After beginning our “Spring” break on Isabela, the group was divided up and sent out on cruise ships to explore the archipelago, one island at a time.
Our cruise ship, the Yolita II, was huge! I can't even describe how amazing this boat was, and for only 16 passengers. We had an amazing, amazing four days. It was incredibly fancy and everyone got their own bed, no bunks. Last time I lived on a boat, my bedroom was about the size of my shower and I was sharing it with another girl. Also, we weren't forced to sleep under the engine room, but rather got a room on the second story of the ship. I didn't even have to sleep on deck to avoid getting sea sick (good news, because it was cold.)
The islands that we went to this time were also much more interesting. We started at Santa Cruz and headed up into the highlands to walk through the lava tunnels there. These tunnels were very large in most places and didn't make anyone feel claustrophobic. Still, it was a long trek underground and I was relieved to see daylight. On our way up into the highlands we were able to see wild giant tortoises. They were wallowing in a mud hole and didn't mind as we strolled among them. Once they reach a certain size they have very few predators, and none of them are natural (only the domestic dog,) so they very rarely react in fear to human presence. They are so, so big! They look almost like dinosaurs with their scaly faces and flat, padded feet.
That night we were off. The boat left at midnight and we, thankfully, were all on it. We sat on top of the boat before it left and stared at the stars trying, with our limited knowledge of astronomy (skewed even further because we are sitting on the equator,) to identify constellations. I fell asleep that night to the rocking of the boat as we motored to our next location. I love, love, love boats! I have decided to devote the first $15 million dollars I make to buying myself a yacht.
It was incredibly bizarre to wake up the next morning and be in a completely different location. We were looking over Rabida, a tiny island with a red coastline and lagoons inhabited by flamingos. Unfortunately, because of human disturbance, the flamingos haven't been returning to Rabida the last few years. We didn't see any, but we were able to watch the Blue Footed Boobies as they dive bombed for breakfast. We also saw Galapagos Fur Seals and Galapagos Marine Iguanas. After a hike around the island (I told you it was small,) we were allowed to snorkel along the rocky shore. I saw some amazing fish, beautiful sea stars in all colors (yellow, orange, red, all with little spikes across their backs like little chocolate chips,) sharks, and jellyfish. I didn't really think about jellyfish being present in these waters, but we saw them at almost every location we snorkeled at during the cruise.
Our next stop was Santiago and its outlier island, Sombrero Chino. Before we went hiking on the islands, we had a few hours to kill and spent it making the thirty-foot jump off the top of the boat into (we were told later) VERY shark infested waters. I can't believe they didn't tell us about the sharks as we flung our (I'm sure, very delicious) bodies off the roof. Still, nobody was eaten and we had a great time. I've never dived off of anything so high. It was a rush. Afterwards we piled into the dinghy and hiked around Sombrero Chino, then picked up our snorkeling gear and swam with penguins. We also saw another Eagle ray, but it wasn't nearly as captivating as the little penguins zooming through the water around us. There were so many of them and they remained completely unphased as we swam right next to them. They are surprisingly small (the world's second smallest penguin) and stand only a little over a foot tall. They look exactly as a penguin should with their white bellies and black tux. They seem completely out of place along the creamy beaches and aquamarine waters.
The next day we hiked to the top of Bartalome, a beautiful island also off the coast of Santiago. It was definitely my favorite location in terms of views. We had to hike up, up, up to get to the top, but they had recently put in a staircase for tourists, who kept eroding the soft volcanic rock. The vista was amazing! It overlooked twin bays separated by a narrow isthmus peppered with green. The scene was used in the American film "Master and Commander." It is truly magnificent. We were able to snorkel in one of the bays after we returned from the island peak. The snorkeling was also beautiful with many, many sea stars. I think I became a little obsessed by the end of our trip, snapping picture after picture with my underwater camera. Thanks to my scuba training, I've become much more adept at diving deep to the ocean floor and using my air more efficiently. I was diving about fifteen feet to get these pictures, but I really wanted them.
It was at this location that I was stung by a jellyfish. The little guy was bobbing in the water just after a transition from lighted water to shadow and I didn't see him before my eyes adjusted. He got me right across the shoulder and it HURT! I wasn't near anyone though and it was probably about a ten minute swim to shore, so I crossed my fingers that it wasn't deadly, and kept taking pictures. I headed back to shore shortly after though. In case you were wondering, I absolutely didn't allow anyone to pee on me. I still survived.
After our excursion we piled back into the boat, raced to shower before the boat started moving (something I never quite managed to do, meaning my time in the shower was more of a dip and bob to catch the swaying water experience), and headed to Seymour, yet another small island. On Seymour, we are not allowed to snorkel because the marine life is just too amazing to be disturbed by clumsy snorkelers. Still, we took a small boat out and rowed through the mangroves, searching for sea turtles, sharks, and rays. We saw all three as they circled our boat. The sharks were only white tipped reef sharks and the largest wasn't more than five feet. The turtles, however, were some of the largest I've ever seen. Beautiful. They would just crest the water (though it was clear enough for us to see them until about four feet down) to take a breath, then bob back down to glide around us once more. The location was named Black Turtle Cove and I can absolutely see why. The turtles there were amazing. My favorite however, were the baby Eagle rays that we saw in droves swimming along the surface. They were no larger than a dinner plate and their coffee colored backs were sprinkled with white polka-dots, their dangerous stingers trailing gracefully behind them.
That night we didn't travel, but had a very calm night anchored in a small harbor. At night you could see the sharks circling the boat, looking to snack on the sea lions that come out to investigate the boats. There are restrictions on where boats are allowed to anchor for this reason. Also, boats are not allowed to anchor where baby sea turtles are hatching because, attracted by the lights, the hatchlings will circle the boats for hours rather than swimming out to sea, and are easily picked off by predators in the soft morning light.
Our calm night was, of course, followed by a rough day at sea. We started our day hiking on the Southernmost part of Seymour and saw so many amazing animals. At this location we saw more wildlife than any other and it was spectacular as everything seems to be breeding right now. Frigate birds were everywhere. These giant black birds ride air currents out at sea for most of the year, skimming the surface to capture prey or stealing it from other birds by grabbing their tails and shaking them until they vomit up their catch. The Frigate birds then snatch the regurgitated fish mid-air in a fabulously agile display. During breeding season, however, the males are inhibited by a scarlet red pouch that they inflate across their neck and chests to attract females. They then stretch their seven foot wingspan across their chosen nesting site (perched rather haphazardly across various island bushes), raise their heads to the sky, and make the most bizarre noise I've ever heard. I imagine it's rather like...nope, I can't describe it. Even a creative writing major such as myself has their limits. Suffice it to say, it's strange. It seems to work, however, as the island was peppered with Frigate nests and their awkward, long-limbed, fluffy babies seemed to be thriving.
The Blue-Footed Boobies were also nesting and their rocky nests were overflowing with hatchlings. Each mated pair raises two eggs, an heir and a spare. The second baby will be killed by its older sibling, assuming they both survive to be born. In this way the parents are still able to raise a chick, even if the first egg turns out to be a dud. Siblicide is a gory business, though, and I tried not to think about it as a snapped pictures of the tiny balls of fluff sharing the nest so well.
As we completed our hike around the island we finally saw a land iguana (our first of the trip) and were given our first hint of the rough waters to come. Along the shoreline were the biggest waves I have ever seen in the islands. They were magnificent as they crashed across the rocky shore. The turbulent waters made it very difficult to get back into our dingy though with the slippery, rocky dock perched a good four feet above the dingy as it dipped and rose with the incoming tide. I can admit that on my first attempt to get into the boat I almost drowned. The dingy fell out from under me and I went crashing onto the rocks getting soaked from the waist down. Luckily one of the boys behind me caught me by the waist and was able to hold onto me. My next attempt wasn't much better but I was through trying to be graceful and simply jumped for it (probably a good five feet) into the bobbing launch boat. I made it, though, and we returned to the boat to be delivered back to Santa Cruz.
As if that wasn't enough boating for the day, on Santa Cruz we were once again checked for fruits and seeds, and loaded onto yet another boat, this time a tiny 30ft speed boat (which we filled to capacity and then some) and headed out across the aforementioned rough seas for the three-hour trek to San Cristobal, our home island. This boat ride was rather like a rollercoaster as we crested the SIX FOOT swells around us, then crashed back down into the valley made between two waves. I kept watching the captain’s assistant, who never once took his eyes off the horizon in front of us. Even his knuckles were white as he stood, gripping the dash in front of him. I can't imagine the ride that the captain had from the top of the boat. To top this all off, the boat was horribly unbalanced with our six largest young men sprawled across one side of the boat, and our six most petite young women across the opposite. I sat in the back and laughed (only half-heartedly, or perhaps marginally hysterically) as the first mate, still keeping his eyes ahead, shuffled the seating arrangement (ironically choosing our most petite young man to move across and sit with the girls.) Despite all this we managed to limp into harbor in just under three hours, a collective cry of joy emanating from our group as Kicker Rock was sighted in the distance.