly enough, no big swell either. Last night’s mystery announcement regarding this morning’s activities remained just that - a mystery. No waves but no activities this morning either and so we sailed around the coast of Santiago on to our snorkelling site at China Hat. With perfect visibility and a multitude of indifferent (to our presence that is) fish, an hour here passed in a blur. We also spotted a white-tipped shark, a couple of panicked and fast moving penguins and - bizarrely - what seemed like a chicken skeleton in our time there. Snorkelling’s been absolute highlight here - a slow moving 3-D cartoon, a smorgasbord of aquatic delights. The real world seems acutely pale once you’ve spent an hour peering into the depths around the Galapagos.
It’s hard to believe that it all ends tomorrow. I’d fretted a little in advance that the cruise might sniff of retirement home outing but everyone’s been fantastic. Tim continues to entertain though, organising classroom games - he’s a teacher - as much to give free rein his competitive side as to help the evenings on the boat to pass a little quicker. In the morning we visit North Seymour at 6am and then it’ll be over. Life on the road will come to an end. Christ. Am I ready for that?

Day 6
Last but not least North Seymour. We had less than an hour on the island due to the need to get us all to the airport on time but in its own way Seymour was one of the most spectacular islands we've visited. Each time we land on an island you're guaranteed to be greeted ashore by a posse of sea lions, mostly pups, waiting for their mothers to return with some fish from the sea. Before we'd even landed on Seymour this morning we saw a Galapagos shark swimming by the boat. North Seymour is home to an incredible variety of birds. As we walked we watched the strange blue-footed booby mating ritual. She honks and he whistles, shuffles off to do a dance and returns - repeat several times. We walked right beside some blue-footed booby females standing guard over their chicks and to our right was the only time we saw a male frigate bird with its incredible inflated pouch. Normally this is inflated only during mating season - April - but here was a frigate bird, pouch fully inflated, enormous wings fully extended (over 2 metres) squawking at passing females in the hope of getting laid.

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