South America 2019 – Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Ben and I love to snorkel. When we were planning this South America trip, we wrote out all the South America-related bucket list items that we had, and snorkelling in the Galapagos Islands were the top of the list. We basically planned the whole trip around the Galapagos Islands.

I did a lot of research on how we would fulfill our epic Galapagos Island dream. We were definitely not interested in being on a massive cruise boat. We wanted to be out and about, playing in the water, seeing and doing things. Relaxing was not the aim of the game. Ben and I had once (with a group) cruised through the Whitsundays, we rented two catamarans, and sailed ourselves. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to do that in the Galapagos. Every visitor to the Galapagos requires a National Tour Guide to accompany them. I had done a few live-aboard boat experiences in Australia, and I really enjoyed them, so I looked into that.

There are SO MANY companies that do tours through the Galapagos. After a lot of research, TripAdvisor, and agonising, I decided on Nemo Galapagos Tours. It was to be an 8 day, 7 night live-aboard catamaran tour of the South Island Itinerary, with about 12 other passengers.

Here is a 360° virtual tour of the catamaran:

https://galapagosinformation.com/virtualtour/south-itinerary-nemo-ii/

The Nemo II Galapagos Cruise included:

  • Accommodation in double cabins with private bathrooms;
  • 3 meals per day;
  • Galapagos certified guide;
  • Snacks;
  • Hot and cold water;
  • Amenities;
  • Air conditioning;
  • Towels for inside and outside;
  • Single kayak sit top; and
  • Flight tickets to/from Galapagos (Baltra Island);

Our tour did not include:

  • Entry to Galapagos National Park US 100 p.p.;
  • Transit Card; and
  • Health insurance.

The South Itinerary went something like this:

At the risk of this sounding like an ad for the company, I really mean it when I say this this tour and the company are AMAZING. Every aspect was perfect and thoughtful. From the email communication (responses were always prompt and informative), to the crew (the service was stellar), to Darwin Alvarez, the Guide (he was so awesome, and knowledgeable about the Galapagos, passionate about wildlife, and an excellent swimmer and free-diver), to the catamaran itself and all the amenities, it was just incredible. It was also quite reasonably priced. I left them a review on TripAdvisor, you can have a look here: https://www.tripadvisor.com.au/ShowUserReviews-g297533-d8794447-r655072703-Nemo_II-Puerto_Ayora_Santa_Cruz_Galapagos_Islands.html

Here are some of the highlights of our Galapagos adventure:

This cheeky little fellow is one of the first Galapagos sea lions we encountered. He was just a pup, and he came right up to where we were sitting on the rocks and gave Ben a big sniff. Darwin gave us very clear instructions that we are to keep a 1 meter distance from the animals, but in this case, the sea lion approached us, and we just stayed very very still. At this particular island, there was a little pool where a bunch of baby sea lions were frolicking and playing, diving in and out of the shallows. It was kind of like a sea lion nursery. Outside of the rock pools, the beach-master (who is usually a young adult male) patrols the rock pools and barks really loudly if a predator approaches. The predator is the shark. Apparently, sharks really like sea lion meat.

I was devastated to learn about the sad reality of sea lions. They look super cute, but as we tramped along on a lot of the islands, I noticed a lot of sea lion pups who looked quite emaciated and desperate. Darwin explained that the life of a sea lion is fraught with danger and loss. The female gives birth to a pup every year. Once the pup is born, the female mates immediately to conceive the next pup, while breast-feeding the newborn. She does this for 3 days. During this time, she and the pup are smelling each other, so that they can identify each other easily. The female is usually exhausted, as the newborn is completely dependent on her, and she cannot hunt while she is feeding for those three days, so she is giving all of herself to the pup and getting zero sustenance. She will leave the newborn to hunt on Day Four, and is usually gone for about 5 days. During these 5 days, anything could happen to the mother – she could be attacked by a shark and killed, she might not be able to find any food within the 5 days (so may be away for longer), or she might just decide that she is simply too exhausted to deal with the pup, and hence might abandon it. The pup needs the mother’s milk for at least 1 whole year, if not longer. In the first year, it cannot consume anything other than the milk, and if the pup is abandoned, no other sea lion mother will give it their milk – no such thing as adoption here.

So, unfortunately, that leaves a lot of abandoned sea lion pups. The park rangers cannot interfere, because firstly, this is the circle of life, and survival of the fittest. Secondly, there is no way to replicate the mother’s milk. Even if the park rangers were to “rescue” the pups, it would be to no end, as they don’t have the right kind of milk to give to the pup. 

The newborn can probably survive about a month without the mother’s milk, after which it will perish, and just turn into a heap on bones on the islands. While we were tramping around, it was so pitiful to hear these poor babies bleating, looking and sniffing around for their mom.

We swam with the sea lions!! They were so playful, and they were biting Darwin’s fins. They swim so gracefully and do beautiful pirouettes in the water. They are naturally curious – perhaps too curious! We saw a sea lion follow a white tipped reef shark and nip at his tail – very risky! We ran into them a couple of times underwater, and at one point, I was surrounded by about 4 sea lions, and they would kind of swim up to my head when I wasn’t looking, and quickly dash off leaving a trail of bubbles just as I’d turn my head around. Very disconcerting, and I was so jumpy, which is why I look perpetually surprised in some of these pictures. Ben thought it was hilarious.

We saw so many iguanas! Land iguanas, marine iguanas, and even hybrid iguanas! Apparently land and marine iguanas have been mating with each other to make a hybrid iguana, but these hybrid iguanas are unfortunately infertile. Each island’s iguanas have varying skin colours, this is due to different food sources and algae that they eat.

These little fellows looked like tiny pre-historic dinosaurs. I was quite trepidatious about swimming in the water with one of them near me.

We were visiting the Galapagos Islands during their mating season, it was so fantastic, and also a tiny bit voyueristic, to watch these beautiful animals attempt to procreate. The pictures above show the Magnificent Frigate Bird puffing his red neck like a bright red balloon – this is their mating ritual. If the female is impressed with his red neck, she might give him a try.

Speaking of mating rituals – we got to see the Blue-footed Boobies do their mating dance! I was so excited, and I really felt so privileged to see their beautiful courting ritual, we humans have a lot to learn from Blue-footed Boobies. They pair up, the male starts dancing, and if the female likes his moves, she’ll dance with him. They’ll lift up their feet and kind of do a bird-sway (as only birds can do). Darwin explained the reason why they do this is to show off how blue their feet are, so the female will be very impressed that the male has strong enough blue foot genes to pass on to their children. Then there’s this kind of cute kissing thing they do with their beaks (which might seem awkward, but it appears to work for them). And throughout it all, they are both singing, and just falling in love! It kind of reminded me of how Ben and I fell in love 🙂

I was really really keen to see the Blue-footed Boobies. First of all, they are called Boobies, which is the best name for a bird, and has nothing whatsoever to do with boobies. I love their little blue feet.

This is the Nasca Booby. So named after the Nasca plates upon which the Galapagos Islands were formed. These Boobies are black and white, slightly bigger than the Blue-footed Booby, and have normal coloured feet. I was very happy to see one of these Boobies tending their little egg. There is also the Red-footed Booby, unfortunately we didn’t make it to their island.

We visited the Santa Cruz highlands to see the Dome Shell Giant Tortoises, so named due to their large dome shaped shells. There we visited the tortoise breeding centre, where we also saw Giant Galápagos Saddleback Tortoises. These tortoises are so named because their shells are the perfect shape for a horse saddle. Unfortunately, these tortoises have been hunted in the past in order to provide food for sailors on long voyages! The saddleback tortoises have very long necks that they can stretch in order to reach and eat the fruit of the native cactus. 

I was very impressed with this breeding centre. Unfortunately, the meddlers that are humans introduced rats into a lot of the islands, which has devastated the native tortoise population of each island. Some islands’ tortoise breed has become completely extinct now. Tortoises have been removed from the islands and brought to this breeding centre in order to stimulate procreation and protect the young. Darwin informed us that a tortoise can protect itself once it reaches three years of age. At 3 years old, these tortoises are released back into the wild, usually on their native island.

We visited the remains of old George. George was the very last tortoise to be found on Pinta Island in 1971. The National Park tried desperately to find a mate for him so that his line would not die out (particularly looking for another Pinta Island female), however, George died before being able to successfully make any offspring. His remains have been mummified and are kept on Santa Cruz Island in a special facility.

We also met a tortoise named Diego, he is about 130 years old. This tortoise was a gift from San Diego Zoo, who had captured Diego in 1906 when he was just ten years old. In 1974, the San Diego Zoo decided to return Diego to the Galápagos Islands, where he proceeded to father over 700 tortoises to date.

There were these old tortoise shells that you could wriggle into, we had a lot of fun with Frank and Diane, it was especially funny to see how excited Frank was to look like a Ninja Turtle. I’ll bet Frank fancied himself as Michelangelo 🙂 It really did take some skill to get into those things, and they are seriously heavy! I wouldn’t want to be a tortoise, that’s for sure. No wonder they are so slow, if they have to lug that much weight around.

While we were on the Santa Cruz island, we met this handsome little fellow – I can’t remember what kind of bird he was, but he was such a poser! He followed us for quite a bit, he was so desperate for Ben to take photos of him. He just kept flying in and out of Ben’s huge lens, hence the blurry photos – quite the attention seeker! I named him Alejandro – only an Alejandro would behave so.

We swam with Pacific Green Turtles – it was so cool! There were so many of them, just hanging out, chomping on algae. One turtle was so intent on his algae that he didn’t even notice that the current was pushing him upside down. They are so beautiful, it was honestly a pleasure just to watch them enjoy their food. On our last day, we had a short panga ride to see Black Turtle Cove. Here we saw Pacific Green Turtles mating! The male mounts the female in the water. This is why a female turtle is much bigger than a male, because they need room to have bigger lungs, as they are completely submerged underwater during the mating process. Apparently the mating process can go on for up to 4 hours. While the male and female are mating, there are usually other males swimming around, hoping for a chance with the female.

Ben made a friend, he wanted to come home with us! This tiny little crab was floating on a stick, and managed to stow away inside Ben’s hair during a snorkel. Ben felt this little fellow crawling around in his hair, and had to get someone to carefully remove him.

We met some amazing people on this trip, in particular Frank and Diane from Michigan, and we are really looking forward to visiting them someday.

This trip was one of the most amazing and exciting things that Ben and I have ever done. Even though it made a really large hole in our pockets, it was a once in a lifetime experience, and I am so glad we did it while we still have the energy to do all that snorkelling. We were doing at least 2, if not 3 snorkels, every day – physically it really takes a toll. Ben is so lovely, every time I ran out of steam in the water, he would come and tug me along. It’s times like this when I am so grateful for him, and patting myself on the back for having married him!

Here are some random happy snaps:

 

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