Passage Note #75 - Galapagos Islands
Written by Linda
We have now been in the Galapagos Islands longer than Charles Darwin who was only here for 5 weeks on The Beagle in 1835.
The magical Galapagos Islands was as much a bucket-list destination for us as it was for me when I first came here twenty years ago. Back then I was in a honeymoon phase with my thirst for adventure traveling and the Galapagos were a part of a spiritual quest and healing journey for me after the sudden death of my husband in 1989. I was looking forward to cathartic contact with a unique wildlife that, thanks to an isolated existence and the absence of predators, had no fear of humans.
I visited in 1990 by flying from Quayaquil to Baltra Airport north of Isla Santa Cruz and boarding a large comfortable power vessel booked through The Nature Company (which had stores and a travel component). The cruise lasted nearly two weeks and visited all the major islands and many of the more remote ones. There were about 12 of us on board. I still have a lot of wonderful vivid recollections from that trip in the Enchanted Isles: swimming with young sea lions that were as playful as puppies in a swimming pool, blowing bubbles right into your face; mockingbirds drinking fresh water from my cupped hands; jumping from the dinghy and seeing 25 hammerhead sharks below me; walking right up to a Darwin finch to inspect it eyeball to eyeball without it flinching to flee; paying a call to Lonesome George (the last of the Pinta Island tortoise subspecies who died in 2012) at the Darwin Research Station along with his other buddies as well as seeing giant tortoises in the wilds of their highland habitats; doing a jig as I followed a trail onto a sea swept lava flow in order to avoid stepping on blue-footed boobies nesting right in my pathway; hiking to the top of Bartolome island to see the breathtaking panorama of Pinnacle Rock and a young volcanic landscape; watching the effort it took for huge albatrosses to land and take-off; seeing what looked like ropy black lava suddenly come alive as a pile of marine iguanas shifted sunning positions; small china-figurine penguins that brayed like donkeys, the dramatic bright red splattering of ubiquitous Sally Lightfoot crabs against black lava (isn’t that the greatest name? courtesy of the early seafarers),stopping at Post Office Bay and, in the tradition of whalers of old, taking letters back from the Barrel to get them to their recipients. The crew also indulged my request to go fishing which I did on several early mornings before the other guests awoke, supplying fish for a few meals.
The adventure unfolded like an episodic National Geographic TV documentary.
Although the magic still remains, our experience of arriving here on April 14 and seeing the Islands as independent travelers in our own boat is very different than my original visit........mostly because of the National Park's stringent restrictions today and our acquired perspectives from our composite travel experiences over the years.
Getting to See the Islands
The boat rocked rhythmically in the swells. As we changed course with the wind behind us, the noxious fumes of diesel mingled with the sweet aroma of pancakes. In my half-awake state, I was barely conscious of Chuck asleep next to me - a strange occurrence which never happens when we are moving at sea since one of us is always on watch. I looked around our stateroom in the early morning light - it was as big as the living space on Jacaranda - and remembered that we were on NEMO III - an 80 foot catamaran that was steaming toward the west side of Isabella Island. Sometime in the middle of the night we had passed the southern coast of Isabella and the bay at Puerto Villamil where Jacaranda was comfortably anchored behind some low lava islands, a tourist attraction called Los Tintereros. We were on a 4 night /5 day cruise to see several of the best sights the Galápagos has to offer.
Because, as independent travelers, you can get to the Galápagos Islands, but you can't see them. Except for a sparse few visitor places surrounding the four spots of human civilization on the Galápagos - around Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island (the capital "city"), Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island (the economic heart), Puerto Villamil on Isabella Island (laid back Palm-fringed village), and Puerto Velasco Ibarra on Floreana Island (with its strange habitation history).
The rest of the Galápagos - a whopping 97% - is National Park and requires a certified guide. Actually the archipelago of 19 islands and hundreds of smaller islets is a double World Heritage Site since the marine reserve extends to 40 miles around the land. So you are bound to take either day excursions or longer multi-island cruises as part of a tour group. Tours are not usually our cup of tea but here it is justified, even if it is terribly difficult on the pocketbook. Without the national Park's stringent controls and regulations, increasing tourism could take a terrible toll both on the environment itself and the tourist experience through overcrowding.
We had to get these tours from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. How to get there? Although our autografia allowed us to take Jacaranda there, we were reluctant to do so because the anchorage is an open roadstead and we heard was very uncomfortable since it was open to the swells. Our friends on Macushla said they took seasick medication at anchor because it was so rough. We decided to keep Jacaranda in Isla Isabela where it was calmer and our friends on Flying Cloud could watch her. A small plane that transits for $135 each was a bit too prohibitive. So we took a 2 1/2 hour “ferry” from Isla Isabela - a fast speed boat with three huge outboards (600-800hp total) which left at 6:00 a.m.
Once in Puerto Ayora, we went to Moonrise Travel and booked a day trip to Bartolome Island ($200 each) and our NEMO III cruise ($1400 each) which toured the west side of Isabela, Fernandina, Santiago, and Daphne Islands.
Man, Oh Man!
In my previous trip on a packaged tour I was shepherded around the uninhabited islands, each of which has its own distinct landscape and species of animals. The day consisted of food, a morning walk and snorkel, food and an afternoon hike or snorkel, food and early beditme. I remember stopping in Puerto Ayora for a two-hour souvenir spree and a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station - that was the only exposure I had to inhabited Galapagos.
I was much more attuned to the impact of human presence on the Galapagos Islands this trip. During the rest times on the cruise, I read a fascinating book called “Galapagos - Footsteps in Paradise” by Hugh Idrovo. It really opened my eyes. One of the reasons the Galapagos is so special is that it was people free for so long; it escaped the early colonization by the Polynesians that occurred on almost every other island in the Pacific.
The most fascinating thing about the Galapagos is that the animals are extremely friendly and fearless because they were without land predators in their isolated environment. As you can read in any National Park brochure, one of their biggest threats has been “invasive species” like goats, pigs, rats, horses, cows, donkeys, lantana and blackberries that have laid waste to the habitats of the endemic species. Of course the most dangerous “invasive species” has been the human one. As always, “man” has been a problem that compromises the integrity of ecosystems, creates wanton depletion of resources and is a catalyst for extinction (just as there is always a small portion of this species that fights to reverse their own negative effect through conservation efforts).
Historically, man’s attitude to what they found here was very telling. Discovered by accident by spaniard Fray Tomas de Berlanga in 1535, his first written account of the Galapagos notes "many sea lions, turtles, iguanas, tortoises, many birds like from Spain......but so silly that they that they didn't know how to flee, and many were caught by hand." Subsequent seafarers told of fur seals so docile that they could easily be approached and clubbed by the hundreds. And of course the giant tortoises were easy pickings for pirates, whalers, and sea-going intruders who collected them by the thousands - for their oil and for food since they tasted good and stored on their backs in a ship's hold, they could last for a year without food or water.
More recently, the virgin marine state has been under attack with pressure from the global exploitation (and collapse of fish stocks) of the sea, more specifically resulting in the over-fishing of lobsters, sharks and sea cucumbers. The latter two especially because of the demand from China. In the 1990's illicit fish camps were numerous and a conflict between fishermen and National Park authorities erupted in violence in Isabela as the two groups were seen as being at cross-purposes.
No one who arrived here in the early years was impressed with the harsh, inhospitable landscape they found. But, possession being nine-tenths of the law, many countries vied to “own” the archipelago. This included the U.S. that tried very hard to lay claim to the islands or at least “rent” them for 99 years when Ecuador persisted in calling them theirs - especially during World War II when America was concerned about the security of the Panama Canal. So much of the Galapagos’ history is an attempt to have enough human presence here to have the islands remain in Ecuadorian control. This included heavy colonization efforts (some more successful than others) and the ignominious establishment of a penal colony on Isabela (the Wall of Tears is the only evidence left of the cruel place).
Today the population and urbanized area of the four inhabited islands has grown substantially since I was here last. More and more Ecuadorians are interested in living in the Galapagos but the in-migration has been held at bay by the government. When we were in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, there was a protest march about the high prices and cost of living due to everything having to be shipped in from Guayaquil by only one freighter (there used to be five but four have been shipwrecked, two creating a near disaster in San Cristobal with fuel spills). Surprisingly, there are a lot of fertile farms in the highlands of Santa Cruz and Isabela where fruit and vegetables are grown and cattle raised. A group of us cruisers shopped at the productive Truja Farm on Isabella and picked our own citrus fruit, pineapples, papayas, bananas, eggplants, tomatoes, and melons.
One of the enticements for me to come here in 1990 was the rumor that the Ecuador government was going to severely limit the number of tourists to protect the Islands - maybe even close it for a while. The opposite has happened and tourism has mushroomed into 216,000 people coming every year (2014 statistics).
The Magic Remains
As the source for Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, the Galapagos Islands remain a "living museum", that will continue to change with the evolution of species and ongoing seismic and volcanic activity...and man's intervention for better or worse. Today's conservation efforts are ambitious, elimination of goats and rats has been fierce, and many ecosystems are now designated “recovering” or "recovered" by the World Wildlife Fund. There is much to be hopeful about for the future of this special place.
I will especially miss the wonderfully playful sea lions who blew bubbles, made watery gurgling noises and jumped around our boat every night as they were fishing, looking up at us as we peered down at them from the deck. One night as we were eating dinner in the cockpit I heard a choking, coughing noise and prepared to do a Heimlich maneuver on Chuck. But as I looked over at him peacefully finishing his meal, we realized we were not alone - and laughed at the normal sea lion noises of our buddies in the sea right next to us. We would exclaim "They're Back!" as we lay in bed and listened to their antics and frolicking through the hull. I loved seeing them even though during the day they became almost a pest as they tried to commandeer our dingy and cockpit as comfy daytime sleeping spots (luckily they never left a calling card when they managed to come aboard while we were gone for the day).
As the Lonely Planet guidebook says: "The Galapagos Islands may just inspire you to think differently about the world".
Check out the many photos I took - so many - in the Photo Gallery!!! It is a photographer's paradise!
MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #75
And Next: Now we're off to French Polynesia!!!!!! This adventure had been upmost in our minds for many many years. Chuck is keen to return since he was there for 6 years on Jacaranda in the 1990's - he calls it the "creme de la creme" of cruising. Watch our progress on the "Where's Jacaranda?" Menu Tab which we will post from sea (hopefully for no more than 3 weeks with optimal wind and sea conditions). We'll post again to this website when we get the internet to enable us to do so - which may be dicey in the Marquesas Islands, our landfall goal. We're excited about what lies ahead!