As amazing as the nature experience was in Galapagos, the trip was made even better by doing it with a great person like Greg and with so many friends. A few random memories:
“It’s a crapshoot”
“So since this is an active trip…”
“WHOOOHAHAHAHAHA” (the sound of Paul on a horse)
“Where did JB go?”
“It’s all in your head”
“Tip Top Tres, Tip Top Tres, móvil”
“Oh my, there’s something running down my leg”
“There are bananas?”
“Argh, it’s drivin’ me nuts”
“But they’re endemic snails”
“Shit woah shit woah shit woah!!!”
“So, uh, this is the one time where I can’t guarantee your safety”
Cheers to everyone who came along and helped to make it such an amazing trip.
The Goob is afraid of turbulence, and it’s been a bumpy ride over Central America — the amusement factor is very high.
Greg and Thalia joined us for breakfast this morning, and it was nice to be able to say goodbye to them before leaving. Greg is planning on doing another 11-day trip next May that will have basically the same itinerary. I’m seriously considering coming back for that trip, and if anyone reading this journal is interested in coming along let me know and I can forward details. This morning, while riding in the back of a pickup from Puerto Ayora to the Baltra crossing, Aaron and I were singing every eighties rock song we could think of as the scenery sped by. After arriving in Quito we ended up at a really tasty Indian place, and Aaron changed things around a bit by telling vomit stories instead of the usual pants-crapping tales. The next table over from us got eerily quiet as his stories went on — I’m not sure whether they were amused or disgusted, but Aaron didn’t seem to care either way.
On the plane ride to Quito I was giving some thought as to why Galapagos appeals to me, and I believe that it’s because it is a place where the earth feels like it has remained as it is supposed to be — I get that sense in Alaska and portions of the American West as well, but it’s an increasingly rare thing in this world. The opportunity to see animals living like they have been for thousands of years in an environment that hasn’t been disturbed is an experience that for me justifies life itself, and serves as a means of renewal. Aldo Leopold summed it up perfectly when he said that even if such refuges are never visited, we need to know that they exist and will be there when needed.
Last full day in the islands, and it’s been a good one. Scuba diving at Gordon Rocks was the best yet — the cold and the currents made it a challenge, but several hammerhead sharks, a scorpion fish, huge schools of other fish, and the usual cast of sea turtles and sea lions made it a memorable one. Unlike Southeast Asia the diving here is in deep water surrounding volcanic formations, and it’s a really neat experience to be following a honeycombed wall that drops for several hundred feet while the silhouettes of hammerhead sharks pass by above. I very nearly froze to death on the first dive — I was still shaking when we started the second dive ninety minutes later, but the sea life and underwater scenery definitely made it worthwhile.
Aaron was able to contain the “crap your pants” stories when we got back, so the late lunch was fairly uneventful. I made a quick trip over to the research station to visit the tortoises in the afternoon, but unlike our visit with Greg the large tour boats had stopped by with their legions of senior citizens — during the trip Greg made the comment that it’s a shame so many people wait to come to a place like this one until they’re retired, and as a result they aren’t able to enjoy everything that is here. A one mile hike might have killed some of the folks I was seeing today, much less the 5:30 AM to 9:00 PM regimen that we experienced with Greg. I’m glad that I was able to take advantage of the credit card company’s generosity and do my two trips here while I was still young.
Paul and I spent a bit of time looking back at the trip after the dives today, and it’s been one of those rare times when every day offers something we’ll remember forever — day one with the sea lions, day two with the huge rookery and the beautiful Elaine (who if she ever reads this journal should know that I’m single and willing to travel to any remote island you happen to be working on), the ultimate high of snorkeling with orcas on day three, and the list goes on and on. Trips like this one make me feel that my life in the “normal” world probably won’t last much longer.
I think after all of the great snorkeling on this trip our expectations might have been a bit too high for scuba diving, so after yesterday’s dive the expectations were lower and as a result today’s dives were really good ones. We dove at a rock called Cousins and saw a bunch of cool little things like seahorses and christmas tree worms before crossing a ridge and running into sea turtles, rays, and several large schools of fish, including a school of barracuda. Skip also provided a highlight as he was still trying to master the BCD and would drop deeply before shooting up towards the surface — I just about choked when I started laughing underwater watching him. In addition, I got a call from nature on the second dive and discovered that unlike a short wet suit, the long wet suits will trap water. Definitely an important thing to note in the future.
After returning we were quietly hanging out in a restaurant when Aaron decided it was time to tell “crap your pants” stories. From now on any time I hear someone tell a story that contains the line “Oh my, that was a surprise” I won’t be able to keep a straight face — Trey practically lost it on one story, and all of us were howling with laughter before we left.
First day of scuba diving and none of us managed to kill ourselves — after not diving for thirty years Skip came closest by having to kick away a curious Galapagos shark and then having to surface early due to a broken regulator. None of the rest of us had quite as much excitement, although we did get to see several sharks, a manta ray, a turtle that buzzed over me about two feet away, and a school of tuna that probably numbered around ten thousand. The next two days are at sites that Greg recommended, so everyone is fairly excited about what’s still to come.
After a panga ride in Black Turtle Cove this morning we said goodbye to Greg and the rest of the passengers and headed off across Santa Cruz Island to Puerto Ayora to begin our three days of scuba diving. Trey, Paul, Aaron and I got fitted out with gear while Skip slept — the lovely Maria didn’t seem to be dismayed by our lack of experience (Paul and his fifty dives being the exception) so hopefully we won’t let her down. Laundry for $1.40 per kilogram, Cervezas in an open-air restaurant for $2.00 per liter, and some amazing body surfing in Tortuga Bay finished off a relatively relaxing day.
Last full day of the trip, and while a group of us were up on the top deck reminiscing and watching shooting stars Jenny and the crew were salsa dancing down below. This trip was supposed to be my last to the Galapagos for a while, but instead it has made me want to come down here even more — I’m afraid that the Galapagos and Alaska will be the two places in the world that keep drawing me back to them.
We started the day with the famous view from Bartolome Island, did a cold snorkel with penguins that pooped into Paul’s mask and a puffer fish that Greg carried around like a basketball, and then motored past Daphne Island and on to North Seymour. Aaron and I hopped in a kayak and powered along to “sea lion island”, had a bit of fun playing whack-a-mole with the sea lions there, then motored home with Aaron yelling random German words for encouragement. An impromptu snorkel with a bunch of young sea lions followed, and immediately thereafter we headed onto land to hang out with the blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, and sea lions. We left the island just as the sun was sinking behind the water — a very picturesque ending for an amazing trip.
Greg decreed that today was the day for massive amounts of birds, hammerhead sharks, kayak racing, and bioluminescence, and he delivered on all accounts. Tower is the home of hundreds of thousands of birds, so we started out by roaming amongst storm petrels, red footed boobies, frigate birds, Nazca boobies, and even a few owls. The frigate birds were particularly entertaining as the males inflated giant red pouches on their necks, flapped their wings, and made a goofy gobbling call whenever a female flew overhead — I remarked to JB that it seemed like one of God’s great jokes that they would have to be so ridiculous in order to land a date.
The first snorkel of the day was in the midst of the submerged volcanic crater that makes up the bay here, and despite the murky (and cold) waters a couple of hammerheads made brief appearances — one passed about three feet underneath me. A fur seal came to play for a bit, and it scared the crap out of me when it first showed up by swimming under my belly and blowing bubbles into my face from about an inch away — when you’re looking for sharks having something big pop up unexpectedly an inch from your face is a bit of an adrenaline rush.
The much built-up kayak race was won by Trey and Skip, although JB and I gave it our best — my arms are still tired six hours later. The second trip on land included more birds, and as is typical in these islands they pretty much ignored us as we walked by within a foot or two of them. The day’s final event was a night snorkel, and the bioluminescence here completely blew everyone away — when the water is churned it looks like fireflies are in it, apparently due to a plankton in the water. We also spotted lobsters, an eel, and a few other nocturnal organisms before getting out of the water, but the lights in the water will be what everyone will remember most — our panga was pimpin’ as it cruised across the bay with light shining underneath. Tomorrow is the last full day touring the islands, and it’s definitely sad to see the trip coming to an end.
Unfortunately I think I’ve scared everyone about tonight’s crossing from Santa Cruz to Genovesa — it was a lot of fun on the trip in 1999, but hopefully there won’t be too much vomit from this crew. Anyhow, today’s events were an early morning trip to the Charles Darwin research station followed by a tiny bit of shopping in Puerto Ayora — seeing a car again was a bit odd, although I did buy a great hat from the National Park kiosk. Rather than spending too much time in town Skip, JB, Aaron and I took off for the trail to Tortuga Bay, which is a perfect white sand beach accessible only by a mile and a half long trail from town. The body surfing was great, a frisbee briefly appeared, and Aaron even found some wreckage from a boat that turned into a skimboard (splinters, jagged metal and all).
Greg arranged a van to the highlands for the afternoon and we set off for a lava tube that was the size of a subway tunnel, some tortoise chasing, and a bit of bird watching. The vermilion flycatchers seemed to have a talent for flying off immediately before I hit the shutter button, but Aaron walked away with a great photo on his digital camera. On the drive back Greg and I were talking about ways that I could come back to the islands in the future — the options at this point look like taking a research position, becoming a “professional” photographer, or else arranging future trips — anyone interested in visiting some day, let me know 😉
The lava formations on Santiago Island form tide pools that put all other tide pools to shame — we were looking at crabs, fish and marine iguanas from lava bridges while fur seals and sea lions kept tabs on us this morning. Greg offered a bottle of wine for the first person who could find an octopus, but a moray eel and a large brittle star were the closest anyone could come. Snorkeling among the lava formations followed, and the marine life included more turtles and a ton of fish, including some spiny puffer fish and a few other species that we hadn’t seen elsewhere.
A few dolphins briefly joined us on the cruise to Santa Cruz island, and after they left us we went ashore near Dragon Hill to look for land iguanas. Greg said we’d be lucky if we saw six, and sure enough with the luck we’ve had on this trip six of the beasts showed up. Several flamingos were also hanging out in the lagoon, and I’m hoping the pictures come out as good as I think they may. The day’s final activity was kayaking on Venice Island, an aptly named series of channels and mangrove lagoons containing sharks, rays, turtles, and sea lions. Now everyone is camped out on deck waiting for a lunar eclipse — even if the eclipse doesn’t happen the full moon on the water with the Southern Cross looking down on us is a sight worth staying up for.
The pattern on this trip seems to be that odd numbered days will be good days, and even numbered days will be very, very good days. Today started with a panga / kayak ride through a mangrove lagoon to see sea turtles, penguins, rays, and “tree” lions. JB and I power kayaked back to the boat faster than the panga, and to cool off we jumped into water which we discovered was cold enough to cause us to scream out several newly-learned Spanish obscenities. We then took a brief panga ride to look for penguins, followed by snorkeling (and more obscenities). Greg again outdid himself when a pool within Pepe’s Cove turned out to have one hundred and one sea turtles in it — there were so many sea turtles within such a small space that it was sometimes tough to avoid them as they swam all around us. As the tide came in a channel opened allowing the turtles to escape, and a group of us stood and counted them as they swam past — standing and counting sea turtles swimming by ranks among the ten most relaxing things I’ve ever done.
The next scheduled event was a fairly mundane three hour boat ride up to Fernandina Island, but when we had nearly reached the island I spotted a group of fins and ran to the bow in time to see several dolphins riding our bow wake. Greg had the captain lower a panga, and a group of us set off to try and get in the water with them. Unfortunately the dolphins were skittish, so after twice jumping into the water only to have them disappear we settled for watching them from the boat. Definitely a neat experience.
The day’s last event was a hike on Fernandina Island, which is one of my favorites because it remains unspoiled. The marine iguanas were stacked on the sand, the flightless cormorants were out drying their wings, the crabs were scouring the beach, and numerous herons, sea lions, and other animals were also scattered about. We hiked back a bit on one of the lava flows, and returned to the panga just in time to watch the sun set over the ocean.
A fairly relaxing day today. Wake up call at 6:00 AM, followed by breakfast and a landing on Isabella where we hopped into the backs of two trucks and were whisked up to the highlands of the Sierra Negra volcano. After disembarking from the trucks I was introduced to Mona the Magnificent and Aaron met Miguel the well-endowed, and on these faithful steeds we set off for the volcano crater rim. When the horses were walking it wasn’t much of a problem, and galloping was a lot of fun, but when they decided that trotting was in order my butt took a beating as I bounced along in the saddle. Mona had a gentle soul, so these out of control ass-bashing sessions were fairly limited. JB managed to be the only one to get bucked off of the horse, although Skip did take a dive while getting out of the saddle and the sounds of Paul’s laughter as he got bumped along are probably still echoing across the island.
The volcanic landscape along the crater rim was impressive, but I’ll wait for the photos rather than attempt to use my limited skills to describe it. After returning from the volcano and horseback riding we took the trucks back into the town (a fishing village) for a trip to the bakery and body surfing on the beach. Skip will probably describe his eight loaves of bread (total price $1) as one of the highlights of the trip. Once back on the boat Paul, Aaron and I perched on the bow watching for manta rays and turtles (and whales, although they chose not to show up) while simultaneously crashing along through the waves — one wave that sent water over the bow and soaked all of us put the crew into hysterics, but it was a great ride nevertheless. As I’m writing this several folks are seasick (including Aaron) but the captain is promising smooth sailing once we get around the southern tip of the island so all should soon be well.
We doubted Greg when he told us he would try to make each day better than the previous days, but today we learned that mere mortals should never doubt a god. The day started out at 6:00 AM on the green sands of Olivene Beach, was followed by flamingos and the soft sands of Flour Beach, and was further followed by some kayaking and snorkeling with a few sea lions and lots of fish. On the way back from this snorkel we spotted a small pod of orcas, and immediately Greg put on his snorkel gear, turned to us and said “This is one time where I won’t guarantee your safety”, and then promptly leapt into the water. Nearly everyone quickly followed our fearless leader, and for the next five minutes or so we were snorkeling with killer whales — at one point a big bull orca passed six feet under me, and they generally would appear from the depths within thirty feet of where I was swimming. The number of times where I went from amazement and wonder to a subtle terror (try swimming in open ocean with nothing in sight but knowing three killer whales just dove under you) were large in number. My brother saw one of the big whales coming towards him and literally leapt like a dolphin out of the water and into the boat, scaring the crap out of the panga driver. This is the fourth time in twenty years that Greg has been snorkeling with orcas, and he says this one was the best. Eventually the whales swam away when several pangas from a larger boat arrived, but it was definitely an experience that will be remembered forever.
The snorkel that followed at Devil’s Crown normally would have been one of the best of the trip, but it’s tough to top killer whales. Highlights of the snorkel included tons of reef fish, a shark or two, some amazing currents, and Aaron nearly braining himself by coming up too early after swimming through a cave. All of this activity took place prior to lunch — the afternoon’s event was a long hike through the hot sun up to the highlands of Floreana. The purpose of this hike, as we learned after embarking, was to see an endemic snail. Greg took a bit of crap for that, and even more crap when his blistering pace faltered and he started sucking air, but the hike was fun and the view from the top was great. It’s only been four days in the islands so far, but already it’s tough to remember what life was like before we arrived.
I seem to have passed my flu on to the Goob, which is not a good thing — he missed out on a snorkel today that included reef sharks, sea turtles, tons of fish, and eventually even another sea lion who was so curious that she played with JB and I for a good twenty minutes before following us up onto some rocks and sniffing at our flippers. Dr. Trey is suffering from sea sickness, which is also unfortunate — he’s definitely not doing well. And even JB is thinking he might be getting ill, so I’m hoping I didn’t infect the entire boat.
Illnesses withstanding, the trip is amazing. We all got up for a snorkel before breakfast that included rays, a few small sharks and tons of fish. We then moved to a new spot and swam through tunnels of silver fish — JB and I were herding them like sheep dogs and then charging through the middle. All of this was before 9:00 AM. We did a brief landing on a beach with sea lions before doing more snorkeling on Isla Tortuga — this was the previously-mentioned snorkel with the reef sharks, turtles and sea lion — and then motored over to one of the largest bird colonies in the islands. Walking through this rookery was one of my favorite experiences from the last trip since the birds are fearless, with some of them even nesting on the trail. The blue footed boobies were doing their dances, the Nazca boobies were out in force, and even some of the albatrosses were doing their beak fencing — watching their mating dance is like a Marx Brothers comedy as they look in all directions, duck their heads, open their beaks wide, and then bang their beaks together quickly, making a hollow thwacking sound. Greg has put together a heck of a trip, and I think everyone is loving it thus far.
Greg claims that there will be days better than this one, but a lot of the folks on the boat are skeptical. We got up at 5:00 AM to do a seven mile hike on San Cristobal to find giant tortoises. Forty-odd tortoises and three and a half miles later we started the return trip, but detoured part way to climb a volcanic cone that was awe-inspiring — even Greg was taking photos from the top.
Following the morning’s hike the main events began — first there was snorkeling at Kicker Rock with a sea turtle, tons of fish, and a few rays and sharks that I didn’t see. Afterwards we headed towards shore and jumped into the water with what seemed like every young sea lion in the world — these guys did everything from blowing bubbles in our faces to staring at us from inches away to balancing sand dollars on their noses. After being in the cool water for almost three hours I was cold as ice but completely unwilling to get out — had I not gotten the worst leg cramp of my life I might still be there playing with them now. Happy times indeed.
The trip has finally happened — three and a half years of planning, and finally everyone is here. Spent a ton of time talking to Greg today — the man is a god — and after getting situated we all headed off to South Plaza, which is a small island inhabited by about a thousand sea lions and a fair number of birds and land iguanas. Even though I remembered that the animals were fearless, it was still weird to have a bird calmly preening itself two feet away from me, or to see a land iguana crawling ponderously towards me over the rocks. I’m back.
We have arrived in Quito after some particularly turbulent air — I never knew Aaron was afraid of flying, and laughed like mad while he was grabbing the armrests as we were coming into Quito. Aaron, who has never been outside of the US and Canada, continued to amuse us after arriving as he pointed out every sight he saw — “Dude, you can drive AND drink beers here!” — “Oh man, green means go and red means go, too!” — “The security guy in front of the hotel has a 9mm strapped to his chest!” This trip promises to be a memorable one.