27-IMG_0589With much anticipation, we began our journey into another world. 

Each individual who enters Galápagos must secure a Visiting Entry Card ($100). SICGAL screening at mainland airports mitigates the arrival of alien organisms through checkpoints.

The Galápagos National Park, established in 1959, controls access to sixty-five sites in the islands for eighty-five authorized vessels. Itineraries are detailed, specific to date/time, with minimal flexibility. These parameters promote protection of the islands and a balance for tourism’s impact.

02-IMG_0263WOW ADVENTURES 

1) A mass of compacted ash, pulverized by wind and sea, Kicker Rock (aka Leon Dormido) is one of many landmarks in Galápagos. A big boot and lion head are suggested in its shape. As we motored its perimeter by panga, our guides introduced Nazca and Blue-footed Boobies and Frigates. As the naturalists educated us about mating and nesting habits, population, diet and predators of these endemic species, we were initiated into the living laboratory.
This first outing subtly set the stage for the wonder we’d experience with each exposure.

2) A Sea Lion emerged from the waves and rolled onto the beach. After our first wet landing on Punta Pitt’s golden sand 44-IMG_0650beach, colorful Sally Lightfoot Crabs scampered in the rocky ledges. Two descriptions of their name were shared with us: one from their gliding side step and hop as they navigate rough terrain; the other after the discoverer’s dallying girlfriend. A Yellow Warbler sang welcome. A jet-black Marine Iguana emerged from the brush and headed for the ocean.

Our naturalist (ratio of 1:10 guide to passengers) led a hike through wind and rain-engineered canyons.
37-IMG_0969Orlando pointed out flora and fauna as we encountered it. His credibility grew as we found he was part of Galápagos National Park teams that camped on the islands and developed trails years ago. He placed many of the guideposts along the path. We all delighted with a siting of Red-footed Boobies in volcanic outcroppings, as this was the only habitat for this species on our itinerary.
The outing was significant as we took first steps onto the land, felt its origin, and witnessed evidence of specific and enduring species of vegetation and wildlife.

19-P10000903) At Cerro Brujo (aka Whisper Rock), Blue-footed Boobies poised on volcanic ledges. The white sand beach was strewn with massive colonies of Sea Lions: intertwined, sunning in piles, playing, swimming, nursing, aware but unafraid of our presence. We wandered the beach in awe, observing and photographing, while maintaining a respectful 6-7’ distance from the wildlife.
19-IMG_0375At the end of the beach, tail imprints in the sand led to inky black, sphinx-like Marine Iguanas. Darwin called these “imps of darkness.” Endemic to Galápagos, they’ve adapted to water, while other iguanas in the region remain distinctly on land. Although the expectation was set to find each of these species on this outing, we sensed new discovery. The number and the manner in which these animals coexisted, evolving to survive in this perfect, remote habitat was striking.

4) The Letty anchored in the wee hours at Española (aka Hood), the 21-IMG_0521southernmost island. Making a dry landing on its rocky perimeter, we encountered a harem of mother Sea Lions among Sally Lightfoot crabs, Hood Mockingbirds, Marine Iguanas (females are black; “Christmas Iguana” depicts the red and green coloration of the male), Lava Lizards, Galápagos Hawks, Nazca & Blue-footed Boobies, a Yellow Crowned Night Heron, Red-billed Tropicbirds, Swallowtails.

11-IMG_0473The island panorama (air, land and sea) epitomized the mixed aggregation of species in the Galápagos. As we explored the environment, Ivan and Orlando shared more on habitat, diet and predators, for various endemic, migratory and native species. The afternoon brought the first deep water snorkeling opportunity nearby with good visibility for Sea Lions, Diamond Stingrays, a yellow Guineafowl Puffer, Cornetfish, Sea Urchins and Sea Stars.

39-IMG_06425) Our briefing on Floreana (aka Charles) included tales of unsolved disappearances, mystery, murder and a lovers’ triangle. After a wet landing at Punta Cormorant, we trekked inland past a brackish water lagoon. A single Flamingo stood one-legged near the center, its coral plumage (from diet of shrimp and crab) in contrast with bleak surroundings.

35-IMG_0627Our trail to the beach on the opposite side of the island revealed a nesting area for the Galápagos Green Sea Turtle in the dunes. We learned that the female may lay 500 eggs of which two percent survive. Rays seemed to guard the shoreline here. We reverently observed Green Sea Turtles at the water’s edge and swimming in the water. Blue- footed Boobies dive-bombed into the water for their staple fish diet of Salema. Gathering at a lattice-like lava formation on the beach, we contemplated such abundance.

47-IMG_06576) Devil’s Crown, a volcanic island near Floreana, was the destination for more deep water snorkeling. Green Sea Turtles swam by our side. Five White-tipped Reef Sharks were highlights.

Pangas took us later to Post Office Bay, where letters have been deposited and picked up since the 18th century. We had the option to explore a tunnel or snorkel from the beach. Rays dotted the shore here, too. We were rewarded with sitings of a large Green Sea Turtle, a myriad of fish, and green, black, and pencil Sea Urchins.

50-IMG_06697) In Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Marine Iguanas lined the pier. Here, the Charles Darwin Research Center houses a breeding center for Giant Tortoises. The Galápagos Islands were so-named because the giant tortoise shell resembled a saddle. The Spanish word for saddle is 05-IMG_0718Galápagos.

The population of these magnificent beasts has decreased from 250,000 to 25,000. Since 1965, eggs and hatchlings are cared for until they are large enough to go to the land of origin in a repatriation program. Tortoises are protected in pens away from human contact now, because visitors were determined to be a threat to the program.

In the Santa Cruz highlands is Rancho Primicia, a private farm where Giant Tortoises roam. Unaffected by our presence, 02-IMG_0710they plowed patches of grass in front of them as they ate. Seeking fresh grass, they lumbered on, 500 yards per day maximum. In a small glen, we were witnesses to the monumental heaves and primal grunts of Giant Tortoises’ mating.

16-IMG_08618) Chinese Hat (named because of its shape) was visible portside when we awoke. Here we walked the shore after a wet landing. Sea Lion colonies lounged and sauntered and dipped to their heart’s content.

Nearby, in another deep water snorkel experience, Galápagos Penguins whipped by. White-tipped Reef Sharks, numerous fish, small and large abounded. Sea Stars different and larger than any we’d ever seen were draped over coral or on the ocean floor, in purple, black, tan, or orange. The latter, perfectly designed by Mother Nature, appeared 48-IMG_0660decorated with chocolate frosting swirls.

We drifted with the current under the watchful eyes of the first and second mate in pangas, ready to assist. Ivan, a master dive instructor, led our snorkel tours with the unbridled enthusiasm he brought to every interaction.
Back on the sky deck, we viewed clusters of Flamingos inside a volcanic basin as we floated by Bainbridge.
A beach snorkel/swim off Bartolomé found us giddy as Galápagos Penguins stole the show, darting, bobbing, flapping.

20-IMG_0886We walked the 365 wooden steps up to the peak on dramatic Bartolomé, past wind and wave swept lava.
19-IMG_0885Vegetation was limited to Lava Cactus and plants generated through succession on this lunar landscape of cinder cones, tuft cones and spatter cones.

From vantage points we saw Chinese Hat, Bainbridge Rocks, Rábido, Pinzon and Balta. Scenes from Master and Commander were filmed on this island. 25-IMG_0902Sunset views of the barren landscape were dreamy.

9) In contrast, South Plaza blazed with red, orange and yellow Sesuvium and Prickly Pear Cactus, favorite food of the huge, brilliantly marked 32-IMG_0948land iguanas on the island. Birdsong and sounds dominated as Magnificent Frigatebirds, Audubon’s Shearwaters, Finches, Red-billed Tropicbirds and Boobies claimed the tall cliffs.
26-IMG_0585Our guides pointed out the colony of bachelor Sea Lions bordering the cliffs. We circled the island on a rocky path. Sea Lions barked and 55-IMG_0678squeaked from the lava perimeter and ocean beyond.

10) North Seymour enticed with male Magnificent Frigates, bright red membranes boldly puffed to attract the female in the Palo Santo forest. Blue-footed Boobies nest here in abundance, in all stages of development. We felt 43-IMG_1035privileged to see a Blue-footed Booby mating dance. In every direction, these endemic species 06-IMG_1094thrived in symbiosis.

Our final deep water snorkel was sensational. Nowhere have we experienced such a profusion of fish, vast schools with other species in aggregate. We were fortunate to swim with Green Sea Turtles, King Angelfish, black Guineafish Puffers, Moorish Idols, Surgeonfish, Wrasse, Hogfish, Wahoo, Leatherbass, Parrotfish, Marbled Rays, Diamond Stingrays, White-tipped Reef Sharks, Sea Lions and more Sea Stars.

54-IMG_1057WHAT TO TAKE AWAY:
Ecuador and its National Park Service endeavors to protect the Galápagos Islands through conservation, responsible tourism and sustainable development. Measures to control introduction of alien organisms are indicative of the fragility of the ecosystem.

28-IMG_0593Galápagos, as described by Carlos Rios from Isabella, at the Centro de Interpretacion on San Cristobal:

“Esta es un lugar unico, una piedra preciosa, un diamante en bruto.”

“This is a unique place, a precious stone, a diamond in the rough.”

We were guests of the Galápagos, where wildlife has given claim to land, sea and air, and we are in awe.

For additional information regarding Ecoventura, operator of Eric, Flamingo & Letty, go to www.ecoventura.com or contact the U.S. Sales and Reservation Office: Galápagos Network, 1-800-633-7972.

Photo credits go to James Richardson.