MY PRIVATE GALAPAGOS
By Chad Case
I launched my kayak off the warm sandy beach with a gentle push into the emerald green Pacific waters of the exotic Galapagos Islands. As I paddled out the calm waves slapped against my boat and I was greeted by a curious sea lion that seemed to inspect my vessel and myself to see if we were fit for a worthy adventure. I presented my resume of a glowing smile and a camera hanging from my neck as credentials and off we go into the human animal experience.
Of all the places on this planet the Galapagos Islands are renown for their exotic wildlife and unbelievably intimate exposure to the quirky animals that call it home. Bear sized giant tortoise, salt sneezing marine iguanas, blue footed boobies, red Sally Lightfoot crabs, huge brown pelicans, tuxedo clad penguins and all seemingly as curious as us humans as we are of them.
It was November and our group of seven explorers led by Peter Grubb of ROW Adventures met up in Quito, Ecuador. We stayed one night in the big city at the swanky Swiss Hotel and the next morning hopped onto our jet for the 600-mile flight to Santa Cruz Island. We landed on the arid shores in the town of Baltra where a myriad of buses awaited throngs of passengers that would be transported to a cruise ship for the remainder of their vacation. Not us. We threw our backpacks in the back of a truck and squeezed into a small van that whisked us off to our sea kayaks.
Santa Cruz island is just one of 13 major islands in the Galapagos Archipelago and home to the Charles Darwin Research Station where they raise giant tortoises for release into the wild. These mammoth slow moving creatures can weigh up to 500 pounds and live 150 years. The paved roads on the island display tortoise-crossing signs. It’s not uncommon to have the smaller single lane dirt roads blocked by a traveling tortoise. During our stay on Santa Cruz we visited the tortoise wildlife sanctuary where we gawked at these titans within arms distance. When they sense danger the tortoise will recoil into their shell and breathe like Darth Vader – highly resonant.
Ever since I was a child I had dreamed of the Galapagos Islands and Charles Darwin. When I learned about his theories in school the Galapagos Islands seemed like a mystical land that time forgot. As I paddled my first strokes through the lime green waters on a blue-sky day, I flashed back to those boyhood dreams and pinched myself to make sure I was finally there! Just then a sea turtle bobbed its green head out of the water near my paddle as if to say “Hey I’m swimming here!” Then someone spotted rays jumping out of the water and flopping on their backs in the distance. Just before lunch, a shark swam up next to our boats and quickly disappeared into the emerald water. After just a few hours, we had been surrounded by animals; the whole group was giddy with excitement.
It seems comical to speculate what Charles Darwin was thinking on his 5 – year voyage while on our 10 – day excursion, but still I wondered, did he have the same giddy intoxication upon his first visit to the Galapagos Islands? Did he walk up to sea lions, giant tortoises, iguanas, frigates, and boobies with sheer amazement at their lack of fear?
Darwin’s Journey on the HMS Beagle began in December of 1831 and lasted until October of 1836. He was in fact the third choice of Captain Robert Fitzroy. Fitzroy had planned to survey and chart the South American coast as Darwin spent time on land studying the geology and natural history. Darwin was 22 years old at the beginning of the journey and inflicted with horrible seasickness while aboard the Beagle. At the end of the 5 – year journey he had actually only spent 18 months of that time on the Beagle.
The Beagle reached the shores of San Cristobal in 1835 and I imagine land was a beautiful site for a seasick 26 year old near the end of a long expedition. Darwin gathered samples on the islands and, while amazed at the findings, it wasn’t until he return that he realized many of the birds he collected and label as different species were in fact twelve different species of finches. Through is continued research after the trip, he found that each island contained a sub-species that had adapted to the surroundings of that particular island. In 1859, after several other publications, Darwin published the controversial Origin of Species.
The tough part about being a photographer is that meals are typically served during the best light of the day. So after stuffing some dinner down my gullet and having a quick glass of Cabrinet I grabbed my camera gear and raced down the beach. I hopped over black volcanic boulders in a sort of ugly imbalanced dance hoping to get to the westward shore before sunset. Being so close to the equator, the sun dropped fast.
As I crested the last knoll of rocks, the sun glowed blood-red-orange in the sky behind Kicker Rock. I paused for a second to take in the view, but only a second as I knew there wasn’t much time left to capture the scene. And what a glorious scene it was, watching that orange sphere disappear with the ocean surf splitting into dozens of frothy white streams channeling through the black boulders at my feet. One other member of our party made it in time to watch the show. When it was all done, words couldn’t express what we had seen.
The landscape of the Galapagos is not what I expected. I had imagined more palm trees and tropical foliage, but the views were much different and varied depending on the elevation. On Santa Cruz we took a drive from the north side of the island to the south, traveling up and over the center of the island. I was amazed at the arid coast carpeted in groves of salt scrub plants. Within 15 minutes, however, we were driving through misty clouds and a forest with everything covered in green moss. Once we came down out of the fog there were green pastures and trees. Each island in this archipelago was unique and offered a differing terrain to feast the eyes upon.
of the 13 major islands that comprise the Galapagos, the main population of 28,000 people live on four islands. The land area is approximately 5,000 square miles, making the Galapagos slight smaller than the Hawaiian Islands. The Galapagos archipelago also contains six smaller islands and numerous islets. During our journey we spent time on Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal. Porto Ayora on the island of San Cristobal is the largest town in the Galapagos at a population of approximately 9,000 people.
Most of the group paddled Weir fiberglass kayaks made in Argentina, All we had to pack in the kayaks was our day gear because the support boat carried all the camping and personal gear. The support boat hovered just out of distance and was in radio contact with our guides. I found the Weir boats to be very comfortable; and move through the water quickly when I wanted to crank up the speed. Sitting in a kayak surrounded by the mellifluous scenery was definitely they way to experience the place. We paddled in coves and bays where larger boats could not go. Riding the waves up and down off the rocks covered with red Sally Lightfoot crabs and barking Sea Lions gave us an intimate experience which wouldn’t have been possible in a group on land or from the deck of a boat.
There were times when the number of tourist felt suffocating. We paddled to Seymor Island where our naturalist guide had scheduled a time to walk on the island. Most of the traffic to this island is form of cruises and yacht-based tourism. There is a small dock where people disembark for a walk around the island. The path is clearly marked and travelers must not go off the path. There were groups in front of us and groups behind, so we were nudged along by our guide to keep the pace. With camera in hand and a plethora of marine iguanas, land iguanas, lava lizard, frigate birds and even a female sea lion nursing her pup to be photographed, it killed me to be rushed along!
We had the only kayaks tide up to the dock, surrounded by yachts. As our group got back into our kayaks, the yachts started jockeying to get in position to pick up their passengers from the dock. In the shuffle of boats we were nearly overcome by a yacht. Yelling and screaming and pounding on the boat, we got their attention and quickly paddled away from the traffic jam.
Approximately 100,000 people visit the Galapagos every year. There are 4-5 cruise ships with a capacity of 80-100-passengers as well as numerous yacht-based trips. Most people will experience the Galapagos from a water-based trip opposed to a land-based trip. To the credit of the Ecuadorian government 97 % of the Galapagos has been legally designated as National Park and Marine Reserve and they have contained the tourism use to a relatively small part of that. Keeping conservation in mind made it easier to digest the crowds.
Fortunately we could leave the crowds behind and venture out to beaches and hikes in which we were the only humans. We were on the only trip that offered beach camping and, after a couple walks with the crowds, I relished that fact. We had our own private Galapagos.
Our camp at Puerto Grande was nestled in a secluded cove on a 200- yard long white sand beach with black boulder-sized lava rock at each end. Towering above our exclusive spot was the 1500-foot rock peak of Cerro Brujo. Our support boat was already there with the main camp set up. We pulled the kayaks onto the beach had a glass of wine and set up our tents. As night set in, we dug our toes into the sand and listened to gentle waters lapping up on our beach while enjoying a delicious meal of pasta and red wine. The stars came out one by one as the conversation dwindled. We slowly crawled into our tents.
The next morning I woke up to the birds singing rather loudly right next to my tent. Peter shouted “Mornin’ fellas, breakfast is ready and the birds are singing.” I took my coffee and wonder off by myself down the beach, waking up to the ocean surf and birdsong as the sun grew down the peak of Cerro Brujo behind our camp. Today we would paddle to Kicker Rock known for excellent diving and snorkeling.
The paddle to Kicker Rock was just enough to get warmed up. This 500 foot tall monolith is the remnant of a lava cone eroded by the sea into two vertical rocks with a small channel in between. With a water temperature around 74 degrees Fahrenheit, we donned our neoprene, strapped on the snorkel mask and fins and plopped into the water. Kicker rock disappeared into the watery abyss below and we were surrounded by droves of sea life: sea turtles, colourful tropical fish, spotted eagle rays and a Galapagos shark hoverd at a comfortable distance. We swam through the channel with our guide as he pointed out creatures clinging to the rock wall and several microcosms of life that existed in the nooks and crannies.
After a long snorkel we returned to the boat to deposit our snorkel gear and slid back into our kayaks to paddle the maze of caves and channels of Kicker Rock. There was a swell of 3-4 feet, offering a little rollercoaster ride through the labyrinth. there were big smiles and some whoops and hollers echoing through the rock from yet another intoxicating Galapagos experience.
The Galapagos is a truly unique experience and, as a result, has grown significantly as a travel destination. Tourism has put tremendous pressure on this fragile archipelago. The population of the islands has more than doubled in the last ten years and, due to the limited resources in the islands, the Ecuadorian government has set restrictions on immigration. Humans themselves could be considered an invasive species along with goats, pigs, cats, dogs and donkeys. It’s an enormous cost and constant struggle to keep the balance of life. They currently hunt goats with helicopters on the island of Isabela, and hopefully it won’t come to that for us humans! From tourism growth to population growth, things are changing rapidly and a great way to get involved is to join the efforts of the Galapagos Conservancy at http://galapagos.org
We checked into our colorful Mediterranean-style Casa Marita on Isabela Island. The pace of life was much slower there, with sandy roads, groves of palm trees and the looming Sierra Negro volcano just above town. In the morning, our “limousine” awaited: a rusty red Toyota pickup with a wooden box for a bed. We climbed in and headed out for our 10-mile hike on the volcano.
As we trampled up the dusty trail through the morning mist, we began to see the signs of a recent volcanic eruption: crusty brown plants and charred and blackened earth. As we came out of the clouds to the rim of the volcano we were treated to an awesome view. We were directly on the ridge of the caldera looking out at an enormous 10-km-wide circular expanse. We followed the burned ridgeline with epic views of the volcano on one side and the coastline of Isabela below. There was still smoke rising from a relatively small area where the eruption had occurred. As we neared the area, the air became hot and our guide pointed out a 20-foot long 2-foot wide crack that resembled a crevasse in a glacier. The heat rising from the crack was so intense that a quick wave of the hand was enough.
I photographed the bizarre scorched landscape in juxtaposition with the fertile emerald green waters below while the group had lunch. After I had finished taking pictures and started to fold down my tripod, I found the rubber ends of my tripod legs had melted. Tiny lava rock was encased in the black goo! That was enough for me and I retreated to cool off with the group and refuel before heading down.
Upon our return to Casa Marita we quickly traded our hiking gear for snorkel gear and headed for the local lagoon. The wildlife was so numerous I had to avoid stepping on it. As I was backing up on the trail to take a photo, I looked behind me and saw the ground move. A hundred or so baby marine iguanas had been basking in the sun together, and were scurrying off in different directions to avoid me. A penguin hopped op on the rocks as we walked over to admire the female sea lion and her pup on the beach. A large male sea lion was not pleased with our presence and hovered in the water just offshore, barking his commands for us to watch our distance. That meant the usual three feet.
We then donned the snorkel gear once again and emersed ourselves in the lagoon. There was something a bit eerie about the underside of the mangroves, where thousands of roots intertwined and cut out the light. I was still getting used to snorkeling by the root system when our guide spotted a white-tipped shark looming in the dark cover of the mangroves.
Sustainable tourism is crucial for the survival of the Galapagos. I greatly appreciated the low-impact nature of this trip. The small support boat used consumed only a fraction of the fuel of yachts and cruise ships. Our visit was a land-based supported trip, which meant the use of local resources. On a water-based trip, people stay on boats and use resources which have been imported to the islands. Our small group seemed to be welcome by the locals and we had more of a chance to become immersed in their culture and the full experience of the Galapagos Islands, not just the flora and fauna.
The most exhilarating exploit of the trip was swimming with the sea lions: be ready for your inner child to surface! These elegant, playful behemoths glided through the water with ease and swirled and flew around us like birds in the sky. They often came in for a closer look, which took some getting used to. After that I welcomed any close encounters I could muster. At one point, a mischievous young sea lion tugged at my flippers with its mouth. Another person in our group let a 6-foot cord float in the water and, one by one, the sea lions would come in and pull on it a bit. This interaction was truly one of the most magical moments I have experienced.
Our last night was spent in Puerto Ayora on San Cristobal. After a long hot shower and a splendid meal at a restaurant overlooking the bay, I longed to be back at our secluded beach at Puerto Grande with my toes dug in the sand lounging in a dirty shirt. After dinner we walked down by the bay and had to step over sea lions draped across the sidewalk. These islands offer a magical setting where animals have no fear of humans, providing the perfect opportunity to share the planet.