Galapagos – A Darwin Moment

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The turquoise water sparkled with the last rays of the setting sun while tiny waves lapped gently on the warm, black lava. I released a breath that I hadn’t realized I had been holding for…eight months? This was Galapagos, and it was magic.

Our trip south has been amazing and wonderful, but it hasn’t necessarily been relaxing. There is an element of survival in our daily search for routes, food and safe places to sleep that keeps us on our toes at all times. Stepping onto the shores of these desolate and well protected islands brought a sense of peace that was like a balm to my spirit, and I knew instantly that this would be a very special week.

The Galapagos Islands had never been on our agenda (not that we have one), and for me, meant only vague memories of National Geographic episodes on TV and reel to reel films shown to us fidgety Jr. High Schoolers. Wasn’t there some connection to Darwin, natural selection and blue footed boobies?

Besides the tranquility, what Ned and I loved were the close encounters with the animals. Although the Islands have a brutal past of being ravished by explorers and pirates, they have been protected since 1970. The strict protection, coupled with a lack of natural predators has left the animals unafraid of humans. This offers a unique opportunity to interact with vast quantities of amazing critters.

While being on the quiet islands, surrounded by muted desert colors and rare species was remarkable, snorkeling brought us into an underwater wonderland of such magical beauty that it brought tears to my eyes. With no waterproof camera to distract, we were left to simply enjoy. The water itself was brilliant shades of crystal clear blues and although cold, was marvelous. The sea life was abundant, and we saw many types of fish and plants that we had never seen because they only exist here. To my delight, the tranquil desert colors that I love so much, were reflected in this watery landscape. Everywhere I looked, gorgeous pastels danced and shimmered. Every shade of the rainbow was paraded before me in muted, iridescent splendor. A sea anemone in lemon sherbet, a giant parrot fish in glistening melon green and pink topaz, microscopic amoeba, like mystical fairies, visible only through intermittent flashes of sapphire blue. Incredible. But the parade did not end there.

Imagine jumping into the water with your snorkel gear, putting your face down and seeing a huge dark blur approach quickly. Oh! A sea lion! No, three sea lions! It was a bit startling at first, as they, one at a time, swam straight for our faces, veering off only at the last minute. These were truly wild animals that wanted to play with us. The giant sea turtles, while singularly un-playful, were equally as unafraid. At one point I enjoyed drifting quietly next to my own private, meter and a half long turtle for over 15 minutes.

While we can’t share our underwater experiences, we are glad to be able to offer a few glimpses into the enchanting world of Galapagos. Enjoy…

Our last minute decision to book an eight day cruise in the Galapagos Islands included a flight from Guayaquil, Ecuador to the primitive airport on Santa Cruz Island.  Being part of Ecuador meant that there was no complicated immigration to arrive on the islands.  We had already imported ourselves!

Our last minute decision to book an eight day cruise in the Galapagos Islands included a flight from Guayaquil, Ecuador to the primitive airport on Santa Cruz Island. Being part of Ecuador meant that there was no complicated immigration to arrive on the islands. We had already imported ourselves!

The first animal we saw was this food sniffing dog, padding eagerly all over our bags looking for illegally imported snacks.  Part of the way the Islands are protected is by strict controls of any biological materials.

The first animal we saw was this food sniffing dog, padding eagerly all over our bags looking for illegally imported snacks. Part of the way the Islands are protected is by strict controls of any biological materials.

Our boat, the Estrella del Mar, carried only 16 passengers (all wonderful), and we enjoyed a private (but tiny) berth and bathroom.

Our boat, the Estrella del Mar, carried only 16 passengers (all wonderful), and we enjoyed a private (but tiny) berth and bathroom.

The official welcome to The Galapagos Islands was given by these stoic marine iguanas…

The official welcome to The Galapagos Islands was given by these stoic marine iguanas…

…and this giant, 150 year old, 400lb land tortoise…

…and this giant, 150 year old, 400lb land tortoise…

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…and this huge, meter long land iguana…

…and this huge, meter long land iguana…

…not such a big welcome from this lazy fellow.

…not such a big welcome from this lazy fellow.

The sea lions were completely un-alarmed by our presence.  This cute little guy just kept on nursing.

The sea lions were completely un-alarmed by our presence. This cute little guy just kept on nursing.

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Charles Darwin really was inspired to come up with his theory of natural selection after a visit to the Galapagos.  The marine iguanas, being the only iguanas that actually dive for food and can stay underwater for up to an hour, stimulated ‘ol Charles’ brain into wondering how and why these former land critters adapted to the sea.

Charles Darwin really was inspired to come up with his theory of natural selection after a visit to the Galapagos. The marine iguanas, being the only iguanas that actually dive for food and can stay underwater for up to an hour, stimulated ‘ol Charles’ brain into wondering how and why these former land critters adapted to the sea.

We were stimulated to merely have fun taking their pictures.

We were stimulated to merely have fun taking their pictures.

A flock of frigates flew with our ship for an hour, sometimes soaring within two meters of us.  A lazy close encounter enjoyed from the top deck of the boat.

A flock of frigates flew with our ship for an hour, sometimes soaring within two meters of us. A lazy close encounter enjoyed from the top deck of the boat.

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The male frigates have red throats that balloon out to manly proportions while attempting to attract a mate.  This one is obviously not on the prowl.

The male frigates have red throats that balloon out to manly proportions while attempting to attract a mate. This one is obviously not on the prowl.

Another way the Galapagos National Park protects the islands is by limiting traffic to popular viewing areas.  We 16 plus our guide were, at all times, the only people around, and it added greatly to the magic of the experience.

Another way the Galapagos National Park protects the islands is by limiting traffic to popular viewing areas. We 16 plus our guide were, at all times, the only people around, and it added greatly to the magic of the experience.

Our guide told us that he hadn’t seen this rare little beauty in five years. Finches (I’m pretty sure this is a finch?) provided further insight for Darwin’s work.  Apparently the size and shape of their beaks vary greatly between isolated islands and dramatically demonstrate adaptation to vastly different food sources.

Our guide told us that he hadn’t seen this rare little beauty in five years.
Finches (I’m pretty sure this is a finch?) provided further insight for Darwin’s work. Apparently the size and shape of their beaks vary greatly between isolated islands and dramatically demonstrate adaptation to vastly different food sources.

What I learned on my Galapagos vacation:  1) Tails aren’t the problem I always wondered about; 2) You’ve got to be pretty thick skinned to be a female lizard.

What I learned on my Galapagos vacation: 1) Tails aren’t the problem I always wondered about; 2) You’ve got to be pretty thick skinned to be a female lizard.

Up close with a stunning hawk.  This guy was a mere ten feet away and unconcerned.

Up close with a stunning hawk. This guy was a mere ten feet away and unconcerned.

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He may look like Godzilla about to eat New York, but he’s really just trying to get warm.  The marine iguanas may have adapted to diving for long periods of time, but they are still cold blooded.  The black coloring is not for camouflage, but to absorb warmth from the sun.  After diving, the marine iguanas are so cold they can barely move.  Seeing thousands of them (literally) frozen on the rocks is quite a spectacle as they raise their little reptilian temperatures to where they can move again.

He may look like Godzilla about to eat New York, but he’s really just trying to get warm. The marine iguanas may have adapted to diving for long periods of time, but they are still cold blooded. The black coloring is not for camouflage, but to absorb warmth from the sun. After diving, the marine iguanas are so cold they can barely move. Seeing thousands of them (literally) frozen on the rocks is quite a spectacle as they raise their little reptilian temperatures to where they can move again.

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Crown of horns.

Crown of horns.

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These were the only fur seals we saw. They are rare because they were hunted to near extinction before the inception of the National Park.

These were the only fur seals we saw. They are rare because they were hunted to near extinction before the inception of the National Park.

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Loving these close encounters of the wild kind.

Loving these close encounters of the wild kind.

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Look closely…those aren’t rocks, they are heaps of marine iguanas warming in the bright equatorial sun.

Look closely…those aren’t rocks, they are heaps of marine iguanas warming in the bright equatorial sun.

Great heron.

Great heron.

Join us as Ned and I watch this little domestic drama unfold between a flightless cormorant and her mate…

Join us as Ned and I watch this little domestic drama unfold between a flightless cormorant and her mate…

“Herbert!!!!”

“Herbert!!!!”

“Quit flapping those useless wings and bring me more nesting materials!”

“Quit flapping those useless wings and bring me more nesting materials!”

“Is this what you wanted, Francine?”

“Is this what you wanted, Francine?”

“Oh, Herbert, I love you so much.  You are the best bird on this rock!” On a serious note, the abundance of food here has rendered flight unnecessary for Galapagos’ flightless cormorants, and their wings really have shrunk to useless stubs.  Another stunning example of adaptation and natural selection.

“Oh, Herbert, I love you so much. You are the best bird on this rock!”
On a serious note, the abundance of food here has rendered flight unnecessary for Galapagos’ flightless cormorants, and their wings really have shrunk to useless stubs. Another stunning example of adaptation and natural selection.

Each day we went out in the ship’s two Zodiacs.  On this early morning foray, we did all of our viewing from the boats and were encouraged to be very quiet.  This was an extremely protected island where only 20 of the 150 operating tour boats are allowed to visit. It was fantastic and felt as if time stood still.

Each day we went out in the ship’s two Zodiacs. On this early morning foray, we did all of our viewing from the boats and were encouraged to be very quiet. This was an extremely protected island where only 20 of the 150 operating tour boats are allowed to visit. It was fantastic and felt as if time stood still.

This was our first view of the tiny penguins that are unique to the Galapagos.

This was our first view of the tiny penguins that are unique to the Galapagos.

The march of the mini penguins got a laugh out of this sea lion.

The march of the mini penguins got a laugh out of this sea lion.

An actual booby!  They really do exist outside of those old, scratchy reel to reels films, and they really do have pretty blue feet.

An actual booby! They really do exist outside of those old, scratchy reel to reels films, and they really do have pretty blue feet.

Two boobies.

Two boobies.

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Diving boobies.

Diving boobies.

This was a show we could have watched all day.  These guys are the most incredible divers, hitting the water at 60mph to reach deep into the ocean for those yummy fish.

This was a show we could have watched all day. These guys are the most incredible divers, hitting the water at 60mph to reach deep into the ocean for those yummy fish.

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Streamlining those wings and blue feet for maximum speed.

Streamlining those wings and blue feet for maximum speed.

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The penguins dive for food too, but go about it more sedately than the boobies.

The penguins dive for food too, but go about it more sedately than the boobies.

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It appeared as if they like to have a little fun, though…ready…

It appeared as if they like to have a little fun, though…ready…

…set…

…set…

…jump!

…jump!

A huge, majestic pelican.

A huge, majestic pelican.

After the boobies and penguins, we slowly and quietly motored into these mangrove covered lava channels where we were treated to the sight of hundreds of sea turtles.  After entering, we cut the motors and paddled in silence.

After the boobies and penguins, we slowly and quietly motored into these mangrove covered lava channels where we were treated to the sight of hundreds of sea turtles. After entering, we cut the motors and paddled in silence.

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Upon exiting our secret, sacred realm, our guide fired up the motor and we whooped and hollered our way back to the ship.

Upon exiting our secret, sacred realm, our guide fired up the motor and we whooped and hollered our way back to the ship.

On yet another island, we walked these lava fields in search of funny pink birds.

On yet another island, we walked these lava fields in search of funny pink birds.

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Flamingos!  But not pink, rather an orange sherbet.  Evidently they get their dramatic color from eating shrimp.

Flamingos! But not pink, rather an orange sherbet. Evidently they get their dramatic color from eating shrimp.

This flamingo feeding ground was a tidal marsh tucked away deep in the lava fields.

This flamingo feeding ground was a tidal marsh tucked away deep in the lava fields.

Whatever color, they sure were fun to photograph.

Whatever color, they sure were fun to photograph.

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As cute and comic as these guys are, I learned that reptiles have absolutely no individual personality.  Neither the iguanas nor the turtles form friendships or family ties.  All hatch from eggs without the presence of a parent and struggle their way into adulthood completely on their own.

As cute and comic as these guys are, I learned that reptiles have absolutely no individual personality. Neither the iguanas nor the turtles form friendships or family ties. All hatch from eggs without the presence of a parent and struggle their way into adulthood completely on their own.

Mammals definitely get all the points for personality.

Mammals definitely get all the points for personality.

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I don’t know, any personality here?

I don’t know, any personality here?

Giant tortoise front.

Giant tortoise front.

Giant tortoise rear.

Giant tortoise rear.

What comes out of a giant tortoise’s rear.  Those plops were about eight inches long!

What comes out of a giant tortoise’s rear. Those plops were about eight inches long!

This young twenty year old took a liking to my running shoe.

This young twenty year old took a liking to my running shoe.

Still not sure.  Any personality now?  She just appears to be hiding from the whole thing.

Still not sure. Any personality now? She just appears to be hiding from the whole thing.

Overall, we found our Galapagos adventure relaxing, enlightening, and richly satisfying.  Delighted to have made the hasty decision to book the cruise, we highly recommend visiting this unique and enchanting archipelago.    Next up:  Wrapping up Ecuador and driving on to our twelfth country, Peru!

Overall, we found our Galapagos adventure relaxing, enlightening, and richly satisfying. Delighted to have made the hasty decision to book the cruise, we highly recommend visiting this unique and enchanting archipelago.
Next up: Wrapping up Ecuador and driving on to our twelfth country, Peru!