The Galapagos (part 2 - northern islands)

Day 5 - North Seymour, Baltra and Santa Cruz Islands

The voyage north was gentler than previous nights, probably because we were running with the swell, but the morning was typically cloud-covered. Nonetheless, it was pleasant to be up and about in the still air as we took to the boats at 6am for a visit to North Seymour Island; small, flat and home to thousands of frigate-birds and blue-footed boobies.

The iconic blue-footed booby

Bare lava cliffs of North Seymour Island

The dry interior of deciduous shrubs, home to boobies and frigates

It was breeding time and we wandered around a track, first along the low black lava cliffs where we had to carefully step over or around sea-lions and marine iguanas, and then inland through a barren rocky landscape of deciduous shrubs, to visit their colonies. The air was full of whistles and honks of the boobies, as they strutted their bright blue feet around guano-ringed nesting spots on the lava rocks; downy young chicks called for their parents while older ones played toss and catch the stick.

Doing the booby rock

Young booby in a samphire patch

Male frigate with an inflated opinion of himself

Frigate bird chick

How the marine iguana evolved into a tree iguana

Samphire groundcover on North Seymour

The frigate colony was quieter apart from the occasional rapid bill clacking; pitch black males, wings spread and red air bladders inflated to demonstrate their macho prowess, perched in the low bushes, black and white females sat on flimsy nests and large white fluff-balls of chicks preened as they waited for parents to return.

The back side of a booby

Frigate bird and chick

Above, adult birds circled slowly in the sky, their long angular shapes giving them an almost prehistoric appearance. It was a great start to the day.

The frigate soared overhead like a stealth bomber with a bright red payload

This sea-lion joined the Golondrina for a
snooze as we waited

From Seymour the Golondrina made a short hop south to Baltra Island, where we farewelled those of our travelling companions who were leaving to catch the plane back to the mainland and waited for the next group to arrive.

Farewell to our compañeros of the last 4 days

Blue-footed booby checking out the fish below

The wind had picked up and blew coolly across the deck as we whiled away the time reading or watching boobies diving like a squadron of kamikazes into the harbour to catch fish. There is something enthralling about the sight of a dozen boobies going into a steeply angled power-dive and hitting the water in a tight cluster.

Our new companions, from Australia, Canada, USA, Italy, Netherlands and Germany finally joined us after a delayed flight from Quito and we quickly pulled anchor to head over the short distance from Baltra to Bachas Beach on Santa Cruz Island. This soft white sand beach, named for the two barges wrecked here during the 2nd World War, is dotted with the depressions of turtle nests and backed by small lagoons in which several waterbirds and a few flamingos were feeding. We had a brief snorkel around the rocky ledges at the western end, but the sea life was not nearly as impressive as had been our first few days - perhaps we were becoming a bit blasé.

The beautiful white sand of Bachas Beach

Time for another snorkel

The beauty of rust - all that remains of a W W II barge

Frigate bird following the Golondrina

At last - a Galapagos sunset

For the first time however, the cloud stayed away long enough to provide us with a colourful island sunset, which we enjoyed from the deck of the Golondrina as it moored in the channel between Baltra and Santa Cruz for a welcome dinner and cocktails for the new arrivals. Then, as always, it was away into the open ocean for a 6 hour stretch of overnight pitch and yaw as we headed off to our next destination - Genovesa Island in the far north of the archipelago.

Day 6 - Genovesa Island

It had not been a night for sleeping; the Golondrina had rocked and rolled its way, taking us north of the equator and at times almost surfing the big swells - the bigger the amplitude of each roll the more our bunks creaked. Still, as before we found ourselves in the shelter of the large harbour on Genovesa Island in the early morning for a few tranquil hours rest. The grey skies cleared more quickly this morning as we surveyed our new "home" - jagged lava cliffs 20-30m tall forming three sides of a circle around the old crater, now flooded to create the harbour. From a distance, the blocky, guano-covered cliffs looked a bit like the face of a glacier.

Landing on Genovesa

The sheer black lava cliffs of Genovesa

Nesting frigate-birds and Nazca boobies

Genovesa is home to the red-footed booby

Deep lava fissure in the Palo Santo woodland

A rare white form of the red-footed booby

Soon we were back in the pangas and heading across the harbour to La Scalera, a set of steps ascending a fissure in the lava cliff to reach the flat surface of the island, covered in a thin grey carpet of stunted trunks and branches of leafless palo santo trees.

Nazca (or masked) booby and chick

On the rocky surface, the Nazca (or masked) boobies had set up their nests, while the trees were home to the relatively flimsy nests of the red-footed boobies and frigate-birds. Many contained chicks ranging from balls of fluffy down to almost fledged birds. We wandered slowly down the path across the deeply fissured lava surface through the aromatic palo santo woodland, admiring these seabirds, as well as the odd mockingbird and Darwin's finch that also called this isolated spot home.

Long-tailed tropic bird in flight

Red-footed booby and chick

The track led us to the more windswept and barren eastern shoreline of Genovesa; here hundreds of tiny petrels swept swallow-like across the bare lava, while on the rocks, perfectly still and blending in with the rusty lava colour sat the Galapagos short-eared owls waiting for a petrel to land in the wrong spot and join it for lunch (the owl's lunch that is!). We were lucky to spot one of these impressive predatory birds not far off the track. The cliff tops here also provided a chance to watch several beautiful long-tailed tropic-birds and swallow-tailed gulls flying by from their cliff-side nesting spots. It was a good morning for new bird sightings.

Barren lava surface of the outer rim of Genovesa

... home to dwarf cacti ....

.... and the Galapagos short-eared owl

Sea-lion waiting for snorkelers to come and play

Our return to the Golondrina was brief, just long enough to down a banana smoothy and don our wet suits for a second trip back to the lava cliffs, this time to do some deep water snorkelling in the clear emerald waters alongside the vertical walls. We had barely entered the water when the first sea-lions joined us for a brief play, then we flippered slowly along the underwater rock face to admire the many species of tropical fish, the odd stingray and occasional white brain coral.

Our afternoon amusement was to head ashore to Darwin Bay, a small coral gravel beach and home to nesting swallow-tailed gulls, Nazca and red-footed boobies, frigate-birds and sea-lions.

The Genovesa soft-spined prickly pear

Red-footed booby in a mangrove

The white coral beach at Darwin Bay

Nests and chicks of the sea-birds abounded in the low vegetation and on the sandy surface. We explored a small passage between lava outcrops, covered in soft-spined Genovesa prickly pear and mangroves that grew in the tidal pools at the back of the bay.

Swallow-tailed gull and chick

Crested heron

Red-footed booby chick

Mangroves and cacti growing side by side

Frigate-bird and chick

Frigate colony in front of the dry deciduous woodland

As the tide crept in to the mangrove flats, herons stalked their prey and Darwin's finches checked out the coral sand for titbits. After a bit more bird-watching to admire the aerial skills of the sea-birds in the sky above, we returned to the Golondrina for our usual glass of red while we watched the sun set from the boat deck in a cool equatorial wind.

Lava heron

Swallow-tailed gull in flight

Fossicking finch

Day 7 - Bartolomé Island

Yeehaaah! What a night. These seem the appropriate words to describe a crossing that was half bronco-ride, half gravitron experience as the Golindrina crashed southward for 6 hours into the big Pacific swell to cross the equator yet again; little roll, but lots of pitch. But what a sight to greet us from our sheltered anchorage next morning; Bartolomé, a tiny gem of an island nestled against the eastern flank of Santiago Island, two volcanic cones joined by a spit of tan sand.

We were moored not far from the spit beneath the imposing magma spire of The Pinnacle, its weather-carved walls illuminated by the morning sun. Our appetites were whet for exploration.

The Pinnacle on Bartolome and the old volcanic cones of neighbouring Isla Santiago

After a brief navigation around the rocks of western end of Bartolomé in an unsuccessful search for Galapagos penguins (their population sadly decimated by the last El Niño), we landed on a promontory of black lava and grey volcanic sand at the eastern end of the bay, bare apart from the small prostrate grey shrubs and tufty dry grasses that had adapted to this harsh terrain.

Looking for Galapagos penguins

... but only spotting a lava heron

The silhouettes of The Pinnacle and the Golondrina

View from the landing back over Bartolome and Santiago Islands - this is a popular spot for cruise boats

Contrast between the clear blue water and
barren volcanic landscape of Bartolome

From the landing we started to climb to the 165m high point of the island, crossing the warped volcanic landscape, the patterns of ancient flows clearly visible amongst the crumbling black, grey, tan, ochre and rust coloured blocks, slabs and shards of oxidised lava.

Old flow channels in the lava slope

Only a few grasses and low shrubs have
colonised the volcanic cinders

From the top, there was a fantastic panorama across the channel to the black lava shoreline, orange cinder cones, grey lava cones and assorted plugs and other volcanic features on Santiago. From here the history of the Galapagos Islands is very evident.

The bonus to our climb was to spot two orcas, swimming past out to sea; their position given away by the characteristic tall dorsal fin as they surfaced to blow and a cloud of frigate birds hoping to share their lunch.

Panorama of the old cinder cones and craters of Isla Santiago

Frigate birds circling a pair of orcas way out to sea

The volcanic origins of Bartolome are very vlear to see

A curious circular reef in Bartolome Harbour

To the north, the view was equally impressive, overlooking the narrow tan-coloured sandspit to the western part of Bartolomé, dominated by The Pinnacle. A cluster of yachts and boats were moored in the tranquil blue waters of its bay. The water looked very tempting and, an hour later after descending and collecting our gear from the boat, we were once again snorkelling the crystal clear, if a bit cold, waters of the Galapagos.

Even in this hostile environment - life goes on

Panorama from the mirador over Bartolome Harbour

If you were on the Golondrina in September 2007 - are you here?

It was a great spot, the deep edges around The Pinnacle filled with many jagged rock formations, colonized by colourful anemones and tunicates, the odd corals with pale lemon or pinkish tints, and with many crack, hollows and ledges where colourful tropical fish lurked.

Below, the sandy seabed was covered in starfish of several shapes and hues. At times, it felt as though we were swimming through an ancient submerged city, as we explored the twisting passages between the underwater columns of rock. It was a great last snorkel of our cruise.

Rock columns encrusted with marine life

The pinkish sands of Bartolome Beach

Some brightly coloured anemones

Life on board the Golondrina can be very hard


It was sad to leave Bartolomé, but, after our usual gourmet lunch, we were underway again for a shorter crossing back to the main island of Santa Cruz.

This time we were undertaking a rare daylight sea voyage and it enabled us to see the archipelagocity of the Galapagos - 12 islands visible at the one time from the yacht.

Passing Daphne Major - one of the smallest of the Galapagos Islands

Heading toward the entry of Caleta Tortuga Negra on the north of Santa Cruz


Our destination was Caleta Tortuga Negra (Black Turtle Cove) on the north coast of Santa Cruz, a large inlet rimmed with mangroves, and our aim was to spot the white-tipped sharks and sea-turtles that fed there, albeit on different things.

It was pleasant paddling quietly through the still, narrow waterways overhung by dense green mangroves and, as promised, we spotted plenty of sharks and turtles.

The intrepid explorers heading deep into the mangrove swamp spot white-tipped sharks

.... and green sea-turtles

Back on board, the Golondrina set off on its last run of the cruise, once more through the narrow Canal de Itabaca between Santa Cruz and Baltra Islands before rounding the cliffs to follow the eastern coastline of the big island partway down to set anchor in the lee of the Plaza Islands.

Our last night on board would be tranquil one, and after the sumptuous dinner, farewell cake and cocktails we slept very well.

Itabaca Channel at sunset

Day 8 - South Plaza and Santa Cruz Islands

It was an early morning start and, at 6am, the weather pattern had reverted to its earlier pattern of grey morning cloud. After a wake-up coffee, we hopped in the panga for a short trip to the landing at South Plaza, to be greeted by a bellowing bull sea-lion. His harem lay disinterested on the black lava rocks nearby with pups of varying ages.

Sea-lion and week-old pup

Land iguana

Tree opuntia on South Plaza

Nearby, at the base of a tree prickly pear, was a large yellow-brown land iguana, munching happily on a fallen prickly pear fruit. We had not seen these creatures in the wild before, so our stop at this tiny island butting up to the east coast of Santa Cruz had paid off.

View to North Plaza and Santa Cruz Islands

Black lava cliffs of South Plaza

The red samphire landscape of South Plaza

Portrait of a prickly pear

South Plaza landscape

Apart from land iguanas, South Plaza is reknowned for its woody-trunked opuntia cacti and low carpet of succulent samphire, their fleshy foliage tinted red at this time of year. We did a short walk out to the point to admire this unique landscape, and the land- and marine iguanas, sea-lions and swallow-tailed gulls that call this place home, while below the black lava cliffs, hundreds of petrels wheeled about in waves above the surging sea.

Marine iguanas


Alas, it was time to go - one last rollicking sea trip of 2 hours awaited us, as the Golondrina pulled out from behind the shelter of the two islands into the face of the ocean swells. However, we were soon back in the calm turquoise waters and warm sun of Puerto Ayora and, not much later, back on shore. Our 8-day cruise around the Galapagos Islands was over.

On the grey brick road in the palo santo woodland

We checked into our bed & breakfast in this quite modern little town, to catch up with e-mails and news from home. This was followed by a lazy day, in the warm sun of the port, and a 7km return walk to the nearby picturecard white sand beach at Tortuga Bay, as we tried to recover our land-legs after a week at sea. We followed the grey brick road across the rocky lava fields, covered in a dense dry woodland of aromatic palo santo, tree opuntia and the odd evergreen poison bushes, to a long surf beach, where turtles fed in the zone of breakers.

Yellow warbler

Mangroves near Tortuga Bay

Portrait of a marine iguana

A pleasant stroll in the powdery white sand brought us out to a beautiful mangrove inlet. The beach sand was criss-crossed with the tracks of large marine iguanas that lived on the black lava rock platforms nearby.

A cluster of marine iguanas

In a woodland of tree pear cacti

The inlet at Tortuga Bay

One one side of the inlet was a superb grove of woody tree opuntias, while across the still water lay a white sand beach, lined with low shady trees. Tortuga Bay is the jewel in the crown of Santa Cruz - we returned to Puerto Ayora feeling very contented. It had been a nice way to cap off a great cruise with good company, during which we discovered for ourselves the uniqueness and diversity of this amazing archipelago.

Go to Part 3 .....