Friday, December 19, 2008


Galapagos ThreesomeI just got back from a 16-person cruise in the Galapagos Islands.

For those of you whose jaws did not drop at that sentence, let me explain. The Galapagos Islands are a set of islands under Ecuadoran jurisdiction, right along the equator, directly south of Guatemala. The first human uses of this place were as a headquarters and hangout for pirates cruising the Pacific side of the Spanish main, but the voyage that really put it on the map was that of a ship named The Beagle. Aboard this ship, as mandated at the time, was a naturalist. The Beagle's naturalist was a fellow by the name of Charles Darwin. What he saw then and what we still see today revolutionized the way we look at biology. He found a pattern of animals, clearly from the same ancestors, but who had each adapted to the islands they were living on, to the point where they were their own distinct species. For example, Tortoises that had tons of food lying around had huge shells that kept their heads low to the ground. Tortoises with little food in their environment had big spaces up above the neck so that the head could stretch up and snag the last low-hanging leaves and cacti. Finches' beaks varied in length, width and sharpness depending on what would be best for getting which kind of food on their island. It wasn't that much later that Darwin went public with his theory of Evolution.

Today the islands, aside from being idyllic Pacific islands, are now the embodiment of Wildlife Watching for Dummies. It's what you always imagined going out into nature to see wild animals should be like. It's easy, you see something new every five paces. There are unique species of fish, lizards, birds, and much more running around everywhere, and they don't fear humans. They aren't tame exactly, they don't come running up to people for handouts, but they don't run away from people either. If you walk towards most wild animals in other places, they will either flee, or start making threats. In the Galapagos, I walked right at tiny little finches and lava lizards who would simply hop out of the way, then cock their head sideways at me as if to say "where are you going, mister?" A giant tortoise and a large land iguana in turn walked directly my way with no intent on stopping if I didn't budge from their path. At least three young sea lions flopped their way to sniff my legs, just to make absolutely sure that I was not, in fact, their mommy.

I should say that this place is not a where you find wild expanses of jungle. Most of the landscape actually looks like desert, especially now in the dry season. Cacti are everywhere and there's a lot of cracked dry land and scrub (though the water is a breathtaking shade of blue that I didn't think existed outside of photoshopped beach pics). There are essentially seven different biomes across the island depending on elevation and the direction they face (the prevailing winds bringing different things to different sides of the various volcanoes). But most of what I saw was dry scrub, covered in sea lions, crabs, iguanas, and a huge range of unique birds with hilarious names, such as my favorite, the Wandering Tattler, and everyone else's favorite, the Blue Footed Boobie.

I took hundreds of pictures, and while being very very conservative (though still putting up more sea lion pics than I'd meant to) I've almost maxed out my monthly allotment on Flickr. If my set isn't enough for you, check out my friend Laurence and his family's site for more shots from our group's trip.

The one thing I couldn't get any pictures of was the underwater life. I couldn't go diving because of a slight cold (makes equalizing underwater pressure difficult and potentially dangerous) but I did get to go snorkeling at least. Even the simple list of what I swam with seems incredible. Aside from all the almost luminescent schools of purple, red, and rainbow colored fish swimming around coral, anemones, sea cucumbers, and sea stars, I had sea lions swimming laps around me like gigantic otters, startled a rockfish out of its camouflaged spot, saw a few stingrays float below, a pair of sea turtles bump into me after they were swept off by a an unexpected current, watched a blue footed boobie dive underwater about six feet away to snag a fish snack, floated over a few semi-covered little flounders with both eyes on one side of their bodies, and, at one tense moment, turned around to find a white-tipped shark snaking it's way through the water about ten feet away (I know they're mostly harmless to humans, but that's still a lot of very sharp teeth).

And we saw it all in style. I snagged a very last minute deal aboard the 16 person catamaran, Millennium, with rooms I'd expect from a four star hotel, three gourmet meals a day, small library and game set in the main lounge, and an observation deck up top (saw a ton of shooting stars). We had an official level III guide (trained biologist, lots of experience, speaks at least four languages) who led us across two islands a day. This was one of the two splurges I've planned for this trip, and I'm very glad I indulged.

Now I've come back to the rough and tumble life of the backpacker, currently stationed in Otavalo, Ecuador, and eyeing my next country. Also figuring out where I want to be for Christmas... My first one away from home and family.

In the meantime, I've been shown around some of the gorgeous waterfalls by the grandkids of a shaman I met on the bus from Colombia, and in a few minutes will be stepping out into what I heard at least one person call the biggest market in South America. So far I'd have a hard time finding streets in this town without some kind of stalls on them. Should be a good day, I think.

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  1. I can see why you liked the sea lions. Very charming images. Your boat looked comfortable. Nice selection of pictures and good description for those of us who knew and also those of us who may have forgotten a detail or two.

  2. Hey, mom and I wanted to let you know that it is snowing in Seattle, and we have eight inches. We're in the kitchen making Swedish Meatballs while I read your blog aloud.

    Mom wants you know that when you get to Argentina you need to go to Bueons Aires and go to Dylan Ice Cream in Santhelmo, which she also reccomends to be the area you stay in. It's a great area, fun, and affordable.

    I was thinking I may want to meet up with you in Greece, shoot me an email and we'll talk.

    Much Love,

    Elsa and Paula.

  3. The Galapagos Islands are an incredible living museum of evolutionary changes. It has a huge variety of exotic species (birds, land animals, plants) not seen anywhere else.

    The majority of Galapagos Animals are unique in the world and can only be seen in this group of beautiful Islands.

    Animals here are unafraid of man and so different from any others around the world...

    Galapagos and Ecuador Guide

  4. That's somewhere I have always wanted to go... I'm glad you had such a great experience! Merry Christmas, we are missing you here in this colllldddd and SNOWY seattle. It won't stop... there are supposed to be 5 more inches tonight. Bizarre, huh?

  5. Anonymous ( Thanks! Yeah the sea lions kind of dominate my pictures. A guide I read called them the "golden retrievers of the Galapagos". They really did remind most of us of pet dogs. Lying around, playing with each other, looking for food.

    Elsa-- Thanks for the Buenos Aires tips! I've been hearing a lot about the snow across the state. The pics people have emailed me are kind of nuts. Keep me posted on your Greece itinerary, even if your initial plan dosn't work out what with your working for Washington Ensemble Theater (you poor sad baby you) think about coming out for the fall. That's likely when I'll be there.

    Zuri- All very true. Just out of curiosity, how did you find this site?

    Anna- Very bizarre, sorry to miss it, and all you guys, and the B.E. party and... yeah. Have lots of snowball fights, sled rides, igloos etc for me, okay?

    Happy Holidays!