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Darwin’s Wonderland: Part I

The Galapagos Islands are a dreamscape, above and below the waves

In November, Scuba Diver Life set off for two weeks in the world famous Galapagos to see as much as we could both above and below the water.  The following series of articles will detail our misadventures from spontaneous bird feeding frenzies, to Nadia’s Internet withdrawal, playful sea lions, entertaining SMB deployment fails, lava flows, long nights on rough seas, wonderful food, penguins with digestive issues, newborn sea lions, schooling hammerheads, and much more.

Day One: Bachas, Santa Cruz

As I write this now, I’m sitting on Tip Top III, anchored in the middle of a flooded volcanic caldera. The rim above water forms a near-perfect circle, with an opening to the west where it collapsed many years ago and allowed the ocean to enter. The wind is pushing gorgeous emerald waves into the sides of the rocky rim nearly 360 degrees around me.  I am nearly speechless.  Nearly.

Two days ago, guides from the yacht picked us up at the Baltra airport in Galapagos, we handed over our luggage and hopped a bus to the docks to get to our home for the next week. As we approached the Tip Top III in a panga, I experienced my first taste of Galapagos water when a wave crested over my seat, thoroughly soaking my booty.  Fortunately, I’m not entirely opposed to a good booty soaking, so my temper wasn’t dampened, only my shorts.  After learning about the Galapagos Rules, we prepared for our first adventure.


Tip Top III anchored on north side of Santa Cruz, in full view of beautiful sandy beaches and rock outcroppings with waves crashing against them. White sands contrasted with dark lava rocks to create an interesting view, one that isn’t uncommon in the Galapagos.  In the background, the lush highlands of Santa Cruz were visible until they disappeared into perpetually hovering clouds. From the north side, Santa Cruz looks like a barren land this late in the year. We’re told that all of the islands are greener in the earlier part of the year but that the weather is hotter and muggier too. I was okay with less green and cooler weather.

Lunch on the boat was hearty with soup, salad, rice, beans, and beef. Our chef, Wellington, will cater to special diets if he is made aware (preferably pre-trip) of any dietary restrictions.  There’s enough of a selection that most people on specialized diets could find something filling to eat, but the he will make special dishes when needed.  After lunch, we relaxed a bit, familiarized ourselves with the boat, and then hopped on a panga to get to the island.

The Bachas beaches were particularly good for seeing crabs, marine iguanas, flamingos, and cactus. From the shore we could see a sea lion in the water, as well as a large turtle, but we were not fated to be in the water with them on that day. I don’t think the guides realized how much self-control it took for me not to jump in and try to play with the animals.  The urge to try and touch most of the Galapagos natives is very strong when they’re all so welcoming and docile. I did my best to control the very tactile side of me, despite the many easy opportunities to give in.


Once firmly ashore, I walked barefoot through the most silky, soft sand that I have ever felt in my life and the hedonist within was very pleased. It amazed me how there could be such softness right next to jagged, sharp lava rocks. Marine iguanas sunned themselves on the sandy beaches, and flamingos fished in the brackish waters just on the other side of them. Blue footed boobies and frigate birds flew overhead, but none landed to pose for pictures. Pelicans fished the waters just offshore, letting us all know that the area was rich with small fish.

Not bad for our first day in Galapagos. However, I’m pretty sure I witnessed a few strands of Nadia’s hair turn grey when she realized that she wouldn’t have internet for two weeks.  But we’re in the Galapagos! Who needs internet when you have the Enchanted Isles just outside?   I hoped she would  be okay, but I had to watch for signs of withdrawal and depression and act accordingly. I went prepared with duct tape to help stifle her whining, just so I could sleep.


Day Two: Sulivan Bay, Santiago Island

I slept a little on the top deck, enjoying the fresh air and starry skies, but eventually went back to my stateroom for a little more comfort. When I awoke on day two, I saw what looked like three volcanoes outside our stateroom window. I have to say, that was pretty damn cool.  We had a little trouble sleeping last night, mostly due a fitful air conditioner, but it’s difficult to complain about this too much.  I saw Nadia twitch a little, presumably from internet withdrawal.  We quickly diverted her attention by shoving breakfast in her mouth, throwing her in a boat, and then going for a hike on Santiago Island. I continued throughout the day to distract her with shiny things, pretty views, and sea lions.

Our first adventure for the day was a hike across a relatively new lava flow, only 150 years old, if I remember correctly.  There was an ocean of lava as far as you could see, frozen in time in many different shapes and patterns.  New vegetation has already started growing there, astounding all of us with the tenacity and adaptability of life in general.  This side of Santiago is where you can see how so many land masses in the world probably began, and certainly how all of the Galapagos Islands began.


Our guide Carlos is extremely knowledgeable about the geology of the area. As we walked he showed us different lava formations, described how they were created, told us their names, and pointed out anything and everything of interest. It’s obvious how much he loves the Galapagos and is eager to share his knowledge about it. Santiago is a former Galapagos guide who now runs his own company booking tours like this one for European clients. His knowledge and love of the islands is equally impressive and he hangs out near the back of the group so he can tell us things we may not hear Carlos saying at the front.

After coming back to the boat and having a pleasant snack of fruits and juice conveniently waiting for us, we suited up for our first dip in Galapagos water to snorkel in Sulivan Bay.   A back-roll off the panga around the same area we started our hike put us face to face with our first glimpse of the underwater world.  The water was about 70F and most of the guests on the boat wore 3mm wetsuits provided by Tip Top III.  I was comfy my SharkSkin.

One of the first things we saw was a penguin, which sent Nadia into near hysterics.  Lightning fast, it was gone before a single one of us had managed to capture it on film.  No sooner had it disappeared than we found ourselves swimming with a sea lion.  She swam circles around us, darted between our legs, blew bubbles at us, and stuck her face right into our cameras.  Sea lions here are very curious creatures – beautiful, playful, and of course extremely agile.  This one seemed as though she wanted to play and show off her excellent swimming skills.  Then, in true Galapagos form, we found not one but two green sea turtles munching the algae on the rocks.   They went on about their grazing unfazed by our presence which made for fantastic photo opportunities.  In the deeper water offshore, an eagle ray made a slow pass and then disappeared again into the blue.  Scattered all along the lava rocks and hard corals were common reef fish like the king angelfish, multiple types of parrot fish, hawk fish, green and black sea urchins, and blennies.


Bartolomé Island

After lunch we were back in the water for a snorkel at Pinnacle Rock on Bartolome. Although we saw a couple of sea lions on the rocks near the water and a few people spotted a shark, the snorkeling was not as impressive as Sulivan Bay. Perhaps we’re getting spoiled already. The reef population is typical of the area, featuring triggerfish, parrotfish, king angelfish, and large sea stars on the sandy bottom.

After a pizza snack and a rest, (are you seeing a pattern here?) we hopped into the pangas again to make a dry landing on Bartolomé.   In order to minimize the impact of tourism, the rangers built a platform for small boats to nudge up against and drop passengers, as well as a boardwalk all the way to the top where a lighthouse marks the nearly 400-foot ash cone.  When we got to the landing site we found it was occupied with a male sea lion and his harem of four hot gals.   Carlos gently convinced all but one to get back in the water so we could get out of the boat for our adventure. The last one wasn’t giving up her spot for anyone or anything, so we just gave her wide berth as we got out.


The hike itself was along the wooden boardwalk that includes about 300 stairs.  We moved slowly though, and took numerous breaks to admire the views and talk about the things around us, such as the mantas we could see breaching in the waters just offshore. Carlos once more pointed out the different lava formations and explained how the entire island was created.  There were several scenic views and at the very top we were rewarded with one of the best views the Galapagos has to offer.  Iconic Pinnacle Rock has such an unusual shape and uniquely stands out among its surroundings. The picture from the top of Bartolomé is one of the more famous images in the Galapagos.  We were told that the formation of Pinnacle Rock wasn’t natural though. The US military did blasting tests here and actually created the odd shaped rock by accident.  It’s a shame that’s how it was created, but it makes for a beautiful and unusual view nonetheless.  After we took a bazillion pictures, we went back down and back to the boat to eat a lovely dinner of pork tenderloin, rice, and veggies.  Nadia and I also bought our first bottle of wine on the boat since they had several to choose from for about $20 apiece.

After dinner the captain set sail for the distant Genovesa Island. We were warned that the latter part of the journey could be pretty rough and they were not kidding.  The boat pitched and rocked, which made it very difficult to sleep what with the rolling into the wall and nearly out of the bed at times.  I looked for seat belts, but not finding any I opted to try and brace myself between the wall and center table. I don’t believe I slept at all until we finally dropped anchor around 2:30am.  Fortunately, the sea sickness patches I used worked very well, so at least I wasn’t visiting the porcelain goddess while I was kept awake by Neptune’s temper.  Who needs sleep anyway?  We had more hiking and snorkeling to do!

You can check out my YouTube channel, if you are so inclined, to see pictures and video from the trip as I get them uploaded.

Next up ~ Days 3 and 4 on Tip Top III in Galapagos. Stay tuned to find out if Nadia manages to find a cell signal and if the crew lets me treasure hunt in a pirate cave.  Sea lions and pirates and boobies, oh my!