Galápagos: A Once In A Lifetime Experience

Jeremy Mirmelstein

July 6, 2004

June 17 Our arrival to the Galápagos proved to be more difficult and time consuming than I had ever imagined. After a six-hour flight to Quito the previous day, our group from the University of Maryland boarded an AeroGal plane headed to Baltra Island, via Guayaquil and San Cristóbal. After our flight, which seemed almost endless, we disembarked the aircraft in order to catch our first glimpses of Galápagos cacti and the long National Park entry fee line. It was here where we were required to fill out yet another form, show our passports, and pay our $100 entrance fee. It was on the other side of this line where our guide Luis greeted us. He led us to our home for the next week, the Yacht San José (Yate San José in Spanish, as it was referred to by the crew and printed on our life vests).

This boat looked something like what I had imagined, but not what I had previewed through pictures online...not that this was a bad thing. After being given a description of the rules of the park and boat by our English-speaking guide, we unloaded our bags in respective rooms. Mine was the second closest to the bow on the top sun deck. I was fine with these living arrangements. I was satisfied thus far with the trip.

Our journey began as we "motored" onwards to our first stop, Las Bachas on the north side of Santa Cruz Island. Our wet landing left us confined to the parameters of the coastal area. However, from here, I was given my first glimpse of the lush highland areas. Under a dense cloud of fog, this area behind the arid zone was noticeably greener. Although I was unable to note any definitive species from this distance, on our later visit to Santa Cruz Island, we were given an up close tour of the highlands outside of Puerto Ayora.

During our first island tour, I found myself curled into a ball suffering from what was believed to be food poisoning. The vomiting, which began while viewing a feeding flamingo, did not conclude until hours later at about 9pm or so. This was sure one experience of the Galápagos that I am not likely to forget anytime soon. Luckily my illness ended as fast as it came, leaving me with time to view the magnificent stars above the equatorial archipelago. The sky was so clear that it was possible to view the interstellar dust of the Milky Way Galaxy, a feature that I had never before seen.

June 18

We woke up to the sight of sunrise over Pinnacle Rock on Bartolomé Island. After our first dry landing, a hike to the top of Bartolomé revealed the magnificent waters which were awaiting us, but even from this spot, there was no view of the highlands; just lava lizards a snake skin, and few birds. Our first snorkel allowed us to swim with sea lions, green sea turtles, and Galápagos penguins. In the afternoon, another dry landing left us on the 100-year-old lava flow of Sulivan Bay on Santiago Island. It was here where we were given our first glimpses of pahoehoe lava flows. During our journey to Isabela Island that evening, I witnessed clouds and a fog occurring in the upland areas of Santiago as we passed by the island. An inversion layer was seen at a higher altitude causing the fog and possibly even rains. According to one Galápagos researcher, "The moisture evaporating from the sea is concentrated in this inversion layer (300m to 600m above sea level) and only the higher parts of islands, which intercept this layer, receive rain" (Jackson 27-28). This time of year is the beginning of the Garúa season, a time when the temperatures become cooler and the skies become drier. However, this foggy mist was clearly evident throughout many of the higher islands of the Galápagos.

June 19

Waking up to the knock of Luis at 6:30 am in Elizabeth Bay of Isabela Island, the group soon boarded the dinghies for a tour of the mangrove-surrounded coves. I even helped by grabbing an oar and paddling along with one of the crewmembers. We viewed sea lions, green sea turtles, and even blue-footed boobies before heading to the Mariela Islets for a tour by boat and a snorkel. That afternoon we had a snorkel and wet landing at Urbina Bay. Unfortunately, the waters were rough and there was little to be seen, as visibility was poor. However, during our hike, we were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of a wild Galápagos tortoise, as well as numerous lava lizards, land iguanas, marine iguanas, yellow warblers, sea lions, and brown pelicans. Once again, a Garúa mist could be seen from a distance in the upland areas of Isabela Island. It was seen mostly in the morning and evening when the temperatures were cooler, but was definitely visible.

June 20

Once again, we were woken at 6:30am, compliments of Luis. However, today we were at Punta Espinoza on Fernandina Island. A dry landing on a man-made jetty ended up being a slippery landing on the wet rocks of Fernandina when we discovered that sea lions had taken over the jetty. This morning, a coastal walk around the island revealed countless sea lions, flightless cormorants, frigatebirds, and numerous marine iguanas. The surprise of the morning occurred when we discovered what we believed was an injured sea lion. However, not injured, the sea lion was simply pregnant and on the verge of giving birth. We quickly called over a German tour group that was nearby and watched the excitement in awe. The sea lion pup was doing well as we learned from another group that visited the island later in the day. I was lucky enough to view Garúa once again in the greener up regions of Fernandina. However, once again, we did not have a chance to visit this part of the island so I was left wondering what fauna I had been viewing. After the morning excitement, we departed Fernandina in order to go snorkeling at Punta Vicente Roca on Isabela Island. It was here that some individuals in our group claimed to have seen a hammerhead shark and sailfish, but I was unable to view any such critters in the murky waters of this snorkeling location. That night, we turned the lights out on the back of the San José and were able to view the bioluminescence in the dark seas.

June 21

All of our travels and explorations started to creep up on me today as we awoke to the sight of Puerto Egas on Santiago. Unfortunately, it seemed there were more tour vessels at this stop than normal. We started our wet landing on the black sand beaches and eventually made our way past the old abandoned salt production buildings to the eroded welded tuff coastal region. This leisurely walk brought us to the beautiful grottos of the shoreline and up close to many marine iguanas, sally lightfoot crabs, and sea lions. At one point, a group of us just stood and watched the humorous interactions of the marine iguanas. Snorkeling around the coastal areas of Puerto Egas revealed shallow areas in which to get an up close view of sea urchins, fish, and sea turtles. Unfortunately, one person in our group ended up being stuck by a sea urchin. Another fell victim to the cold waters and suffered symptoms of slight hypothermia. Between the morning drama and the hot sun, a good portion of the group fell asleep on the sun deck while traveling to our next location. In the afternoon we went on a second snorkel as soon as we arrived at the island of Rábida. The red sand we had viewed through our goggles came into close view during our wet landing on the beach. This sand was absolutely the softest that I had ever felt in my entire life. Our hike around the island revealed many sea lions, holy stick trees, a snake, and nesting brown pelicans. No upland areas were seen on this day. It was at this point in our trip that we were informed that the boat had run out of shower and sink water. While some seemed distressed about this inconvenience, I did not worry about it.

June 22

As we were awoken on this cloudy Tuesday morning, the unfamiliar sight of a city greeted our eyes. A short dinghy ride to the Charles Darwin Research Station allowed us to see what has been done on the island in order to reestablish the giant tortoise population and eradicate the introduced species. We were able to view Lonesome George, the famous giant tortoise of the CDRS, as well as numerous other 400-plus pound turtles. After this experience, we were allowed some time in order to purchase souvenirs, send postcards, and experience Puerto Ayora.

After lunch, two vehicles prepared to take us into the highlands of Santa Cruz greeted us. For the students on this trip, this was our first experience in any of the moist zones of Galápagos. Luis informed us that Santa Cruz Island had the most vegetation zones because of its inversion layer, which occurs at about 2000 feet. The inversion layer occurs because of a pocket of warm air that sits in between two larger cold air pockets. The upland areas of Santa Cruz are where all of the domestic farming is done for the people of Puerto Ayora. As a result, many of the plants have been introduced in order to satisfy the needs of the community. For example, on our drive we saw plenty of elephant grass, which is used to feed cattle. Of the trees we saw, Cuban cedar is used for construction and balsa trees also exist to provide wood for the people of Puerto Ayora. During our visit to these uplands, we viewed about 13 wild giant tortoises, cattle egrets, pin-tailed ducks, multiple ground finches, a vermilion flycatcher, and a woodpecker finch. Plants were numerous in these moister zones of the scalesia, brown, micronia, and pampa. Some of these plants included the Cuban cedar, mango and avocado trees, banana trees, elephant grass, balsa wood trees, tournefortia, introduced and endemic passion flower, ferns, scalesia trees, Galápagos mistletoe, endemic and introduced guava, moss and lichens, water moss, papaya, hibiscus, black berries, Galápagos daisies, tree ferns, orchids, red lichens, bromiliad, sedge, waltheria, lichopodium (club moss), and Darwin's aster. At one point during our tour, we visited two collapsed craters that were surrounded by scalesia trees and filled with scalesia and tree ferns. Also, the garúa mist was obviously visible and could even be felt. On our journey back to the boat, the mist became so heavy that our driver needed to turn his windshield wipers on.

June 23

Waking up on this morning, I saw a plethora of other tour boats outside of my window. Luis later informed us that this was because Española was the most heavily visited island in the archipelago. Some individuals were feeling ill from the heavy rocking of the previous night. A dry landing on the jetty of Española brought us in sight of numerous sea lions, hood mockingbirds, blue-footed boobies, and marine iguanas. During our hike we saw other features of the island, including nesting boobies, tropicbirds, waved albatross, and Nazca boobies. One of the most interesting features of this island was viewing the blowholes along the shoreline. It was an awesome sight to see the surge of water shoot towards the sky. Later in the afternoon we went snorkeling off of the dinghies and viewed numerous starfish, trumpet fish, and even stingrays. We then ventured out onto one of the most beautiful beaches of the Galápagos to enjoy our last island sunset and interact with the sea lions and mockingbirds.

June 24

Our last morning in the islands resulted in an early 6am wake up in order to visit North Seymour Island before heading back to Baltra in order to fly back to the mainland. On this short one-hour excursion, we viewed our last blue-footed boobies, frigatebirds displaying their bright red pouches, and our last sea lions. Back on Baltra Island, we shared stories at the airport with a dive group from Texas. We told them about seeing wild tortoises and a sea lion giving birth. They showed us video of hammerhead and whale sharks. Soon enough, we found ourselves back on the plane headed to Quito via Guayaquil. Our journey to the Galápagos Islands was over, and it was simply breathtaking.

Final Thoughts

A trip to the Galápagos Island is worth every cent it takes to get there. A week was simply a perfect amount of time to view the splendor that is Galápagos. At times it seemed as if we were extremely fortunate to view many of the animals we did, including the sea lion birth. However, much of the credit for our success was due to the excellence of our guide, Luis. His knowledge about these islands seemed almost endless.

Our group was extremely knowledgeable in regards to the history, geological features, and biology of the Galápagos Islands prior to our trip. To my dismay, the larger cruise vessels of the Galápagos carried many younger children, which I felt could not understand that magnificence that these islands had to offer. A trip to these islands is not a vacation, but it is an educational experience in which no one that has ever been there will ever forget.

Works Cited

Jackson, Michael H. 1993. Galpagos: A Natural History. University of Calgary Press: Calgary,