We arrived to Baltra Island and then driven a short distance down to the clear, turquoise harbor. We were greeted by a very lazy and unfriendly controls officer; a sea lion laying on a bench. Any time someone else tried sitting on the bench, he immediately began barking orders to get up. There were 3 large yachts and 1 old, oversized-looking sailboat. Which one did we choose for our 6 days on the ocean? The sailboat. We wanted to experience all the charm the Galapagos had to offer. And if you have no issues with seasickness on a cramped boat with tiny cabins, this boat had tons of charm and character. Actually, this boat made the experience all the more special. We really felt like we were experiencing the islands and getting in touch with the ocean like Darwin did, as opposed to a luxurious vacation on a big yacht. We chose this trip because the itinerary explored the western islands, which has not been open to tourists very long, and only 3% of the land has inhabitants; and of course, Isla Isabela is the home to the Galapagos Penguins. We hopped from island to island with the longest voyage lasting 12 hours. There were 11 of us tourists and 6 crew members. Every person on board was extremely friendly and a pleasure to be around. We were served 3 fabulous Ecuadorian meals a day and the cook always had a delicious snack waiting for us when we arrived back from our daily excursions.
The Galapagos Islands are everything people say they are, and more. Something that makes this place so special and unlike any other place on earth is how well preserved it is. They realize what a treasure it is and go to extreme measures to make sure it stays this way. All the islands are equal in beauty, but each one is completely unique and offers something different from the other – it all is according to each island’s volcano, what type lava it produces, and how recently it last erupted. Our daily activities included hiking the landscape, learning about the wildlife and different species each island has, snorkeling, safaris in the dinghy, and stargazing – being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with no influence from outside lighting, the stars were unreal. We will now elaborate on our daily activities:
The first day was mostly just a warm up of what was to come. We disembarked from the harbor on a 2 hour ride to Dragon Hill. This journey gave us a taste of the open sea and revealed to us whether the motion of the ocean would be a problem for us or not. Unfortunately, Hanna has some loose crystals in her head already, and this caused her to suffer from dizziness anytime the boat was moving. But she did not let this get in her way of enjoying paradise. We took a hike up Dragon Hill with the landscape much like that of the desert. We were acquainted with the incredible Galapagos land iguana. Basically, it was a mini dragon. However, it was huge for an iguana. Its brilliant yellow-orange color and robotic motions made this creature seem prehistoric. There were many of them along our walk amongst other types of wildlife such as lava lizards, but mainly birds. We made our way back to the boat in the dinghy – which is just the rubber inflatable boat with a motor used as our taxi – and were treated to our first of many, absolutely stunning sunsets. As the sunset formed a silhouette around our sailboat, it truly was a picturesque setting.
We made it to Isla Isabela early in the morning and explored an island containing a mass surplus of marine iguanas. These large, dark gray, Godzilla-looking iguanas were spread everywhere across the hardened lava. We really had to watch our step due to how many of them there were and since they blended in with the lava. We visited the “kindergarten” – as our guide called it – that had hundreds of young iguanas piled on top of each other. They weren’t extremely friendly as they kept spitting or sneezing at us. We learned they do this because they do not produce sweat and this is the only way they can perspire. It was on this island were we saw our first shark as well. It was the Galapagos shark and we were able to admire it up close as it drifted in this lagoon getting its weekly cleaning from the other fish.
We then rode over to the actual town of Isabela: Puerto Villamil. It was quite unremarkable, but is the host of a Galapagos Giant Tortoise sanctuary. This was truly something special to see – they were huge! They can weigh up to 1000 pounds and live close to 200 years old. Seeing these prehistoric beasts move around in person was definitely a highlight of the trip. We saw all different age groups of the tortoises from newly hatched, to great great grandpa – and they did look like grandpas. If just seeing these remarkable creatures wasn’t enough excitement, we were actually so lucky to witness two male tortoises fight over a female, with the winner claiming his prize. I began to film the rare occasion, but then realized this was going to go on for quite some time, as there is no rush in a tortoise’s thrust.
The rain pouring down, lightning, and thunder did not stop us from practicing our snorkeling skills in a lagoon before returning back to the boat for the evening.
Okay, cool, we went to an island with an active volcano that last erupted in 2005. Now on to the part I had been waiting on; snorkeling with a Galapagos Penguin. There were two penguins where we had snorkeled the day before, but I wasn’t able to see them that well. But now that I was more comfortable with my snorkel gear in the water, it was on. We jumped off of the dinghy into the fresh, cool ocean and I spotted a penguin about 20 yards away. With no thought to anyone or anything else, I raced to catch it. I passed an impressive sea turtle along the way but I didn’t even give it a second glance; I wasn’t missing my opportunity to swim with the penguin. As I paused to catch my breath and search the area for the penguin, suddenly he was right in front of my face. In this brief moment of eye contact, I waved, and I’m pretty sure he said, “What’s up” – best friends right away. We then chased fish together (or the penguin chased fished and I chased the penguin) until I was completely exhausted and out of breath. While penguins cannot fly, they are little torpedoes in the water and I was using every bit of my energy to keep up with it. And just like that, he was gone. Except for that one time at band camp, it was the best 60 seconds of my life.
There was also much more excitement going on in the water besides my first penguin encounter. We saw so many pretty colored fish swimming around, sea lions being sea lions, blue footed boobies performing their kamikaze attacks into the water, sea turtles being the definition of “chill”, and the cormorant bird hunting for fish. The cormorant is a special bird that displays a perfect example of evolution. Adapting to the rich collection of fish around the Galapagos, it lost its ability to fly and now is an impressive swimmer that hunts fish. I even captured a successful hunt and capture of a fish on the GoPro. It was a great snorkeling experience, with even more greatness to come.
Do you watch Planet Earth? If not, what’s wrong with you? If you do, then you may have seen some footage from the island we visited on this day. We visited Fernandina Island, where an intense scene from Planet Earth II was filmed. In this scene, a marine iguana hatchling is born and attempts to get to the safety of the ocean. However, predators await. As the iguana sprints across the rocks and sand, the Galapagos Racer Snakes dart out from the cracks. In a dramatic pursuit, the snakes wrap around the iguana, but the iguana breaks free to safety at the last moment. While we didn’t get to witness this action packed drama, we did see both species at separate intervals. It was an absolutely beautiful island, and the newest island of the Galapagos.
Next, we cruised another two hours to Volcan Wolf, taking in the beautiful scenery and wildlife along the way. The passage goes between Volcan Darwin of Isabela and Fernandina, so the setting was magnificent. When we arrived to “Turtle Bay”, we had the most incredible snorkeling experience. We disembarked from the dinghy into the frigid waters of the cove. Immediately there were schools of bright colored fish feasting off the sculpted pink coral below. As we snorkeled our way along the rock island, each area unfolded a higher level of wildlife – it was unreal. All of a sudden we were in the midst of dozens of large sea turtles. We ceased swimming and just let the swift current move us in and out as we admired and floated alongside the algae-covered turtles. Right on cue, the next level of wildlife unfolded. Fifty or more blue footed boobies sped head first into the water capturing the large schools of fish. Large tuna raced around us avoiding danger. There were multiple penguins darting in-between us as they hunted for food. We witnessed sea lions feasting on fish and then playing with the penguins. We were just missing one creature: the shark. As the current picked up, I let myself get too close to the rocky coral and banged my hand up against it. Blood immediately rushed out. It could be coincidence, but I take all the credit for what happened next – our first shark encounter. Directly beneath me was a Galapagos shark. Fueled with adrenaline, I swam towards the shark to try and capture it on film. However, a quick realization halted my pursuit: I’m bleeding and I’m swimming towards a shark. Are you dumb?? I headed back to the dinghy and let the rest of the snorkelers admire the wildlife. Soon after, we got back on board the Encantada and headed for our next destination. Along the way, we passed over the equator as we entered into the northern hemisphere.
To start the day off with a bang, we woke up with two black tip sharks circling our boat. Standing on the back of the boat with our GoPros in the water, we were able to get some close footage of the sharks swimming – sometimes a bit too close for comfort. We had a walk on the black beach of Floreana Island where Hanna took a dive in a beautifully blue lagoon with sea lions to retrieve some trash. We walked back and then snorkeled from the beach where we saw many more fish, a seahorse, an octopus, and two sharks. It was neat swimming through the cavernous-like structures of coral as we embraced the wildlife.
Back on board, we headed three hours more to the red beach of Rabida. This is said to be one of the most beautiful portions of the islands. With a large volcano high up in the sky, lush green forest beneath it, and then a crimson red sand beach touching the turquoise water, it was easy to see why. We took a small hike that revealed a beautiful view of the beach beneath us on one side, and a cool blue cove on the other. We walked back down and did our last bit of snorkeling. We saw more of the same, with the most notable being two octopi mating. Back on board, we enjoyed a toast with the crew over the last sunset, dinner, and then stargazing.
The last day was very short. We woke up early to catch a beautiful sunrise and then circled Daphne Island, where you can see part of the crater of the volcano. We enjoyed our last bit of sun before returning to Baltra Island where our plane awaited to take us away from this paradise. However, we didn’t shed too many tears, as our adventures in Peru were awaiting us.