Quito & Galapagos: Santa Cruz, Isabela, Fernandia & Floreana

We had been looking forward to Galapagos from the start of the trip. It’s something we both remember learning about in school and studying about Darwin & evolution (John – and the BBC series, oh, and Master and Commander when they stop on the islands!) and we were excited to see some of the amazing creatures and landscapes that inspired him.

We flew from Quito to Santa Cruz island as it’s the most populated island and best place to base ourselves for the 2 weeks we had planned. Of course, nothing is ever that straight forward- the airport is actually on Baltra which is a small island north of Santa Cruz so the journey in after our 3 hr flight was a bus ride to edge of island to catch a 10 minute ferry to Santa Cruz (north), finally a 50 minute bus ride to the town on the south side of the island.

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Santa Cruz was a great place for us to base ourselves – it’s pretty cute (as much as a modern concrete town in South America could be), right on the water with animals everywhere. The sea lions just lay around and people work around them. Pelicans and sea lions hang out around fishermans wharf for the regular scrap as the fishermen sell their catch. The locals are friendly and casual – the men gather every evening at 4:30 to play a very serious game of volleyball in the town centre, the rest of the town gathers to watch. It’s very safe with practically no crime, unlike the rest of Ecuador. There are several restaurants, tour agencies, a supermarket and a couple parks. The buildings are the usual cement block with structural rods protruding through the top. Most people don’t have cars but use taxis which are white pick up trucks. Any journey in town costs $1. The currency here is USD CASH – not many places take credit card as we found when we tried to pay for our boat cruise. Luckily, after several trips to the ATM and hitting the daily limit on 3 cards, we gathered enough to pay for it.

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Our 5 day/4 night boat trip was aboard the Archipell with 14 other travellers, mostly Europeans, and had an itinerary focused around Isabela. Isabela island is the biggest island in the group so day tours can’t reach the western coast. The wildlife we got to see was really special – not only for its uniqueness but for its abundance. My favorite encounters were with sea lions as they are so playful, and the giant tortoises because they are so huge, legendary and ancient. Amongst the islands you can see the differences in the tortoises (shell primarily). This visual represntation of evolution is pretty cool. We also visited the tortoise breeding centre on Isabela where we could see the long-term efforts needed to hatch many tortoises from eggs and look after them for 5 years before they could be released into the wild. Unfortunately we were too late for the famous Lonesome George – the last survivor of his subspecies – who died just a few months earlier (he was at least 100 years old, but this is not particularly old for a Galapagos tortoise).

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This sea lion greeted us after exiting the boat- he blocked the path so we walked around. Lots of the time we were stepping over Sea Lions and Marine Iguanas when landing on different islands.

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Acting friendly towards a sea lion so it’ll let us get past:

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The iguanas were also cool to see as they were an image I had in my mind from school. There were hundreds of them ranging in size up to just over a meter long. They appear to be pretty lazy and don’t seem bothered by people, I had to really watch my step whilst taking photos to make sure I didn’t step on any!

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Fernandina island is a small, uninhabited island off the west coast of Isabela. It’s the youngest of the Galapagos Islands (which were all formed by volcanoes – those on Isabela and Fernandina are still active). Fernandina really stands out for the number of sea lions and iguanas roaming around on the beach – bright white coral sand on black lava rock, dazzling under the intense Equatorial sun.

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The lava landscapes we saw both on Fernandina and Isabela were new to us – huge areas of lava flows from a few hundred thousand years to just a few years old, with fissures and cracked lava rock strewn everywhere – often bleak without much life at first sight – but on closer inspection you find cacti, lava lizards, and in some places big pools in collapsed sink holes, which can contain fish, more plant life – and even flamingos.

Much of the landscape of Isabela is volcanic like this:

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One of the largest sinkholes we found in the lava field – an oasis of life, including 3 flamingos!

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We also did an afternoon in the dingy boats and saw loads of turtles, flightless cormorants and many penguins. The penguins were super fast so pictures were difficult but it was fun to watch them on the surface (looking more like ducks) then dive under the water and swim so fast I couldn’t track them! They hang out in pairs and mate for life.

We also got to celebrate John’s birthday on board! The crew decorated the boat and made a cake while we were on Fernandina:) It was a great place to celebrate!

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We spent a lot of time going from the main boat to shore on the dingy’s- about half the time we drove by big rocks with birds, sea lions and iguanas sunning. This picture is one of my favorites with several penguins in front and of course, the blue-footed boobies!!

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On the last morning of the boat trip we were up at dawn to go to Bachas Beach – where we saw some more flamingos. What an unusual but beautiful bird – made pink from their diet of shrimp.

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We saw many other kinds of animals on our boat trip – too many to picture here – including Nazca Boobies, Red-footed Boobies, Galapagos Hawks, Frigate Birds, Tropical Birds, Pelicans, Marbled Rays, Stingrays, White-tip Sharks, many turtles, lava lizards etc. Definitely the best place in the world if you like a wide variety of interesting animals! And the best thing is – most of them don’t have natural fear of humans – so you can get very close to most animals there.

After the boat trip we arranged some day activities from Santa Cruz including a tour to Floreana and a day of diving! The day trip was pretty good and included a load of snorkelling (with wetsuits of course as it wasn’t warm and the water is about 18C – although a 3mm shortie proved to be insufficient). The island of Floreana was the first to be inhabited as it contains a source of fresh water in the highlands which was protected by pirates who built caves up there. We visited the row of caves where they lived, saw the spring and moai-like statue. On the hike up we also saw more giant tortoises but they are imported from another island. The native Floreana tortoises lost their lives to hungry sailors in the late 1800′s.

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The primary objective of diving – Hammerhead sharks!! After doing some research, we selected Gordon Rocks as the location we wanted to dive. We had to be flexible on days because the national park grants permits to the dive companies by location and day of week – so the dive company we liked dived Gordon Rock on Wed and Sat. This is nice because you don’t end up with crowds of divers! In fact, it was just the two of us diving with our DM and the owner/manager, Jan Silberstein.

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We had great wetsuits – full 7mm with hood and boots but we were still cold in that 18C water! On the first dive, we saw 3 hammerheads, turtles and fish but we were most excited about some playful sea lions who swam with us on and off for half the dive. They surfaced and returned to us a number of times. On the second dive, they swam with us again! So fun, they twirled and swam in circles around us, surfaced, came back down and showed off some more. John’s thinks they are compensating for thier awkwardness on land :)

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Unfortunately we didn’t get any great underwater pictures – the visibility wasn’t great, so we only saw the hammerheads for a few seconds at a time. The light level was low, and the water was so cold that we got some fogging in our camera dive case. Whilst we’d read that the diving here was “like a washing machine”, we didn’t find it too challenging – not as bad as the currents we’d dealt with in Indonesia and Rangiroa. The new thing for us was a really long-wave surge which was strong even at depths of 20-30m – and with a cycle period of about 30 seconds, it was more like a cyclic current than a surge (we’re more used to 5-8 second surge cycle on a reef at 5m). It just required a little patience and figuring out how to predict it. For us the main issue was just the discomfort of the cold and so much wetsuit and weight on us – so less agility than our normal 2/3mm plus 2kg setup. We’d love to go back to do some more diving in Galapagos in the future – but we think we’ll have to reserve that for an expensive dive boat and when we’ve got custom-fitted super-thick wetsuits and enough of our own gear to enable us to be more comfortable in 18C water!

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