As Ted, my snorkeling buddy and I were floating in the water shoulder to shoulder, we looked up and were nose to nose with a baby sea lion. Wow, what a feeling; it didn’t move away. We froze in place as the baby would raise its head out of the water, take breathes and then duck its head back under to look at us. For those who thought sea lions were just a pile of blubber piled on top of each other, note this. They swim with you, around you, play with you. This was one of the big thrills for me on our odyssey to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. Another was swimming above hammer head sharks and white tipped reef sharks. You say dangerous…no. They aren’t interested in us but we were ecstatic seeing them.
I've jumped into the middle of our 10 day adventure just like we did almost every day in the Pacific Ocean 600 miles west of the coast of Ecuador. A five hour flight from Houston to Quito, a couple of hours flight to the airfield on one of the 19 islands of this archipelago plus a short bus ride brought us to the dock where we boarded our panga which took us to our eighty three foot motor-yacht, the Letty. It’s where we swayed and bounced off walls, ate, slept and heard about the next day’s journey. Hikes, snorkels, even a camp-out were planned in exacting detail.
Our most stunning realization came when we first walked Genovesa Island’s trail through great frigate birds and red-footed and Nasca boobies. We walked within inches of them and not one moved! If you’ve ever been bird watching, this is unheard of!
A universal favorite bird is the blue-footed booby, and it does have bright blue feet. When performing a courtship display the male picks up his blue feet in a slow, most dignified fashion, no doubt proud of his handsome appendage. My souvenir from the trip is my tea mug with a drawing of this new feathered friend.
enormous numbers of marine iguanas piled together to bask in the sun, flightless cormorants, oystercatchers, herons, egrets, hawks, gulls, pelicans to name a few, and the Darwin finches, named after Charles Darwin who visited in 1850. These finches, the most famous of the Galapagos land birds because of the 13 species of finches found by him, adapted and evolved so quickly that they helped Darwin formulate his evolutionary theories. We were amazed at the size of the giant tortoises (some weighing up to 550 pounds). It best symbolizes the Galapagos Islands as the word Galapagos is Spanish for “shape of a saddle,” which many tortoises’ shells resemble.
During each night our yacht motored to a new island giving us a chance to experience 8 islands, each a different topography from the last. These are volcanic islands that first broke through the ocean floor about seven to nine million years ago. They still bubble with volcanic activity today, some quite recently with large lava flows. Others have lush vegetation, magnificent beaches, peacock blue waters, one has a fresh water lake, and a few are inhabited with towns, schools, shopping, bars, restaurants, and permanent residents.
We started out our visit to Ecuador in downtown Quito. It’s not the capitol, but is the largest and most important city in the Ecuadorian Andes. It’s located at 9,000 feet, in a valley mostly surrounded by volcanoes. Touring the city and “Old Town,” you see multiple squares and plazas, residential areas and churches. Prominent among them is the dazzling gold-leaf Compania Church, gold-leaf covering every inch of the inside. My sad observation was that the city is victim to graffiti which mars almost every building.
Color everywhere, even back on the Galapagos Islands with grey lava, barren and primeval. Picture this as a background for the brilliant orange colors of the Sally Lightfoot crab, a perfect photo op.
An outdoor camp on Santa Cruz Island is reminiscent of safari camps with tented rooms on wooden platforms and tree house cabins high up on wooden stilts with views of the deep blue ocean beyond. Visualize an open-air lounge area, the dining and kitchen areas function under one roof, the dinner tables set with gaily colored plates and decorations and in plain site are the chefs preparing meals. Add marguerites and wine, a guitarist who was joined by Roberto for an evening of fun. Next day's activities were a chance to see tortoises and explore a lava tube cave.
Swimming with the marine life stands out for me. Slow drifting with the Pacific green sea turtles, watching the endemic penguins swim by, back and forth in a flash was a joy. The Galapagos penguins are third from the smallest and the only penguins found in the northern hemisphere. The islands are but a few miles above the Equator which is crossed many times during the exploring.
Many sea lions, lying on the beaches and on the rocks were such a favorite as they love to playfully swim with you. At those times, I wanted to shed my human ways and swim like they swim, fast, upside down and around and every which way!
Think of snorkeling and being treated to a giant manta ray, 10 feet across, lazily wafting through the waters. We followed, in awe. I’ll always remember those minutes with this giant.
Many fish populate the waters; surgeonfish, big king angel fish, grunts, sergeant mayor, parrotfish, wrasse, hogfish, cardinal-fish, Moorish idol, yellow puffer fish, barber-fish, chromis, blue striped snapper and those sharks. It was during the first snorkel and during the first five minutes when two hammerhead sharks swam beneath us. What a shape on them, just like a hammer’s head! Two eagle ray showed up. I thought this must be the greatest snorkel area ever. But the sightings settled down to a more normal pace from then on.
Our guides surprised us with a flamingo sighting. The yacht pulled stern end up to a small island crater with a briny lagoon. From that high vantage point bright pink statuesque flamingos were seen posing around the lagoon, standing still as a model, with many sitting on nests.
The waved albatross which can spend years at sea without touching land was expected to come ashore in April. The entire world population of some 12,000 pairs nests on Hood Island where we were hiking. On a long walk hopping over lava rocks to the cliff’s edge, the first albatross was spotted and hailed by the two guides as a moment of celebration. To see them come back to nest that day was as exciting to them as for us. These birds with an 8 foot wingspan are one of the world’s most graceful and magnificent flying birds. As we settled on rocks overlooking the cliffs to watch the birds, the first waves of scouts flew by looking for that perfect nesting area.
To sum up this extraordinary adventure, it was as if visiting another planet, it was that unusual. Scientists agree that the Galapagos Islands never connected to the mainland. Thus, the ancestors of every plant and animal species native to the islands now arrived in the archipelago from somewhere else. We too felt that way, a new voyage for us, to an ancient land.