The ocean at night is inky teal blue and emerald green, its depth unfathomable. The water ripples gently with the tidal currents and the air is cool and salty. The underside of the boat is lit with a sapphire blue light and shoals of flying fish are attracted to the brilliance. The sky is deep black covered with a million brilliant stars lighting the sea, all is peaceful and still. Then quietly and smoothly like a scene from a movie Galapagos Sharks move their bodies from side to side, propelling themselves through the water. They appear at the stern of the boat looking to hunt, their dark grey bodies sleek and streamlined. They open their mouths flashing rows of sharp triangular teeth and swallow large quantities of the flying fish. A large grey Pelican swoops in to eat the fish and nearly gets bitten by a Galapagos Shark, it panics and thrusts out its impressive wings to defend itself. The Galapagos Shark just gave it a warning to not try and hunt its prey. Two large bull Sea Lions lithely swim over to join this already magnificent display of marine life at night. They enjoy the shoals of fish now in rich abundance around the boat; you can hear the Sea Lions barking in excitement. The moon is high in the sky nearly full; it is reflected in the undulating fathom depth of inky water. In the distance the beautiful black volcanic coastline of the Galapagos Islands rises like a giant out of the ocean, always changing, always alive.
As I arrive in Quito in Ecuador my senses are immediately awakened by the sights, scents and sounds. The city is surrounded by a stunning mountain range; the black volcanic tops are shrouded in soft white clouds. The mountains gleam dark bronze, green and black under the intense sun, the sky is deep blue. The climate does not vary much there are two seasons, dry and wet, this is a country of warmth and light. The musical sound of the Spanish language spoken here fills my ears; I listen to the passion and intensity with which it is spoken. Is it the heat of the climate that creates this wonderful passion that is reflected in the intense music and brightly coloured clothes? I imagine so. The city is alive with activity, brightly coloured bougainvillea plants, fronds of pinks, yellows and oranges cascade over the walls of houses. I take my flight to San Christobal Island; the city disappears below me as we fly over the stunning mountain ranges to the Galapagos Islands …
The Galápagos Islands were discovered in 1535 by a Spanish bishop named Fray Tomas de Berlanga. After observing one of the several breeds of very impressive giant Tortoises whose shell at the front is shaped like the front of the saddle of a horse with its high curve designed for free neck movement, he called them Galápagos. The remoteness and geographic isolation of the islands has meant the flora and fauna has evolved in its own unique way. The Galápagos Islands is home to giant Tortoises, colourful Land and Marine Iguanas, Flightless Cormorants, Blue-footed Boobies and so many more unique, always intriguing array of plants and animals. Sadly for more then three centuries after they were discovered the islands were used as a disrespected base for a succession of buccaneers, sealers and whalers. Fortunately over the last seventy years conservationists, ecologists and wildlife experts have managed to reverse most of the damage caused. The islands once again are a haven for the wildlife and are thriving.
We arrive on San Christobal Island; the marina where we are meeting our boat is alive with activity. Sally light foot crabs which are bright red in colour are scuttling across the rocks. They are ubiquitous but incredibly beautiful; their shells are vibrant orange/red against the shiny black lava rocks. Lava Lizard scurry between them, they are slender and agile with long tails. They vary greatly in colour depending on the dominant soil colour, their skin is patterned. Males have a spiny crest and a black or yellow throat and the females a red or orange throat. They are very active during the day, they are generally found near the Sea Lions who attract the insects they feed on.
A large Megasberma Opuntai Cactus tree stands in the middle of the harbour. It is stunning, I have never seen a tree like this, the trunk loses its lower leaves as it grows and starts taking on more of a form of a tree rather than a plant, and it is incredibly interesting. San Cristobal is the easternmost Island and is one of the oldest, an eroded volcano rising 900m above sea level.
Galapagos Sea Lions are casually basking on the rocks, their oily furry skin slick in the sun. The males or bulls are very large and dark brown, almost black when wet. The females or cows are more creamy brown. They both have watery dark doe eyes and are very gregarious. They have interesting behaviour; they are highly thigmotactic, sleeping in groups or piles. They are very efficient diurnal hunters of fish; on land the males form bachelor herds. You can smell Sea Lions before you see them, they have a strong odour. You can also usually hear them before you see them too as they have a high pitched bark or yelp. What is incredibly interesting about them is on land they are very cumbersome and seem quite lazy but as soon as they enter the water they are elegant, athlete, lithe and energetic. They are beautiful, inquisitive, playful animals; as we take our panga (dingy) to our boat they somersault and leap through the sea.
In the afternoon we take a visit to the Galapagos tortoise breeding centre. These gentle giants have survived against the odds, where once there were 200,000 roaming free on the islands, only around 15,000 do now due to the destruction of their habitat and being hunted for meat in earlier centuries. They have now evolved into fourteen sub species. There are no land predators on Galapagos so they evolved into giant land herbivores. They further evolved into two main forms depending on the terrain. Firstly the “saddleback” carapace (upper shell) with an arched raised front end that enables them to stretch out their necks and feed on leaves. They use this neck extension to compete for food, the taller animal wins. These browsers are found on the dryer islands such as Espanola. On moister islands such as Santa Cruz the Tortoises have evolved with domed carapaces that are enclosed at the front. The graze on the moist plants on the ground. This centre has been a great success in captive-breeding and re-releasing into the wild of this magnificent reptile.
As we walk around these luscious green highlands, Galapagos Mockingbird flies around us and stop at our feet. They are attracted to our cameras and the lenses that reflect the light. They are thrush-sized birds with a long decurved bill. Their feathers are streaked grey-brown with white underparts. They almost appear tame as they are so mischievous, curious and certainly opportunists. For small birds they certainly make their presence known with their loud, melodious whistles and of course they are excellent mimics. They are amusing to watch as they forage around the ground; being omnivorous they pick out seeds as well as insects to eat.
On board our boat the sun sets over the ocean, the deep vibrant reds, oranges and purples of the sun are reflected in the gently ripple of the sea. In the back ground the volcanic hills of the islands rise like sleeping giants. They are covered in a sleeping blanket of green foliage. It is so peaceful and quiet out in the ocean, the only sound is the cry of the Frigatebirds overhead as we set sail for our ocean adventure into the wild. It is like journeying back in time to a jurassic land of rugged outcrops, untamed wild bush and unique, unusual reptiles. This is a journey into history, a land of wonderful and a tale of how wildlife has evolved.
The sun rises over the Pacific Ocean; the sea is a deep teal blue, its depth unfathomable. The suns fiery orb starts rising above the horizon, the deep red rays spread out like flames, the colour lights the sky pushing through the deep blue. I feel the warmth of the rays on my face and I feel alive and happy. It is always darkest before the dawn, a time for quiet contemplation, then the day begins, life begins to stir and the world comes to life. In these dawn hours I see Galapagos Sharks swimming around the shade of the boat; it is time for them to feed as the sun warms the water. They silently glide through the water, their fins propelling themselves gracefully. They are beautiful to watch, they are no threat as they just feed off of fish.
The rocky outcrop of North Seymour Island is covered in red, orange and yellow plants; they are watered by the salty sea. It is a stunning scene as the sun shines on the moist leaves, the colours are vibrant. Frigate birds fly over the rocks, wailing as they communicate to each other, it is time to fish. They soar on the vortex then dive like arrows into the seas inky depth. As fast as they dive they shoot up often with a fish in their beaks. It is an exhilarating scene watching their incredible hunting technique. One moment they are hovering then the next, as quick as a flash they dive, their eyes sharp and beak tip poised.
North Seymour Island is an uplifted lava flow; the flat plateau surrounded by low cliffs has fascinated palaeontologists with its marine fossils for centuries. It is a beautiful volcanic island covered in a variety of vegetation. As we approach waves gently break against the low cliffs, a fine mist of sea water sprays the Red-billed Tropicbirds, Brown Pelicans and Frigatebirds occupying the nooks in the cliff. It is a rocky landing onto the island; the volcanic rocks are slick with sea water and slippery as we negotiate our way around the Sea Lions waiting to greet us. Overhead Swallow tailed gulls are calling to each other, their screech very loud and distinctive. Sally light foot crabs scurry across the rocks, their bright red shells vibrant in the sun. The Sea Lions bat them away if they get too close. Lava gulls join the chorus of sea birds swooping over the cliffs and sea looking for the catch of the day.
Heading inland we negotiate the flat path through the island that allows us to view the wildlife without encroaching on their habitat and breeding grounds, after all these islands are protected conservation areas. The island is surprising quite green, there are several endemic plants here including the dwarf palo santo that grows often near an endemic opuntia. Blue-footed boobies can be heard calling to each other. They tend to nest in open areas among clumps of muyuyo and saltbush. The Blue-footed boobies are not only famous for their name and bright blue feet but also for their mating dance whereby they stamp their feet, lifting one webbed foot at a time and waving it around in a rhythmic dance trying to attract a female. This particular male is very persistent and energetic in his dance but the female in question he is trying to attract is already sat on two eggs! She looks at him with disinterest she has her eggs to incubate.
Surprisingly the Blue-footed boobies are actually the least abundant of the boobies but is the most easily seen. Boobies are related to the gannets, they both have the teardrop-shaped body and conical bill. They both also specialise in the plunge-dive feeding strategy whereby they fly over the sea and dive like arrows into the inky depth to catch fish. The boobies get their rather unflattering name from seafarers who sadly found them easy to kill in their nests. They are beautiful birds, very amusing and gregarious, you could watch them for hours especially when they are trying to attract a mate or bonding in pairs.
Further through the island nestled in the saltbushes we find a colony of Magnificent Frigatebirds nesting and courting. They are known as consummate aerial pirates, not only are they stunningly beautiful with their jet black plumage and deep red chest feathers but due to their wide wingspan, ultralight bones they can manoeuvre in the air quickly so they harass other birds mid-flight often pulling on their tail feathers so they drop their catch and the Frigatebird swoops in to steal it. This form of piracy is known as kleptoparasitism but the reality is the Frigatebird mainly catches its own food.
Magnificent Frigatebirds have the most elaborate and colourful courtship display. The males have a naked throat pouch called a gular pouch which is mainly unseen. However the male we come across provides us with the famous display they are known for. He is sat on top of a saltbush next to a female; he cocks his great expansive wings and inflates his scarlet pouch like a balloon. He vibrates his entire body and utters a cow like mooing. The female seems to like his display and he puts his wings around her in a proprietorial fashion whilst looking up to make sure no other male tries to steal her from him. It is a stunning display and his hard work wins him a mate. Once a female chooses a mate they stay together to build a nest.
Nearby a pair of Magnificent Frigatebirds have already mated and they have young in their nest, the babies are incredibly white and very very downy and fluffy. The parents fuss around them, taking turns to feed them. The babies grow fast so the parents are busy fishing to feed their young. Magnificent Frigatebirds hover effortlessly on the high thermals above their colony before heading to sea to fish; they spend most of their day feeding. Their technique is to catch the fish near the surface of the water without having to land or dive. Impressively you can often see them catching flying fish mid leap.
The Galapagos land iguanas are vibrant yellow-orange with a dark-brown back, the males attain reddish colouration in breeding season. The older males can weigh up to 13kg and measure 1m tip to tail. They enjoy the arid climate of the island, the make their burrows in the soil. They often live in colonies, when the females want to mate they raise their body off of the ground and shake their head. They have been known to live up to sixty years. Their food is mainly opuntia pads, flowers and insects. They are fairly silent retiles but will hiss when threatened. Overall they are harmless vegetarians despite their prehistoric dinosaur fearsome appearance. This is good as they are often laying on the path so we have to walk around them or gently step over them. Both the males and females are very territorial especially when defending food supplies. They butt heads to decide who is the strongest. Like all reptiles they rely on the sun’s warmth to raise their metabolism high enough to forage, so they are often lying around all morning until they have the energy to move. We find a small group of Iguanas eating a luscious cactus, they tear at the plump leaves, only one can feed one at a time as they fight with each other feeding rights. When eating each raises itself onto its back legs and uses its claws to hang onto the plant. You can see its long serpent tongue dart out.
The Galapagos land iguanas have a symbiotic relationship with the Ground Finches and Mockingbirds; when the birds are close the iguana adopts an erect posture and the bird hops about inspecting the reptiles’ skin and removing any ticks or parasites it sees. Also scuttling between the Land Iguanas we see small slender Lava Lizards with long tails. Their colouring varies with soil colour, they have patterned backs and the males have a spiny crest and a black or yellow throat. The females have a red or orange throat. These lizards are very active during day and enjoy nothing more than positioning themselves on top of the Iguanas to eat ticks and insects. They are omnivorous; they hunt small insects and feed off of plants. The males are larger than the females, we often see them staking out a mound or post from which they nob their head, their throat colouration serving as a warning to rivals or as an attraction to females. In nearby small delicate Darwin finches flit out the bushes catching insects and flies.
As we arrive back down at the shoreline we see playful agile Galápagos sea lions jumping in the waves. We put on our wetsuits and join them in the sea for our marine safari. As we swim out Frigatebirds fly overhead and torpedo dive into the sea trying to catch fish. Under the undulating waves it is another world. It is quiet and peaceful, a slower pace of life. There are no corals here but the volcanic rocks are covered in marine vegetation and are home to bright multi-coloured Parrot fish, Moorish idols fish, Yellow-tailed Surgeonfish, King Angelfish and Mexican hogfish. They are unafraid of our presence and instead just swim right by, it is quite mesmerising. Shoals of fish swim in perfect formation, vibrant blue, iridescent and silver as their scales catch the sun rays breaking through the water. Attached to the side of rock face in the depths chocolate-chip sea stars look like elaborate decorations. Sheltering in the crevices of the rocks crowned sea urchins feed off of marine invertebrates. The water is cool in these tropical currents. As I look down I see two White-tipped reef sharks, their grey blue smooth bodies gliding underneath me, these are peaceful predators that feed off of marine life they are perfectly safe to swim with. I feel such a sense of peace gliding through the waters at one with these incredibly creatures.
In the afternoon we take a panga to Santa Cruz Island where we head to Black Turtle Cove and its luscious Mangrove Forest. As we reach the forest rising out of the water our driver cuts off the engine and starts gently using the oar to quietly navigate us through the dense foliage. It is so peaceful here and soon Green Sea turtles appear next to us swimming quietly under the water. They are joined by baby White Tipped Sharks who are safely growing in the haven of this beautiful place. The Mangroves are home to both marine and bird life. Yellow warblers and Tree Finches fly between the branches and settle on the ends. It is so wonderful to see Rays gliding just under the surface, their diamond shape distinctive as they look to feed from the bottom. As we sail back to our boat Sally light foot crabs on scuttle over the rocks by the shore, their bright red bodies cling to the branches of the trees that hang over the water.
When sailing from one island to another at night you will often see the Swallow-tailed gull hunting. It has night vision large eyes to see the squid that swim towards the surface at night. They have cleverly learnt that the bow wave of a ship is good for scaring up squid so they can catch them quite easily. This also attracts the Black tipped Sharks which also swim around the boat at night feeding of off flying fish attracted to the light of the boat. It is interesting trying to photograph this activity as the light under the boat is vibrant blue which gives everything an ethereal blue tinge. It is quite magnificent and peaceful to watch. A large grey Pelican swoops in to eat the fish and nearly gets bitten by a Shark, it panics and thrusts out its impressive wings to defend itself. The Shark just gave it a warning to not try and hunt its prey. Two large Sea Lions swim over to join this already interesting display of marine life at night. They enjoy the schools of fish now in rich abundance around the boat; you can hear the Sea Lions barking. The moon is high in the sky nearly full; it is reflected in the undulating fathom depth of inky water. The sky is so clear you can see the constellations quite clearly; the stars shine bright above us. It is just a glorious, serene end to a perfect day, I feel very blessed.
I wake up just as dawn rises to the beautiful scenery of Bartolome Island, Pinnacle Rock rising from the sea like a sleeping giant. The sun is rising behind it, the rich vibrant colours of the rays shines off of the deep grey of the rock, the salt spray clinging to its surface sparkle like diamonds. Pinnacle Rock is actually the remains of an eroded tuff cone. It is one of the most iconic land marks in the islands. Bartolome Island is two barren volcanic cinder cones connected by a green isthmus bordered by beautiful golden sand beaches. We hike over an hour to the summit of the island; it is a 114m spatter cone. To reach it we have to dock and navigate around sleepy Galapagos Sea Lions. The Lava Lizards do kindly scuttle out of our way, before re-joining the sea lions and feast on the insects and flies they attract. Across the beach ghost crabs quickly scuttle into their burrows as the resident American Oystercatchers and Semipalmated Plovers fly overhead. Over the sea Brown Pelicans and Blue-footed Boobies plunge after fish in the shallow waters.
As we ascend we walk amongst pioneering matplants and spurge that punctuate the barren volcanic ash. Hardy lava cacti grow on the slopes of the hill. We see Lava tubes, some of them are whole but some have collapsed over time. At the summit our eyes gaze in wonder at the impressive panoramic view of the archipelago. It is also from here you can see the submerged crater in the sea and various lakes formed. It really is a breath-taking view. This is also a wonderful place to appreciate the impressive Pinnacle Rock rising out of the sea; it is home to such unique flora and fauna. We can see Red-necked Phalaropes and Storm-petrels flying to and fro the cliff face where they nest. At the very bottom Galapagos Penguins hop about the lower cliff edge. They dive from the lower rocks into the sea gliding gracefully through the cool waters.
After our hot hike we snorkel around Pinnacle Rock and its jumble of rocks that rise from the sea around it. These smaller rocks are perfect places for crustaceans and sea stars to cling to. Penguins swim around us, completely at ease with our presence. The Galapagos Penguins are only 50cm in length with black upper-parts with white edging to their face and white underparts. They have beautiful pink lower and black upper mandible, plus pink feet. They are the only ones to live only in the tropics. To avoid overheating by living in a warm climate they have evolved short plumage. It is lovely watching them navigate from the water to the rocks, they are graceful in the water, “flying” freely, but ungainly on land, walking with their flippers akimbo.
Beneath the surface of the cool tropic water we see an abundance of brightly rainbow coloured marine life. We swim with Parrotfish, Mexican Hogfish, Yellow-tailed Surgeonfish and White tipped reef sharks. When you are snorkelling with these beautiful fish you too feel like you are flying through the waters, it is an amazing feeling of weightlessness and freedom. Sometimes I stop and just float on the surface to gaze at and observe the world below me, it is so incredibly peaceful and colourful.
In the afternoon we sail to Santiago Island (Isla San Salvador or James Island) which rises 900m and is home to giant Tortoise. It is also famous for being the island Darwin visited and complained about the quantity of Land Iguana burrows. The island is also home to Buccaneer Cover which was a significant site in the 17th and 18th Century for sailors to replenish their supplies of water, tortoises and wood. You land on the black sand beach behind which rises mangroves. The island is dominated by Sugarloaf Hill or Pan de Azucar. Galápagos Sea Lions keep cool under the stunning natural arch at the western end of the beach. The volcanic rocks are covered with Marine Iguanas and Sally Lightfoot Crabs, in the early morning light they lay out still as statues warming their cold blooded bodies.
Marine Iguanas languish on the black volcanic rocks tumbling into the sea, the salty spray of the waves cooling them. They are easily recognisable with their dark grey or black bodies with bright red, brown and green tinges. They have rounded snouts from which they shoot salt spray which they have consumed, this prevents dehydration. They bask in the warmth of the sun, they are highly gregarious as they huddle together to maintain warmth. Marine Iguanas rely on ambient temperature to regulate their body heat and therefore metabolism. If they get too cold they will slow down and die; if they get too hot they will expire. The males fiercely contest territories where the females bask. When they warm up they dive into the sea to graze on marine algae, they use their strong tails to propel themselves. They can dive up to 10m to feed; they use their claws to hook onto the bottom whilst feeding.
To the west of the island there is a series of collapsed lava tubes that open to the sea and have formed grottos with clear water and natural arches. Here the Galápagos Fur Seals lie out in the sun and occasionally slide into the sea to hunt fish. Around the cliff edge Yellow-crowned night herons seek shade in the overhangs. The American Oystercatchers also fly around this area looking for rich schools of fish to dive in and catch.
Galápagos Fur Seals were almost hunted to extinction in the 19th century but their numbers are thankfully on the incline, they number between 25,000 and 40,000. Fur seals have thick, luxurious fur, the males have dark brown fur but the females are lighter brown. Their thick fur has evolved from them being nocturnal hunters; they feed in the deep cold waters. They have large bulging watery doe eyes, proportionally large fore flippers and a tiny button nose. They avoid the hot sun by sheltering in shady crevices and rocky overhangs. They are smaller than the Seal Lions and we see them jumping out of the water onto the volcanic rocks the waves crashing against them.
On the black sandy beach, Sea Lions and Seals are laying on the sand which glistens like tiny black diamonds. A seal pup is suckling from its mother, its dark fur glistening in the sunlight. The pup calls to its mother as she keeps rolling away from it as she wants to rest. The pup is impatient and repositions itself every time she moves to gain access to her teats. They pup once again in position peacefully lays next to her and suckles until it falls to sleep, it is a beautiful scene. Nearby a beautiful golden sea lion lying on the beach, she yawns and lazily looks up at us. She distractedly uses her large flippers to bat away the flies attracted to her strong odour.
The shore line is alive with marine activity, Sally light foot crabs are scurrying over the shiny black volcanic rocks, their bright red shells beautifully contrasting. Marine Iguanas bright yellow from the algae they have consumed walk slowly over the rocks, one dives into the sea and swims confidently to a rocky outcrop to feed on the algae growing on its sharp points. On the beach Marine Iguanas eat the vegetation, they leave a long trail on the sand made by their tail, and it is easy to follow their distinctive tracks. A Lava Lizards bobs its head as we pass, it scuttles under the sand to protect itself from the sun.
Two bull Sea Lions frolic in the sea noisily barking at us to get our attention, they want us to come in so they can play with us. They like you to blow bubbles in the water with your snorkel. It is safe to swim with them as long as you give them space and respect the fact this is their ocean. They are so agile in the water, constantly leaping and diving. Overhead Frigatebirds dive into the sea catching fish; we watch them hover on the vortex then dive like torpedoes confidently catching a fish. It is late afternoon and Pelicans too join them in swooping down to catch fish.
Out into the ocean a Stingray jumps out of the water, it completes a stunning flip before it descends back under. It is wonderful to see the water alive with activity as we walk out into the depth to snorkel. Black tip Sharks are swimming in the shallows, they are looking for shoals of small fish to eat, and they casually swim underneath us not at all perturbed by our presence. The scenery here is absolutely stunning. The rocks eroded by the tide and crashing waves creates bridges, on the beach a rocky outcrop creating a large arch. As we alight from the sea the sun is setting a beautiful Sea Lion is silhouetted in front of it, its back arched feeling the last of the sun’s rays on its black sleek skin.
We sit on the sand and watch the sun set over the sea, as it descends the bright red, orange and yellow light spreads across the horizons and is reflected on the calm rippling ocean. It is so peaceful and calm as the air cools and we breathe in the salty ocean air. The only sound is the call of the birds above us. We take our panga back to the boat, the spray from the sea cooling our faces as the glow of the warm warms us. It has been another incredible day in these fascinating, breath taking islands.
Dawn breaks bright and clear as we arrive at Isabela Island and Tagus Cove. Steam rises from volcanic fumaroles, Isabela is one of the most volcanically active islands in the archipelago. Isabela was formed from the vast lava flows of six major and many smaller volcanoes which have uplifted and joined over millions of years. It is the largest of the islands measuring around 130km north to south. The volcanoes are still active; the last eruption was in 1998. When the lava flows from the volcanoes it changes the shape of the coastline. The island boasts several unique animals, it has the worlds only surviving population of Mangrove Finch and due to its isolation the sloops of the volcanoes has its own subspecies of Giant Tortoises. The island is rich in wildlife especially where the massifs of Volcan Alcedo and the Sierra Negra join to form a sheltered kink in the coastline.
Tagus Cove is well-protected by the slopes of two tuff craters. We follow the steep winding trail past sleeping Galapagos Sea Lions. The climb is steep but beautiful as we brush past low bushes and grasses; it is all made worthwhile as we reach the top the vista is breath taking as we take in the panoramic view. An elevated boardwalk leads to the rim of Lado Darwin or Lake Darwin; it is a land locked crater with shallow, brackish water. The trail follows the lip of the crater through the stands of large, silvery palo santos with scattered Galapagos croton and muyuyo. Large-billed Flycatchers and Galapagos Mockingbirds fly around us and land on the tops of the bushes. We stand at the pinnacle just absorbing the magnificence of this island and feeling the energy of this living island, it is alive and constantly re-forming itself.
We kayak around the cove as this is another incredible way to see the natural beauty of the island. We are very fortunate to see the small Galapagos Penguins on the rocks preening. They have oily plumage to keep their feathers watertight so they must discard loose feathers to maintain this. They are very beautiful with their black and white markings. They stand on the edge of the rocks with the salty waves crashing over them. It looks like these could be a breeding pair as they constantly preen each other and rub bills. Large Marine Iguanas cling to the sharp vertical slopes rocks; they use their long talons to keep a grip as the wave’s crash over them, one of the Iguanas has its arm rather affectionately over the. Two young Iguanas are bobbing heads at each other, communicating friendly rivalry. Another young Iguana chases a Sally Light foot crab; it is feeling playful as the crab scuttles away. It is a rather unique sight to see such large numbers of one animal piled on top of each other, completely open to these harsh elements.
A Nazca Boobie is nesting on the edge of the rocky outcrop quite high up away from the crashing waves. It uses it body to protect its offspring nestled underneath it, occasionally you can see them peering out. A male Frigatebird hops over the rocks with a large clump of seaweed in its beak, it presents it to his female and they rub heads in appreciation, she is happy and bobs her head. She puts the seaweed in the nest and we see the eggs underneath her. The parents are very affectionate towards each other. Another female Frigatebird nests next to them, she has a young chick, very fluffy and keeps chirping at her, it wants her to regurgitate food. A Galápagos Eagle sits high on the rocks looking out to sea, its sharp beady eye scanning for hunting opportunities. As I glide through the water Green Galapagos Turtles swim around the Kayak, they swim close and under the boat. I stop paddling and sit and watch as their beautiful patterned green shells picks up the sun and glistens. Kayaking near the rocks I am delighted to see Star Fish clinging to the rocks like beautiful decoration. Pelicans float calmly on the beautiful teal sea near me; the waves gently undulate underneath them. Cries above make me look up and I watch Frigatebirds fly overhead looking for fish, they dive into the sea like a bullets.
In 1954 a 6km strip of Isabela’s west coast was uplifted 5m to 10m by volcanic activity, stranding coral, sea urchins and other marine life up to 1km inland. We access this new coastline via Bahia Urvina Bay which is a short stretch of black sand flanked by sharp lava outcrops where we see Lava Herons high stepping as they hunt Sally Lightfoot crabs. A lone Penguin sits on top of a rock as we land; it casually watches our approach and then closes its eyes to sleep. Sea Lions lay out on the beach, their great bodies slick with salty water, they too casually glance up then carry on with their slumber. We see beautiful yellow Marine Iguanas lying on the dark black volcanic sand, the contrast of colours is simply stunning. One sits by a clump of Yellow Cordia flowers, the yellow in the flowers beautifully reflecting its colours. Two Iguanas bob their heads at each other, they communicate their dominance. Another Iguana lies right in the middle of the track, it is so relaxed, large and confident, and the spikes on its head are quite prehistoric. Mocking birds fly around our cameras attracted to the reflections in the lenses, they try and perch on the edges to gaze in. A Galápagos Eagle sits in the top of the tree looking for Iguanas and small prey to hunt; its talons are curled around a branch. As we follow the trail we see the sandy tracks have distinctive tracks of the Iguana tails as they scuttle to the shade of the trees. Hidden in the undergrowth we see a Giant Galapagos Tortoise seeking shade under a bush, the heat of the afternoon growing too much for it.
As the sun sets we stand on the top deck of our boat, Frigatebirds fly overhead calling to each other, their distinctive long bodies and beaks silhouetted in the setting sun. Suddenly we see the tell-tale signs of water being blown out of the water. Two Humpback Whales have been spotted, this is good feeding ground for them, and schools of small fish and plankton make up their main diet. They dive down into the water their tails flip out of the water creating an almighty arch of water. They then jump out of the water; their mouths open as they take in quantities of fish. We see a mother and baby swimming and diving together. We lose sight of them and then suddenly they appear next to our boat swimming alongside us, they leap out of the water and dive back in, their tails creating beautiful waves. The sun sets over this stunning scene, the volcanic mountains on the horizon are backlit with stunning red, golds and yellows, a perfect Monet masterpiece of blended colours.
Dawn breaks over Fernandina Island; the rising sun paints a soft palette of pastel reds, pinks, oranges and yellows across the sky above the volcanic mountains. The sea is a dark brooding teal blue and the current creates gentle ripples on the surface. The wildlife are waking after the cool night, Nazca Boobies are perched on the edge of the rocks looking into the sea to find the best hunting spots. The small Galápagos Penguins with their oily dense feathers are already diving into the sea, they swim below the surface to find schools of small fish, and they occasionally leap out of the water creating a beautiful spray. The Marine Iguanas sit like statues on the rocks their dark grey prehistoric scales perfectly camouflaged by the Pahoehoe lava flow.
As the sun bursts over the horizon, the colours become more intense, almost like fire is coming out of the tops of the volcanos. The wildlife warm up from the sulphur steam that rises from the ground. The black volcanic sand beach is a wonderful mix of volcanic dust, broken shells and the spikes from the sea urchin. The Sea Lions are waking and warming themselves in the rising sun. They start barking and calling to each other, the young pups are very vocal as they watch their mothers disappear into the sea to fish. The Boobies fly over the coast line, they dive like arrows into the sea to catch herring, their distinctive blue feet the last to disappear. They bob up and float on the sea as they swallow their catch. A male Sea Lion pops his large head up from the water and barks at the other males, he is protecting his territory. He is looking to mate and is trying to attract the females with his plaintive call.
Thousands of years of lava flows from the huge domed cone of Volcan La Cumbre have formed Fernandina Island. It is the most volcanically active island in the Galapagos. A significant amount of the island is made up of barren lava flows, life very much clings to the rocky coasts, and there is little vegetation apart from the cactus plants. The Volcano spews lava around every five years so the wildlife here has had to adapt to the temperamental conditions. Punta Espinosa (Spiny Point) is a jagged promontory of cracked and eroded lava, but the name could also be related to the hundreds of spiny Marine Iguanas that cling to the rocks. If you sit and watch them you will see that they regularly spit out sea water from their nostrils to clear their bodies. They do so onto each other hence why they all have white spikes on their heads from the crystallised salt. Lava Gulls fly over the black and white mangroves which provide must needed vegetation.
On the volcanic rocks groups of hundreds of Marine Iguana sit like rock statues looking out to sea. They are so well camouflaged it is hard not to step on them. They are grouped together for warmth as the wave’s crash against the rocks. Some have their legs and arms wrapped around others, their long talons clutching on. Others walk over each other to find the warmest spot. A cheeky Lava Lizard climbs on top of the head of an Iguana, the Iguana does not seem bothered about this intrusion. Other Lava Lizards scurry between the Iguanas seeking warmth. Sally light foot crabs with their bright red shells scurry over the Iguana, they are so beautiful against the dark black rocks. Flightless Cormorants nest on the edge of the lava at the northern tip. A lone Heron high steps along the edge of the sea, they poke among the rocks for the abundant Sally Light Foot Crabs to eat.
As the Iguanas warm up they start to become active, the hordes of Marine Iguanas start making their way down to the shore, they can walk quite fast considering their tails and large bodies drag on the ground. They jump into the sea, the waves crashing all around them. They move their tails from side to side as they swim; when they dive down they use their sharp claws to cling to the bottom so they do not get dragged away by the current. They eat the tender seaweed under the water. Others swim across the rocks pools to mossy outcrops and start clawing at the moss and eating it.
The blue-footed Boobies fly back after hunting for fish in the sea and join their nesting colony. They are very engaging and active, they stamp their pale blue feet, dance and sway with their faces pointing to the sky to attract a mate. They whistle and honk to attract attention to themselves. As some fly in they perform acrobatic landing stunts then high-step to prove their prowess.
Up in a mangrove a Galápagos Hawk looks out for small prey to hunt. Its beady eyes scour the ground for the faintest movement. Under the mangroves you can hear Sea Lions coughing, the young often frolic and flop out of the mud between the mangrove roots at low tide.
What is very striking about the island is the austere beauty of the swirls and eddies of pahoehoe lava now solidified. The fields of razor-sharp lava rent by deep, brittle-edged fissures are stunning. Land locked pools are a rich biodiversity of marine life.
As we go out in our small panga we see Iguanas swimming across the sea, they have a unique style twisting their body from side to side, their tails elegantly curved. In the middle of the bay they climb onto jutting rocks and warm their bodies in the heat. On the side of the volcanic rock face a female Marine Iguana sits with four babies, she fiercely guards them as Frigatebirds and Boobies fly overhead looking for an easy meal. In the water Penguins dive under the water looking for fish to hunt and then bob up and float on the surface. Large Green Turtles swim in the crystal clear blue waters, their distinctive patchwork green and brown shells glint in the sunlight, they are very confident and swim around us and underneath us. The Frigatebirds dive like bullets in the water and tug at the cords of diver’s wet suits, they are very curious.
On the cliff edge a male Frigatebird hops heroically on the sharp volcanic face with a large frond of seaweed for his mates nest, He drops it half way up and reaches her without it, she is most displeased and frantically bobs and twists her head and neck at him. She has two young underneath her the seaweed will keep them warm against the breeze. The young still have downy feathers and are fluffed up against the chilly morning breeze. She sends him down the cliff to retrieve the seaweed.
On the black sand beach golden Sea Lions bask in the sun, their fur bright against the darkness. Sea Lions are plagued by flies and you often see them rolling over trying to rid themselves of them. The problem is they defecate where they lie then roll in it, the faeces sticking to their fur hence attracting the flies.
On the rock a lone baby Sea Lion forlornly lays waiting for the return of its mother, it has dark round watery eyes that are most appealing. Its fur is very fluffy and light brown in colour; it looks at us and cries, it is not happy to be left alone. It uses its fins to bat flies away from its face, it is quite adorable. It decides it needs shade and waddles and drags its body along the rocks until it finds an acceptable place to rest.
A large male Sea Lion swimming by the grey volcanic rocks suddenly catches a Blue-Chin Parrot Fish; it has its head in its mouth and starts slamming the body against the rocks. Every time the Sea Lion flicks the fish out of the water it creates a cascade of water. The fish is large and heavy but the Sea Lion has a large bull neck and the strength to thrust it out of the water onto the rocks. When satisfied the fish is dead it starts tearing off chunks to eat. Another Sea Lion swims by the rocks but it is in a playful mood, it dives in and out of the water around our panga, barking and bobbing.
Back on the yacht as we set sail Frigatebirds fly above us, their distinctive red chests bright in the now warm sun. They land on top of the boat using the antennae to rest whilst they search the waters for fish. Suddenly we see the tell-tale signs of whales, their blow holes shoot water up in the air. Then one breaks through the surface in an arch, its fin crashing down creating waves. There are three whales swimming by our boat looking for schools of fish to feed on. Above them birds fly following their progress, they keep close so they get leftovers of hunted fish. To add to the rich biodiversity of marine life we have seen a Manta-ray jumps out of the water and completes a backward flip. Then another then another. Their large grey bodies are flat and agile; as they flip backwards you can see their mouths underneath.
As we head to Isabela Island Dolphins start swimming next to the boat, they are joined by small Pilot Whales. They leap in the waves created by our boat. As we near the island Sea Lions to join the marine life to hunt for fish in the clear waters. The cliffs of the island tower over the sea, you can see the layers of sand and volcanic lava flow compacted over hundreds of year. The layers are gold, red, gun metal grey and black.
As we stop by the cliffs Sea Lions eagerly swim around the boat they seem to enjoy interacting with people. They are playful and leap out of the water. We take a panga along the coast line; large groups of Marine Iguana are piled on top of each other on the edge of the rocks, from a distance they look like lava flow as their bodies merge into one large mound of grey. They are huddling together against the cool crashing sea that beats against the rocks. Frigatebirds fly calling in the sky, they dive around us into the waves. Some are nesting on the rock face; small rocky outcrops make perfect nesting grounds. It is also ideal nesting grounds for the blue footed Boobies, they sit on the outcrops preening, and they discard any feathers that are out of place as they need to keep their plumage water proof.
Amongst the rocks young Sea Lions play hide and seek with each other, they enjoy jumping off of the rocks into the sea and chasing and biting each other. On land they seem so cumbersome dragging around their bulky bodies but in the sea they are graceful, quick and acrobatic. They delight us with their agility as they dive, leap and do somersaults under the water. When they get out to rest on the rocks, their black oily fur gleams like ebony in the sun light. A Fur Seal appears behind them, they are much fluffier with external ears. It slides down the rocks and dives effortlessly into the sea, its body undulating as it becomes one with the ocean.
A pair of Galapagos Penguins swim through the breaking waves and alight onto the rocks, their black and white waterproof oily feathers quickly drying. They are a mating pair and lovingly preen each other. They are incredibly affectionate towards each other. They negotiate the rocks by hopping awkwardly, like the Sea Lions they are more adept at navigating the fast flowing ocean, on land they need to rest and nest but they are creatures of the ocean where they soar and dive into its depth to hunt and feed. Penguins are such sociable, peaceful birds, their beauty and unique shape and colouring is captivating.
The Sea Lions and Green Sea Turtles swim next to our panga as we return to the yacht. They delight us with their water acrobatics. Later that evening we cross the Equator. This Jurassic coastline is awe inspiring and fascinating, the geology is quite unique. The Galápagos Islands are one of the few places in the world that is truly unspoilt and allows us to see how our world used to be.
The rock face of Santiago Island also known James Island or Isla San Salvador rises spectacularly from the sea, the deep red of the exposed rock glimmers in the rising sun rise. The iron deposits give the rocks the deep colour. The island is covered in luscious green plants and rich gold soil. We go out in kayaks to explore the beautiful coast line; the overhanging rocks are home to Brown Pelicans who look down on us before flying over with their great wingspan and use their long bills to scoop up great quantities of fish. Blue-footed Boobies nest in the crevices, they have beautiful round eyes that follow our movement curiously and they stamp their vibrant blue feet as they reposition. They are affectionate to each other and often rub their heads together. Lava Lizards scurry over the sharp volcanic rock and hunt between the twisted loops of pahoehoe lava. They enjoy the richness of the pioneering mollugo (a low herb) and lava cactus. Obsidian, dense volcanic glass, has formed at the edges of fissures where the lava had split, showing layers of older flows underneath.
Chocolate chip Starfish cling to the lower parts of the rock face where the water splashes up against the sides. As we enter a naturally formed cave we see White tipped Sharks swimming around the opening they are looking for fish to hunt. They are followed by Sea Lions who are also hunting; sometimes they nip at the Sharks tails to tease them. The cave is quite dark but it smells fresh and natural, you can see the layers of rock and ash built up over millions of years. Green Turtles swim around our kayaks unperturbed by our gentle pace. The sea is quite rough around the coast line but it makes the experience more exciting.
At Buccaneers Cove we see Sea Lions lay out on the black volcanic sand, they are basking and warming themselves in the morning sunlight. Protruding from the sea towers a rock covered in Lava Cactus, it would have part of the main land once. Around the coast we see many large rock formations, spiralling and protruding from the sea, they now provide great habitats for the marine life. Along the cliffs small black crabs scurry along the face.
Snorkelling later through the dark teal waters we see a plethora of marine life. The beautiful Mexican hogfish swim around us, the light streaming through the water picks up the bright dark pink of their scales. King Angel Fish nibbles the plants that grow over the rocks, they are just stunningly beautiful with their dark blue scales and bright yellow fins. Thousands of Salesian’s gather to mate, these attract the White-tipped Reef Sharks which grow up to 7 feet who feed from the bottom of the ocean. They swim slowly underneath us completely unperturbed by our presence floating on the surface. The Sharks have a peaceful aura about them; they are only interested in hunting fish. It is interesting to notice that as they swim by the larger fish flatten themselves against the underwater rocks and stay very still not to attract the attention of the Sharks.
The Galápagos Puffer fish are unique with their large heads and bulging eyes, they have golden scales with black spots. As quick as a flash the turquoise blue, vibrant pink, fluorescent green and black lines of the Bicolour Parrotfish darts by, they really are incredible to see. On the sea floor we see collapsed lava tubes which provide marine life with shelter and a great playground for Sea Lions and Fur Seals. As we swim they are happy to swim around us, occasionally nipping at fins or playing with the long zip pulls of our wet suits. They entertain us with back flips out of the water and play enthusiastically with each other. The late morning sun is breaking through the clouds and we can feel the warm sun on our backs.
In the afternoon we reach the Sullivan Bay part of Santiago Island. This is how I imagined the Galápagos Islands, as we disembark we step onto pahoehoe, the rich lava flow from the still active erupting volcano, it is dark gun metal grey an interesting mixture of sulphur and magnesium. It is shot through with silicon which gives parts a metallic hue. As the volcanic lava cools and forms rock it creates the most beautiful artful patterns, the lava swirls and creates patterns such as clam shells and lion heads, it is interesting the pictures you can see. The dried lava is very brittle and you see many cracks between the flows. In places you can see the tubes of lava as it made its way over the terrain. There is little wildlife here as there is no water, the only plants that grow here is lava cactus which actually looks very luscious with its vibrant green and yellow stems. The occasional lava lizard and grass hopper can be seen; otherwise this part of the island is quite inhospitable but incredibly beautiful.
Later in the evening on the boat after the sunsets a dramatic array of dark reds, oranges and yellows over the volcanic mountain ranges, White tip Sharks swim around us, they are once again feeding on the small fish attracted to the lights of the yacht. The underneath of the yacht is lit with a blue light and this reflects beautifully on the dark grey skin of the Sharks, they look mesmerising. All of a sudden an extremely large male Sea Lion appears by the boat, he also wants his share of fish. He is not at all bothered by the Sharks as he is significant larger than them in girth and length. He is very excited by the feast and somersaults in the water and occasionally leaps out forming an arch of spray.
The morning breaks bright and clear, the sun is pushing through the white fluffy clouds. The bright yellow sun casts its magnificent life giving warmth and glow over the water, the surface sparkles like dark blue sapphires. The sea gently undulates, schools of fish can be seen just below the surface, their bright colours shining iridescent in the bright light. Overhead Frigatebirds are calling they are out for their morning hunt, they dive like sharp arrows into the water to spear an unsuspecting fish. They then bob to the surface with their catch to eat it.
We arrive on Fernandina Island, the beach shimmers gold in the morning light, the sand is actually made up of Parrot Fish faeces which is quite unique. It is a sharp contrast to the volcanic black sands of the other islands. Sea Lions bask on the beach; they roll onto their sides exposing their large bellies, their golden fur glimmering in the sun. They have already been out for their morning hunt so they are sated and use their fins to scratch their bodies, the flies are buzzing around them nipping at their skin.
This part of the island is quite luscious, the Lava cactus grows tall here, its thick foliage bright green and covered in spiny thorns. Darwin finches and Yellow Warblers fly amongst the foliage. The Galápagos Mockingbird is bold and inquisitive; their beautiful voice can be heard above us. They enjoy the tourists visiting the island, their curious nature means they will often land on cameras or brightly covered bags. They are very sociable birds living in family groups, they are also territorial. Occasionally you can see them picking the ticks from Land Iguanas but mainly their diet is seeds and fruits.
On the beach Green Sea Turtles lay their eggs overnight; there is a strict line on the beach where you can walk to stop the nests buried in the sand being disturbed. Sea Turtles are exclusively marine and spend all their lives in the water, except the females who come ashore to lay eggs. Their front legs have adapted to be very efficient paddles; they glide gracefully through the water. However when the females arrive on the beach they are quite cumbersome, they literally use their front limbs to row themselves across the sand. The adult Sea Turtles have few predators, their shell is armoured plated.
In land there are two salt water lakes, they are surrounded by beautiful mangroves. Mangroves only grow at the interface between the sea and land. Their unique root system means they are grow in muddy shores. Their fleshy leaves excrete salt through special glands, and some species have unique prop roots which protrude above the oxygen-starved mud like asparagus spears and enable the plant to breath. We hope to see Flamingos in these salt water lakes but today we only find a single pink feather. Instead we hear the call of the Galápagos Hawk, it flies over us and settles on a branch of a tree and give it a good vantage point in which to look for prey to hunt.
Down at the sea we see a Lava Heron or Crab-Stalking Heron, their lava-coloured body and dark grey legs are perfect camouflage when they are hunting and can be easily missed. Their hunting style is to crouch over very still with their neck coiled ready to strike at lightning speed. They particularly enjoy hunting the ubiquitous Sally Light-foot Crabs, fortunately for the Heron they are in abundance by the rocks. The Sally Light-foot Crab is undoubtedly beautiful with its distinctive bright red shell; the juveniles are almost black so they stay camouflaged on the volcanic rocks. These colourful crustaceans are very quick and agile, as quick as a flash they side step across the rocks. If you see a very still crab it is most likely their empty skeleton that they shed and leave as a decoy to fool birds and tourists alike!
Marine Iguanas sunbathe on the volcanic rocks, their gun metal scales camouflaged against the landscape. Their rounded snout and stout spines differentiate them from Land iguanas. They are highly gregarious, they bundle together is large heaps to protect themselves against the cool sea waters that crash over the rocks. When they move they are quite quick, it is lovely to watch their long tails swish from side to side as they manoeuvre themselves. At the end of the rocks they dive into the sea, mid-morning is their favourite time to feed after they have warmed their cold blooded bodies in the sun. In the sea they used their laterally compressed tail for propulsion; they tuck their legs along their sides and dive between the tidal pools. They graze on the algae and seaweed at the bottom of the sea; they can dive up to 10m. To stop the current taking them out to sea they hook their claws. What is always very amusing is watching them eject two thin plumes of salt spray from their nostrils, it is how they rid their bodies of too much salt and prevent dehydration.
At the other end of the spectrum from the Sally Light-foot Crabs, the Ghost crabs can be seen scuttling across the golden sand. They are very quick moving scavengers who dart into holes in the sand when they feel threatened. Along the shoreline you can see Sea Cucumbers laying still. They as their names suggest are cucumber sharp marine animals related to star fish and sea urchins. The Sea cucumber feeds by ingesting sand from which they extract food particles. They provide a vital role in maintaining the health of the marine ecosystem as the turn over vast quantities of sediment at the bottom of the sea. They may not be interesting to observe but they are important to the Galápagos.
In the afternoon we visit Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz) to visit the Darwin Research Centre which is home to the conservation of the Giant Tortoise. The Giant Tortoise is a fascinating animal, its lower shell can grow to 1.5m long and it can weigh up to 270kg. The male Tortoise does not reach sexual maturity until nearly 25 years old but they do live to over 100 years old. There are several species of Giant Tortoise; here we see the famous Galápagos saddleback. This species evolved on the arid islands where ground was sparse. The Tortoise evolved a saddleback carapace or upper shell with a raised front end that enables them to reach leaves with their extended long neck. On more water abundant islands such as Santa Cruz the Tortoises have domed shells. They are known for being peaceful silent animals but they do make a loud hiss when frightened and loud rhythmic grunts during mating.
The research centre breeds Tortoise to release them back onto the islands to ensure the purity of the specie after their extinction from many of the islands. The centre is about educating people about Tortoises. They say many species of very large animals, collectively known as Megavertebrates, are often called biological bulldozers. They often push over trees, they dig, they create wallows and destroy vegetation. Giant Tortoises are the ecological equivalent of elephants in the Galápagos. Even their old scientific name Geochelone Elephantopus evoked similarities with elephants. Giant Tortoises have a suitably elephantine impact on Galápagos ecosystem. But bulldozers destroy, Galápagos Tortoises create. They tend the garden that is Galápagos. Yes they push over plants and create gaps in the vegetation but in those gaps they plant seeds from over fifty species of fruit they consume. They move those seeds over large areas of the islands. In this way we think Galápagos Tortoises help create mosaics of different habitats. On the wall of the centre it has a picture of a Tortoise and above it says curiosity leads us down new paths.
It is often difficult to see the Tortoises on the islands as the migration caused by the strong seasonal differences in rainfall and temperature on Galápagos means they move often. During the hot wet season rainfall is high in all areas of all islands which cause vegetation to flourish in the lowlands. Tortoises leave the highlands and migrate down the volcanos to feed on the lush new nutritious plants. When the rain stops the lowlands dry out but the highlands are humid all year round, so vegetation continues to grow. Many adult Tortoises return to the highlands where they can rely on the dependable source of food.
The day finishes with a sunset walk around Santa Cruz, Sea Lions can be heard barking on the shore line and somersaulting in the sea. Marine Iguanas casually walk along the walls of the town by the sea. Marine life is very much respected and protected in the Galápagos Islands. The sun sets over the harbour, the rich red, oranges and yellows paint artistic brushstrokes across the sky. The sea is still, just gentle waves lap the shore line. It is the perfect ending to a wonderful day.
We have sailed overnight back to San Cristobal, in front of us the beautiful Kicker Rock or Roca Leon Dormido (sleeping lion rock) towers in front of us. Dawn has just broken and we set out to snorkel around this impressive rock. The sea is refreshing but not too cold, as soon as we dive in Green Sea Turtle with their beautiful green, brown and bronze shells swim underneath us. Along the rock hidden under the sea vast quantities of barnacles, star fish and crustaceans cling to face, they create a myriad of enticing colours, red, orange, yellow, vibrant greens and blues. Huge schools of anchovies with their silvery scales attracts birds and marine life. Pelicans swim on the surface waiting for their opportunity to dive beneath the surface and swallow up large quantities. Frigatebirds dive like arrows around us picking off individual fish to eat. Then as silent as a predator Galapagos Sharks swim under us to swallow large quantities of the minute fish. In these early hours of the morning most marine animals are active. Large male Sea Lions gracefully swim around us; they are playful but also looking to feed off of the abundance of fish. It is paradise below the surface, a world of vibrant iridescent colour and such rich diversity. An eco-system completely dependent on each other for its survival. How privileged are we to have a glimpse of this technicolour fascinating world.
On dry land down in the marina, Sea Lions now sun bathe after their morning hunting on the golden sand. A mother and her young pup are nestled up together. The pup wakes and plaintively calls its mother; she responds with a reassuring sound and gathers it closer to her. Nearby a large male with his mammoth blubber bulk lays on his side, his face is a picture of contentment. Life is peaceful for the marine life, humans and wildlife co-exists well. In the marine a fishing boat comes in and two large male Sea Lions slide into the water hoping to catch scraps of fish. They somersault out of the water, playful and happy.
We have sailed overnight to Floreana (Charles Island or Isla Santa Maria). This stunning rugged island was formed by now extinct volcanic activity. This is such a jurassic coastline that a number of endemic vertebrates have evolved on this island. The endemic wildlife includes the Floreana Lava Lizard, Charles Mockingbird and the Giant Tortoise. What the island is also famous for is a large wooden barrel that was installed at Post Office Bay in 1793 by British sailors to leave messages for home bound ships. Today we leave our own postcards here to see if anyone picks them up and hand delivers them for us in the old tradition.
As we arrive by panga onto the golden beach made up of centuries of parrot fish filtered excrement being washed up, the sun is starting to shine through the low cloud, the sand glimmers gold. In the shallows a dozen or more Diamond Stingray buries themselves in the sand. They are dark grey in colour and diamond shaped. Like the parrot fish they are filter feeders. These Rays feed on small schooling fish and plankton, including small crustaceans, fish eggs and larvae. As you approach them they are quite harmless as long as you don’t touch them, they will swim out of your way and afford you a wonderful view of their elegant flight through the water, they use their pectoral fins like wings.
Galápagos Sea Lions laze on the sun soaked beach, their huge bulk slick with sea water and glistening. They yawn and roll over completely indifferent to our presence; they use their flippers to bat away the flies. On the volcanic rocks we see the Blue-footed Boobies, Brown Pelicans and Common Noddles making their nests. The Boobies hop from foot to foot, their bright blue feet synonymous with the islands. The Boobies launch themselves from the rocks and fly over the sea, their piercing eyes scan the water then they plunge-dive from a great height into shoals of fish like airborne torpedoes. They are stunning birds with their teardrop shaped white bodies, conical bill and distinctive blue bill and webbed blue feet.
We snorkel out into the sea, even in the shallows we can see beautiful volcanic rocks covered in algae with rainbow coloured fish nibbling at it. Large Green Sea Turtle swim in the shallows, they pass right by us affording us an amazing detailed view of their multi coloured shell of greens, olive and brown. Further out into the sea by the rocks shoals of hundreds of Black-striped Salema swim in formation, their scales are bright silver with dark black stripes. They attract many marine predators such as the Galápagos Shark and Sea Lions who swim right by us, we are not their prey they are only interested in eating the fish. The symbiotic relationships here is so interesting, from the filter feeders to the predators, each are important.
Bright red Sally Light-foot Crabs scurry over the rocks whilst under the water bright orange and yellow Mexican Hogfish nibble on the algae. Moorish Idols fish with their black and yellow striped bodies swim next to bright rainbow coloured Parrot fish. Between the rocks you can see Crowned Sea Urchins nestled in the crevices. These spiky dark black/blue sea creatures emerge after dark to hunt marine invertebrates. Just floating on the surface snorkelling you get to enjoy the bright array of Yellow-tailed Surgeon fish, King Angelfish and Concentric Puffers. Attached to the rocks beautiful Chocolate-chip and Panamic Star Fish look like beautiful decorations. It is the perfect blend of cool and tropical currents that create ideal conditions for this diverse marine life in the Galápagos.
Later in the afternoon we return to Floreana Island but this time to Punta Cormorant which is near the northern most tip. The landing beach is a beautiful golden glow of crushed sandy coral, sea shells and filtered marine matter. It is shot through with a beautiful green which is Peridot mineral stone created from volcanic activity. Greeting us on the beach are lounging Sea Lions sleepy in the afternoon sun, a young pup is doe eyed waiting for its mother to return from fishing in the sea. We watch Blue-footed Boobies fly off the cliffs and dive into the sea like darts to fish. On the sand banks female Frigatebirds sit on nests carefully watching us pass. A Boobie is also tending its nest but its young have hatched and are white and fluffy.
We walk through the island serenaded by birds flying overhead. A small tree houses a dozen Darwin Finches whilst Yellow Warblers hop along a ground. We hike to a large lake of brackish water, which is sea water filtered underground before entering the lake so it is not too salty but still not fresh water. A flock of Flamingo fly over in formation, their beautiful orange feathers bright in the sun. These Greater Flamingo are unique in that they have orange legs instead of the usual black. They are quite deep orange or more accurately an apricot colour due to the quality of the algae and plankton. They fly around the lake several times before deciding to land. A young Flamingo stands out in the middle of the group as it is more white than apricot as it is too young to have absorbed much colour yet from the algae and plankton it feeds on.
Down by the sea again we see a large male Sea Lion sitting on the sand, he wakes as we pass and barks at us to let us know our presence is acceptable but this is his land. He yawns and scratches his skin and settles down to sleep again. Sally Light-foot Crabs scuttle over the dark grey volcanic rocks, like the Flamingos they gain their bright orange/red colouring from the plankton they eat, the young crabs are still dark grey so are perfectly camouflaged against the rocks. The sun sets a stunning deep red and orange like the colour of the crabs over the dark teal sea. The water gently undulates and Frigatebirds call overhead now silhouetted against the darkening sky.
We have sailed overnight to Espanola (Hood Island), it is considered to be an uplifted submarine lava flow, the island is found in the south eastern edge of the archipelago, it is one of the oldest islands. We take a panga to Punta Suarez and disembark onto volcanic rocks, quite a challenge when a Sea Lion decides to sunbathe where you want to step off! The wave’s crash against the rocks, the black volcanic rock shines ebony in the morning light. Bright red Sally Light-foots scurry over the rocks perfectly offset against the dark black background. Like all the Galápagos Islands the wildlife is respected and protected so you have to walk a defined route between markers in order not to disturb the nesting grounds of the Marine Iguana, Blue-footed Boobies, Frigatebirds, Albatross and Tortoise.
Easily said than done as the wildlife do not know what the signs mean so we have to gently step through an obstacle course of Marine Iguana who are warming their cold blooded bodies on the warm volcanic stone! It is a most unique experience, they are quite unperturbed by us stepping so close to them, on occasion they move but mainly tolerate our careful high steps. Quite a number of the Marine Iguanas are “Christmas” coloured, due to the variety of algae and plankton available to eat some are a stunning dark vibrant, red, green and gold. As it is still early the Marine Iguanas are still cool from the night so are huddled up together for warmth, they are not sociable animals but they certainly understand the concept of body heat. Some literally pile on top of each other, some lay limbs over limbs, whereas others press faces together. To a casual onlooker it is a gregarious affectionate scene. Cheeky Mockingbirds jump between the Iguanas and occasionally settle on one to feed off of mites. Even the Hood Lava Lizard scurries between them finding warmth from the body heat of dozens of Iguanas. On Espanola there is a unique Lava Lizard indigenous to this island, it is very colourful and slightly larger.
The island’s surface tilts gently from vertical 30m to 100m cliffs on the southern coast-line, this means it has the full force of nature from southeast trade winds and the mighty Pacific swell. As you look over the cliff edges you have the most incredible views of the roaring dark teal sea with its strong currents and foaming waves. The cliffs formed over thousands of years has the most stunning lines of colour from minerals and volcanic material, it is a breath-taking sight. The jagged line of the rocky outcrops create the famous Blow holes, as the sea crashes against the rocks the water is forced through these crevices and shoots up 25m into the air like a watery volcanic eruption. You feel the full force and power of the sea.
Past the cliff edge Red-billed Tropic birds nest on the inaccessible rocky outcrops. They are white with black wing tips, eye strip and waved back and red bill. In flight they are easy to distinguish as they have a long tail streamer that trails behind them in flight. These stunning tails play an important role in courtship. They are related to the Boobies and also plunge dive to catch fish often from a height of 25m.
Overhead we see the amazing waved Albatross flying in on the vortex they are nesting just back from the cliff edge. They are the only specie of Albatross to breed in the tropics. They have beautiful white heads and necks, dark eyes, yellows bulls, grey-brown bodies and a fine wave between the head and body. We are blessed to see them as they need winds of at least 18km p/h to stay aloft. The breeding of waved Albatrosses is tied rigidly to the trade winds that blow between March and December. They are huge birds and need a large flat runway like Espanola to get airborne over the high cliffs. Waved Albatrosses mate for life however after long periods at sea they need to re-establish that bond. They have created their nests on the ground between the course shrub and we watch them bond by bill-circling, sky-pointing, and nuzzling and nipping at each other’s feathers. It is a beautiful ritual, one particularly affectionate pair even moo at each other.
There are several Albatrosses nesting in this particular sight as it is so close to the sheer drop of the cliff. They are quite sensitive birds like most wildlife and do not like being disturbed hence why the walking routes around the islands are strictly marked out and never change to give the wildlife their ritual breeding grounds. Sadly we see an abandoned Albatross egg; this could have been from a pair being disturbed and losing faith in the safety of its nesting sight. That is why it is important to respect wildlife and keep a good distance back from them.
Espanola is a popular island for the birds we also nearby see Blue-footed Boobies nesting with young on the ground. They are such beautiful distinctive birds with their bright blue webbed feet. One mother has two young very white fluffy chicks. They nestle underneath her for warmth and shelter from the wind. There are also Nazca Boobies nesting here, it is larger with a striking black and white plumage and a yellow bill and black feet. They prefer to nest also on ground sites but near cliffs so they can fly off to hunt fish easily. Overhead Galápagos Doves fly with their red-brown feathers, iridescent neck patch and scalloped back, blue eye ring, red legs. They are the only native dove and a general feeder so have survived well.
Now ubiquitous Frigatebirds with their striking bright chests screech overhead as they soar of the wind. But it is not them though that has captured our attention, as we walk over the uneven rugged volcanic boulders we see the next arrow sign directing us around the island. On top of it rather casually sits a juvenile Galápagos Hawk. He is absolutely stunning with his mottled brown plumage and buffy white tail, his feathers will be fully dark brown when he matures. He completely ignores our presence even though we have no choice but to walk close to the sign on the trail his sharp dark eyes are fixed on any ground movement so he can hunt on rodents, lava lizards and any other small prey.
It is late morning and the black hot volcanic rocks throw up heat making it quite humid. We walk through waist high salt bush so we have good viewing around us, an adult Galápagos Hawk sits high in the top of tree, it has full dark brown plumage. It is looking for larger prey to hunt such as other birds and iguanas.
In the afternoon we go kayaking around the island, the current is quite strong but it is wonderful to get close to the edge of the cliffs to achieve a perfect view of their geology. Thousands of years of waves crashing up against the rocks have formed small caves; the tide is too high to allow us to enter them so from a distance we peer into their inky depths. Frigatebirds, Boobies and Pelicans rest on the cliff edges peering down on us. Rock formations jut up from the sea, long ago detaching them from the rest of the island. We paddle around them observing the diverse marine life attaching themselves to their vertical faces.
We have a wet landing at Bahia Gardner it features one of the longest stretches of beach in the Galápagos; it is a stunning strip of white coral sand. It is known for its abundance of Galápagos Sea Lions but we were not prepared for what greeted us. On the edge of the shore a beautiful female Sea Lion had just given birth within the hour. The tiny angelic pup still had the placenta attached. It was an indescribable scene, the mother had the most incredible look of contentment and exhaustion on her face and the young baby already started to call its mother with its high pitched squeaks. As the tide begins to come in the mother needed to move away from the water to keep her new born safe, the baby followed dragging the placenta. She gentle nuzzled it reassuringly and licked it. Mischievous Mockingbirds try and eat the placenta but the mother barks at them so they fly off.
A large male Sea Lion basks on the water’s edge until he sees another large male approaching from the sea, he furiously enters the sea and a battle ensues, the male wants to protect and defend his territory. You can see them thrashing about in the sea; they try and bite each other. They have mighty body weight and the heaviest will generally win the fight. Their distinctive slick black bodies dive through the waves until one comes back victorious to shore to rest.
Back on the white sandy beach small Ground Finches hop about the sand looking for morsels to eat. Whilst the mischievous Mockingbirds are pecking at our bright coloured bags wondering if they are edible. They are not the least bit shy they are so habituated to tourists; they see these visits as an opportunity to discover new items to play with, peck at or just steal and fly off with.
The rest of the afternoon we snorkel for the last time with Sting-rays, it is a joy to watch them gently “fly” beneath us under the water. The volcanic rocks under the sea are covered in brightly coloured algae; Sea Urchins hide in the crevices. It is another world under the sea a rainbow of mesmerising colours. Mexican Hogfish, Yellow-tailed Surgeonfish, Moorish Idols and Parrot Fish peacefully swim between the rocks nibbling on the algae. There is no sound but the lapping on the water or the occasional bark of Sea Lions. As we leave the sea Sea Lions as playful as ever swim right by us, they are curious but also confident in their environment we are just visitors for them to play with.
The end of every safari is very reflective; being in the unique, mesmerising and sometimes very entertaining Galápagos Islands has been an absolute privilege. These islands have evolved over thousands of years due to their remote location into a unique bio diversity with incredible indigenous wildlife and plants. Here is like stepping back in time, the islands are formed from volcanic activity, sometimes it has felt you are not even on earth. The islands were nearly destroyed by man’s failure to respect it but thanks to education these islands, the wildlife and plants are now recovering. These islands should be a lesson to the rest of the world, this is our heritage and we have a duty to protect and preserve it. The world belongs to nature; we are just its caretakers. The trip ends with the most beautiful sunset, the dark reds, oranges, yellows, pinks, purples and blues are a perfect reflection of the wildlife and marine life of these unique islands. We sit peacefully soaking up the stunning view. The only sound is the gentle lapping of the waves and the screech of the red chested Frigatebirds flying overhead.