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Darwin’s Wonderland: Part II

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.

Click here to read part I of this series

Day Three: Genovesa

I awoke to find the boat moored inside a volcanic caldera whose western rim collapsed years ago, making way for the ocean to flood the center. It was very windy and choppy which made for some great waves crashing all around the rim. After a typical breakfast, we hopped in a panga to ride to the southern rim for a hike on Prince Philips Steps.  The area is a nesting place for Nazca and red-footed boobies, as well as other birds such as finches, frigates, doves, and mockingbirds.   The natural steps up to the bluff were the toughest part of the hike and required some amount of attention to ensure good footing and occasional handholds. It wasn’t that far up though, and once on top, the area offered a relatively flat, easy walk.


Along this windy bluff, we were treated to views of countless birds. They were very tolerant of our presence, which made for fantastic photo opportunities. I could see that was the norm in this enchanted place. Babies sheltered under their mothers, or waiting for them out in the open. These birds don’t have many natural predators on the islands.  The Nazca boobies nest in sand rather than build a nest, while the red-footed boobies nest in trees. When you realize they have webbed feet, this suddenly seems odd. Amongst the famous boobies are large frigates and other smaller birds.  Even if you think birds don’t interest you, you might find yourself surprised on this hike.

The water in the caldera was choppy all day and our afternoon shark snorkel was relocated to a calmer section of water.  The new area meant we weren’t likely to see sharks, and with the motion in the ocean, the visibility was pretty poor.  I did see my first Moorish Idols, though!  There were also the typical reef fish such as parrotfish, triggerfish, and damsels.

After a filling lunch of soup, fish, rice, and cheesecake, we rested a bit. A few folks went sea kayaking and then we panga’d our way to Darwin Beach.  This outing was an easy walk in the sand where you could weave your way through resting sea lions and then on around the nesting birds.  The photo opportunities were limitless and once more, it was extremely difficult not to touch the animals – especially the babies.   The beach was full of resting females and pups, and one male that kept patrolling the area, keeping an eye on his harem and letting everyone know he was the boss.  When any of us got too close to his ladies he let us know, in no uncertain terms, that we had crossed a line. After our walk, we sat on the beach with the sea lions and watched the waves roll in and out. I didn’t wear enough sunscreen and ended up with a mild burn. It’s very easy to do so close to the equator, the sun is much more intense than you realize. Sunblock is a necessity.

Dinner consisted of pork tenderloin, mashed potatoes, gravy, rice, and salad and with all of the activities we do, a good hearty meal is quite welcome. The hospitality on Tip Top III never ceases to amaze me.  The food is fantastic, the crew goes above and beyond, and overall, it’s a well-run unit.  I see big boats out on the water which hold 40, 50, or even 100 people, and I think a smaller boat like Tip Top is the way to go.  It’s not crowded at all and you can get a lot of personal attention.

The ride from Genovesa back to Santiago was fated to be a very rough one, similar to the night before. We were warned ahead of time again and people took precautions by using sea sick meds or sleeping pills.  I chose the latter and did pretty well despite the fact that the boat rocked so hard I had to shove my leg between the mattress and wall to get a good brace.  Nadia swears we almost died, but I think her exaggeration has something to do with her inability to Google “how to survive a shipwreck” and subsequent emotional turmoil. Fortunately the sleeping pill allowed me to sleep through any midnight drama and her screams of terror. Five stars for Ambien.


Day Four: Santiago Island, West Side
Puerto Egas

Despite the turbulent water, Captain Washington steered us safely back to Santiago Island, this time on the west side of it.  We were told by our ever knowledgeable guides, that this island used to have a big goat problem thanks to their introduction by sailors.  The goats multiplied by the thousands and wreaked havoc on any and all vegetation, which caused other endemic animals to starve and die. Eventually the officials had all of the goats rounded up and/or hunted off.   It seems we humans can’t get enough of going into pristine places and just mucking things up. At least now efforts are being made to reverse or try to halt the damage done to this beautiful archipelago.

The black sand beaches on the west side of Santiago are home to many sea lions and marine iguanas. Immediately upon clamoring off the panga, we were treated to sightings of both.  Since this is pupping season, we saw even more pups here and were able to shoot many good photos and videos. Hawks feed on the marine iguanas, so there were a few of those circling around as well. A young hawk practiced hunting right in front of us.  He didn’t do that great of a job unless his intention was to just frighten the iguana back into the water, in which case he was a champ.

We walked an easy path up onto the cliffs and saw our first Galapagos fur seals. The name is actually a misnomer since they are really sea lions and not seals at all.  They’re very different from the other sea lions, though.  They have much more fur, they prefer cliffs and rocks to sandy beaches, and they’re nocturnal.  I think what surprised us most was how well they can climb cliffs. I had no idea any seal or sea lion had the ability to climb like that, but these guys certainly do so with little effort.  These particular cliffs were once lava tubes that have since collapsed and the imagery that set up was breathtaking.

fur seals
In the pools of water at the top of the cliffs, baby fur seals gathered to play and rest.  Groups of them swam around each other playing and some of the older male pups practiced their skills at dominating in these natural nurseries. Photo ops were easy and abundant since the animals paid little attention to us or cared much about our close presence. If you didn’t get a good picture of a fur seal pup, then you weren’t even trying.  Nadia fell in love with the pups and I was pretty sure that she would try and sneak one into her bag and take it home. I had to keep a close eye on that mischievous gal.

After a watermelon snack, we donned our snorkel gear and got in the water near the same area that we started the hike.  This snorkel was amazing!  There were many sea turtles very close to the surface and it was incredibly easy to just float amongst them.

I ventured out into deeper water and came upon a male sea lion hunting.  I watched (and tried to capture on film) as he swam around a school of small fish, blowing bubbles and corralling them up so he could eat.   The males are the ones that we generally need to steer clear of, but he made that difficult since, on many of his passes, he nearly touched me. I had to keep backing away from him to make sure I was giving him enough room and to lessen any risk of upsetting him. The last thing I wanted was a sea lion bite this far out in the middle of nowhere.  They have big teeth!  Plus, there’d be all this paperwork and stuff. Just no fun at all. So I did my best not to get eaten by the animals.  Santiago’s son was accidentally touched by him, which kind of worried the boy a bit, even though the sea lion didn’t seem to care.

With another pass out into the deeper water, I attracted a female sea lion. She came right out of the deep blue and whizzed by me at lightning speed, then turned and swam circles around me.  She seemed eager to play and pose for the camera by doing headstands and blowing bubbles at me. She swam right at the camera over and over, nearly touching it before changing direction to dart between my legs or around my body.  It was an inspiring encounter that will forever be lodged in my memories. I managed to get much of it on film, too.  Just as we headed back to the boat, another female sea lion and a couple of pups came out and played near.  This place is amazing beyond words.

Somehow I lost sight of Nadia right from the beginning of the snorkel, which concerned me a bit given that we were close to sea lion and fur seal pups. I checked her bags afterwards and didn’t see any baby mammal contraband, though.


Espumilla Beach

Another panga ride, another beach and hike. This trip was in an area known for sea turtle nests and birds, especially hawks.  The hawks here are not exactly tame, but it almost seems that way with how close they let you get to them.  Carlos was able to pick up a large stick that a hawk was sitting on and it didn’t seem to bother the majestic bird of prey a bit.  Past the mangroves was a dry area that is full of brackish water in the rainy season, but dry time of year in November.  Only the heartiest plants survive and, oddly enough, that happens to be a type of tomato plant.  Like many islands, this one also suffered from hardships introduced by sailors.  Rats. Lots of big, black rats infested the island from the boats.  They ate all of the turtle eggs so the park tried to eradicate them with poison.  Unfortunately, that killed many of the hawks when they ate the poisoned rats.  To fix the problem without harming the hawks, officials rounded up all of the birds and kept them in captivity for 1 – 2 months while they dropped poison for the rats. When it was safe, the hawks were put back into their habitat.

The hike was long, but much of it was shaded.  It went uphill a bit with a gradual incline and we were able to see and photograph some epic views along with close-ups of hawks and other birds.


Buccaneer cove

When we returned to the boat, it cruised past Buccaneer Cove near sunset. We weren’t allowed to disembark there, but cruising by gave us great views of some unusual scenery as we watched dusk fall.  Whalers and pirates used the cove for shelter and repairs. They would run right up the shore and then wait for low tide to beach their ships so they could temporarily ‘dry dock’ and fix what needed fixing.  Caves litter the sides of the cove and are probably full of pirate treasure. They refused to let me go check though, even when I promised to share what I found.  I had to content myself with the mantas visible at the surface while as we motored past.

Later on, I witnessed and caught on film part of Nadia’s mental breakdown brought on by four days without internet. A recommendation for Tip Top: Provide an on-board therapist for such things, or at least someone to dispense good drugs for the bunkmates of people who lose it.

Check out my YouTube channel for slideshows and videos of the trip, if you are so inclined.


Next up ~ Changes in latitude lead us to another hemisphere, penguins poo in someone’s face, and we find an island of baby Godzillas.