Week 27 – San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz, Galápagos Islands
Hi everybody! We are here in the gorgeous Galapágos with wildlife galore! This week we’ve seen sea lions, sharks, crabs, blue footed boobies (they’re a type of bird, I promise), albatrosses, sea turtles, marine iguanas, lava lizards, frigate birds, giant tortoises and more!
Today we went on a tour to Española Island. We met our guide at the dock and took a small water taxi to the boat. It was funny to see that lots of the other boats in the bay had sea lions sleeping on their decks!
The journey to the island took about an hour and a half. While we were on the way the captain suddenly called out to us all that he’d spotted a dolphin! We all went to the side to look and found ourselves surrounded by a pod of dolphins. Some of them were swimming along right next to the boat, surfing in the spray. We saw others in the distance leaping out of the water – some of them leapt incredibly high. It was so amazing – dolphins are one of my favourite animals and it felt so special to be seeing them in the wild. I wish we could have jumped off the boat and joined them! We kept on course with them for about five minutes before we lost sight of them. It was awesome. Ben also spotted some flying fish which was also really cool.
Española Island is one of the oldest islands in the Galápagos archipelago. It is particularly special because it is the only nesting site in the world for the waved albatross. We were lucky enough to be visiting during the nesting season, meaning we had a good chance of seeing them.
We disembarked onto a beach and very quickly started spotting marine iguanas on the rocks around us. At first we just noticed one or two, but once we’d got used to spotting them we realised that there were loads! Carlos our guide gave us a brief lesson about them which was really interesting. Apparently the males are normally completely black-skinned, but during the mating season the skin on their front becomes a red-orange colour. We also learnt that they bob their heads up and down to mark their territory, and they sneeze all the time because they have glands near their nose which excrete the excess salt they take in. Marine iguanas feed on algae, either by diving down to the seafloor or by swimming to the rocks along the shore and feeding off of these. They can dive up to 20m and can spend an hour underwater.
There were also lots of sea lions resting on the beach, including some very cute baby ones, and there were lots of colourful crabs crawling over the rocks. We also saw a mockingbird. Apparently when Charles Darwin visited the Galápagos, he noted that the mockingbirds on each island varied slightly in appearance, and he also noted that they were very similar to the mockingbirds in mainland South America. This was one of the observations that led to him developing his theory of evolution.
We took a path heading over the island to the opposite shore to where there were a colony of Nazca boobies nesting. These strangely named birds are one of three related species of bird that are found in the Galápagos, the other two being the red and blue-footed boobies. I found it really interesting that the species are similar in many ways, but differ in terms of their diets. Blue-footed boobies almost exclusively eat fish, red-footed boobies prefer squids and crustaceans, and Nazca boobies are generalists which have a much wider diet. What is fascinating is that their diets are what change the colour of their feet. Like flamingos and the beta-carotenes that turn their feathers pink, the way that the blue and red-footed boobies process carotenoids leads to deposition of colour in their feet. The Nazca boobies have grey feet because of their general diet. The red and blue-footed boobies lift up their feet to display the colour during their mating dance, because more brightly coloured feet indicates better success at finding food (something that every woman looks for in a man!). I think that’s really cool. The Nazca boobies were quite cute, especially their fluffy chicks. We also saw some frigate birds, who look really graceful and aerodynamic in the sky.
The path took us down to a small beach, and then continued up and along the island. We came to an open area of grassy scrub-land, which is where the albatrosses choose to nest. Almost as soon as we arrived we saw two albatrosses sat on the ground close to the path. Under one of them we could just make out the egg that it was incubating. The albatross were quite cute, but didn’t look as big as I had been expecting. When we had seen the condors in Peru we’d been told that while condors were heavier, albatross had a bigger wingspan. Perhaps it was just because their wings were folded that they didn’t look so big. We did see one take off and in the air you could appreciate their size which was really cool.
We also stopped by a natural blowhole, formed by the sea eroding itself a tunnel through rock. When the waves are strong enough, water rushes through the tunnel and shoots up into the air. It it was awesome.
We completed the circuit of the island by looping back to the beach, where the sea lions were still sunbathing. Once we were back on the boat we were given an opportunity to swim in the sea while they set out the table for lunch. It was so lovely and refreshing, especially because we’d been so boiling on the island.
After lunch, the boat took us to the other side of the island to a place called Gardner Bay, where we all jumped in the sea again to go snorkelling. There were some tiny islands just off the coast of Española and we swam close to them. Underwater the cliff faces were home to loads of different types of coral, and swimming among them were hundreds of fish. I loved the beautiful angel fish and the colourful parrot fish. While we were swimming we suddenly saw a sea lion swim past us! They are far more graceful in the sea than they are on land. They didn’t get too close to us but they were definitely watching us as they swam past. They were really quick and would zoom past us and then dive down to the bottom of the sea. It was really fun to watch them.
After about 45 minutes of snorkelling we got back onto the boat and began to head back to San Cristóbal. Ben and I sat at the top of the boat next to the Captain. It was really sunny and we had a great view over the wide expanse of the sea. It was a great way to end the tour!
In the evening we went for a wander down to the seafront. There were so many sea lions on the beach. Some of them were trying to sleep but the rest were being so noisy! They also smell very fishy – they are adorable but I think I’d get annoyed by them pretty quickly if I lived here!
This morning we went to San Cristóbal’s Interpretation Centre, an educational museum about the history of the Galápagos Islands. We were pleasantly surprised to find that it was free to enter and really nicely laid out. I found it really interesting. The first room spoke about the natural history of the islands, including their volcanic origin and how the first animals and plants arrived on the island (seeds carried on the wind, migratory birds, and rafts of vegetation carrying across any animals that were capable of surviving the multiple week journey without food or freshwater. Apparently this is why tortoises and iguanas are prevalent on the island, because they can survive periods of starvation and dehydration, whereas by contrast there are fewer mammals and amphibians who would not have survived the journey). There was also a section on evolution and the adaptations that different animal species on the Galápagos had developed. For example there are 13 species of finches on the Galápagos, each with a distinct beak shape that is suited to its environment and diet; long thin beaks for reaching into cacti or for finding insects in wood, big curved beaks good for crushing seeds, etc. Another example was the flightless cormorant, which, finding itself with no natural land predators, lost its ability to fly, developed shorter, stubbier wings, and improved its ability to dive for fish. It was really interesting – Biology is so cool.
The second part of the museum was about the history of the colonization of the Galápagos. When people discovered and colonized the islands they very quickly began to exploit the natural resources they found there. The giant tortoises got a particularly bad deal of it. Their fat was found to contain oil that was used for lamps, their meat was really tasty and their shells were put to a number of uses. The museum estimated that close to 200,000 giant tortoises were killed during the 19th and 20th centuries. The museum also mentioned Darwin and his voyage in 1835, along with a note about how the islands inspired his theory of natural selection and evolution.
After visiting the museum we went back into town for lunch, which we enjoyed in a restaurant with a beautiful view overlooking the sea. Once we’d finished we went for a walk up a trail to the top of Frigate Bird Hill. It actually wasn’t that high, but it gave us a lovely view looking back over the town and along the coast. We did see some frigate birds soaring through the sky which was great. We were able to tell the difference between the males and females because the males have a big red pouch on their necks.
We followed the trail down, past a statue of Darwin and another great viewpoint, until we ended up at Punta Carola beach, the beautiful beach we’d visited to see the sunset a few days earlier. I went for a swim in the sea and then we both sat on the beach until the sun went down. It was beautiful.
This morning, for the first time in 6 months Ben and I spent a day apart! It felt very weird. I went on a snorkelling tour to a place called Kicker Rock just off the coast of San Cristóbal. Ben, who has decided that he isn’t much of a snorkelling fan, decided to spend the day on the island instead. He had a very relaxing day of reading and eating ice cream in the sun!
My Kicker Rock tour began with a boat ride to a beach further along the coast of the island. I decided to sit up the top near the captain, where I could get a better view of the shore. I made friends another passenger, an Ecuadorian boy called Christian who lives in the Galápagos. He’s so lucky! I thought he was funny that he was on a tourist boat tour, but he said that he was back visiting from university and all of his friends and family were busy working, so he thought this would be a fun way to spend the day. I used it as an opportunity to ask him about the other islands, especially Santa Cruz which we are visiting next. It’s great to get advice from a local! While we were sailing past the coast the guide slowed the boat to point out some brown pelicans and some blue-footed boobies on the cliffs, which was really cool.
We stopped for about an hour and a half at the beach. Our guide took us for a walk along the shore, pointing out a heron, a lava lizard and some crabs. The beach had a great view across to kicker rock in the distance. I was really keen to get there and start snorkelling, and the time at the beach felt a bit like a filler activity. I went for a bit of a swim but there wasn’t much to see snorkelling, and it was quite cloudy so it wasn’t great weather for sunbathing! Most of the group just sat around chatting until it was time to go back to the boat for lunch.
After lunch, the boat took us to Kicker Rock. This huge rock in the middle of the sea is also known as León Dormido (sleeping lion), and it’s supposed to be one of the best places around the Galápagos for snorkelling and diving. We put on wetsuits, flippers and snorkel masks and jumped into the sea. Our guide took the lead and we began to swim around the rock. The water here was much deeper than at our snorkelling site the other day, and the coral on the cliff underwater was a lot more colourful. There were bright red, yellow and orange corals which were really beautiful and vibrant. There were lots of fish and we managed to get quite close and see them really clearly which was awesome.
We swam through a narrow channel, and our guide told us to be on the lookout for sharks as this was their favourite spot. As we got to the end of the channel and turned around we suddenly spotted three baby sharks far below us! It was really cool. Our guide has a go-pro and swam down to try to get a photo of them. She also took some great photos of the fish that we saw. She shared them with us later, which was great as it means I have some momentos from the day.
We swam back out of the channel and continued circling Kicker Rock. Our guide called us over to see a hammerhead shark, but by the time we all arrived it had swum down and out of sight. It was a shame as I had been looking forward to seeing one. We did manage to spot four or five sea turtles though which made up for it. One of them seemed to be feeding off the coral. We managed to get quite close without disturbing it – I loved seeing it up close.
We spent about an hour in the water before getting out and drying off. I felt we’d had a pretty impressive wildlife tally! The boat ride back to San Cristóbal sped by, and I was finally reunited with Ben after a whole 8 hours of separation!
In the evening we went for a walk to a beach called Playa Loberia. There were marine iguanas here, and yet more sea lions playing in the shallows. We followed a trail that took us along the beach, over a large field of volcanic rocks, and up to the clifftop, where we saw some blue-footed boobies! I’m glad we got to see some as they are probably the most famous bird from the Galápagos. We walked back along the beach as the sun was setting, which was a gorgeous end to the day.
We woke up early this morning and walked down to the seafront to catch the ferry to Santa Cruz. There are four inhabited islands in the Galápagos, and after researching them we’d decided to stay on two of them. I was tempted to try to visit all of them but we didn’t want to spread ourselves too thinly and be in a rush! The ferry journey was smooth and before long we were docking at Santa Cruz.
Our immediate observation was that the town on this island was a lot larger and quite a bit busier. There were lots of souvenir shops and restaurants. We are staying in a really nice Airbnb with a bed that is wider than it is long!
This afternoon we went to the Charles Darwin Research Centre. As well as educational exhibits, the centre also houses a giant tortoise breeding program. We were excited to see the tortoises after learning so much about them on San Cristóbal.
It was really hot and sunny, which is the norm on these islands. Apart from in the highlands, most of Santa Cruz is quite dry, with lots of cacti and shrubs. We followed the path through a number of cacti until we reached the tortoise pens. There were baby tortoises who were tiny – it seemed impossible that they could grow to the size of the adults. Each of them had a number on its shell, as the breeding program monitors them closely.
The adult giant tortoises were huge! They had insanely long necks which looked almost comical when they were lying down. They moved very slowly but with purpose. Most of them were resting, but one kept trying to assert its dominance by leaning its head into the front of the other tortsoises’ shells and trying to bite them. Most of them just walked away, leaving him to be aggressive by himself.
There was a lot of information about the different species of giant tortoise, as they had evolved slightly differently on each island in the Galápagos. It was interesting to learn about how some of them have raised saddle-shaped shells, which are beneficial for reaching their necks higher to feed on cacti. Others have dome-shaped shells – these tortoises live in areas where there is more abundant ground vegetation, so there have no need of the extra height. Nature is so cool.
After seeing the tortoises we were taken into a special climate-controlled room (which I thought was slight overkill) to see the taxidermied body of Lonesome George. George was the last of the Pinta Island tortoises. He was famous as the rarest animal in the world, and there was an unsuccessful search to find him a mate to carry on the species. When he died in 2012 the species was officially declared extinct. I found it a bit funny how much effort had been taken to preserve his body, but then he is an important symbol of the significance of the Research Centre’s conservation work.
The Research Centre also housed some land iguanas, which were interesting to see, and had access to a small beach where there were a lot marine iguanas and crabs. The crabs are so colourful! Apparently as they grow they shed their hard shell (exoskeleton), and then their soft undershell hardens into a new one for them. I find that really cool.
This morning we went to a place called Laguna de las Ninfas (Lake of the Nymphs). It was an inland lagoon surrounded by mangroves. It was really quiet and peaceful with beautiful blue water. There was a boardwalk running around the lake, with information boards about the wildlife and mangroves along the way. We were pretty much the only ones there, and had a very relaxing time appreciating the peace and beauty.
It gets really hot in the Galápagos at midday, so we went back to our room for an hour or so to avoid the most intense sun. In the afternoon we went back out and went to explore a beach called Tortuga Bay. It was around 2.5km from town with no vehicular access, which was really nice because it meant it was a bit more secluded, although still very popular. It was the most beautiful beach we’ve seen in the Galápagos, with really fine sand. We were warned that the sea had strong currents and big waves, so we were careful to stay within our depth and not too far from the shore. The seafloor here was beautifully flat and sandy which was so nice, and there were loads of tiny silver fish in the shallows.
We spent a few hours on the beach, swimming, reading and relaxing. We also fulfilled one of my sister’s photo challenges that she set us by making a mermaid’s tail for Ben! I think it suited him.
This morning we wandered down into the town. Santa Cruz has an outdoor fish market by the harbour, which has become a bit of a tourist attraction. This is because the market attracts a number of animals, all keen for the fish guts and fins that are thrown away by the sellers as they prepare the fish. We saw two sea lions, a heron and loads of pelicans and frigate birds. The sea lion was standing by one of the women in the market and she would periodically feed him scraps. The pelicans were all watching a man who was preparing the fish on a boat in the harbour. He would throw the fish heads into the air and the pelicans would all fight over them. It was really entertaining to watch.
We caught a water taxi across an inlet to part of the island called Punta Estrada. We were going to a place called Las Grietas, two large fissures that were formed in cooling lava when the island was volcanically active. The fissures are filled by freshwater from the highlands mixing with seawater, and we had heard it was a good place to go swimming.
Las Grietas were quite popular, and there were lots of people snorkelling there when we arrived. We’d bought some goggles and so I enjoyed floating along or diving down to look at the fish that were swimming below us. The fissures were long, thin and quite deep. It was really fun.
Once we’d finished swimming we headed back to the shore. There was a restaurant overlooking the inlet with all the boats on, and we stopped there for lunch. Because it was my birthday I had not one but two cocktails! It was a lovely spot with a really beautiful view, it felt very tropical. We lingered there for quite a while just enjoying the atmosphere.
In the evening, we went out in search of birthday cake, and found something better – amazing waffles with ice cream which proved the perfect birthday celebration!
Today was our last full day in the Galápagos. We’d debated booking onto another island day trip, but in the end we decided that we’d rather spend the day relaxing on the beach. We went back to Tortuga Bay, which was our favourite, and did exactly that! I loved the beautiful clear sea and Ben and I both went swimming. While we were in the water we saw a bird diving down to catch fish out of the sea. It came really close to us so we got a great view!
We wandered along the beach and then spent time reading and sunbathing. It was such a lovely day – I’m very sad to be leaving countries where the sea isn’t freezing cold!
We had dinner and then spent the evening packing. Ben drank his last Galápagos beer. The brewery have created two types – an blonde ale and one called a coffee stout, which I think sounds even more disgusting than normal beer, but which Ben said was very nice.
My next post will only be 4 days long! Ben has challenged me to publish it before we leave South America, so it might come to you from Bogotá airport if I manage it. Not long till we see you all!