Ecuador, Day 6. Galapagos Islands.

When I woke up my back pain was no better, and in fact it kept me up most of the night. It’s starting to get me down, but now I’m just more determined to get up and go. Sitting around doing nothing is for iguanas, and I’m hoping that moving and going and doing will help.

We headed out first for a hike and I traveled as light as possible. I left my camera behind (iPhone in pocket), and took just a bottle of water. Getting in and out of the panga was pretty difficult, but we were soon off to the East side of Fernandina Island, the youngest of the Galapagos Islands at 500,000 years old. The landing path was covered with iguanas. COVERED. We had to step carefully, slowly, making our way through them. Have I mentioned they smell? They smell. On this hike we saw hundreds, easily, in every direction.

We walked along marked paths across lava that was alternately sharp, smooth, rolling, gravelly. Almost everything, everywhere, is made of black lava. We saw many sea lions too, including something rare – a baby sea lion feeding from one mother, and then from another. Peter, our guide, figured the second mother was too lazy, lying in the sun, to protest. On land, sea lions are pretty awkward with that waddling run they do, barking as they go. But as they dive into the water, they’re incredibly graceful, rolling and twisting through the blue. Frigate birds are pretty much omnipresent, and Sally Lightfoot crabs crawl the rocky shores everywhere. They’re bright orange and red, a sharp contrast against the black rock. We also saw a couple of dead iguanas, skeletons bleaching, and a collection of minki whale bones.

Back to the boat where cold iced drinks and snacks were waiting. Very nice. An hour’s break before we were back in the pangas to a secluded lava cove to snorkel. The snorkelling was better here, the water clearer, and there were dozens of different schools of fish. The shores were low and shallow, the underwater lava looking and acting like coral for fish. We saw Yellowtailed Surgeons, Damselfish with bright yellow lips, puffer fish, a couple porcupine fish (those suckers were huge!), and more penguins. It was incredibly fun to swim here, to share this with the boys (swimming with penguins!). We also saw a ray, a moray eel, tiny freaky shrimp of some sort, and Fawn saw a sea lion that came right over to swim with her.

During lunch (there’s always a tasty dessert too), the boat took us across the channel, back to the west coast of Isabela Island, where we headed out for a ‘power hike’, a climb part way up the side of Darwin Volcano to Darwin Lake. It was challenging, but for the first time the pain in my back changed from sharp to dull, a definite step in the right direction. The more I pushed, the more it stretched and eased into something better. On the way up there were 4 or 5 places to stop for the view, each more impressive than the last. Darwin Lake is isolated, a big, round, dead lake up above sea level with a view of the ocean down below. And here we were again on the side of another volcano. That was cool, and it was hot. Really, really hot.

Peter is a great guide, giving us constant information as we go, from details about the animals to the pea-lava formed when water drops were petrified during the last volcanic eruption. Even though the Islands have been protected on and off by various international laws over the years, there is evidence that people have been visiting – and leaving their mark – since the Darwin’s time. Though it’s not common, if you look for it you can find carved in rock and painted on cliff faces the names of explorers, sailors, WWII soldiers, and unfortunately, a few modern tourists.

This walk was tough enough that not everyone made it to the top, but the effort was worth it. Darwin Lake far below, boats in the ocean beyond that, and behind us an incredible valley. I was sorry I didn’t have my camera gear, but happy I didn’t have the weight. My back needed a break and that seemed to be helping. The panoramic shots I got with my phone made me wonder what I even have a DSLR for. Okay no, not really, but that phone does a damn good job.

Back down, the walk was even hotter somehow than on the way up. Peter has a great watch with a thermometer on it that read 36, but I know it got a few degrees hotter than that and by the time we reached the bottom Oakley was overheated. He was red all over, face and arms, like a little volcano himself, but with water and rest he felt better before long.

Off again in the pangas to a nearby cove for another round of snorkelling. The water is colder here, so we were given wet suits to wear. Here more sea lions, but these were the friendliest yet, swimming with us, zooming below and circling around, clearly curious and glad we were there. One of them paused, stopping just below me, and looked at me directly. She just floated there, watching, interested. Suddenly she blew out a burst of bubbles that rose directly into my face and waited, it seemed, to get my reaction. I’m not sure what she thought of me laughing, but she waited a few moments more and then barrel rolled away. By then the rest of our group had joined Griffin and I and we in turn were joined by a very rare bird, a flightless cormorant (there are only 1500 left in the world). Perhaps protecting his endangered status, he immediately attacked us, pecking at us with his beak! It got a few good nips at 2 or 3 of the group, and actually latched onto the end Allan’s finger for a moment.

Fawn and Oakley soon joined us and I made the mistake of telling Oakley about the biting cormorant. He was (understandably) reluctant to go near it, but it was between us and the sea lions where we wanted to be. Suddenly, it came at us, so I immediately moved in front of Oakley, ready to protect him. The cormorant and I faced off, and I was ready to go to battle, determined to keep Oakley safe. So you know what I did to that underwater-swimming water bird? I SPLASHED him. And he looked at me like I was idiot. But before long we saw it swim under us (also cool) and soon we were all swimming with the sea lions too.

After a while Oakley and I swam back to the pangas where we loaded next into a kayak to check out the shoreline from above the water. We went over to where Griffin and Fawn were now snorkelling with a few penguins. It’s almost becoming passé. On then to the last challenge of the day, kayaking back to the boat. With no kayaking experience and a headwind, it was a challenge. Oakley was in the bow, and it was not easy going, but he dug right in. I was damn proud of him, he’s a great paddler. Before long, Griffin and Fawn pulled in behind us, digging hard against the same wind we fought.

Back on board, I got into talking about photography with Allan, an enthusiast who brought an arsenal of lenses. He let me try his 100mm macro prime and his 400mm monster that looks more like a bazooka. The conversation was satisfying and nerdy about all the gadgets we have and want and what you can do with them. The photography here has been, of course, fun and satisfying. The wildlife is unique, the landscapes are amazing.

I’m feeling happy and relieved that my back is feeling better than before. It’s not 100%, and in fact it still hurts all the time, but it’s not as bad and it seems that it will be fine with stretching.

I might also be getting my sea legs. The boat has been rocking as it travels between islands this evening and even without medication, I haven’t felt sick. It’s a strange thing to get used to, the floor being constantly unstable, moving, rocking, swaying. But it’s starting to become second nature. Give me another day and I’ll be like a pirate sea captain. I’ve always wanted a parrot.

During dinner Peter told us that before long we would be crossing the Equator and the boat’s GPS will read 0 degrees latitude as we do. When the time came, a handful of us went up to the bridge. It’s quiet and dark there, but we all burst in, way too excited and way too loud. We had a big countdown and at that very moment we were half way between the Earth’s poles, we erupted into big cheer, with high five and hugs. No doubt the guys on the bridge were very happy to see us go.

I’m feeling already that this is turning into one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. We’ll see what Quito holds for us when we get back to the mainland, but of all the places I’ve been – and I’ve been very lucky to travel to some very exotic places in the world, none of them I take for granted – this place is just constantly great.

(March 11, 2012.)

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2 responses to “Ecuador, Day 6. Galapagos Islands.

  1. Love the SPLASH off! Hilarious. Great pictures Scott…you always inspire me. Off to read more and more…I’m clearly behind. lol

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