Most if not all tortoise enthusiasts have at one time or another dreamed about visiting the Galapagos Islands. Well that dream finally came true for me, what a fantastic experience. My brother Jerry and I traveled to the Galapagos Island on the “Galapagos Legend”, a cruse ship operated by Klein tours, which caters to adventurers traveling to this island paradise, which was once Darwin’s laboratory.
Since the entire Galapagos Archipelago is a National Park and an island treasure belonging to Ecuador and the rest of the world, there are many rules, restrictions, and regulations that must be adhered to. The Legend cruse ship’s staff and naturalists knew the rules and how to bring out the best in our experience.
Our trip started with a flight from the USA to Quito Ecuador; a beautiful city located high up in the Andes Mountains. From Quito we flew to the Galapagos Island of Baltra and boarded the “Legend” cruse ship on a Monday. My excitement immediately began to mount as I saw, for the first time, the scattered desert islands poking up from a tropical ocean. It was the dry season so things appeared pretty desolate.
The first afternoon was used to settle into our cabin and included a short briefing to learn the “Rules of the Galapagos”. My brother and I, as well as several other English-speaking travelers, were introduced to our guide and naturalist. Our first excursion was to a small island called the Chinese Hat where we saw sea lions, brightly colored sally–light-foot crabs, lava lizards, yellow warblers, a few marine iguanas, and some pigmy penguins. That evening we had dinner and a briefing to learn what the next day’s excursions would include (this would be repeated every evening).
On Tuesday we embarked on a dinghy (the mode of travel from the cruse ship to each island) and traveled to Santa Cruz Island where we saw more crabs, yellow warblers, marine iguanas, and hiked Dragon Hill to see our first land iguanas. The land iguanas are best described as the color of autumn. That day we also traveled to Floreana Island where we saw blue footed boobies, sea lions, flamingos, sea turtles, stingrays, and a Galapagos shark. As you may imagine all the land birds and mammals have no fear of man. We still had not seen our first giant tortoise.
Our third day’s agenda (Wednesday) included an excursion to Espanola Island, which was abundant with beautiful red-colored marine iguanas, lava lizards, red-footed boobies, green-footed boobies, and Nasca boobies. We also saw the majestic Albatross and the Galapagos hawk. The landscape was fantastic with lava cliffs, blowholes, and breathtaking beaches.
Wednesday’s agenda also included a trip to San Cristobal Island and Baquerizo Port where we boarded vans, traveled high into a lush cloud forest, and across the island to a tortoise reserve, called “La Galapaguer-Reserve”. Thirty-seven tortoises had been relocated to the reserve to enhance reproduction and to date there are 15 hatchling tortoises.
On Thursday, our fourth day, we again boarded the dinghy and this time landed on North Seymour Island. This island is known for their friget birds (three species) and blue-footed boobies. The island is a rookery for nesting sea birds. Of course we saw more marine iguanas and more sea lions (moms, dads, babies, brothers, and sisters). We returned to the ship and then traveled to the airport in Baltra.
Some of the passengers ended their cruse at this point. Jerry and I put on wet suites and hit the beach. What an experience to swim with sea lions and sea turtles. We returned to the ship and continued to the tiny island of Bartolome.
Bartolome Island is just off the East Coast of Santiago Island. It was the backdrop for the movie “Master and Commander-the Far Side of the World”. The landscape is awe inspiring with black volcanic cliffs and lava tubes created by an ancient volcano. We saw bright yellow lava cactus, lava lizards, and more Galapagos penguins. We did more snorkeling here. That night the ocean was rough so the ship rocked me to sleep (amazingly I didn’t have any problem with seasickness).
On Friday morning, our fifth day, the ship arrived at Isabela Island. We saw more of the spectacular Galapagos Land Iguanas here. We also encountered Darwin’s finch, sea turtles, and our first “unfenced” Galapagos tortoise. It was a large Geochelone e. vandenburghi, which is only found on this Island. The tortoise was partly hidden behind a bush about 15 yards from the trail (yes, we stayed on the trail!).
Friday afternoon we arrived at Fernandina Island and landed at Espinosa Point. The La Cumbre Volcano was overwhelming and can be seen from any point on the island. On arriving at the island it was amazing to see hundreds of boobies involved in a fish feeding-frenzy. All in unison a massive numbers of birds would point their beaks toward the ocean and complete a vertical dive directly into the water. The flightless Cormorants are also plentiful on this island.
Fernandina Island is home to the largest race of marine iguanas in the Galapagos Islands. Not only are they the largest marine iguanas but their numbers were phenomenal and spread across the lava field. Mangroves encompass much of this island’s coast. Beautiful yellow lava cactus adorns the black lava fields.
Saturday we arrived at Santiago Island at Egas Port. This was one of our many “wet landings”. Due to landing conditions sometimes we were required to slide over the side of the dinghy directly into the water (usually two or three feet deep) and make our way to the beach. Darwin spent 9 days on this island. In the 1920’s the Egas brothers came here to harvest salt.
On Santiago Island we saw fur seals, night herons, and other shoreline birds. An opening in bottom of one of the large tidal pools allow the ocean to rush into the pool from below and then flush out with the outgoing tide appropriately named the “flush toilet”. The lava formations here also include an impressive natural bridge. We did more snorkeling off the beach of this island.
Our second Saturday excursion was deep water snorkeling off the cost of Rabida Island. This was the best snorkeling experience we had. We saw beautiful corals, star fish, sea turtles, tropical fish of every shape, color and size, and a marine iguana grazing on the underwater seaweed and algae. After snorkeling we had a wet landing on the beach to be welcomed by a young Galapagos hawk. There were thick black mangrove trees, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, a pelican rookery, and a “male only” sea lion hang-out.
Sunday was our last full day in the Galapagos Islands. Our destination was Santa Cruz Island again but this time the Darwin Station in the morning and the Santa Cruz Island’s highlands and tortoise reserve in the afternoon.
The Darwin Station was everything I expected and more. There were numerous tortoise pens crawling with baby Galapagos tortoises. Each pen was identified as to the subspecies of tortoises within. We saw the famous “Lonesome George” the last of his kind. We were introduced to “Diego” a male saddle-back tortoise that was returned to the islands by the San Diego Zoo. His breeding and presence encouraged the remaining two male saddle-back tortoises to help father 1,500 baby tortoises from 12 females. The Darwin Station was the highlight of the trip but the trip to the Santa Cruz highlands was a close second.
Our bus traveled for some time higher and higher into the misty mountains. I was surprised to see houses, huts, and small farms all along the road. Galapagos tortoises roamed freely in and out of yards and gardens. We made a short stop to visit a lava cave and then onto the tortoise preserve. Adult tortoises migrate to the green and lush highlands to feed for much of the year. Females then return to the lowlands to nest because the climate is to cold for eggs to successfully hatch in the mountains. We saw lots of tortoises! At the tortoise reserve we examined huge empty tortoise shells.
On Monday morning we took the dingy for a wet landing on Las Bachas Beach on Santa Cruz Island. We found the rusted remains of some World War II barges, which had been left to become buried in the sand in 1943. We also saw sea turtles mating, marine iguanas, and a flamingo. We encountered biting insects here. Up until this excursion there was no need for insect repellant but I sure could have used it here. From Las Baches we returned to Baltra and our flight back to Quito.
The trip to the Galapagos Islands has generated a life time of memories for me and fulfilled my many years of trying to imagine such an adventure.