The Galapagos Islands Sunday 30 September 2012 Isla Floreana: Post Office Bay/Mirador de la Baronesa AM Punta Commorant/Devils Crown PM

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Today we started early and walked a small distance up to a viewing platform on the Island of Floreana. We were regaled with the colourful stories of the lives of some of the early European and Ecuadorian settlers here. One in particular was interesting – that of the Baroness who had two European and one Eucadorian lover. The island itself was quite desolate looking, and it was interesting to note that there was not an abundance of wildlife like some of the other islands we have visited that have not had human inhabitation.

We went back on board for breakfast and then returned to the island to go to Post Office Bay. Here a number of us posted postcards in the island’s post box. This place has been used for centuries by sailors as the dropping off point of mail. The system works by each individual leaving whatever mail they wish sent to their home, and then the next passerby checks over the items left by previous visitors. If there is mail for someone in the area the next person will be travelling to, they take the item(s) and hand deliver it to the recipient. I posted a postcard to Mum and Dad so it will be interesting to see how long it takes to reach them. I took a note that is for someone in Otavalo, the next town we will visit after we leave Quito on our return to the mainland.

Our next activity was some snorkelling off a beach on Floreana. The water wasn’t super clear but we all saw a green turtle. As the visibility wasn’t the greatest I decided to do some laps along the beach instead for about 45 minutes, which was nice and whilst I was swimming another green turtle swam past in an area that had great visibility so I swam around after it for a while too. Most of the others spent the time snoozing on the beach.

Our next snorkelling location was at a place called the Devils Crown. It was a group of black rocks in the ocean that formed a shallow bay in the middle – the crown. This was a very enjoyable snorkelling experience as it was different to a lot of the others we had done. The ocean was a bit rough that day so not as many of the other passengers went out. There were a lot of very large and brightly coloured star fish in the water which I have not seen a lot of previously. There were some sharks on the ocean floor and Antonio (one of the crew) would swim deep down and stir them up so we could watch them dart away. It is quite impressive how deep he can dive and how long he can stay underwater! At the end of our snorkelling session Ciaran, Mel, Antonio and I swam back to the boat. Jo joined us a little further on when she got dropped off by Daniel in the dingy.

In the afternoon we walked to Cormorant Bay which is a pretty beach with white sand and aqua water. There was the usual supply of Sally Lightfoot crabs and sea lions. The sight that captured us the most though was the large school of sting rays that lay on the ocean floor near the water’s edge. They moved up and down the sand in rhythm with the waves. I must have taken over 100 photos in an effort to capture the spectacle but I am not sure that the pictures illustrate just how good it looked at the time.

We then got back on board for the long boat ride to Santa Cruz to enjoy a late dinner on board as we docked in the bay. It would be the last night for a number of our fellow passengers as they will be leaving the next day.

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The Galapagos Islands 29 September 2012 Isla Espanola: Gardner/Isole Gardner/Isole Osborn AM – Punta Suarez PM

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If today can be beaten then I will be blown away! Quite simply today has been a total sensory overload. Words and photos will simply be insufficient to describe how absolutely magnificent the sights and experiences we have seen. Everyone here has felt the same way. Every time I look up from typing someone is shaking their head side to side and exclaiming something along the lines of “Wow. What a day. It was extraordinary!” We are all grinning from ear to ear. Though I should mention that a few very unlucky souls have been off colour today and missed out on some of the sights. I will try and moderate my exuberance around them so they don’t feel too bad!

To kick off we spent the morning on the pristine and uber-soft sand of Gardner Beach. We spent a luxurious hour and a half photographing sea lions and swimming and frolicking with them in the shore breakers. They were such a hoot to watch as they lolled around the edge of the surf, literally rollng up the each with the waves, not a care in the world. I have actually decided the old well-used saying of, “It’s a dog’s life” will have to be henceforth modified by me to ”It’s a sea lion’s life!”

We have seen today however, as with all things to do with nature, not all sea lions lives have a happy ending. There was one poor little fellow alone on the beach, but just days old and obviously abandoned by its mum. It was from time to time feebly trying to move down the beach but it was clearly very weak and would most likely die.

On to happy things however… next stop was Isole Gardner. Ciaran summed it up when he said, “This has been the most amazing experience of my life”. We were taken out in the dingy and dropped off near the cliffs of the island where they met the sea. The sea sponges and grasses that were growing all over the rocks under water were the most lovely of aquatic gardens. The plants came in a beautiful collage of dusty pastels such as moss green and pretty mauves and pinks. Here and there were scatterings of vibrant yellow and orange. And of course there was a pleasing array of fish floating about. But the real show stopper was the juvenile sea lions we got to snorkel with. What a privilege to swim with these graceful and playful mammals. I feel truly blessed to have had such a unique experience.

These young-uns simply loved our company and would twist and turn around us or gently float right beside you like they were your friend. I especially loved when they would turn upside down and glide right up to your face (only a few centimetres away) and just stare into your eyes… for what seemed like forever. They were obviously as curious about us as we were them. I deliberately did not try to touch them, though the temptation was great, but inadvertently they would sometimes brush my face with their whiskers as they stared into my face, or touch me with their flippers as they swam by.

There was one particular teenager who seemed to delight in floating up to you and staring into your face with his big brown eyes only to scare the bejesus out of you by barking at you underwater, bearing menacing teeth and blowing a mass of bubbles in your face before swiftly spinning around and darting off into the depths. I suspect it was this naughty character who also bit me whilst I unsuspectingly had my head above water. Fortunately it was merely a play bite and I only received a few grazes.

I could have stayed with them for hours. I was getting rather cold towards the end but this was one occasion where getting out due to being a bit on the nippy side was out of the question. Eventually our guide came and retrieved us from the water and made the call for us!

Now for the afternoon. Here I think I shall quote Daniel, our guide, from his previous night’s briefing: “If you do not see at least five different species all in the one place within the first 30 seconds of landing on the island, I will be surprised”. The sheer variety of creatures on this island and the volume of each that we witnessed was staggering. I am confident that I have already forgotten something. We saw sea lions and their week old pups, snakes, iguanas, blue footed boobies, lizards, finches, albatrosses, turtles and ……..

At the end as we walked through a postcard-worthy landscape complete with a beautiful rainbow (of course), I remarked to Damien that it was like we just walked through a two and a half hour documentary. If you watch a doco you usually assume that the footage has been gathered meticulously over many months, and painstakingly captured by waiting for those “one off” moments. Well, the Galapagos just isn’t that kind of documentary quite frankly. The sights are so consistently regular that I reckon even the most amateur of photographers would come away with an album the envy of many a professional.

The animals, reptiles and birds simply are not afraid of you, and it’s almost as if you are not there most of the time or conversely on occasion, the source of curiosity, not fear. They are so prolific on this island that you have to really mind your step lest you land on a spitting iguana!

One of the highlights of this particular stellar day for me was the albatross. To watch these graceful avian giants stumble somewhat clumsily as they waddle along is indeed a curiously entertaining spectacle. But nothing prepared me for my own little David Attenborough moments as we watched young albatross practice the art of courtship. It was endlessly fascinating to me. They were like two duelling fencers. They would often raise their long slender beaks into the air and make a small trumpet sound before briefly bowing to each other prior to commencing in earnest their yellow beaked duel. Gold. I loved it! We all loved it and I am going to stop now so I can actually sit here with the rest of my fellow peeps and sit back and fully digest how magnificent a day it was.

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The Galapagos Islands Friday 28 September 2012 Plazas Am – Santa Fe PM

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We awoke early with the sound of the anchor being pulled and the motor starting as we headed towards our next destination. After a fine breakfast we were soon starting our first leg of today’s adventures.

First stop was the small Plazas Island. As we alighted from our dinghy we were greeted by a number of sea lions. Our walk took us through some very picturesque landscape in hues of red, yellow and green. There was a small heath like plant of red and a rather large smattering of cactus trees. And of course throughout there was an interesting selection of land iguanas. I think we were all quite interested by the fact that the sea lions were also found lying around the island quite a far distance from the water. Whilst we were standing overlooking the black cliffs on the far side of our walk we were fortunate to spot a group of golden sting rays in the water. They were not crystal clear from the height we were viewing them from, but I am sure if we had actually thought to whip out our binoculars we would have seen a lot better definition. But with something happening every few metres in this place it is hard enough to find the time to change your bloody camera lens for the right shot!

After this lovely start to the morning it was back on board for lunch and then a two hour ride to Santa Fe. The water was a bit rougher on this part of the journey and a few people were not feeling the best. I was glad I had learnt from past experiences and had taken precautions already.

Our afternoon was another fantastic session. Although the sky was overcast a few of us (some chickened out) donned our super sexy wetsuits and went for a snorkel. The beginning was probably my favourite as I swam with a number of sea lions and they were close enough to touch. Apparently one was trying to bite my flipper at one point but I was blissfully unaware of that! With all the abundance of larger sea creatures it’s easy to gloss over the fact that the fish are amazing in these waters also. The standout moment for me was when an extremely large school of big grey and yellow fish (yellow-tailed surgeon fish) were swimming directly below me, and another massive school of smaller slender silver fish swam over the top of them simultaneously. It was like two fluid waves of colour, movement and light moving effortlessly and seamlessly at once. It was magic and I felt a little like I had stepped into a scene in Nemo.

We swam around some more and up to one of the nearby beaches where a group of sea lions were lazying on the beach. We did spend a nice amount of time with two large turtles further out in the water. They were however not as close as the one I spent a long time with yesterday.

And as if we hadn’t had enough natural wonders for one day we next found ourselves on the island of Santa Fe, which was a much more desolate landscape than the island we had been on just two hours away. The iguanas here were sandy in colour and the ones we saw were substantially larger in size. A few in our group were lucky to snap shots of one of them with a mockingbird on its back nibbling away at something. We were also told about the Holy Trees that grow on the land here and that they have no leaves and the sap it excretes has a very pleasant odour that we all found familiar but could not place. Daniel, our guide, advised us that this plant’s sap is used to perfume South American churches. Hence the name, Holy Tree.

But the highlight for me was spending time on the two beaches where the sea lions were. They were endlessly entertaining and I swear some of them were deliberately posing for the camera!

Upon our departure our dinghy went through a school of I guess about ten sharks. This was the same beach I had swam up to earlier in the day. I can handle one shark at a time, maybe two, but I would not have been too impressed if I had got stuck in the middle of ten of those fanged fiends at once. I might add that this was after Daniel had reassured me earlier in the day that there were no sharks in this area as I was a tad perturbed after I saw the big daddy the night before!

Anyway, pizza awaits! Adios!

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The Galapagos Islands Thursday 27 2012 Santa Crus Island Baltra – Bachas PM

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Well I was pleased to wake up this morning feeling a whole lot better than I had the last day and nights. I was the unfortunate victim of food poisoning two days prior. After two nights and a day of porcelain hugging, hot and cold sweats and a fair amount of feeling sorry for myself, I awoke the morning of our Galapagos tour feeling back to normal. Phew!

Damien had met the majority of the other 13 passengers on our trip the night before at our briefing at the San Francisco Hotel de Quito. I had the opportunity to have a good chat with two girls our age, Jo and Mel, also from Sydney, over our breakfast. The funny thing is that all the other people on our tour are from Australia as well, except for Martin who is from the Isle of Wight. We have not seen a lot of Aussies in our seven months of travel so to be surrounded by them again is quite a nice novelty.

On the plane over we spent the flight getting to know Cairan from Melbourne, who is about two months into a six month holiday around South America. We were to discover that only one week into his vacation he was violently bashed in Valparaiso, Chile and by the sounds of it was lucky to be alive. He was apparently subjected to a fair amount of media scrutiny at the time. The attackers were caught on CCTV and apprehended by the police. As a result they have been charged and he is aware that at least one of the men involved in his bashing has been sent to prison. So it was interesting to hear him say that it was in Quito that he felt is the most unsafe in South America so far. He had also been the unfortunate witness to the severe bashing of a local when he was dining out in the Mariscal Sucre neighbourhood of Quito. Although Damien and I had both kind of come to the conclusion that Quito was not the safest of places due to the comprehensive police presence day and night, security guards everywhere, jagged glass atop people’s home fences etc, it was interesting to hear his perceptions.

After touching down at the airport we were almost immediately on the bus to our boat and home for the next seven nights, the rather aptly named Yate Darwin. Our room is on the first deck right up near the bow and we have a nice seat area where we can kick back and take in the sights. We both think we may have landed one of the best rooms on the boat, just quietly! I might add, that it was a real buzz that even before we got on the boat I spotted several iguanas, just to gently remind me of where I was and give me a little sneak peek of what I was in for. So without further ado, we were off. First stop Santa Cruz.

As we headed for Santa Cruz I started to get further confirmations that we were indeed in a special part of the world. Large birds, which I think were some sort of boobies (black with a red throat), were circling close above the boat and as Damien and I sat on our (for now) private little deck. Later on we saw a fish jump through the water.

We touched down on the beautiful island of Santa Cruz. It is a very flat island with lovely soft pale yellow sand. There are scatterings of dark black volcanic rock, cacti and other heath-like vegetation. The black rocks closest to the water were covered in large red crabs and I also spotted a large black iguana. As a group we went for a walk with our guide up the beach, we had barely walked a hundred metres when we came across two old exoskeletons of lobsters, just lying in perfect condition on the sand. A few steps more and there was a massive bird sitting unperturbed by us sitting on a rock. A few hundred metres more and we turned inland a bit to a small lake and there were some gorgeous pink flamingos. By this time I was definitely realising that it really is an abundant natural wonderland of the kind a nature lover dreams of. You literally walk a few hundred meters, and there is the next creature to spy. I unfortunately had left my camera on black and white after snapping heaps of pictures of these birds; thankfully I realised before we had moved on! We were particularly fascinated with one of the flamingos, as it was doing a kind of marching on the spot manoeuvre with its legs as it fed, presumably to dig up whatever it was eating.

We then walked back to where we had landed from our dinghy and were briefed on where we could go snorkelling. We were told by our guide that this was not the most impressive of snorkelling sites but we may be fortunate. Well, no sooner had I donned my snorkels and flippers, I came face to face with a huge turtle! Magnifico! It was so close to me that I could have touched it. It was not at all concerned by my presence and I spent a while watching him as he grazed on the seaweed. I called out to the others to let them know and Jo swam over to see the turtle as well. We both stuck our heads up to yell to the others and when we looked down again the turtle had gone.

Anyway, not long after I found it again, and luckily this time a fair amount of the others got to float around him too. I am pleased that few people in our group have underwater cameras because I was not able to buy one in Quito, and I can tell already that I am going to want some pictures of the underwater action! The fish life was also abundant but the turtle and my brief view of a white tipped reef shark (maybe a bit over a metre long) were the highlights.

Once back on board the boat, the sightings didn’t cease. As were neared the area where we are going to stay the night we spotted a seal just having a snooze on the seat at the back of a boat. Later I also saw (on more than one occasion) a very large shark circling around the boat. I am glad I didn’t see one that size today. I think I need to build up to that!

We are now all sharing our first night cocktail after being formally introduced to our crew. To sum up, our first day has been a total success and I can’t wait to see what is in store tomorrow!

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Our Galapagos Islands Tour 2012

The Englishman, Charles Darwin is arguably the most famous naturalist the world has ever known. When in 1859 Darwin published his theory of evolution in the book, “On the origin of species” he started a change in the way people at the time viewed how life on the planet developed and continues to develop and why such diversity exists in our natural world. Darwin’s underpinning ideas of natural selection were inspired from the discoveries he made during his voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle with Captain Robert Fitzroy and his crew. Although Darwin only spent two weeks on the ground in the Galapagos Islands what he witnessed there was so powerful that it is fair to say that to this day the Galapagos is synonymous with Darwin and the theory of evolution.

For me the Galapagos Islands has always been the source of fascination and to be honest a far off wilderness that I would only ever get to enjoy courtesy of TV documentaries. So to have found myself living and breathing this amazing place for a glorious week is something I will treasure for the rest of my life.

A week in the Galapagos does not come cheap and if you want to experience this environment to the fullest my research showed that taking the most budget boat/tour option is not the way to go. With this in mind we were um-ming and ah-ring as to whether we would somehow manage to afford squeeze in some time here on our year off.

That’s when a stroke of pure luck came into play. One day I happened to be checking my Hotmail account which was not a usual occurance. I keep my Hotmail purely for what I deem junk mail subscriptions and I am lucky if I check it once a month. Furthermore, it is even less common for me to actually open and read the junk. However, on this particular day I opened up an email from Intrepid Travel. I used this travel company eleven years ago in Thailand and had a simply wonderful two weeks in the north of the country with them. So when I saw that they were offering a two for the price of one offer for an 8 day Galapagos Tour I immediately showed it to Damien. Within a couple of days we had booked ourselves into what would be one of the highlights of our year together.

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