Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Dispatch 36 Islas Galapagos

March 22 - April 22, 2008
We have so many glorious experiences while out cruising and so many close encounters with marine wildlife that there was a tiny voice inside our heads suggesting, perhaps, the Galapagos might not be as amazing after all these other fantastic experiences. After all, we’ve been face to face with hundreds of nesting blue footed boobies on Isla Isabela offshore of Mexico and seen iguanas, sea lions, dolphins, whales, frigate birds, sea turtles, etc. through our nearly 3 year voyage. Aren’t we thrilled to discover that the Galapagos, Islands of Enchantment, still provide all the enchantment we ever need. We left Panama and voyaged for 9 days, arriving early on the 10th day, here at Isla San Cristobal, the easternmost island of the group. We kept in touch with other boats traveling ahead and behind us to the Galapagos via single side band radio and had visual contact with a couple including one boat we had last seen in Costa Rica—one of those “small ocean” moments. So here is an alphabetical accounting of our time here.

‘A’ is for Autografo and Albatross. Our good friends Bruce and Alene on the trimaran Migration did a lot of advance research on permits for the Galapagos and, despite that, they arrived without a clear idea of what was best. After a couple weeks they discovered this permit called an “autografo” had been done for them by agents at one of the islands thanks to their months of e-mail communication. It allows a private sailboat to travel to 5 populated ports instead of just one port and allows up to 90 days in the Galapagos (!) instead of the usually issued 20 days. Our friends quickly wrote us with the e-mail for the agents who could issue this permit and we were able to send all required documents by e-mail and secure the permit before we even arrived in the islands. That turned out to be unbelievably fortuitous because, even before we arrived, the autografo became unavailable due to new regulations. But, thanks to our brilliant and thoughtful friends, we had slipped in before the door closed. So we have enjoyed utter luxury of time, open door policy at every port captain’s office (unlike many others’ experiences) and the wonder of 4 islands of the Galapagos via our own sailboat.
As to the albatross, well, we haven’t been so lucky. It nests here, but during another season.

‘B’ is for Boobies, Boobies and more Boobies. There are 4 varieties of boobies here, two of which exist nowhere else. There are Blue Footed, Red Footed, Nazca and the ever present Brown. We’ve particularly enjoyed the dive-bombing of the boobies here at our current anchorage. They drop from 50 feet, diving several feet underwater and come up swallowing a fish. They shake their heads as if to clear them then fly off. We watched the courtship dance of the blue footed variety where they turn their heads skyward and also lift their beautiful blue feet one at a time to impress the female. Marvelous.

‘C’ is for cactus and city. Here we are at the equator and on islands with rain for more than 6 months per year, yet one of the predominant plant species is a cactus which also provides food for the iguanas and other animals. It seems strange somehow.

Also, much to the amazement of those of us who thought the Galapagos were a wilderness outpost, there is a city of 12,000 people here on Isla Santa Cruz. It is the tourist center and has numerous stores, tourist agencies, hotels, restaurants, internet places. Things are expensive here by Ecuador standards, often US prices, but the fact that so much is available is a surprise.

‘D’ is for, well, Darwin and Dengue Fever. You just can’t get away from Darwin. We have read the Galapagos section of the Voyage of the Beagle, pretty dry reading. Still, the place hasn’t changed much since his description of it other than the city mentioned above.

Dengue fever is a mosquito borne viral illness and one of our friends is recovering after a 3 week illness he contracted here; the islands aren’t always enchanted.

‘E’ is for Eagle Rays. We have seen numerous beautiful spotted eagle rays while both snorkeling and scuba diving. They “fly” underwater so gracefully.

‘F’ is for Finches, Frigate birds and Flamingoes. The finches are ubiquitous and made famous by Darwin’s discovery that they had evolved different beak shapes to better adapt to their diet on the different islands. The Frigate birds are old friends, puffing up their red throats to impress the girls. Flamingos are native here unlike in Florida we learned. They look just like the lawn ornament models.

‘G’ is for Gecko, one of the many interesting lizards here on the islands. We wish we had one on our boat because they eat mosquitoes and we could have used some help with that type of wildlife (see Dengue above).

‘H’ is for Hammerhead sharks. Despite literally hours in the water we have yet to spot one although in every outing at least one person sees one. We’ll keep looking.

‘I’ is for iguanas. There are so many varieties here but the unique version is the marine iguana who swims in the ocean and eats algae off the bottom. They are unbelievably prehistoric looking.

'J' and ‘K’ well we got stumped on these 2, so on to ‘L’

‘L’ is for lava, lava tunnels, lava lizards, lava finches, lava heron, lava gull, etc., you get the idea. These islands are of volcanic origin and much of the terrain is made of lava. Some of the beaches are black as the sand is of lava origin. Lava rocks are not comfortable to walk on—they are sharp and black so they absorb heat. Nonetheless the sea lions haul out all over them. We’ve visited some bizarre beautiful landscapes where lava tunnels are now submerged in water and form arches and beautiful underwater chambers for snorkeling. We walked through a quarter mile tunnel on land left by racing lava where the outside cools and the lava stream continues inside. On that particular outing we managed to lose our guide (a group of 11 of us) so we explored the cave alone using flashlights until we found the light switch at the other end and illuminated the whole tunnel and went back for a better look.

‘M’ is for Manta Rays. Here like elsewhere they come jumping out of the water somersaulting or just flapping. But here we’ve seen large ones in and out of the water, sometimes just swimming peacefully at the surface with 6 to 8 feet between their “wings” on the surface.
‘N’ is for Nazca boobies, one of the unique varieties here on the islands.

‘O’ is for the Galapagos Owl which has eluded us to date.

‘P’ is for Penguins and petrels. The penguins are completely adorable. We are now anchored at one of the only islands to have them, Isabela. They originally migrated here from Antarctica on the cold Humboldt current. They swim around our boats every morning feeding and they’re just darling. Petrels of several varieties fly between the islands and only deserve mention as we’ve spent long moments pouring over the various wildlife books trying to figure out which species we’re seeing.

‘Q’ is for Qayaq our trusty boat that took us on this nearly 1000 mile passage uneventfully. We arrived after 9 days and a slow drifty passage punctuated by a couple high wind days and some motoring in flat calm seas. We crossed the equator—a momentous event in any mariner’s life—and thus went from pollywog to shellback. We marked the experience (at around 6:30 in the morning) with champagne, offerings to Neptune, read a poem we wrote for the occasion, and placed tattoos (temporary ones—another tradition). The champagne certainly went to our heads as we hadn’t been drinking for a couple weeks and it was early in the morning so most of the champagne went to Neptune which is appropriate. This was our longest passage to date and, as we hope we can always say after a passage, there’s not much to report.

‘R’ is for rays of the many varieties already mentioned.

‘S’ is for Sea lions and Sharks. First and always foremost at the Galapagos there are the sea lions. When we arrived at Isla San Cristobal, they were everywhere. To say that they have no fear of humans is to miss the point of their pest like behavior. They see every surface as a potential haulout spot. So the local taxi boats surround their decks with barbed wire which still sometimes doesn’t dissuade these animals. They were all over the public landing dock napping in the sun. One got too hot and decided to saunter over to the shade scaring a small child, but, undaunted, installed itself beneath one of the benches for more napping. The many sailing catamarans which usually have 2 swim steps in the back right at water level are major targets for the beasts and we saw every variation of obstacles placed up the steps to keep the visitors off including nail boards (which, by the way, makes getting aboard one’s own boat or as a guest damned difficult!) One of our friends resorted to spike boards when they awoke one morning with a sea lion looking into their bedroom from the front deck. Any dinghy left in the water is fair game and we had 3 in ours one night while at a friend’s boat for dinner. For the most part they left our boat alone until we were the only sailboat at one anchorage and awoke to a huge thud above our heads early one morning and found madame sea lion making herself comfortable right on top of our doghouse, 5 feet and 2 levels above the water. She was grudging but not hard to convince to leave.

Having said all that about the obnoxious interactions, we have also had several opportunities to swim with the sea lions and they are the most adorable creatures imaginable. They are basically sea dogs. Usually it is the pups who engage with swimmers. They swim at you upside down and, if you start to somersault or give chase, they play with you for as long as you like. Sometimes they get riled up and start nipping at each other, just like land puppies. We watched several playing keep away and tug of war with a stolen snorkel just like a dog would do with a stick. We were charmed. The rare floating piece of flotsam provides playful entertainment. At our current anchorage, the sea lions are much better behaved and stay off the dinghies and boats (other than those irresistible catamarans) and just fish and play around our anchorage.

Sharks are everywhere here. We scuba-ed and snorkeled with white tip reef sharks and Galapagos sharks. There are many others and, for the most part, they are minding their own business. It is unnerving still to find yourself in water 8 feet deep with a 6 foot reef shark though…

‘T’ is for turtles, the namesake of the Galapagos. There are marine turtles which we have swum with before and here and are always a thrill. They are mellow and beautiful swimmers. Then there are the, perhaps most bizarre creature of the Galapagos, land tortoises. They are the most

ill-suited design for land life yet they survive more than 150 years. They are huge (males can be 200 kg or more) move ponderously and, when approached, hiss quietly as they retract their heads into their shells, more like a bellows sound than a hiss. We’ve seen them at breeding centers where they are being preserved because they are endangered by the many human introduced species and we saw them “in the wild” on local farms. It’s bizarre to find them sitting in a field or by the side of the road, but they are definitely easy wildlife to “sneak up on” so to speak. But it is awesome to think that some of the old tortoises here were alive when Darwin was walking these same islands.

‘U’ is for the ‘unbelievable’ experience of traveling here in our own boat.

‘V’ is for volcanoes. These islands are very geologically active and formed by volcanic activity. Historically, they formed from volcanoes then floated south and east. The island we are on currently, the westernmost island, has 6 volcanoes, still active, the latest eruption being in 2005. We took a horseback ride up to the crater, the second largest volcanic crater in the world, which was notable mainly for the very sad, tired, overused horses. But the volcano landscape was lunar and stark and the views were spectacular.

‘W’ is for Windmills. The islands are trying hard to be energy independent. Our first island used windmills for all its electrical needs. The second island had a huge array of solar panels for the electrical needs.

‘X’ is, well, another one that stumped us.

‘Y’ is for cruising Yachts. This year there have been so many of us visiting the Galapagos. There must be 50 or 60 boats who have stopped here on their way to French Polynesia just as we are doing. The group is quite international with boats from Sweden, England, Australia, New Zealand, France, Canada and US (east and west coast of both), Italy, Germany, Austria, Denmark to name just some of the boats we’ve met.

‘Z’ is for zarpe which is the exit document we need from the Port Captain prior to leaving any port either for travel between ports or an ‘International zarpe’ for our exit from the Galapagos and entry into the Marquesas or from any country to the next.

We feel privileged to have had this opportunity to visit the Galapagos with our home. At one stupendous snorkel site, we arrived and snorkeled for an hour, just the two of us and our guide (an absolute requirement), before hordes of tourists on the tour boats unloaded to begin snorkeling the same site. And, despite regulations, we’ve been able to float along watching the darling penguins here at our current anchorage as they live on the rocks that are merely a couple hundred feet from our boat. (We’re supposed to hire a guide to be out on these rocks, not go in our private dinghies). The Galapagos are struggling with the volumes of tourists who want to visit versus the need to limit visitors in order to preserve the natural splendor of the place and maintain their World Heritage Site status. Everywhere we turn, there are locals who want to dip their hands in our pockets to help us enjoy the Galapagos. Still, regardless of cost, they are a unique place that we have enjoyed immensely.

Our next step is the biggest yet, the 3000 mile crossing to French Polynesia. We will leave later in April and arrive in May, perhaps as long as a month’s voyage in our boat. That should at least give us enough time to put away the Spanish dictionaries and find our French reference materials and start to tune our ears for the first new language in 3 years. We will, no doubt, not be in touch much during that long ocean passage. We wish you all well and will update the website when we arrive.