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Sunday 14th March 2010

Galapagos Islands

Situated about 1000km off the coast of Ecuador and consisting of 15 islands, the Galapagos Islands are a truly unique and beautiful part of the world. They are home to a vast number of endemic species of plants and animals. Galapagos means saddle in ancient Spanish and the islands were given this name by early Spanish explorers because the shape of one of the species of giant tortoise shells resembles a saddle. Most of the islands are uninhabited but there a few towns scattered around the islands. About 23,000 people call the Galapagos Islands their home (I had no idea so many people lived there).

On the geological scale of things, the islands are quite young which makes them like a living scientific experiment. Each different island is home to unique species of animals each with slightly different characteristics that allow them to survive more effectively in that environment. An example is the 15 different species of Finches that are only found on the Galapagos Islands. Finches from adjacent islands have each evolved differently and exhibit slightly different physical characteristic (ie different shaped beaks) to make them more capable of survival on their respective islands. This is the land of evolution.

San Cristobal Island

We flew from Quito to the Island of San Cristobal where we met up with our boat tour. The tour group was a mixed bunch and consisted of a retired American couple, a retired Aussie couple, a British couple in their 30s who live in Oz, a Spanish couple who were in their 30s, an Israeli mother and son, a 78 year old French Canadian bloke who had a few screws loose and wasnīt very steady on his feet and an American mum who had recently discovered adventure sports and was very proud of her two sons and didīt mind constantly telling everyone about them. All in all they were a decent bunch of people and only a couple of them got on our nerves.

We got a last minute deal on the cruise which translated to a 50% reduction in the advertised price (it was still extremely expensive). It was a 5 day cruise although itīs more like 3.5 days by the time they stuff around. Our guide Juan Carlos was level 3 qualified (the highest level) which meant that he was very professional and knowledgeable of the area.

We hopped in a bus and after a short drive, a panga (zodiac/dingy) took us out to the boat. Our boat and home for the next 4 nights, The Queen of the Galapagos was one of the larger vessels around and was pure luxury. The meals were delicious and the crew generally went out of their way to make us feel welcome.

Our first excursion was back to San Cristobal where we hopped on a bus and were driven to a tortoise breading centre. It was a shame to only see the giant tortoises in captivity but was still worth it. Their shear size is quite amazing!

After dinner a rumour swept the boat that Clarkey and I were keen to check out the night life on the island. A small group was assembled and a panga dropped us off in town for a few hours. Our guide also seized the opportunity to get off the boat and donned his tightest muscle shirt and pants and accompanied us (nothing suss). There wasnīt much going on so we just had a couple of beers and watched the hundreds of sea lions gathered (mostly sleeping) on the beach.

Espanola Island

While we slept the boat travelled to our next destination, the island of Espanola.

We awoke to quite a beautiful beach surrounded by a ruggered coastline. The first excursion of the day involved a walk along the beach and some snorkeling. The setting was reminiscent of the Whitsundays with turquoise waves breaking on perfectly white sand. There were heaps of sea lions lazing around the beach. In general, the animals here are fearless of humans so you can get up heaps close without bothering them. We also saw some marine iguanas and some colourful crabs. We snorkeled around a nearby island and saw some cool fish and even got to swim with some sea lions which was cool. They look so lazy and grumpy on land but once in the water they are so graceful. My underwater camera (my first one broke already) has proven to be a worthy investment!

After lunch we ventured back on to the island and went for a hike around the rocks. The wildlife was amazing! We saw seal lions, marine iguanas, blue footed boobies, lizards, finches and other birds. Along the way we passed quite an awesome blow hole. It was quite a rocky walk and the French Canadian bloke struggled big time and fell over numerous times. Both Clarkey and I had to catch him on a couple of occasions.

Floreana Island

After another disjointed sleep due to the boat rocking all night (I swear I thought I was going to fall out of bed a couple of times) we awoke to the island of Floreana.

We caught the panga to the mainland and went on a small walk to a shallow lake that was filled with pink flamingos. Theyīre quite a majestic animal and we learnt that their pink colour comes from a chemical that is in the small shrimps that they eat. We did some snorkeling along the rocks and saw some more colourful fish and some penguins. Later in the morning the panga dropped us off at a volcanic rock formation called The Devils Crown where we did some more snorkeling. The current was quite strong so it was more life drift snorkeling. The water was crystal clear and we saw so many fish and even a few white tipped reef sharks which was awesome. Easily the best snorkeling experience of the trip so far!

In the afternoon we visited Post Office Bay which was the first post office in South America. The deal is that in the old days, ships used to leave mail in the box and when other ships passed by, they would stop and take any mail with them that they were able to deliver. The tradition continues today. I left a few postcards in the box and picked up some postcards that were addressed to Australia and will deliver them or post them when I get home. Pretty cool! I wonder how long my postcards will take to be delivered?

Isabella Island

Next up was Isabella Island. After breakfast, we were dropped off on a volcanic island. It was ridiculously hot and the terrain was incredibly harsh and jaggered. We saw some marine iguanas laying eggs and some frigate birds trying to steal them. We also went snorkeling and were meant to see more reef sharks but didnīt see any at all.

In the afternoon we had free time in the town of Isabella. There wasnīt much going on at all! Desmond made the trip as well and I got some photos of him mixing it up with some marine iguanas. We found a cool little bar on the waterfront and drank delicious cuba libres (rum and coke) as the sun set over the water. Very spectacular indeed. It was emotional! We didnīt want to go back to the boat.

Because the Galapagos Islands are right on the equator you are able to see star constellations from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. The sky is also crystal clear so itīs quite amazing. We were able to see the Southern Cross and the Big Dipper simultaneously.

The bar tender on board our boat was called Ernesto and our guide treated him like his little bitch. It was friggin hilarious. The guide would  yell "Errrrrr-neeeessssto" from anywhere in the dining room and Ernesto would appear, snap to attention (not quite) and answer any questions. So funny!

Santa Cruz Island

It was time to leave the boat, so we packed up our stuff and got dropped off at The Charles Darwin Research Centre on the mainland. We saw some land iguanas and giant tortoises that were bred in captivity. We were also privileged to see "Lonesome George", the last of his species. They are trying to get him to breed with some females of similar species but have had no success so far.

We decided to stay a couple of nights on Santa Cruz so found a cheap hotel (Hotel Salinas) and checked in. In the afternoon, we rented bikes and went to Tortuga Bay. It was quite a beautiful beach and the sand was the finest and whitest I have ever seen. There was some decent waves and a few surfers were out. I had no idea you could surf on the Galapagos!

I woke up the next day with blocked sinuses but fortunately they cleared up a bit as the day progressed so I was still able to go SCUBA. We got a lift to the North of the island, boarded the boat and headed to the dive site Cousin Rocks. On the boat there was an Aussie girl, an American bloke, a German bloke and some American college students who were studying marine biology on the islands and also their mums who were visiting.

According to my logbook, I hadnīt dived for 2 years so was a bit rusty when we descended to 30m straight away on our first dive. By the second dive I was feeling much more comfortable and was able to relax more and enjoy the scenery. They were amazing dives! We saw heaps of fish, eels, a turtle, sea lions, spotted eagle rays and the highlight was a school of hammerhead sharks. Unfortunately I didnīt get that close to the hammerheads so only saw the outlines of them as they swam off into the distance. Amazing! My buddy (one of the American mums) disappeared during the second dive and there was a few nervous minutes while the dive master located her. Turns out she had issues with herbuoyancy and surfaced accidental during the excitement of seeing the hammerheards.

Met up with the dive crew for dinner and a few beers at a lively bar called The Rock. Who knew the Galapagos Islands had cool bars? We got talking to these American blokes who are pilots for this ultra deep submarine that can go down to 4400m to collect samples and take photos. Crazy way to earn a living!

I really liked Santa Cruz! It was such an awesome and safe little town!

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