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I’m still on Galapagos time and now apparently the clocks have gone back. I’m very confused.

Still, I must admit I’m glad to be back home. Don’t get me wrong, I would go back to Santa Cruz faster than you can say ‘origin of species’ but I still get a little bit excited everytime I look at the trees starting to change colour. One thing I have noticed about Britain though is that so far I have been staring out of my window for twenty minutes and have not seen one bird. Not even a blackbird. It shows me how isolated from nature we’ve become in Britain, how we’ve distanced ourselves from it. In Galapagos, people need to step over a sea lion to get to their boat. Back here we run screaming if there’s a spider in the bath. If I was still in Galapagos, I would be tripping over finches by now (no harm intended).

We all expected Isabella to be more developed than Santa Cruz, so we were surprised to find that the population of the ‘town’ is only 2,ooo people (nearly a fifth of the population of my home village). Walking around the main area doesn’t take more than an afternoon. It was difficult to adjust to the quieter and slower pace where the only constant sound was the waves crashing against the shore. We did have a few highlights though. Seeing an unusually high number of flamingoes  in one lagoon made us feel privelleged. For the ‘Fact Fans’, there are roughly 435 (correct me if I’m wrong) flamingoes left and we saw around 14 in two days. According to our guide, this is very rare.

Another highlight was climbing the Sierra Negra volcano. Walking up the side of the volcano in the cool, misty morning was exciting as we clambered through different layers of plant life and we all felt a massive sense of achievement when we reached the top. To top it off, we saw not only one but four Galapagos hawks, a species that is said to be close to extinction. We saw two babies included in the total number, which gave us slight hope that maybe they’ll continue for longer than anticipated. Again, our guide said we were very lucky. However, the way back down was not as fun. The sun was directly above us (being on the equator and all) and temperatures reached around 30-35 degrees C. We no longer strode, we trudged. I think it was possibly the most physically challenging thing I’ve done, purely because of the heat. By the end, we didn’t even have the strength to talk to each other because it might take away some of the little energy we had left to plod along. That morning, and this will come as a shock to anyone who knows me well, I was wearing a light beige outfit. When I reached the hotel that afternoon, I was orangey-brown. Not just my clothes but my hair, face, skin, everything. Charlotte started the day with black walking boots; they are now orangey-brown as well.

Sadly, illness from various members of the group, myself included, impeded the last few days on the island. Thankfully, the warriors among us managed to make it out for our final day trip to Tintoreras Bay. Definitely survival of the fittest. It cheered us all up when we saw sea lions playing next to our boat. We were also completely surprised to find the shark canal. I expected it to be a large river with possibly one sharking lurking around. Instead, it was a tiny stream with dozens of white-tipped reef sharks swimming back and forth. Amazing!

It was good to end the week on a high, after so many lows, seeing as we faced the prospect of four plane journeys over the next few days.

Well, four turned into three as the little five-seater plane we were meant to take from Isabella to Baltra broke down before we were due to travel. Thankfully, before not during. Cue a two-and-a-half hour impromptu speed boat journey. As I’ve found out this on this trip, I don’t travel well but that jumpy, jerky, borderline dangerous speed boat journey was probably the best one. Me and Jess had to sit on the floor on a cushion to make the back of the boat lighter which felt quite surreal. The only way we got through it was to laugh.  After many giggles and bruises caused by being tossed around, we reached Baltra airport. Run through check in and off we set. Bye bye, Galapagos.

Eventually, around 30 hours and four different time zones later, we reached Britain. Much rejoicing and excitement as we got the mini bus home, all eager to see our families so we could start the story telling and a shower was desperately needed after nearly three days without one.

Washed, fed and exhausted, the jet lag set in. This is what I had to come home to:

Thanks Family

Thanks Family

Now, as it drizzles outside and Sunday dinner bubbles away inside, it’s hard not to think about ‘this time last week’. Galapagos is the most interesting, amazing, outstanding, beautiful place in the world and nothing will ever compare to some of the experiences I have seen this past fortnight. Even though I’ve been in a sleepy/alert/sleepy/alert cycle for the past few days and am still not completely sure what time I should go by, I wouldn’t change it.

But I still haven’t seen a bird.

Early edit of snorkelling off Isabella

Dedicated to Eleri, who’s strength of character got her out and about that day to see the sharks.

Eventually got the underwater footage to upload.  Glad that I managed that as we don’t have wireless on Isabella.  Things will be published from here upon our return to the UK.

Last morning on Santa Cruz a little sad.  We were just getting used to the layout of the town, the pace of life, the people in the shops and restaurants, the marine iguanas, the special Tortuga bay, the wonderful breakfasts of chocolate Scotch pancakes and cheese, followed by fruit, with wonderful Ecuadorian coffee and fresh juices – sounds weird, but do try it if you get the chance.

Spent the morning buying a few last minute presents – very few shops on Isabella, and walking around the town.  In particular went to the CDRS again as well as the fish market where we saw a bill fish – it looked totally out of this world, almost cartoon like. Just 100 yards down the road I came across a poster urging fishermen to throw bill fish back if they caught one. I do eat fish (mainly when eating out) but don’t think I could eat a bill fish steak, not having seen this magnificent beast.

We checked out of the hotel and I managed to spend 20 minutes on a sun lounger by the pool listening to the Doves.  So year 11 – that was my holiday bit of the trip – you can’t begrudge me 20 minutes!

Then it was lunch and down to the harbour.  Our cases were checked to make sure that we weren’t smuggling wildlife or moving fruits, or anything else with seeds etc that could contain invasive species.  Then we were packed onto a speedboat and set off for Isabella.  A bumpy ride, but saw 4 dolphins as we were pulling out of Puerto Ayora harbour – a fitting send off from Santa Cruz.

Arrived at the lovely natural harbour on Isabella.  We were wondering as we went through passport control what the policeman was doing bouncing a ball when there was a dog tied up getting really excited about it.  It was a sniffer dog – trained to look (not the correct verb – sniff, smell?) for smuggled wildlife etc.  Anyway, we had nothing to hide.

Short drive to our hotel.  Right on the beach, I can hear the waves crashing as I am writing this.  Palm trees with hammocks – a wonderful setting.

Our guide, Julio, took us on a quick tour of the town (village really) – a square with restaurants and thats about it.  Finished with the soda lake with flamingos – absolutely beautiful.

Trekking up to the 2nd largest caldera in the world tomorrow.  Sturdy shoes, 1.5 litres of water, sunblock, sunglasses, long sleeves needed.  Apparently it should reach 35 degrees C when we reach the summit.  The view should be amazing…

On his first visit to the Brazilian rainforest, Darwin wrote:

“The delight one experiences in such times bewilders the mind, — if the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butter-fly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect one forgets it in the stranger flower it is crawling over, — if turning to admire the splendour of the scenery, the individual character of the foreground fixes the attention. The mind is a chaos of delight, out of which a world of future & more quiet pleasure will arise.”

I’ve had this experience several times already here in Galapagos – notably on our first landing on Floreana, when, just off the boat, marine iguanas vied against sea lions and crabs for our immediate attention. I didn’t know where to point my lens, and I’m pretty sure I was grinning like an idiot.

I thought of the passage again yesterday, but in a very different environment: 20 metres underwater on an edge of lava just off Mosquero, a small island just north of Baltra.

While the rest of our group were doing their part for the islands’ delicate environment by volunteering at the recycling center, Amy and I fulfilled a dream by going scuba diving. These islands are so famous for their diversity of plants and animals on land, but the marine environment here boasts even more abundant and unique life forms. It’s just that most people never see it. Read the rest of this entry »

This is just a quick update on the wifi situation in Isabela. There´s a single, slow (we´re talking tortoise speed) internet terminal at our hotel from which I´m posting now, but no wifi. Some of us are tweeting by text, and there might be an occasional blog post from this terminal (I have a couple of drafts waiting to be shared with the world), but that´s going to be about it until we get back to London… or in my case Cocoa Beach, Florida.

For now, I urge you to read the posts below and watch Nick´s underwater video footage of swimming with sea lions and turtles on San Cristobal – it was an amazing day for all of us as I´m sure you´ll see.

Just a very quick post before we head off to Isabela this afternoon. No need for me to repeat what the others have said about yesterday, as I think it is fairly obvious it was a day we will all remember for a long time! Nick’s video is great, and shows just how close the sealions and turtles came, and how unfazed they were by us, and our strange appearance and gadgets!

When we next have some internet access (which might be back in the UK according to reports about Isabela’s connectivity) I will upload photos and my videos from underwater. I think it was an amazing ‘high’ to leave Santa Cruz on, and we are looking forward to what Isabela has in store! hopefully we can continue to blog from there, but if not, there will certainly be more to follow on our return to the UK.

And I think I could definately join a sealion’s harem – lazing in the sun with the occasional banter with the odd (in every sense of the word!) swimmer sounds right up my street!

I think it’s fair to say that yesterday was one of the highlights of my life. At least.

After travelling for two hours by speedboat, we reached San Cristobal island. After a talk on the importance of conservation in the Galapagos and an informative wander round an exhibit detailing parts of the islands history (I found out that the Galapagos islands were the place they sent convicts from America at the early turn of the century) and environmental statistics, we what can only be described as ‘trekked’ up a mount in the midday heat but it was worth it when we reached the top.

We saw the huge statue of Charles Darwin, surrounded by a tortoise and a sea lion. I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t made out of tone but out of some hollow material but I understood when realising the amount of steps and the incline we had walked up. 

If I couldn’t sit on a real giant tortoise, I made sure I sat on a model one!

On the way to lunch we walked past the harbour. It was brilliant watching the sea lions in their natural habitat, lazing on the beach in the sun. However, all of the recent talks about human impact on the Galapagos hit home when, on one side sea lions were lying on a golden beach and splashng in the birght bue ocean, but on the other side they were sunbathing next to rubble and concrete blocks used to make the next building encroaching on the habitat.

After lunch we walked to a beach called ‘Sea Lion Refuge’. Now, sea lions are one of my favourite animals so I thought it was amazing to be able to see them in the water and on beaches.

It was extradordinary to be able to sit less than two metres away from them and copy their lazy, sun worshipping ways! There were about forty, fifty, possibly sixty sea lions all huddled together with at least three babies. Looking to the future, I was quite pleased to see quite a few babies because it means that, hopefully, the population is far from declining. Hearing the barks of them playing in the sea, the baby suckling and the slaps of running flippers, I was actually speechless.

Now, time to pack for Isabella….

A very early start today.  Met by Javier at 7am at the hotel and walked into the harbour to catch our boat “Andy” to the island of San Cristobal. As we were pulling out of the harbour we saw some incredible waves – it looked like the swell has been building.

In a little over 2 hours we pulled into the bay where Charles Darwin first set foot on the Galapagos Islands.  The spot is marked by a statue.  Overhead, frigate birds flew in lazy circles above us.  They nest above the bay in their breeding season.

It was our hottest day on the islands, we disembarked in the harbour and had to avoid tripping over the sea lions.  It seems that the sea lions have chosen San Cristobal, just as the marine iguanas have chosen Floreana to set up home.  We walked to the interpretation centre where we had a talk on the history and conservation of the islands, followed by a look through the exhibition where we saw more of the history. We were all amazed at the amount of development shown by some aerial photos of the islands.

We then walked to view the statue. Like everywhere in the National Park, tourists are only allowed to walk on the paths to prevent damaging the habitat. It reminded me of the Ray Bradbury short story I read at primary school, A Sound of Thunder, in which a hunter travels back in time to shoot a dinosaur. The hunter is only allowed to shoot a Tyrannosaurus rex that is about to die of natural causes. In the panic of the hunt he steps off the path and kills an insect (I think – it was a long time ago!)  Upon his return to the present time the hunter notices that things have subtly changed. I wonder if a modern day tourist stepped off the path and trod on, say a tortoise’s nest, it would affect the future of evolutionary progress. I love the idea of contingency!  What will happen to the tortoises released onto Pinta Island – will they evolve similar body plans to Lonesome George?  Or will conditions have changed to suit a different shaped shell?  Or even if the conditions were exactly the same, would something different happen every time we replayed evolution?  Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Galapagos is also a great exploration of the idea of contingency. Stephen Jay Gould explores the idea more fully in Wonderful Life – The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History.

After a hot trek back into town, we had lunch at a restaurant overlooking the harbour, listening to the honking of the sea lions. Then it was into a taxi and off to the beach. Again some incredible waves. The Galapagos is sure to take off as a world class surfing destination. The path was criss-crossed with lines left by the tails of marine iguanas as they moved from their basking area to the sea to feed on algae. We came to a small reef that the huge waves were breaking against that formed a small lagoon of more sheltered water. On the beach of the lagoon were perhaps 50 sea lions – females and juveniles. In the water was the dominant male, protecting his harem by swimming up and down, honking and occasionally getting out of the water and shaking his head about. He looked impressive with his swollen head – much larger than the females.

The real stars of the show were the young.  On a cuteness scale of 1-10, I reckoned a 15, Charlotte thought much higher!  They were all wrinkled with puppy fat, their eyes were adorable and when they scratched themselves with their flippers…

For lots more pictures have a look at the Flickr set.

Then it was time to get into the water.  Javier showed us the best place to get into the water so that we didn’t disturb the dominant male. The water was quite murky due to all of the sand and seaweed in suspension due to the size of the waves, bringing visibility down to about 3-4 metres. However the animals must have been told that so they made sure they got exceptionally close. Within a minute of getting in the water I found myself practically on top of a large turtle less than 5 metres from the shore. The water was incredibly shallow and I had to avoid bumping in to it. I managed to follow and film the turtle for two and a half minutes – an incredible experience – its flippers moved so gracefully. At one point we made eye contact – awesome!

Then there were the sea lions. They loomed out of the gloom towards us. Once they saw that we had noticed them they charged towards us, blowing bubbles through their nostrils, only veering away at the last moment. It took some getting used to! I don’t think any of us will forget that experience. As time went on the sea lions got even more confident. Coming at me with open mouths and making honking sounds underwater – can just be heard in the latter parts of the video. One then tried to grab one of my fins in its mouth!! It was amazing to see these acrobats of the water, pulling somersaults, changing direction in an instant and most of all having fun! We are definitely not the only species capable of doing that. They reminded us of playful puppies.

I was the first out of the water and was described as, “The most animated we have ever seen you,” by Becky!  I will certainly never forget my time on San Cristobal. Amy Turner was escorted out of the water by the dominant male – he must have seen her as a threat, or maybe a potential addition to his harem!

We caught a catamaran back to Santa Cruz – a slower ride, but made worthwhile when we were buzzed by a pod of dolphins leaping out of the water.  The icing on a wonderful cake! The icing was then decorated with a beautiful sunset.

Thank you San Cristobal – we shall never forget you!

Hola Everyone,

We’ve had a busy couple of days!

On Wednesday we visited a local school and joined in with some of their lessons. It was very interesting to see how their school life seemed a lot more relaxed than ours. We met some amazing people! In the afternoon some of the students took us to a tortoise reserve they were involved in, where people from the Charles Darwin Research Station told us about what they’re doing to monitor the islands.

On Thursday we visited the recycling centre where we leant a hand. We took tops off bottles, put paper in bags (which required getting into the wheelie bin) and worked on the conveyer belt sorting out the different recyclables. The people working there were very funny especially when some odd items came along. In the afternoon we went to Tortuga Bay which was a 2km walk but it was worth it. The waves were huge! There was over a hundred iguanas all crammed in to one place. There was also a blue footed booby about a metre away from us.

On Friday we went to the Charles Darwin Research Centre and learnt some interesting things about how humans impacting the islands by introducing new species and how the population has dramatically increased over the past 20 years. We also met Lonesome George the last surviving tortoise from the island of Pinta. He seemed happy considering.

Today we went to San Cristobal and visited the interpretation centre and went along a new trail to a statue of Charles Darwin at his first landing site on the islands. We all had our photo taken with him. After lunch we snorkelling and sea lions were swimming right up to our faces and doing flips in front of us. I was a bit scared at first but got used to their playful nature. A sea turtle swam right past me and underneath me. It was an incredible afternoon. On the boat back some dolphins passed by the boat.
Off the Isabela tomorrow.

Thanks to everybody who has helped us on Santa Cruz!!! People who have given us interesting talks, been our tour guides (Franklin and Javier), the staff at the hotel Villa laguna and the many drivers of cars and captains of boats.

Buenos Noches

Eleri

The Charles Darwin Research Station is only a 15 minute walk from our hotel.  On the way there we walked past the shed where the fresh fish are prepared for sale to local hotels and restaurants. The men working there had numerous helpers.

The pelicans in particular seemed to have no concept of the size of their beaks compared to the size of the pieces of fish, and would try to eat pieces that were several times larger than their heads.  It reminded me of the rhyme that my grandfather taught me: “Oh what a bird is the pelican, his beak can hold more than his belly can”. One of the pelicans was allowed to break the no feeding rule as it had a broken beak and was unable to feed itself in the ocean. Read the rest of this entry »