Ecuador, Day 4. Galapagos Islands.

The boat was rocking heavily all night and at 3:30am I started feeling nauseous. I took some medication and hoped for the best. Looking out into the darkness, I saw that the windows and boat deck were soaked, but I couldn’t tell if it was rain or waves crashing up over the bow. The boat’s engines were thundering, sounding eager to give everyone dreams of roller coasters. Pillow over my head, back to sleep, and by morning the nausea had passed.

We traveled overnight to Isabela Island, by far the largest of the archipelago at more than 100km (62mi) in length. 6:30am for breakfast, and with the waves still rocking us, Oakley got sea sick and threw up over the stern of the boat. As he crouched down on all fours, his nose, dry from salt water, started to bleed. With an earnest voice, and no trace of pity, he said, “There are 3 things of mine falling into the water. My vomit, my tears, and my blood.” That kid is tough as nails sometimes.

We were on the panga by 7, landing in what looked exactly like Jurassic Park. Marine iguanas were both huge and everywhere. They really are like dinosaurs, tough and fierce with long claws and a consistently unimpressed look in their eyes. The volcanic rock here is black, jagged, rough, but covered in sharp contrast with white lichen. All of it is so foreign in every way, harsh, hot, hard. Above us those pterodactyls were circling on the air currents, rarely flapping their wings. Two of the iguanas began fighting for territory, wrestling, throwing sand, and enthusiastically nodding their heads. Apparently the nodding is a sign of dominance, but it just looked like they were in agreement. Others were clinging sideways to rocks or crawling on top of each other. Often they were perfectly camouflaged, fearless, and there was almost always a real danger of stepping on them.

While the iguanas could care less about our existence, the sea lions seemed to be at least mildly amused by us. There was one right on the ramp to the boat landing, others hanging off the backs of boats anchored in the bay, some lazing around in the sand catching tans. They’re all like dogs. They look cute, furry, friendly, and make eye contact with you. With their awkward front-flipper walk, there wasn’t anyone who didn’t want to hug and take one home in a suitcase.

Back in the panga, we saw the famous Blue Footed Boobies, a diving bird that has, in fact, the brightest blue feet you could imagine. Because this is the Galapagos, there is much talk of Darwin and the pioneering work he did on the theory of evolution. Adapting finch bills, camouflaged lizards, I get that. But bright blue feet? That’s just nature having a laugh. We saw penguins then, the most Northern place in the world to find them. Considering they’re generally known as a bird from cold environments, it’s damn funny that the only place I’ve seen penguins in the wild was in Africa and here, waddling around the Equator. That’s my kind of cold. There were lots of pelicans too, with their big kangaroo beaks. The species that lives here is the brown pelican, the smallest in the world, with a wingspan of SIX FEET! (For you metric folks, that’s like 27 metres…)

Not even 10am yet, and we hopped onto a truck/van/bus, a rattling contraption without doors or walls and with axles that sound like they are about to fall off. It was a bumpy 45 minute ride half way up the side of Sierra Negra Volcano. After stopping we took to a foot path that climbed the rest of the way up to the top. The hike was challenging – hot, sunny, sweaty, tiring – and we stopped a number of times in the shade of small trees to catch our breath. The vegetation here, and on most of the islands it seems, is low, rough and brushy. It’s a beautiful place, but not lush. My knee was still sore, and the steeper inclines were slow going. I’m hoping, hoping that it’s not going to get worse.

At the top of the climb we were greeted with a view that was entirely worth the climb. Standing at the lip of the volcano, we looked across the caldera itself, an expanse of 11km (6.8mi). Long dormant, the edges have grown in with vegetation, but the distance in between is still a sea of hardened lava, more of it than I could really conceive of. It hinted at a power that was here, right at our feet, quietly and hugely threatening. Standing there at the edge of the volcano, I had the distinct feeling that the ground was rocking, swaying slowly back and forth. It wasn’t the volcano, but the lingering influence of the damn boat. Kate, meanwhile, asked me to take a picture of her again, this time jumping up, arms out, feet kicked back, at the lip of the caldera (“just one more step back… one more…”). Like her ‘crikey’ photos, she has a series of photos of her jumping at various destinations around the world. What a fantastic idea. A rest then, sandwiches and apples – being very careful to pack up every scrap of garbage and leftover food – before heading back down.

It’s our 2nd day in with this group and I’m still working on that name problem. Kate, Allan, Sarah, Nick, Carol, 2 or 3 others. I’m pretty solid only with “Griffin” and “Oakley”.

Back on board, we took our first swim in the boat’s pool, Peter’s name for the ocean. I’m sure that joke must get recycled, but it sure did make me smile. Griffin and I jumped in, so great after the sweaty hike, but there is something about the expanse of an ocean that makes it feel somehow more dangerous than usual. Actually, it’s not the expanse, it’s the sharks you know are in there with you. The current, moving off the back of the boat, was surprisingly strong. It took a strong swim to stay steady, so before long we held on to the rope and floated, like good shark food does. Fawn soon joined us, and Oakley hung out on the ladder, happy to cool off and sit as lifeguard.

Finally, lunch! Busy morning, it felt like 3 days had gone by. Afterwards, up on the top deck to enjoy some downtime, I noticed there were 6 people reading, but only one was reading a hard copy, paper book. Everyone else had an e-reader or a tablet. The end is clearly nigh.

Next up was a tortoise sanctuary, where Lonesome George lives. A locally famous tortoise now 100 years old and 880lbs (400kg), he is the very last of his species, making him the rarest animal on Earth. The tortoises are almost alien creatures, all of them born looking like my grandmother. They were very active, feeding, walking, even mating. That last one you don’t forget, ever.

On then to Puerto Villamil where we walked the length of a boardwalk that was built through a thick forest of mangrove trees that grew crazily over, under, and through the boardwalk itself. It exited the trees at the ocean, where we all jumped in for some snorkelling. It was sandy, and there were few fish, but Fawn and the boys saw a turtle. Before the trip, Gary had bought a snorkel mask that has a camera built right into the frame. It takes video and stills and both Griffin and Oakley were really looking forward to trying it out. Despite the murky water here, Griffin said he was able to get footage of the turtle and it was obvious he was having a ton of fun using the mask.

Getting out of water, I found my knee was surprisingly better. Not perfect, but I could climb the ladder from the water to the dock. At the same time, my lower back suddenly seized. I could barely move at all. Wha! I hobbled back along the boardwalk and eased carefully into a chair at a (rare) beach side bar where everyone was gathering to wait for the panga back to the boat. This was a cool spot, with tables and chairs right on the sand in the shade of palm trees and mangroves. Thirsty, I realized I couldn’t find my water bottle, a metal thermos I had been carrying around with me. And just like in a movie, I had a scene play out flashback style, that had happened about a half hour earlier. When getting out of the water and gathering my snorkelling gear, something had fallen, hit my foot, and splashed into the water at the edge of the dock. I had looked into the water, but didn’t see anything. Definitely odd, but I could not figure out what it might have been. Now, of course, the light bulb went off. The Galapagos Islands are famous for being very strict with rules and regulations. The environment here is completely unique, found nowhere else in the world. With a balanced ecosystem, nothing must ever be taken or left behind on the islands. And here I’ve dumped a metal canister into the water, something that will remain for hundreds of years. Realizing what had happened, I had to go back to see if I could find it, but by now I was grimacing with this back pain and making my way back along the boardwalk was comical. The mangrove trees hung low over many parts of it, and I crawled, hands and knees, to get under the branches. Finally making it to the end, I looked everywhere, under the dock, beside it, into the mangrove branches under the water, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. So today, right now, somewhere in the sacred waters of the Galapagos, is a stainless steel bottle from Canada. I have officially committed an international environmental faux pas.

Back on the boat now, and the back pain hasn’t eased up at all. If it doesn’t get better I’m worried I won’t be able to go on the excursions tomorrow. Advil down, something stronger standing by…

(March 9, 2012)

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One response to “Ecuador, Day 4. Galapagos Islands.

  1. Lots of smiles here. Iguanas nodding as if in agreement made me chuckle out loud. You got to meet Lonesome George! And he got to meet you. So too bad about your back… let’s see if you got to go “tomorrow.”

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