Getting our Darwin on

Darwin Research Station

At the end of Charles Darwin Ave to the North of Puerto Ayora, is the Charles Darwin Research Station. Where more than 200 Scientists, Researchers, Biologists and Interns from around the world,  help to support the National Parks conservation and breeding efforts in conjunction with the Islands UNESCO world heritage status. We spent the morning visiting the station, hoping to avoid the worst of the midday sun. We walked in and tried to figure out where to start. The layout was more than a little confusing. I needed my Geographer to do the navigating.

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We started in the Native plant garden. Where we saw examples of the islands endemic scalesia (part of the Daisy family), which are important in forming part of the canopy and returning moisture to the ground. Thereby allowing more abundant plant growth in the islands highlands. We also were very interested in the special devices that had been constructed to try and retain the necessary moisture required to allow seedlings to successfully take hold.

 

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The Aquapro Waterboxes looked kind of similar to wheel hubs, had sloping edges to encourage water in and to retain water efficiently, so it is not lost via evaporation. These low cost initiatives are going to be vital in ensuring these precious endemic species are around for future generations to experience.

From the garden we walked the track to the interpretation centre (what we would refer to as museum or Information centre) which had displays explaining how different types of seeds are thought to have made their way to the Galapagos from the mainland. These included floating, in the digestive tracts of animals, or attached to the feet, fur or feathers. Not only did these seeds have to survive the 1000km journey, they then also had to be hardy enough to germinate and establish themselves on the Islands.

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Next it was feeding time for the baby Tortoises. The keeper left a pile of potato leaves and stems on top of their shelter and you should’ve seen how excited they got. Pretty frenetic movement from little dudes who only move about 300m/day!! The walk then took us past the Lonesome George’s abode. Lonesome George was the last remaining specimen of the Pinta tortoises, which lived on Pinta Island. He died at the DRS in June 2012, aged 102. (DOB 1910). He became the face of the Galapagos’s conservation efforts, after the National Parks tried unsuccessfully to breed him with other closely related species. But alas, he died before they were able to coax him into breeding. Stubborn old fella.

Lonesome-George

 

The next enclosure contained a fantastic surprise Land Iguanas!! These yellow dinosaurs were hugely impressive. So huge and so rare. There are thought to be less than 10,000 still remaining and they are endemic to the Galapagos. They used to be so prolific on Isla Santiago that Charles Darwin remarked “We could not for some time, find a spot free from their burrows, on which to pitch our single tent.” The presence of introduced mammals such as rats, cats, dogs and pigs has had a devastating impact on the population.

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The following afternoon we decided we couldn’t leave without paying another visit to the wondrous Tortuga bay. The weather really turned it on for us, but alas no spunky beach police this time. However, the turtles must have know we were leaving as at least 5 of them were gathered in the mangroves and swimming in the surf as we made our way back towards the path. They have definitely been one of our highlights.

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Adapting to island time

Day 15

After a low key day getting our land legs back yesterday, we set out exploring Puerto Ayora. The centre of town is the port, where taxi aquatico’s (water taxi’s) shuffle passengers to and from the larger vessels onto the docks. Where customs/National Park officials are waiting to check your bags. This happens when you leave and arrive on any of the islands and they sticker and cable tie your bags closed, so that you can’t transport any biotic (living) material between Islands. Although we felt that sometimes their approach to searching bags was a little cursory. It would be great to see them better resourced, with either an x-ray machine at each port or sniffer dogs.

When you leave the docks you walk straight out onto Ave Charles Darwin. This long street, wraps around the bay and is the main drag of the small town. We are staying off its northern end, in a quieter part of town (no roosters or karaoke!) about 5mins walk from the restaurants, tour operators and the fish market.

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Today we went in search of the supermarket, the post office, some schools and the market (Mercado), which is where the locals do the bulk of their shopping. Just by wandering the streets it’s hard to imagine that people can buy all the things the need to get by here.

We walked north of the port to Laguna de las Ninfas, the point at which the fresh water that collects in the lava flow in the highlands meets the saltwater from the top of the harbour. Thus the tides determine the salinity of the lagoon. The lagoon is fringed by White Mangroves (Laguncularia racemosa). Whose complex root system provides the perfect sheltered nursery spot, with plenty of nutrients, for juvenile fish (basses, yellow finned tuna), rays and little sharks. We walked the boardwalk that surrounded the water, keeping our eyes peeled for fish, of which we saw plenty and were even lucky enough to spot a baby stingray. Again here the cactus covered lava ran almost right down to the water. The ever present reminder that there is something incredibly unique and special about where we are.

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That evening we headed out with some new friends from our cruise, who then happened to be staying at the same hotel (we’ll call them Mr Vet and Mr Spaceship), to food alley. A street where dinning takes over the road and little food shacks line the sides. Vendors display the days catch, langosta and a variety of fish at the entrance to their establishment and then try and hustle you in. The air is filled with the smell of seafood being cooked over charcoal fires. I had lobster, grilled with a green herb marinade ($20 USD) and Mel had breaded camarón (shrimp). It was nice to have a meal with someone other than each other, and our Canadian friends had some great tales from the scuba diving they’d been doing around North Seymour and Bartolomé Islands, complete with some fantastic GoPro footage of coral, schools of fish, turtles, Hammerhead sharks and even a Moray Eel.

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Island hopping to Santa Cruz

Day 12

Awakening on Isabela and after a fabulous breakfast, we headed to the docks for some snorkeling with playful baby Sea lions, Penguinos (Penguins) and Pelicans. The Sea lions are very friendly and will play for hours in the shallow blue waters. Even giving our new Aussie addition a friendly nip on the knee. We’ll pass on the love bites thanks. Back on dry land to change and back into the boat for the final sea leg of our cruise. The 2hr trip to the largest settlement of Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz population 18,000.

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We checked into our newest accommodation, Mel and I get the twin bed option, which this time was two of the worlds narrowest single beds. Fingers crossed we don’t fall out tonight. We do have our own private balcony, overlooking the gardens, with hibiscus, hammocks and lush tropical greenery.

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Following lunch we walked around the waterfront and through town heading towards Tortuga Bay, a beautiful beach 30-40mins walk from town. The walkway was the Ecuadorian version of the Great Wall of China, on a hot hot day. Never ending lava cobblestones surrounded by incredibly old cacti, (up to 5m tall) and friendly lava lizards to keep us company along the way. We arrived at the long white sandy half moon bay and stepped over the dunes to take it all in. Beautiful. The main stretch of he beach has quite strong currents, so we walked to the north to a more sheltered bay, fringed with mangrove trees and where the cactus covered lava flow met the white sand of the beach.

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This was the first proper swim we had since arriving in Ecuador, well worth the long dusty walk. It was a busy afternoon, the beach Police – pretty much the Ecuadorian version of Baywatch, were patrolling the sand. Mel managed to convince them to pose for a photo, despite “no hablo Español”. The result was hilarious.

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Apart from the police there was plenty to see on the beach. There were pelicans flying overhead and making the most ungraceful dives into the water. Our German tour friends sat at the edge of the water with their big cameras, trying to get some good shots. Their husbands took photos of the wives taking photos. Should I have taken some snaps of the husbands snapping the wives snapping the birds? Too tired for that. Plus there was other interesting  stuff going on around us. The beach was partially fenced off to protect the Sea turtle nesting area and the marine iguana habitat. But despite these efforts we could see evidence of large scale erosion in these areas.

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As we walked back, we practised our 2m distance posing skills with the marine iguanas, definitely in our top 3 favourite animals. We made our way back to our hostel, showered, changed and headed out for a cold drink before dinner. This was our last night with the group and tomorrow would be the final day.

Day 13

Waking up, our first morning on Santa Cruz, we were just pleased that neither of us fell out of bed in the night. We had an 8am departure to tour the Santa Cruz highlands. We piled into the bus, with some interesting people from another group. Including a German man, who insisted on smoking his e-cigarette even on the bus. eewww. (FYI the entire national park is non-smoking). As we left town lava cobblestones gave way to asphalt streets then to red dusty roads. Since arriving here we have seen so much unfinished cinderblock (concrete block) construction, someone mentioned that if your dwelling is unfinished that maybe you pay less tax. But we’re unsure of how accurate that is.

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The dusty streets were soon fringed by tall Scalesia (endemic trees related to daisies) forests and banana palms. We were headed to the lava tunnels and shortly after to see the Giant tortoises in the wild. I was a little worried that the tunnels would be a bit claustrophobic, but they were humongous. At least 8m tall by 3-4m wide. Like being in an underground cathedral. The tubes/tunnels were formed when the volcano erupted (Santa Cruz is now extinct) and the lava flow down towards the sea. The lava that was in contact with the air hardened quickly and formed a skin around which the molten lava continued to flow towards the sea. The end result, long hollowed out tubes. We were also doubly lucky as there was overhead lighting and unlike Waitomo caves, no cave Wetas.

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We popped back out above ground and made the short bus trip to the farm where we would see tortoises in the wild. It was going to be muddy, luckily us kiwi girls are used to getting down on the farm. This was a great opportunity to see the tortoises not fenced in. Obviously given how endangered they are, most of the tortoises we saw were part of the captive breeding program. Where they are hatched in captivity and then released back into the wild to repopulate the islands when their shells measure 25cm, approx 8-9 years old.

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From the farm there was a car waiting to take us back to town, that was the end of the 5 day Sharsky tour and at least half of our group were flying out of Baltra that afternoon. We checked into our new hotel, Galapagos Inn, Casa de Judy and after a lovely welcome from Judy, we are now blogging by the pool. Adiós.

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Island Hopping Part II

Day 11

Day 11 saw us join a slightly different group as we went on a special extra tour to Cabo Rosa Lava tunnels. Little did we know when we booked it, that this required getting back in the boat, while the others were safely on land hiking the 10km round trip of the volcano crater. Dammit, why didn’t we read the small print. However, we were not disappointed. The lava formations, once we got to them (through massive surf and very tight channels of lava rocks, excellent navigation by our skipper, gracias) were one of the most striking landscapes we have seen since we arrived. Which is saying a lot.

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We hopped out onto the cooled lava flow and from there were able to walk across bridges that had formed as the lava hit the ocean and cooled rapidly. The landscape was crystal clear blue water, massive black rocks and 3m high prickly cacti. A definite highlight was a colony of blue footed boobies and their chicks, some of the boobies were still sitting on nests of eggs.So we got to see all stages of their life cycle. Plus the fluffy white chicks were adorable.

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From here we got into our wetsuits, never easy in a small boat that bobs around, and hit the water looking for sharks. Yep you read it right SHARKS. White tipped reef sharks to be precise. Which we found huddled together in a lava rock cave. The guide called us up one by one and then pushed our heads under the water, so that we were face to face (about 1m away) from four snoozing sharks. Each about 1.2m long. It was darker in the cave so ones eyes took awhile to adjust. But then suddenly there they were. Kind of smiling at us, all in a row.

We then tried a different shark hiding spot, but as we were all looking inside, Mel was outside with the shark, who was waiting to get into his/her cave. She was very brave and only made a small scream in her snorkel. On this dive was also saw seahorses, amazing! More sea turtles and some gigantic stingrays, just chilling on the sea floor.

Back out through the massive surf and back to port. We then joined some Americans from another tour group and went off exploring in search of the Flamingo lagoon and tortoise sanctuary. Where we saw 6 different species of tortoise. The differences in their shells are due to different selection pressures on the different islands in the chain.

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On the way back from the lagoon, we stopped and had a cold beverage at the Booby Trap (there are many booby puns to be had in the Galapagos) overlooking the beach. Across the road there was a beach bar that looked very much us, sand floor, hammocks, sunset view and the ubiquitous tropical island happy hour. We showered and returned, to farewell a great day on Isabela.

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Island Hopping

Day 10

The first of the epic speedboat rides. Today we departed our home for the last 5 nights, Isla San Cristobal. Our first trip took  2.5hrs in bumpy weather, with a seasick child in a small boat. Great times. However we were NOT sick! Pretty much winning at life at this point. We arrived before lunch at Isla Floreana. So very thankful to be back on dry land. We were greeted by a bevy of Iguanas on the dock. They lie in the sun with all limbs stretched out to the max, the best way to siesta. Once off the boat we boarded a “bus”, aka a truck with no sides and long bench seats in what would have been the tray. We drove up lava rock roads, into the lush highlands. From there we walked and learnt more about the buccaneering history of the islands, from early pirate caves, German dentists and their lovers and the first wave of Spanish settlers.

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We saw the holes in the rock face that the pirates had craved out to store their guns and had amazing views out towards the coast and of Floreana’s volcano (Cerro Pajas, 640m above sea level). We also heard about the endemic and introduced plant species on the islands and what the National Parks are doing to try and eradicate some of the more aggressive species.

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From here we visited a tortoise sanctuary, it was definitely siesta time. But we were lucky enough to see a very very new baby tortoise, who was so small he barely popped up above the grass.

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Back down the hill for lunch, two choices pescado or pollo (fish or chicken), this was to be a common theme throughout our trip and always starting with soup. After some respite from the sun we headed south around the coast of the island to a beautiful palm tree fringed beach. Mel snorkeled and saw fabulous sea turtles, while Iona made the most of the shade of the palm trees and the fact that the earth wasn’t moving and had a post lunch siesta. Unfortunately all good things have to come to an end and soon it was time to hop back on the speed boat (this time we dispensed sea sickness pills to our boat compadres). We hurtled off for another 1.5hrs towards Isla Isabela, the largest Island in the Galapagos archipelago. Isabela really is a tropical island paradise and if you are ever in the Galapagos it would be a great place to stay and use as your base to see the other islands and wildlife. Our first impressions were of; PENGUINS in the tropics, crescent moon volcano bays and black lava rocks everywhere.

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Hot and tired we checked into Hotel Gran Tortuga and collapsed into the shower. After a long day, dinner (pollo or pescado) was very quiet and we were early to bed.

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Getting our sea legs

Day 8-9

Today we joined our cruise and met the group that we will be travelling with for the next 6 days. Our tour operator Sharksky has arranged for us to take an afternoon snorkel trip out to Kicker rock aka León Dormido. Our tour group is a nice mix of young and middle aged, mostly couples and a few solo travellers. There are 12 of us in total. 2 Austrians, 5 Germans, 2 Spaniards, a Chinese woman and two Kiwi birds.

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The water was beautiful and calm and we set off to The north west in the catamaran. It took about 45 min to reach the rock formation. Kicker rock is a cinder cone created by the shield volcanoes of San Cristobal. Its 148 metre high cliffs are slowly being eroded away by the wind and large ocean currents that meet in the Galapagos. As our boat circled this rock we saw Nazca Boobies, Frigate birds, Pelicans, Blue Footed Boobies and our first Green sea turtle.

We snorkeled around the base of the rock, in sea’s 16-80m deep. Including right through the gap. We snorkeled through shoals of fish and Iona through jelly fish, ow what was that? Do you feel something? They were tiny but beastly. The water was cold from the Humbolt current from Antarctica, which causes upwelling of nutrients and therefore lots of sea life. We saw, black tipped reef sharks, green sea turtle, sea lions, large schools of fish, and tropical fish. The deep ocean produced strong currents through the rock and we had zero sea sickness.

Day 9

This morning the bus picked us up at 9am and we said goodbye to the lovely Blue Marlin Hotel, swimming pool goodness, fresh squeezed fruit juice and of course our favourite karaoke bar right next door. We took the bus to the east coast, just north of the airport. From the end of the road we walked round through the scrub to a white sand beach covered with sea lions (Lobo Marino). From there we walked around the coast for 45mins passing over large lava boulders and through Marine Iguana territory. These reptiles are amazing, up to 1m long and so well camouflaged against the volcanic rocks. They even look like they’re growing lichen. We may have taken a few lizard snaps.

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We walked to the end of the track, past nesting Galapagos doves (one pair with a chick) and then returned to the beach for some snorkeling. Little did we know what was awaiting us underneath the turquoise waters. SEA TURTLES!!! There were four of these amazing creatures, two with shells more than a meter long. They were more than happy for us to bob around and watch them from about 3m away. Definite highlight. Always good to remember to sunscreen the backs of your legs when snorkeling, one good tip we’ll be giving ourselves tomorrow. After a lie in the sun to dry off we made our way back to the bus and back to town for lunch and some respite from the sun.

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That afternoon we headed out to Cerro Tijeretas for more snorkeling, this time with baby Sea Lions, they are very playful in the water looping the loop and coming really close. This was a deeper rockier cove than this morning and there was abundant sea life on the ocean floor. Many colours of fish, sea anemones, sea urchins and Sally lightfoot crabs. We walked back through the cactus strewn landscape just as the sun was beginning to set, our sun kissed (we’ll call it that) legs making long shadows in the fading light. Back to the hotel for a shower, change and brief siesta before heading out for Langosta dinner, or Crayfish for those of you no hablo español.

 

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Tortoises, Sea Lions and Boobies oh my!

Day 6-7

This morning we walked to the western side of Shipwreck Bay to the Centro De Interpretacion, here we saw exhibits describing the history of the islands from when the Spanish first arrived here in the 1500’s to Darwin’s famed journey on the HMS Beagle in 1835. We learnt about the water access issues on the islands, their plans for renewable energy and moving away from fossil fuels by 2017. We also saw the impacts of colonisation and the boom in the tourism industry and the impacts this has had on the islands. Particularly the size of the settlements which are now inhabited by 30,000 locals. We learnt about major land use on the islands, which is predominantly conservation, coffee plantations, small scale agriculture and residential housing.

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From the centre we walked along a boardwalk through towering cactus, lava rock and barren stick like trees up to a lookout at Frigate Bird Hill. Named after the Frigate birds with bulbous red necks (males only). From there we had the most amazing view, down to the bay full of snorkelers and frolicking sea lions with the Frigate birds circling overhead. We could see Kicker Rock (Leon Dormido- the sleeping lion) to the north west, a fabulous diving site which we will visit next week and Santa Fe to the west.

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We walked down the hill to Punta Carola, a beautiful half moon, white sandy bay filled with playful sea lions and their babies. There were many curious small ground finches (Geospiza fulginosa, the males are black and the females have similar colouring to sparrows), one even perched itself on the edge of Iona’s finger. The bay was tranquil save from the trio of cigarette smoking, Justin Timberlake playing Americans sitting next to us. No smoking in the national park guys..

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As picturesque as it was, nature can still be cruel. There was a very emaciated looking sea lion pup that had obviously been separated from his mother. He spent the majority of our stay there moving up and down the beach trying to find his mother or another female to let him suckle. His efforts were in vain.

Day 7

Today was our first tour excursion. We had booked a half day tour of San Cristobal Island. Our guide Rail (Raoul) and our driver for the day picked us up for the day at 8.30am. We jumped into the ute  and set off for El Junco Lake, through the San Cristobal Highlands. El Junco is the largest freshwater reserve on San Cristobal Island and is around 9 metres deep. As we trekked up the hill we had a fabulous view of the most eastern and western parts of the island and the 8km wide caldera that divides the middle. As we came over the hill we saw a large swarm of  Great Frigate birds (Fregata minor) diving into the water. They do this in the freshwater to wash the salt water off their feathers. They don’t have oil glands to make them water resistant and they need to remove the salt build up. The birds are described as pirates or scavengers, pairs will mate once every two years laying only one egg. The juveniles stay with the parents until they are 18 months old and the parents are ready to reproduce again. The males have a large red pouch (or wattle), females are white under their beaks and the juveniles are brownish.

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From the lake we travelled to the most exciting place on our journey thus far: THE GIANT TORTOISE BREEDING STATION. Before the arrival of Spaniards, whalers, pirates and convicts there were over 100, 000 tortoises and 13 different species. Since then four of these species have become extinct, the most famous being the Pinta Island tortoise Lonesome George. The tortoise sanctuary is 14 hectares in size representing their natural habitat and is home to 50 tortoises. This breeding program keeps the tortoises until they  are 8 or 9 years old, then they are released into the wild. In the northern part of San Cristobal Island there is a tortoise protected area where they are able to  roam free. It was amazing seeing the tortoises so close up. They congregate around pools of water which cool them down, the mud also helps to rid them of any parasites they may have. After walking through the tortoise filled forest we reached the nursery where tortoises ranging from the size of an orange to the size of a dinner plate were housed, gasp!

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Giant Tortoises aged 8-9 years old

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1 year old tortoise

1 year old tortoise

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From the tortoise sanctuary we journeyed east to Puerto Chino beach. We wandered across the basalt boardwalk through the cacti (some of which are over 80 years old) and onto the white sand. We were met once again by sea lions, finches and jagged piles of lava.

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We climbed to the western point of the bay, up onto the cliffs and looked back at the sea lions playing, surfing and spooning. At the southern most tip of the point we found our friends- the Blue Footed Boobies! After a snack and a visit from some more friendly ground finches we made our way back to the truck, crossing our fingers hoping we would make it back to town since the tank had been on empty ever since we left.

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As the altitude decreased we moved from tropical rainforest to scrubby palm trees and hibiscus to smaller scrubs, sparse vegetation and bare trees with no leaves. The change in vegetation not only corresponds with the change in altitude but the change in rainfall due to the increased mist (orographic rainfall). Our fabulous guide took us home via the local market and pointed out the best restaurant for a seafood dinner, both of which are located within a block of our hotel. Could not have asked for a more inspiring day.

Lowland vegetation in the rainshadow

Lowland vegetation in the rainshadow

Highlands vegetation

Highlands vegetation

 

 

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