Sunday, August 14, 2011

Galapagos - Las Encantadas

Blue Footed Booby
Where to start?  We just returned from an 11 day trip to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, where I shot about 6,000 photos, including movies. How can I share with you the wonders we saw there? First, I would like to thank Wildside Nature Tours and Kevin Loughlin for arranging this wonderful experience. Despite the hurry up and wait inherent with international travel, Kevin kept everything moving with great flexibility. Kevin and all our local guides in Ecuador were simply fantastic. Muchas Gracias, amigos!
Click to enlarge map of Galapagos Islands
Let's start with a little geography. The Galapagos Islands are located on the equator, about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador's mainland. Like Hawaii, they are located over a hot spot in the Nazca tectonic plate, which floats from west to east approximately. All the islands are volcanic, with those in the western end of the archipelago being the newest, and the eastern end being the oldest. The islands have never been connected with the continent of South America, so any plants, animals, insects, etc. on them had to arrive by flying, floating, swimming, or by human intervention. We didn't visit each of the islands, but circled around those in the middle for the most part, including Baltra, North Seymour, Bartolome, Santa Cruz, Rabida, South Plaza, Santa Fe, Floreana, and Espanola. Some islands are just rocks in the ocean, while others are much larger.  (My apologies for not accenting them properly, but I don't think Blogger can do that.)

Pinnacle Rock on Bartolome
The landscape is 100% volcanic in origin, so some places have very little vegetation, while others have lush growth, depending on the moisture available.  There are only two seasons, the warm and wet, and the dry and cool (called garua).  We went during the garua, and were surprised to need warm clothes on several occasions even though we were on the equator. The cold Humboldt current comes up from Antarctica with food for all sorts of marine life, so we were glad to wear wet suits when we snorkeled.

Queen Beatriz
We stayed on a twin-hulled yacht, not just any old boat, and the accommodations, meals and all facilities were just outstanding. The last time we tried a cruise on a small boat, there wasn't enough room for both of us to stand up at the same time in our cabin, but our cabin on the Queen Beatriz was positively luxurious. The food was delicious, with lots of variety for all tastes, served with stemmed glassware and linen tablecloths. I hardly knew which fork and spoon to use some days! Now I have to start cooking for myself every day, sigh... Despite eating dessert everyday, however, we did not put on even a pound! The steward had the bed made every morning before we finished breakfast. (Travel Tip #1 - put your scopolamine patch on before leaving Quito to give it time to work. I waited till we got to the boat, which was a mistake.)
Sally Lightfoot Crab
The Galapagos are most famous as the inspiration for Charles Darwin's discoveries leading to the theory of evolution. The islands are home to species of both plants and animals living no where else in the world. Endemic is always the word of the day. There are 13 different species of finches, which have adapted for survival in the unique conditions of the particular island they now live on. After about 300 years of human intervention by pirates, whalers, and farmers, some of the original species are now extinct. The Darwin Research Station is home to Lonesome George, the last giant turtle from the island of Pinta. They are attempting to remove introduced species such as feral cats, dogs, goats, pigs and rats which threaten the fragile ecology.

Lava Lizard, Rabida Island
The islands lack the biodiversity found on the mainland. There are no amphibians at all, but the reptiles are in good supply. There are iguanas and lizards on every island, but due to the separation from each other, they have evolved into separate species.
Land Iguana, Santa Cruz Island
The land iguanas are vegetarian, while the marine iguanas swim to a depth of 10 meters to each algae. The giant land tortoises are also vegetarians, and you can tell which island each is from by the shape of its shell.  
Waved Albatross
While we enjoyed seeing all the animals, we were most interested in the birds, of course. The Blue Footed Booby was my target bird, and they were everywhere. We had to watch our steps because they like to nest in the middle of the path. The Galapagos Penguin is the northernmost penguin in the world. The Waved Albatross nests only on the island of Espanola, then flies over the seas for the rest of the year. I was delighted watching the little Storm-Petrels dance on top of the waves. The finches are another chapter in the LBJ story, that is, another little brown bird hard to distinguish from other little brown birds. The Hood Mockingbirds have gangs that terrorize other gangs of mockingbirds on Espanola.  I even saw one peck the tail of a marine iguana till it bled, then drink the blood. Yet we saw familiar birds too.  Yellow Warblers are everywhere, along with Great Blue Herons, Cattle Egrets, and Great Egrets. Talk about birder's paradise!
When our cruise was over, we returned to Quito to explore the city. Here we are all at the Mitad del Mundo, or Middle of the World. The next day we traveled to a hummingbird sanctuary on the other side of the Andes Mountains. I thought Kentucky drivers were reckless, but Ecuadorans will pass two trucks going uphill and facing a sharp curve. I got real religious on that trip! The hummingbirds were fantastic, of course.

Sit back and enjoy this short video of the wild, wonderful Galapagos Islands. You'll wish you were there! In the next week or so, I will post in more detail about our adventures.


Mary Beth- The Daughter said...

love love love the new header photo. Now that I've commented it's back to actually reading the post.

Jen said...

Wow! I'm just catching up on your trip... Wonderful photos and info!

tours in pakistan said...

Amazing and that place is suitable for trekking .

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