The Galapagos (part 1 - southern islands)

Day 1 - Getting There

Our plane dropped down through a hole in the clouds and landed smoothly on the flattish, arid island of Baltra - we were on the Galapagos. A short bus trip to the rocky southern edge of the island, a ferry trip across the vivid green water of the narrow channel separating it from the much larger Santa Cruz, and another bus trip, first climbing gently up through the deciduous palo santo woodlands and cloud covered evergreen highlands of this low flattened conic island then descending once again to the town of Puerto Ayora, where we joined our yacht "Golondrina" for an 8-day cruise of a selection of the archipelago's islands. The orange lava crabs were climbing over the rocks at the pier and a small group of marine iguanas watched us intently - we knew that we were really on the Galapagos.

Heading out to join the "Golondrina" in Puerto Ayora

Marine iguanas, lava crabs and one of Darwin's finches - it must be the Galapagos

Once esconced on board, we headed off with the other 3 passengers joining the cruise (Glyn from England and two Irish girls, Annie and Zoe) for a guided tour of the Darwin Research Institute to see its captive tortoise and land iguana breeding programs and discover a bit about the fight against the exotic invaders (feral animals, insect pests and weeds) that threaten the biodiversity of this unique habitat and the research being undertaken to control them.

Three different races of giant land tortoise being reared at the Darwin Research Institute

Land iguana

Lava lizard

After a bit of free time to buy a few supplies we returned to the boat to meet the rest of our compañeros, who had already been on the yacht for 4 nights (Cobie and Michel from the Netherlands, Marianne from Switzerland, Sabrina from Germany, Fiona, Deb and Darren from New Zealand, and Aron from Israel, as well as our guide Enrique and the boat's crew (David our cook, Juan our waiter com equipment man, the captain, first officer and crewman).

It had been a tiring day and we went to sleep early, lulled by the gentle rocking of the boat, as it bobbed about in the harbour at Ayora. Tomorrow our Galapagos adventure would start in earnest.

Day 2 - Santa Cruz and Santa Fe Islands

The cloud had descended over Santa Cruz Island while we slept and we headed back to shore on the zodiac in a fine mist for our bus trip up to the highlands of this, the second largest island of the archipelago. Still, it was not inappropriate, as we were going to visit the garua (cloud) forest, kept evergreen by the mists that envelop it during this drier time of year, when much of the coastal forest has dropped its leaves.

One of the Los Gemelos sinkholes

In the cloud forest of Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz mockingbird

We stopped to explore Los Gemelos, two large sink-holes, formed by the collapse of a magma chamber in this volcanic landscape and surrounded by the lichen covered trunks and broad green leaves of the scaletia forest.

The lack of fear so characteristic of Galapagos wild-life was apparent as finches and doves hopped about brazenly within a metre or two of us. It was pleasant to wander through the dripping forest as wisps of cloud drifted by, its rich understorey growing between chunks of rough black lava.

Galapagos dove

Track through the cloud forest

Scaletia forest of the Santa Cruz highlands

The second of the Los Gemelos sinkholes in the mist

On the way back, we stopped to check out an ancient lava tunnel in the region of dry deciduous coastal forest with its bare-branched Santo Palo trees and tall, woody-trunked pear cactus. Only a few kilometres in distance from the cloud forest, yet a world apart in vegetation type.

Exploring a lava tunnel

Cactus in flower

The dry deciduous coastal woodlands

Then it was back to the boat for a great 3-course lunch before finally hauling anchor and heading out of the harbour. At last it seemed that our adventure was underway, as we headed off for the 2½ hour trip to Santa Fe, oldest of the volcanic islands in the Galapagos Archipelago.

Heading towards Santa Fe Island

Brown pelican in Puerto Ayora harbour

As we rocked and rolled our way across the lumpy seas, slowly leaving the low conic shape of Santa Cruz behind, the sky gradually cleared and by the time we reached the rocky cliff-lined shore of Santa Fe, the sun had broken through.

We followed the rugged coastline around to the east, until we reached a spot where a small island and off-shore rock rib had created a protected lagoon; a place appreciated by passing boats and by the local sea-lions who used its rocks and sandy beach as a favourite haul-out spot.

In the lagoon at Santa Fe

It was time to don our wet-suits and snorkeling gear for a chance to swim with these curious and playful mammals. We were not disappointed as several young sea-lions came out to join the group of snorkellers, at first rocketing past from behind and then coming closer to swim around, peer into face-masks, nibble flippers and demonstrate their superb underwater skills. They appeared to be as amused by us as we were by them. Apart from colourful tropical fish, the bonus to this stop was a chance to also swim with sea-turtles and a school of 30 or so large eagle rays in the clear turquoise waters of this semi-lagoon.

Sealed with a kiss - young sea-lions at play

Sea-turtle on the floor of the lagoon

A squadron of eagle-rays drifting by in ghostly formation

The sea-lion colony on Santa Fe

It was a tired but elated group that returned (somewhat reluctantly) to the boat to change into dry clothes for a beach-landing, where a large group of sea-lions had hauled out in lazy prostrate clumps onto the sandy beach; pups noisily calling their mothers like lost lambs or suckling their rich milk dinner, while the odd bulls pumped up their chests with aggressive bleats.

Basking in the late afternoon sun

Beachmaster of Santa Fe

The sun slowly set on the sea-lions and we wandered off for a short way into the dry interior of the island, with its bleached deciduous vegetation and tall woody cacti on a black lava jumble. Although we didn't spot the Santa Fe land iguanas that we were looking for, we were consoled by the sight of a Galapagos hawk which hovered above us before landing in a bush a metre away to check us out at its leisure. The absence of fear of humans in the wild-life here is quite amazing.

The sun about to set over the lagoon at Santa Fe

Santa Fe tree pear and dry coastal scrub

The Galapagos hawk poses for internet fame

The sky was darkening by the time we returned to the boat to a glass of red on the top deck and another great meal - we would certainly eat well on this trip. At 8pm, the boat's motor sprang back to life - we were off for the 6 hour crossing to Española and with the promise of a rough night, we headed out of the lagoon and into the big swell of the sea. Soon the boat was rolling well with waves and there was little to do but go to bed and let it and the steady throb of the engine send you to sleep. The trip had started well and tomorrow morning we would wake up to the sight of yet another island of this amazing archipelago.

Day 3 - Española Island

We woke in the early morning to an unexpected lull - no engine noise and just a gentle sideways rolling. The Golondrina had reached Española, the most southerly of the Galapagos Islands, but it would be another few hours before daylight and our first view of the island arrived. I rolled over and went back to sleep. With dawn came grey skies and a fine misty rain as we ate breakfast looking out the windows to the low, scrubby terrain of Española.

Breakfast over, we hopped in the landing boats and headed to shore for a 3 hour exploration of Punta Suarez, the western end of the island and home to marine iguanas, sea-lions and many species of seabird.

A jumble of marine iguanas

Sea-lions and iguanas on the track

Lighthouse at Punta Suarez

Warm and cuddly sea-lion photo

As we landed, bright red and orange lava crabs scurried away across the black slabs of lava. Many iguanas lay about in sluggish clusters in the cool of the morning. A mockingbird hopped amongst a cluster of iguanas picking off parasites as they lay on the rocks. The sea-lions were no more active, though the pups, some only a few days old noisily tried to suckle their breakfast.

The brightly coloured Española species of marine iguana

Marine iguanas in a group pose

Masked booby in courting mood

We headed along the track across the lava rubble, trying to avoid stepping on the iguanas that lay about the track, passing first a colony of blue-footed boobies then of masked boobies, whose nesting area extended along the low lava cliff-line. Swallow-tailed gulls were also here, resting on the guano-stained rocks.

Blue-footed booby

A pair of swallow-tailed gulls

After a short while we reached a point from which you could admire the power of the sea crashing into the black lava cliffs or forcing its way into narrow clefts in the rock platform below to blast out as jets of mist from the blow-holes.

The jagged lava cliffs of western Española

Masked booby colony at Punta Suarez

Blowhole on the western end of Española

The full 3 metre wingspan of a ......

...... waved albatross in flight

Darwin's finches

Mockingbird looking for lunch on an
albatross foot

Albatrosses, boobies, frigate-birds and the odd long-tailed tropic bird soared low overhead as we watched. From here we crossed a barren lava landscape where waved albatross bred; the grey fluffy chicks not much smaller than the parent birds. Small flocks of finches flitted amongst the rocks seeking seeds from prostrate herbs growing amongst the lava blocks.

The rough lava surface of the albatross breeding grounds

Nesting albatross and chick

The best, however, was yet to come; for twenty minutes, we were enthralled by pairs or trios of waved albatrosses, indifferent to the presence of a gaggle of humans just a few metres away, as they ran through the gamut of courtship behaviours.

The best, however, was yet to come; for twenty minutes, we were enthralled by pairs or trios of waved albatrosses, indifferent to the presence of a gaggle of humans just a few metres away, as they ran through the gamut of courtship behaviours. They were even indifferent to the lava lizards scurrying beneath and a mockingbird picking nits off their feet - fascinating!

Albatross conflab - three's a crowd?

Who could resist those sad black eyes?

A pair of courting waved albatross

The wildlife and landscapes of this end of Española Island were so impressive that I have included a few more photos just for the enjoyment.

Big seas pounding the 30m cliffs of western Española

Lava lizard

A fine collection of marine iguanas

Strange bedfellows - mocking bird and Galapagos hawk

Sea-lion cooling off

Why the masked booby is so-called

The dance of the blue-footed boobies

Portrait of a swallow-tailed gull

Masked booby in flight

The sun was breaking through at last by the time we turned and headed back to our landing point and the Golondrina. We had a short trip, following the northern shoreline of Española eastward in the company of storm petrels skimming the water alongside the boat, to our next anchorage at the beautiful sandy beach of Gardner Bay.

Storm petrel skimming the sea

The beautiful white sand beach of Gardner Bay

The Golondrina anchored off Gardner Bay

Mockingbird beach party

It was time for another delicious lunch on board and then into the landing boats to spend three hours snorkelling in the clear turquoise waters or lazing about on the white sands of Gardner Bay, with only the inquisitive mockingbirds and indifferent sea-lions for company. It's a very hard life cruising the Galapagos.

The fair Nello dozing on the beach at Gardner Bay

Sea-lions dozing on the beach at Gardner Bay

Española mockingbird

By the time we headed back to the boat, the cloud cover was reforming from the south-east. The weather here is difficult to read, but we would find out soon enough after another night trip across the swells of the open ocean to Floreana, the next island in our short exploration of the Galapagos.

Day 4 - Floreana Island

Golondrina del Mar (feathered variety)

A pattern was starting to develop; it had been a slightly more "grab the edge of the bed" trip as the Golondrina pitched and yawed its way across the ocean swells for another 6 hours, followed by the quiet stillness when we anchored in the shelter of Floreana.

Again we were greeted by grey skies in the morning as we looked out at the conic hills, fringed even greyer with the bare trunks of deciduous palo santo trees. But as before, the cloud cover slowly thinned to allow patches of sunlight through.

"Golondrina" del Mar (yacht variety)

At 8am, we were shoreward bound again, landing on the greenish-tan sand of the olivine beach at Punta Cormorant - the few dozing sea-lions barely raising a flipper at our arrival. We were here not to see cormorants, but flamingos which called the lagoon a few hundred metres behind the beach home.

The olivine beach at Punta Cormorant ....

..... with its standard complement of sea-lions

Flamingo and pin-tailed ducks

We wandered across to admire them as they fed on the algae in this shallow pinkish-tan coloured lake, leaving strange trails in the mud where they fed. Several sandpipers and pin-tail ducks were also out and about feeding, but could not compete with their flamboyant cohabitants for the attention of this gaggle of tourists.

Pied stilt

Flamingo strutting its stuff

The lagoon behind the beach at Punta Cormorant

The sun emerges to show the colour of the flamingos in all their glory


Flamingo dabbling for algae

From the lagoon edge, we wandered around to a look-out point looking down the length of the lagoon and out to sea. As the sun emerged, the feathers of the flamingos literally glowed. Reluctantly leaving the rose-coloured spectacle, we left the lagoon to head through the low dry scrub of north Floreana, crossing a small saddle and on to a beautiful pale sand beach.

On the pale sand beach where turtles nest

Portrait of a lava crab

Yellow warbler

Here we had been told we may see sea-turtles. Our luck was running high, not only did we see one, we saw it finish burying its eggs in a sandy hollow high up on the beach and then haul itself laboriously back down the beach to the sea. Quite amazing, as usually turtles lay their eggs at night!

Adios la tortuga!

Green sea-turtle burying her eggs ......

...... before slowly hauling herself back to the sea

It was back to the yacht briefly after a couple of hours onshore and then we were off again in the boats to The Devil's Crown, a cluster of jagged lava rocks protruding out of the sea a little way offshore from from Punta Cormorant and remnants of a small volcanic cone. Beneath the surface the rocks are home to 180 species of fish, plus some corals, starfish, sea-urchins and other marine life. We snorkelled our way around the outer edge of the rocks, admiring the myriad fish species that crowded the deep water near the sheer walls before entering the shallower interior of the Devil's Crown where corals grew.

Ancient cinder cones and craters on the shore of Floreana at Punta Cormorant

The Devil's Crown - a great spot for snorkeling

The myriads of fish around the Devil's Crown

Pinkish brain corals

Swimming with a big school

Cobie and Michel post a letter at Post Office Bay

Back to the Golondrina and it was off for a short trip to nearby Post Office Bay where, after another great lunch from Chef David, we landed once again. In the times of sailing ships a type of Post Office was set up here where sailors left messages for one another. The drop spot still exists and a tradition remains to leave a message and to pick one up, if it is addressed to near your home, and hand deliver it. We duly left a message: I guess we will eventually find out if it works or not.

From here we wandered inland to explore a cave in an old lava flow, which passed through a narrow opening to enter a large magma dome 5m below the level of the nearby sea, which had intruded to form a lake at the far end of the cavern.

The dry forest of northern Floreana

Deciduous santo palo trees in old lava

Descending into the lava cave

Checking out the lake at the end of the lava cave

The rest of the afternoon was ours to laze on the beach in the sun or snorkel alongside the sea-weed covered rock ribs of lava at the beach edge. This was sea-turtle grazing grounds and soon we were snorkelling with several of these magnificent creatures, so laborious on land, so elegant in the water, as they fed on the weed. Small groups of brightly coloured fish waited around to grab titbits stirred up when a turtle took a biteful of weed.

Green sea-turtle grazing on beds of seaweed

You blow bubbles - I blow bubbles

Underwater elegance 1

A young sea-lion joined in the fun, sweeping past the slow human snorkellers, doing graceful rolls, peering into our masks and genuinely having fun with us. Us, a sea-lion and a sea-turtle, all within a metre of one another; what a great experience.

Sea-lion playing with Deb

Underwater elegance 2

Parrot fish

Celebratory drink with the crew

Dinner on the Golondrina

Farewell cake for those leaving mid-voyage

All good things end and the sun was about to disappear behind a cloud bank, so it was back to the yacht for a farewell dinner to those who were leaving the cruise tomorrow.

With a mixture of 5- and 8-day cruises there is a regular turnover at the halfway mark and we were there already - time had passed very quickly. So, it was off to bed for a 9 hours open water crossing as the Golondrina headed northward to North Seymour and Baltra Islands, and the airport, in the darkness of an almost new moon.