Monday, September 26, 2016

Galapagos Islands: Holy Amazingness

If you've heard about the Galapagos Islands it is likely because of all the unique animals that live there and how they helped Charles Darwin craft his groundbreaking book Origin of Species. Giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies are among the most popular of Galapagos' wildlife. But there's also the sea life.

The islands sit at the confluence of several Pacific ocean currents, the same currents that first brought humans to the islands in the 16th century. These currents also deliver a high amount of plankton which is a foundational nutrient for many of the planet's sea dwellers and sea birds. They're all here, too.

And it's AWESOME!

Upon my arrival at San Cristobal Island I was greeted by sea lions hanging out on every corner. Chilling on the boardwalk, 

sitting on the sidewalk, 

and frozen in place in a park as a slide for children of all ages.

So I headed out to SCUBA dive at Kicker Rock because there were rumored to be hammerhead sharks out there. Alas, I saw no hammerheads, but did notice a couple white-tipped sharks and sea turtles through the hazy visibility made by thick plankton.
The SCUBA dive was a little disappointing, but it was good to get back to it 6 years after my last (and first) dives in Indonesia.

I'd heard through the backpacker circuit that one could book a last-minute multi-day boat cruise around the Galapagos and save a lot of money. Many of these cruises cost $3000-$7000 when booked in advance. Since I have time on my side I gave myself 9 days on the islands hoping that I could find a 5- or 6-day cruise that fit inside that window.

And so I did.
A few days after I arrived the Domenica was leaving for a cruise and I was welcome to join for the discounted price of $1700. It was totally worth it. 

The boat held 11 passengers in nicely appointed cabins like mine.
We had three excellent buffet meals every day and a naturalist guide who took us on walking and snorkeling tours around the islands. 

Each morning found us at a new island where at 8am we went ashore for a walk of around 90 minutes. These walks took us past amazing bird colonies, giant tortoises, sea lions and more. We had 2 or 3 more excursions each day that included snorkeling, kayaking and more hiking. There was also a hot tub on the boat. 

Giant tortoise: one of the poster children for Galapagos. Alas, they don't let you ride them anymore.

As I go through life I'm finding that one of the parts of life that I value most is the opportunity to spend time with other animals in their native habitat. Many of my most cherished memories are from times spent in nature when animals were present. Grizzly bears in Glacier National Park, wild orangutans in Indonesia, komodo dragons, manta rays, bugling elk in Yellowstone.

Now I can add to that list.

Sally Lightfoot crabs? Yes, please. This vertical wall was crawling with 'em.

Cruising albatross...

The albatross are not nearly as graceful when on land. But their 10' wingspan is impressive. Watching them soar about mere feet above my head reminded me of the condors in Peru.

These frigate birds wowed me around sunset one evening cruising on the boat. At times I think I could have touched one, they were so close. Their wingspans are about 8' and when I was in Rio de Janeiro I saw them soaring through the sky high above. But I never saw them land. They've been recorded to fly over 40 miles without flapping their wings.

This is a young frigate bird sitting down. In Rio I never saw one of these birds land. My guide and group are in the back.

More sea lions. They look like seals to me, but are sea lions. I don't know the difference but these ones migrated here from California a long time ago and are a bit smaller. A trip highlight was swimming with one of them while snorkeling. It was darting all around me, playfully. I hope to receive underwater pics to share that were taken by others on the boat trip.

UPDATE: Here's a video of me swimming with a young sea lion. This was awesome.

Soaring pelican.

Cruising pelican. This bird is about 2' off the beach and there were a couple of them that were cruising back and forth right in front of me. Fantastic.

Land iguana. There are also marine iguanas that go swimming. This guy was big.

These are nesting swallow-tailed gulls with chick.

And now...drumroll please....what you've all been waiting for...

Blue-footed boobies!

And here's a downy, baby, boobie. So c-u-u-te.

The animal interaction was amazing. We were allowed to get within 6' of all these critters and they were all totally cool with it. Seeing so many gorgeous creatures so close was really fun. I also had wonderful snorkeling experiences and I hope to get some underwater photos from my companions to share with you in another photo dump. Cuz there were sharks and penguins and turtles and more.

I never knew I would be such a fan of the sea birds. They are big with 8'-10' wingspans that make them super fun to watch. Seeing albatross and pelicans and boobies soaring freely was phenomenal. I could sit and watch them all day long.

Being close to these animals out in nature feels to me what living is supposed to be about. It is so easy for us to think that cities and concrete and cars and glass and steel are what life is about. But, for me, I'll take the seas and skies and plains and mountains and all the non-human animals that populate them. It makes me feel more alive and more human during my brief existence on this planet.

I don't really feel like writing more right now, but I'll probably throw up another Galapagos post within a week or so. I also really enjoyed living on the boat and should write more about that.

List of animals seen up close and personal:
blue footed boobies
masked boobies
red-billed tropic bird
giant tortoises
sea turtles
white tipped shark
galapagos shark
sea lions
marine iguanas
land iguanas
many, many colorful fish


Unknown said...

Wow, Kirk. What an amazing experience. I hope to take my kids there, some day. I love the the blue feet on the boobies.

Michele Erwin

Kirk Ahlberg said...

It would be a great place for a family vacation, Michele. I imagine the kids would love all the animals and snorkeling.