Up close and personal in the Galapagos by Cat Griffins
As I was sitting on the deck, cold beer in one hand, camera in the other, watching a massive blue whale spouting a few hundred metres from the boat, I really thought I would wake up at any moment and still be at my desk in Balham. But I didn’t! It was as real as you can get. And the experience didn’t end there. I was lucky enough to be in this position in May this year, as part of an 8 day cruise of the Galapagos Islands.
The mighty Galapagos lie about 1000kms off the coast of Ecuador and after a couple of days in Quito shopping for chocolate and coffee (Fairtrade of course!) we flew to Baltra to join the Cachalote I, the wonderful 90 foot 16 berth schooner used by Exodus on most of our wildlife cruises. Once everyone was on board and settled in, we sailed off with an escort of frigate birds and pelicans in tow. Living on board the boat for a week was great fun, once I got used to the constant movement! Getting on and off the top bunk in a bit of a swell was a challenge though. When not eating a hearty three course meal in the main cabin I spent most of my time on the deck watching the islands we passed and scanning the horizon for whales, dolphins and leaping manta rays.
The cruise takes in some of the many and varied islands that make up the Galapagos archipelago. Plazas, Santa Cruz, Espanola and Isabela to name a few. Every day we were woken at 6.30am by Maurice, our local expert guide, to be up on deck and ready to go for a walk on one of the islands after a lovely slap up breakfast. After lunch there was always the chance for a spot of snorkelling, which was some of the best I have ever done. To be swimming with sea lions, sea turtles, rays, sharks, fish of all sorts, sizes and colours, marine iguanas and penguins was amazing. The sea lions were so curious they would follow anyone snorkelling and pull on their fins! For me the best sight underwater were the sea turtles. Cruising slowly through the water they looked so chilled out.
On land the wildlife is incredible. It is one of those rare places where you can see some unique birds and animals in their natural habitat and up so close you can see every mark and pattern of feathers and hide. You can even get sneezed on by a marine iguana! On most of the islands I had to watch where I was walking because it would have been so easy to tread on an iguana or sea lion! May is a great time to visit the Galapagos because a lot of the birds are starting to nest, such as blue footed boobies, flightless cormorants, Galapagos hawks and the huge waved albatross. The Galapagos is home to the world’s entire population of the waved albatross so there is no other place to see them. All the birds nest on the ground so it was impossible to take a bad photo. We visited Santa Cruz, which is one of the few inhabited islands. This is where the Darwin Centre is located and the base of the Galapagos National Parks (GNP) Service which oversees the protection of the entire area. The GNP have a giant tortoise breeding programme so you get the chance to meet a giant tortoise face to face. And they are huge! But it is not all about the wildlife. The islands themselves are a constant changing volcanic landscape and every island offers a different vista. Walking on a lava flow one day, a white powder soft beach the next, or climbing to the heights of an extinct volcano on Bartolome Island is just part of experience. And we got to cross the Equator – twice in one night. Celebrated with a cocktail before dinner.
Now that I am back at my desk in Balham, I feel very privileged to have been to such a special place. Don’t be put off by the rumours that the Galapagos are going to be closed to tourists. This isn’t true. The islands are very well protected and monitored by the National Parks Service and every person who visits contributes to that by way of a US$100 tax. Every dollar is well spent. Walkers, divers, photographers, bird watchers or anyone who just loves a different holiday will enjoy the Galapagos. Just take plenty of film or memory cards with you! Take a look at all our trips to the Galapagos Islands below.