A week of living in a BBC documentary...
Oh man I'm so excited I may vomit. I've got Neeta and Jasen with me, and we're about to get on a boat where we'll be sailing for 8 days around the Galapagos Islands, a place that I've been longing to visit ever since my mum bought me a David Attenborough book called The Living Planet when I was 10 years old. It's taken me 21 years to get here, but I'm here! To make it even better, Neet and Jase are here to share the experience.
The first day we are on Baltra Island and we are greeted at the harbour by some friends who we will be meeting pretty much every day on our trip, the Galapagos Sea Lions, Marine Iguanas and high above us, the gigantic frigate birds. The shock is both immediate and jaw dropping. We haven't even stepped onto the boat yet and already there's enough wildlife here on the jetty to keep me interested for hours. Its amazing and a great taster of what's to come.
Pablo our Ecuadorian guide has lived on Galapagos since he was 3 years old and seems to know his stuff, his speciality is marine life which is great as we'll be doing deep sea snorkelling twice a day. We are taken swiftly through the safety procedures of our boat and given a little tour. It's a nice little vessel, the cabins are cute, very small but cute and its got a bar and a dining area, everything you need really. This trip is not about the accomodation though, we have to accept that it will be a little less comfortable than we are used to, we are here to get a brief glimpse into the lives of animals in a way that cannot be acheived anywhere else in the world. When Charles Darwin arrived here on the Beagle in 1832 he had no idea what was waiting for him. I kind of feel the same excitement building...
As the boat makes it`s slow departure across the water we get our first of many Jurrassic Park moments to come, the prehistoric Frigate birds. These birds are an endemic species to the Galapagos and take great pleasure in following the tour boats wherever they go. To say these birds are huge is a horrible understatement. With an average wingspan of 2 meters and a body length of about the same there`s nothing to prepare you fully for the sight of these birds riding the updrafts from the boat, a mere couple of feet from you. You could literally reach out and touch them. A couple of huge pelicans also decide to hitch a ride and perch themselves on the railings alongside the boat. This is amazing. 20 minutes into the trip and I already feel like this is something that could never be recreated anywhere in the world. It is truly awe-inspiring.
So the trip itself will involve a total of 8 days sailing amongst the islands, snorkelling twice a day in deep water interspersed with dry landings to observe the island wildlife. Our trip will take us to North Symore, Baltra, Rabida, Santiago, Bartolome, Chinese Hat, Islas Plazas, Santa Fe and the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz, Santa Maria and finally Espanola. In short we will be seeing the very best of the Islands on Galapagos and hopefully the very best of the animals.
To go into immense detail would take far too long but I'd like to give everyone at home a glimpse of how spectacular this place really is. Our first activity is snorkelling and my, Neeta and Jasen's first time in a wetsuit. We look ridiculous, like giant penguins. We jump onto the dinghy and sail out to the dive spot, no sooner than we are on the boat a huge manta ray swims right past us, I'm gobsmaked! Manta is spanish for Blanket, and I finally understand why they're called Manta Rays. It's like huge blanket floating in the water. The snorkelling goes well, the shock of the freezing water soon subsides after you stick your head under for the first time and see the amazing schools of fish, thousands of them, huge parrot fish, angel fish and scorpion fish. We catch a bit of bad luck and get caught in a jelly fish swarm, quite a few people, including Jasen, get stung but they are very small Jellies so the damage is not overly serious, extremely painful for them though. All in all, the first look under water was amazing but not even a scratch on what's to come later. During our trip we encounter sea turtles, sharks, sting rays and sea lions, all eager to swim with us. Today was just a taster.
Our landing today is on North Seymore and we are greeted by the ubiquitous sea lions who rule the islands around Galapagos. The uniqueness of Galapagos is not necessarily in the amount of animals here or the type even, its more in the way they react to humans that is the most interesting aspect. Galapagos is unique in that the ecosystem and food chain allows for most land mammals and reptiles to thrive without threat from any natural predators. These animals have nothing to fear on land, in the sea, the sea lions are at threat from the sharks but that's about it. On land, they couldn't care less how close you get to them, and that's true of the iguanas, lizards, birds, everything on these islands lives a relatively hassle free lifestyle. They dont have to worry about lions and tigers and birds of prey swooping down to eat them every other minute. They laze about, relaxing and are as curious about us as we are about them. We've had many a staring contest with the sea lions. This, for me at least, is the whole reason for visiting the Galapagos, the beauty of this place is certainly in the landscape, but more in the relationship and connection you can forge with these animals. It makes you realise that we share this planet with so many other amazing creatures, and they are not so different from us. Watching a sea lion mother with her newborn pup demonstrates the similarities between us clearly, the nurturing, the guidance, the correction, the teaching. We are all mammals after all, and our differences lie primarily in the development of our brains, at our most basic and instinctive however, we are all pretty much the same. We just want to be happy and look after our friends and family. These animals are no different.
As we trek across North Seymore we come accross the beautiful frigate birds who are in nesting season at the moment. The frigates are often referred to as the "pirates of the sky", and for good reason. These birds lack a certain gland that produces the oil that makes their feathers waterproof, as such they cant dive into the water like the other sea birds to catch fish. As a result they've basically learnt how to steal food from everyone else. They glide and patrol the sky waiting for a Gull or a Boobie to catch a fish, they will then swoop down and poach it right out of their beaks, or alternatively force them to drop it and then collect the spoils. Ingenious birds, they work in packs (or gangs) and do pretty well. I've renamed them "the theiving bastards of the sky" as a more appropriate description. The other interesting activity we managed to see with the frigates was the nesting. The males build the nests in this species and their job is to find and use the best materials and select the best location to build a nest. Once it's built they sit in it and puff out the bright red pouches under their necks to attract the female. If she likes the size of his pouch and the quality of the home he's built she mates with him. A lot like humans really.
Next we observe the famous blue footed boobies (or BFB's). These are sea birds and have, well, blue feet as the name suggests. I really loved them, especially their mating dance and calls. They make a sound like a whistle going off and their mating ritual sees the male walking slowly and purposefully towards a female, lifting his blue feet high and gracefully to show the female how cool his shoes are. The nicer the shoes, the more chance he has, again not too different from a night out in Croydon.
The next spot to note is the beautiful Rabida Island, a red sand beach was our first stop where we could sit in the water with gigantic pelicans bombing into the water all around us catching fish. That was for me a unique experience, a feeling of truly being amongst the daily routine of these animals, observing from the inside out. Something I dont think you could ever experience anywhere else in the world. Rabida was the first island where we came accross the male sea lions, these guys are seriously territorial and we learnt that first hand when one particularly large and surly fellow decides to block our path on our way up a hill. He was not budging, sitting with his head high and proud, making his body as big as he could to let us know who this patch of land belonged to. We Just had to wait until he felt the threat to his manhood was not at risk, that was of course not before he decided to do a massive sneeze erupting gallons of snot everywhere! Gross!
The snorkelling off Rabida was just amazing and Jase and I snorkelled together for a while and caught a glimpse of a white tipped reef shark. The feeling was undescribable. You feel fear but also amazement and you just want to go deeper to swim with them.
After lunch we sail to Puerto Egas on Santiago Island and this is one of the most incredible snorkelling spots. The rock formations under the water are incredible, the reefs are stunning and because of the amount of sea vegetation we are suddenly surrounded by sea turtles feeding and gliding along the warm currents. Some are juveniles, some are huge adults, one in particular, who I call Patch, has a white mark on his back, a parasite that is common in sea turtles, I break off from the group and follow Patch around for a good 15 minutes. He's totally unphased by me and I get really close, watching him munch on the plants and just marvelling at how he seems to float along, flying in the water with his huge flippers. I can't describe how beautiful these animals are and seeing them in their natural environment less than a meter away from your face is a truly spiritual experience. It was another one of those moments for me where I realised how sheltered and enclosed a life I'd been living, with all this beauty in the world I was more concerned with buying a TV or a playstation or an iphone, but seeing this with my own eyes I realised how much I had been missing. This is what life should be about, discovery.
On land in Puerto Egas was where we got our first taste of the reptilian army that the Galapagos is known for. The Marine iguanas, these black and red lizards are frankly monstrous looking but are in fact harmless vegetarians and totally uninterested in humans or much else. There are literally hundreds of these guys, all clustered in groups lazing in the sun for their daily dose of blood-warming. Some of them are at least a meter long, some bigger, but there's something cute about them, even though your first reaction would be to run screaming uncontrollably that dinosaurs were still alive. We have dubbed the iguanas on Galapagos as the "land monsters" and we have yet to encounter the biggest land monsters yet, the trully jurrasic land Iguanas of the Plaza Islands. Puerto Egas also houses some incredible landscape, Lava Rock formations on this island are amongst the most unique in the world. They are incredibily complex and intricate, dotted with the bright orange and red of the Sally Lightfoot Crabs that swarm the lava, picking fights with the baby sea lions, the grumpy old gits that they are.
The night on the boat tonight is a killer, the sea is so rough that we just get thrown from end to end, praying for some relief. The nausea pills only work if you take them an hour before you set off, which I unfortunately did not do, so the 12 hours of sailing through the night was unpleasant to say the least. Eventually though we arrive in the morning at Chinese Hat, an island that looks unsurprisingly like a big chinese hat. Essentially a volcano it is one of many on the islands, Galapagos being a collection of active and dead volcanoes, the last eruption having occurred only 8 months ago. The beauty of this place is that it is always changing. These islands were not formed, like Mauritius for example which is also a volcanic island, by lava flowing from a volcano on land, they sprouted straight from under the sea and as the volcanoes continue to erupt, the islands will eventually change shape and may possibly even merge in some areas. Chinese Hat gives us our first look at a lava tube, a formation created when a lava flow develops a crust, which thickens and forms a roof above the still-flowing lava from a volcanic eruption.
As we walk towards the beach we meet a new born sea lion, maybe a week old, playing on the rocks. He's a curious chap, obviously learning about his environment and wondering what the hell these hairless apes are doing gawping at him. The remains of his mothers placenta can still be seen a few feet away, Pablo, our guide explains that it will have been eaten by the Galapagos hawks. Yum. Soon after, we jump into the ocean for snorkelling and today is our first swim with the sea lions, three adults to be precise who dart and twirl and jet past us like torpedoes. They are so fast, I cant quite get my head around how they can propel themselves through the water so quickly. They are so close they brush past me and Jasen, unfortunately Neeta missed them today, they swim like rockets up to our faces then dart off just before colliding with us, obviously a little game they like to play to try and scare us! My god these things are amazing, this could well be the best experience of my life. As an added treat I also spot a marine iguana paddling through the water like a dog, its so funny to just see their head above the water swimming like a child wearing arm floats!
Today is a dream, one of the best experiences ever, and it's not over yet as we head to Bartolome to marvel at the geological wonders of the islands, the amazing pinacle rock and the double beach. I wont bother explainig, I'll just show you these pictures for you to understand how incredible this landscape is.
After the walk we jump onto the dinghy and spot three little Galapagos penguins standing deep in thought on a nearby rock, they are really cute, the smallest breed of penguin in the world and quite fat
The Plaza Islands are our next stop where we see the giant cactus trees and the land iguanas munching on their leaves, scratching away to remove the spines. Santa Fe is next where the beach landing brings us face to face with an immense sea lion colony, at least 40 of them sleeping, playing and generally lazing about. They are so funny, trying to get comfortable on top of each other, using each other as pillows. After the excursion we have some free time on the boat, its a beautiful day and Neet, Jase and the girls lounge about in front while I take a nap. Neet wakes me up to the sight of 2 sea lion babies swimming around the boat, I decide to make the most of the opportunity and dive into the water... without a wetsuit. The cold cuts me like a knife but the seals are worth it, they are cheeky little things! Later on we go out on a proper snorkel, spotting sting rays, eagle rays and then a couple of juvenile sea lions. I'm off swimming with a couple of adults when suddenly I hear screams. It seems that one of the sea lions is getting over excited and starts to bite our group, only playfully but they dont like it. Everyone scrambles onto the boat, Jasen gets a mouthful of seal on his arm and I decide to get a bit closer to see what's going on. Sure enough, the little blighter is very curious and he starts desperately trying to pull my flippers off with his teeth! It's pretty funny actually, basically you have to think about them like puppies, they just want to play with you, but when you're in the middle of the ocean with sharks swimming under you, any kind of unusual activity is a little scary!
The next day is Darwin Research Station and something I've been waiting for for a while now. The word Galapagos means "saddle" and the island is named after the giant galapagos or "saddle backed" tortoise. Santa Cruz is home to these giant reptiles and also home to the sad old "Lonesome George", a tortoise whose life story is as sad as it is frankly hilarious. George was part of a species endemic to Pinta island whose brothers and sisters were completely wiped out by pirates in the 19th Century. Pirates used the Galapagos islands frequently as a place to escape the authorities, bury treasure and stock up on food, that food being the Giant Tortoise. Much like they did in Mauritius and the Seychelles, these guys would collect as many of these huge animals as they could and stack them, one on top of the other, on their ships for the long voyage ahead. You see, without refrigeration fresh meat was scarce and the pirates soon discovered that these tortoises could survive for up to 1 year without food or water. That meant that they could store them alive for long periods of time as a source of fresh meat. The practice became so widespread that soon the populace of over 150,000 adult giant tortoises became less than 10,000 and now a serious breeding program is in process to repopulate the original inhabitants of these islands. Santa Cruz is the home of the breeding program and George's story flows from the early history of the Pinta pirates. Basically the pirates stole every single tortoise from Pinta except for George who was still in an egg at the time. He managed to hatch and survive and soon found himself as the only tortoise on the whole island. George is the very last of his species and the program has been trying for the last 50 years to get him to breed. The problem? He doesn't know he's a tortoise. Having lived in solitude for so long on Pinta, George didn't have the same education as a normal tortoise, he was never able to observe other tortoises and so simply didn't learn how to do the business. He's totally uninterested in sexy female tortoises, no matter how many they doll up and put in his enclosure with him. Neeta finds George's story very sad and asks the boys to have a quiet word with George to offer words of encouragement. Poor thing! I have hope George will learn how to do the tortoise tango one day! Until then, keep on eating George, you'll need your strength when the time comes
We walk around the sanctuary for a bit until we come to the big boys, a group of adult Galapagos Tortoises. Now I've seen giant tortoises before, but nothing like the size of these things. It's actually quite unsettling to see something which is normally so small, SO BIG! They are dinosaurs, there is no other way to put it. The guys from our boat are leaving us today as they are only on the 5 day trip but we get to visit these tortoises in the wild later in the afternoon. I cant wait!
One of the main highlights of the whole trip happened the next day on Floreana Island. We arrive at Green sand beach, which from afar doesn't really look green but when you pick up a handfull you see the tiny flecks of olivine crystals, like tiny emeralds. Amazing. After passing a dead pelican, this is the wild after all and you do see a LOT of dead animals, we head to flour beach, named for its INCREDIBLE sand. There would be no way to distinguish this sand from white plain flour unless you tasted it, it really is that amazing. Flour beach however houses one of the most unbelievable things I've ever seen in my life. The shore of the beach is full of microscopic organisms that are a buffet for stingrays. The result is that hundreds of rays sit right on the shore in the lap of the waves feeding on them, we walked into the water and suddenly you have a load of stingrays swimming around your feet. Every now and again you feel their waxy, slimy skin against your feet and you have to resist the urge to make a sudden movement, its like a big tongue! The danger is that if you jump or run, they could sting, and well, that would be the end of you... luckily we didn't. Experiencing something like that is one of those moments that you make a conscious note that you will never, ever, as long as you live, forget this moment on this day, the 14th of July 2010 when I stood in a pile of ravenous stingrays
Our last full day on Galapagos follows, today we visit the oldest island in the archipeligo, Espanola. Having had the longest time to develop from an evolutionary perspective the animals are bigger. A LOT bigger. The Land Iguanas are like small dogs, the lava lizards which were normally the size of a finger are now a foot long. The real draw of this place though is the famed Waved Albatross, the largest sea bird in the world, which breeds every year here, and only here. We'll get to that treat later, but first the snorkelling, in fact our last snorkel of the trip. I'm over the moon that as cold as it is Neet joins us on this one, as its the very best yet. The water is clear as evian and the landscape under the sea in this spot is just like swimming in a giant aquarium. The rock formations, plant life and swarms of fish light up the ocean floor like a neon light show. It's achingly beautiful. The best part though is swimming into a half submerged cave where we swam for ages with the best bunch of sea lions ever. They were brilliant, really playful and friendly, totally unafraid and we really connected with them. Thanks for the best time ever guys...
So onto, for me, probably the best wildlife experience of the trip, the Waved Albatross. Absolutely stunning birds, wingspans of around 2.5 meters and having such a stunning grace about them. I feel so privileged to have seen them here because the story of how they get here is so amazing and the rarity of seeing what we saw is so great. These birds mate for life, they choose one partner and stay with them for ever. Wherever they are born, in the exact spot that they hatch, they return there to breed themselves. No one knows how they do it or how they find the spot, they fly for thousands of miles to return and they do it every single year. I just cant begin to explain how amazing that is to me. The most incredible thing however was that we happened to be there during the best time possible, when they begin the courtship rituals to find their life partners. They select a potential mate and then begin to dance, performing complex movements and sounds with the aim of creating perfect synchronisation with the partner opposite. If they feel the synchronisation is good, then they know they've found the right mate. We sat for a good half hour watching one pair perform this mesmerising ritual. The unique thing about this moment was that you can never see it anywhere else in the world, and you would never see it here unless you came at the right time of year and even then there's no guarantee you'll get to witness it.
The last day arrives all too quickly but is no less eventfull than any other. We visit an area close to Baltra that is similar to the Amazon, very still water and mangroves creating canals in the open water. This place is special because you can sea a lot of sharks and other activity right on the surface of the water without having to snorkel. The first hit of wild life is a hoard of BFB's and pelicans perched on a lava rock. This is a prime fishing spot for the birds and they circle the water and then dive head-first into it after spotting the fish. It's like watching a missile being fired into the sea, amazing. As we head deeper into the mangrove we start to see the sharks, first one, then two, then the count is at 10 then 15. They are everywhere. We aren't justed treated to hoards of sharks either, a little family of about 4 or 5 eagle rays swims right past us, they have such beautiful colourations, brown with white spots. This was a really relaxed and beautiful way to spend the last day, just sitting on the dinghy watching the wildlife go past.
The albatrosses and the sharks...what a privilege, what a way to end this incredible, mind-boggling, fantastical adventure of a lifetime. All my life I wanted to see this place. I dreamed about it as a child, I sat glued to BBC documentaries, I read the books cover to cover. It exceeded every expectation I had. I'm convinced there's nowhere else on this planet like it. Jasen and Neet will agree, it is something that you are likely to do only once in your life but when all is said and done, when you're old and grey and thinking about what you've done and where you've been and what you've seen, you can say... I've been to Galapagos.