On Saturday night when we came back from dinner at 10 pm, we walked past Church of La Merced (in Guayaquil) where a wedding had just ended. The bride and groom were standing with their backs to the altar, and posing for photos. A car decked out with flowers and ribbons was parked out front, and there were grains of rice on the sidewalk in front. We were pretty amazed that weddings are held so late at night.
A wedding was about the only rite of passage that we didn’t see in the Galapagos Islands amongst the wildlife. It’s interesting that human beings have the developed rituals like weddings, language and haircuts, but otherwise we share the same basic life cycle as the rest of the animals on the planet. Birth, mating, aging and death; and all throughout life we all need to breath, drink water, eat, sh-t and sleep.
We saw blue-footed boobies (BFBs). Mating, nesting on top of one or two eggs, and nurturing the remains of shells that had hatched. Female and male BFBs can be distinguished by their calls, the females cack, and the males have a thin whistle. Males start advertising for a mate by creating a nesting space: the equivalent of 15,000 square foot mansion with granite counter tops and flat screen HDTVS in every room is a large flat area with 2 concentric circles of white guano and little twigs, each twig placed just so (and preferably having been submitted to the future missus for approval.) Needless to say, 30-second proximity to beach access is a given for every one of the nests.
The chicks are white and fluffy, as if they were covered in fur (down), rather than feathers. They are adorable, like stuffed toy animals. However, if they fall out of the nest, and land outside the shit/twig circle, their parents don’t feed them, and then they starve to death. The ‘booby’ name apparently comes from the Spanish word for ‘stupid’, because that’s how they look. They look nothing like Pamela Anderson’s assets. Of the Galapagos-themed T-shirts, the ones with the BFBs are the most common: it’s hard to resist the frat-boy humor, hyuk hyuk. There are also red-footed boobies, and masked/Nasca boobies, but the BFB is also unusual for having blue feet, a color that’s rare in the animal kingdom.
It’s fun to watch the BFB’s feed. You’d think sea birds all dive cleanly with grace, as to catch their prey by surprise and not scare them away. But not the BFB, they dive into the water with a big bombastic splash, and disappear under the surface for a second, before springing back to the surface with a pop, in a floating position like a duck. Somehow it works: they’re not starving to death.
We saw a mother sea lion exhausted after giving birth, bloody traces of placenta on the beach, the umbilical cord still attached the pup, which was covered in a darker, thicker coat of fur than the adults. Both were yelping away to each other, to impress on each other to recognize the sound of their voices. Lots of other pups were suckling on their mothers’ milk: the nipples seem very small and flush (almost retractable) to the mom’s belly, unlike cats and dogs, where you can see them clearly.
Infant mortality is not a statistic in a news article, but is seen up close and personal, individual in carcasses of sea lions, boobies, and a sea-turtle that fits on your palm, and looks like a rubber-toy.
There are so many different species of animals in the Galapagos: it’s a bit like being a kid in a candy- store equivalent of a zoo. Everywhere you look, you’re sharing the domain of some fellow creature of a different species. There are so many birds on land and in the air. There are colorful fish in the water. There are sea lions, black marine iguanas and small orange/cinnabar Sally Lightfoot crabs everywhere on the shores. It is very easy to spot turtles swimming in the sea, as well as manta and sting rays on the bottoms of shallow coves. We saw a whale once, a penguin once (it looks disappointingly like a small black duck when seen above water), and dolphins twice. I think seeing the dolphins swim so close to the dinghy was the highlight for me.
An unlike those in the rest of the world, the animals are not afraid of human beings (. . . yet?) so you’d be able to walk up next to them and take a photo, without them shying away, which is absolutely amazing. (Except the crabs, which are just as cagey as crabs anywhere else, and scuttle off when you lean in close.) The animals are just nonchalantly going about their business as if human beings walking by with their beeping cameras are part of the landscape. Lots of them hang out next to the trails: there were quite a few times when I almost stepped on a lava lizard, iguana or even a sea-lion!
Visiting the Galapagos, however, is an expensive and very-tightly controlled experience. You go on walks along designated trails in groups, always accompanied by a guide. The guide not only tells you an earful about the flora, fauna geology and history, but keeps you on a short leash for not straying off the trail; as well as not getting too close to the wildlife, for their protection, but sometimes yours. (One of our fellow passengers was chased by a very large bull sea lion!) It’s a bit odd when you think about it: after all we’re used to go hiking in natural settings on our own, to have to follow a guide to go for a short hike feels contrived. But with so many visitors to the Galapagos, it’s amazing that there’s no litter whatsoever on the islands, and the animals maintain their state of wildness.
But, because almost all the food and day-to-day necessities have to be imported from the mainland, things are very expensive in the Galapagos, the same way it is with Hawaii. Only a few of the islands are inhabited, and there isn’t enough local agriculture to sustain the population. The sheer number of visitors is also a strain on the environment, a couple of hundred thousand each year. The islands are struggling to find a balance between preserving the very special environment, meeting the needs of the local population and accommodating the visitors. The Interpretive Center on San Cristobal had a very well-done and thoughtful series of exhibits on the human history of the islands, as well as the current issues they’re grappling with. One striking take-away is that at least 75% of the visitors’ spending doesn’t really go to the locals, but the mainland companies, i.e. the airlines and the cruise operators.
Going to the Galapagos was a big-ticket item for us. On a per day basis, it cost us about 10X more than what we’ve been paying for lodging, but it included all meals and excursions. Since I get sea-sick easily, we decided to go for a catamaran, which helped narrow down the choices, but also restricted us to the higher-end boats. (It is possible to the same itineraries on the cheaper tourist class motor yachts.)
The total amount we paid for a 7 night/8 day cruise would cover the cost of travelling around for a month on mainland Ecuador, even with the 40% discount off the rack rates with our ‘last minute discount.’ We had booked it a month before our sail date. One couple booked the 4-day cruise the day before they boarded, but they ended up paying the same price on a per-night basis as we did.
It is possible to do 5-day or 4-day shorter cruises, but you don’t get to see as many islands, and thus miss out some things, because each island usually has something unique that other islands don’t have, even though they have some things in common. I figured that if you really wanted to see everything properly, you’d have to do a 15-day cruise. With the itinerary we picked, we saw the further-away islands in the north and east, but missed out on Isabela and Fernandina islands. Maybe next time!
I hadn’t thought too much about going to the Galapagos Islands as part of this South American odyssey, but I brought it up to my old college buddy Rich. A long time ago, he mentioned he really wanted to go to Easter Island or Galapagos, so I told him if he wanted to go, we could meet up with him to go together. He was really keen on it, and we did some research on Galapagos trips before we left home, but unfortunately, Rich’s schedule didn’t work out. Still, having done the research did help whet our appetite to go to the Galapagos. So, thank you, Rich for the motivation and inspiration. We’re still early into our trip, but this may be the highlight.
We did fulfill one of Rich’s dreams: which is to swim with turtles. And sea-lions. Without a wet-suit, which was a bit crazy, because the water was a bit cold. But we wanted to save on the rental, and besides the wet-suits were in sorry condition. Seeing turtles in the water is awe-inspiring: I never realised how much longer/larger the front flippers of a sea turtle are, compared to the rear until I saw them swimming. They can swim very fast in the water, even it looks like they’re gliding at a turtles pace and their shape looks ungainly. Swimming with sea lions is full of rude surprises. Those marine torpedos have such fantastic control of movement: one moment I’m minding my own business, the next thing I know a curious sea lion is coming from out of nowhere headed for collision with me. I panic and yelp and kick away, but the sea lion has effortlessly twisted and rolled away: an aquatic acrobat. It’s actually a lot of fun to watch them swim under water, when you spot them first! The coral and fish aren’t as exotic looking or colorful as the Great Barrier Reef or even Hawaii, but the water is cooler, after all.
Feeding: different animals eat different things, and in some ways they are mutually exclusive, so they don’t compete. For instance, sea lions eat fish, not crabs, even though they are neighbours in the same shore zone. Likewise, marine iguanas actually eat green algae that grows on the rocks in the tidal zone. I wonder why neither of them eat crabs. Some birds eat baby turtles, why not simply eat fish? Land iguanas eat cactus, in fact the cactus is disappearing because of overeating.
I never thought of myself as an animal person (unlike my cousin Pat), but I’ve now realised that I like seeing wildlife as much as I like seeing city/transportation planning, or history or local culture when I travel. I think most people who come to the Galapagos are the self-selective the same way; you do more ‘active’ activities hiking and snorkeling/swimming in the Galapagos, as opposed to say a Carribean cruise, where you have more resort-type activities on board (I think.) I also don’t usually like programmed/package group tours, but this was alright. We were one short of the maximum 16 passengers, and thankfully we all got along pretty well. In some ways, it was a bit of a relief to not have to unpack, think about what to eat, and simply do as we were told . . . for a week.