Before boarding our longer cruise we had one more day trip lined up: to South Plaza Island on July 8. It started with another bus ride to the Baltra end of Santa Cruz island, and then onto the “Santa Fe”. We went a little way around to the east and stopped at Punta de Carrión for some snorkeling. It was a nice spot with some sharks relaxed on the bottom in shallow water and millions of fish.
We continued around the coast for a couple of hours to South Plaza Island where we took a walk, marveling at the iguanas, both land and marine. In fact this is one of the rare places where the two species have successfully interbred, although the offspring are sterile, like mules from horses mating with donkeys. There were a ton of interesting sea birds along the top of the cliff where we walked on the way to the point where the bachelor sea lions hang out. These are the old guys, no longer mating. They climb up from the sea every afternoon – we watched one do the amazing climb, and live a lonely life.
The boat continued around Santa Cruz so that we landed in the late afternoon back in Puerto Ayora, saving another bus ride. We had dinner back at the Cafe Hernan and went to bed kind of early, excited to start our big cruise in the morning.
Our guide Rubin arrived at 7:30 and it turned out there were only 3 of us who had booked the 8 day tour – we all took a taxi to the Charles Darwin Center and Rubin showed us around, emphasizing the “Lonesome George” exhibit. George died in 2012, the last of his subspecies, hence Lonesome. It was a 4 year taxidermy job in the US and boy did they do a good job. It is really sad to think of what it means to be the last of a species though.
Rubin went off to collect more passengers and we looked through the rest of the exhibits, eventually finding two giant tortoises mating. The male was huge, over 200kg, and it looked very difficult and dicey. He was grunting hard every 30 seconds or so – supposedly the whole thing takes a couple of hours. The Charles Darwin Center just celebrated its 60th anniversary and is really worth a visit when you’re here.
We met up downtown and went out to the Aida Maria, our home for the next few days. It’s about 20 years old, one of the last wooden boats made in Puerto Ayora, sleeps 16 plus a crew of five. We got our cabin (small but cozy) and then headed back to shore for lunch with the rest of the passengers. Then, by bus into the Highlands to a ranch where giant tortoises wander around freely, and a visit to a couple of lava tunnels. One of these was long and had electric lights in place. The tortoises were just amazing; photos somehow don’t so them full justice.
After this little trip, it was back to the boat, a nap, then dinner. We left Puerto Ayora around 11pm, bound for the largest Galapagos Island, Isla Isabela. In the morning we had magically arrived, and went ashore after breakfast. We first drove up to the Volcán Sierra Negra (1124m), one of the 5 volcanoes whose floes have flown together to form this largest Galapagos island. We drove up to about 900m then hiked up to the viewpoint, just over 3km, in misty fog. As we got near the top, the mist cleared and we had a great view of the whole caldera, the second largest in the world (after Ngorogoro in Tanzania that we visited in 2009). We walked down, then back to the boat for lunch. Then we walked through a nature reserve, saw flamingos, visited another tortoise breeding center, then hung out at a beach for a few hours. The water was nice, juggling was fun and there was a nice little bar for some late afternoon beers with popcorn. After dinner back on board, bed early.
During the night we cruised north to the other side of the volcano. After breakfast we took a walk on the relatively new (<200 years old) lava floe. Some plants were growing and we saw fish and flamingos in a few ponds in the lava. Our guide was very impressive doing this walk (and all later ones) barefoot. The lava was sharp! They use Hawaiian words to described the lava types. Later in the day we snorkeled and explored a mangrove swamp via zodiac. We saw various types of rays, and sea lions up in trees, turtles and lots of birds.
We had a great time that evening before dinner, up on the front deck, watching whales blowing, as we cruised north. On July 12 we woke up at Punta Espinosa on Isla Fernandina, the westernmost of the Galapagos Islands. We did a fun walk there with lots of crabs, sea lions, birds and iguanas. Then more snorkeling, with penguins, sea turtles, iguanas, amazing. One penguin was confused and chased Grace to the zodiac, pecking her fins. I think it was the same one I videoed pecking the camera lens.
We cruised back over to Isla Isabela and zodiaced through a sea cave, then tried some snorkeling but the water was rough and visibility was bad. Still it was kind of fun swimming in the ocean right below steep cliffs. At one point it’s 280m straight out of the water. There were tons of birds sitting on tiny ledges all over.
In the night we cruised again over to Isla Santiago, crossing the equator for the second time. I was surprised there was no ceremony or even a word about it as crossing the equator on a boat is usually a big deal. I guess they just do it all the time here. We had a walk on shore, over lava bridges, saw a ton of iguanas and other animals, then another snorkeling session on Isla Rábida. After dinner we started cruising back toward Baltra, and on the final morning, cruised quickly over to North Seymour Island for our last excursion. We got off the boat at 6am for a one hour walk around the island. This may have been the best of the whole cruise. This island has a ton of Frigate Birds – we saw them before we even got there, circling in the sky, looking like pterodactyls. We had seen them in smaller numbers a bunch of times but this time we walked right by their nests. The males make a partial nest, then blow up a giant red balloon of skin under their beak. It’s a huge amount of air, maybe 10 liters. This pushes their head up so they can scan the sky where the females are soaring looking down for the best display. They come down when they pick their man and mate. No dance as these birds are big and unwieldy and can’t dance. Anyway, we saw the hopeful males, up close and it was amazing. As we left we saw one flying with his balloon deflated and Rubin said, “Ah, a successful one”.
We definitely could’ve spent more time on North Seymour Island but only had an hour. Back on board we had a 40 minute cruise to Baltra Island while we ate breakfast. We landed at a different harbor, right by the airport and most people were actually flying out later that day. From the airport we took the bus, the ferry and then a taxi with a couple of other passengers and got back to town at 9:30am. Luckily we could check in early to our AirBnB which turned out to be really nice – a large apartment, very comfortable. After all that we were pretty tired and needed a little vacation from our vacation!