One of our final stops before leaving South America, was supposed to be something spectacular and what could be more fitting than traveling to Galapagos and walk in Darwin's footsteps?
The islands are famed for their vast number of endemic species and were studied by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle. His observations and collections contributed to the inception of Darwin's theory of evolution. There are many things to know about Galapagos, for example, people got offered land for free or at a very low price in order to attract inhabitants of the mainland to come the islands. One could talk for hours about the history, the landscape or the tourism here, but we are not going to do that 😉
Fighting in order to keep the status quo
Due to the isolation, animals that eventually made it to Galapagos from the mainland had a rather good life in the sense that many had no predators. But of course, with increased amounts of tourists coming, there is a higher chance of importing insects or bacteria that can be harmful to local animals, which was the case a few years ago, when a bloodsucking fly arrived that started to kill baby finches. Likewise, people brought goats (and rats) which invaded islands and caused a decline in the numbers of tortoises and lizards, because goats ate away all the food and rats really like some tortoise and lizard omelette (yummy eggs for them). When flying to Baltra airport and prior to the landing, the cabin crew sprayed some disinfectant (non toxic apparently) onto the carry on luggage just to make sure that insects and bacteria are killed. This is just one example of how they are trying to keep the bacteria out. Unfortunately many of those efforts are in vain due to extensive fishing and lax regulations in the waters surrounding the islands.
Galapagos by land and by sea
We had a few days for ourselves before and after the cruise which was a good decision as it gives you the chance to see things that are not on the agenda or to revisit your favorite spot again after the boat trip is over. Our cruise was 8 days long which is also the perfect duration. Longer would have been too much (everybody was getting sick and it was just a matter of time until it would eventually hit you) and shorter would have been not enough with fewer destinations and less snorkeling tours (= lower probability of seeing marine life).
As we were the only ones arriving independently, we got to access the boat before everybody else and we even got our own 3 course lunch, especially prepared for us prior to everybody's arrival. It has also been our first cruise and we never thought we would be on one before we turn 50, but here you go!
After talking to several people and investigating on several travel blogs we knew that exploring Galapagos by water would make much more sense than by land. First of all, because the underwater world is very beautiful and diverse whereas the islands themselves are rather dry, volcanic with not that many species living there (but still magnificent!).
Once on the boat, we were up for a big surprise. The boat called Galaxy ll (in case you need a recommendation) is an eco-catamaran and very luxurious. So did we really need all that fancy pantsy luxury!? Oh no, definitely not, but unfortunately, the nicer boats are the ones with the better guides and routes off the populated islands, so these were the main reasons for choosing it. We would have loved to have a simpler version as it would have been more environmentally friendly, but this was the only option in the end.
The crew was also exceptional and so was the group of tourists. In total we were 15 people from different countries and the age was also very mixed. The group on Galaxy l looked more ancient so we were lucky.
The route we chose was focusing on the north and the west islands as this is where you see the biggest variety of wildlife.
Amazing wildlife on land as well as in and on the water
The most impressive aspect about Galapagos is not only the sheer abundance of wildlife (there might be more in the Amazon) but that it doesn't hide from you. You get into the water or off the boat and all those amazing animals are just there in amazing variety... incredible.
Sea lions, finches, hawks, lizards, water lizards, little sharks (not my cup of tea), bigger sharks (no thank you!), rays , puffer fish, as well as dolphins, turtles, flamingos, cormorants and blue footed boobies could be watched close by either meeting them by kayak, dingy or while snorkeling. Thanks to Johannes bravery and swimming skills, we ended up with some amazing under water footage as he was brave enough to follow sharks and rays and so on.
I instead , preferred to be close to the cute and pretty animals of the sea (penguins, turtles and sea lions) 😉
The freezing waters of Galapagos
Although Galapagos is situated directly at the equator, the water is just freezing, mainly because of the cold currents in this area. The majority of the group used wet suits, except the hardcore and crazy ones like us. We were also there in November when the water is even colder than in other months, but you get rewarded with a clearer view, so all things come at a cost.
The standard dialogue at the end of our everyday briefings could have had the title '50 shades of cold' as I always tried to find out HOW cold the water actually was and I was given the answer 'cold', 'colder than yesterday' or 'the coldest spot of the tour' .
A beautiful encounter - face to face with the sea lions
This can easily be called our best experience on this cruise - swimming with sea lions! As the population declines, it is not necessary guaranteed that you end up swimming with one of those lively creatures. But sometimes there is the right timing and spontaneity can be a blessing! So when the time is right, you gotta do it, no matter what!
So here we are, freezing cold water separating us from our sea lions, but we were on a boat ride, without snorkeling gear and the water was the coldest one Galapagos has to offer. When we finished our tour on the dingy boat along the cliffs, there was a sea-lion in the water next to our catamaran. The others in our group hesitated and decided not to jump in as it was truly freezing cold water and not part of the agenda of the day. We had 30 min until departure , so Johannes and I decided to get changed in order to jump in, should the sea-lion appear again. We also managed to convince Lyndall, a girl from Australia, to join us.
Once the sea-lion appeared, the three of us went into the water. Unfortunately, the sea-lion was not really interested and disappeared but as we were cold and wet anyway, we asked the tour guide Maria to get us on the dingy boat and to try to find another place . Maria could totally see our determination (most likely we would not have left the water without seeing a sea-lion!), so she agreed to our proposal.
Prepared to jump in every second from now on, we finally encountered a young sea lion and we got into the water within seconds. Luckily for us, the sea-lion was very playful and in the mood to hang out just 15 cm away from us.
And on top of that, two others appeared! Just incredible how luck we were! Watching these majestic, playful, friendly but wild animals was just breathtaking and our highlight so far.
This is what we call the gift of spontaneity. We were blessed to play and swim with them and the fact that only three people were in the water, instead of 15, probably really made a difference as well. The rest of the group was not so lucky the next few days and while they managed to see the sea lions on land and one briefly passing by in the water, it was just not the same.
We also crossed the equator line at 0'0' on that day, and it happened to be Lyndall's birthday! A happy birthday indeed for a very happy Lyndall.
Here is the footage, rather uncut as our Laptop has terrible performance and cannot handle the data volume:
On top of swimming with sea lions, we also snorkeled with huge sea turtles. Somehow we ended up being really lucky with animals on our trip and another example were the dolphins we saw along the coast (which are usually not there) and a special encounter with blue footed boobies when three of them started fishing just 30cm away from me.
The last day of our trip was the day with the highest probability of swimming with penguins. Most of us had been sick with bad colds and coughs, so not everybody ended up snorkeling. Our motto was 'suck it up' , so, as it was the last day , we could not have missed out on the chance to swim with penguins. While the first tour did not lead to any sighting of penguins (although one couple was lucky and briefly saw them) the second one was a little bit more fruitful with one penguin swiftly passing by, but so far away that I could only see a black shape (Johannes might have seen more as he has better eyes). Eventually I gave up and Johannes escorted me to the beach while he continued snorkeling and gathering beautiful footage. Beaches in Galapagos are the true paradise, especially the ones that cannot be reached by land. Even in 20cm deep water one could still see plenty of fish swimming around, but no penguins.
So while I gave up on them and sat down in the sand to bury myself in it like a little kid, two penguins appeared, right at the beach, swimming along in 30 cm deep water! We got into the water and had them right next to us in 15 cm distance. What an experience!
Unfortunately, everything has to come to an end and we had to give up 'our' boat the next morning. We never thought a cruise could be so much fun. We had such a blast due to good weather (it was raining before and after the tour!), the great flora and fauna and lucky moments, but also because of the amazing crew of the Galaxy ll, the competent tour guide and the group dynamic we had going with long talks in the evening, Bachata and Salsa dance sessions at the bar at night and board game sessions.
We also found out about the results of the US election while on board and our reaction was mainly this one:
So this was our story about Galapagos, time to go and experience it yourself.