Monday, March 17, 2014

North Seymour Island - Last Stop

So our Galapagos cruise comes to an end with one last stop on North Seymour island. It gave us a chance to say goodbye to a few of the bird species of the Galapagos including the blue-footed booby, who just happened to put on a show for us.

Being our last day, we were up early to catch the sun rise.  Sitting on the sun deck, sipping our coffee, looking out over the nearby cliffs warm with the morning glow, we tried to take it all in and appreciate what we were seeing and experiencing.

The sky in front of us was filled with birds welcoming in the morning sunshine. Some soaring, others playfully swooping and diving together putting on a show that seemed to be just for us.

Then the uniqueness of the island chain set it.  Seeing firsthand that two islands next to each other had similar species that evolved differently was out of this world and something you usually only read about.

In the sky, the main bird we watched was the Frigate bird.  When you see Frigate birds flying they remind you of birds that may have flown in Jurassic Park - very stoic looking. Add in the red pouches and they are really a sight to see.

After breakfast we hopped on the dingy to make our way to a dry landing where we hit the shore to see what we could find.

It was a short trek around the island but it was one of the most intimate with regards to the closeness of the birds and their nests. Its hard to comprehend compared to normal animal sightings, but the lack of predation fear of the Galapagos creates such a unique viewing experience. You literally walk right next to the birds and their nests.

For instance, take this short video below which is a fairly routine Galapagos encounter.  We were walking down a path next to a blue-footed booby and he decided he might try the mating dance on our friends.

So, with that last laugh - we finished our boat tour of the Galapagos Islands - truly a magical place! Enjoy the last set of photos.

In a few hours we'd be back on the mainland and on our way to experience Peru.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station

After Florena, we found ourselves back on Santa Cruz Island, but this time to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station where we could see the famous Galapagos Tortoise.  Established in 1864, the station is a big support center for research and conservation of the Galapagos.  It has teams of researchers, scientists and conservationists which help to look after and promote the well being of the islands.

Another part of the research center is a tortoise breeding program which is the main reason to visit the center. It is setup like a zoo with different species in areas that mimic their natural environment. While its not the most exciting part of a trip to the Galapagos it is important to visit to learn about the creatures on the islands, mainly the tortoises and challenges they face. You will get to hear the sad, sad story of Lonesome George who despite best efforts was unable to breed to save his species. Keep in mind I'm not talking back in the 1800s, no, this was 2012 when a species was lost. It underlines just how important conservation needs to be on the islands to try and limit the impact of our modern world on the environment and amazing creatures that inhabit it.

We explored for about an hour seeing different species of all sizes from the tiny ones up to the giant tortoises along with a few of the different land iguanas species on other islands.  Some of the tiny tortoises breeding areas were the most fascinating. They had special enclosures to keep them out of harms way from the predatory birds until they reached a certain size.  They were so fun to watch.  Scrambling around, falling off small inclines and general just being toddlers - causing trouble and exploring.

All in all, its worth a short visit.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Floreana Island Flamingos

Floreana Island was the first stop on our last full day in the Galapagos.  The island has had a long history of humans and introduced species playing a negative role on the island. At one point, feral goats overran the island and killed off most of the native wildlife which has yet to recover.  As a result there is currently a big conservation effort to try and bring back many of the species that are native to the island and in 2007 the goats were all finally removed. You can read more about Floreana on

For us, it started with a wet landing to a quaint beautiful brown sand beach and a lazy path that led to a flamingo lagoon.  We were lucky enough to see 2 flamingos grabbing a morning snack from a distance, but that was about it. With the last few days of jam packed sights it was bound to slow down, but it was still not disappointing. Plenty of majestic views and smaller birds to keep us occupied.

We walked over to a quiet bay that looked like a good snorkel spot but unfortunately was full of small sting rays feeding in the break of the surf.  In water of depth, swimming with rays is safe but in shallow mirky water that is risky business.

Before we knew it, we were back on board heading to Santa Cruz island to see the famous Charles Darwin Research Station - home to researchers, conservationists and the infamous giant land tortoises. Relaxing on the top of the boat with the sea breeze keeping us cool, we were followed by Frigate birds dotting the skies as we sailed away.  They just hovered around the boat in the breeze.  What a life.

Up Next: A visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Beautiful and Colorful Española Island

The anticipation the night before Española Island was high.  Why, you ask? Well, Española has a good selection of the creatures on the must-see list which makes it one of the most highly rated islands.

During our nightly briefing Efrain went over the list of sights and sounds. It was epic!  The usual crew of Sea Lions would be on a beach, countless types of birds with a possible Galapagos Hawk sighting, a couple types of marine iguanas including the Red Marine Iguana that looks like a rugged explosion of Christmas colors, the much anticipated Blue-footed Boobies that as of last week were in mating season, staggering cliff views overlooking a blow hole that fires as each wave hits the shore, plus the icing on the cake being one of the prime spots in the world to see the spectacular Waved Albatross.

The morning couldn't come soon enough, so here we go!

Hitting the beach we instantly found plenty to see including some sea lions sunning themselves next to a tree full of marine iguanas doing the same but tails only, hiding under a tree.  Nearby were countless other Red Marine Iguanas warming on the rocks including this poor guy below missing some of his tail, ouch.

A trail through the rocks and brush lead us to the other side of the island where we stumbled on some masked boobies, more iguanas and a set of flirting blue footed boobies!  Witness, the courting ritual. A whirling and whooshing mating call with wings flared out and up to the sky.  Then head bobbing up and down the wobble while switching back and forth standing on each foot. If the lady likes him she'll dance back at him and mimic his call.

After watching this for a few minutes we headed on down the path where we found outstanding views including the blow hole and cliffs that were home to hundreds of Marine Iguanas warming themselves in the sun. They were everywhere and you could even find some big clusters where they were all sprawled out laying on top of one of another.

The views, lighting, colors, cliffs, clouds, creatures were out of this world!  The sea breeze coupled with a slight sea spray just added to the sights!  But we weren't done yet...

Looking for the Albatross' soon took over as our path headed back inland and we came upon their lush breeding grounds. Stopping on a high path with good views of the Albatross, we sat and tried to take it all in.

The Albatross is a funny looking bird - kind of like that big-boned and awkward friend you have. They seem too big to have any grace whatsoever. But then one of them waddles over to the high cliffs, pauses as if wondering is this is a good idea, but then takes a leap. You immediately shudder thinking he's about to plummet like a stone but then he spreads his 8-foot wing span and takes flight! They do fly and quite majestically, at that!  Soaring over the cliffs they hardly even had to move their wings as they glide along.

As with many other Galapagos birds, they nest on the ground, so we were able to get quite close. While somewhat awkward looking, they have an almost porcelain-like appearance - soft white feathers that fade into a gray-brown.  We could see quite a few nests grouped together in a certain area including seeing one frisky couple going at it - stop that - you have visitors!

As we headed back to the beach to be picked up at the end of the hike, Efrain said we needed to be on the lookout for the hard-to-find Galapagos Hawk.  Sitting on the beach, we looked out towards the center of the island and there he was, perched in a bush in the distance scouting his next meal.  Well it was our lucky day because he took off and flew right by us.

The sun was getting lower in the sky so it was our time to go but Espoñola provided some out-of-this-world sights and wildlife encounters which are hard to beat.  Even the moon came out to say hello as we left the island. Enjoy the photos.

Up Next: Floreana Island Flamingos

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

An Afternoon at Lobos Island to Meet Blue-footed Boobies

So after the events at Kicker Rock, our next stop of the day was tiny Lobos Island.  It was a stones throw from San Cristobal only separated by a narrow stretch of calm water and home to the darling of the Galapagos, the Blue-footed Booby.

We had yet to see this unique creature but starting today we'd have a few chance on up coming islands to hopefully run across their infamous mating dance.  From what we had read the dance was a serious show which was needed to win over a mate.  However, the birds weren't in the mating mood, so the show would have to wait for anther day.

One thing that is interesting about the Galapagos is that even though the same species inhabits multiple islands, they may not all be in the same cycle of mating season. For instance, Frigate birds may have red pouches on one island but not the other.  It sounds strange but the Blue-footed Boobies would be proof as they were not in mating season on Lobos but they would be at the next stop.

The hike around the island was over some large rocky boulders that were an adventurous change from some of the other flat hikes.  Climbing over the rocks were able to get up close and personal with Blue-footed Boobies.  As the picture above shows, they nest on the ground because they have no natural predators for their eggs - they also weren't afraid of us.  At times they might do a double take in our direction but as long as you gave them a few feet of space they didn't seem to have a care in the world.

It was an uneventful hike but the nesting birds were amazing.  Lots of Blue and Masked boobies to watch go about their business on the rocky barrier to the ocean. So here are a few additional photos we took along the way.  But don't worry, there is more to come from these blue-footed birds.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Kicker Rock - A Snorkeling Surprise

After the morning beach visit we headed towards Kicker Rock to get a closer look at the big white rocks that juts out of the ocean between a few of the islands.  Its an area known for good snorkeling and even some good scuba diving, so lets find out!

Before I get to the snorkeling, I want to explain how/why we ended up on a touring boat to explore the Galapagos instead of a diving boat. There are two main types of touring you can do in the Galapagos - visiting islands for the wildlife (land-based or boat-based) or scuba diving for the Galapagos's lesser known, but equally epic underwater wildlife.  Most trips do not combine both because the dive sites are mostly at the far reaches of the island chain, so you normally have to pick one unless you have the luxury of lots of time and/or money.  It was a tough choice because the scuba diving in the area is renowned for the ability to get up close to large schools of hammerhead sharks - something high on our "epic things to see while scuba diving" list.  But since I was still recovering from my wrist surgery (fresh out of the cast the week we left), the cruise was the safer option.  Plus the animals on land are probably more unique and that just couldn't be missed the first time around.

To help bridge the gap, we ensured the itinerary included quite a few snorkeling opportunities.  Some off the beach, some off the back of the boat in the middle of the bays and this one, at Kicker Rock.

Leading up to the today's snorkeling attempt we hadn't been overly impressed with the snorkel sites.  First and foremost, the water was cold.  And without wetsuits a 30 minute snorkel was tough.  The visibility wasn't great either and although we'd seen a few nice underwater scenes, the overall result was average snorkeling.

Would today be any different?  Other sites were in much shallower water near the coast but here at Kicker Rock we were a long way from the coast with no bottom in site.  The visibility was better but still not crystal clear leaving you seeing only about 8-10ft down to the mirky cold depths.

As the bell after breakfast rang, Efrain yelled out that anybody going snorkeling would need wet suits.  Oh man, colder than normal, ouch.

Suited up, we climbed into the dingy and headed to the drop location at the mouth of a narrow channel running between the two large rocks.  The water was dark blue in stark contrast to the white washed rocks.  As we snorkeled near the rocks, heading into the channel, a white tip reef shark swam underneath us which immediately made us forget about the temperature of the water and the waves smacking the sides of the rocks.

Swimming further into the channel we came across a group of eagle rays about 3 feet below the surface.  Anybody who has seen a ray swim will tell you they just glide through the water, wings gracefully moving through the water.  Our eyes widened as they swam under us without a care in the world.

Then a small school of 3-4ft Galapagos sharks appeared out of the mirk from the left.  This time about 4-5 feet below us.  They just appeared from the depths and took us by surprise swimming towards and quickly mixing in with the Eagle Rays.

The anxiety really ratcheted up at this point because it was really our first experience swimming with sharks...multiple sharks, all at once!  With our guide leading the way the group at first was spread out but now we formed a tight cluster as we were all pointing and excitedly yelling underwater to each other about what we were seeing.  But the real excitement was still to come.

We were all admiring the sharks, and honestly starting to let a little fear creep in as we floated in dark water in the middle of the ocean with no ocean floor in sight. Then suddenly the scene below shifted again.  Steph shrieked underwater with her snorkel still in mouth - HAMMERHEADS!

There they were.  A group of 3-4 foot hammerheads (adolescents) right below us.  It didn't take long before the excitement within the group peaked and we all eagerly watched these incredible creatures swim past. You know that feeling where you want to yell and jump around from excitement but are nervous to not make a scene out of a naive fear?  Well, that was us, looking at each other for a brief moment, eyes wide open.

It wasn't the giant 8-10 foot variety you might see scuba diving, but they still had our attention and amazement as we were lucky enough to have a few minutes with the incredible creatures.

We couldn't believe our eyes...eagle rays, Galapagos sharks and now hammerheads all swimming around with the 6 of us snorkeling in the channel at Kicker Rock.  I'm sure there were fish too but they were lost in the excitement.

Before we knew it, they were gone.  What felt like an eternity was probably more like 2 minutes but it was an absolutely thrilling experience.  The only bad part, we left the underwater camera on the boat! Wait, What?!  I know, I know but that actually made the experience that much more enjoyable by not having to fuss around with an underwater camera - we just enjoyed the show!  The pictures shown in this post are some filler photos we took at other snorkeling sites.

We didn't see much the rest of the way around the rock back to the boat and were honestly ready to get out of the water.  It was a fairly rough surf, we were freezing and I think all of us wondered where the sharks had gone and what else loomed just out of eyesight in the deep waters.

Back on board we were all in a euphoric state.  Even our guide, Efrain, was buzzing and said he had never seen that many sharks there before, especially the hammerheads.

After not being able to dive, I had been a little bummed that we weren't going to be able to swim with the huge schools of large hammerheads the Galapagos is famous for but to my surprise, it worked out in the end and one of my bucket list items was complete...for now.  Plus, its a good thing we didn't' start with the big sharks, I was a nervous wreck with the small ones.  Steph and I were less than an arms reach away from each other for the rest of the snorkel.  It still makes me a little nervous now just writing about it. Ha.

With that being said, we have officially moved Kicker Rock to "legendary" status in our travel history.  It was an unexpected but amazing swim around the rocks!

Finally, below is a video of a Spotted Eagle Ray to give you an idea of how they move in the water.

Up Next: An Afternoon at Lobos Island to Meet Blue-footed Boobies