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Travel Story by Nathalie Koenig

  Following in Darwin's footsteps
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
 


Frigate bird

A visit to the Galapagos Islands is an amazing wildlife experience and is definitely worth a visit. Even though it is expensive it is really the only way to experience and appreciate the beauty of the islands and its wildlife.

Here you can float eye to eye with penguins and sea lions and scuba dive with hammerhead sharks and colourful fishes. You can stand close to many different varieties of birds, try and avoid stepping on marine iguanas, watch the famous giant tortoises and much more.

There are 13 major islands with many other small islands, all of which belong to Ecuador. People only live on five of the islands. The famous visitor, Charles Darwin, came here to study wildlife in 1835 and his studies led him to his theory of evolution. However, he did not discover the islands as the
Spanish came in around 1535 followed by many other foreigners. It's very sad to hear how they killed the tortoises (for oil), sea lions (for their reproductive organs), sharks (for only the fins) and whales.

Most of the animal species on the islands are found nowhere else in the world and some could become extinct.

The only way to experience everything is by taking a cruise. I am afraid I did not take a ‘luxury’ boat and went on a small boat with 16 of us, six crew members and a local guide.

The rooms were so tiny, especially the shower and toilet room. I shared with a dreadlocked woman from Australia and we often had to squeeze past each other to exit the room or to go to the loo. But that was all part of the experience.

The programme was for eight days and seven nights and we were provided with three meals a day including snacks. The chef cooked some great food and made sure our stomachs were always full! Most of the time the others ate fish whereas I had chicken, lentils (yummy) or vegetables/salad.

It was a fantastic experience. For 8 days we watched and walked amongst the animals and birds on the different islands and went snorkeling regularly.

On the first day, our guide told us that we could swim with the sea lions by Lobos island and I thought he was joking but he wasn’t! Gulp, we had to watch out for the male sea lions and it took us a while to pluck up the courage to jump into the warm blue sea.

We swam with lot of sea lions around and it was wonderful swimming with them as they were so playful and so cute! I almost had a heart attack when two sea lions came swimming so fast towards me but they swerved away at the last minute then did this again and again. I enjoyed watching them for ages but we had to go as it was getting dark and sharks would soon come (luckily they are harmless ones though, phew!)

During our 8 day journey, we snorkelled to the most beautiful beaches with harmless sharks, tropical fishes and floated close up to penguins and sea turtles.

We visited many different islands and a summary of the highlights follow:

· We saw a flamingo colony with bright pink birds and went for a nice walk on the white soft coral beach.

· Turtle Cove with sea turtles swimming around and white-tipped sharks too! And there were thousands of Red Sally Lightfoot Crabs on the rocks.

· Marine iguanas – we took care to avoid stepping on iguanas lying on the lava rocks. Marine iguanas are black or reddish and swim in the sea and there are also cute small lava lizards!

· Santa Fe is home to land iguanas that don't swim and are quite big and yellow skinned. They are found within the Opuntia cactus forest, which provides their food. Birds eat the cactus fruit and then drop down what they don’t eat for the iguanas. Isn’t that clever of them, don't you think?

· Bachelor sea lion colonies - a male seal lion fights with another male for their territory and then settles down with hundreds of females around him (lucky guy!). I saw two males fighting for the same piece of territory. They were so powerful and scary and I didn't even think about filming them. When one male wins, the loser will have to find another place, which means another fight!

· Nesting colonies of blue footed boobies and masked boobies with their cute chicks. Also waved albatross and the frigate birds. There were quite a lot of dead chicks and birds around. When I asked the guide why this was and what had happened, he said it is the process of natural selection.

I stood so close to the birds and it was amazing to watch the male frigate birds attracting the females by puffing out their red necks and seeing a group of boobies diving fast into the sea to catch fish. It honestly looked like bombs were landing in the sea and sometimes what happens is that a booby gets killed by diving too close to the shore and breaking their neck.

· We saw so many cute sea lions lying lazily on the beach in the sun. I couldn't stop taking photos of them as they melted my heart! I saw a Galapagos Hawk eating sea lion's placenta on the way up to see the beautiful sunset.

· There are several 'lava tubes' where you can go inside to see the volcanic scenery. They are formed when the outer layer of flowing lava cools and hardens, leaving the molten lava flowing inside and when this escapes it leaves a space behind it, creating a tunnel.

· There is Post Office Bay on the island of Floreana, the site of the original Post Office barrel, which was used by British Whalers to send letters home in 1793. The barrel today isn't the same one as in 1793, but you can still leave letters here and hope that tourists (like me!) will carry on the tradition of collecting post going to the same destination as them, and distributing it when they reach the other country! You don't pay any postage as the idea is that the traveller will pay postage when they reach the country specified on the letter or postcard.

· We enjoyed watching local people playing volleyball while pelicans flew over us. But we had to watch out for their ‘guano’.

· Every night after dinner on the boat we watched baby turtles swimming past, sea lion seals showing off and swimming around, hopping on the small boat to sleep and sharks circling it which was very hypnotic.

· Visiting Charles Darwin Research Station, which includes an information centre, a small museum, a baby tortoise nursery and walk-in adult tortoise area where you can come face to face with 200kg giant tortoises. We saw ‘Lonesome George’, the famous Giant Tortoise who is believed to be around 80 years old. Have a look on the Darwin Foundation website to read his sad story. (http://darwinfoundation.org/files/species/pdf/pinta-en.pdf)

· On our last trip back to the port there were a few dolphins and pilot whales swimming alongside the boat. We stayed by the port overnight before flying back to Quito.

To visit the islands, you can either fly from Quito or Guayaquil. There are different itineraries available depending on your budget and what you would like to see.

Also, don't forget to pay extra for the National Park entrance fee on arrival ($100 USD in 2007). Tips are not included in the cruise price or the guide or the crews so bear that in mind.

Have a look at the website: http://www.galapagosislandscruises.net/


Click on photo to enlarge


Sally Lightfoot crab  Sea lion  Marine iguana


Date Submitted: 02 Apr 2007


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